Jethro Creighton, the protagonist, is young and idealistic when the Civil War begins. At first he thinks the war will be neat, full of marching soldiers and demonstrative patriotism. He learns the realities of war soon enough as he watches his three brothers, his cousin, and his teacher go off to fight. One of his brothers, Bill, chooses to fight for the South in a decision that plagues him for a long time. Jethro and his family follow the progress of the war through the newspapers, but it is hard to tell exactly what is happening. Each day the paper is full of praise or criticism for one of the Union generals, and Jethro has trouble sorting out what is actually going on.
One day Jethro's parents ask him to take the team of horses fifteen miles into town to get supplies. Jethro, excited to prove his responsibility, goes to town, makes his purchases, and then talks to some men at the store.
One of the men asks Jethro about Bill and gets angry at the prospect of Bill's betrayal. Jethro stands by Bill, and, later, the editor of the town paper, Ross Milton, takes Jethro to lunch to apologize. Milton and Jethro begin a friendship that lasts throughout the book.
On the way home, Jethro is stopped by Mr. Burdow, the father of the boy who killed Jethro's sister, Mary. Mr. Burdow rides with Jethro for a while, and initially Jethro is scared, but Mr. Burdow explains that he thinks one of the men from the store is waiting for Jethro down the road. They encounter the man, and Mr. Burdow is able to prevent him from hurting Jethro. Jethro makes it home and tells his family about the encounter.
The men from the store begin to haunt the...