She was a clear-eyed, fresh-cheeked little maiden, living on the banks of the great Mississippi, the oldest of four children, and mother's |little woman| always. They called her so because of her quiet, matronly care of the younger Mayfields -- that was the father's name. Her own name was the beautiful one of Elizabeth, but they shortened it to Bess.
She was thirteen when one day Mr. Mayfield and his wife were called to the nearest town, six miles away. |Be mother's little woman, dear,| said Mrs. Mayfield as she kissed the rosy face. Her husband added: |I leave the children in your care, Bess; be a little mother to them.|
Bess waved her old sun-bonnet vigorously, and held up the baby Rose, that she might watch them to the last. Old Daddy Jim and Mammy had been detailed by Mr. Mayfield to keep an unsuspected watch on the little nestlings, and were to sleep at the house. Thus two days went by, when Daddy Jim and Mammy begged to be allowed to go to the quarters where the Negroes lived, to see their daughter, |Jennie, who was pow'ful bad wid the toothache.| They declared they would be back by evening, so Bess was willing. She put the little girls to bed and persuaded Rob to go; then seated herself by the table with her mother's work-basket, in quaint imitation of Mrs. Mayfield's industry in the evening time. But what was this? Her feet touched something cold! She bent down and felt around with her hand. A pool of water was spreading over the floor. She knew what it was; the Mississippi had broken through the levee. What should she do? Mammy's stories of how homes had been washed away and broken in pieces were in her mind. |Oh, if I had a boat!| she exclaimed. |But there isn't anything of the sort on the place.| She ran wildly out to look for Mammy; and stumbled over something sitting near the edge of the porch. A sudden inspiration took her. Here was her boat! a very large, old-fashioned, oblong tub. The water was now several inches deep on the porch and she contrived to half-float, half-row the tub into the room.
Without frightening the children she got them dressed in the warmest clothes they had. She lined the oblong tub with a blanket, and made ready bread and cold meat left from supper. With Rob's assistance she dragged the tub upstairs. There was a single large window in the room, and they set the tub directly by it, so that when the water rose the tub would float out. There was no way for the children to reach the roof, which was a very steep, inclined one. It did not seem long before the water had very nearly risen to the top of the stairs leading from below.
Bess flung the window open, and made Rob get into their novel boat; then she lifted in Kate, and finally baby Rose, who began to cry, was given into Rob's arms, and now the little mother, taking the basket of food, made ready to enter, too; but, lo! there was no room for her with safety to the rest. Bess paused a moment, drew a long breath, and kissed the children quietly. She explained to Rob that he must guard the basket, and that they must sit still. |Goodbye, dears. Say a prayer for sister, Rob. If you ever see father and mother, tell them I took care of you.| Then the water seized the insecure vessel, and out into the dark night it floated.
The next day Mr. Mayfield, who, with his neighbors, scoured the broad lake of eddying water that represented the Mississippi, discovered the tub lodged in the branches of a sycamore with the children weeping and chilled, but safe.
And Bess? Ah, where was Bess, the |little mother,| who in that brief moment resigned herself to death? They found her later, floating on the water with her brave childish face turned to the sky; and as strong arms lifted her into the boat, the tears from every eye paid worthy tribute to the |little mother.|
-- Detroit Free Press