Summary, Chapter Fifteen (“a vow to bear”), pp. 273-281
Inman continues coming closer to Cold Mountain. He also continues to come across people with heartrending troubles. He delays his walking for a day to build a coffin for a woman whose daughter has died. In payment, the woman cooks a meal for him, and Inman is so grateful that he wishes to say a prayer over the food, yet he cannot remember any prayers because it has been so long since he has had reason to say one.
Soon, the landscape begins to look familiar. Inman beds down near the edge of a cliff, but during the night he is awakened by the sound of a bear and her cub. He knows he could shoot the bear, but he will not. While in Petersburg, he had dreamed of being a bear, then of being shot and skinned by men. He awoke feeling that the bear was a symbol of hope to him, and he swore never to kill a bear again.
Inman simply tells the bear he means her no harm, but she rushes at him anyway, and in the darkness she plunges off the cliff behind Inman. “Even my best intentions come to naught, and hope is but an obstacle,” Inman tells himself. He feels terrible for the orphaned bear cub, but he shoots it to keep it from dying a slow death without its mother. He does not waste the meat, but cooks it. As he waits for the meat to boil, he looks out over the mountains and realizes that one of them stands apart from the others; it is Cold Mountain.
Analysis, chapter 15
Inman is still troubled by his moral worthiness. Circumstances have turned him into a killer, when all he seeks is peace and healing. His encounter with the bear echoes the Cherokee story he told Ada at their parting. There was one man among the villagers who did not have faith that the promised land existed, and he did not make himself clean for that world by fasting. Inman, in trying to keep his vow never to kill a bear, tries to make himself “clean” and worthy of Ada and Cold Mountain, but his circumstances again conspire against him. He cannot help but believe that he, like the unclean villager, does not deserve a promised land.