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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

He Forsook his Nets, and Followed Him

By Annie Trumbull Slosson (1838–1926)

[Born in Stonington, Conn., 1838. Died in New York, N. Y., 1926. Fishin’ Jimmy. 1889.]

BUT one thing troubled Fishin’ Jimmy. He wanted to be a “fisher of men.” That was what the Great Teacher had promised he would make the fishermen who left their boats to follow him. What strange, literal meaning he attached to the terms, we could not tell. In vain we—especially the boys, whose young hearts had gone out in warm affection to the old man—tried to show him that he was, by his efforts to do good and make others better and happier, fulfilling the Lord’s directions. He could not understand it so. “I allers try to think,” he said, “that ’twas me in that boat when he come along. I make b’l’eve that it was out on Streeter’s Pond, an’ I was settin’ in the boat, fixin’ my lan’in’ net, when I see him on the shore. I think mebbe I’m that James—for that’s my given name, ye know, though they allers call me Jimmy—an’ then I hear him callin’ me ‘James, James.’ I can hear him jest ’s plain sometimes, when the wind ’s blowin’ in the trees, an’ I jest ache to up an’ foller him. But says he, ‘I ’ll make ye a fisher o’ men,’ an’ he aint done it. I’m waitin’; mebbe he’ll larn me some day.”

He was fond of all living creatures, merciful to all. But his love for our dog Dash became a passion, for Dash was an angler. Who that ever saw him sitting in the boat beside his master, watching with eager eye and whole body trembling with excitement the line as it was cast, the flies as they touched the surface—who can forget old Dash? His fierce excitement at rise of trout, the efforts at self-restraint, the disappointment if the prey escaped, the wild exultation if it was captured, how plainly—he who runs might read—were shown these emotions in eye, in ear, in tail, in whole quivering body! What wonder that it all went straight to the fisher’s heart of Jimmy! “I never knowed afore they could be Christians,” he said, looking, with tears in his soft, keen eyes, at the every-day scene, and with no faintest thought of irreverence. “I never knowed it, but I’d give a stiffikit o’ membership in the orthodoxest church goin’ to that dog there.”

It is almost needless to say that as years went on Jimmy came to know many “fishin’ min’sters”; for there are many of that ilk who love our mountain country, and seek it yearly. All these knew and loved the old man. And there were others who had wandered by that sea of Galilee, and fished in the waters of the Holy Land, and with them Fishin’ Jimmy dearly loved to talk. But his wonder was never-ending that, in the scheme of evangelizing the world, more use was not made of the “fishin’ side” of the story. “Haint they ever tried it on them poor heathen?” he would ask earnestly of some clerical angler casting a fly upon the clear water of pond or brook. “I should think ’twould ’a’ ben the fust thing they’d done. Fishin’ fust, an’ r’liging ’s sure to foller. An’ it’s so easy; fur heath’n mostly r’sides on islands, don’t they? So ther’s plenty o’ water, an’ o’ course ther’s fishin’; an’ oncet gin ’em poles an’ git ’em to work, an’ they’re out o’ mischief fur that day. They’d like it better ’n cannib’ling, or cuttin’ out idles, or scratchin’ picters all over theirselves, an’ bimeby—not too suddent, ye know, to scare ’em—ye could begin on that story, an’ they couldn’t stan’ that, not a heath’n on ’em. Won’t ye speak to the ’Merican Board about it, an’ sen’ out a few fishin’ mishneries, with poles an’ lines an’ tackle gen’ally? I’ve tried it on dreffle bad folks, an’ it allers done ’em good. But”—so almost all his simple talk ended—“I wish I could begin to be a fisher o’ men. I’m gettin’ on now, I’m nigh seventy, an’ I aint got much time, ye see.”

One afternoon in July there came over Franconia Notch one of those strangely sudden tempests which sometimes visit that mountain country. It had been warm that day, unusually warm for that refreshingly cool spot; but suddenly the sky grew dark and darker, almost to blackness, there was roll of thunder and flash of lightning, and then poured down the rain—rain at first, but soon hail in large frozen bullets, which fiercely pelted any who ventured out-doors, rattled against the windows of the Profile House with sharp cracks like sounds of musketry, and lay upon the piazza in heaps like snow. And in the midst of the wild storm it was remembered that two boys, guests at our hotel, had gone up Mount Lafayette alone that day. They were young boys, unused to mountain climbing, and their friends were anxious. It was found that Dash had followed them; and just as some one was to be sent in search of them, a boy from the stables brought the information that Fishin’ Jimmy had started up the mountain after them as the storm broke. “Said if he couldn’t be a fisher o’ men, mebbe he knowed nuff to ketch boys,” went on our informant, seeing nothing more in the speech, full of pathetic meaning to us who knew him, than the idle talk of one whom many considered “lackin’.” Jimmy was old now, and had of late grown very feeble, and we did not like to think of him out in that wild storm. And now suddenly the lost boys themselves appeared through the opening in the woods opposite the house, and ran in through the hail, now falling more quietly. They were wet, but no worse apparently for their adventure, though full of contrition and distress at having lost sight of the dog. He had rushed off into the woods some hours before, after a rabbit or hedgehog, and had never returned. Nor had they seen Fishin’ Jimmy.

