The Night Doings At Deadman's by Ambrose Bierce
A Story that is Untrue
IT was a singularly sharp night, and clear as the
heart of a diamond. Clear nights have a trick of being
keen. In darkness you may be cold and not
know it; when you see, you suffer. This night was
bright enough to bite like a serpent. The moon was
moving mysteriously along behind the giant pines
crowning the South Mountain, striking a cold
sparkle from the crusted snow, and bringing out
against the black west and ghostly outlines of the
Coast Range, beyond which lay the invisible Pacific.
The snow had piled itself, in the open spaces
along the bottom of the gulch, into long ridges that
seemed to heave, and into hills that appeared to
toss and scatter spray. The spray was sunlight, twice
reflected: dashed once from the moon, once from the
In this snow many of the shanties of the abandoned
mining camp were obliterated (a sailor might
have said they had gone down), and at irregular intervals
it had overtopped the tall trestles which had
once supported a river called a flume; for, of course,
'flume' is flumen. Among the advantages of which
the mountains cannot deprive the gold-hunter is the
privilege of speaking Latin. He says of his dead
neighbour, 'He has gone up the flume.' This is not
a bad way to say, 'His life has returned to the
Fountain of Life.'
While putting on its armour against the assaults of
the wind, this snow had neglected no coign of vantage.
Snow pursued by the wind is not wholly unlike
a retreating army. In the open field it ranges itself
in ranks and battalions; where it can get a foothold
it makes a stand; where it can take cover it does
so. You may see whole platoons of snow cowering
behind a bit of broken wall. The devious old road,
hewn out of the mountainside, was full of it. Squadron
upon squadron had struggled to escape by this
line, when suddenly pursuit had ceased. A more
desolate and dreary spot than Deadman's Gulch in
a winter midnight it is impossible to imagine. Yet
Mr. Hiram Beeson elected to live there, the sole
Away up the side of the North Mountain his little
pine-log shanty projected from its single pane of
glass a long, thin beam of light, and looked not
altogether unlike a black beetle fastened to the
hillside with a bright new pin. Within it sat Mr.
Beeson himself, before a roaring fire, staring into
its hot heart as if he had never before seen such a
thing in all his life. He was not a comely man. He
was grey; he was ragged and slovenly in his attire;
his face was wan and haggard; his eyes were too
bright. As to his age, if one had attempted to guess
it, one might have said forty-seven, then corrected
himself and said seventy-four. He was really twentyeight.
Emaciated he was; as much, perhaps, as he
dared be, with a needy undertaker at Bentley's Flat
and a new and enterprising coroner at Sonora. Poverty
and zeal are an upper and a nether millstone.
It is dangerous to make a third in that kind of
As Mr. Beeson sat there, with his ragged elbows
on his ragged knees, his lean jaws buried in his
lean hands, and with no apparent intention of going
to bed, he looked as if the slightest movement would
tumble him to pieces. Yet during the last hour he had
winked no fewer than three times.
There was a sharp rapping at the door. A rap at
that time of night and in that weather might have
surprised an ordinary mortal who had dwelt two
years in the gulch without seeing a human face, and
could not fail to know that the country was impassable;
but Mr. Beeson did not so much as pull his
eyes out of the coals. And even when the door was
pushed open he only shrugged a little more closely
into himself, as one does who is expecting something
that he would rather not see. You may observe
this movement in women when, in a mortuary chapel,
the coffin is borne up the aisle behind them.
But when a long old man in a blanket overcoat,
his head tied up in a handkerchief and nearly his
entire face in a muffler, wearing green goggles and
with a complexion of glittering whiteness where it
could be seen, strode silently into the room, laying a
hard, gloved hand on Mr. Beeson's shoulder, the latter
so far forgot himself as to look up with an appearance
of no small astonishment; whomever he
may have been expecting, he had evidently not
counted on meeting anyone like this. Nevertheless,
the sight of this unexpected guest produced in Mr.
Beeson the following sequence: a feeling of astonishment;
a sense of gratification; a sentiment of profound
good will. Rising from his seat, he took the
knotty hand from his shoulder, and shook it up and
down with a fervour quite unaccountable; for in
the old man's aspect was nothing to attract, much to
repel. However, attraction is too general a property
for repulsion to be without it. The most attractive
object in the world is the face we instinctively cover
with a cloth. When it becomes still more attractive
--fascinating--we put seven feet of earth above it.
'Sir,' said Mr. Beeson, releasing the old man's
hand, which fell passively against his thigh with a
quiet clack, 'it is an extremely disagreeable night.
Pray be seated; I am very glad to see you.'
Mr. Beeson spoke with an easy good breeding
that one would hardly have expected, considering
all things. Indeed, the contrast between his appearance
and his manner was sufficiently surprising to be
one of the commonest of social phenomena in the
mines. The old man advanced a step toward the
fire, glowing cavernously in the green goggles. Mr.
'You bet your life I am!'
