Tales and Trails of Wakarusa,  by A. M. Harvey

The Phantom Fisherman and Other Ghosts.

     ONE morning in early June a ten-year-old lad, having been given a half-holiday, dug a fine mess of luscious worms, put them in a tin can with plenty of good dirt, and started off up Berry Creek to fish for bullheads and sunfish. He went through the papaw patch and cut a nice long pole, and took time to fix his line on it in good shape, and to see that his cork, sinker, and hook were all right. He then went on through the woods, crossed the big ravines, and climbed around the rocky cliffs, making his way to the spot designated among the boys as the "bullhead hole." This was and is the best place on earth to fish for bullheads, and the boy knew it, and it was there he wanted to commence the day's sport. Finally he climbed over the last ledge, forced his way through the brush and came in sight of his favorite place, and, to his astonishment, he found an aged, peculiar-looking man sitting under the old sycamore tree in the very spot where he had planned to be. He walked slowly up to a place as near the old man as good manners would permit, unwound his line and put on a good lively worm and commenced.

     The old man paid no attention to him whatever, and, on watching him closely, the boy noticed that he was fishing for minnows with a pin-hook fastened to a thread, and this tied to a crooked stick. He put the minnows he caught into a tin bucket which was sitting at his feet, partially full of water. As soon as the boy noticed what he was doing, he set his pole and went up to him and offered to take off his shirt and help him seine for minnows with it. The old man looked up and said:

     "Boy, I wouldn't fish with minnows caught with the best seine on earth. Your shirt wouldn't be much account as a seine; and anyway, they're never big enough. I am on my way to Wakarusa, and I want some good, strong, live minnows. A man who fishes with seine minnows is no account. More than that, you have no business to get your shirt wet. You tend to your fishing' and I'll tend to mine. Andrew Jackson said he knew a man who got rich tending to his own business."

     This was a good deal of a bluff for the boy, and he proceeded as had been suggested, and "tended to his own business." It was a good morning for bullheads, and he soon got their range and commenced catching them. In fact, they were biting so well that he didn't stop to string any of those he caught, but threw them back on the bank; and just to see to it that the stranger did not forget he was there, he usually threw them toward the foot of the sycamore tree.

     After a while the old man took his thread off the crooked stick and wound it up, poured most of the water off his minnows, and then filled the bucket again with fresh water, splashing it in with his hand so that it would be as full of oxygen as possible; and then he took out an old pipe and filled it, and as he commenced to smoke he looked around at the ground, spotted with wriggling bullheads and sunfish, and for the boy, who had experienced a lull in his activities long enough to allow him to commence to pick up and string the fish he had caught.

     The boy looked at him, and he brightened up and said:

     "Kid, you're having a good time, and I don't blame you. I am going down to Wakarusa to fish for big fish, but, after all, you've got more sense than I. The bullhead is the safest and surest fish for meat, and he's not bad sport either, because he usually bites like he meant business, although he may be a little slow. The bullhead is a good deal like the rabbit in one way he's sure food. There's more rabbit meat on foot in Kansas than there is beef or pork, and it's all good. The buffalo was all right in his time, but even he didn't come up to the rabbit. The bullhead reminds me of the rabbit, and the rabbit reminds me of the bullhead."

     The old man stopped taking, and acted as though he were about to start off, when the boy asked him where he was going on the Wakarusa to fish, and he said:

     "I don't know just where I'll wind up. I have fished in every hole in Wakarusa from way above the Wakarusa falls down stream nearly to Lawrence, and sometimes I go to one place and sometimes to another. I've fished for bullheads, too, and for sunfish, in every place that the water is deep enough from the place where Berry Creek starts, over in the coal banks by Carbondale, down to the Sac and Fox spring and all along Lynn Creek, especially in the part that's full of boulders and little round pebbles, with here and there a riffle made by a broken flat rock. And boy, I want to tell you something -- some days you can catch fish like you've been catching 'em this morning, and some days you can't. I've seen days so dull that even the bite of a crawfish was welcome."

     The old man started off, and then came back and took the boy by the shoulder and almost shook him as he said:

     "Don't tell anyone that you saw me. It's nobody's business." And then he went away.

     The boy was not at all afraid, although the man was a total stranger, and looked and acted very queer. The next day he told Joe Coberly about meeting him, and Joe said:

     "That old cuss is not real. He's around here every once in a while, and always has been. Nobody knows where he lives nor where he comes from or goes to. He must have been in a good humor or you wouldn't have caught so many fish, because he can give you good luck or bad luck; and there's always something strange happenin' when you hear of him around. Last night something had one of my horses out and run him nearly to death; his mane was all tied in knots this morning, and he was wringin' wet with sweat when I went into the barn; and the barn doors were all fastened just as I had left them, too. You never can tell what's goin' to happen when that old devil's pretendin' to fish up and down the creek."

