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Cold Mountain is at once a Civil War story, a magnificent love story, and the story of two parallel odysseys. The first is the odyssey of Inman, a wounded, disillusioned Confederate soldier who has failed to die in the hospital. He deserts and begins a lonely, dangerous walk across the devastated southern Appalachians. The thought of being reunited with his beloved Ada helps him endure the perils that hinder his way. He meets rogues and outlaws, and survives Teague’s Home Guard more than once. In addition, he survives severe weather, rugged terrain and a close encounter with a bear. Along the way he helps people whose lives have been destroyed by the war. In return, he is saved from starvation by what meager offerings they share.
The second is the odyssey of Ada, a cultured outsider to the mountains. Her father has died and left her helpless on the farm he bought as a pastime. Esco and Sally Swanger, Ada’s closest neighbors, direct a drifter named Ruby to Ada’s farm to help. Ruby agrees to stay on with Ada provided Ada treats her as an equal rather than as a slave. With Ruby’s knowledge of nature and self-sufficient attitude, the two women are able to get the farm into working order.
On the way back to Ada’s farm, Inman is shot by a boy from Teague’s Home Guard and dies in Ada’s arms.
The epilogue finds Ada, nine years later, with a child by Inman. They live happily on Ada’s farm with Ruby and her family. Ada has grown to love Cold Mountain as Inman did.