The Stranger by Ambrose Bierce
A MAN stepped out of the darkness into the little
illuminated circle about our failing camp-fire and
seated himself upon a rock.
'You are not the first to explore this region,' he
Nobody controverted his statement; he was himself
proof of its truth, for he was not of our party and
must have been somewhere near when we camped.
Moreover, he must have companions not far away;
it was not a place where one would be living or travelling
alone. For more than a week we had seen, besides
ourselves and our animals, only such living
things as rattlesnakes and horned toads. In an Arizona
desert one does not long coexist with only such
creatures as these: one must have pack animals, supplies,
arms--'an outfit.' And all these imply comrades.
It was perhaps a doubt as to what manner
of men this unceremonious stranger's comrades
might be, together with something in his words interpretable
as a challenge that caused every man
of our half-dozen 'gentlemen adventurers' to rise
to a sitting posture and lay his hand upon a weapon
--an act signifying, in that time and place, a policy
of expectation. The stranger gave the matter no
attention and began again to speak in the same
deliberate, uninflected monotone in which he had
delivered his first sentence:
'Thirty years ago Ramon Gallegos, William Shaw,
George W. Kent, and Berry Davis, all of Tucson,
crossed the Santa Catalina mountains and travelled
due west, as nearly as the configuration of the country
permitted. We were prospecting and it was our
intention, if we found nothing, to push through to the
Gila river at some point near Big Bend, where we
understood there was a settlement. We had a good
outfit, but no guide--just Ramon Gallegos, William
Shaw, George W. Kent, and Berry Davis.'
The man repeated the names slowly and distinctly,
as if to fix them in the memories of his audience,
every member of which was now attentively observing
him, but with a slackened apprehension regarding
his possible companions somewhere in the darkness
that seemed to enclose us like a black wall; in
the manner of this volunteer historian was no suggestion
of an unfriendly purpose. His act was rather
that of a harmless lunatic than an enemy. We were
not so new to the country as not to know that the
solitary life of many a plainsman had a tendency
to develop eccentricities of conduct and character
not always easily distinguishable from mental aberration.
A man is like a tree: in a forest of his fellows
he will grow as straight as his generic and individual
nature permits; alone in the open, he yields to the
deforming stresses and tortions that environ him.
Some such thoughts were in my mind as I watched
the man from the shadow of my hat, pulled low to
shut out the firelight. A witless fellow, no doubt, but
what could he be doing there in the heart of a
Having undertaken to tell this story, I wish that
I could describe the man's appearance; that would
be a natural thing to do. Unfortunately, and somewhat
strangely, I find myself unable to do so with
any degree of confidence, for afterward no two of
us agreed as to what he wore and how he looked;
and when I try to set down my own impressions they
elude me. Anyone can tell some kind of story;
narration is one of the elemental powers of the race.
But the talent for description is a gift.
Nobody having broken silence the visitor went on
'This country was not then what it is now. There
was not a ranch between the Gila and the Gulf.
There was a little game here and there in the mountains,
and near the infrequent water-holes grass
enough to keep our animals from starvation. If we
should be so fortunate as to encounter no Indians we
might get through. But within a week the purpose of
the expedition had altered from discovery of wealth
to preservation of life. We had gone too far to go
back, for what was ahead could be no worse than
what was behind; so we pushed on, riding by night
to avoid Indians and the intolerable heat, and concealing
ourselves by day as best we could. Sometimes,
having exhausted our supply of wild meat
and emptied our casks, we were days without food
or drink; then a water-hole or a shallow pool in
the bottom of an arroyo so restored our strength
and sanity that we were able to shoot some of the
wild animals that sought it also. Sometimes it was
a bear, sometimes an antelope, a coyote, a cougar--
that was as God pleased; all were food.
'One morning as we skirted a mountain range,
seeking a practicable pass, we were attacked by a
band of Apaches who had followed our trail up a
gulch--it is not far from here. Knowing that they
outnumbered us ten to one, they took none of their
usual cowardly precautions, but dashed upon us
at a gallop, firing and yelling. Fighting was out of
the question: we urged our feeble animals up the
gulch as far as there was footing for a hoof, then
threw ourselves out of our saddles and took to the
chaparral on one of the slopes, abandoning our entire
outfit to the enemy. But we retained our rifles,
every man--Ramon Gallegos, William Shaw,
George W. Kent, and Berry Davis.'
'Same old crowd,' said the humorist of our party.
