Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495
The story opens in 1725, in the aftermath of Lovell’s Fight, a battle in the French and Indian Wars. Two soldiers lie wounded in the forest, miles from the nearest settlement, at the foot of a rock that resembles a gigantic gravestone. The significance of this rock is immediately apparent, for the older of the men, Roger Malvin, is mortally wounded. The men have already dragged themselves along for three days, but Malvin knows he will not be able to go farther.
Malvin urges the younger man, Reuben Bourne, to go on without him, to save himself and leave Malvin to die. Reuben is horrified at the thought. Malvin has been his friend and mentor, and Reuben expects to marry his daughter, Dorcas. The two argue at length, Malvin insisting that there is no sense in Reuben staying with him: If Reuben stays behind, he will die, too; if both try to go on together, Malvin will die anyway.
Finally, Malvin tells a story from his own youth, when he fought in another battle against the Indians. His comrade was seriously wounded, unable to travel. Leaving him behind, as comfortable as possible, Malvin was able to go on alone, find help, and return to rescue the other man. Reluctantly persuaded by this story, Reuben at last agrees to go. Malvin’s last request is that Reuben return when he can, bury him properly, and say a prayer for him.
Reuben’s wounds are also serious, however, and when he is finally found he is too ill to tell his rescuers where Malvin is. Several days pass before he can speak. When Dorcas finally asks about her father, he is too ashamed to admit what he has done; instead, he concocts a story about burying Malvin before departing. (The title of the story is thus ironic, as Roger Malvin never gets a proper burial.)
As the years go by, Reuben and Dorcas marry and have a son, Cyrus. They try to make a living on Malvin’s farm, which is one of the largest and richest in the area, but Reuben cannot concentrate on his work and the farm declines rapidly. Consumed by guilt, Reuben becomes more bitter and irritable each year. Finally, he is forced to sell the farm to pay his debts, and the family strikes out into the wilderness to find new land to settle.
Something draws Reuben from the path that he intended to follow. When the family stops on the fifth night, it is at the clearing where he left Malvin’s body eighteen years earlier. Reuben and Cyrus set off to hunt something for their dinner. Hearing a sound in the brush, Reuben shoots, only to find he has killed his son on the very spot where Malvin died. Dorcas is as anguished as one would expect, but Reuben is strangely relieved. He believes that he has expiated his sin, and he offers his first prayer since leaving Malvin behind.