The sleeping soldier is revealed to be Carter Druse. Druse is the only son of wealthy Virginians whose childhood was the definition of privilege and comfort. His childhood home was not far from where he now lay.
The narrator recalls the moment in which Druse announced that he would be fighting for the Union: he stood from breakfast table and announced that a Union regiment was passing through the area and he would be joining it, rather than fighting for the Confederacy and his Virginia homeland.
That Druse could so feasibly fight for the army that would be opposing his homeland highlights the uniquely moral conflict of the Civil War. While slavery is never explicitly named in the story, it forms the moral undercurrent of the story. Bierce himself was an abolitionist, and he seems to write this into context of Druse.
Druse’s father solemnly replied, “Well, go, sir, and whatever may occur do what you conceive to be your duty. Virginia, to which you are a traitor, must get on without you.” He also relays that Druse’s mother is dying, but if both father and son should survive, they will speak again after the war has ended. Druse and his father part ways, showing each other reverence and courtesy. Druse’s father is secretly heartbroken.
Druse and his father represent two opposing visions for America, the old and the new. His father was raised in the old ways and fights for them, including the institution of slavery. Druse fights for an emancipated America, a progressive vision of the future. Although Druse and his father have not yet shed blood over their ideological conflict, it forces them to take up opposing roles.
Druse leaves his parents’ home to become a soldier. By his bravery and strength of character he earns the high regard of his comrades and his officers, and for these qualities and his familiarity with the western Virginian territory he is posted as the sentry at the edge of the valley.
When Druse steps out on his own, he takes his first steps of self-discovery. Both literally and ideologically, he is making his own way. He no longer can rest on the reputation of his wealthy father, but earns his own reputation through virtue, courage, and tenacity.
Even so, exhaustion overcame willpower and Druse fell asleep. Now, though neither sound nor touch has disturbed him, Druse awakes and takes hold of his rifle. He instantly knows that something is amiss, as if something supernatural had whispered to him and roused him from sleep.
Heroic as Druse may be, he is also human. In this case, his humanity will cost him dearly.This is also the first mention of the supernatural in the story, a device that Bierce will use several times again to frame the events in an apocalyptic tone.
Druse spies a figure standing against the cliff’s edge, a horse and rider. The rider’s face is turned away from him, looking downward into the valley. Druse’s first reaction is admiration for the great aesthetic quality of it all. The horseman is framed against the open sky, making him appear massive in size. The afternoon sun and the colors of the uniform remind Druse of a Greek statue of a god, and for a moment Druse feels as if the war has ended in his sleep and he is looking upon a carved monument.
Despite Druse’s rejection of ideology of his childhood, his aesthetic admiration of the horseman belies a cultured mind that could only be produced by wealth and comfort. His childhood and the upbringing that his parents gave him have left lifelong marks, from his aesthetic acuity to his sense of duty.
The horse moves very slightly and brings Druse back to the reality of the situation. Druse knows that he must kill the horseman to keep the regiments hidden from their enemies. He readies his rifle, still lying hidden in the bush, and takes aim at the horseman’s breast.
Before he learns the horseman’s identity, Druse is compelled by his sense of duty and does not hesitate. He aims for the man’s chest, a sure shot. He is willing to bear the weight of ending the horseman’s life by his own bullet.
The horseman turns his head so that Druse can see his face, though the horseman cannot see Druse. Though Druse knows he is still hidden, he feels as if the horseman looked straight into his eyes and into his heart. Druse becomes suddenly anguished by the thought of killing the man, though he knows that it would be done to protect his comrades. He briefly hallucinates that the horse and rider are a great black figure set against a fiery sky. He becomes pale and nearly faints for a moment.
Druse feels that he has been seen through by the horseman, even if the horseman is yet unaware of him. His sense of duty to the cause above all else has laid bare his values and priorities. The horseman as a symbol and as a character, is putting Druse’s resolve to the test, a crucible of sorts. After the later reveal that the horseman is Druse’s father, this scene takes on new resonance; it raises not just the moral question of killing a man, but also the question of duty to a noble cause versus to one’s family. Bierce again conjures visions of biblical judgment, which were inflicted not only for punishment but to cleanse impurity and evil.
Druse regains his composure, sure that he must kill the horseman. He knows that he cannot possibly capture the scout, and though he briefly entertains the notion that perhaps the horseman has not discovered the regiments and may go free unharmed, a quick glance into the valley shows him that the Union soldiers are revealed. The man must be shot down from his hidden position with no warning. Druse takes aim again, but this time aims at the horse rather than the rider. Druse’s father’s admonition, “Whatever may occur do what you conceive to be your duty,” echoes in his memory. Druse steadies himself and fires the shot.
Although Druse has steeled himself and regained his resolve, he does not take aim at the rider (whom, unknown to the reader as of yet, he has now identified as his father). Rather, aims for the horse, knowing that the shot will send both horse and rider over the cliff and to their deaths. Seeing no alternative to ending the horseman’s life, Druse either cannot or will not bear the weight of direct responsibility for the man’s life. Rather than his own bullet, he lets the fall from the cliff (and thus, fate) land the killing blow.