Mr. Beeson's elegance was not too refined; it had
made reasonable concessions to local taste. He
paused a moment, letting his eyes drop from the
muffled head of his guest, down along the row of
mouldy buttons confining the blanket overcoat, to
the greenish cowhide boots powdered with snow,
which had begun to melt and run along the floor in
little rills. He took an inventory of his guest, and appeared
satisfied. Who would not have been? Then he
'The cheer I can offer you is, unfortunately, in
keeping with my surroundings; but I shall esteem
myself highly favoured if it is your pleasure to
partake of it, rather than seek better at Bentley's
With a singular refinement of hospitable humility
Mr. Beeson spoke as if a sojourn in his warm
cabin on such a night, as compared with walking fourteen
miles up to the throat in snow with a cutting
crust, would be an intolerable hardship. By way of
reply, his guest unbuttoned the blanket overcoat.
The host laid fresh fuel on the fire, swept the hearth
with the tail of a wolf, and added:
'But I think you'd better skedaddle.'
The old man took a seat by the fire, spreading his
broad soles to the heat without removing his hat. In
the mines the hat is seldom removed except when
the boots are. Without further remark Mr. Beeson
also seated himself in a chair which had been a barrel,
and which, retaining much of its original character,
seemed to have been designed with a view
to preserving his dust if it should please him to
crumble. For a moment there was silence; then, from
somewhere among the pines, came the snarling yelp
of a coyote; and simultaneously the door rattled in
its frame. There was no other connection between
the two incidents than that the coyote has an aversion
to storms, and the wind was rising; yet there
seemed somehow a kind of supernatural conspiracy
between the two, and Mr. Beeson shuddered with a
vague sense of terror. He recovered himself in a
moment and again addressed his guest.
'There are strange doings here. I will tell you
everything, and then if you decide to go I shall hope
to accompany you over the worst of the way; as far
as where Baldy Peterson shot Ben Hike--I dare
say you know the place.'
The old man nodded emphatically, as intimating
not merely that he did, but that he did indeed.
'Two years ago,' began Mr. Beeson, 'I, with two
companions, occupied this house; but when the rush
to the Flat occurred we left, along with the rest.
In ten hours the gulch was deserted. That evening,
however, I discovered I had left behind me a valuable
pistol (that is it) and returned for it, passing
the night here alone, as I have passed every night
since. I must explain that a few days before we left,
our Chinese domestic had the misfortune to die
while the ground was frozen so hard that it was impossible
to dig a grave in the usual way. So, on the
day of our hasty departure, we cut through the floor
there, and gave him such burial as we could. But
before putting him down I had the extremely bad
taste to cut off his pigtail and spike it to that beam
above his grave, where you may see it at this moment,
or, preferably, when warmth has given you
leisure for observation.
'I stated, did I not, that the Chinaman came to
his death from natural causes? I had, of course, nothing
to do with that, and returned through no irresistible
attraction, or morbid fascination, but only because
I had forgotten a pistol. That is clear to you,
is it not, sir?'
The visitor nodded gravely. He appeared to be a
man of few words, if any. Mr. Beeson continued:
'According to the Chinese faith, a man is like a
kite: he cannot go to heaven without a tail. Well, to
shorten this tedious story--which, however, I
thought it my duty to relate--on that night, while
I was here alone and thinking of anything but him,
that Chinaman came back for his pigtail.
'He did not get it.'
At this point Mr. Beeson relapsed into blank silence.
Perhaps he was fatigued by the unwonted
exercise of speaking; perhaps he had conjured up a
memory that demanded his undivided attention. The
wind was now fairly abroad, and the pines along
the mountainside sang with singular distinctness.
The narrator continued:
'You say you do not see much in that, and I must
confess I do not myself.
'But he keeps coming!'
There was another long silence, during which both
stared into the fire without the movement of a limb.
Then Mr. Beeson broke out, almost fiercely, fixing
his eyes on what he could see of the impassive face of
'Give it him? Sir, in this matter I have no intention
of troubling anyone for advice. You will pardon
me, I am sure'--here he became singularly
persuasive--'but I have ventured to nail that pigtail
fast, and have assumed that somewhat onerous
obligation of guarding it. So it is quite impossible to
act on your considerate suggestion.
'Do you play me for a Modoc?'
Nothing could exceed the sudden ferocity with
which he thrust this indignant remonstrance into
the ear of his guest. It was as if he had struck him on
the side of the head with a steel gauntlet. It was a
protest, but it was a challenge. To be mistaken for
a coward--to be played for a Modoc: these two expressions
are one. Sometimes it is a Chinaman.
Do you play me for a Chinaman? is a question
frequently addressed to the ear of the suddenly
Mr. Beeson's buffet produced no effect, and after
a moment's pause, during which the wind thundered
in the chimney like the sound of clods upon a coffin,
'But, as you say, it is wearing me out. I feel
that the life of the last two years has been a mistake
--a mistake that corrects itself; you see how.
The grave! No; there is no one to dig it. The ground
is frozen, too. But you are very welcome. You may
say at Bentley's--but that is not important. It
was very tough to cut; they braid silk into their pigtails.
Mr. Beeson was speaking with his eyes shut, and
he wandered. His last word was a snore. A moment
later he drew a long breath, opened his eyes with
an effort, made a single remark, and fell into a deep
sleep. What he said was this:
'They are swiping my dust!'
