Across Five Aprils

by Irene Hunt

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Chapter 5 Summary

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Coffee is in short supply by late March, 1862. To her shame, Ellen depends upon the strong drink and is subject to debilitating headaches if she does not have it. Determined to "suffer it out," she gamely attempts to abstain, but her malaise is so great that Matt cannot stand to witness it; he sends Jethro down to Newton to get some coffee for his mother, as well as other much-needed supplies. It is fifteen miles to the town, and Jethro, who is ten-years-old now, is proud that his father trusts him to take on such a "sizable job."

Jethro sets out in the early dawn. His spirits are high, and people getting about their morning chores wave to him in greeting. An old man, Jake Roscoe, stops him on the way, and, in answer to his query, Jethro identifies himself as "Matt Creighton's youngest boy." Roscoe asks Jethro to fetch him a paper in town, and gives him a coin; his grandson is fighting for the North at Pea Ridge, and the old man is hoping to find some news about the battle. Roscoe has heard that Jethro's "growed-up brothers" are fighting for the Union too, and that another brother, Bill, has "jined up with the Rebs." With an insinuating smirk, he calls that latter bit of conjecture "a sorry thing."

After leaving Mr. Roscoe, Jethro must pass through a stretch of woods, and a quarter of a mile beyond that is the ramshackle Burdow place. Remembering his sister Mary's death, the boy is seized with a feeling of uneasiness, and is relieved when he finally arrives at Newton. As instructed by his father, Jethro goes first to the mill, then to the general store to complete his errands. A group of men are loitering at the store and when they discover that the young customer is a Creighton, one of them, Guy Wortman, makes disparaging comments about Bill. Jethro defends his brother's integrity, and is backed by Red Milton, the newspaper editor, and Sam Gardiner, the store owner. Dave Burdow, the father of the boy who caused Mary Creighton's death, is present too, but walks out without saying a word.

When Jethro is finished with his chores, Red Milton treats him to lunch at the town's restaurant, to the young boy's delight. Jethro tells Milton that he is reading a book about the American Revolution, and is "beginnin' to git the hang of the newspapers a little better," and the editor, impressed with the boy's hunger for learning, offers him a copy of a book that will teach him to speak "the King's English" correctly. Milton then helps Jethro get his team and supplies situated, and although he does not think the belligerent men in the store will actually cause any trouble, he warns him to be careful on the trip home.

It is sundown by the time Jethro reaches the Burdow place and the isolated stretch of woods which lie beyond. The boy is overcome by a vague sense of dread, which seems to be validated when a lone man on horseback appears by the side of the road and steps in front of the wagon. Curtly, the man mutters, "Like to ride with ye a piece," and, leading his own horse by a strap, climbs up onto the seat. The man is Dave Burdow.

The two ride on in silence, and Jethro shudders with fear and revulsion. Burdow reassures him gruffly, saying, "I ain't aimin' to hurt ye none." No further words are spoken until the wagon is in the deepest part of the woods. Reaching...

(This entire section contains 885 words.)

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for the reins, the man explains in a voice that is as sad as it is angry, that he had heard Guy Wortman threaten to lie in wait "fer a youn 'un on his way home," and had then seen him pass drunkenly by on the road a short time ago. Sure enough, as the wagon approaches the bridge at the end of the brush, a shadowy figure leaps out and cracks a long whip across the backs of the horses; the frightened creatures plunge and kick, but with the strong hands of Dave Burdow on the reins, they are quickly calmed, and tragedy is averted. In the confusion, Wortman's horse gets loose and, riderless, races away. Jethro will be safe now; Wortman cannot pursue him.

A short distance past the Roscoe place, Dave Burdow stops the team and climbs off the wagon. As he mounts his own horse and heads back down the road, Jethro manages to call out "I'm obleeged," but the man gives no sign of having heard. Exhausted almost beyond endurance, Jethro sits numbly on the wagon seat for the last few miles of the journey, while the horses make their way on their own. At last, he sees the light from the kitchen window at home; the door bursts open, and his family runs outside to welcome him. 

After everything is unloaded, Jethro sits at the table with his parents and Jenny and tells them about the day's happenings. At first, he focuses on the easy things, but at the very end, he shares the most important part of his story, his encounter with Guy Wortman, and the kindness done for him by another, most unlikely character, "Trav Burdow's pa."

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