Summary, Chapter twenty (“spirits of crows, dancing”), pp. 345-353
On the fifth day, the snow has melted somewhat and Stobrod is well enough to travel. The group decides that Ada and Ruby will go on ahead, walking, and Inman will come some distance behind, leading Stobrod on the horse. The men will wait until the coast is clear and deposit Stobrod at Black Cove; then Inman will turn himself in to the Federals, which he and Ada have decided is the safest course for him. They do not believe the war will go on much longer.
As Inman and Stobrod make their way down the mountain, however, Teague and the Home Guard appear. They have been staying in the outliers’ cave.
Inman sees that he will have to fight his way out of the situation. He spooks Stobrod’s horse so it runs off with him, and at the same time he starts firing. Inman charges into the riders, and in the confusion he manages to shoot several of them, including Teague. Only the odd, white-headed boy that has accompanied Teague manages to get away. Inman spots the boy on his horse, blending in with the trees. Inman tells him to put down his weapon and just ride away, but the boy refuses, and Inman has no choice but to try to kill him. As the two chase one another through the woods, the boy is thrown from his horse. Inman approaches him, again giving him a chance to put down his weapon, but his hesitation is a mistake. The boy kills Inman instead.
Ada hears the shots and comes running. She arrives in time to hold Inman’s head in her lap as dreams of seasons turning, one after the other, flit through his head, and he sees crows in white oak trees, “or at least the spirits of crows, dancing and singing in the upper limbs.”
Analysis, chapter 20
The new, hard world finally catches up to both Ada and Inman on Cold Mountain. Inman is once again forced into violence by the circumstances, and even though he is scarred and tainted, he still possesses the humanity to offer Birch his life. Inman tells Birch that he is not one of them, that he does not kill as the Guards do, but he must also protect himself.
The great irony of the novel is that while Inman has all along proved that he is a good man of the old world—despite his violent acts—he is still run down by the new world in the form of the pale, soul-drained Birch. And Ada, powerful as she has become, cannot stop his death.
The dancing of the black crows that Inman sees are a final note in a sad fiddle song or a macabre folk tale; they represent the dark truth that to live is also to die. It is a fact of nature, as the wheeling seasons that Inman sees also testify.