Inman walks through the mountains, trying to find his course back home. It rains heavily, making navigation very difficult. He runs low on food, and his wounds continue to cause him great pain, even though they’re beginning to heal.
The chapter begins with Inman in a state of enormous pain and hopelessness. He has no real idea where he’s going and his wounds, both physical and psychological, incapacitate him. Inman’s condition is improving, but so slowly that he can barely sense it.
One day Inman sees a man walking behind him through the mountains. Inman demands to know who the man is. Cautiously, the man makes a strange sign with his hands. Inman realizes that this man must be a member of a hospital charity—he recognizes the sign from his own time in the hospital. The man, who introduces himself as Potts, asks Inman if Inman is an “outlier,” and Inman denies this cryptically. Potts offers to walk Inman to a house a few miles away—Potts claims to know a “good gal” who can help Inman.
For a few chapters now, Inman has had strikingly good fortune: hosts who give him food and shelter and ask surprisingly little in return. Potts seems to be no exception to this rule. And yet we find ourselves questioning his motives, as Junior’s example has obviously made Inman suspicious of travelers who are too friendly or too generous.
Potts and Inman walk to the house, and Inman walks inside. He introduces himself to the woman inside as a friend of Potts (who has continued on his way). The woman offers Inman a bed and food. The woman tells Inman that her name is Sara and that she’s eighteen years old. Inman is impressed that Sara survives on her own. Sara explains that she pulls her own plow, butchers hogs, grinds cornmeal, etc. She also takes care of her baby child. She says that her husband has died in the war.
Sara seems to be a totally self-sufficient person: she can take care of all her own material needs. And yet Sara’s material self-sufficiency only underscores her psychological need for companionship. She’s clearly missing her husband, and misses having an adult with whom to share her thoughts and feelings.
Inman eats the meal Sara fixes for him. At dinner, he watches Sara nurse her baby, and can’t help fixating on her round, white breast. Afterwards, Sara offers Inman some fresh clothes—her husband’s old clothing. Inman feels odd about wearing another man’s clothing, let alone Sara’s husband’s clothing.
Now that he’s fed and sheltered, Inman has the luxury of focusing on his own sexual needs. The symbolism of this scene is clear: Sara is shaping Inman in her husband’s image, presumably because she misses human contact, and her husband in particular.
Sara offers Inman a bed in the house, and when she shows Inman the bed, he realizes that it’s also the bed where Sara sleeps. Sara asks Inman to sleep beside her, but “not do a thing else.” Inman agrees. As he lies next to Sara, she begins sobbing. She tells Inman about her husband, John. She and John fell in love years ago—their child is a living memory of her love for her husband.
Sara may not even be sexually attracted to Inman: her motives for asking Inman to sleep beside her run deeper. Like many of Inman’s other acquaintances on the road, Sara’s priority is conversation and companionship: she so lonely that she’s desperate to have someone to confide in.
As Sara weeps next to Inman, she begins to stroke Inman’s body. She touches his scar but then pulls her hand away. Eventually, she falls asleep, but Inman stays awake. A woman hasn't touched him so tenderly in a long time.
It’s significant that Sara fixates on Inman’s scar, a symbol of his own tragic past. Sara has a lot of pain of her own, and so her connection with Inman is based on their pain—perhaps the one thing they have in common.
Late at night, Inman wakes up—Sara is shaking him. Sara whispers that someone’s outside, possibly the Home Guard or robbers, and Inman will need to hide himself at once. Inman sneaks out the back of Sara’s house. Peering out from his hiding place, he sees three horsemen—wearing blue jackets—ordering Sara to come out of the house with her hands up. Inman can tell that the men are Federals by their blue jackets. They point guns at Sara and ask her where her money is hidden. To torture Sara, one of the horsemen goes into her house and comes out carrying Sara’s baby. He threatens to hurt the baby unless she tells him about her money. After many hours, during which the men dangle Sara’s baby over fire, the men realize that Sara is telling the truth: she has no money. They take Sara’s hog and ride away. Sara yells that she was just about to kill the hog for food—now she’ll starve to death.
Sara is brave when confronted by the soldiers, and refuses to rat out Inman. This is especially impressive, considering that the soldiers are Northerners (hence their blue jackets) and thus especially unfamiliar and antagonistic to Southerners. These particular Union soldiers are cruel and sadistic, and seem to take a sexual pleasure in harassing Sara, a defenseless woman. The soldiers’ priority isn’t really any different than Inman’s: they’re both just trying to survive. The difference, of course, is that the soldiers wrap themselves in the flag, claiming to be patriotic warriors, whereas Inman enjoys no such immunity.
Instead of returning to Sara, Inman decides to follow the three horsemen. He follows them on foot for several miles, until he sees them settle down for the night. Once he has a good shot, Inman takes out his pistol and shoots one of the men in the head. The two remaining Federals walk into the night in search of their friend’s killer. Inman hides until he has another good shot, and when he does, he shoots one of the remaining Federals. There’s one Federal left, and Inman shoots the man in the chest. Inman then looks through the man’s pockets for valuables—he finds cigarettes, which he takes for himself.
For not the first time in the book, Inman takes out a larger, better-armed group of enemies. Again, this section isn’t exactly realistic, but it reinforces Inman’s status as a larger-than-life figure—albeit one with deep psychological wounds. We’re reminded that Inman can be ruthless at times—he has no compunction, for instance, about stealing from a dead man (nor is this the first time he’s stolen in the novel).
Inman leads Sara’s hog back to its home, where he finds Sara going through her usual morning routine of boiling water. He and Sara kill the hog and eat it for supper. Sara, grateful for Inman’s help, offers him a razor to shave his face. Inman shaves, and finds himself staring at an unfamiliar face in the mirror. Sara smiles and tells Inman that he looks “part human now.”
There’s a familiar trope in stories about men traveling through the wilderness, that when they see their dirty, hairy faces in the mirror, they don’t recognize themselves. This version, however, is reversed: Inman is so accustomed to being wild and dangerous that he doesn’t recognize his old, clean-shaven face.
Later, Sara sings for her baby—a strange song, more like a ballad than a lullaby. There’s a lyric in the song about a “bride bed full of blood.” The next day, Inman sets out on the road.
Like Stobrod, Sara takes comfort in music when there’s nothing else to make her feel better. In spite of Inman’s obvious connection with and attraction to Sara, he’s too loyal to Ada and Black Cove to give up on his journey now.