     The boy told the story to a number of people, and soon found that practically all of the old-timers thought just the same as did Joe Coberly, and that they believed that there was something mysterious and unreal about the fisherman he met at the bullhead hole.

     The boy treasured up what had been told him about the ghost fisherman, and although he had been taught at home that there were no ghosts, every story of that nature interested him. One night he was at the home of Uncle Bill Matney. It was about ten o'clock, and they were all seated around the big fire that was roaring in the fireplace. Uncle Bill was playing "Natchez Under the Hill" on the fiddle, when suddenly they heard a horse coming on a dead run over the rocky road that led toward the house. The fiddle stopped, and everybody listened, and Uncle Bill said:

     "That must be Little Jim Lynn. Nobody else IS damn fool enough to ride like that."

     Pretty soon the horse stopped by the side of the house, and they could all hear the saddle hit the ground, and then the bridle, after which the horse trotted away and Little Jim stalked into the house. As he pulled off his gloves and threw them in a corner, Uncle Bill said:

     "What the hell's the matter, Jim?"

     And Jim said:

     "O, nothing, only a damn ghost saw him down on the bluff by Mark Young's corner."

     Jim was white as death, and everybody listened, but he didn't say anything more until Uncle Bill said:

     "War he beckonin', Jim?"

     And Jim said:

     "No, he warn's beckonin', but he was there just the same."

     Uncle Bill tuned up his fiddle, and before he resumed playing, said:

     "Well, if he warn's beckonin' it's all right."

     Just at that point the boy broke in to inquire what difference it made whether the ghost was beckoning, and two or three explained to him that if a ghost beckoned to you that someone in your family would die within a year.

     The boy was just skeptic enough to have plenty of fun listening to ghost stories by people who believed or half way believed them; and it became a habit of his to bring up the subject in talking with different people, and listen to their ghost stories if any might be provoked.

     One spring he heard a ghost story that clung to him, and as he grew older and older the ghost in the story seemed more real. It was during the spring roundup of cattle, and he and an old Westerner had been riding and working together for a number of days cutting out and separating cattle, and taking some to one range and some to another, when, after a long day's ride over the hills of Wabaunsee County, they found that they were not able to reach home, and made a camp at Wakarusa falls. They boiled some coffee and fried some salt-meat, and this, together with some bread and some hard-boiled eggs, made a good supper. Afterwards they lay down with their saddles for pillows and commenced ;the usual process of talking one another to sleep. Looking up at the stars and out at their dying fire, the boy thought of the phantom fisherman and other ghosts, and asked the old ranger what he knew about such. The old fellow stretched out on the ground, and reaching over took hold of the boy, as he said:

     "Kid, I guess I've seen as many ghosts as anybody, but there's one that I never forget, and it's always comin' back to me. Years ago, when I wasn't any older than you, way back in York State, I coaxed my father and mother ever so many times to let me come out West. We had some folks living out this way, and from the letters they wrote, I was crazy to come out here. They didn't want me to come, and said I ought to go to school, and tried to make me go to school; but I wouldn't do any good in school nor at anything else, and once or twice I run away from home, and they caught me and brought me back. One day my mother called me into the house, and I noticed that my father was sitting down at the table and that there was a chair near his where she had been sitting. She asked me to sit down, and she pulled up another chair, and then she said: 'Jack, we've been talking about you, and we know that you want to go out West, and that you want to go so bad that you're not doin' any good here. Your Paw and I have talked it over, and thought it over, and prayed over it, and we think that maybe it would be best for you to go, and we're goin' to give you what we can spare and let you strike out.' We hadn't had a letter from the folks in the West for a long time, but we hunted up the old address, and Mother tied up a big bundle of clothes for me, and they gave me a railroad ticket and nine dollars and fifty cents, which was all the money they had in the house. On the day I left I started for he station on foot, and looked back many times because Father and Mother both were hanging over the gate watching me go. I don't know how many times I looked back, Kid, but I do know that I looked back enough that the looks of them has been with me all these years; and lots and lots of times it seems to me that I can see the old man as he held up his hand and yelled 'Goodbye, boy, goodbye!' and Ma right by his side. It may be that there ain't any real ghosts for some people, but them old faces are real when they come back to me. It's more than thirty years, and ever so long I thought I'd go back and see them some day, and I used to write them that I would, but I never did; and they're both gone now. Their ghost is all I have, and I kind o' like it, and wouldn't trade it off for anything in the world."

     As the story ended the stars gradually went out for the boy, and he thought no more of ghosts until morning. Since then, he has accumulated quite a number of ghosts of his own of the same kind and character as the ones that followed the old cattleman, all born of the grief of separation, and they are all real to him and have become part of his life.

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