One of the Missing by Ambrose Bierce

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 604 words.)