Ambrose Bierce

01 Apr, 2014 10:19 PM

One sunny autumn afternoon a child strayed away from its rude home in a
small field and entered a forest unobserved. It was happy in a new sense of
freedom from control, happy in the opportunity of exploration and adventure; for
this childÕs spirit, in bodies of its ancestors, had for thousands of years been
trained to memorable feats of discovery and conquestÑvictories in battles whose
critical moments were centuries, whose victorsÕ camps were cities of hewn stone.
From the cradle of its race it had conquered its way through two conti-nents and
passing a great sea had penetrated a third, there to be born to war and dominion
as a heritage.
The child was a boy aged about six years, the son of a poor planter. In his
younger manhood the father had been a soldier, had fought against naked savages
and followed the flag of his country into the capital of a civilized race to the
far South. In the peaceful life of a planter the warrior-fire survived; once
kindled, it is never extinguished. The man loved military books and pictures and
the boy had understood enough to make himself a wooden sword, though even the
eye of his father would hardly have known it for what it was. This weapon he now
bore bravely, as became the son of an heroic race, and pausing now and again in
the sunny space of the forest assumed, with some exaggera-tion, the postures of
aggression and defense that he had been taught by the engraverÕs art. Made
reckless by the ease with which he overcame invisible foes attempting to stay
his advance, he committed the common enough military error of pushing the
pursuit to a dangerous extreme, until he found himself upon the margin of a wide
but shallow brook, whose rapid waters barred his direct advance against the
flying foe that had crossed with illogical ease. But the intrepid victor was not
to be baffled; the spirit of the race which had passed the great sea burned
unconquerable in that small breast and would not be denied. Finding a place
where some bowlders in the bed of the stream lay but a step or a leap apart, he
made his way across and fell again upon the rear-guard of his imaginary foe,
putting all to the sword.
Now that the battle had been won, prudence required that he withdraw to his
base of operations. Alas; like many a mightier conqueror, and like one, the
mightiest, he could not

curb the lust for war,
Nor learn that tempted Fate will leave the loftiest star.

