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HOME > Classical Novels > The Tree of Appomattox or A Story of the Civil War's End > CHAPTER XV BACK WITH GRANT
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 Despite the inevitable hostility of the people their stay at Winchester was pleasant and fruitful. All three of the new young captains experienced a mental growth, and their outlook upon the enemy was tempered greatly. They had been through so many battles and they had measured their strength and courage against the foe so often that all hatred and malice had departed. North and South, knowing too little of each other before the war, had now learned mutual respect upon the field of combat. And Dick, Warner and Pennington, feeling certain that the end was at hand, could understand the loss and sorrow of the South, and sympathize with the fallen. Their generous young hearts did not exult over a foe whom they expected soon to conquer.  
Late in January of the fateful year 1865 Dick was walking through the streets of Winchester one cold day. The wind from the mountains had a fierce edge, and, as he bent his head to protect his face from it, he did not see a stout, heavily built man of middle age coming toward him, and did not stop until the stranger, standing squarely in his way, hailed him.
"Does the fact that you've become a captain keep you from seeing anything in your path, Mr. Mason?" asked the man in a deep bass, but wholly good-natured voice.
Dick looked up in surprise, because the tones were familiar. He saw a ruddy face, with keen, twinkling eyes and a massive chin, a face in which shrewdness and a humorous view of the world were combined. He hesitated a moment, then he remembered and held out his hand.
"It's Mr. Watson, the contractor," he said.
"So it is, lad," said John Watson, grasping the outstretched hand and shaking it heartily. "Don't mind my calling you lad, even if you are a captain. All things are comparative, and to me, a much older man, you're just a lad. I've heard of your deed in the mountains, in fact, I keep track of all of you, even of General Sheridan himself. It's my business to know men and what they do."
"I hope you're still making money," said Dick, smiling.
"I am. That's part of a merchant's duty. If he doesn't make money he oughtn't to be a merchant. Oh, I know that a lot of you soldiers look down upon us traders and contractors."
"I don't and I never did, Mr. Watson."
"I know it, Captain Mason, because you're a lad of intelligence. The first time I saw you I noticed that the reasoning quality was strong in you, and that was why I made you an offer to enter my employ after the war. That offer is still open and will remain open at all times."
"I thank you very much, Mr. Watson, but I can't accept it, as I have other ambitions."
"I was sure you wouldn't take it, but I like to feel it's always waiting for you. It's well to look ahead. This war, vast and terrible as it has been, will be over before the year is. Two or three million men who have done nothing but fighting for four years will be out of employment. Vast numbers of them will not know which way to turn. They will be wholly unfit, until they have trained themselves anew, for the pursuits of peace. Captains, majors, colonels and, yes, generals, will be besieging me for jobs, as zealously as they're now besieging Lee's army in the trenches before Petersburg, and with as much cause. When the war is over the soldier will not be of so much value, and the man of peace will regain his own. I hope you've thought of these things, Captain Mason."
"I've thought of them many times, Mr. Watson, and I've thought of them oftener than ever this winter. My comrades and I have agreed that as soon as the last battle is fought we'll plunge at once into the task of rebuilding our country. We amount to little, of course, in such a multitude, but one can do only what one can."
"That's so, but if a million feel like you and push all together, they can roll mountains away."
"You're not a man to come to Winchester for nothing. You've been doing business with the army?"
"I've been shoeing, clothing and bedding you. I deliver within two weeks thirty thousand pairs of shoes, thirty thousand uniforms, and sixty thousand blankets. They are all honest goods and the price is not too high, although I make the solid and substantial profit to which I am entitled. You soldiers on the battle line don't win a war alone. We who feed and clothe you achieve at least half. I regret again, Captain Mason, that you can't join me later. Mine's a noble calling. It's a great thing to be a merchant prince, and it's we, as much as any other class of people, who spread civilization over the earth."
