Back at the farm, Ethan finds Daniel Byrne waiting in his sleigh outside the kitchen door. Ethan is shocked to learn that Mattie is getting her trunk down from her room alone, since Jotham is at the wood-lot and Daniel Byrne doesn't want to leave his horse. Ethan goes up to help, and finds Mattie sobbing in her empty room. They cling to each other and Mattie tells him she thought she would never see him again.
Without Ethan to look out for her, Mattie is forced to fend for herself. Believing Ethan has abandoned her, Mattie accepts her fate passively.
Zeena calls to them to hurry and Ethan and Mattie maneuver the trunk down the stairs together. Zeena does not move from her chair or even look up. Before they go back into the house, Ethan tells Mattie that, despite Zeena's orders, he—not Jotham—will drive her to the train station.
Ethan again resolves to take a stand. But Zeena seems certain of her power and unconcerned that Ethan will actually do anything to upset her plans.
At dinner, Ethan cannot bring himself to eat. Zeena eats hungrily and offers Jotham seconds, though ordinarily she ignores him. She also accuses Mattie of stealing various items. After dinner, Mattie washes the dishes.
Zeena's kindness to Jotham makes her rudeness to Mattie even more vicious. Even when she's on the verge of leaving, Mattie does her chores.
Ethan tells Jotham not to come for Mattie as he will be driving her to the train station himself. Zeena protests but Ethan is firm. Zeena tries a second time, demanding that Ethan stay to fix the stove for the hired girl. Ethan replies that the stove was good enough for Mattie, so it ought to be good enough for the new girl. He tells Mattie to be ready at three o'clock, saying he has business in Corbury.
At last Ethan asserts his authority. He stands up to Zeena when she objects to his driving Mattie to the station, and resists her attempts to manipulate him. To buy more time with Mattie, he lies a second time—he doesn't really have business in Corbury.
As Ethan readies the horse for the trip, he notes the spring-like weather and remembers picking up Mattie at the station a little more than a year before, in similar weather. Zeena goes upstairs without saying goodbye, complaining of shooting pains in her legs. With a feeling of unreality, Ethan helps Mattie into the sleigh and they drive away.
The beautiful weather seems arbitrary to Ethan, since it's the same whether Mattie is arriving for the first time or leaving forever. Zeena's complaining returns as she again feels anxious about her power over Ethan, and tries to control him.
Instead of going in the direction of Starkfield, Ethan turns the sleigh toward Bettsbridge. They drive to a beautiful spot in the woods called Shadow Pond, where at a church picnic the summer before Mattie and Ethan sat on a fallen log by the pond. As they sat, Mattie noticed she was missing her gold locket. All the young men began looking for it, but it was Ethan who found it in the moss. Now, sitting again on the fallen log, Ethan reminds her of how he found the locket, and Mattie says she never saw anybody with such sharp eyes.
The moment at the pond sums up Ethan and Mattie's relationship: their shared love of nature, Mattie's status as a beautiful young woman desired by many young men, and Ethan's ability to help and protect her better than any of those other men. Ethan's sharp eyes symbolize both his strength and competence, and Mattie's trust in him.
Ethan longs to reach out and touch Mattie, to tell her how he feels, but just then Mattie says, "We mustn't stay here any longer." After a moment in which they stare into one another's eyes, they drive away as the sun sinks behind the hill.
Ethan is on the verge of taking action, but once again he moves too slowly and the moment passes him by, as symbolized by the sun sinking behind the hill.
As the sleigh winds through the fields back to the Starkfield road, Ethan asks Mattie what she plans to do when she gets to Stamford. When Mattie replies that she will try to get a job in a store, Ethan reminds her that it made her ill before, and asks if any of her father's friends can help her. Mattie says she wouldn't ask them, and Ethan says there isn't anything he wouldn't do for her if he could. At that moment Mattie pulls out the letter Ethan began writing to Zeena the night before. He asks Mattie if she would have gone west with him, but she says the question is pointless and tears the letter into pieces.
Mattie's future seems bleak, and it's questionable whether her feeble efforts will improve her situation. Her refusal to consider asking her father's friends for help shows the shame she feels, but it's also another instance of her resignation to the terrible fate she believes awaits her. She tears up the letter because she realizes it's just another empty gesture toward action by Ethan that will never go anywhere.
