Inman, deserting the Confederate army, heads back to Cold Mountain on foot. One night he comes across a man carrying a torch, stopped in the middle of the road.
The man wore a suit of black clothes, a white shirt. He held a horse by a lead rope tied around its neck. In the light Inman could see that the horse carried a burden, an unformed white thickness across its back like a drooping bundle of linen. As Inman watched, the man sat down in the road and drew his knees up toward his chest with one arm. The elbow of his torch arm rested in the notch between the knees so that his fist stuck out before him and held the fire as steady as if fixed in a sconce. He let his head sink down until the hat brim touched his extended arm. He made a kind of illuminated dark wad in the road.
He's going to fall asleep with that torch blazing, Inman thought. In a minute he'll have his feet on fire.
But the man was not dozing; he was in despair. He looked up toward the horse and let out a moan.
--Lord, Oh Lord, he cried. We once lived in a land of paradise.
He rocked from side to side on the bones of his ass and said again, Lord, Oh Lord.
What to do? Inman wondered. Another stone in his passway. Couldn't go back. Couldn't go around. Couldn't stand there like a penned heifer all night. He took out the pistol and held it up to catch what light reached him from the torch and checked his loads.
Inman was about ready to make his move when the man stood and worked the base of the torch around in the dirt until it held upright. He rose and walked to the horse's far side. He began trying to lift the bundle from the horse, which shifted about nervously and put back its ears, the whites of its eyes visible all along the lower rims.
The man got the bundle off the horse and over his shoulder and came walking from behind the animal in a kind of stagger. Inman could see that what he was lugging was a woman, one limp arm swinging, a cascade of black hair brushing the ground. The man carried her from out the diameter of torchlight so that they became near invisible, but his direction was clearly toward the verge of the drop-off. Inman could hear the man sobbing in the dark as he walked.
Inman ran along the road to the torch and grabbed it up and pitched it softly underhand out toward the sound of crying. What the fire lit when it struck ground was the man standing on the very lip of the bluff with the woman in his arms. He was trying to whirl to see the source of this sudden illumination, but, cumbered as he was, it took some time. With a kind of shuffle, he turned to face Inman.
--Set her down, Inman said.
She dropped in a heap at the man's feet.
--The hell kind of pistol is that? the man said, his eyes fixed on the two big mismatched bores.
--Step away from her, Inman said. Get over here where I can see you.
The man stepped across the body and approached Inman. He held his head tipped down for the hat brim to cut the glare from the torch.
--Best stop right now, Inman said, when the man got close.
--You're a message from God saying no, the man said. He took two steps more and then dropped to his knees in the road and fell forward and hugged Inman about the legs. Inman leveled the pistol at the man's head and put pressure on the trigger until he could feel all the metal parts of its firing mechanism tighten up against each other. But then the man turned his face up, and it caught the light from the torch where it still burned on the ground, and Inman could see that his cheeks were shiny with tears. So Inman relented as he might have anyway and only struck the man a midforce blow across the cheekbone with the long barrel of the pistol.
The man sprawled in the road on his back, a shallow cut below his eye. His hat had fallen off and his head was pomaded slick as an apple from the forehead back, and the ends of his yellow hair hung in ringlets about his shoulders. He fingered the cut and looked at the blood.
--I accept the merit of that, he said.
--You merit killing, Inman said. He looked to where the woman lay in a heap at the edge of the bluff. She had not moved. I might still feel the need to do it, Inman said.
--Don't kill me, I'm a man of God, the man said.
--Some say we all are, Inman said.
--A preacher is what I mean, the man said. I'm a preacher.
Inman could think of no response but to blow out air from his nose.
The preacher rose again as far as his knees.
--Is she dead? Inman said.
--What's the matter with her? Inman said.
--Not much. She's somewhat with child. That and what I gave her.
--What would that be?
--A little packet of powders that I bought off a peddler. He said it would put a man to sleep for four hours. It's been about half that since I dosed her up.
--And you're the daddy?
--Not married to her I reckon?
Inman stepped to the far side of the girl and knelt. He put a hand to her dark head and lifted it. She was breathing with a kind of faint snore, a whistle at the nose. Her face was slack from being senseless, and the shadows cast from the torch were ugly things, collecting unfavorably in the low spots of her eyes and cheeks. Still, Inman could tell that there might be a beauty to her. He returned her face to the ground and rose from his crouch.
--Put her back on the horse, Inman said. He stepped away, keeping the pistol leveled at the man, who hopped up to his feet, his eyes never leaving the barrel ends. The man hustled over and knelt and struggled to lever the girl off the ground. He rose and staggered to the horse and threw her over. Inman tipped the big pistol up momentarily to catch its profile in the light, thinking how very much he liked the air of urgency and focus it lent to a simple request.
Meanwhile, back at Cold Mountain, a solitary Ada struggles to survive on her father's farm, Black Cove, after his death. When she's near despair, an indigent but resourceful young woman named Ruby offers her help.
