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The Tree of Appomattox

The Tree of Appomattox

Author:Joseph A. Altsheler


Although he was an officer in full uniform he was a youth in years, and he had the spirits of youth. Moreover, it was one of the finest apple trees he had ever seen and the apples hung everywhere, round, ripe and red, fairly asking to be taken...
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  Although he was an officer in full uniform he was a youth in years, and

  he had the spirits of youth. Moreover, it was one of the finest apple

  trees he had ever seen and the apples hung everywhere, round, ripe and

  red, fairly asking to be taken and eaten. Dick Mason looked up at them

  longingly. They made him think of the orchards at home in his own

  state, and a touch of coolness in the air sharpened his appetite for

  them all the more.

  "If you want 'em so badly, Dick," said Warner, "why don't you climb the

  tree and get 'em? There's plenty for you and also for Pennington and


  "I see. You're as anxious for apples as I am, and you wish me to

  gather 'em for you by making a strong appeal to my own desires. It's

  your clever New England way."

  "We're forbidden to take anything from the people, but it won't hurt to

  keep a few apples from rotting on the ground. If you won't get 'em

  Pennington will."

  "I understand you, George. You're trying to play Frank against me,

  while you keep yourself safe. You'll go far. Never mind. I'll gather

  apples for us all."

  He leaped up, caught the lowest bough, swung himself lightly into the

  fork, and then climbing a little higher, reached for the reddest and

  ripest apples, which he flung down in a bountiful supply.

  "Now, gluttons," he said, "satiate yourselves, but save a lot for me."

  Then he went up as far as the boughs would sustain him and took a look

  over the country. Apple trees do not grow very tall, but Dick's tree

  stood on the highest point in the orchard, and he had a fine view, a

  view that was in truth the most remarkable the North American continent

  had yet afforded.

  He always carried glasses over his shoulder, and lately Colonel

  Winchester had made him a gift of a splendid pair, which he now put

  into use, sweeping the whole circle of the horizon. With their

  powerful aid he was able to see the ancient city of Petersburg, where

  Lee had thrown himself across Grant's path in order to block his way to

  Richmond, the Southern capital, and had dug long lines of trenches in

  which his army lay. It was Lee who first used this method of defense

  for a smaller force against a larger, and the vast trench warfare of

  Europe a half century later was a repetition of the mighty struggle of

  Lee and Grant on the lines of Petersburg.

  Dick through his glasses saw the trenches, lying like a brown bar

  across the green country, and opposite them another brown bar, often

  less than a hundred yards away, which marked where the Northern troops

  also had dug in. The opposing lines extended a distance of nearly

  forty miles, and Richmond was only twenty miles behind them. It was

  the nearest the Army of the Potomac had come to the Southern capital

  since McClellan had seen the spires of its churches, and that was more

  than two years away.

  Warner and Pennington were lying on the ground, eating big red apples

  with much content and looking up lazily at Mason.

  "You're curving those glasses about a lot. What do you see, Dick?"

  asked Pennington at length.

  "I see Petersburg, an old, old town, half buried in foliage, and with

  many orchards and gardens about it. A pity that two great armies

  should focus on such a pleasant place."

  "No time for sentiment, Dick. What else do you see?"

  "Jets of smoke and flame from the trenches, an irregular sort of

  firing, sometimes a half-dozen shots at one place, and then a long and

  peaceful break until you come to another place, where they're

  exchanging bullets."

  "What more do you see, Brother Richard?"

  "I see a Johnny come out of his trench hands up and advance toward one

  of our Yanks opposite, who also has come out of his trench hands up."

  "What are they trading?" asked Warner.

  "The Reb offers a square of plug tobacco, and the Yank a bundle of

  newspapers. Now they've made the exchange, now they've shaken hands

  and each is going back to his own trench."

  "It's a merry world, my masters, as has been said before," resumed

  Warner, "but I should add that it's also a mad wag of a world. Here we

  are face to face for forty miles, at some points seeking to kill one

  another in a highly impersonal way, and at other points conducting sale

  and barter according to the established customs of peace. People at

  home wouldn't believe it, and later on a lot more won't believe it,

  when the writers come to write about it. But it's true just the same.

  What else do you see from the apple tower, Brother Richard?"

  "A long line of wagons approaching a camp some distance behind the

  Confederate trenches. They must be loaded pretty heavily, because the

  drivers are cracking their whips over the horses and mules."