Advancing from the bank of the creek he suddenly found himself confronted
with a new and more formidable enemy: in the path that he was following, sat,
bolt upright, with ears erect and paws suspended before it, a rabbit! With a
startled cry the child turned and fled, he knew not in what direction, calling
with inarticulate cries for his mother, weeping, stumbling, his tender skin
cruelly torn by brambles, his little heart beating hard with terrorÑbreathless,
blind with tearsÑlost in the forest! Then, for more than an hour, he wandered
with erring feet through the tangled undergrowth, till at last, overcome by
fatigue, he lay down in a narrow space between two rocks, within a few yards of
the stream and still grasping his toy sword, no longer a weapon but a
com-panion, sobbed himself to sleep. The wood birds sang merrily above his head;
the squirrels, whisking their bravery of tail, ran barking from tree to tree,
unconscious of the pity of it, and somewhere far away was a strange, muffled
thunder, as if the partridges were drumming in celebration of natureÕs victory
over the son of her immemorial enslavers. And back at the little plantation,
where white men and black were hastily searching the fields and hedges in alarm,
a motherÕs heart was breaking for her missing child.
Hours passed, and then the little sleeper rose to his feet. The chill of the
evening was in his limbs, the fear of the gloom in his heart. But he had rested,
and he no longer wept. With some blind instinct which impelled to action he
struggled through the undergrowth about him and came to a more open groundÑon
his right the brook, to the left a gentle acclivity studded with infrequent
trees; over all, the gathering gloom of twilight. A thin, ghostly mist rose
along the water. It frightened and repelled him; instead of recrossing, in the
direction whence he had come, he turned his back upon it, and went forward
toward the dark inclosing wood. Suddenly he saw before him a strange moving
object which he took to be some large animalÑa dog, a pigÑhe could not name it;
perhaps it was a bear. He had seen pictures of bears, but he knew of nothing to
their discredit and had vaguely wished to meet one. But some-thing in form or
movement of this objectÑsomething in the awkwardness of its approachÑtold him
that it was not a bear, and curiosity was stayed by fear. He stood still and as
it came slowly on gained courage every moment, for he saw that at least it had
not the long, menacing ears of the rabbit. Possibly his impressionable mind was
half conscious of something familiar in its sham-bling, awkward gait. Before it
had approached near enough to resolve his doubts he saw that it was followed by
another and another. To right and to left were many more; the whole open space
about him was alive with themÑall moving toward the brook.
They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands
only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hang-ing idle
at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the
attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance
foot by foot in the same direction. Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they
came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly
past them, then resuming their movement. They came by dozens and by hundreds; as
far on either hand as one could see in the deepening gloom they extended and the
black wood behind them appeared to be inexhaustible. The very ground seemed in
motion toward the creek. Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on,
but lay motionless. He was dead. Some, pausing, made strange gestures with their
hands, erected their arms and low-ered them again, clasped their heads; spread
palms upward, as men are some-times seen to do in public prayer.
Not all of this did the child note; it is what would have been noted by an
elder observer; he saw little but that these were men, yet crept like babes.
Being men, they were not terrible, though unfamiliarly clad. He moved among them
freely, going from one to another and peering into their faces with childish
curiosity. All their faces were singularly white and many were streaked and
gouted with red. Something in thisÑsomething too, perhaps, in their gro-tesque
attitudes and movementsÑreminded him of the painted clown whom he had seen last
summer in the circus, and he laughed as he watched them. But on and ever on they
crept, these maimed and bleeding men, as heedless as he of the dramatic contrast
between his laughter and their own ghastly gravity. To him it was a merry
spectacle. He had seen his fatherÕs negroes creep upon their hands and knees for
his amusementÑhad ridden them so, "making believe" they were his horses. He now
approached one of these crawling fig-ures from behind and with an agile movement
mounted it astride. The man sank upon his breast, recovered, flung the small boy
fiercely to the ground as an unbroken colt might have done, then turned upon him
a face that lacked a lower jawÑfrom the upper teeth to the throat was a great
red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splinters of bone. The
unnatural prominence of nose, the absence of chin, the fierce eyes, gave this
man the appearance of a great bird of prey crimsoned in throat and breast by the
blood of its quarry. The man rose to his knees, the child to his feet. The man
shook his fist at the child; the child, terrified at last, ran to a tree near
by, got upon the farther side of it and took a more serious viewÕ of the
situation. And so the clumsy multi-tude dragged itself slowly and painfully
along in hideous pantomimeÑmoved forward down the slope like a swarm of great
black beetles, with never a sound of goingÑin silence profound, absolute.
Instead of darkening, the haunted landscape began to brighten. Through the
belt of trees beyond the brook shone a strange red light, the trunks and
branches of the trees making a black lacework against it. It struck the creeping
figures and gave them monstrous shadows, which caricatured their movements on
the lit grass. It fell upon their faces, touching their whiteness with a ruddy
tinge, accentuating the stains with which so many of them were freaked and
maculated. It sparkled on buttons and bits of metal in their clothing.
Instinc-tively the child turned toward the growing splendor and moved down the
slope with his horrible companions; in a few moments had passed the foremost of
the throngÑnot much of a feat, considering his advantages. He placed himself in
the lead, his wooden sword still in hand, and solemnly directed the march,
conforming his pace to theirs and occasionally turning as if to see that his
forces did not straggle. Surely such a leader never before had such a following.
Scattered about upon the ground now slowly narrowing by the encroachment of
this awful march to water, were certain articles to which, in the lead-erÕs
mind, were coupled no significant associations: an occasional blanket, tightly
rolled lengthwise, doubled and the ends bound together with a string; a heavy
knapsack here, and there a broken rifleÑsuch things, in short, as are found in
the rear of retreating troops, the "spoor" of men flying from their hunters.
Everywhere near the creek, which here had a margin of lowland, the earth was
trodden into mud by the feet of men and horses. An observer of better experience
in the use of his eyes would have noticed that these footprints pointed in both
directions; the ground had been twice passed overÑin advance and in retreat. A
few hours before, these desperate, stricken men, with their more fortunate and
now distant comrades, had penetrated the forest in thou-sands. Their successive
battalions, breaking into swarms and re-forming in lines, had passed the child
on every sideÑhad almost trodden on him as he slept. The rustle and murmur of
their march had not awakened him. Almost within a stoneÕs throw of where he lay
they had fought a battle; but all unheard by him were the roar of the musketry,
the shock of the cannon, "the thunder of the captains and the shouting." He had
slept through it all, grasping his little wooden sword with perhaps a tighter
clutch in unconscious sympathy with his martial environment, but as heedless of
the grandeur of the struggle as the dead who had died to make the glory.
The fire beyond the belt of woods on the farther side of the creek,
reflected to earth from the canopy of its own smoke, was now suffusing the whole
land-scape. It transformed the sinuous line of mist to the vapor of gold. The
water gleamed with dashes of red, and red, too, were many of the stones
protruding above the surface. But that was blood; the less desperately wounded
had stained them in crossing. On them, too, the child now crossed with eager
steps; he was going to the fire. As he stood upon the farther bank he turned
about to look at the companions of his march. The advance was arriving at the
creek. The stronger had already drawn themselves to the brink and plunged their
faces into the flood. Three or four who lay without motion appeared to have no
heads. At this the childÕs eyes expanded with wonder; even his hospitable
understanding could not accept a phenomenon implying such vitality as that.
After slaking their thirst these men had not had the strength to back away from
the water, nor to keep their heads above it. They were drowned. In rear of
these, the open spaces of the forest showed the leader as many formless figures
of his grim command as at first; but not nearly so many were in motion. He waved
his cap for their encouragement and smilingly pointed with his weapon in the
direction of the guiding lightÑa pillar of fire to this strange exodus.7
Confident of the fidelity of his forces, he now entered the belt of woods,
passed through it easily in the red illumination, climbed a fence, ran across a
field, turning now and again to coquet with his responsive shadow, and so
approached the blazing ruin of a dwelling. Desolation everywhere! In all the
wide glare not a living thing was visible. He cared nothing for that; the
spec-tacle pleased, and he danced with glee in imitation of the wavering flames.
He ran about, collecting fuel, but every object that he found was too heavy for
him to cast in from the distance to which the heat limited his approach. In
despair he flung in his swordÑa surrender to the superior forces of nature. His
military career was at an end.
Shifting his position, his eyes fell upon some outbuildings which had an
oddly familiar appearance, as if he had dreamed of them. He stood considering
them with wonder, when suddenly the entire plantation, with its inclosing
forest, seemed to turn as if upon a pivot. His little world swung half around;
the points of the compass were reversed. He recognized the blazing building as
his own home!
For a moment he stood stupefied by the power of the revelation, then ran
with stumbling feet, making a half-circuit of the ruin. There, conspicuous in
the light of the conflagration, lay the dead body of a womanÑthe white face
turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing
deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater
part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain
protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters
of crimson bubblesÑthe work of a shell.
The child moved his little hands, making wild, uncertain gestures. He
uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable criesÑsomething between the
chat-tering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkeyÑa startling, soulless, unholy
sound, the language of a devil. The child was a deaf mute.
Then he stood motionless, with quivering lips, looking down upon the wreck.

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