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HOME > Classical Novels > The Tree of Appomattox or A Story of the Civil War's End > CHAPTER VI THE FISHERMEN
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 The welcome that the column found in Sheridan's camp was as warm as they had hoped, and more. Fifteen hundred sabers such as theirs were not to be valued lightly, and Sheridan knew well the worth of three such colonels as Hertford, Winchester and Bedford, with all three of whom he was acquainted personally, and with whose records he was familiar. Dick, Pennington and Warner also came in for his notice, and he recalled having seen Dick at the fierce battle of Perryville in Kentucky, a fact of which Dick was very proud.  
"Now don't become too haughty because he remembers you," said Warner reprovingly. "Bear in mind that trifles sometimes stick longer in our minds than more important things."
"It's just jealousy on your part," said Dick. "You New Englanders are able people, but you can't bear for anybody else to achieve distinction."
"We don't have to feel that jealousy often," said Warner calmly.
"Merit like charity begins with you at home."
"And modesty can't keep us from admitting it, but you Kentuckians do fight well—under our direction."
"Don't talk with him, Dick," said Pennington. "Against his wall of mountainous conceit wisdom breaks in vain."
"I'm glad to see you expressing yourself so poetically, Frank," said Warner. "The New England seed planted in Nebraska will flower into bloom some day."
Sergeant Whitley came at that moment and asked them to go and see the new horses provided for them, and the three went with him, friends bound to one another by hooks of steel. The horses given to them by special favor of Sheridan in place of their worn-out mounts, were splendid animals, and Sergeant Whitley himself had prepared them for their first appearance before their new masters.
"They'll do! They'll do!" said Dick with enthusiasm. "Grand fellows! They ought to carry us anywhere!"
"Upon this point I must confess myself somewhat your inferior," said Warner in his precise manner. "The mountainous character of our state keeps us from making horses a specialty. You, I believe, in Kentucky, pay great attention to their breeding, and so I ask you, young Mr. Mason, if the horse chosen for me is all that he should be."
"He asks it as a matter of condescension, Dick, and not as a favor," said Pennington.
"It's all right any way you take it," laughed Dick. "Yes, George, your horse has no defect. You can always lead the charge on him against Early."
"If I'm not at the very front I expect to be somewhere near it," said Warner. "But don't you like the looks of this camp, boys? It shows order, method and precision. Everything has been done according to the best algebraic formulae. I call it mathematics, charged with fire. Our Little Phil is a great commander. One can feel his spirit in the air all about us."
Dick himself had noticed the military workmanship and that, too, of a high order, and he understood thoroughly that Sheridan had gathered a most formidable army. It was not much short of thirty thousand men, veteran troops, and he had with him Wright, Emory, Crook, Merritt, Averill, Torbert, Wilson and Grover, all able generals. Nor had Sheridan neglected to inform himself of the country over which he intended to march. With his lieutenant of engineers, Meigs, a man of great talent, he had spent days and nights studying maps of the valley. Now he knew all the creeks and brooks and roads and towns, and he understood the country as well as Early himself, who faced him with as large a Confederate force as he could gather.
Dick and his comrades expected immediate action, but it did not come. They lingered for days, due, they supposed, to orders from Washington, but they did not bother themselves about it, as they liked their new camp and were making many new friends. September days passed and they saw the summer turning into autumn. The mountains in the distance looked blue, but, near at hand, their foliage had turned brown. The great heat gave way to a crisper air and the lads who had come from the trenches before Petersburg enjoyed for a little while the luxury of early autumn and illimitable space.
They rode now and then with the cavalry outposts. Early and his men stretched across the valley to oppose them, and often Northern and Southern pickets were in touch, though they seldom fired upon one another. Dick, whenever he rode with the advanced guard, watched for Harry Kenton, St. Clair and Langdon, but it was nearly a week before he saw them. Then they rode with a small group, headed by two elderly but very upright men, whom he knew to be Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant Colonel Hector St. Hilaire.
He felt genuine gladness, and, shouting at the top of his voice, he waved his hand. They recognized him, and all waved a welcome in return. He saw the two colonels studying him through their glasses, but he knew that no attack would be made upon him and the little party with which he rode. It was one of those increasing intervals of peace and friendship between battles. The longer the war and the greater the losses the less men troubled themselves to shoot one another save when real battle was joined.
