September 30, 2014 15:50 UTC

American Stories

A Horseman in the Sky

Announcer:  Now, the Special English program, AMERICAN STORIES.

(MUSIC)

Our story today is called, "A Horseman in the Sky."  It was written by Ambrose Bierce. Here is Roy Depew with the story.

(MUSIC)

Narrator: Carter Druse was born in Virginia. He loved his parents, his home and the south. But he loved his country, too. And in the autumn of eighteen sixty-one, when the United States was divided by a terrible civil war, Carter Druse, a southerner, decided to join the Union Army of the north.

He told his father about his decision one morning at breakfast.

The older man looked at his only son for a moment, too shocked to speak. Then he said, "As of this moment you are a traitor to the south. Please don't tell your mother about your decision. She is sick, and we both know she has only a few weeks to live."

Carter's father paused, again looking deep into his son's eyes. "Carter," he said, "No matter what happens -- be sure you always do what you think is your duty."

Both Carter Druse and his father left the table that morning with broken hearts. And Carter soon left his home, and everyone he loved to wear the blue uniform of the Union soldier.

One sunny afternoon, a few weeks later, Carter Druse lay with his face in the dirt by the side of a road. He was on his stomach, his arms still holding his gun. Carter would not receive a medal for his actions. In fact, if his commanding officer were to see him, he would order Carter shot immediately.

For Carter was not dead or wounded. He was sleeping while on duty. Fortunately, no one could see him. He was hidden by some bushes, growing by the side of the road.

The road Carter Druse had been sent to guard was only a few miles from his father's house.

It began in a forest, down in the valley, and climbed up the side of a huge rock. Anyone standing on the top of this high rock would be able to see down into the valley. And that person would feel very dizzy, looking down. If he dropped a stone from the edge of this cliff, it would fall for six hundred meters before disappearing into the forest in the valley below.

Giant cliffs, like the one Carter lay on, surrounded the valley.

Hidden in the valley's forest were five union regiments -- thousands of Carter's fellow soldiers. They had marched for thirty-six hours. Now they were resting. But at midnight they would climb that road up the rocky cliff.

Their plan was to attack by surprise an army of southerners, camped on the other side of the cliff. But if their enemy learned about the Union Army hiding in the forest, the soldiers would find themselves in a trap with no escape. That was why Carter Druse had been sent to guard the road.

It was his duty to be sure that no enemy soldier, dressed in gray, spied on the valley, where the union army was hiding.

But Carter Druse had fallen asleep. Suddenly, as if a messenger of fate came to touch him on the shoulder, the young man opened his eyes. As he lifted his head, he saw a man on horseback standing on the huge rocky cliff that looked down into the valley.

The rider and his horse stood so still that they seemed made of stone. The man's gray uniform blended with the blue sky and the white clouds behind him. He held a gun in his right hand, and the horse's reins in the other.

Carter could not see the man's face, because the rider was looking down into the valley. But the man and his horse seemed to be of heroic, almost gigantic size, standing there motionless against the sky. Carter discovered he was very much afraid, even though he knew the enemy soldier could not see him hiding in the bushes.

Suddenly the horse moved, pulling back its head from the edge of the cliff. Carter was completely awake now. He raised his gun, pushing its barrel through the bushes. And he aimed for the horseman's heart. A small squeeze of the trigger, and Carter Druse would have done his duty.

At that instant, the horseman turned his head and looked in Carter's direction. He seemed to look at Carter's face, into his eyes, and deep into his brave, generous heart.

Carter's face became very white. His entire body began shaking. His mind began to race, and in his fantasy, the horse and rider became black figures, rising and falling in slow circles against a fiery red sky.

Carter did not pull the trigger. Instead, he let go of his gun and slowly dropped his face until it rested again in the dirt.

Brave and strong as he was, Carter almost fainted from the shock of what he had seen.

Is it so terrible to kill an enemy who might kill you and your friends? Carter knew that this man must be shot from ambush -- without warning. This man must die without a moment to prepare his soul; without even the chance to say a silent prayer.

