Inman follows the banks of Deep River at night. He sees a light ahead and worries that it is the Home Guard. Instead, he finds that it is a man who is about to throw a white bundle down the river gorge. The man thinks that Inman is a message from God. Inman pulls a gun on the man, who says that he is a preacher who has drugged his pregnant lover and was about to throw her into the gorge in order to kill her. Inman ties the man up and instructs him to lead them to his town. Inman cuts his thumb on the wire binding the horse’s lead rope.
On the way back, the preacher reveals details of his affair. He states that he is engaged to someone else and that he would be exiled from his community if his infidelity were discovered. Inman sees that Orion has risen and remembers identifying a star in this constellation the night of the battle at Fredericksburg. The boy he shared this information with was dismissive of worldly knowledge, arguing that it lead to the carnage displayed on the battlefield. Although Inman had disagreed with the boy at the time, he now considers whether the boy might have been correct.
Inman can’t decide what to with the preacher, and he tells him so. At the town, Inman gags his captive and ties him to a tree. Inman carries the woman to her bed in the cabin she shares with her grandmother. The girl wakes up, and Inman learns that her name is Laura. He tells her to go back to sleep and warns her against the preacher. Inman writes a letter detailing the preacher’s criminal intentions and “skewers” it to the tree above his head. He leaves the town and sleeps in a pine bower.
When he awakens, Inman cleans his pistol and thinks how easily fighting comes to him. He leaves in the afternoon and continues walking. After an hour, Inman meets two slaves and follows the scent of meat to a camp filled by people as “Ishmaelite as himself.” He eats stew, and watches a dark-haired woman ride a horse across the river. The woman reminds him of Ada. Inman shares frog legs with a band of gypsy boys and buys a bottle of Moet. He drinks some champagne and then goes in search of another meal from a man in charge of “show folk.” Inman watches the man throw knives at the dark-haired woman. Later, the troupe eats beefsteaks and shares stories.
Inman is distracted by the beautiful woman and goes into the woods to rest. He reads a passage from Bartram’s Travels about the rhododendron plant and drinks the last of the champagne. Inman’s thoughts drift to Laura and how it felt to carry her when he did. He then thinks about the Christmas party and the conversation he had with Ada as she sat on his knee. Inman examined her hand for signs of the future but had found no “tidings” on it.
Inman falls asleep and dreams about Ada dressed in white with a black shawl. He tells her he is coming home and is never letting her go. Inman awakens to find the camp gone but sets off with lifted spirits, having had a pleasant dream.
Ruby and Ada hoe the garden and pull weeds. Ruby shares her belief in the “rule of the heavens” and how everything has grown in accordance with the “signs.” Although Ada recognizes that Monroe would have dismissed these signs as superstitious, she sees them as metaphors.
A group of pilgrim women and children arrive from Tennessee. They say they are fleeing Federals who have burned their houses down. Ada and Ruby make them dinner. The next day, the pilgrims leave, and Ruby and Ada eat lunch in the orchard. Ruby tells Ada that she has learned everything she knows from observing nature and talking to old women and to Sally Swanger. Ruby shares some of her theories about nature, and Ada thinks about her own views of the world.
In the evening, Ada lets her mind drift and tells Ruby about the last party she attended in Charleston at her cousin Lucy’s house. She wore a mauve dress that Monroe bought for her and went boating on the river with a man named Blount. Blount confessed that he was scared about the war, but Ada only could stroke his hand in response. On reentering the house, Ada became jealous of the confident woman she saw in the mirror, before she realized it was herself. Later, Ada found out that Blount had been shot in the face while walking backwards for fear of getting shot in the back.
Ada finishes her tale and thinks about Monroe’s belief that the landscape around Cold Mountain is a reflection of another world. Ada decides that the physical world is all there is and goes to put her cow, Waldo, away.
The chapter “like anything else, a gift” introduces the opposition between darkness and light. Inman stumbles across a man dressed in black who is about to kill an innocent woman dressed entirely in white. However, Frazier’s narrative suggests that morality is not as clear-cut as this diametric symbolism might suggest. For Inman, there is a blurring between good and evil as he ponders what moral action he should take. By his own admission, Inman does not want to be “smirched” by other people’s mistakes. Nonetheless, Inman is forced to witness the preacher’s guilty confession and becomes embroiled in the man’s moral dilemma. Throughout the novel, Frazier shows how Inman’s instinct to do the right thing remains strong, even when he is required to kill to ensure his own survival.
Frazier introduces an element of light-hearted humor in this chapter. The preacher describes his assignations with Laura as “sport in a hayrick.” When he states that he “anguished” over the situation on many nights, Inman responds that those must have been rainy nights when the hayricks were wet. Not only do such jokes enliven the text and emphasize the preacher’s foolhardiness, they show that Inman has a sense of humor. Although it would appear to undermine the tragic focus of this chapter—an attempted murder—Frazier uses humor to highlight the light and dark aspects of human nature.
Inman meets a succession of female characters (beginning with the ferry girl in “the color of despair”) that remind him of Ada. His reaction to each woman is one of suppressed longing, suggesting that he views her as an apparition of, rather than a replacement for, his distant lover. Frazier underscores Inman’s fidelity to Ada; Inman does not attempt to satisfy his longing with the women he sees, although they elicit responses of buried desire. Inman’s yearning for emotional and romantic solace is conveyed in his subsequent dream of Ada, in which he vows never to part from her.
The “ashes of roses” chapter incorporates the theme of Christian belief or received wisdom as opposed to intuition. Ada disagrees with her father’s theology that nature’s elements are mere “tokens” of another world. In addition, the pilgrims provide a background context for the war as they criticize the Federals for their cruelty. However, Frazier does not seem to be making an overt political point. The pilgrims symbolize the displacement brought about by war as their enforced journeying contrasts with Ada’s newfound domestication. Ada herself is connected to the war only through the act of listening to other people’s stories, past and present. She cannot assuage Blount’s fear because she would consider such comfort artificial. Thus, while she is beginning to find contentment through industry, Ada, like Inman, bears witness to the cold realities of other people’s lives.