Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604
Although a private, Jerome Searing is no commonplace member of the rank and file of the Union Army, moving slowly closer to Atlanta. He is characterized as extraordinary: an incomparable marksman, a fearless woodsman, a remarkably strong and intelligent young man. Searing has repeatedly refused promotion because he prefers service as an orderly in the perilous role of scout. His mission this day is to get as near the enemy lines as possible and gather information on the Confederates’ movements. Searing pushes stealthily through the forest to an abandoned plantation, where he discovers the enemy in retreat. Crouched in the debris of a ruined outbuilding, he cocks his rifle, intending to pick off one of the rear guard before returning from his reconnaissance. Coincidentally, a departing Confederate captain idly discharges a field piece in Searing’s direction.
The private regains consciousness and finds himself pinned flat on his back beneath collapsed timbers, unable to move, “caught like a rat in a trap.” More horrifying is his discovery that his rifle, a moment ago set to fire, now points directly at his forehead. Looking squarely at death, the man of action is now a man of consciousness. The battle of Searing’s life begins; his enemy is his own fear.
To face a loaded gun is not unusual for a soldier, yet Private Searing is uneasy. Eyes averted from the barrel of his rifle, he explores his military past briefly, remembering a time when he brutally clubbed a man to death with his rifle. Each time he looks at the rifle, it seems nearer. Each time he closes his eyes, an initially dull ache grows into an ever sharper pain in his forehead. Memories of innocent childhood play, toying with the idea of death at Ghost Rock and Dead Man’s Cave, drift through his mind, then blur. The mouth of that haunted cavern abruptly becomes the menacing barrel of the rifle before his eyes. Fear rises in him: Anticipation of the bullet aimed at his forehead increases. At least, he determines, he will await this death, this lonely and unheroic death, with dignity. Aghast, he realizes that the rats scampering over the debris, inches from the trigger of his gun, may soon be gnawing on his body. Transfixed by the gun barrel before him, he is overwhelmed by the intensifying pain in his head. His entire being contracts into experience of his own danger until both time and world cease to exist and his consciousness erupts in a single scream of pure terror. In a last, desperate act of self-defense, Searing pushes a board toward the trigger of the rifle and presses with all of his remaining strength. The rifle does not explode. It had discharged earlier.
The concluding portion of the story flashes back in space and time to the outer edge of Sherman’s camp, where Lieutenant Adrian Searing, the private’s brother, sits on the picket line. The lieutenant hears the sound of something like a building falling and notes that the time is 6:18 a.m. A few moments later, the lieutenant leads a troop of skirmishers out along the same path his brother had earlier taken. At 6:40, Adrian moves past the collapsed building on the plantation. He notices a dead body among the timbers, gray with dust, face yellow and contorted, teeth rigidly clenched. Adrian concludes that the body is that of a Confederate soldier, dead a week, and walks on. The reader, however, knows that Lieutenant Searing has just seen the body of his brother, who, only moments before, under the barrel of his own gun, died of fear.