The Damned Thing
by Ambrose Bierce
page 2 of 4 | page 1
The men removed their hats. The witness was sworn.
"What is your name?" the coroner asked.
"You knew the deceased, Hugh Morgan?"
"You were with him when he died?"
"How did that happen--your presence, I mean?"
"I was visiting him at this place to shoot and fish. A part of my purpose, however, was to study him and his odd, solitary way of life. He seemed a good model for a character in fiction. I sometimes write stories."
"I sometimes read them."
"Stories in general--not yours."
Some of the jurors laughed. Against a somber background humor shows high lights. Soldiers in the intervals of battle laugh easily, and a jest in the death chamber conquers by surprise.
"Relate the circumstances of this man's death," said the coroner. "You may use any notes or memoranda that you please."
The witness understood. Pulling a manuscript from his breast pocket he held it near the candle and turning the leaves until he found the passage that he wanted began to read.
II WHAT MAY HAPPEN IN A FIELD OF WILD OATS
"'We've started a deer,' I said. 'I wish we had brought a rifle.'
"Morgan, who had stopped and was intently watching the agitated _chaparral_, said nothing, but had cocked both barrels of his gun and was holding it in readiness to aim. I thought him a trifle excited, which surprised me, for he had a reputation for exceptional coolness, even in moments of sudden and imminent peril.
"'O, come,' I said. 'You are not going to fill up a deer with quail-shot, are you?'
"Still he did not reply; but catching a sight of his face as he turned it slightly toward me I was struck by the intensity of his look. Then I understood that we had serious business in hand and my first conjecture was that we had 'jumped' a grizzly. I advanced to Morgan's side, cocking my piece as I moved.
"The bushes were now quiet and the sounds had ceased, but Morgan was as attentive to the place as before.
"'What is it? What the devil is it?' I asked.
"'That Damned Thing!' he replied, without turning his head. His voice was husky and unnatural. He trembled visibly.
"I was about to speak further, when I observed the wild oats near the place of the disturbance moving in the most inexplicable way. I can hardly describe it. It seemed as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only bent it, but pressed it down--crushed it so that it did not rise; and this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly toward us.
"Nothing that I had ever seen had affected me so strangely as this unfamiliar and unaccountable phenomenon, yet I am unable to recall any sense of fear. I remember--and tell it here because, singularly enough, I recollected it then--that once in looking carelessly out of an open window I momentarily mistook a small tree close at hand for one of a group of larger trees at a little distance away. It looked the same size as the others, but being more distinctly and sharply defined in mass and detail seemed out of harmony with them. It was a mere falsification of the law of aerial perspective, but it startled, almost terrified me. We so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our safety, a warning of unthinkable calamity. So now the apparently causeless movement of the herbage and the slow, undeviating approach of the line of disturbances were distinctly disquieting. My companion appeared actually frightened, and I could hardly credit my senses when I saw him suddenly throw his gun to his shoulder and fire both barrels at the agitated grain! Before the smoke of the discharge had cleared away I heard a loud savage cry--a scream like that of a wild animal--and flinging his gun upon the ground Morgan sprang away and ran swiftly from the spot. At the same instant I was thrown violently to the ground by the impact of something unseen in the smoke--some soft, heavy substance that seemed thrown against me with great force.