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Ambrose Bierce: A Tough Tussle (Online Text)

Ambrose Bierce was a journalist, satirist and prolific writer of short stories.

Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1913 and athough there has been much speculation about what happened to him, it is unlikely that anyone will ever learn the truth and his fate remains a mystery to this day.

A Tough Tussle was first published in the San Francisco Examiner (September 30th 1888).



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A Tough Tussle

by Ambrose Bierce

One night in the autumn of 1861 a man sat alone in the heart of a forest in
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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 numbers 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, prolonging themselves deviously forward in the dim moonlight, the sergeants were themselves stationed, a few paces in rear of the line.  If driven sharply back by a sudden onset of the enemy—and 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 Waterloo he would have won that memorable battle and been overthrown later.

Second-Lieutenant Brainerd Byring was a brave and efficient officer, young and comparatively inexperienced 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 company on account of his education and engaging manner, and had been lucky enough to lose his captain by a Confederate bullet; in the resulting promotions he had gained a commission.  He had been in several engagements, such as they were—at Philippi, Rich Mountain, Carrick’s Ford and Greenbrier—and had borne himself with such gallantry as not to attract the attention of his superior officers.  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 unnaturally 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 respected as the dignity of death had to him no existence—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 menacing significance—a shout, a shot, or the footfall of one of his sergeants coming to apprise him of something worth knowing.  From the vast, invisible ocean of moonlight overhead fell, here and there, a slender, broken stream that seemed to plash against the intercepting 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 imagination found it easy to people with all manner of unfamiliar 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, translations 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 universe was one primeval mystery of darkness, without 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 sword-belt 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.  Nevertheless, he kept his eyes set 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 neighbor.  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 suppose it will require a thousand ages—perhaps ten thousand—for humanity to outgrow this feeling.  Where and when did it originate?  Away back, probably, 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 cannot even conjecture in thinking a dead body a malign thing endowed with some strange power of mischief, 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 immortality 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 resulted 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 uncovered it.  He saw the sharp profile, the chin in the air, the whole face, ghastly white in the moonlight.  The clothing was gray, 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 resumed 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 barely 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 recognizing his own laugh.

He could no longer conceal from himself the horrible 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 trembling.  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 ancestors 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 possession: 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 Byring 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 lonelier 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 desultory 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 backward 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, followed 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 outposts.”

The line was reestablished with fresh men, the roll called, the stragglers were reformed.  The Federal commander with a part of his staff, imperfectly clad, appeared upon the scene, asked a few questions, 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, commanded 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 officer 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 breast.  They turned him on his back and the surgeon removed it.

“Gad!” said the captain—“It is Byring!”—adding, 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 undischarged 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 odor.  Where
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it had lain were a few maggots, manifesting an imbecile activity.

The surgeon looked at the captain.  The captain looked at the surgeon.

Ambrose Bierce (1842 -- 19??)