"I know it," said Dick earnestly. "I'm not blind to the great arts of peace. Now, here come my closest friends, Captain Warner and Captain Pennington, who have understanding. I want you to meet them."
Dick's hearty introduction was enough to recommend the contractor to his comrades, but Warner already knew him well by reputation.
"I've heard of you often from some of our officers, Mr. Watson," he said. "You deliver good goods and you're a New Englander, like myself. Ten years from now you'll be an extremely rich man, a millionaire, twenty years from now you'll be several times a millionaire. About that time I'll become president of Harvard, and we'll need money—a great university always needs money—and I'll come to you for a donation of one hundred thousand dollars to Harvard, and you'll give it to me promptly."
John Watson looked at him fixedly, and slowly a look of great admiration spread over his face.
"Of course you're a New Englander," he said. "It was not necessary for you to say so. I could have told it by looking at you and hearing you talk. But from what state do you come?"
"I might have known that, too, and I'm glad and proud to meet you, Captain Warner. I'm glad and proud to know a young man who looks ahead twenty years. Nothing can keep you from being president of Harvard, and that hundred thousand dollars is as good as given. Your hand again!"
The hands of the two New Englanders met a second time in the touch of kinship and understanding. Theirs was the clan feeling, and they had supreme confidence in each other. Neither doubted that the promise would be fulfilled, and fulfilled it was and fourfold more.
"You New Englanders certainly stand together," said Dick.
"Not more than you Kentuckians," replied the contractor. "I was in Kentucky several times before the war, and you seemed to be one big family there."
"But in the war we've not been one big family," said Dick, somewhat sadly. "I suppose that no state has been more terribly divided than Kentucky. Nowhere has kin fought more fiercely against kin."
"But you'll come together again after the war," said Watson cheerfully. "That great bond of kinship will prove more powerful than anything else."
"I hope so," said Dick earnestly.
They had the contractor to dinner with them, and he opened new worlds of interest and endeavor for all of them. He was a mighty captain of industry, a term that came into much use later, and mentally they followed him as he led the way into fields of immense industrial achievement. They were fascinated as he talked with truthful eloquence of what the country could become, the vast network of railroads to be built, the limitless fields of wheat and corn to be grown, the mines of the richest mineral continent to be opened, and a trade to be acquired, that would spread all over the world. They forgot the war while he talked, and their souls were filled and stirred with the romance of peace.
"I leave for Washington tonight," said the contractor, when the dinner was finished. "My work here is done. Our next meeting will be in Richmond."
All three of the young men took it as prophetic and when John Watson started north they waved him a friendly farewell. Another long wait followed, while the iron winter, one of the fiercest in the memory of man, still gripped both North and South. But late in February there was a great bustle, portending movement. Supplies were gathered, horses were examined critically, men looked to their arms and ammunition, and the talk was all of high anticipation. An electric thrill ran through the men. They had tasted deep of victory since the previous summer, and they were eager to ride to new triumphs.
"It's to be an affair of cavalry altogether," said Warner, who obtained the first definite news. "We're to go toward Staunton, where Early and his remnants have been hanging out, and clean 'em up. Although it's to be done by cavalry alone, as I told you, it'll be the finest cavalry you ever saw."
And when Sheridan gathered his horsemen for the march Warner's words came true. Ten thousand union men, all hardy troopers now, were in the saddle, and the great Sheridan led them. The eyes of Little Phil glinted as he looked upon his matchless command, bold youths who had learned in the long hard training of war itself, to be the equals of Stuart's own famous riders. And the eyes of Sheridan glinted again when they passed over the Winchesters, the peerless regiment, the bravest of the brave, with the colonel and the three youthful captains in their proper places.
The weather was extremely cold, but they were prepared for it, and when they swung up the valley, and forty thousand hoofs beat on the hard road, giving back a sound like thunder, their pulses leaped, and they took with delight deep draughts of the keen frosty air.
