A wandering officer walks away from the regiment up to the foot of a cliff and into a small cave-like opening. The officer looks up, admiring the height of the trees and the cliff, and sees the horse and rider falling from the cliff. The horseman is still astride his mount, sitting upright, and the horse’s legs are flailing in such a way as to give the appearance that it is actually galloping and leaping through the air.
The horseman is still alive and falling to his death, astride his dead steed. It is interesting that in the entire course of events, neither Druse nor the horseman ever move. Druse’s struggle is completely internalized, and even the horseman’s final act as a symbol happens passively in the moments before he dies. The strange image of the horseman flying through the sky, meanwhile, reflects Bierce’s use of supernatural and apocalyptic imagery throughout the story to underscore the horror of the Civil War.
The wandering officer is both amazed and terrified. He firmly believes that it is a flying horseman and does not realize it is an enemy soldier falling to his death. In his amazement, he briefly entertains the idea that he is witnessing some sort of apocalypse. He is so shocked that he falls down, and as he does he hears the crash of the horse and rider’s bodies hitting the treetops.
Here, Bierce uses his strongest and most specific apocalyptic imagery to reflect the horrors of war. In a reference to the four horsemen of the apocalypse from the biblical Revelations, Bierce reflects how, at the time, it may well have felt like the world was nearing its end. As families were divided or set to kill each other, many may have thought that the world they had known, with its structure and order, were coming apart.
The wandering officer is so convinced that it was truly a flying horseman that he sets off in search of the man as if he had glided diagonally down into the valley, rather than realizing that the horseman has fallen straight downward. He searches for the bodies for half an hour and then gives up. When he returns to camp, the commander asks what he has seen. The officer thinks better of saying what he truly saw, but concludes that there must be no road leading into the valley from that direction.
Even after deciding that he is not in fact witnessing the apocalypse, the officer is still in such a suggestive state that he believes that it still must have been a flying horseman. The stress of war and the existential horror seem to have crippled his rational faculties. A fantasy seemed just as plausible as reality and he truly believed they were being set upon by airborne cavalry.