Inman lies in a Confederate hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, recovering from a combat wound. He spends much time peering out a window. When well enough, he begins to explore the surroundings of the hospital, meeting a blind man he had seen through the window. The blind man observes that it is better to have been born blind than to lose sight after seeing the world. Inman decides to desert from the army and return to Cold Mountain and his beloved Ada.
Ada, the sole inhabitant of the Black Cove farm, struggles to feed herself. After her father died, Ada allowed Black Cove to fall into a general state of disrepair. She flirts with the idea of returning to Charleston but reasons that there is little point in doing so. Though educated, she was never taught farming, hunting, or any other survival skill. Through her neighbors, Ada meets a young drifter named Ruby, who agrees to help in the upkeep of Black Cove in exchange for a place to live.
Inman’s journey progresses slowly because of his injury. During a stop at a general store, he is accosted by robbers, leading him to remember a Cherokee incantation called “To Destroy Life.” Inman realizes that the journey home will be violent. After recalling his first introduction to Ada, Inman enlists the aid of a ferry girl to cross a river. While crossing, the robbers catch up and force Inman and the ferry girl into the water. Thanks to the girl’s knowledge of the river, Inman makes it across and continues his journey west.
Back at Black Cove, Ada’s indoctrination to manual labor commences under Ruby. Ruby surveys work that needs to be done and prioritizes tasks at hand. The two decide to trade some of Ada’s possessions for food and supplies. After bartering Ada’s piano, Ruby reveals to Ada that she had been abandoned as a child. She does not know her mother and had been left to fend for herself by her father, Stobrod.
Inman encounters a preacher named Veasey who is attempting to kill a woman he had made pregnant. Inman interferes and marches Veasey and the woman back to her home. He ties Veasey to a tree and leaves a note explaining why Veasey is tied up. Fearful of the Confederate Home Guard, Inman leaves the scene and makes camp with gypsies. Haunted by another memory of Ada, Inman dreams of her and makes a promise in his dream that he will never let her go.
Inman is reunited with Veasey, who has been exiled from his congregation. Veasey reveals himself to be little more than a man taken up with womanizing and thievery, and he gets into trouble with a prostitute. Inman and Veasey spend the night at the home of a lonely old man named Odell. Meanwhile, Ada and Ruby enter town and are told of how the Home Guard would rather kill outliers, or deserters, than return them to the army. On her return trip to the farm, Ada tells Ruby how her father had courted her mother for almost twenty years.
Inman and Veasey assist a man named Junior in removing a dead bull from a river. Afterward, Junior invites Inman and Veasey to his home. There, Junior’s three daughters subdue and seduce Inman in an elaborate trap and hand Inman and Veasey over to the Home Guard. Later, the Home Guard decides to shoot them. Veasey is killed, but Inman survives. Inman feigns death and escapes, running into a slave who draws him a map to get home. Before Inman sets off, he...
(The entire section is 1361 words.)