They were about four hundred yards apart and Dick used his glasses also, enabling him to see that the young Southern officers were unwounded—Langdon's slight hurt had healed long since—and were strong and hearty. He thought it likely that they, as well as he, had found the brief period of rest and freedom from war a genuine luxury.
He waved his hand once more, and they waved back as before. Then the course of the two little troops took them away from each other, and the Southerners were hid from his view by a belt of forest. But he was very glad that he had seen them. It had been almost as if there were no war.
Dick rode back to the camp, gave his horse to an orderly, and, walking toward his tent, was met by Warner and Pennington, carrying long slender rods on their shoulders—Warner in fact carrying two.
"What's this?" he exclaimed.
"We're going fishing," replied Warner. "We've permission for you also. There's a fine stream about a half mile west of us, running through the woods, and it's been fished in but little since the war started. Here, take your rod! You don't expect me to carry it for you any longer do you? It has a good hook and line and it's easy for us to find bait under a big stone on soft soil."
"Thank you, George," said Dick happily. "You couldn't keep me from going with you two. Do you know, I haven't been fishing in more than three years, and me not yet of age?"
"Well, now's your chance, and you may not have another until after the war is over. They say it's a fine stream, though, of course, it's not like the beautiful little rivers of Vermont, that come dashing down from the mountains all molten silver, where they're not white foam. Splendid fish! Splendid rivers! Splendid sport! Dick, do you think I'm facing now in the exact direction of Vermont?"
He had turned about and was gazing with a rapt look into the northeast.
"I should say," said Dick, "that if your gaze went far enough it would strike squarely upon the Green Mountains of Vermont."
Warner's hand rose in a slow and majestic salute.
"Great little state, mother of men, I salute thee!" he said. "Thou art stern and yet beautiful to the eye and thy sons love thee! I, who am but one among them, love all thy rocks, and clear streams, and noble mountains and green foliage! Here, from the battle fields and across the distance I salute thee, O great little state! O mother of men!"
"Quite dithyrambic," said Dick, "and now that your burst of rhetoric is over let's go on and catch our fish. Will you also use your romantic science of mathematics in fishing? By the way, what has become of that little algebra book of yours?"
"It's here," said Warner, taking it from the breast pocket of his tunic. "I never part with it and I most certainly expect to use its principles when I reach the fishing stream. Let x express my equipment and myself, let y equal skill and patience; x we shall say also equals the number 7, while y equals the number 5. Now the fish are represented by z which is equal to 12. It is obvious even to slow minds like yours and Pennington's that neither x nor y alone can equal z, the fish, otherwise 12, but when combined they represent that value exactly, that is x plus y equals 12. So, if I and my equipment coordinate perfectly with my skill and patience, which most certainly will happen, the fish are as good as caught by me already. The rest is a mere matter of counting."
"Best give in, Dick," said Pennington. "He'll always prove to you by his algebra that he knows everything, and that everything he does is right. Of course, he's the best fisherman in the world!"
"I'd have you to know, Francis Pennington," said Warner, with dignity, "that I was a very good fisherman when I was five years old, and that I've been improving ever since, and that Vermont is full of fine deep streams, in which one can fish with pleasure and profit. What do you know, you prairie-bred young ruffian, about fishing? I've heard that your creeks and brooks are nothing but strips of muddy dew. The Platte River itself, I believe, is nearly two inches deep at its deepest parts. I don't suppose there's another stream in America which takes up so much space on the map and so little on the ground."
"The Platte is a noble river," rejoined Pennington. "What it lacks in depth it makes up in length, and I'll not have it insulted by anybody in its absence."
While they talked they passed through the brown woods and came to the creek, flowing with a fine volume of water down from the mountains into one of the rivers of the valley.
"It's up to its advertisements," said Warner, looking at it with satisfaction. "It's clear, deep and it ought to have plenty of good fish. I see a snug place between the roots of that oak growing upon the bank, and there I sit."
"There are plenty of good places," said Dick, as they seated themselves and unwrapped their lines, "and I've a notion that our fishing is going to prove good. Isn't it fine? Why, it's like being back home!"
"Time's rolled back and we're just boys again," said Pennington.
"Don't try to be poetic, Frank," said Warner. "I've told you already that a man who has nothing but muddy streaks of dew to fish in can't know anything about fishing."