Ethan persists, and Mattie tells him she has been fantasizing about going away with him since the day at Shadow Pond. Ethan sadly tells her that he is "tied hand and foot," and that there isn't anything he can do. Mattie asks him to write to her and Ethan replies that writing is no good, when what he wants to do is be with her, and take care of her when she's sick or lonely. Mattie tries to reassure him, and Ethan says he supposes she'll marry someone else, and that he'd almost rather have her dead than let that happen. Mattie begins to sob, and says she wishes she were dead. Ethan feels ashamed of himself and tells her not to talk like that, and Mattie says Ethan is the only person who has ever been good to her.
Ethan behaves and speaks romantically in this scene, but his claims that he can do nothing sound hollow. When he says he would rather she were dead than married to someone else, it's hard not to despise him for his selfishness. Mattie's response introduces the idea that death might be the solution to their problems. Though she believes that Ethan has been good to her, her final statement is ironic because Ethan more than anyone has been the source of her troubles.
When they reach Starkfield they see some boys with sleds leaving the sledding-grounds, and at the top of the hill Ethan asks Mattie if she'd like to coast down with him one time before they drive to the station. Mattie says there isn't time, but Ethan helps her onto a sled that's lying under the trees and climbs on behind her. Mattie asks him if he can see, and Ethan says he could steer them down with his eyes closed. He peers through the dusk and they fly down the hill, passing safely by the elm. Ethan asks Mattie if she was scared, and she replies that she is never scared when she's with him. Ethan boasts that he is a good judge of distances, but that one swerve would have sent them into the elm, and they'd "never ha' come up again."
The topic of Ethan's excellent vision comes up again, and the couple revel in the traditional roles they assume. Ethan feels strong and competent; Mattie feels protected and cared for. Ethan's boast that his judgment saved them from a collision makes Mattie realize that they could easily kill themselves by steering into the tree.
As they climb back up the hill, Ethan thinks to himself that it's the last time they'll ever walk together. Ethan says he thinks the sled is Ned Hale's, and Mattie asks him if this is the place where he saw Ned and Ruth kissing. She kisses him, crying "Good-bye!" Ethan cries that he can't let her go, and Mattie, sobbing, says she can't bear to go either. They cling to each other as the church clock strikes five.
Mattie's impulse to kiss Ethan on the spot where another couple have kissed indicates her wish that their relationship, like Ruth and Ned's, were legitimate in the eyes of the community. The couple's passion causes them to act recklessly.
Suddenly, Mattie asks Ethan to sled down with her again, "So't we'll never come up any more." Ethan asks her what she means, and she says she wants him to steer them into the big elm. He says she's crazy, but Mattie responds that she will be if she has to leave him. Ethan thinks of going back to his intolerable life with Zeena, and kisses Mattie again, stroking her hair.
Mattie realizes that death offers them an escape of last resort. Society won't let them be together in life, but society can't touch them in death. For his part, Ethan decides that real death is preferable to the living death he shares with Zeena.
The train whistles in the distance. Ethan wonders if he will feel anything after he dies. His horse whinnies, and he thinks that the horse is probably wondering why it hasn't gotten its supper. As Ethan gazes down at the empty slope his eyes feel less sharp than usual.
Ethan climbs onto the sled and Mattie gets on in front of him. He orders her to get on behind him, because he wants to feel her holding him. The horse whinnies as they start down the slope, and they feel like they're flying up into the cloudy sky. Ethan repeats to himself, "I know we can fetch it," and imagines that the tree knows what they are planning and is waiting for them. Just before they strike the tree, a vision of Zeena's face appears before him, and as he tries to brush it aside the sled swerves, but he guides it back toward the tree.
The sled ride is a perfect metaphor for Ethan's life. He wants Mattie to cling to him like a traditional wife as he steers them through life. But in the end, Ethan can't maintain focus and gets distracted by outside forces, knocking him off course. The act of sledding can also be seen as a metaphor for Ethan's failure to take control over his life, just as the sled goes wherever the snowy course takes it.
Lying in the snow after the crash, Ethan sees a star and wonders vaguely if it is the star Sirius. He feels very tired and hears a frightened twittering, like a small animal in pain, nearby under the snow. He wants to help it, and feels around with his hand, which finds something soft—Mattie's hair. He realizes that his hand is on her face, and then he sees her eyes open and she says his name. Just then the horse whinnies, and he thinks, "I ought to be getting him his feed..."
Stars symbolized the ideas that fate and human lives are predetermined, since stars move in prescribed arcs across the sky. The opposing view holds that human beings are responsible for the course their lives take, and can influence their fate by choosing to act—much as Ethan sought to control the path of the sled. Ethan found himself caught between these two views, trying to control his life even though it always felt beyond his control. The result is catastrophic. Just as Ethan failed to achieve any of his other goals, he fails to commit suicide and ends up crippled for life.