Ada and Ruby walk into town. They observe and identify different birds. Ruby expresses her admiration for the crow, approving its cunning and ability to “relish what presents itself.” Ada feels gloomy but explains her gloominess as a result of the manual work she’s been doing, such as hay cutting, and the fact that it’s raining. The women purchase supplies from the hardware store, and Ada buys Adam Bede from the stationers. They eat lunch by the river, before heading off to visit Mrs. McKennet, a local widow. Mrs. McKennet amuses Ada by recounting sensationalized war stories that she insists are true. Ada states that she finds war “degrading,” and Mrs. McKennet affectionately calls her naïve. Ruby expresses her disinterest with regard to the conflict and dismisses Northerners as people who only worship money.
On the way home, Ada and Ruby pass the courthouse and stop to hear a captive narrate his tale. The prisoner describes how he was forcibly removed from his father’s farm by a team of the Home Guard, led by the sadistic Teague. One of Teague’s men killed the captive’s father by impaling him with a sword; then Teague’s other men ran three outliers out of the fodder crib. The captive was the only man to survive because he surrendered. Teague had considered hanging him anyway, but Birch, one of Teague’s men, dissuaded him from doing so, saying it would look better if they brought someone in occasionally.
The man concludes his tale by stating that the world won’t last long. Ada and Ruby return home, arguing whether one should take an optimistic or pessimistic view of the world. Ruby stops talking when she sees a heron. The women disagree over the bird’s intentions before it flies off, and Ada sketches it from memory. Ruby tells Ada a story Stobrod told her, in which he suggested that her real father was actually a heron. In running to get away from the lusty bird, Ruby’s mother crawled under the bed, got stuck, and was impregnated from behind. This story reminds Ada of Monroe’s tale about how he wooed her mother, which she shares with Ruby.
Monroe had stopped to water his horse at a house outside of Charleston. He had fallen in love with the beautiful woman who had questioned him. He later found out that her name was Claire Dechutes and that her father was French. Monroe wooed Claire with her father’s permission, on the condition that they marry after she turned eighteen. After a long wait, on the day he was due to propose, Monroe saw her kissing another man. Claire married the man and went to live in France while Monroe sought solace in England. However, Claire’s marriage was unhappy, and she finally wed Monroe on her return from France nineteen years later. Two years later, Claire died giving birth to Ada. Despite his grief, Monroe had sworn to dedicate his life to his daughter.
When Ada finishes her tale, a flock of birds fly past the moon. Ada then correctly identifies the planet Venus, which is about to set behind Cold Mountain.
Ruby’s “source and root” is that of the environment around Cold Mountain. Even if her father’s tale about the heron is untrue, Ruby is a woman descended from the natural world who shares an affinity with its creatures. Whereas images of predatory birds such as the crow and buzzard overshadow Inman’s journey, the women focus on birds attuned to their landscape as creatures of community and migration. Ruby’s reassessment of the crow is important as it indicates the different perspectives that people can take on nature. While previous images of crows within the text have been shocking or disturbing, Ruby’s frank assessment of the crow’s gifts paints the bird in a different light, as a thing to be admired rather than feared. Throughout this chapter, Ruby is shown reading the signs of nature, as she speculates on a cardinal carrying a twig in its mouth and identifies the time of day by the angle of the sun.
If changes of nature form the steady background to this chapter, then tales of war dominate its foreground. The sadistic Teague reappears with his rabble of Home Guard who look like “battlefield dead.” Yet, however ridiculous these men seem, their brutality exemplifies man’s capacity for horror and perversity in times of conflict. The captive’s tale foreshadows Inman’s own experiences with the Home Guard in the next chapter and at the end of the novel. Also, as the novel suggests on other occasions, features of war point back to an earlier, primeval age. For example, the outliers carry old weapons that resemble “artifacts from a yet darker age.” This descriptive detail continues the novel’s theme of the past that will reach its apex when Ada and Inman find an old arrow head in the chapter called “the far side of trouble.”
A striking feature of the captive’s tale is how bleakly it contrasts with and refutes Mrs. McKennet’s romanticized war stories. The “satisfied and plump” widow’s glorification of war reminds Ada of Charleston society, as her tales lack any correspondence with actual events. Clearly, as Ada asserts, the conflict does not stand for principles of “tragedy and nobility.” The military ideals the widow upholds are those Ada was unable to express to her friend Blount, as she remembers in the earlier chapter, “ashes of roses.” Ruby’s disinterest in the war underscores her dissociation from events and emphasizes the indifference of many Southerners toward the conflict. Frazier uses this chapter to explore the different reactions Southerners had to the Civil War, while focusing primarily on events in the natural world.