The next morning, Ada and Inman are still lying in bed together. They’re forming a plan. The war will be over in a few months at most, they agree. Therefore, Inman’s best course of action might be to lay low for a few months, rather than trying to return to battle straight away. Ada, Ruby, and Inman arrive at another possibility: Inman could go north to the Federals, surrender to them, and take a loyalty oath. This way, Inman will have an advantage when the Federals inevitably win the war later this year.
Ada and Inman have a plan: they’re going to try to work around the politics of life in the war-torn South and “wait out” the Northern soldiers. As it became increasingly clear that the South was going to lose to war, more and more Southern soldiers did exactly this: they cared more about surviving the war than about loyalty to their state.
In the mountains, Stobrod begins to recover. His wounds shrink, and he’s able to eat solid food again. Ruby, Ada, and Inman prepare to return to the farm: Stobrod is finally healthy enough to be carried down by horse. Inman proposes that Ada and Ruby go ahead to the farm—if they travel with Inman and Stobrod, they’ll be in danger. Stobrod and Inman plan to walk north to the Federals, where they’ll surrender and then lay low, hoping that the war ends soon. Ruby and Ada agree to this plan.
One reason why we, the readers, question Ada and Inman’s plan is that it requires Inman and Ada to break up again, if only for a short while. After their reunion, this is a dramatically unsatisfying turn in the plot—one which, we sense, can only lead to some unhappy accident.
Ada and Ruby head down through the mountains, with Inman and Stobrod taking a different route, heading north. When Inman and Stobrod are nearly out of the woods, however, they’re ambushed by Teague and the Home Guard. Teague sneers at Stobrod, “Hard man to kill.” Inman looks to the horsemen of the Guard, their rifles drawn and pointed right at him. He remembers being back in the army, and realizes that nothing he says will dissuade these people from attacking him.
As might have been suspected, Inman isn’t out of danger yet: he still has to contend with Teague and the Guardsmen. As Inman surveys his enemies, we realize that he’s grown over the course of the novel, both because of his quest and because of his reunion with Ada. Inman has gained a new perspective on war: he sees it for the sad yet inevitable mess that it is.
Suddenly, Inman slaps Ralph (the horse), and Ralph—bearing Stobrod—charges away from the Home Guard, into the woods. At the same time, Inman draws his pistol and shoots one of the horsemen. Inman shoots another rider, leaving only three. One of the horsemen turns and rides away, afraid of the danger. Teague fires his rifle, but his horse is so agitated that he misses Inman entirely. The sound of the gunshot further agitates Teague’s horse, and Teague falls off. Quickly, Inman runs forward and grabs Teague’s rifle out of his hands. When Teague draws a knife, Inman shoots Teague in the chest. The final horseman dismounts and runs toward Inman, but Inman is too fast for him—he hits the man over the head with the butt of his rifle.
For the last time in the novel, Inman will fight, and defeat, a larger, more powerful force. This happens so quickly that, from a traditional standpoint, it isn’t quite dramatically satisfying: Inman dispatches with the main antagonist of the novel, Teague, in just a few sentences. Once again, however, Frazier is more interested in capturing Inman’s reaction to the danger than in providing a dramatic resolution to the book—i.e., he’s more focused on how Inman has changed over the course of the novel than on killing off Teague in an entertaining way.
Inman looks up and sees the third horseman, Birch, riding away into the forest. Inman takes his rifle and chases the horseman. As Inman tries to get a good look at his opponent, he realizes that Birch is really a boy—not even old enough to shave his face. The trees become so thick that the Home Guard rider can no longer ride away—he’s trapped. Inman raises his gun and tells Birch to drop his weapon. He wants an excuse to save the boy’s life, he insists.
The most important sign of Inman’s changing personality comes here, when Inman refuses to kill the final guardsman, even though he has every advantage over his young opponent. The “old Inman”—the Inman who killed Junior—probably would have killed Birch. And yet Inman now seems to have embraced mercy instead of revenge.
Instead of obeying Inman, Birch tries to bolt away on his horse. Almost immediately, the horse gets tangled in the trees, and Birch falls off. He reaches for his pistol, but Inman yells for him to drop it at once. Instead of responding, Birch “moves his hand” and suddenly, Inman falls to the ground.
After a novel of defying death and cheating the odds, Inman’s luck catches up with him. Ironically, he partly dies because he makes the conscious choice to spare the life of the person who eventually murders him—one could even say that Inman sacrifices his own life to save Birch’s. No matter what, this ending is tragic in both its irony and in the sparse, disconnected way Frazier describes it.
Meanwhile, Ada and Ruby are walking back to their farm when they hear gunshots. Stobrod comes running toward them, and explains that the Home Guard ambushed them. Ruby, Ada, and Stobrod rush toward the gunshot sounds. By the time they’re close by, the boy has already gathered his horses and ridden off, leaving dead bodies on the ground.
Inman, the protagonist of one “half” of the novel, is suddenly gone. The question now becomes, how will Ada live her life without him, given that she had just planned to start a new life with Inman by her side?
Ada looks through the woods, and eventually comes to Inman, lying on the ground. Ada allows Inman to rest his head in her lap. The scene is almost peaceful, the narrator notes—so peaceful that one would be tempted to imagine an alternate world in which Inman and Ada live together as a married couple for many decades.
In this scene, we come full circle—Inman’s first romantic encounter with Ada occurred when she sat in his lap, years before, and now the roles have reversed. Of course, the narrator makes clear the differences between that idyllic early scene and the present moment: back then, Inman and Ada had a happy future to look forward to; now, they have none.