Chapter 9 Summary
The deserters who descend upon southern Illinois are a fearsome bunch, intent on keeping themselves hidden from authorities and subsisting on whatever they can forage in the woods or pilfer from local farms. They are armed, and, in their desperate struggle to survive, create an atmosphere of terror for the Creightons and others who live in the area. It is not long before a murder occurs. A ne'er do well named Hig Phillips, who had avoided the draft by hiring someone to go to war for him, is killed in the dead of night by a band of runaway soldiers. They are furious that he has sat around at home for no reason other than sheer laziness for the past two years, while they have borne the unspeakable burden of war.
One night in early 1863, representatives from the Federal Registrars come to the Creighton farm hunting down "deserters from the United States Army." They are looking for Ebenezer Carron, who has gone missing from the 17th Illinois Infantry and is believed to be making his way home. Although Matt Creighton asserts that the family has not heard from Eb for some time, the soldiers search the premises. They find nothing, but before they leave, one of them warns Jethro that if Eb should show up, he is to contact the Office of the Federal Registrars in Chicago immediately, or he and his family "will be up to [their] necks in trouble."
Spring comes early that year, and by the first of March, the fields are ready to be plowed. While Jethro is working over at John's place one morning, he hears the repeated call of a wild turkey emanating from the bordering woods. When the boy goes to investigate, he encounters a filthy, skeletal figure: it is Eb, who is indeed a fugitive from the law.
At first, Jethro remembers only that Eb is family, and extends his hand, but the ragged soldier refuses to take it. Eb fully understands his own grave predicament, and knows that the family will get into "awful trouble" if they harbor him. He is ashamed of what he has done, but explains bitterly:
I come because I couldn't help myself...There be things that air too terr'ble to talk about—and you want to see the fields where you used to be happy...you go crazy fer an hour or so—and then you don't dare go back.
Eb had been at Pittsburg Landing with Tom. He recalls that the day before the fateful battle, he and Tom had been "in good spirits...laughin' and carryin' on like...the old days back home." When Tom was killed, something in Eb had died too, and, in a moment of utter despondency, he had made the fateful choice to leave his unit. Now that he is thinking a little more clearly, Eb wishes he could just return to his "old outfit and pitch into the fightin' agin." He would then at least have a chance at survival; as it is, if he returns, or is caught, he will be shot as a deserter. Despairingly, he laments, "There's no place on this earth fer me to go."
Jethro brings Eb some blankets, and smuggles him food whenever he can. Over the next few days, the boy, at only eleven-years-old, wrestles with a moral dilemma that would confound men of far greater age and experience. On the one hand, he knows that by helping Eb, he is endangering his family and breaking the law, but on the other hand, he feels sympathizes with his scared and hopeless cousin....
(The entire section is 896 words.)