Summary, Chapter Sixteen (“naught and grief”), pp. 282-292
Stobrod and Pangle have decided to relocate near Shining Rocks, away from the outliers. They are joined by a boy from Georgia, who had joined the outliers when he became lost trying to return to Georgia after he deserted. The men retrieve food from a pre-arranged place where Ruby has agreed to leave food; then they resume their search for the new camp. The weather has turned wintery, and the men all suffer from mild food poisoning because, foolishly, they ate a frozen (but not fresh) deer the night before.
When they stop for the night and make a fire, the Georgia boy excuses himself to relieve his bowels some distance from camp. While he is gone, the Home Guard, lead by Teague, appear. Teague demands to know where the outliers are camped, but Stobrod claims he does not know. Pangle, however, innocently reveals the location.
Teague and his men dismount and settle around the fire to cook their own dinner. After they eat, Teague tells Stobrod and Pangle to play some music. At first, Stobrod cannot play, but gradually the music comes to him, old music “grim as death” that echoes the experience of human culture.
When the men finish playing, Teague tells them to stand by a poplar. Pangle grins, unaware of what is about to take place, and Teague tells him to hold his hat over his face. Then the Home Guard shoot Stobrod and Pangle.
Summary, Chapter Seventeen (“black bark in winter”), pp. 293-309
The Georgia boy, having witnessed the shooting of Stobrod and Pangle, makes his way to Black Cove Farm to tell Ada and Ruby. Immediately, the women dress in Monroe’s old clothing and gather supplies, then set out up Cold Mountain with a pack horse to find and bury the bodies. The going is slow because it is dark, and snow is falling heavily.
Ada and Ruby must shelter for the night in a cave-like rock pile. As they try to sleep, Ada asks Ruby if she thinks Stobrod made up a particular song he had played for them. Ruby says that songs, like stories handed down through generations, pass through fiddler after fiddler and alter in the process. That process does not necessarily improve a song, though. According to Ruby, humans rarely improve anything; the old ways are often better than the new ones.
The next day, they find Pangle and bury him. Ada fashions a cross for the grave out of a black locust tree limb in hopes that the limb will grow, as many cut locusts do, into a whole new tree, with “black bark in winter, white blossoms in spring.” The women do not find Stobrod, however, until Ada washes her hands in the stream and spies his bloody body where he had apparently dragged himself down the bank. He is still alive.
Ruby digs a bullet out of him, and they hoist him onto the horse and set out for shelter in an abandoned Cherokee village up the mountain. Ada, upon seeing the ghostlike village, thinks of the story Inman told her about the Cherokee who were not admitted into the promised country and were therefore driven away from their village, into exile. Ada understands the story now. She knows that those Cherokee, just like herself and Inman, had no idea what future was coming for them.
That night in the empty Cherokee village, with more snow threatening to fall, Ada looks into the fire and cannot find happy visions. She thinks the sound of the hissing coals sounds like footsteps stomping through snowfall.
Analysis, chapters 16 and 17
In chapters sixteen and seventeen, the metallic clink of the new world grows louder and at last invades Cold Mountain itself, in the form of Teague and the Home Guard.
The Home Guard comes upon Stobrod, Pangle, and the Georgia boy on horseback, with the clank of “sabers and pistols and rifles.” They represent the “metal face” of the age, and Stobrod instinctively knows that these men sorely lack “what was needed to love” music as he does. He plays for them anyway, and his songs are like elegies to the old, lost world. Their depth, however, is ridiculed by the men, Birch in particular. He seems to have no reverence or feeling at all. Nor does the music touch Teague. Significantly, Stobrod and Pangle pose before their executioners like soldiers posing for pre-war photos, “though instead of rifle musket and Colt pistol and bowie knife, Stobrod and Pangle held fiddle and banjo before them as defining implements.” In shooting Stobrod and Pangle in cold blood, Teague demonstrates the inhuman power of the new world.
The snowy landscape into which Ada and Ruby venture has an ominous, fairy-tale quality to it. The silent, dark trees tower over them, the creeks they cross are black, the rocks lie in great tumbles. The Cherokee village is an eerie ghost town and reminds Ada of the doomed villagers in Inman’s story. Such a landscape is a test for Ada. She tries to navigate it as Ruby has taught her, observing her surroundings and trying to make sense of them, yet she is “tired and cold and afraid.” Not even her newfound understanding of the land can keep her from hearing the sound of heavy footsteps on snow. Ada cannot keep the new world from marching toward her.