It rained throughout September and October, and people made jokes about Biblical floods before the Sheldon girls drowned. But their jokes weren't serious, because there were intermittent days when the clouds would continue on their way to the east and leave behind nothing but blue skies and crisp autumn air. If people worried about anything, they fretted over the numbers of leaf peepers and flatlanders who hadn't made their customary fall pilgrimages to Vermont that year--and what effect that lost revenue might have on their purses--or they complained about the mud.
After all, the fall rains had made the ground as boggy as March, and the earth showed no signs of freezing up soon. The dirt roads were so laden with runnels that drivers would wince as they lurched their cars forward, while the paved ones often were layered with diaphanous sheets of moisture that in the night reflected a vehicle's headlights like mirrors.
Certainly the water was high in the lakes: Bomoseen and Champlain to the west of the Green Mountains, that range of hills that rose like a great animal's spine across the vertical center of the state, and Willoughby and Memphremagog to the east. Likewise, the rivers of any size often had small crests of albescent foam. There must have been a half-dozen days when the counties north of Rutland had lived with flash-flood advisories and warnings, especially the two occasions when the remnants of late-season Caribbean hurricanes tracked deep into New England and dumped torrents of rain onto ground that was already soaked, and into lakes and rivers that already had about all the water they could handle. One Saturday in late October the Cornish Volunteer Fire Company went so far as to move its two attack pumpers and heavy rescue truck over the bridge that spanned the Gale River, so the vehicles would be on the more populated side of the water if the bridge was brought down by the rapids.
That had happened once before: The original bridge had washed away in the Great Flood of 1927, on the very day that S. Hollister Jackson, the state's lieutenant governor, had drowned in another part of the state when his car stalled in a rivulet on the road near his house and he tried to walk home through the waters. Instead he had been swept away in the current, his body washing up a mile downriver in Potash Brook.
But the rivers never topped their banks the fall the Sheldon girls died, at least not while the phantasmagoric red and yellow leaves remained on the trees, and lake water only oozed into the basements of the people who lived on the shore. For most of northern Vermont the rains were a mere inconvenience.
The hunters traipsed into the woods that November despite the storms and the showers. They trudged along paths in which they sunk ankle-deep in wet leaves, their boots sometimes swallowed in turbid mountain runoff, and even the thinner tree branches would whip water in their faces when they gently pushed them aside as they walked.
On the second day of deer season, a Sunday, the Sheldon girls were playing with their friend Alicia Montgomery. It had rained heavily all Friday night, Saturday, and much of Sunday morning--dropping close to eight inches in the thirty-six-hour period.
A little past two the rain stopped, and the three girls donned their raincoats and mud boots and wandered outside. They, like so many children that autumn, had been cooped up indoors for whole weekends at a time, and any opportunity to run outside to jump and shriek was taken. Alicia's mother, a woman in her late forties who had three sons older than Alicia, assumed they were going to slosh in the mud around the family's swing set in the backyard, or see how much water had trickled into the wooden clubhouse Alicia's older brothers had built on the property some years before. She thought she might have told them to stay away from the river, but she admitted she honestly wasn't sure. Certainly her daughter didn't recall any such warning.
The Sheldon girls were nine, and they were twins--though not identical twins. They were small-boned, but not at all frail-looking. Rather, with their long legs and arms, they reminded some people of baby colts: They were known for running everywhere, though Megan had never shown any interest in organized sports. Hillary had, but not Megan. Their hair was just a shade closer to blond than brown, and very, very fine. It fell to their shoulders. Hillary was likely to wear her hair down, except on those days when she was playing youth soccer--then she would allow her mother to put it back in a ponytail. Megan usually had her mother braid her hair in the morning, or try one of the bolder statements--a poodle pony or a French twist--that she found described in a hairstylist's handbook she had bought at a yard sale for a dime.
Alicia had been more Hillary's friend than Megan's, because she, too, loved sports. Some days it was just easier for everyone, however, if the twins played together. The two were in the same Girl Scout troop and the same classroom at school, and it couldn't have been otherwise. The small town only had one Girl Scout troop and one classroom filled with fourth-graders. There were only so many eight-, nine-, and ten-year-old girls in the whole village, and so the pair tended to be together more often than they were apart.
Most years, the Gale River meandered lazily through the canyon it had carved over centuries through Cornish and Durham. The water ran down from the mountains, working its way west through rocks and boulders into the Otter Creek, and then, eventually, into Lake Champlain. In summer, the water fell to barely a foot or two in some sections, though there were always areas where it was considerably deeper and people would congregate in large groups to swim or in small groups to fish. The river had stretches that were rich with rainbow and brown trout.
At its thinnest point, the Gale narrowed to fifteen feet; at its widest, it swelled to fifty.
The water paralleled the road that linked Cornish with the more substantial village of Durham, the asphalt and aqua almost perfectly aligned for close to six miles. The riverbanks were steeply pitched, and thick with moss and oak and maple saplings. There were clusters of raspberry bushes that were resplendent with claret-red fruit in July. The side of the river opposite the road was forest until you reached the small collection of houses and public buildings that most people considered the Cornish village center: the elementary school, a church, and a general store on one side of the water, a fire department and Little League baseball field on the other. Depending upon the angle of the road, the river could be either obvious or completely invisible.
