A tough tussle

Ambrose Bierce

25 Mar, 2014 08:39 AM

ONE night in the autumn of 1861 a man sat alone in the heart of a forest
in western Virginia. The region was one of the wildest on the
continent--the Cheat Mountain country. There was no lack of people close
at hand, however; within a mile of where the man sat was the now silent
camp of a whole Federal brigade. Somewhere about--it might be still
nearer--was a force of the enemy, the num- bers unknown. It was this
uncertainty as to its numbers and position that accounted for the man's
presence in that lonely spot; he was a young officer of a Federal
infantry regiment and his business there was to guard his sleeping
comrades in the camp against a surprise. He was in command of a
detachment of men constituting a picket-guard. These men he had
stationed just at nightfall in an irregular line, determined by the
nature of the ground, several hundred yards in front of where he now
sat. The line ran through the forest, among the rocks and laurel
thickets, the men fifteen or twenty paces apart, all in concealment and
under injunction of strict silence and unremitting vigilance. In four
hours, if nothing occurred, they would be relieved by a fresh detachment
from the reserve now resting in care of its captain some distance away
to the left and rear. Before stationing his men the young officer of
whom we are writing had pointed out to his two sergeants the spot at
which he would be found if it should be necessary to consult him, or if
his presence at the front line should be required.
It was a quiet enough spot--the fork of an old wood-road, on the two
branches of which, prolong- ing themselves deviously forward in the dim
moon- light, the sergeants were themselves stationed, a few paces in
rear of the line. If driven sharply back by a sudden onset of the
enemy--the pickets are not expected to make a stand after firing--the
men would come into the converging roads and naturally following them to
their point of intersection could be rallied and 'formed.' In his small
way the author of these dispositions was something of a strategist; if
Napoleon had planned as intelligently at Water- loo he would have won
that memorable battle and been overthrown later.
Second-Lieutenant Brainerd Byring was a brave and efficient officer,
young and comparatively inex- perienced as he was in the business of
killing his fellow-men. He had enlisted in the very first days of the
war as a private, with no military knowledge whatever, had been made
first-sergeant of his com- pany on account of his education and engaging
manner, and had been lucky enough to lose his cap- tain by a Confederate
bullet; in the resulting promo- tions he had gained a commission. He had
been in several engagements, such as they were--at Phi- lippi, Rich
Mountain, Carrick's Ford and Green- brier--and had borne himself with
such gallantry as not to attract the attention of his superior of-
ficers. The exhilaration of battle was agreeable to him, but the sight
of the dead, with their clay faces, blank eyes and stiff bodies, which
when not unnat- urally shrunken were unnaturally swollen, had always
intolerably affected him. He felt toward them a kind of reasonless
antipathy that was something more than the physical and spiritual
repugnance common to us all. Doubtless this feeling was due to his
unusually acute sensibilities--his keen sense of the beautiful, which
these hideous things outraged. Whatever may have been the cause, he
could not look upon a dead body without a loathing which had in it an
element of resentment. What others have re- spected as the dignity of
death had to him no exist- ence--was altogether unthinkable. Death was a
thing to be hated. It was not picturesque, it had no tender and solemn
side--a dismal thing, hideous in all its manifestations and suggestions.
Lieutenant Byring was a braver man than anybody knew, for nobody knew
his horror of that which he was ever ready to incur.
Having posted his men, instructed his sergeants and retired to his
station, he seated himself on a log, and with senses all alert began his
vigil. For greater ease he loosened his sword-belt and taking his heavy
revolver from his holster laid it on the log beside him. He felt very
comfortable, though he hardly gave the fact a thought, so intently did
he listen for any sound from the front which might have a menac- ing
significance--a shout, a shot, or the footfall of one of his sergeants
coming to apprise him of some- thing worth knowing. From the vast,
invisible ocean of moonlight overhead fell, here and there, a slender,
broken stream that seemed to plash against the in- tercepting branches
and trickle to earth, forming small white pools among the clumps of
laurel. But these leaks were few and served only to accentuate the
blackness of his environment, which his imagina- tion found it easy to
people with all manner of un- familiar shapes, menacing, uncanny, or
merely grotesque.
He to whom the portentous conspiracy of night and solitude and
silence in the heart of a great forest is not an unknown experience
needs not to be told what another world it all is--how even the most
commonplace and familiar objects take on another character. The trees
group themselves differently; they draw closer together, as if in fear.
The very silence has another quality than the silence of the day. And it
is full of half-heard whispers--whispers that startle--ghosts of sounds
long dead. There are living sounds, too, such as are never heard under
other conditions: notes of strange night-birds, the cries of small
animals in sudden encounters with stealthy foes or in their dreams, a
rustling in the dead leaves--it may be the leap of a wood-rat, it may be
the footfall of a panther. What caused the breaking of that twig?--what
the low, alarmed twittering in that bushful of birds? There are sounds
without a name, forms without substance, transla- tions in space of
objects which have not been seen to move, movements wherein nothing is
observed to change its place. Ah, children of the sunlight and the
gaslight, how little you know of the world in which you live!