"Stop quarreling, you two," said Dick. "Don't you know that such voices as yours raised in loud tones would scare away the boldest fish that ever swam?"
The three cast their lines out into the stream. They were of the old-fashioned kind, a hook, a lead sinker, and a cork on the line to keep it from sinking too far. Dick had used just such an equipment since he was eight years old, in the little river at Pendleton, and now he was anxious to prove to himself that he had not lost his skill. All three were as eager to catch a fish as they were to win a battle, and, for the time, the war was forgotten. It seemed to Dick as he sat on the brown turf between the enclosing roots of the tree, and leaning against its trunk, that his lost youth had returned. He was just a boy again, fishing and with no care save to raise something on his hook. The wood, although small, was dense, and it shut out all view of the army. Nor did any martial sounds come to them. The rustle of the leaves under the gentle wind was soothing. He was back at Pendleton. Harry Kenton was fishing farther up the stream, and so were other boys, his old friends of the little town.
The bit of forest was to all intents a wilderness just then, and it was so pleasant in the comfortable place between the supporting roots of the tree that Dick fell into a dreamy state, in which all things were delightful. It was perhaps the power of contrast, but after so much riding and fighting he felt a sheer physical pleasure in sitting there and watching the clear stream flow swiftly by. He smiled too at the way in which his cork bobbed up and down on the water, and he began to feel that it would not matter much whether he caught any fish or not. It was just enough to sit there and go through all the motions of fishing.
A shout from a point twenty yards below and he looked up, startled, from his dream.
"A bite!" exclaimed Warner, "I thought I had him, but he slipped off the hook! I raised him to the surface and I know he was two feet long!"
"Nine inches, probably," said Dick. "Allow at least fifteen inches for your imagination, George."
"I suppose you're right, Dick. At least, I have to do it down here. If it were a Vermont river he'd be really two feet long."
Dick heard his line and sinker strike the water again, and then silence returned to the little wood, but it did not endure long. From a point beyond Warner came a shout, and this was undeniably a cry of triumph. It was accompanied by a swishing through the air and the sound of an object striking the leaves.
"I got him! I got him! I got him!" exclaimed Pennington, dancing about as if he were only twelve years old.
Dick stood up and saw that Pennington, in truth, had caught a fine fish, at least a foot long, which was now squirming over the leaves, its silver scales gleaming.
"It seems to me," said Dick, "that the very young Territory of Nebraska has scored over the veteran State of Vermont."
"A victor merely in a preliminary skirmish," said Warner serenely. "The fish happened to be there. Frank's baited hook was close by. The fish was hungry and the result was a mathematical certainty. Frank is entitled to no credit whatever. As for me, I lure my fish within the catching area."
As Dick resumed his seat he felt a sharp pull at his own line, and drawing it in smartly he drew with it a fish as large as Pennington's, a fact that he announced with pride.
"I think, Frank," he called, "that this is not good old Vermont's day. Either we're more skillful or the fish like us better than they do Warner. Which do you think it is?"
"It's both, Dick."
"On second thought, I don't agree with you, Frank. The fish in this river are entirely new to us. They've never seen us before, and they know nothing about us by hearsay and reputation. It's a case of skill, pure skill, Frank. We've got Mr. Vermont down, and we're going to hold him down."
Warner said nothing, but Dick rose up a little and saw his face. It was red, the teeth clenched tightly, and the mouth drawn down at the corners. His eyes were fixed eagerly on his cork in the hope of seeing it bob for a moment and then be drawn swiftly under.
"Good old George," said Dick, under his breath. "He hates to be beaten—well, so do we all."
Pennington caught another fish and then Dick drew in his second. Warner did not have a bite since his first miss and his two comrades did not spare him. They insinuated that there were no fish in Vermont, and they doubted whether the state had any rivers either. In any event it was obvious that Warner had never fished before. For several minutes they carried on this conversation, the words, in a way, as they went back and forth, passing directly by his head. But Warner did not speak. He merely clenched his teeth more tightly and watched his floating cork. Meanwhile Dick caught his third fish and then Pennington equaled him. Now their taunts, veiled but little, became more numerous.
