History Mystery #9: Watcher in the Piney Woods

Author: Elizabeth McDavid Jones

Illustrators: Jean-Paul Tibbles and Greg Dearth

Publishing Year: 2000

Setting:  Virginia, spring 1865


Times are tough for twelve-year-old Cassie Willis and her family. Her seventeen-year-old brother Jacob enlisted in the Confederate Army three years ago, and her father was drafted last year. It's getting harder for her mother to feed the large family--Cassie and her other siblings, sixteen-year-old Emma, fourteen-year-old Philip, and four-year-old Ben. Cassie's out foraging for poke greens when a neighbor comes back from town. The store has few supplies, but he was able to get some flour and salt. Plus he's brought a letter from Jacob! Cassie hurries home to give the letter to her mother, eager to hear what her brother has to say.

But the letter isn't from Jacob. It's from a soldier in his regiment. Jacob died in a battle. Grief-stricken, Cassie runs into the woods, to a secret thicket only she and Jacob know about. She finds herself in the camp of a deserter, who threatens Cassie to show him where she lives so he can take some food and supplies. Her dog jumps in to defend Cassie and she runs to hide in a series of caves that Quakers had used to hide runaway slaves. She stays all night. Alone--the yelp she heard from her dog as she ran probably means the deserter used his knife. When she returns home, she tells her mother everything. Ben pipes up that maybe the deserter stole the cake he was punished for taking. Cassie's mother doesn't think so, but is worried about the deserter nonetheless.

The next brings a variety of news. The deserter's camp, checked out by the neighbor who got supplies from town, is empty. He must have been scared off. Cassie's dog is alive, though wounded, and the neighbor brings him home to Cassie to recuperate. AND General Lee surrendered. The Civil War is over, and soldiers will start returning home--Cassie's father will be on his way, but of course not Jacob. Both the neighbor and Cassie's mother warn the children that tensions are still high and supplies are still low. They need to be on guard. Cassie and her siblings get to work on spring cleaning, in anticipation of their father's arrival. Cassie can't shake the feeling that someone is watching her. Especially when things other than cake go missing--Ben still says he's innocent of the cake theft, and there's really no reason why he'd taken a worn-out pair of pants and a chicken. One night, Cassie's dog gets up, growling into the dark. Cassie and Philip hear someone in the barn, and go to investigate. A boy calls out that he's just staying the night out of the rain. Cassie gets a glimpse of him--he's a Northern soldier.

The soldier, named Gus, is starving. He was a prisoner of war who tunneled out, and is trying to make his way home to Ohio. He denies having taken anything, and says he only just arrived at the barn that night. To Cassie's shock, Philip agrees to give Gus some food and show him the secret caves so he can get north. Cassie can't believe Philip would help a Yankee soldier after one killed their bother. But Philip counters that if a Yankee had found Jacob, wounded on the battlefield, and helped him, he would have lived. So Cassie agrees to help, for Jacob. But Cassie can't help feeling that helping Gus that much is treason. She's about to voice her concerns to Philip on their way back from the caves when he surprises her by revealing that his help was a lie--he's going to alert the Confederate soldiers at a fort nearby. Now Cassie's even more conflicted, because while aiding an enemy soldier seems wrong, it seems to worse to outright lie and betray a desperate person's trust.

The next night, Cassie and Philip go back to the cave where Gus is hiding. One the way out, Cassie notices Jacob's mug is gone--either tucked away by her mother because of painful memories, or brazenly stolen. They bring him some food--plus Philip wants to be sure he's still there before he gets the Confederate soldiers. Gus, unaware of the plan, gratefully accepts the food and warns them that he's seen another man in the area, possibly hiding in the caves. Gus describes his clothes, and Cassie recognizes them as the missing ones. The deserter has found their home, and is taking things! At daybreak, they find the cave he's been using, an especially well-hidden one, with the remains of the missing chicken. Cassie leads the trio to the secret thicket where she first evidence (a uniform button) of the deserter. There they find a whole uniform stashed away. Cassie stakes out the thicket while Philip goes to check on the rest of the family (Gus retreats to hide in a cave, to avoid Confederate troops). After what seems like forever, someone enters the thicket. It's Jacob.

The letter was wrong. Jacob wasn't in that battle at all; the soldier who died must have been someone else. Jacob was knocked unconscious in a different battle, and nursed back to healthy by a kind woman who reminded him of his mother. Tired of war and longing for his family, he deserted. But when he got close to home, he couldn't face disgracing his family by having himself known as a deserter. So he took some things, including his mug and the cake, and prepared to head to Texas or California.

Cassie's able to convince to come home for a bit. He stays a fortnight, helping with some planting and other things, then leaves for California. He can't be deterred from believing that it's the best thing. A short time later, Cassie's father returns safely. The family still isn't whole, but at least they know Jacob's alive.

A Peek into the Past

The historical section is about the Civil War, and how many of those fighting for the Confederacy didn't necessarily support slavery, but were fighting to defend their homes from those they viewed as invaders--states were more independent of each other than (probably the most famous example of this the leader of the Confederate troops, General Robert E. Lee--he didn't believe in slavery but fought for Virginia). Many soldiers on both sides were poor, and often enlisted very young, even as young as eleven. As the war dragged on, resources dwindled. Soldiers gradually got fewer and fewer rations and clothing, and violated the Bill of Rights by taking things from private citizens, who themselves had next-to-nothing. Soldiers started  deserting, eventually in such numbers that the Confederate Army couldn't sustain itself. The Civil War ended  in April of 1865, after four long and bloody years.


Dedicated to "my parents, Bill and Joanne Huggins, and my grandparents, Murl and Ruth Glenn Huggins."

The "eye for an eye" thing is meant as the upper limit to punishment. The Code of  Hammurabi allowed punishments greater than the crime in some instances, when the perpetrator was of a lower social class than the victim. The Torah specified that the punishment should never exceed the damage of the crime.

I hope Ben got a big apology when the real cake thief was revealed.

With the war over, it's weird that Jacob wouldn't stay another week or so to see his father. He tells Philip that always felt their father didn't have a strong bond with him, but still. Sad.

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