A Baffled Ambuscade by Ambrose Bierce, 1906
The magic trick:
Baffling the reader as well as the characters
There is something very haunting about this story. Maybe that it’s set at night. Maybe that it involves a dead horse. Or probably that it remains very much unexplained even at story’s end.
Bierce leaves many things unresolved here. Why did Major Seidel call this “uncommonly hazardous enterprise” in the first place? Why did Dunning go off early? What did Dunning mean by silently signaling Seidel with a reference to the woods? Was it in fact Dunning that Seidel saw that night? Why did Seidel suggest they wait for Dunning to report back? Why didn’t they go looking sooner for him again when he didn’t return? What happened that night after Seidel turned back toward his cavalry men?
We can guess. Certainly, I’d say all of it paints Major Seidel as a cowardly, even murderous, leader. We can guess, but we don’t know. It creates a very unsettling atmosphere, one I’m thinking probably mirrors well the wretched life of a Civil War soldier. And that’s quite a trick on Bierce’s part.
“Dunning has had the fight of his life,” thought the major, and was about to ride forward. Dunning raised his hand, motioning him back with a gesture of warning; then, lowering the arm, he pointed to the place where the road lost itself in the blackness of the cedar forest.
The major understood, and turning his horse rode back to the little group that had followed him and was already moving to the rear in fear of his displeasure, and so returned to the head of his command.
“Dunning is just ahead there,” he said to the captain of his leading company. “He has killed his man and will have something to report.”