Slowly, a hope began to form in Carter Druse's mind. Perhaps the southern soldier had not seen the northern troops.

Perhaps he was only admiring the view. Perhaps he would now turn and ride carelessly away.

Then Carter looked down into the valley so far below. He saw a line of men in blue uniforms and their horses, slowly leaving the protection of the forest. A foolish Union officer had permitted his soldiers to bring their horses to drink at a small stream near the forest. And there they were -- in plain sight!

Carter Druse looked back to the man and horse standing there against the sky. Again he took aim. But this time he pointed his gun at the horse. Words rang in his head -- the last words his father ever spoke to him: "No matter what happens, be sure you always do what you think is your duty."

Carter Druse was calm as he pulled the trigger of his gun.

At that moment, a Union officer happened to look up from his hiding place near the edge of the forest. His eyes climbed to the top of the cliff that looked over the valley. Just looking at the top of the gigantic rock, so far above him, made the soldier feel dizzy.

And then the officer saw something that filled his heart with horror. A man on a horse was riding down into the valley through the air!

The rider sat straight in his saddle. His hair streamed back, waving in the wind. His left hand held his horse's reins while his right hand was hidden in the cloud of the horse's mane. The horse looked as if it were galloping across the earth. Its body was proud and noble.

As the frightened Union officer watched this horseman in the sky, he almost believed he was witnessing a messenger from heaven. A messenger who had come to announce the end of the world. The officer's legs grew weak, and he fell. At almost the same instant, he heard a crashing sound in the trees. The sound died without an echo. And all was silent.

The officer got to his feet, still shaking. He went back to his camp. But he didn't tell anyone what he had seen. He knew no one would ever believe him.

Soon after firing his gun, Carter Druse was joined by a Union sergeant. Carter did not turn his head as the sergeant kneeled beside him.

"Did you fire?" The sergeant whispered.

"Yes."

"At what?"

"A horse. It was on that rock. It's not there now. It went over the cliff." Carter's face was white. But he showed no other sign of emotion. The sergeant did not understand.

"See here, Druse," he said, after a moment's silence. "Why are you making this into a mystery. I order you to report. Was there anyone on the horse?"

"Yes."

"Who? "

"My father."

(MUSIC)

Announcer: You have heard the story called, "A Horseman in the Sky." It was written by Ambrose Bierce, and adapted for Special English by Dona de Sanctis. Your storyteller was Roy Depew.

For VOA Special English, this is Shirley Griffith.

(MUSIC)

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Learn with The News

  • Protesters block a street near government headquarters in Hong Kong September 30, 2014. Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters extended a blockade of Hong Kong streets on Tuesday, stockpiling supplies and erecting makeshift barricades ahead of what

    Audio Hong Kong Protesters, Officials Dig In

    The Occupy Central protest group has said it will announce plans for the group’s next action on Wednesday if Hong Kong’s leader does not resign by October 1st. It also said the official, Leung Chun-ying, must meet demands for fair elections by that day. More

  • UN General Assembly Vietnam

    Audio Vietnam Calling for End to US Arms Ban

    Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh spoke last week in New York City during his visit to the United Nations General Assembly. | As It Is More

  • Riot police use pepper spray against protesters after thousands of people block a main road to the financial central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014.

    Audio Chinese Media React to Hong Kong Protests

    Protesters are demanding that China permit public nominations for the territory’s chief executive. Police used tear gas and pepper spray to force protesters off the streets. But many protesters refused to leave. More

  • Pro-democracy protesters flood the central financial district in Hong Kong, Sept. 29, 2014.

    Audio Pro-Democracy Protest Grows in Hong Kong

    Thousands of Hong Kong protesters have ignored government calls to leave the streets to permit the return of public transport services. Police clashed with the protestors overnight when they tried to end the unrest that had spread over the weekend. | In the News More

  • Bathing Cop

    Photogallery Great Photographs from the US Library of Congress

    iBook pictures come from “world’s greatest collection of photographs.” We talk with the editor who spent months looking at tens of thousands of photographs from which she had to choose just 730 to include in the book. | As It Is More

Featured Stories

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs