Chapter 1 Summary
On a bright April morning in 1861, nine-year-old Jethro Creighton is planting potatoes with his mother Ellen on their farm in southern Illinois. The thin, blond-haired boy is the youngest of twelve, although four of his siblings are dead, and the oldest left for California twelve years previously and has not been heard from since. Jethro was born in 1852, that terrible year when three of the Creighton children succumbed to the disease known as "child paralysis," or polio. Because of this, Ellen favors the boy, watching over him with "special tenderness."
Around seven o'clock, young Shadrach Yale passes by, driving a wagon. Shadrach, a serious, "powerfully built youth of twenty," comes from Philadelphia, and is the schoolmaster at the country school. Shad works for Jethro's father Matt during the summer, and Ellen considers him to be part of the family. The young man is smitten by Jethro's fourteen-year-old sister Jenny, and has a great appreciation for Jethro's "quick mind and delight in learning."
Ostensibly, Shad is going into town to fetch some supplies, but in reality, the objective of his trip is to get information from the outside world. Times are turbulent, and there is talk about war. Shad stops to reassure Ellen, who is anxious about the news he might bring. Jethro, however, like the eighteen-year-olds Tom and Eb, is excited at the prospect of war, and is impatient for it to begin.
Like so many of the young men of his time, Jethro has a romantic notion about war. He thinks war means:
...loud brass music and shining horses ridden by men wearing [fine] uniforms...some men were killed, of course, [but he] never doubted that if Tom and Eb got their chance to go to war, they'd be back home when it was over, and that it would be shadowy men from distant parts who would die for the pages of future history books.
It is not that Jethro is unfamiliar with death: he remembers clearly when his sister Mary had been killed two years ago. Mary had been on her way home from a dance in nearby Hidalgo, when the wagon driven by her beau was accosted by a drunken youth named Travis Burdow. Maliciously firing his pistol into the air, Travis had caused the horses to bolt; the wagon then overturned, and Mary was pulled, lifeless, from the wreckage. The Burdow family was looked upon as "a shiftless lot" already, and the community had reacted with outrage. But for the intercession of Matt Creighton, Travis Burdow would have been hunted down and lynched.
Although he has the utmost respect for his father's integrity and judgment, Jethro cannot understand how his parent could have allowed his sister's murderer to have escaped the consequences of his actions. Jethro is similarly frustrated with Abraham Lincoln, whom he believes is dragging his feet in the face of inevitable war. When he expresses his feelings about the president, particularly to his mother, Ellen thinks carefully before responding simply:
He's like a man standin' where two roads meet...and...
(The entire section is 785 words.)