Then the aged stranger, who had not uttered one
word since his arrival, arose from his seat and deliberately
laid off his outer clothing, looking as
angular in his flannels as the late Signorina Festorazzi,
an Irish woman, six feet in height, and weighing
fifty-six pounds, who used to exhibit herself in
her chemise to the people of San Francisco. He then
crept into one of the 'bunks,' having first placed a
revolver in easy reach, according to the custom of
the country. This revolver he took from a shelf, and
it was the one which Mr. Beeson had mentioned as
that for which he had returned to the gulch two
In a few moments Mr. Beeson awoke, and seeing
that his guest had retired he did likewise. But before
doing so he approached the long, plaited wisp
of pagan hair and gave it a powerful tug, to assure
himself that it was fast and firm. The two beds--
mere shelves covered with blankets not overclean--
faced each other from opposite sides of the room,
the little square trap-door that had given access to
the Chinaman's grave being midway between. This,
by the way, was crossed by a double row of spikeheads.
In his resistance to the supernatural, Mr.
Beeson had not disdained the use of material
The fire was now low, the flames burning bluely
and petulantly, with occasional flashes, projecting
spectral shadows on the walls--shadows that
moved mysteriously about, now dividing, now uniting.
The shadow of the pendent queue, however, kept
moodily apart, near the roof at the farther end of
the room, looking like a note of admiration. The
song of the pines outside had now risen to the dignity
of a triumphal hymn. In the pauses the silence was
It was during one of these intervals that the trap
in the floor began to lift. Slowly and steadily it rose,
and slowly and steadily rose the swaddled head of
the old man in the bunk to observe it. Then, with a
clap that shook the house to its foundation, it was
thrown clean back, where it lay with its unsightly
spikes pointing threateningly upward. Mr. Beeson
awoke, and without rising, pressed his fingers into
his eyes. He shuddered; his teeth chattered. His
guest was now reclining on one elbow, watching the
proceedings with the goggles that glowed like lamps.
Suddenly a howling gust of wind swooped down
the chimney, scattering ashes and smoke in all directions,
for a moment obscuring everything. When
the fire-light again illuminated the room there was
seen, sitting gingerly on the edge of a stool by the
hearth-side, a swarthy little man of prepossessing
appearance and dressed with faultless taste, nodding
to the old man with a friendly and engaging smile.
'From San Francisco, evidently,' thought Mr. Beeson,
who having somewhat recovered from his fright
was groping his way to a solution of the evening's
But now another actor appeared upon the scene.
Out of the square black hole in the middle of the
floor protruded the head of the departed Chinaman,
his glassy eyes turned upward in their angular slits
and fastened on the dangling queue above with a
look of yearning unspeakable. Mr. Beeson groaned,
and again spread his hands upon his face. A mild
odour of opium pervaded the place. The phantom,
clad only in a short blue tunic quilted and silken but
covered with grave-mould, rose slowly, as if pushed
by a weak spiral spring. Its knees were at the level
of the floor, when with a quick upward impulse like
the silent leaping of a flame it grasped the queue
with both hands, drew up its body and took the tip
in its horrible yellow teeth. To this it clung in a
seeming frenzy, grimacing ghastly, surging and
plunging from side to side in its efforts to disengage
its property from the beam, but uttering no sound.
It was like a corpse artificially convulsed by means
of a galvanic battery. The contrast between its superhuman
activity and its silence was no less than
Mr. Beeson cowered in his bed. The swarthy little
gentleman uncrossed his legs, beat an impatient
tattoo with the toe of his boot and consulted a heavy
gold watch. The old man sat erect and quietly laid
hold of the revolver.
Like a body cut from the gallows the Chinaman
plumped into the black hole below, carrying his tail
in his teeth. The trap-door turned over, shutting
down with a snap. The swarthy little gentleman
from San Francisco sprang nimbly from his perch,
caught something in the air with his hat, as a boy
catches a butterfly, and vanished into the chimney as
if drawn up by suction.
From away somewhere in the outer darkness
floated in through the open door a faint, far cry--a
long, sobbing wail, as of a child death-strangled in
the desert, or a lost soul borne away by the Adversary.
It may have been the coyote.
In the early days of the following spring a party
of miners on their way to new diggings passed along
the gulch, and straying through the deserted shanties
found in one of them the body of Hiram Beeson,
stretched upon a bunk, with a bullet hole through
the heart. The ball had evidently been fired from
the opposite side of the room, for in one of the oaken
beams overhead was a shallow blue dint, where it
had struck a knot and been deflected downward to
the breast of its victim. Strongly attached to the same
beam was what appeared to be an end of a rope of
braided horsehair, which had been cut by the bullet
in its passage to the knot. Nothing else of interest
was noted, excepting a suit of mouldy and incongruous
clothing, several articles of which were afterward
identified by respectable witnesses as those in
which certain deceased citizen's of Deadman's had
been buried years before. But it is not easy to understand
how that could be, unless, indeed, the garments
had been worn as a disguise by Death himself
--which is hardly credible.