Warner never spoke, nor did he take his eyes from his cork. He had heard every word, but he would not show annoyance. He was compelled to see Dick draw in yet another fine fellow, while his own cork seemed to have all the qualities of a lifeboat. It danced and bobbed around, but apparently it had not the slightest intention of sinking. Why did he have such luck, or rather lack of it? Was fortune going to prove unkind to the good old rock-ribbed Green Mountain State?
There came a tremendous jerk upon the line! The cork shot down like a bullet, but Warner, making a mighty pull and snap with the rod, landed a glorious gleaming fish upon the bank, a full two feet in length, probably as large as any that had ever been caught in that stream. He detached the hook and looked down at his squirming prize, while Dick and Pennington also came running to see.
"I've been waiting for you, my friend," said Warner serenely to the fish. "Various small brothers of yours have come along and looked at my bait, but I've always moved it out of reach, leaving them to fall a prey to my friends who are content with little things. I had to wait for you some time, O King of Fishes, but you came at last and you are mine."
"You can't put him down, Dick, and it's not worth while trying," said Pennington, and Dick agreeing they went back to their own places.
The fishing now went on with uninterrupted success. Dick caught a big fellow too, and so did Pennington. Fortune, after wavering in her choice, decided to favor all three about equally, and they were content. The silvery heaps grew and they rejoiced over the splendid addition they would make to their mess. The colonels would enjoy this fine fresh food, and they were certainly enjoying the taking of it.
They ran out of chaff and fell into silence again, while they fished industriously. Dick, who was farthest up the stream, noticed a small piece of wood floating in the center of the current. It seemed to have been cut freshly. "Loggers at work farther up," he said to himself. "May be cutting wood for the army."
He caught another fish and a fresh chip passed very near his line. Then came a second, and a third touched the line itself. Dick's curiosity was aroused. Loggers at such a time would not take the trouble to throw their chips into the stream. He lifted his line, caught an unusually large white chip on the hook and drew it to the land. When he picked it up and looked at it he whistled. Someone had cut upon its face with a sharp penknife these clear and distinct words:
Yankees Beware
This is our River
Don't Fish in It
These Fish are Ours.
             JOHNNY REBS.
"Well, this is surely insolence," said Dick, and calling his comrades he showed them the chip. Both were interested, but Warner had admiration for its sender.
"It shows a due consideration for us," he said. "He merely warns us away as trespassers before shooting at us. And perhaps he's right. The river and the fish in it really belong to them. We're invaders. We came down here to crush rebellion, not to take away property."
"But I'm going to keep my fish, just the same," said Pennington. "You can't crush a rebellion without eating. Nor am I going to quit fishing either."
"Here comes another big white chip," said Dick.
Warner caught it on his hook and towed it in. It bore the inscription, freshly cut:
Let our river alone
Take in your lines
You're in danger,
As you'll soon see.
It was unsigned and they stared at it in wonder.
"Do you think this is really a warning?" said Pennington, "or is it some of the fellows playing tricks on us?"
"I believe it's a warning," said Warner soberly. "Probably a farmer a little distance up the stream has been cutting wood, and these chips have come from his yard, but he didn't send them. Dick, can you tell handwriting when it's done with a knife?"
Dick looked at the chip long and critically.
"It may be imagination," he said, "but the words cut there bear some resemblance to the handwriting of Harry Kenton. He makes a peculiar L and a peculiar A and they're just the same way on this chip. The writing is different on the other chip, but on this one I believe strongly that it's Harry's."
"It looks significant to me," said Warner thoughtfully. "A mile or two farther up, this stream, so I'm told, makes an elbow, and beyond that it comes with a rush out of the mountains. Its banks are lined with woods and thickets and some of the enemy may have slipped in and launched these chips. I've a sort of feeling, Dick, that it's really your cousin and his friends who have done it."
"I incline to that belief myself," said Dick. "You know they're ready to dare anything, and they don't anticipate any great danger, because we don't care to shoot at one another, until the campaign really begins."
"At least," said Warner, "it's best to apply to the problem a good algebraic formula. Here we are in a wood, some distance from our main camp. Messages, bearing a warning either in jest or in earnest, have come floating down from a point which may be within the enemy's country. One of the facts is x and the other is y, but what they amount to is an unknown quantity. Hence we are left in doubt, and when you're in doubt it's best to do the safe thing."
"Which means that we should go back to the camp," said Dick. "But we'll take our fish with us, that's sure."