  "That's bad. Provisions, I suppose," said Warner. "The more these

  Johnnies get to eat the harder they fight, and they're not supposed to

  be receiving supplies now. Our cavalry ought to have cut off that

  wagon train. I shall have to speak to Sheridan about it. This is no

  way to starve the Johnnies to death. Seest aught more, Brother


  "I do! I do! Jump up, boys, and use your own glasses! I behold a

  large man on a gray horse, riding slowly along, as if he were

  inspecting troops away behind the trenches. Wherever he passes the

  soldiers snatch off their caps and, although I can't hear 'em, I know

  they're cheering. It's Lee himself!"

  Both Warner and Pennington swung themselves upon the lower boughs of

  the tree and put their glasses to their eyes.

  "It's surely Lee," said Warner. "I'm glad to get a look at him. He's

  been giving us a lot of trouble for more than three years now, but I

  think General Grant is going to take his measure."

  "They're terribly reduced," said Pennington, "and if we stick to it

  we're bound to win. Still, you boys will recall for some time that

  we've had a war. What else do you see from the heights of the apple

  tree, Dick?"

  "Distant dust behind our own lines, and figures moving in it dimly.

  Cavalry practicing, I should say. Have you fellows fruit enough?"

  "Plenty. You can climb down and if the farmer hurries here with his

  dog to catch you we'll protect you."

  "This is a fine apple tree," said Dick, as he descended slowly. "Apple

  trees are objects of beauty. They look so well in the spring all in

  white bloom, and then they look just as well in the fall, when the red

  or yellow apples hang among the leaves. And this is one of the finest

  I've ever seen."

  He did not dream then that he should remember an apple tree his whole

  life, that an apple tree, and one apple tree in particular, should

  always call to his mind a tremendous event, losing nothing of its

  intensity and vividness with the passing years. But all that was in

  the future, and when he joined his comrades on the ground he made good

  work with the biggest and finest apple he could find.

  "Early apples," he said, looking up at the tree. "It's not the end of

  July yet."

  "But good apples, glorious apples, anyhow," said Pennington, taking

  another. "Besides, it's fine and cool like autumn."

  "It won't stay," said Dick. "We've got the whole of August coming.

  Virginia is like Kentucky. Always lots of hot weather in August. Glad

  there's no big fighting to be done just now. But it's a pity, isn't

  it, to tear up a fine farming country like this. Around here is where

  the United States started. John Smith and Rolfe and Pocahontas and the

  rest of them may have roamed just where this orchard stands. And later

  on lots of the great Americans rode about these parts, some of the

  younger ones carrying their beautiful ladies on pillions behind them.

  You are a cold-blooded New Englander, Warner, and you believe that

  anyone fighting against you ought to burn forever, but as for me I feel

  sorry for Virginia. I don't care what she's done, but I don't like to

  see the Old Dominion, the Mother of Presidents, stamped flat."

  "I'm not cold-blooded at all, but I don't gush. I don't forget that

  this state produced George Washington, but I want victory for our side

  just the same, no matter how much of Virginia we may have to tread

  down. Is that farm house over there still empty?"

  "Of course, or we wouldn't have taken the apples. It belongs to a man

  named Haynes, and he left ahead of us with his family for Richmond. I

  fancy it will be a long time before Haynes and his people sleep in

  their own rooms again. Come, fellows, we'd better be going back.

  Colonel Winchester is kind to us, but he doesn't want his officers to

  be prowling about as they please too long."

  They walked together toward the edge of the orchard and looked at the

  farm house, from the chimneys of which no smoke had risen in weeks.

  Dick felt sure it would be used later on as headquarters by some

  general and his staff, but for the present it was left alone. And

  being within the Union lines no plunderer had dared to touch it.

  It was a two-story wooden house, painted white, with green shutters,

  all closed now. The doors were also locked and sealed until such time

  as the army authorities wished to open them, but on the portico, facing

  the Southern lines were two benches, on which the three youths sat, and

  looked again over the great expanse of rolling country, dotted at

  intervals by puffs of smoke from the long lines of trenches. Where

  they sat it was so still that they could hear the faint crackle of the

  distant rifles, and now and then the heavier crash of a cannon.

  Dick's mind went back to the Wilderness and its gloomy shades, the

  sanguinary field of Spottsylvania, and then the terrific mistake of

  Cold Harbor. The genius of Lee had never burned more brightly. He had

  handled his diminishing forces with all his old skill and resolution,

  but Grant had driven on and on. No matter what his losses the North

  always filled up his ranks again, and poured forward munitions and

  supplies in a vast and unbroken stream. A nation had summoned all its

  powers for a supreme effort to win, and Dick felt that the issue of the

  war was not now in doubt. The genius of Lee and the bravery of his

  devoted army could no longer save the South. The hammer strokes of

  Grant would surely crush it.

