A Horseman in the Sky
by Ambrose Bierce
One sunny afternoon in the autumn of the year 1861, a soldier
lay in a clump of laurel by the side of a road in western
Virginia. He lay at full length upon his stomach, his feet
resting upon the toes, his head upon the left forearm. His
extended right hand loosely grasped his rifle. But for the
somewhat methodical disposition of his limbs and a slight
rhythmic movement of the cartridge-box at the back of his
belt, he might have been thought to be dead. He was asleep
at his post of duty. But if detected he would be dead shortly
afterward, that being the just and legal penalty of his crime.
The clump of laurel in which the criminal lay was in the angle
of a road which, after ascending southward, a steep acclivity
to that point, turned sharply to the west, running along the
summit for perhaps one hundred yards. There it turned southward
again and went zigzagging downward through the forest. At the
salient of that second angle was a large flat rock, jutting out
northward, overlooking the deep valley from which the road
ascended. The rock capped a high cliff; a stone dropped from
its outer edge would have fallen sheer downward one thousand
feet to the tops of the pines. The angle where the soldier lay
was on another spur of the same cliff. Had he been awake, he
would have commanded a view, not only of the short arm of the
road and the jutting rock, but of the entire profile of the
cliff below it. It might well have made him giddy to look.
The country was wooded everywhere except at the bottom of the
valley to the northward, where there was a small natural meadow,
through which flowed a stream scarcely visible from the valley's
rim. This open ground looked hardly larger than an ordinary
dooryard, but was really several acres in extent. Its green
was more vivid than that of the inclosing forest. Away beyond
it rose a line of giant cliffs similar to those upon which we
are supposed to stand in our survey of the savage scene, and
through which the road had somehow made its climb to the summit.
The configuration of the valley, indeed, was such that from
this point of observation it seemed entirely shut in, and one
could not but have wondered how the road which found a way out
of it had found a way into it, and whence came and whither went
the waters of the stream that parted the meadow more than a
thousand feet below.
No country is so wild and difficult but men will make it a
theater of war; concealed in the forest at the bottom of that
military rat-trap, in which half a hundred men in possession
of the exits might have starved an army to submission, lay five
regiments of Federal infantry. They had marched all the previous
day and night and were resting. At nightfall they would take
to the road again, climb to the place where their unfaithful
sentinel now slept, and descending the other slope of the
ridge, fall upon a camp of the enemy at about midnight. Their
hope was to surprise it, for the road led to the rear of it.
In case of failure, their position would be perilous in the
extreme; and fail they surely would, should accident or
vigilance apprise the enemy of the movement.
The sleeping sentinel in the clump of laurel was a young
Virginian named Carter Druse. He was the son of wealthy
parents, an only child, and had known such ease and
cultivation and high living as wealth and taste were
able to command in the mountain country of western Virginia.
His home was but a few miles from where he now lay. One
morning he had risen from the breakfast table and said,
quietly but gravely: "Father, a Union regiment has arrived
at Grafton. I am going to join it."
The father lifted his leonine head, looked at the son a
moment in silence, and replied: "Well, go, sir, and
whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty.
Virginia, to which you are a traitor, must get on without
you. Should we both live to the end of the war, we will
speak further of the matter. Your mother, as the physician
has informed you, is in a most critical condition; at the
best, she cannot be with us longer than a few weeks, but
that time is precious. It would be better not to disturb
So Carter Druse, bowing reverently to his father, who
returned the salute with a stately courtesy that masked
a breaking heart, left the home of his childhood to go
soldiering. By conscience and courage, by deeds of devotion
and daring, he soon commended himself to his fellows
and his officers; and it was to these qualities and to
some knowledge of the country that he owed his selection
for his present perilous duty at the extreme outpost.
Nevertheless, fatigue had been stronger than resolution,
and he had fallen asleep. What good or bad angel came in a
dream to rouse him from his state of crime, who shall say?
Without a movement, without a sound, in the profound silence
and the languor of the late afternoon, some invisible
messenger of fate touched with unsealing finger the eyes
of his consciousness--whispered into the ear of his spirit
the mysterious awakening word which no human lips ever
have spoken, no human memory ever has recalled. He quietly
raised his forehead from his arm and looked between the
masking stems of the laurels, instinctively closing his
right hand about the stock of his rifle.
His first feeling was a keen artistic delight. On a colossal
pedestal, the cliff--motionless at the extreme edge of the
capping rock and sharply outlined against the sky--was an
equestrian statue of impressive dignity. The figure of the
man sat the figure of the horse, straight and soldierly, but
with the repose of a Grecian god carted in the marble which
limits the suggestion of activity. The gray costume harmonized
with its aerial background; the metal of accoutrement and
caparison was softened and subdued by the shadow; the animal's
skin had no points of high light. A carbine, strikingly
foreshortened, lay across the pommel of the saddle, kept in
place by the right hand grasping it at the "grip"; the left
hand, holding the bridle rein, was invisible. In silhouette
against the sky, the profile of the horse was cut with the
sharpness of a cameo; it looked across the heights of air to
the confronting cliffs beyond. The face of the rider, turned
slightly away, showed only an outline of temple and beard;
he was looking downward to the bottom of the valley. Magnified
by its lift against the sky and by the soldier's testifying
sense of the formidableness of a near enemy, the group appeared
of heroic, almost colossal, size.
For an instant Druse had a strange, half-defined feeling that
he had slept to the end of the war and was looking upon a noble
work of art reared upon that eminence to commemorate the deeds
of an heroic past of which he had been an inglorious part. The
feeling was dispelled by a slight movement of the group: the
horse, without moving its feet, had drawn its body slightly
backward from the verge; the man remained immobile as before.
