Ada and Ruby walk into town, even though it’s raining. They’re on a mission to buy supplies for plowing: scythes, horseshoes, etc. Ruby notices crows flying through the sky, and suggests that they’re an omen of something bad. Ada is too tired to pay much attention to her—she’s been working very hard for the whole week.
Again, we see the symbol of birds representing—or else not representing!—the future. Where before Ada was willing to argue with Ruby about the significance of the birds, here she’s too tired to bother. This signals that Ada is losing herself in her work, but also being influenced by Ruby more and more.
In town, Ada and Ruby buy powder, caps, and other ammunition materials. They also buy a copy of Adam Bede by George Eliot. In one store, Ada listens to an old woman named Mrs. McKennet brag about the heroism of the Southern troops, as reported in the local newspaper. As she listens, Ada can tell very clearly that the newspaper stories about the battles are propaganda. Ruby tells Ada that she’s uninterested in the war—the entire country is the same, anyway: just a “godless land” of greedy people.
At the beginning of this chapter, we’re presented with two different kinds of superstition: the superstition that says that a flock of birds can predict the future, and the superstition that claims that Southern soldiers, because of their culture and pride, are immune to military defeat. Interesting, Ruby accepts the former superstition but rejects the latter.
Ada and Ruby walk through town, and come across a handcuffed captive telling a story about having killed dozens of Federal soldiers. After returning from his first battles, the captive claims to have “unvolunteered,” hence his imprisonment. It was the Home Guard that arrested him, the prisoner clarifies.
In a way, the handcuffed captive could be said to represent desertion itself, in all its moral ambiguity. One can’t call the captive brave for stealing away from the Confederate army, but it’s pretty hard to condemn him, either. Interestingly, Inman himself almost never thinks or talks about the moral dilemma of desertion—so even though military desertion is an important aspect of the text, it’s mostly discussed via minor characters.
The captive continues his tale, and Ruby and Ada listen. In vivid detail, the captive sets the scene: his father, an old man, stands outside the house, waving an old, fancy-looking pistol at the Home Guard horsemen. The old man addresses one of the horsemen as Teague, and asks him about the two black horsemen. Teague grins and doesn’t respond. When the old man orders the horsemen to dismount, everyone but Teague does so. Teague explains that he and his friends are looking for “outliers” in the area. As Teague speaks, a man named Ayron—one of the other horsemen—attacks the old man, snatching the gun out of his hands. Ayron, his friend Byron, and Teague beat the old man.
Teague—the primary “antagonist” of the book—seems to represent the worst of the Old South world, in which the authority of a white man over black subordinates isn’t questioned. We’ve been told that Teague and his followers are just cowards, too frightened to actually fight in the Civil War themselves. That interpretation seems validated by what we see in this story: Teague seems to be enjoying the experience of intimidating the old man. Capturing and killing deserters is his sadistic pleasure, not his duty.
After Ayron, Teague, and Byron finish beating the old man they approach the old house he was defending. A few moments later, they come out, dragging a “captive” with them. (At this point in the text, the narrator begins describing this group as “The Guard.”) They drag the captive, who’s struggling desperately, away from his house, tying him up and gagging him as they do. They playfully argue about the best way to hang their victim. Then Birch, one of the other Home Guard horsemen, suggests that they bring the captive in to jail, for the sake of variety. Reluctantly, the other horsemen agree.
The motives of the Guard (or of Teague and his men at least—in theory the Home Guard were supposed to be a last line of defense against the Union) are revealed in this scene. While the Guardsmen seem to be arguing amongst themselves, we get the sense that they’re talking in order to intimidate their prisoner: perhaps they’ve already made up their minds to arrest him. Of course, it’s also possible that Birch, a younger and less sadistic member of the Home Guard, genuinely wants to spare the captive’s life.
The captive finishes his story. Ada and Ruby are shocked by what they’ve heard—they can’t decide whether the captive was exaggerating or not. Afterwards, they walk back from town. On the way home, they notice a beautiful bird—a heron. Ada has the powerful sense that the heron is a “solitary pilgrim,” and feels like she’s remembering something she saw long ago. She can’t decide if the heron is offering her a blessing or a warning.
In this section, Ada seems to be picking up Ruby’s fondness for signs and prophecies. And yet Ada seems more critical about her own need for prophecy than Ruby was: in other words, Ada questions what the sight of the heron really signals (she lists two contradictory interpretations of the bird), and even implies that it might not mean anything.
Ruby tells Ada about her childhood, during which she saw plenty of herons. In fact, Ruby’s mother told her father, Stobrod, that it was a heron that impregnated her, not Stobrod himself. This reminds Ada of her own parents. She remembers Monroe marrying her mother late in life, when Monroe was 45 years old; Ada’s mother was 36. Ada imagines that she was the product of “some sad miscalculation.”
Ada’s encounter with the heron actually brings her closer to Ruby, since Ruby has her own emotional associations with the bird. Frazier’s point seems to be that prophecy or belief, whether factually “true” or not, has a kind of emotional truth in that it brings people together and can give someone a sense of purpose in life.
Ada remembers a day shortly before Monroe’s death. She and her father were reading Emerson together. Suddenly, Monroe launched into a story about how he met Ada’s mother—information he’d never shared with her before. Monroe met Ada’s mother when she was only sixteen years old. He saw her for the first time when she was riding a horse, and thought that she looked beautiful. Shortly afterwards, Monroe began courting this woman, whose name was Claire Dechutes. Claire’s father didn’t exactly disapprove of Monroe’s courtship, but he also insisted that Claire wait until her eighteenth birthday to get married. Monroe agreed to this arrangement: he’d wait two years for Claire.
In return for the information Ruby shares with Ada about the heron, Ada gives Ruby (and us) information about her own parents. Previously, we didn’t know anything about Ada’s mother. But Ruby’s honesty about her own circumstances, as well as Ada’s thoughts about the meaning of the heron “sign,” have inspired Ada to open up about her own life. There’s a sense that by talking about her past, Ada is getting over her insecurities and traumas, and becoming more of an adult in the process.
Monroe continued telling Ada about his relationship with Claire. After nearly two years had passed, Monroe caught Claire kissing another man. Furious and confused, Monroe rode away, and decided to book a trip to England by ship. When he returned from his trip, he found that Claire had gone to live in France with her new suitor. Dismayed, Monroe resolved to devote himself to studying the Bible and being a good minister.
This is a strange portion of the text, because it’s a story within a story (within a story): Frazier is telling us about Ada telling Ruby about Monroe telling Ada about Claire. This creates the sense that Ada is still trapped by her memories of her father—sucked into the past.
Nineteen years after leaving Claire, Monroe returned to the Dechutes home to find that Claire was back—her husband had been a cruel man. Monroe then proposed marriage to Claire, and she accepted. She died in childbirth shortly thereafter. Back in the present, Ada remembers listening to Monroe telling her this story, awestruck.