He was an Eastern man, unfamiliar with the decent
observances of social intercourse. A gesture of disapproval
from our leader silenced him, and the
stranger proceeded with his tale:
'The savages dismounted also, and some of them
ran up the gulch beyond the point at which we had
left it, cutting off further retreat in that direction and
forcing us on up the side. Unfortunately the chaparral
extended only a short distance up the slope, and
as we came into the open ground above we took
the fire of a dozen rifles; but Apaches shoot badly
when in a hurry, and God so willed it that none of us
fell. Twenty yards up the slope, beyond the edge
of the brush, were vertical cliffs, in which, directly
in front of us, was a narrow opening. Into that we
ran, finding ourselves in a cavern about as large
as an ordinary room in a house. Here for a time we
were safe: a single man with a repeating rifle could
defend the entrance against all the Apaches in
the land. But against hunger and thirst we had
no defence. Courage we still had, but hope was a
'Not one of those Indians did we afterward see,
but by the smoke and glare of their fires in the gulch
we knew that by day and by night they watched
with ready rifles in the edge of the bush--knew that
if we made a sortie not a man of us would live to
take three steps into the open. For three days, watching
in turn, we held out before our suffering became
insupportable. Then--It was the morning of the
fourth day--Ramon Gallegos said:
'"Senores, I know not well of the good God and
what please Him. I have live without religion, and
I am not acquaint with that of you. Pardon, senores,
if I shock you, but for me the time is come to beat
the game of the Apache."
'He knelt upon the rock floor of the cave and
pressed his pistol against his temple. "Madre de
Dios," he said, "comes now the soul of Ramon
'And so he left us--William Shaw, George W.
Kent, and Berry Davis.
'I was the leader: it was for me to speak.
'"He was a brave man," I said--"he knew
when to die, and how. It is foolish to go mad from
thirst and fall by Apache bullets, or be skinned
alive--it is in bad taste. Let us join Ramon
'"That is right," said William Shaw.
'"That is right," said George W. Kent.
'I straightened the limbs of Ramon Gallegos and
put a handkerchief over his face. Then William
Shaw said: "I should like to look like that--a little
'And George W. Kent said that he felt that way,
'"It shall be so," I said: "the red devils will
wait a week. William Shaw and George W. Kent,
draw and kneel."
'They did so and I stood before them.
'" Almighty God, our Father," said I.
'"Almighty God, our Father," said William
'"Almighty God, our Father," said George W.
'"Forgive us our sins," said I.
'"Forgive us our sins," said they.
'"And receive our souls."
'"And receive our souls."
'I laid them beside Ramon Gallegos and covered
There was a quick commotion on the opposite
side of the camp-fire: one of our party had sprung
to his feet, pistol in hand.
'And you!' he shouted--'you dared to escape?
--you dare to be alive? You cowardly hound, I'll
send you to join them if I hang for it!'
But with the leap of a panther the captain was
upon him, grasping his wrist. 'Hold it in, Sam
Yountsey, hold it in!'
We were now all upon our feet--except the
stranger, who sat motionless and apparently inattentive.
Some one seized Yountsey's other arm.
'Captain,' I said, 'there is something wrong here.
This fellow is either a lunatic or merely a liar--just
a plain, everyday liar whom Yountsey has no call
to kill. If this man was of that party it had five
members, one of whom--probably himself--he
has not named.'
'Yes,' said the captain, releasing the insurgent,
who sat down, 'there is something--unusual.
Years ago four dead bodies of white men, scalped
and shamefully mutilated, were found about the
mouth of that cave. They are buried there; I
have seen the graves--we shall all see them tomorrow.'
The stranger rose, standing tall in the light of the
expiring fire, which in our breathless attention to
his story we had neglected to keep going.
'There were four,' he said--'Ramon Gallegos,
William Shaw, George W. Kent, and Berry Davis.'
With this reiterated roll-call of the dead he
walked into the darkness and we saw him no more.
At that moment one of our party, who had been
on guard, strode in among us, rifle in hand and
'Captain,' he said, 'for the last half-hour three
men have been standing out there on the mesa.'
He pointed in the direction taken by the stranger.
'I could see them distinctly, for the moon is up,
but as they had no guns and I had them covered
with mine I thought it was their move. They have
made none, but damn it! they have got on to my
'Go back to your post, and stay till you see them
again,' said the captain. 'The rest of you lie down
again, or I'll kick you all into the fire.'
The sentinel obediently withdrew, swearing, and
did not return. As we were arranging our blankets
the fiery Yountsey said: 'I beg your pardon, Captain,
but who the devil do you take them to be? '
'Ramon Gallegos, William Shaw, and George W.
'But how about Berry Davis? I ought to have shot
'Quite needless; you couldn't have made him any
deader. Go to sleep.'