Broad awake and keenly alive to the significance of the situation,
Druse now brought the butt of his rifle against his cheek by
cautiously pushing the barrel forward through the bushes, cocked
the piece, and glancing through the sights, covered a vital spot
of the horseman's breast. A touch upon the trigger and all
would have been well with Carter Druse. At that instant the
horseman turned his head and looked in the direction of his
concealed foeman--seemed to look into his very face, into his
eyes, into his brave, compassionate heart.
Is it, then, so terrible to kill an enemy in war--an enemy who
has surprised a secret vital to the safety of one's self and
comrades--an enemy more formidable for his knowledge than all
his army for its numbers? Carter Druse grew pale; he shook in
every limb, turned faint, and saw the statuesque group before
him as black figures, rising, falling, moving unsteadily in arcs
of circles in a fiery sky. His hand fell away from his weapon,
his head slowly dropped until his face rested on the leaves in
which he lay. This courageous gentleman and hardy soldier was
near swooning from intensity of emotion.
It was not for long; in another moment his face was raised from
earth, his hands resumed their places on the rifle, his forefinger
sought the trigger; mind, heart, and eyes were clear, conscience
and reason sound. He could not hope to capture that enemy; to
alarm him would but send him dashing to his camp with his fatal
news. The duty of the soldier was plain: the man must be shot
dead from ambush--without warning, without a moment's spiritual
preparation, with never so much as an unspoken prayer, he must
be sent to his account. But no--there is a hope; he may have
discovered nothing--perhaps he is but admiring the sublimity
of the landscape. If permitted, he may turn and ride carelessly
away in the direction whence he came. Surely it will be possible
to judge at the instant of his withdrawing whether he knows. It
may well be that his fixity of attention--Druse turned his
head and looked through the deeps of air downward, as from the
surface of the bottom of a translucent sea. He saw creeping
across the green meadow a sinuous line of figures of men and
horses--some foolish commander was permitting the soldiers
of his escort to water their beasts in the open, in plain view
from a hundred summits!
Druse withdrew his eyes from the valley and fixed them again
upon the group of man and horse in the sky, and again it was
through the sights of his rifle. But this time his aim was at
the horse. In his memory, as if they were a divine mandate,
rang the words of his father at their parting: "Whatever may
occur, do what you conceive to be your duty." He was calm now.
His teeth were firmly but not rigidly closed; his nerves were
as tranquil as a sleeping babe's--not a tremor affected any
muscle of his body; his breathing, until suspended in the act
of taking aim, was regular and slow. Duty had conquered; the
spirit had said to the body: "Peace, be still." He fired.
An officer of the Federal force, who in a spirit of adventure
or in quest of knowledge, had left the hidden bivouac in the
valley, and with aimless feet, had made his way to the lower
edge of a small open space near the foot of the cliff, was
considering what he had to gain by pushing his exploration
further. At a distance of a quarter-mile before him, but
apparently at a stone's throw, rose from its fringe of pines
the gigantic face of rock, towering to so great a height above
him that it made him giddy to look up to where its edge cut
a sharp, rugged line against the sky. It presented a clean,
vertical profile against a background of blue sky to a
point half the way down, and of distant hills hardly less
blue, thence to the tops of the trees at its base. Lifting
his eyes to the dizzy altitude of its summit, the officer
saw an astonishing sight--a man on horseback riding down
into the valley through the air!
Straight upright sat the rider, in military fashion, with a firm
seat in the saddle, a strong clutch upon the rein to hold his
charger from too impetuous a plunge. From his bare head his
long hair streamed upward, waving like a plume. His hands were
concealed in the cloud of the horse's lifted mane. The animal's
body was as level as if every hoof-stroke encountered the resistant
earth. Its motions were those of a wild gallop, but even as the
officer looked they ceased, with all the legs thrown sharply
forward as in the act of alighting from a leap.
But this was a flight!
Filled with amazement and terror by this apparition of a horseman
in the sky--half believing himself the chosen scribe of some new
Apocalypse, the officer was overcome by the intensity of his
emotions; his legs failed him and he fell. Almost at the same
instant he heard a crashing sound in the trees--a sound that
died without an echo--and all was still.
The officer rose to his feet, trembling. The familiar sensation
of an abraded shin recalled his dazed faculties. Pulling himself
together, he ran rapidly obliquely away from the cliff to a point
distant from its foot; thereabout he expected to find his man; and
thereabout he naturally failed. In the fleeting instant of his vision
his imagination had been so wrought upon by the apparent grace and
ease and intention of the marvelous performance that it did not
occur to him that the line of march of aerial cavalry is directly
downward, and that he could find the objects of his search at the
very foot of the cliff. A half-hour later he returned to camp.
This officer was a wise man; he knew better than to tell an
incredible truth. He said nothing of what he had seen. But
when the commander asked him if in his scout he had learned
anything of advantage to the expedition, he answered:
"Yes, sir; there is no road leading down into this valley
from the southward."
The commander, knowing better, smiled.
After firing his shot, Private Carter Druse reloaded his rifle
and resumed his watch. Ten minutes had hardly passed when a
Federal sergeant crept cautiously to him on hands and knees.
Druse neither turned his head nor looked at him, but lay
without motion or sign of recognition.
"Did you fire?" the sergeant whispered.
"A horse. It was standing on yonder rock--pretty far out. You see
it is no longer there. It went over the cliff."
The man's face was white, but he showed no other sign of emotion.
Having answered, he turned away his eyes and said no more. The
sergeant did not understand.
"See here, Druse," he said, after a moment's silence, "it's
no use making a mystery. I order you to report. Was there
anybody on the horse?"
The sergeant rose to his feet and walked away. "Good God!" he said.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~