Some of the best tales of the American people derive from the Civil War and its aftermath. A Horseman in the Sky is no exception and a great example of the use of the set-up and pay-off approach to beginning and ending a short story.
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, death being the just and legal penalty of his crime.
The strength of this introduction lies in its economy, authenticity, and visual impact. It leaves the reader in no doubt as to the picture emerging, while offering no more than a whisper of the action to come.
Consider the first line.
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.
Weather aside, the first line introduces the protagonist, the main character, a soldier. The year 1861 is the first year of the Civil War and the US state of Virginia itself is in a state of division, and this is part of the set-up. The rest comes later. This first line also begs the question “which side is the soldier fighting for, Union or Confederate?
The author could have said “One day at the start of the Civil War, a Union soldier lay in some bushes at the side of a road in western Virginia.” Would that approach have hooked you the way the actual first line must surely have done?
Language, allusion, imagery, have all conspired to captivate and intrigue. Who is this soldier, which side is he on, what is he doing? These questions immediately spring to mind plus the all important: what will happen next? This almost lazy scene of a soldier apparently resting on a warm sunny afternoon leaves us feeling wary. We smell a rat, a bit of author trickery? Surely something momentous is about to happen? This is all a part of the magic, the spell the author weaves with a simple and apparently innocent sentence. We know something is about to happen because at the first line we are told that nothing is happening.
He lay at full length upon his stomach, his feet resting upon the toes, his head upon the left forearm.
The relaxation this languid scene evokes, the restfulness, we can clearly picture. The soldier is taking advantage of some time alone to take his ease. The following sentence, however, puts us on the alert.
His extended right hand loosely grasped his rifle.
This short spare sentence acts like a cold splash of water to the face, disturbing the otherwise tranquil scene. He is holding a weapon, perhaps in readiness to use it. There are no words wasted in this sentence. It gives us the bald facts, but doesn’t tell us quite everything. We must read on. The next line helps.
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.
Now we are back to flowery descriptive rather than short, sharp fact, changing the pace of the narrative. The prone figure is so still he might have been considered dead were it not for a very slight movement. The author could have described shallow breathing in other more humdrum ways but he chose to refer to the slight and rhythmic movement of the cartridge box on his man’s back. This provides a much more vivid picture, again reinforcing our mental image, of a soldier lying flat on his stomach. Only a very slight movement in the cartridge box tells us that we are not looking at a dead soldier but one very much alive. The following line, again stark fact rather than flowery descriptive, confirms what we may have already begun to suspect.
He was asleep at his post of duty.
Our hero, if that is what he is destined to become in this tantalizing tale, is something of an ignoble one.
But if detected he would be dead shortly afterward, death being the just and legal penalty of his crime.
To the modern peace-loving reader it may seem a little harsh to say that a man should be shot just for falling asleep but Bierce pulls no punches in his judgment of the felon. “Just and legal” is his only comment. Any soldier dependent for their survival on the vigilance of a comrade assigned to guard duty might agree. Yet could there be another reason for this merciless indifference to the plight of a weary warrior? The author is not just being brutal for the sake of brutality, it is another deliberate ploy by the storyteller to draw us into the drama.
I hope that you will be motivated now to read A Horseman in the Sky. My fear is that if I say any more, it will spoil the story for you if you have not already read it. If you have read it before, I would recommend reading it again, with a view to understanding the tools and the craft deployed by Bierce that make this one of the best structured short stories in American literature.
If you do read this story, you will read about how our hero-or-not-hero joins a passing Union regiment, leaving his wealthy Virginia family a traitor, as his father describes him. Hardly an original premise for a Civil War tale but one that defines itself in the telling and has influenced so many such stories since. The chronological beginning of the tale is of course told in back-story, and with a style that is both elegant and effective. It is this part of the story that forms the set-up.
What about the pay-off? If you read this short story you will find that the final few words speak for themselves and you will be in no doubt about how the set-up had framed the progression of the narrative to its conclusion. Having just reread A Horseman in the Sky, even though I knew what was coming, I think my heart must have again missed a beat at a truly dreadful conclusion. By this I mean what happened, not the way the ending was framed which, as a writer of short stories, I can only describe as brilliant and breathtaking.
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A Horseman in the Sky is a short story by Ambrose Bierce, first published in 1889 in The Examiner, a San Francisco newspaper. Bierce revised the story for his book Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, published in 1891/92. The full text can be found online and is public domain.
Thanks for reading
Ray Taylor © 2023
About the Creator
Author based in Kent, England. A writer of fictional short stories in a wide range of genres, he has been a non-fiction writer since the 1980s. Non-fiction subjects include art, history, technology, business, law, and the human condition.