The Death of Ambrose Bierce

John Park

Mexico was in revolt when, late in 1913, the noted author and journalist Ambrose Bierce, retired from writing, at the age of 73, and went there. He was never seen again by any of his friends, and his death was finally reported in 1916. This fact was recorded and promptly forgotten.

What was his reason for going there? The most common speculation is that he was there as an observer, a correspondent attached to the revolutionary forces under Villa, with shadowy intimations of a mysterious, undisclosed "mission" serving to shroud his death in even more folds of romance. But there is nothing to suggest that he was employed by any newspaper, nor is there any evidence to suggest the portrait of a superannuated Byron, fighting and dying for the oppressed in a foreign land. I believe that, quite simply, he went there to die. We carry the secret of our death inside ourselves, and he plotted his out as carefully as the surprise ending of one of his own short stories.

Consider this: the text of his last written communication, received in December, 1913 . . .

If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think this is a pretty good way to depart this life.

Quite a nudge against the elbow of destiny from a man whose every published work deals with the futility of attempting to direct one's own fate.

His stories, save for the few concerning the Civil War, are largely ignored. Their over-reliance on coincidence and surprise endings leaves a sour taste in the mouths of readers who have been weaned on the literature of a more "realistic" age. The horror show (deserted houses and coffins), that brought shivers to the spines of normally sedate Victorian ladies, now brings smiles to the lips of their great-grandchildren. Our ungentle eyes instantly spot the wires that move his ghosts.

He lived in Ohio, in Tennessee with the army, in San Francisco, in London, in the Black Hills, and in Washington D.C. He was by turns, a farmer's son, war hero, a journalist, a husband, bohemian, an author, a gold-miner, critic, and a professional cynic. It would be quite fashionable to compare his restlessness and growing bitterness with the coincidental boom in American industry. Seeing in his plight the prelude to our own disorientation and feelings of helplessness, as ants lost among big this and big that. In this light, we can fashion him into a hero who breaks with the "modern" world and disappears, trailing clouds of glory, into primitive Mexico. But this is a lie.

I believe Ambrose Bierce was a man who succumbed to the temptation to direct his own life, and who grew bitter when the characters refused to play their parts. The reason for his death lies in this direction.

My friend Mr. Herman Copeman, the noted translator, while editing a collection of stories by contemporary Mexican writers, came upon an extraordinary work that I believe removes the mystery surrounding the death of Ambrose Bierce.

The story was written by the playwright Juan Ortega Melendez, (1894-1939), author of The Crosses and Night Comes to the Border, who fought with the forces under Pancho Villa. The story, entitled "The Gringo", is, then, perhaps based on an actual experience.

The story opens with a long description of the barren desert country of northern Mexico, then narrows to the unnamed narrator, who introduces his seven fellow-insurgents.

The group is led, we learn, by a man known as The Butcher, who has a sadistic streak. Here the narrator, (not very originally) contrasts the serenity of the desert landscape with the unseen horrors hidden within it--most notably in a graphic description of a rattlesnake stalking, and ultimately devouring, a rat.

The mission of the men, we are told, is to dynamite a railroad bridge. The men come upon the railroad and capture two Federal soldiers. Then follows a description of the means that The Butcher uses to find out what time the next train will pass. The two tell all, but are still tortured ,to death, with great relish. The narrator expresses his opinion that this delay could ruin the mission.

The men mount up and, shortly after, come to a bluff from which both the unguarded bridge and a small town five miles beyond are clearly visible. Four of the men descend to the bridge and begin setting the charges, the other four, The Butcher and the narrator among them, remain on the bluff as lookouts.

A lone horseman approaches from the town, and it is seen that if he is allowed to continue his course he will soon come upon the men at the bridge. The Butcher orders two men to lie in ambush and capture the horseman, saying, with smile, to be sure and take him alive.

The text that follows is from Mr. Copeman's excellent translation in 20 Modern Mexican Short Stories.

After the two had left, I followed Butcher down the slope to the bridge. The men there had completed the preparations. The train was due in 20 minutes.

Julio pointed down the arroyo and I turned and saw our men returning with their captive, his horse close behind. I looked at Butcher in surprise, for the captured horseman was an ancient gringo of at least 80 years.

"What is this?" asked Butcher when the old man was brought before him. "What are you doing here? You are a spy!"

The old man said nothing and I pointed out that the government would hardly send such an old man, and a gringo at that.

"How do you know?" he said roughly, then turned again to the old man. "You, old buzzard! Do you understand me?"

The old gringo still said nothing, and Butcher pushed him with his left hand. The old man staggered slightly and was supported by the men behind him.

"See what he carries in his bags," Butcher ordered.

Luis released the old man's arm and moved to the horse. He returned with a sheaf of papers.

The papers were covered with English writing and Butcher could make no sense of them.

"You are a spy," he roared, then turning to me he said, "We will kill him, but he is so old I don't wish to waste the bullet."

"Why not blow him up with the bridge?" Luis suggested.

He considered this a moment, but it denied him the pleasures of a slow death. He turned to me and was about to speak when the old man burst in.

"You could hang me from the bridge," he said in Spanish.

"Ah!" Butcher smiled, "You do understand me, old buzzard!"

I couldn't understand this. "Why do you want to die, old man? Why didn't you answer and save yourself?"

The old man fell silent again and refused to speak.

"Very well," said Butcher, "You will have your wish." He motioned to me, "Go get your lariat."

"We haven't much time," I replied, "The train will come soon."

Butcher winked. "It's all right, we have time enough."

He grasped the old man's arm and pulled him up the embankment to the tracks.

"The papers," the old man gasped, "the papers . . . please give them to my countrymen. They are of no use to you. Tell them too, that I died with courage and by my own choice."

"Certainly," Butcher smiled.

They walked down the tracks toward the bridge. I followed behind with the lariat. Butcher's free hand moved to his belt, and with a sudden flashing movement he cut the old man's throat. The old man sank with a gurgling sound and rolled down the embankment, setting off a clatter of pebbles. Butcher smiled at the shocked expression on the old man's dead face, and wiped his knife on his pants. Only he could gain such pleasure in cheating a dead man.

A train whistle sounded far off down the tracks, and we turned in this direction.

"Well," Butcher said, twisting the sheaf of papers into a wick, "It's time to light the fuses."

 

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