7:29 pm - Saturday May 26, 2018

The Affair at Coulter’s-by Ambrose Bierce-novel and Ebooks

Novel Name:The Affair at Coulter’s

Written by: Ambrose Bierce

Category:Fiction, Classics

 

Page 1:

“Do you think, colonel, that your brave Coulter would like to put one of his guns in here!” the general asked.

He was apparently not altogether serious; it certainly did not seem a place where any artillerist, however brave, would like to put a gun. The colonel thought that possibly his division commander meant good-humouredly to intimate that Captain Coulter’s courage had been too highly extolled in a recent conversation between them.

“General,” he replied warmly, “Coulter would like to put a gun anywhere within reach of those people,” with a motion of his hand in the direction of the enemy.

“It is the only place,” said the general. He was serious, then.

The place was a depression, a “notch,” in the sharp crest of a hill. It was a pass, and through it ran a turnpike, which, reaching this highest point in its course by a sinuous ascent through a thin forest, made a similar, though less steep, descent toward the enemy. For a mile to the left and a mile to the right the ridge, though occupied by Federal infantry lying close behind the sharp crest, and appearing as if held in place by atmospheric pressure, was inaccessible to artillery. There was no place but the bottom of the notch, and that was barely wide enough for the roadbed. From the Confederate side this point was commanded by two batteries posted on a slightly lower elevation beyond a creek, and a half-mile away. All the guns but one were masked by the trees of an orchard; that one–it seemed a bit of impudence–was directly in front of a rather grandiose building, the planter’s dwelling. The gun was safe enough in its exposure–but only because the Federal infantry had been forbidden to fire. Coulter’s Notch–it came to be called so–was not, that pleasant summer afternoon, a place where one would “like to put a gun.”

Three or four dead horses lay there, sprawling in the road, three or four dead men in a trim row at one side of it, and a little back, down the hill. All but one were cavalrymen belonging to the Federal advance. One was a quartermaster. The general commanding the division and the colonel commanding the brigade, with their staffs and escorts, had ridden into the notch to have a look at the enemy’s guns–which had straightway obscured themselves in towering clouds of smoke. It was hardly profitable to be curious about guns which had the trick of the cuttlefish, and the season of observation was brief. At its conclusion–a short remove backward from where it began–occurred the conversation already partly reported. “It is the only place,” the general repeated thoughtfully, “to get at them.”

The colonel looked at him gravely. “There is room for but one gun, General–one against twelve.”

“That is true–for only one at a time,” said the commander with something like, yet not altogether like, a smile. “But then, your brave Coulter–a whole battery in himself.”

The tone of irony was now unmistakable. It angered the colonel, but he did not know what to say. The spirit of military subordination is not favourable to retort, nor even deprecation. At this moment a young officer of artillery came riding slowly up the road attended by his bugler. It was Captain Coulter. He could not have been more than twenty-three years of age. He was of medium height, but very slender and lithe, sitting his horse with something of the air of a civilian. In face he was of a type singularly unlike the men about him; thin, high-nosed, grey-eyed, with a slight blonde moustache, and long, rather straggling hair of the same colour. There was an apparent negligence in his attire. His cap was worn with the visor a trifle askew; his coat was buttoned only at the sword belt, showing a considerable expanse of white shirt, tolerably clean for that stage of the campaign. But the negligence was all in his dress and bearing; in his face was a look of intense interest in his surroundings. His grey eyes, which seemed occasionally to strike right and left across the landscape, like searchlights, were for the most part fixed upon the sky beyond the Notch; until he should arrive at the summit of the road, there was nothing else in that direction to see. As he came opposite his division and brigade commanders at the roadside he saluted mechanically and was about to pass on. Moved by a sudden impulse, the colonel signed him to halt.

“Captain Coulter,” he said, “the enemy has twelve pieces over there on the next ridge. If I rightly understand the general, he directs that you bring up a gun and engage them.”

