Inman walks through the mountains, stopping only rarely. He stops to help a weeping woman, whose child has just died. Inman builds the child a tiny coffin and buries the child in the ground. In gratitude, the woman invites Inman for dinner, and cooks him a meal. That evening, Inman goes on his way.
This is one of the clearest examples of the quid pro quo of hospitality in the novel: Inman provides a very clear service for the weeping woman, at once abstract and concrete, in return for which he gets food.
Inman continues walking, often sleeping in abandoned buildings. One day, he passes by two skeletons dangling from the trees. The skeletons still have some hair and flesh on them.
The skeletons are a reminder of the harshness and danger of this world, and how close to death the characters are at any given moment.
A few days later, Inman camps out near the edge of a cliff. He wakes up at dawn to the sight of a huge bear. Quickly, Inman picks up his gun and points it at the animal. Then he remembers a promise he made himself to never to shoot a bear again. As a child, Inman hunted bears all the time. In Petersburg, however, he had a feverish dream in which he was chased by bears, and eventually took on the qualities of a bear himself. In the present, Inman stares at the bear, praying that he won’t be forced to shoot it. Inman notices that the bear is guarding a young cub.
Here we have another loaded conceit: a man who becomes a bear in the process of being chased by bears. One could say that Inman, in being chased by bullies and murderers, has become a bully and a murderer himself. (Think of the way he beats Junior, or the pleasure he takes in smacking Veasey over the head.) Inman seems to sense this—hence his dream, and his reluctance to hurt a tiny bear cub.
The bear seems to be approaching Inman, and suddenly it charges. Inman is able to dodge the bear’s attack, and the bear’s momentum pushes it over the cliff—it falls to its death. Inman contemplates leaving the cub by itself, but then he realizes that the cub will die. He considers taking the cub as a pet for Ada, but he quickly dismisses this idea. In the end, he shoots the cub. Because he’s starving, he packs the bear meat to eat.
Inman’s desperation to survive compels him to do some things that, on the surface, seem cruel and heartless. Killing a bear cub to survive in the wilderness might be justified by Inman’s need to eat something. But Inman’s real fear, it would seem, isn’t just that he has to kill the cub, but that he might not feel the appropriate guilt or reluctance to do so.
Inman proceeds with his journey. He can sense that he’s very close to home. One day, he realizes that he’s actually staring at Cold Mountain. Although Inman is overjoyed to be near the end of the journey, he also feels guilty and sinful as he eats his bear meat.
As Inman approaches the end of his quest, it becomes more obvious than ever that the quest has changed him in every way. Paradoxically, by trying to return to the psychological state he was in before he experienced the trauma of war, Inman has endured even more trauma.