Stobrod, Pangle, and a third man climb the lobe of a mountain. They all have digestive problems from venison they have eaten the day before and often have to rush off into the bushes. The men find level ground and pause, determining which way they should go. The third man is identified as a fellow outlier, a boy of seventeen from Georgia whose cousin recently died atop Cold Mountain. Stobrod and Pangle are looking to start their own community near the Shining Rocks. They gather provisions that Ruby and Ada left for them underneath a stone covered with strange markings.
The men discuss which trail to take. Stobrod decides that they should eat a meal before deciding how to proceed. The boy disappears into a thicket on account of his “scours” from the venison while Stobrod dozes in front of the fire. He awakens to find a troop of Home Guard with their weapons drawn on him. Teague tells the men he knows they’re deserters and that he’s looking for the outliers’ cave. Stobrod lies to Teague and gives a false location, but Pangle reveals where the cave is when Teague questions him. Teague and his men cook breakfast. Stobrod tells Teague what he’s been up to and then plays some tunes with Pangle for entertainment. Birch calls the musicians “holy men” before Teague tells them to stand in front of a nearby poplar. Stobrod holds his fiddle proudly in front of him while Pangle gives his executioners a friendly smile. Unnerved, Teague orders Pangle to hold his hat in front of his face before the guards shoot both him and Stobrod.
The Georgia boy recounts the tale of Stobrod’s and Pangle’s deaths to Ada and Ruby. Ada asks the boy why he wasn’t killed, and he explains that he was hiding in the thicket. Ada asks him to show them the way after promising to feed him. Ruby displays no sign of emotion; she decides that the men should be buried up the mountain. Ruby explains to the boy the route he needs to take to get home. The women plan their journey and decide they will have to spend a night in the woods. They dress in Monroe’s old clothes and leave the farm.
Ada and Ruby walk through the gloomy woods. Ada disagrees with her father’s theological reasoning that everything in the world holds its own heavenly meaning. It starts snowing and the women search for shelter. Ruby finds a camp that she remembers from her childhood. The women eat and rest underneath a stone shelter. They find traces of ancient civilizations, including fragments of arrowheads in the ashes of the fire. Ada watches the patterns of light thrown by the fire. Ruby argues that mankind never advances, but loses something for everything that it gains.
The next day the women reach the trail fork and find Pangle. They decide to bury him near a chestnut tree, and Ada hopes that the locust cross they use will grow and tell a tale like Persephone’s, with “black bark in winter” and white flowers in the spring. Ada finds Stobrod, who is still breathing. Ruby removes the bullet from his chest. The women descend into the valley and set up camp in an old Cherokee village. They put Stobrod to bed in one cabin and stable Ralph in another. Ada stares at the fire and feels overcome by loneliness.
In the chapter “naught and grief,” music appears to provide a measure of harmony if not logic in a world of insensible changes. Teague and the Home Guard are moved by Stobrod and Pangle’s performance, although they shoot the musicians nonetheless. This brutal act is committed out of fear and a lack of understanding, and it foreshadows Inman’s eventual death.
Trails and pathways feature heavily in “naught and grief” and in “black bark in winter,” continuing a motif of orienteering that runs throughout the novel. For example, in the previous chapter, “a vow to bear,” Inman returns home by following an old trail into the mountains. Similarly, in “naught and grief,” Stobrod and Pangle search for the path to Shining Rocks. Later, Ada and Ruby plan their own trail into the mountains, and Ruby tells the young man the way to Georgia. In following historic routes that others have trod before him, each character belongs to both the present and the past—each effectively becomes a timeless traveler. Both the men and the women find Cold Mountain covered with traces of an older civilization. Arrowheads, “Indian” trails and stone slabs covered with ancient writing symbolize a lost world that time has placed out of reach. Frazier uses these archeological objects to reintroduce the idea of man as a being who leaves only traces of his presence in the world. This chapter questions whether man evolves or regresses over time, or whether things simply change. Ruby’s philosophy is clear—she thinks that mankind loses and gains as time passes and that men and women will be lucky to “break even” in the future.
Ada’s contemplation of the congruence of heaven and earth, and of the deeper meaning behind seasonal changes, contrasts with Ruby’s philosophy. Ada remembers her father’s tendency to allegorize every feature of nature after consulting a book written for this purpose. According to his book, everything has its own deeper meaning. For example, a crow would represent the “dark forces” waiting to take over a man’s soul. Ada rejects such allegorical interpretations of the world, as she now regards information from books to “lack something essential.” In this way, Frazier shows how Ada has grown to trust her own senses and to intuit rather than reason out truths about the world.
Frazier suggests that Ada equates change with uncertainty. Clearly troubled, Ada stares into fires and has visions in her dreams. For example, she considers whether past inhabitants of the abandoned Cherokee village ever predicted that they would be forced into exile. She remembers lyrics from one of Stobrod’s songs about a mole and the agony of lost love. The wonder and horror of the song unsettle her. Ada seems deeply perturbed by the sliding scale of life’s experiences—its pleasures, pains, and unaccountable changes. Although the female protagonist is happy on the farm, her anxiety for Inman clouds her contentment. Even the landscape suggests this duality as pristine snow falls around black trees. Like life itself, the world is filled with stark contrasts.