There was a blank silence; the general looked stolidly at a distant regiment swarming slowly up the hill through rough undergrowth, like a torn and draggled cloud of blue smoke; the captain appeared not to have observed him. Presently the captain spoke, slowly and with apparent effort:–

“On the next ridge, did you say, sir? Are the guns near the house?”

“Ah, you have been over this road before! Directly at the house.”

“And it is–necessary–to engage them? The order is imperative?”

His voice was husky and broken. He was visibly paler. The colonel was astonished and mortified. He stole a glance at the commander. In that set, immobile face was no sign; it was as hard as bronze. A moment later the general rode away, followed by his staff and escort. The colonel, humiliated and indignant, was about to order Captain Coulter into arrest, when the latter spoke a few words in a low tone to his bugler, saluted, and rode straight forward into the Notch, where, presently, at the summit of the road, his field-glass at his eyes, he showed against the sky, he and his horse, sharply defined and motionless as an equestrian statue. The bugler had dashed down the road in the opposite direction at headlong speed and disappeared behind a wood. Presently his bugle was heard singing in the cedars, and in an incredibly short time a single gun with its caisson, each drawn by six horses and manned by its full complement of gunners, came bounding and banging up the grade in a storm of dust, unlimbered under cover, and was run forward by hand to the fatal crest among the dead horses. A gesture of the captain’s arm, some strangely agile movements of the men in loading, and almost before the troops along the way had ceased to hear the rattle of the wheels, a great white cloud sprang forward down the slope, and with a deafening report the affair at Coulter’s Notch had begun.

It is not intended to relate in detail the progress and incidents of that ghastly contest–a contest without vicissitudes, its alternations only different degrees of despair. Almost at the instant when Captain Coulter’s gun blew its challenging cloud twelve answering clouds rolled upward from among the trees about the plantation house, a deep multiple report roared back like a broken echo, and thenceforth to the end the Federal cannoneers fought their hopeless battle in an atmosphere of living iron whose thoughts were lightnings and whose deeds were death.

Unwilling to see the efforts which he could not aid and the slaughter which he could not stay, the colonel had ascended the ridge at a point a quarter of a mile to the left, whence the Notch, itself invisible but pushing up successive masses of smoke, seemed the crater of a volcano in thundering eruption. With his glass he watched the enemy’s guns, noting as he could the effects of Coulter’s fire–if Coulter still lived to direct it. He saw that the Federal gunners, ignoring the enemy’s pieces, whose position could be determined by their smoke only, gave their whole attention to the one which maintained its place in the open–the lawn in front of the house, with which it was accurately in line. Over and about that hardy piece the shells exploded at intervals of a few seconds. Some exploded in the house, as could be seen by thin ascensions of smoke from the breached roof. Figures of prostrate men and horses were plainly visible.

“If our fellows are doing such good work with a single gun,” said the colonel to an aide who happened to be nearest, “they must be suffering like the devil from twelve. Go down and present the commander of that piece with my congratulations on the accuracy of his fire.”

Turning to his adjutant-general he said, “Did you observe Coulter’s damned reluctance to obey orders?”

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“Well say nothing about it, please. I don’t think the general will care to make any accusations. He will probably have enough to do in explaining his own connection with this uncommon way of amusing the rearguard of a retreating enemy.”

A young officer approached from below, climbing breathless up the acclivity. Almost before he had saluted he gasped out:–

“Colonel, I am directed by Colonel Harmon to say that the enemy’s guns are within easy reach of our rifles, and most of them visible from various points along the ridge.”

The brigade commander looked at him without a trace of interest in his expression. “I know it,” he said quietly.

The young adjutant was visibly embarrassed. “Colonel Harmon would like to have permission to silence those guns,” he stammered.

“So should I,” the colonel said in the same tone. “Present my compliments to Colonel Harmon and say to him that the general’s orders not to fire are still in force.”

The adjutant saluted and retired. The colonel ground his heel into the earth and turned to look again at the enemy’s guns.

Filed in: Classics, Fiction

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