They began to wind up their lines, but knowing that departure would be prudent they were yet reluctant to go in the face of a hidden danger, which after all might not be real.
"Suppose I climb this tree," said Pennington, indicating a tall elm, "and I may be able to get a good look over the country, while you fellows keep watch."
"Up you go, Frank," said Dick. "George and I will be on guard, pistols in one hand and fish in the other."
Pennington climbed the elm rapidly and then announced from the highest bough able to support him that he saw open country beyond, then more woods, a glimpse of the stream above the elbow, but no human being. He added that he would remain a few minutes in the tree and continue his survey of the country.
Dick's eyes had followed Frank's figure until it disappeared among the brown leaves, and he had listened to him carefully, while he was telling the result of his outlook, but his attention now turned back to the river. No more chips were floating down its stream. Nothing foreign appeared upon the clear surface of its waters, but Dick's sharp vision caught sight of something in a thicket on the far shore that made his heart beat.
It was but little he saw, merely the brown edge of an enormous flap-brimmed hat, but it was enough. Slade and his men undoubtedly were there—practically within the union lines—and he was the danger! He called up the tree in a fierce sibilant whisper that carried amazingly far:
"Come down, Frank! Come down at once, for your life!"
It was a call so alarming and insistent that Pennington almost dropped from the tree. He was upon the ground, breathless, in a half minute, his fish in one hand and the pistol that he had snatched from his belt in the other.
"What is it?" exclaimed Warner, who had not yet seen anything.
"Slade and his men are in the bush on the other side of the river. The warning was real and I've no doubt Harry sent it. They've seen Frank come down the tree! drop flat for your lives!"
Again his tone was so compelling that the other two threw themselves flat instantly, and Dick went down with them. They were barely in time. A dozen rifles flashed from the thickets beyond the stream, but all the bullets passed over their heads.
"Now we run for it!" exclaimed Dick, once more in that tone of compelling command. All three rose instantly, though not forgetting their fish and their fishing rods, and ran at their utmost speed for fifty or sixty yards, when at Dick's order they threw themselves flat again. Three or four more shots were fired from the thickets, but they did not come near their targets.
"Thank God for that little river in between us!" said Pennington, piously and sincerely. "Rivers certainly have their uses!"
Then they heard a sharp, shrill note blown upon a whistle.
"That's Slade recalling his men," said Dick. "I heard him use the same whistle in Mississippi and I know it. His wicked little scheme to slaughter us has failed and knowing it he prudently withdraws."
"For which, perhaps, we have a chip to thank," said Warner. "Shall we rise and run again?"
"Yes," said Dick. "I think they've gone, but fifty yards farther and nobody in those thickets can reach us."
They stooped as they ran, and they ran fast, but, when they dropped down again, it was behind a little hill, and they knew that all danger had passed. The thumping of their hearts ceased, and they looked thankfully at one another.
"Our lives were in danger," said Warner proudly, "but I didn't forget my fish. See, the silver beauties!"
"And here are mine too!" said Pennington, holding up his string.
"And mine also!" said Dick.
"I don't like the way we had to run," said Warner. "We were practically within our own lines and we were compelled to be undignified. I've been insulted by that flap-brimmed scoundrel, Slade, and I shall not forget it. If he hangs upon our flank in this campaign I shall make a point of it, if I am able, to present him with a bullet."
The sound of thudding hoofs came, and Colonel Winchester and a troop galloped up.
"We heard shots!" he exclaimed. "What was it?"
Dick held up his fish.
"We've been fishing, sir," he replied, "and as you can see, we've had success, but we were interrupted by the guerrilla Slade, whom I met in Mississippi, and his men. We got off, though, unhurt, and brought our fish with us."
Colonel Winchester's troop numbered more than a hundred men, and crossing the river they beat up the country thoroughly, but they saw no Confederate sign. When he came back Dick told him all the details of the episode, and Colonel Winchester agreed with him that Harry had sent the warning.
"You'd better keep it to yourself," he said. "It's too vague and mysterious to make a peg upon which to hang anything. Since we've cleared the bush of enemies we'll go eat the fish you and your friends have caught."
Sergeant Whitley cooked them, and, as Dick and a score of others sat around the fire and ate fish for supper, they were so exuberant and chaffed so much that he forgot for the time all about Slade.

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