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Cold Mountain opens
with its protagonist, Inman, lying in a Virginia hospital recovering
from war wounds. He is shattered by the violence he has witnessed
while fighting in the Confederate army and wants to go home to reunite
with Ada, the woman he loves. Inman talks to a blind man and realizes
that losing something you already have is worse than not getting
what you want. One day in town, Inman writes to inform Ada that
he is returning home. That night, he leaves the hospital through
a window and sets out on his journey back to North Carolina.
The story of Inman’s adventures intertwines with Ada’s
story. Ada is left alone to manage Black Cove Farm following her
father’s death. She is bereft and has no idea where she belongs
or how she should earn a living. When she visits the Swangers, her
neighbors, Ada looks into a well to foretell her future. She sees
a man walking through the woods on a journey but does not know what
this vision means. The next day, Sally Swanger sends a local girl
named Ruby to help out on the farm. Ruby and Ada become friends
and establish a comfortable domestic routine.
Meanwhile, Inman’s journey westward is fraught with danger and
violence. He is pursued across the Cape Fear River, escaping with
his life thanks to the skill of a girl paddling a dugout canoe. Inman
intervenes when he finds a dissolute preacher, Solomon Veasey, attempting
to murder his (the preacher’s) pregnant lover. The preacher is exiled
from his community, and Inman is forced to -continue part of his
journey with Veasey. Inman has to intervene again when Veasey causes
trouble in a store and at an inn. While Veasey spends the night
with a prostitute called Big Tildy, the peddler Odell tells Inman
a sad story about landowners’ cruelty towards slaves.
The next day, Inman and Veasey help a man remove a dead
bull from his stream. This man, Junior, invites them to his home
to spend the night, and several strange things happen. Inman is
drugged and forced to marry Junior’s wife, who the author suggests
may be a cannibal. Junior then hands Inman and Veasey over to the
Home Guard, the military force that has been searching for Inman.
Inman is forced to walk eastward, retracing his steps. The guards
decide to shoot the men and bury them in a shallow grave. Although
Inman escapes with a slight head wound, Veasey dies.
Ada’s story resumes. The novel follows her adjustment
to a life of labor in harmony with nature. Ada’s friendship with
Ruby blossoms as she begins to identify with the natural world.
The female protagonist lays down roots at the farm and recalls memories
of Inman and her father. Occasionally, she finds herself touched
by events surrounding the war. A group of pilgrims forced into exile
by Federal soldiers seeks shelter for a day at the farm. Ada recalls
Blount, a soldier she met at a party in Charleston who later died
Finally, when Ada and Ruby visit the town of Cold Mountain, they
hear a story told by a prisoner jailed for desertion. The captive tells
of the sadistic Teague’s band of the Home Guard. On their walk home,
the two women observe some herons, and Ruby explains that a heron
fathered her. Ada tells the intricate story of her parents’ relationship
and her mother’s tragic death in childbirth. Ruby’s father, Stobrod,
appears later, caught in a trap the women have laid to catch a corn
thief. He explains that he is living in a mountain cave with a community
of outliers who object to the war. Stobrod plays his fiddle to prove
that he is a changed man, but Ruby remains skeptical.
Inman’s story continues. Having been dragged from the
shallow grave by wild hogs, Inman meets a kind slave who feeds and
clothes him and draws a map of what lies ahead. He returns to Junior’s house
and kills him. Inman then continues on his journey, full of despair,
a “traveling shade.” Inman meets an old woman who offers him shelter
at her camp in the mountains. He rests and regains his strength
while the woman nurses his wounds and talks about her life. Inman
learns that the woman ran away from a loveless marriage and raises
goats for company and sustenance. Inman identifies with the goat-woman,
but concludes that he could not live such an isolated life.
Inman continues to wander and meets a man called “Potts,”
who directs him to a cabin belonging to Sara, a kind young woman whose
husband died in battle. Sara feeds Inman, mends his clothes and
tells him her story. Despite her bravery, she is close to despair. The
next day, Inman kills three Federal soldiers, called “Federals”
in the novel, after these men threaten Sara and her baby and steal
the family hog, the only form of sustenance that the family has.
At home, Ada and Ruby start harvesting apples as autumn
nears. Stobrod reappears with a slow-witted banjo player named Pangle. Ruby’s
father asks for shelter at the farm and for food provisions, explaining
that the men intend to leave the outliers’ cave because it is getting
too dangerous. To Ruby’s annoyance, Ada agrees to help Stobrod.
The men go off into the mountains with a boy from Georgia to find
their own camp. Teague’s Home Guard appears looking for the mountain
cave and shoots Stobrod and Pangle. The Georgia boy, who survived
because he hid in a thicket, runs to the farm and tells the women
what happened. Ada and Ruby leave to bury the bodies and camp out
in the mountains. The next day, they bury Pangle but discover that
Stobrod is still alive. Ruby removes the bullet from her father
and takes him to an abandoned Cherokee village.
Meanwhile, Inman reaches Black Cove Farm and finds himself
in sight of Cold Mountain. The Georgia boy tells him that the women have
left to bury Ruby’s father. Inman climbs the mountain and finds
Pangle’s grave but loses Ada’s tracks in the snow. The next day he
hears a gunshot and finds Ada hunting turkeys. The lovers spend four
days together at the Cherokee village, discussing their feelings, past
experiences, and plans for the future. They decide that Inman will
walk north and surrender to the Federals, since the war will be over
soon. On the fifth day, Stobrod is strong enough to travel. Ada and
Ruby leave for the farm and the men follow.
On the journey back to Black Cove, the Home Guard ambushes Inman
and Stobrod. Inman kills all the men except for Birch, Teague’s
second-in-command. Birch seems powerless and scared, but he shoots
Inman before the Inman can attack him. Ada hears the shots, finds
Stobrod, and races back to locate Inman. She holds him in her lap
as he dies.
In a brief epilogue set ten years later, Ada, her nine
year-old daughter (presumably by Inman), and Ruby’s family gather
in the evening. Ruby has married the boy from Georgia, called Reid,
and has had three sons with him. The family sits down to eat. When
the meal is over, Stobrod plays his fiddle and Ada reads to the
Ace your assignments with our guide to Cold Mountain!