  And then what? He had the deepest sympathy for these people of

  Virginia. What would become of them after the war? Defeat for the

  South meant nearer approach to destruction than any nation had suffered

  in generations. To him, born south of the Ohio River, and so closely

  united by blood with these people, victory as well as defeat had its


  Warner and Pennington rose and announced that they would return to the

  regiment which was held in reserve in a little valley below, but Dick,

  their leave not having run out yet, decided to stay a while longer.

  "So long," said Warner. "Let the orchard alone. Leave apples for

  others. Remember that they are protected by strict orders against all

  wandering and irresponsible officers, but ourselves."

  "Yes, be good, Dick," said Pennington, and the two went down the slope,

  leaving Dick on the portico. He liked being alone at times. The

  serious cast of mind that he had inherited from his famous great

  grandfather, Paul Cotter, demanded moments of meditation. It was

  peaceful too on the portico, and a youth who had been through Grant's

  Wilderness campaign, a month of continuous and terrible fighting, was

  glad to rest for a while.

  The distant rifle fire and the occasional cannon shot had no

  significance and did not disturb him. They blended now with the breeze

  that blew among the leaves of the apple trees. He had never felt more

  like peace, and the pleasant open country was soothing to the eye.

  What a contrast to that dark and sodden Wilderness where men fought

  blindly in the dusk. He shuddered as he remembered the forests set on

  fire by the shells, and burning over the fallen.

  A light step aroused him and a large man sat down on the bench beside

  him. Dick often wondered at the swift and almost noiseless tread of

  Shepard, with whom he was becoming well acquainted. He was tall, built

  powerfully and must have weighed two hundred pounds, yet he moved with

  the ease and grace of a boy of sixteen. Dick thought it must come from

  his trade.

  "I don't want to intrude, Mr. Mason," said Shepard, "but I saw you

  sitting here, looking perhaps too grave and thoughtful for one of your


  "You're most welcome, Mr. Shepard, and I was thinking, that is in a

  vague sort of way."

  "I saw your face and you were wondering what was to become of Virginia

  and the Virginians."

  "So I was, but how did you know it?"

  "I didn't know it. It was just a guess, and the guess was due to the

  fact that I was having the same thoughts myself."

  "So you regard the war as won?" asked Dick, who had a great respect for

  Shepard's opinion.

  "If the President keeps General Grant in command, as he will, it's a

  certainty, but it will take a long time yet. We can't force those

  trenches down there. Remember what Cold Harbor cost us."

  Dick shuddered.

  "I remember it," he said.

  "It would be worse if we tried to storm Lee's lines. After Cold Harbor

  the general won't attempt it, and I see a long wait here. But we can

  afford it. The South grows steadily weaker. Our blockade clamps like

  a steel band, and presses tighter and tighter all the time. Food is

  scarce in the Confederacy. So is ammunition. They receive no

  recruits, and every day the army of Lee is smaller in numbers than it

  was the day before."

  "You go into Richmond, Mr. Shepard. I've heard from high officers that

  you do. How do they feel there with our army only about twenty miles


  "They're quiet and seem to be confident, but I believe they know their


  "Have you by any chance seen or heard of my cousin, Harry Kenton, who

  is a lieutenant on the staff of the Southern commander-in-chief?"

  Shepard smiled, as if the question brought memories that pleased him.

  "A fine youth," he said. "Yes, I've seen him more than once. I'm free

  to tell you, Lieutenant Mason, that I know a lot about this rebel

  cousin of yours. He and I have come into conflict on several

  occasions, and I did not win every time."

  "Nobody could beat Harry always," exclaimed Dick with youthful loyalty.

  "He was always the strongest and most active among us, and the best in

  forest and water. He could hunt and fish and trail like the scouts of

  our border days."

  "I found him in full possession of all these qualities and he used them

  against me. I should grieve if that cousin of yours were to fall, Mr.

  Mason. I want to know him still better after the war."

  Dick would have asked further questions about the encounters between

  Harry and the spy, but he judged that Shepard did not care to answer

  them, and he forbore. Yet the man aroused the most intense curiosity

  in him. There were spies and spies, and Shepard was one of them, but he

  was not like the others. He was unquestionably a man of great mental

  power. His calm, steady gaze and his words to the point showed it. No

  one patronized Shepard.