While they carried food for the entire march, the rest of their equipment was light, four cannon, ammunition wagons, some ambulances and pontoon boats. Dick thought they would make fast time, but fortune for awhile was against them. The very morning the great column started the weather rapidly turned warmer, and then a heavy rain began to fall. The hard road upon which the forty thousand hoofs had beat their marching song turned to mud, and forty thousand hoofs made a new sound, as they sank deep in it, and were then pulled out again.
"If it keeps us from going fast," said the philosophical sergeant, "it'll keep them that we're goin' after from gettin' away. We're as good mud horses as they are."
"Do you think we'll go through to Staunton?" asked Dick of Warner.
"I've heard that we will, and that we'll go on and take Lynchburg too. Then we're to curve about and in North Carolina join Sherman who has smashed the Confederacy in the west."
"I don't like the North Carolina part," said Dick. "I hope we'll go to Grant and march with him on Richmond, because that's where the death blow will be dealt, if it's dealt at all."
"And that it will be dealt we don't doubt, neither you, nor I nor any of us."
"Yes, that's so."
While mud and rain could impede the progress of the great column they could not stop it. Neither could they dampen the spirits of the young troopers who rode knee to knee, and who looked forward to new victories. Through the floods of rain the ten thousand, scouts and skirmishers on their flanks, swept southward, and they encountered no foe. A few Southern horsemen would watch them at a great distance and then ride sadly away. There was nothing in the valley that could oppose Sheridan.
Dick's leggings, and his overcoat with an extremely high collar, kept him dry and warm and he was too seasoned to mind the flying mud which thousands of hoofs sent up, and which soon covered them. The swift movement and the expectation of achieving something were exhilarating in spite of every hardship and obstacle.
That night they reached the village of Woodstock, and the next day they crossed the north fork of the Shenandoah, already swollen by the heavy rains. The engineers rapidly and dexterously made a bridge of the pontoon boats, and the ten thousand thundered over in safety.
The next night they were at a little place called Lacy's Springs, sixty miles from Winchester, a wonderful march for two days, considering the heavy rains and deep mud, and they had not yet encountered an enemy. How different it would have been in Stonewall Jackson's time! Then, not a mile of the road would have been safe for them. It was ample proof of the extremities to which the Confederacy was reduced. Lee, at Petersburg, could not reinforce Early, and Early, at Staunton, could not reinforce Lee!
They intended to move on the next day, and they heard that night that Rosser, a brave Confederate general, had gathered a small Confederate force and was hastening forward to burn all the bridges over the middle fork of the Shenandoah, in order that he might impede Sheridan's progress. Then it was the call of the trumpet and boots and saddles early in the morning in order that they might beat Rosser to the bridges.
"I hope for their own sake that they won't try to fight us," said Dick.
"I'm with you on that," said Pennington. "They can't be more than a few hundreds, and it would take thousands, even with a river to help, to stop an army like ours."
It was not raining now and the roads growing dryer thundered with the hoofs of ten thousand horses. The Winchesters had an honored place in the van, and, as they approached the middle fork of the Shenandoah, the three young captains raised themselves in their saddles to see if the bridge yet stood. It was there, but on the other side of the stream a small body of cavalrymen in gray were galloping forward, and some had already dismounted for the attempt to destroy it. The arrival of the two forces was almost simultaneous, but the union army, overwhelming in numbers, exulting in victory, swept forward to the call of the trumpets.
"They're not more than five or six hundred over there," said Warner, "too few to put up a fight against us. I feel sorry for 'em, and wish they'd go away."
The Southerners nevertheless were sweeping the narrow bridge with a heavy rifle fire, and Sheridan drew back his men for a few minutes. Then followed a series of mighty splashes, as two West Virginia regiments sent their horses into the river, swam it, and, as they emerged dripping on the farther shore, charged the little Confederate force in flank, compelling it to retreat so swiftly that it left behind prisoners and its wagons.
It was all over ............
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