Occasionally people swam naked in those sections where the river could not be seen from the street.
The montgomery family lived no more than a hundred yards from the section of the Gale River that was traversed by the bridge--the very bridge over which the fire company had moved its trucks a few weeks earlier. On summer nights when their windows were open, the family could hear the water as it burbled through the thin clove next to the road.
The Sheldons lived outside of the tiny village, on the street that led past the Cousinos' dairy farm and on to the cemetery. That meant Hillary and Megan usually only visited the river in the summer, when they might venture to the swimming hole most frequented by the families with younger children--a section of the river that formed a cozy lagoon near a waterfall, and the depth rose to five or six feet. You could feel a slight current in the spot, but it wasn't enough to pull one from the pool.
To get there, either one of their parents or the parents of one of their friends would have to drive them. You couldn't walk to that swimming hole--not from the town or from their house--and on the hottest summer days there would be a conga line of cars and trucks parked as far to the side of the winding road as possible. Often an automobile would pull in so close to the brush that everyone would have to exit the vehicle on the driver's side.
The waters were high the day the Sheldon girls drowned--according to Alicia, this alone had drawn the three of them to the Gale--and there was in fact a flood warning. But there had been flood warnings on any given day throughout the fall, and no one was unduly alarmed.
While tromping aimlessly through the mud in the Montgomery family's yard, the three girls heard the low roar of the high water in the distance, and--despite the fact that the rain had resumed in earnest--went to see just how close to the bank the river really was. The general store was open until three on Sunday afternoons, and periodically that day people had ventured to either the bridge or the bank itself after getting their newspaper, cigarettes, or milk, and watched the water as it tumbled by. The waves weren't yet lapping at the very tops of the riverbank, but they were close. Alicia recalled that almost all of the adults who wandered by had remarked in some way on the whitewater, raising their voices so they could be heard over the sound of the rapids.
Just before two-thirty, Jeremy Stern left the general store with a six-pack of beer and a frozen pizza, and glanced at the bridge where the three nine-year-old girls were standing. Far down the street that led from the village up into the mountains he heard someone honking madly on a car horn. The toots were distant, but there was a frenzied quality to them. He returned to his own pickup to drive toward them, wondering what the fuss was all about and whether there was anything he could do to help. He backed into the street, not realizing that the person who was pounding furiously on his car horn was actually driving into the village as fast as he could, hoping to warn people that the Gale was already over its banks up on the mountain, and a wall of water was sure to hit the town any minute.
Other than Alicia Montgomery, Jeremy was the last person to see the Sheldon girls when they were alive.
The water would carve chasms in the road that were forty feet deep and, in one case, forty-five feet wide. Wherever the road bent to the south, there was at the very least erosion of the dirt beneath the asphalt, and in four cases there was complete destruction of the pavement--massive holes hewed abruptly into the hillsides. It was a miracle that the half-dozen or so cars on the road that moment were in sections of pavement that survived the flash flood, and so none of the motorists were hurt. Granted, the Willards' car was trapped for a week and a half between two canyons, and the elderly couple had to traverse one of the deep holes in the ground by foot to get home that afternoon. But they made it. Other cars had to turn back, returning to either Cornish or Durham.
And the property damage was immense. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would spend a month in the county--a week in Cornish alone. People who lived along the river lost the washing machines, dryers, and furnaces they kept in their basements. Small structures were upended and swept downriver, where they were smashed against the remains of a modest hydroelectric plant--largely boulders and cement pilings now--the power company had built along the river in 1922.
It had been the flood of 1927 that destroyed the generating station, so that the only traces left were a part of the foundation below the waterline and the concrete buttresses above it.
Once the wall of water had passed, there was an enormous heap of scrap wood at the site of the old plant, a mound easily as large as the woodpiles at the state's landfills and dumps. There were parts of two small barns there, including the Nuners' elegant carriage barn, and a gazebo. There were at least a half-dozen of the small outbuildings and lean-tos people used to store their sap buckets and plastic sugaring tubes, any tools they were likely to use outdoors, and their snowmobiles or their boats.
These items crashed into the power station stanchions as well, and usually broke apart.
The Murrays lost both of their horses, and the Dillons lost all three of their sheep. The animal carcasses somehow wound their way through the dam of debris by the old generator site, and washed ashore six miles away, where the river forked into a second branch that wound its way through the considerably larger towns of Durham, New Haven, and Middlebury.
The village Little League field was flooded, as was the library. The library sat in a room beside the town clerk's office, and it lost its entire collection of children's books--every book, that is, that wasn't checked out at that moment--because those books were kept on the lowest shelves and the water inside the building climbed to three feet before it started to recede.
The center of the town and a great many of the homes with basements that filled with water smelled liked river mud for days: earthy and musty and--because of the havoc that had been wrought--a little putrid.
The only fatalities, however, were Hillary and Megan Sheldon.
Excerpted from The Buffalo Soldier © Copyright 2012 by Chris Bohjalian. Reprinted with permission by Vintage. All rights reserved.
The Buffalo Soldier