Surrounded at a little distance by armed and watchful friends,
Byring felt utterly alone. Yielding himself to the solemn and mysterious
spirit of the time and place, he had forgotten the nature of his
connection with the visible and audible aspects and phases of the night.
The forest was boundless; men and the habitations of men did not exist.
The uni- verse was one primeval mystery of darkness, with- out form and
void, himself the sole, dumb questioner of its eternal secret. Absorbed
in thoughts born of this mood, he suffered the time to slip away
unnoted. Meantime the infrequent patches of white light lying amongst
the tree-trunks had undergone changes of size, form and place. In one of
them near by, just at the roadside, his eye fell upon an object that he
had not previously observed. It was almost before his face as he sat; he
could have sworn that it had not before been there. It was partly
covered in shadow, but he could see that it was a human figure.
Instinctively he adjusted the clasp of his swordbelt and laid hold of
his pistol--again he was in a world of war, by occupation an assassin.
The figure did not move. Rising, pistol in hand, he approached. The
figure lay upon its back, its upper part in shadow, but standing above
it and looking down upon the face, he saw that it was a dead body. He
shuddered and turned from it with a feeling of sickness and disgust,
resumed his seat upon the log, and forgetting military prudence struck a
match and lit a cigar. In the sudden blackness that followed the
extinction of the flame he felt a sense of relief; he could no longer
see the object of his aversion. Never- theless, he kept his eyes in that
direction until it appeared again with growing distinctness. It seemed
to have moved a trifle nearer.
'Damn the thing!' he muttered. 'What does it want?'
It did not appear to be in need of anything but a soul.
Byring turned away his eyes and began humming a tune, but he broke
off in the middle of a bar and looked at the dead body. Its presence
annoyed him, though he could hardly have had a quieter neigh- bour. He
was conscious, too, of a vague, indefinable feeling that was new to him.
It was not fear, but rather a sense of the supernatural--in which he did
not at all believe.
'I have inherited it,' he said to himself. 'I sup- pose it will
require a thousand ages--perhaps ten thousand--for humanity to outgrow
this feeling. Where and when did it originate? Away back, prob- ably, in
what is called the cradle of the human race --the plains of Central
Asia. What we inherit as a superstition our barbarous ancestors must
have held as a reasonable conviction. Doubtless they believed themselves
justified by facts whose nature we can- not even conjecture in thinking
a dead body a malign thing endowed with some strange power of mis-
chief, with perhaps a will and a purpose to exert it. Possibly they had
some awful form of religion of which that was one of the chief
doctrines, sedulously taught by their priesthood, as ours teach the im-
mortality of the soul. As the Aryans moved slowly on, to and through the
Caucasus passes, and spread over Europe, new conditions of life must
have re- sulted in the formulation of new religions. The old belief in
the malevolence of the dead body was lost from the creeds and even
perished from tradition but it left its heritage of terror, which is
transmitted from generation to generation--is as much a part of us as
are our blood and bones.'
In following out his thought he had forgotten that which suggested
it; but now his eye fell again upon the corpse. The shadow had now
altogether un- covered it. He saw the sharp profile, the chin in the
air, the whole face, ghastly white in the moonlight. The clothing was
grey, the uniform of a Confederate soldier. The coat and waistcoat,
unbuttoned, had fallen away on each side, exposing the white shirt. The
chest seemed unnaturally prominent, but the abdomen had sunk in, leaving
a sharp projection at the line of the lower ribs. The arms were
extended, the left knee was thrust upward. The whole posture impressed
Byring as having been studied with a view to the horrible.
'Bah!' he exclaimed; 'he was an actor--he knows how to be dead.'
He drew away his eyes, directing them resolutely along one of the
roads leading to the front, and re- sumed his philosophizing where he
had left off.
'It may be that our Central Asian ancestors had not the custom of
burial. In that case it is easy to understand their fear of the dead,
who really were a menace and an evil. They bred pestilences. Children
were taught to avoid the places where they lay, and to run away if by
inadvertence they came near a corpse. I think, indeed, I'd better go
away from this chap.'
He half rose to do so, then remembered that he had told his men in
front and the officer in the rear who was to relieve him that he could
at any time be found at that spot. It was a matter of pride, too. If he
abandoned his post he feared they would think he feared the corpse. He
was no coward and he was unwilling to incur anybody's ridicule. So he
again seated himself, and to prove his courage looked boldly at the
body. The right arm--the one farthest from him--was now in shadow. He
could hardly see the hand which, he had before observed, lay at the root
of a clump of laurel. There had been no change, a fact which gave him a
certain comfort, he could not have said why. He did not at once remove
his eyes; that which we do not wish to see has a strange fascination,
sometimes irresistible. Of the woman who covers her eyes with her hands
and looks between the fingers let it be said that the wits have dealt
with her not altogether justly.
