Cold Mountain | Study Guide

Charles Frazier

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Cold Mountain | Chapter 17 : Black Bark in Winter | Summary

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Summary

The chapter opens as the boy from Georgia finishes narrating to Ada and Ruby the tale of what has happened up on the mountain. He was able to recall what Stobrod told him about the farm's location and has come as quickly as he can to advise the two women of the shootings. When they press him to take them to the site, however, he refuses. He watched his cousin die on the mountain, and now he has seen these killings. All he wants is to get home to Georgia.

Rather than grieving over the death of her father, Ruby focuses on the task at hand, deciding that instead of bringing the two men back to the farm for burial they should lay them to rest on the mountain. She then draws a map of a route for the boy that goes around the mountain rather than over it, so he can get to Georgia.

Ruby shares with Ada her plan for their trip. She expects cold, snowy weather and anticipates they must spend at least one night outdoors. She says they will need warm pants, and among Monroe's things they find heavy woolen hunting trousers, as well as wool shirts and sweaters and broad-brimmed hats. After dressing warmly, making a camping kit, loading supplies on the back of the horse, and setting things up for the rest of the animals, the women are ready to go. Ruby advises the boy to sleep in the hayloft until dark, when it will be safer for him to travel, and the women leave him with food and bedding as they depart.

With snow beginning to fall as evening approaches, Ruby and Ada travel up the mountain. Ruby knows the way, and they continue to travel past nightfall toward a natural shelter she remembers. It is a fine camping spot near a spring, the shelter provided by three flat rocks forming a lean-to. Soon, the women have a fire started, eat a small meal, and then settle down for the night. The next morning, they eat another meal and continue on their journey.

Ada and Ruby soon find Pangle, dead in the snow, but there is no sign of Stobrod and his fiddle. So they bury Pangle, and Ada makes a cross to mark the grave. As Ada washes her hands in a nearby creek, she spies Stobrod. He has dragged himself to shelter under a rock ledge. He is still alive, although he has lost a great deal of blood from three bullet wounds.

Ruby immediately begins doctoring Stobrod. She cuts a bullet out of his body, directs Ada to boil water, and goes off to find healing roots. She prepares poultices and teas and binds his wounds. Then they prepare to carry him to another place with good shelter Ruby knows of. With Stobrod draped across the weary horse, they travel for a long time through rough country. Finally, they reach their destination, a Cherokee village abandoned long ago. They choose the best cabin and move Stobrod into it. Ruby tends to him as Ada takes care of the horse. Ada is so exhausted, she has trouble eating, thinking, or resting.

Analysis

Readers have seen throughout the novel the importance of burial customs. With so many soldiers dying during the Civil War, survivors tried to give their comrades something resembling a proper burial. It comes as no surprise that for Ruby and Ada, trying to find the bodies of Stobrod and Pangle is not an option; it's an unquestionable duty. The boy from Georgia confirms his own honor in coming to tell the ladies of the news with this comment, "many another man would have left the two lie where they fell and not care that the wolves would soon strip them to bone."

As usual, Ruby knows exactly what to do and exactly where to go. Ada wants to focus more on the emotions of Stobrod's death, but Ruby is not interested in hugs or tears. So Ada's thoughts turn inward in this chapter, and her comfort is given to Ralph the horse. Her trust in Ruby is implicit, and she feels little need to participate in the various decisions along the way. This frees her to be introspective. She thinks about things like the uselessness of book knowledge in many situations, the wonder of seeing traces of human activity on the mountain throughout the generations, and the lyrics of Stobrod's songs. At the end of the night, she looks for "happier visions in the fire coals," but all she sees signs of is more snow to come.

When Stobrod recovers consciousness briefly at the sudden appearance of two peregrines, the symbolism of birds found throughout the book is apparent. Here, the birds represent life, even in the gloomiest of conditions. Stobrod might survive, tended to in ancient ways in a refuge "with the rich smell of a thousand old campfires."

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