The agreement Ada and Ruby reached on that first morning was this: Ruby would move to the cove and teach Ada how to run a farm. There would be very little money involved in her pay. They would take most of their meals together, but Ruby did not relish the idea of living with anyone else and decided she would move into the old hunting cabin. After they had eaten their first dinner of chicken and dumplings, Ruby went home and was able to wrap everything worth taking in a quilt. She had gathered the ends, slung it over her shoulder, and headed to Black Cove, never looking back.
The two women spent their first days together making an inventory of the place, listing the things that needed doing and their order of urgency. They walked together about the farm, Ruby looking around a lot, evaluating, talking constantly. The most urgent matter, she said, was to get a late-season garden into the ground. Ada followed along, writing it all down in a notebook that heretofore had received only her bits of poetry, her sentiments on life and the large issues of the day. Now she wrote entries such as these:
To be done immediately: Lay out a garden for cool season crops--turnips, onions, cabbage, lettuce, greens.
Cabbage seed, do we have any?
Soon: Patch shingles on barn roof; do we have a maul and froe?
Buy clay crocks for preserving tomatoes and beans.
Pick herbs and make from them worm boluses for the horse.
And on and on. So much to do, for apparently Ruby planned to require every yard of land do its duty.
The hayfields, Ruby said, had not been cut frequently enough, and the grass was in danger of being taken over by spurge and yarrow and ragweed, but it was not too far gone to save. The old cornfield, she declared, had profited from having been left to lie fallow for several years and was now ready for clearing and turning. The outbuildings were in fair shape, but the chicken population was too low. The root cellar in the can house was, in her estimation, a foot too shallow; she feared a bad cold spell might freeze potatoes stored there if they didn't dig it deeper. A martin colony, if they could establish one alongside the garden in gourd houses, would help keep crows away.
Ruby's recommendations extended in all directions, and she never seemed to stop. She had ideas concerning schedules for crop rotation among the various fields. Designs for constructing a tub mill so that once they had a corn crop they could grind their own meal and grits using waterpower from the creek and save having to give the miller his tithe. One evening before she set off in the dark to walk up to the cabin, her last words were, We need us some guineas. I'm not partial to their eggs for frying, but they'll do for baking needs. Even discarding the eggs, guineas are a comfort to have around and useful in a number of ways. They're good watchdogs, and they'll bug out a row of pole beans before you can turn around. All that aside from how pleasant they are to look at walking around the yard.
The next morning her first words were, Pigs. Do you have any loose in the woods?
Ada said, No, we always bought our hams.
--There's a world more to a hog than just the two hams, Ruby said. Take lard for example. We'll need plenty.
Despite the laxity of Monroe's tenure at Black Cove, there was nevertheless much more to work with than Ada had realized. On one of their first walks about the place, Ruby was delighted by the extensive apple orchards. They had been planted and maintained by the Blacks and were only now beginning to show the first marks of inattention. Despite lack of recent pruning, they were thick with maturing fruit.
--Come October, Ruby said, we'll get enough in trade for those apples to make our winter a sight easier than it would be otherwise.
She paused and thought a minute. You don't have a press, do you? she said. When Ada said she thought they might indeed, Ruby whooped in joy.
--Hard cider is worth considerably more in trade than apples, she said. All we'll have to do is make it.
Ruby was pleased too with the tobacco patch. In the spring, Monroe had given the hired man permission to plant a small field of tobacco for his own use. Despite most of a summer of neglect, the plants were surprisingly tall and full-leaved and worm-free, though weeds grew thick in the rows and the plants were badly in need of topping and suckering. Ruby believed the plants had thrived despite disregard because they must have been planted in full accordance with the signs. She calculated that with luck they might get a small crop and said that if they cured the leaves and soaked them in sorghum water and twisted them into plugs, they could trade off tobacco for seed and salt and leavening and other items they could not produce themselves.
Barter was very much on Ada's mind, since she did not understand it and yet found herself suddenly so untethered to the money economy. In the spirit of partnership and confidence, she had shared with Ruby the details of her shattered finances. When she told Ruby of the little money they had to work with, Ruby said, I've never held a money piece bigger than a dollar in my hand. What Ada came to understand was that though she might be greatly concerned at their lack of cash, Ruby's opinion was that they were about as well off without it. Ruby had always functioned at arm's length from the buying of things and viewed money with a great deal of suspicion even in the best of times, especially when she contrasted it in her mind with the solidity of hunting and gathering, planting and harvesting. At present, matters had pretty much borne out Ruby's darkest opinions. Script had gotten so cheapened in its value that it was hard to buy anything with it anyway. On their first trip together into town they had been stunned to have to give fifteen dollars for a pound of soda, five dollars for a paper of triple-ought needles, and ten for a quire of writing paper. Had they been able to afford it, a bolt of cloth would have cost fifty dollars. Ruby pointed out that cloth would cost them not a cent if they had sheep and set about shearing, carding, spinning, winding, dyeing, and weaving the wool into cloth for dresses and underdrawers. All Ada could think was that every step in the process that Ruby had so casually sketched out would be many days of hard work to come up with a few yards of material coarse as sacking. Money made things so much easier.