Byring suddenly became conscious of a pain in his right hand. He
withdrew his eyes from his enemy and looked at it. He was grasping the
hilt of his drawn sword so tightly that it hurt him. He observed, too,
that he was leaning forward in a strained attitude-- crouching like a
gladiator ready to spring at the throat of an antagonist. His teeth were
clenched and he was breathing hard. This matter was soon set right, and
as his muscles relaxed and he drew a long breath he felt keenly enough
the ludicrousness of the incident. It affected him to laughter. Heavens!
what sound was that? what mindless devil was uttering an unholy glee in
mockery of human merriment? He sprang to his feet and looked about him,
not recogniz- ing his own laugh.
He could no longer conceal from himself the hor- rible fact of his
cowardice; he was thoroughly frightened! He would have run from the
spot, but his legs refused their office; they gave way beneath him and
he sat again upon the log, violently trem- bling. His face was wet, his
whole body bathed in a chill perspiration. He could not even cry out.
Distinctly he heard behind him a stealthy tread, as of some wild animal,
and dared not look over his shoulder. Had the soulless living joined
forces with the soulless dead?--was it an animal? Ah, if he could but be
assured of that! But by no effort of will could he now unfix his gaze
from the face of the dead man.
I repeat that Lieutenant Byring was a brave and intelligent man. But
what would you have? Shall a man cope, single-handed, with so monstrous
an alliance as that of night and solitude and silence and the
dead--while an incalculable host of his own an- cestors shriek into the
ear of his spirit their coward counsel, sing their doleful death-songs
in his heart, and disarm his very blood of all its iron? The odds are
too great--courage was not made for so rough use as that.
One sole conviction now had the man in posses- sion: that the body
had moved. It lay nearer to the edge of its plot of light--there could
be no doubt of it. It had also moved its arms, for, look, they are both
in the shadow! A breath of cold air struck By- ring full in the face;
the boughs of trees above him stirred and moaned. A strongly defined
shadow passed across the face of the dead, left it luminous, passed back
upon it and left it half obscured. The horrible thing was visibly
moving! At that moment a single shot rang out upon the picket-line--a
lone- lier and louder, though more distant, shot than ever had been
heard by mortal ear! It broke the spell of that enchanted man; it slew
the silence and the solitude, dispersed the hindering host from Central
Asia and released his modern manhood. With a cry like that of some great
bird pouncing upon its prey he sprang forward, hot-hearted for action!
Shot after shot now came from the front. There were shoutings and
confusion, hoof-beats and desul- tory cheers. Away to the rear, in the
sleeping camp, were a singing of bugles and grumble of drums. Pushing
through the thickets on either side the roads came the Federal pickets,
in full retreat, firing back- ward at random as they ran. A straggling
group that had followed back one of the roads, as instructed, suddenly
sprang away into the bushes as half a hundred horsemen thundered by
them, striking wildly with their sabres as they passed. At headlong
speed these mounted madmen shot past the spot where Byring had sat, and
vanished round an angle of the road, shouting and firing their pistols.
A moment later there was a roar of musketry, fol- lowed by dropping
shots--they had encountered the reserve-guard in line; and back they
came in dire confusion, with here and there an empty saddle and many a
maddened horse, bullet-stung, snorting and plunging with pain. It was
all over--'an affair of out-posts.'
The line was re-established with fresh men, the roll called, the
stragglers were re-formed. The Fed- eral commander, with a part of his
staff, imperfectly clad, appeared upon the scene, asked a few ques-
tions, looked exceedingly wise and retired. After standing at arms for
an hour the brigade in camp 'swore a prayer or two' and went to bed.
Early the next morning a fatigue-party, com- manded by a captain and
accompanied by a surgeon, searched the ground for dead and wounded. At
the fork of the road, a little to one side, they found two bodies lying
close together--that of a Federal of- ficer and that of a Confederate
private. The officer had died of a sword-thrust through the heart, but
not, apparently, until he had inflicted upon his enemy no fewer than
five dreadful wounds. The dead officer lay on his face in a pool of
blood, the weapon still in his heart. They turned him on his back and
the surgeon removed it.
'Gad!' said the captain--'It is Byring!'--add- ing, with a glance at
the other, 'They had a tough tussle.'
The surgeon was examining the sword. It was that of a line officer
of Federal infantry--exactly like the one worn by the captain. It was,
in fact, Byring's own. The only other weapon discovered was an un-
discharged revolver in the dead officer's belt.
The surgeon laid down the sword and approached the other body. It
was frightfully gashed and stabbed, but there was no blood. He took hold
of the left foot and tried to straighten the leg. In the effort the body
was displaced. The dead do not wish to be moved--it protested with a
faint, sickening odour. Where it had lain were a few maggots,
manifesting an imbecile activity.
The surgeon looked at the captain. The captain looked at the

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