  "I should like to go into Richmond with you some dark night," said

  Dick, who hid a strong spirit of adventure under his quiet exterior.

  "You're not serious, Lieutenant Mason?"

  "I wasn't, maybe, when I began to say it, but I believe I am now. Why

  shouldn't I be curious about Richmond, a place that great armies have

  been trying to take for three years? Just at present it's the center

  of the world to me in interest."

  "You must not think of such a thing, Mr. Mason. Detection means

  certain death."

  "No more for me than for you."

  "But I have had a long experience and I have resources of which you

  can't know. Don't think of it again, Mr. Mason."

  "I was merely jesting. I won't," said Dick.

  He involuntarily looked toward the point beyond the horizon where

  Richmond lay, and Shepard meanwhile studied him closely. Young Mason

  had not come much under his notice until lately, but now he began to

  interest the spy greatly. Shepard observed what a strong, well-built

  young fellow he was, tall and slender but extremely muscular. He also

  bore a marked resemblance to his cousin, Harry Kenton, and such was the

  quality of Shepard that the likeness strongly recommended Dick to him.

  Moreover, he read the lurking thought that persisted in Dick's mind.

  "You mustn't dream of such a thing as entering Richmond, Mr. Mason," he


  "It was just a passing thought. But aren't you going in again?"

  "Later on, no doubt, but not just now. I understand that we're

  planning some movement. I don't know what it is, but I'm to wait here

  until it's over. Good-by, Mr. Mason. Since things are closing in it's

  possible that you and I will see more of each other than before."

  "Of course, when I'm personally conducted by you on that trip into


  Shepard, who had left the portico, turned and shook a warning finger.

  "Dismiss that absolutely and forever from your mind, Mr. Mason," he


  Dick laughed, and watched the stalwart figure of the spy as he strode

  away. Again the singular ease and lightness of his step struck him. To

  the lad's fancy the grass did not bend under his feet. Upon Dick as

  upon Harry, Shepard made the impression of power, not only of strength

  but of subtlety and courage.

  "I'm glad that man's on our side," said Dick to himself, as Shepard's

  figure disappeared among the trees. Then he left the portico and went

  down in the valley to Colonel Winchester's regiment, where he was

  received with joyous shouts by several young men, including Warner and

  Pennington, who had gone on before. Colonel Winchester himself smiled

  and nodded, and Dick saluted respectfully.

  The Winchesters, as they loved to call themselves, were faring well at

  this particular time. Like the Invincibles on the other side, this

  regiment had been decimated and filled up again several times. It had

  lost heavily in the Wilderness and at Spottsylvania, but its colonel

  had escaped without serious hurt and had received special mention for

  gallantry and coolness. It had been cut up once more at Cold Harbor,

  and because of its great services and losses it was permitted to remain

  a while in the rear as a reserve, and obtain the rest it needed so


  The brave youths were recovering fast from their wounds and exertions.

  Their camp was beside a clear brook and there were tents for the

  officers, though they were but seldom used, most of them, unless it

  should be raining, preferring to sleep in their blankets under the

  trees. The water was good to drink, and farther down were several deep

  pools in which they bathed. Food, as usual in the Northern army, was

  good and plentiful, and for the Winchesters it seemed more a period of

  play than of war.

  "What did you see at the house, Dick?" asked Colonel Winchester.

  "The spy, Shepard. I talked a while with him. He says the Confederacy

  is growing weaker every day, but if we try to storm Lee's lines we'll

  be cut to pieces."

  "I think he's right in both respects, although I feel sure that some

  kind of a movement will soon be attempted. But Dick, a mail from the

  west has arrived and here is a letter for you."

  He handed the lad a large square envelope, addressed in tall, slanting

  script, and Dick knew at once that it was from his mother. He seized

  it eagerly, and Colonel Winchester, suppressing the wish to know what

  was inside, turned away.

  I have not heard from my dearest boy since the terrible battles in the

  east [Mrs. Mason wrote], but I hope and pray that you have come safely

  through them. You have escaped so many dangers that I feel you must

  escape all the rest. The news reaches us that the fighting in Virginia

  has been of the most dreadful character, but when it arrives in

  Pendleton it has two meanings. Those of our little town who are for

  the Confederacy say General Grant's losses have been so enormous that

  he can go no farther, and that the last and greatest effort of the

  North has failed.

