The next week, Rucker works late at the store. As he leaves, two robbers hold him up at gunpoint. They take him into the store and demand to know where the money is kept. Rucker manages to disarm the robbers and forces them to call the police. To prevent the robbers from trying to escape, Rucker fires twice to prove that he is a good shot. The robbers’ gun has only two bullets, and knowing the gun is empty, the robbers attack Rucker and beat him brutally.
They ain’t no gar’ntee thet we ain’t go’n have no troubles and ain’t go’n die. But … God’ll forgive us if’n we ast Him to.
Rucker spends a long time in bed recuperating. One day, Will overhears Rucker telling Miss Love that he has thought about Will’s confusion concerning Jesus’ unfulfilled promise to give the prayerful what they want. Rucker does not think Jesus promises to grant prayers for worldly goods. Rather, Rucker says, Jesus promises to grant qualities like compassion and strength to those who pray for them. Miss Love says that most people would consider that idea blasphemous but that it makes perfect sense to her. Rucker and Miss Love discuss the movement to change Cold Sassy’s name to something more modern. A neighboring town, Harmony Grove, has recently been renamed Commerce, and Rucker says that the new name makes him cringe. Later that evening, Will hears Miss Love tell Rucker that her time with him has been the only happy time in her life. When they kiss, Will realizes that their marriage is now authentic and, most likely, has been consummated.
Rucker catches pneumonia. His condition worsens, and dementia overtakes him. Rucker begins to think everyone is Mattie Lou, and he holds conversations with his long-dead father as if they were still at war together. Miss Love confides to Will that she is pregnant with Rucker’s child. She feels sure the child is a boy, but she cannot tell Rucker as long as he does not recognize her and as long as his family surrounds him. Will reflects that Rucker wanted a son more than anything in the world. Will falls asleep and wakes up when Miss Love screams. Rucker has died.
Rucker leaves a letter behind ordering an immediate and simple burial. He demands a party instead of a funeral. In his will, Rucker leaves Miss Love his house and a thousand dollars. He leaves Mary and Loma their houses, which he owned, and a thousand dollars apiece. The remaining property goes in equal shares to his daughters and Miss Love, with the stipulation that any children born after he dies will receive an equal share. Will knows that his mother and aunt do not know about Miss Love’s pregnancy. Will wonders how they will take the news that the estate will be split in four rather than in three. Rucker appoints Hoyt manager of the store for as long as he wants the position. The will also says that Will will receive four hundred dollars for college after he works at the store for ten years. Will is annoyed that Rucker thought he could buy Will’s services and says it is typical of Rucker to want the last word.
Will expects that Miss Love will leave Cold Sassy, but she decides to stay. She explains to Will that she wants her child to grow up around his natural family. She hopes that Will, who is so much like Rucker, will be like a father to the boy. A month after Rucker’s death, Cold Sassy changes its name to Progressive City. The town widens the railroad and cuts down the old sassafras tree to make room for the new tracks. People in town take home pieces of the tree’s roots to make sassafras tea. Will says that years later he still has his piece of tree root, along with the newspaper clipping about his escape on the train trestle, a photograph of him, Rucker, and Miss Love, his diploma from an agricultural college, and the buckeye Lightfoot gave him.
Despite the deaths that end Cold Sassy Tree, hope fills the end of the novel. Will’s emotional growth has prepared both him and us for the sorrow of Rucker’s passing, and Rucker has died after an impassioned, happy final year. Just as Mattie Lou’s death revives Rucker, Rucker’s death becomes a source of renewal. Miss Love is pregnant, and her child will be a reminder of the love she and Rucker shared. Rucker leaves not only a physical presence but also a spiritual legacy. Before he dies, he explains what he thinks Jesus meant when he said all prayers will be answered. Throughout the novel, Will and Rucker have been plagued with wondering what “Ask and ye shall receive” truly means, and at the end of the novel, Rucker explains that Jesus meant that anyone who asks for it will receive comfort and strength from God. By providing a satisfactory interpretation of this promise, Rucker leaves Will some peace of mind. Will loses his grandfather and Miss Love loses her husband, but they are both left with the materials necessary for healing.
Burns uses Will’s knack for eavesdropping to allow us to witness every important moment in Rucker and Miss Simpson’s relationship through the filter of Will’s innocence. Will himself is just beginning to discover the nature of love, and his ignorance in such matters mirrors the innocence of Rucker and Miss Love’s relationship and prevents us from viewing the marriage with bias. To us, the evolution of Miss Love and Rucker’s marriage from an arrangement of convenience to one of affection might seem strange. By letting us see it through Will’s eyes, however, Burns is able to establish the innocence and tension in their budding relationship by having it mature at the same pace as Will’s understanding of love.
Miss Love’s revelation that she is pregnant strengthens the bond between her and Will. In previous chapters, Will eavesdrops in order to learn private information about sex, but now he has grown up a little, and Miss Love chooses to trust him with sensitive information. Will also demonstrates his maturity by his reaction to the news that he will no longer be his grandfather’s only surrogate son. Will has struggled to retain his place as his grandfather’s favorite, but he reacts with equanimity to the news of Miss Love’s pregnancy. He is old enough to feel confident about the place he holds in Rucker’s heart.
Cold Sassy Tree does not tidy up all its loose ends; at the end of the novel, no one but Will knows of Miss Love’s pregnancy. Burns does not explain whether the town accepts Miss Love’s child or whether she has a boy as she thinks she will. This uncertainty suggests that although Will has matured and Cold Sassy has modernized, the story is not yet over, and both Will and the town will continue to grow.