As hours went by and the old man did not return, a search party was sent out, and guides familiar with all the mountain paths went up Lafayette to seek for him. It was nearly night when they at last found him, and the grand old mountains had put on those robes of royal purple which they sometimes assume at eventide. At the foot of a mass of rock, which looked like amethyst or wine-red agate in that marvellous evening light, the old man was lying, and Dash was with him. From the few faint words Jimmy could then gasp out, the truth was gathered. He had missed the boys, leaving the path by which they had returned, and while stumbling along in search of them, feeble and weary, he had heard far below a sound of distress. Looking down over a steep, rocky ledge, he had seen his friend and fishing-comrade, old Dash, in sore trouble. Poor Dash! He never dreamed of harming his old friend, for he had a kind heart. But he was a sad coward in some matters, and a very baby when frightened and away from master and friends. So I fear he may have assumed the role of wounded sufferer when in reality he was but scared and lonesome. He never owned this afterward, and you may be sure we never let him know by word or look the evil he had done. Jimmy saw him holding up one paw helplessly and looking at him with wistful, imploring brown eyes, heard his pitiful, whimpering cry for aid, and never doubted his great distress and peril. Was Dash not a fisherman? And fishermen, in Fishin’ Jimmy’s category, were always true and trusty. So the old man without a second’s hesitation started down the steep, smooth decline to the rescue of his friend.

We do not know just how or where in that terrible descent he fell. To us who afterward saw the spot, and thought of the weak old man, chilled by the storm, exhausted by his exertions, and yet clambering down that precipitous cliff, made more slippery and treacherous by the sleet and hail still falling, it seemed impossible that he could have kept a foothold for an instant. Nor am I sure that he expected to save himself and Dash too. But he tried. He was sadly hurt. I will not tell you of that.

Looking out from the hotel windows through the gathering darkness, we who loved him—it was not a small group—saw a sorrowful sight. Flickering lights thrown by the lanterns of the guides came through the woods. Across the road, slowly, carefully, came strong men, bearing on a rough hastily made litter of boughs the dear old man. All that could have been done for the most distinguished guest, for the dearest, best-beloved friend, was done for the gentle fisherman. We, his friends, and proud to style ourselves thus, were of different, widely separated lands, greatly varying creeds. Some were nearly as old as the dying man, some in the prime of manhood. There were youths and maidens and little children. But through the night we watched together. The old Roman bishop, whose calm, benign face we all know and love; the Churchman, ascetic in faith, but with the kindest, most indulgent heart when one finds it; the gentle old Quakeress with placid, unwrinkled brow and silvery hair; Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist,—we were all one that night. The old angler did not suffer—we were so glad of that! But he did not appear to know us, and his talk seemed strange. It rambled on quietly, softly, like one of his own mountain brooks, babbling of green fields, of sunny summer days, of his favorite sport, and ah! of other things. But he was not speaking to us. A sudden, awed hush and thrill came over us as, bending to catch the low words, we all at once understood what only the bishop put into words as he said, half to himself, in a sudden, quick, broken whisper, “God bless the man, he’s talking to his Master!”

“Yes, sir, that’s so,” went on the quiet voice; “’twas on’y a dog, sure nuff; ’twa’n’t even a boy, as ye say, an’ ye ast me to be a fisher o’ men. But I haint had no chance for that, somehow; mebbe I wa’n’t fit for ’t. I ’m on’y jest a poor old fisherman, Fishin’ Jimmy, ye know, sir. Ye useter call me James—no one else ever done it, On’y a dog? But he wa’n’t jest a common dog, sir; he was a fishin’ dog. I never seed a man love fishin’ mor ’n Dash.” The dog was in the room, and heard his name. Stealing to the bedside, he put a cold nose into the cold hand of his old friend, and no one had the heart to take him away. The touch turned the current of the old man’s talk for a moment, and he was fishing again with his dog friend. “See ’em break, Dashy! See ’em break! Lots on ’em to-day, aint they? Keep still, there’s a good dog, while I put on a diffunt fly. Don’t ye see they ’re jumpin’ at them gnats? Aint the water jest ’live with ’em? Aint it shinin’ an’ clear an’—” The voice faltered an instant, then went on: “Yes, sir, I ’m comin’—I ’m glad, dreffle glad to come. Don’t mind ’bout my leavin’ my fishin’; do ye think I care ’bout that? I ’ll jest lay down my pole ahin’ the alders here, an’ put my lan’in’ net on the stuns, with my flies an’ tackle—the boys ’ll like ’em, ye know—an’ I ’ll be right along.

“I mos’ knowed ye was on’y a-tryin’ me when ye said that ’bout how I hadn’t been a fisher o’ men, nor even boys, on’y a dog. ’Twas a—fishin’ dog—ye know—an’ ye was allers dreffle good to fishermen,—dreffle good to—everybody; died—for ’em, didn’t ye?—

“Please wait—on—the bank there, a minnit; I’m comin’ ’crost. Water ’s pretty—cold this—spring—an’ the stream ’s risin’—but—I—can—do it;—don’t ye mind—’bout me, sir. I’ll get acrost.” Once more the voice ceased, and we thought we should not hear it again this side that stream.

But suddenly a strange light came over the thin face, the soft gray eyes opened wide, and he cried out, with the strong voice we had so often heard come ringing out to us across the mountain streams above the sound of their rushing: “Here I be, sir! It ’s Fishin’ Jimmy, ye know, from Francony way; him ye useter call James when ye come ’long the shore o’ the pond an’ I was a-fishin’. I heern ye agin, jest now—an’ I—straightway—f’sook—my—nets—an’—follered—”

Had the voice ceased utterly? No, we could catch faint, low murmurs and the lips still moved. But the words were not for us; and we did not know when he reached the other bank.