  Those who sympathize with the Union say General Lee has been reduced so

  greatly that he must be crushed soon and with him the Confederacy. As

  you know, I wish the latter to be true, but I suspect that the truth is

  somewhere between the two statements.

  But the truth either way brings me great grief. I cannot hate the

  Southern people. We are Southern ourselves in all save this war, and,

  although our dear little town is divided in feeling, I have received

  nothing but kindness from those on the other side. Dr. Russell often

  asks about you. He says you were the best Latin scholar in the

  Academy, and he expects you to have a great future, as a learned man,

  after the war. He speaks oftenest of you and Harry Kenton, and I

  believe that you two were his favorite pupils. He says that Harry's is

  the best mathematical mind he has ever found in his long years of


  Your room remains just as it was when you left. Juliana brushes and

  airs it every day, and expects at any time to see her young Master Dick

  come riding home. She keeps in her mind two pictures of you,

  absolutely unlike. In one of these pictures you are a great officer,

  carrying much of the war's weight on your shoulders, consulted

  continually by General Grant, who goes wrong only when he fails to take

  your advice. In the other you are a little boy whom she alternately

  scolds and pets. And it may be that I am somewhat like Juliana in this


  The garden is very fine this year. The vegetables were never more

  plentiful, and never of a finer quality. I wish you were here for your

  share. It must be a trial to have to eat hard crackers and tough beef

  and pork day after day. I should think that you would grow to hate the

  sight of them. Sam, the colored man who has been with us so long, has

  proved as faithful and trustworthy as Juliana. He makes a most

  excellent farmer, and the yield of corn in the bottom land is going to

  be amazing.

  They say that since the Federal successes in the West the operations of

  Skelly's band of guerrillas have become bolder, but he has not

  threatened Pendleton again. They say also that a little farther south

  a band of like character, who call themselves Southern, under a man

  named Slade, are ravaging, but I suppose that you, who see great

  generals and great armies daily, are not much concerned about outlaws.

  Always keep your feet dry and warm if you can, and never fail to spread

  a blanket between you and the damp grass. Give my respects to Colonel

  Winchester. Tell him that we hear of him now and then in Kentucky and

  that we hear only good. Don't forget about the blanket.

  There was more, but it was these passages over which Dick lingered


  He read the letter three times--letters were rare in those years, and

  men prized them highly--and put it away in his strongest pocket.

  Colonel Winchester was standing by the edge of the brook, and Dick,

  saluting him, said:

  "My mother wishes me to deliver to you her respects and best wishes."

  A flush showed through the tan of the colonel's face, and Dick,

  noticing it, was startled by a sudden thought. At first his feeling

  was jealousy, but it passed in an instant, never to come again. There

  was no finer man in the world than Colonel Winchester.

  "She is well," he added, "and affairs could go no better at Pendleton."

  "I am glad," said Colonel Winchester simply. Then he turned to a man

  with very broad shoulders and asked:

  "How are the new lads coming on?"

  "Very well, sir," replied Sergeant Daniel Whitley. "Some of 'em are a

  little awkward yet, and a few are suffering from change of water, but

  they're good boys and we can depend on 'em, sir, when the time comes."

  "Especially since you have been thrashing 'em into shape for so many

  days, sergeant."

  "Thank you, sir."

  An orderly came with a message for Colonel Winchester, who left at

  once, but Dick and the sergeant, his faithful comrade and teacher,

  stood beside the stream. They could easily see the bathers farther

  down, splashing in the water, pulling one another under, and, now and

  then, hurling a man bodily into the pool. They were all boys to the

  veteran. Many of them had been trained by him, and his attitude toward

  them was that of a school teacher toward his pupils.

  "You have ears that hear everything, sergeant," said Dick. "What is

  this new movement that I've heard two or three men speak of? Something

  sudden they say."

  "I've heard too," replied Sergeant Whitley, "but I can't guess it.

  Whatever it is, though, it's coming soon. There's a lot of work going

  on at a point farther down the line, but it's kept a secret from the

  rest of us here."

  The sergeant went away presently, and Dick, going down stream, joined

  some other young officers in a pool. He lay on the bank afterward,

  but, shortly after dark, Colonel Winchester returned, gave an order,

  and the whole regiment marched away in the dusk. Dick felt sure that

  the event Sergeant Whitley had predicted was about to happen, but the

  colonel gave no hint of its nature, and he continued to wonder, as they

  advanced steadily in the dusk.