The story opens in the remote countryside near Cincinnati during the 19th century. This area is settled by the most rugged and restless souls, who totally reject all civilization.
One of these men lives alone in a log cabin, subsisting on profits generated by the sale of animal pelts. The peculiar thing about this cabin is that it has a single window that has been boarded up. This is certainly not because the resident of the house dislikes light, because he is often seen sunning himself in the front yard.
The man's name is Murlock, and he looks much older than his true age. The narrator's grandfather told him about Murlock's tragic background.
One day Murlock died, and was buried near the cabin next to his wife, who died many years earlier. Before this tragedy, Murlock was a strong young man who loved his wife deeply. However, one day he returned to the cabin to find her wracked by a fever, and after three days, she died. Though stunned by grief, Murlock knew enough to bury her. He was rather surprised at the way he fumbled in his grief. He adjusted her hair and decided he would make the coffin and bury her tomorrow. He sat in a chair and put his face in his hands. At that moment, a loud cry came in through the window, but Murlock did not stir.
He woke later in the night, and heard sounds like bare feet on the floor. Suddenly, something pushed hard against the table, and he heard a loud thump and a scuffle in the dark. When he put his hand on the table again, he was horrified to find that his wife's body was gone! He grabbed his rifle and fired into the darkness. In the brief flash, he saw a panther attempting to drag his wife's body into the darkness outside. Murlock passed out.
When he woke, he found his wife's body in disarray. There was blood flowing from her throat that had not yet coagulated, and the ribbon that he used to bind her hands was snapped. But to his great horror, he found clenched between her teeth a fragment of the animal's ear.
It is not entirely clear if Murlock's wife faithfully saved his life from a dreadful beast, or if she was some sort of vampiric predator that the panther saved him from. At the very least, the idea that he spent the night next to a corpse that proved to be both animate and powerful enough to drive away a panther is unsettling.
The boarded window is a potent symbol, and by beginning the story with a description of it, Bierce creates a subtle tension in the reader, who wishes to know why it was broken. The broken window also serves as a symbol of the major effect that this event had on Murlock; though many years have pass, he never repairs the window nor does he recover from the sorrow of this event.
In this story, we see the reappearance of several motifs seen in previous stories in this collection, such as the bereft widower, the pioneer in the wilderness, and the panther. These themes highlight the sense of isolation and loss experienced by the characters in the story - they are so far removed from other human beings that they are prey to both dangerous animals and the supernatural.
It is rather unclear if the supernatural is operating in this story, which is unusual for Bierce's horror stories, which often depend on the supernatural and ghosts in particular. It is possible that the wife was in a coma when she was attacked by the panther, which caused her to wake up and fight the beast off. It is also possible that she was dead the whole time, and the appearances of struggle were actually just rigor mortis or the movements of a corpse. Lastly, it is also possible that she was some kind of undead vampiric creature.
“The Boarded Window” exists in at least four different published versions: the 1891 Examiner version, the 1892 Soldiers and Civilians version, the 1898 revision of Soldiers and Civilians (retitled In the Midst of Life), and the 1909 revision appearing in Volume II of The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce: In the Midst of Life (Tales of Soldiers and Civilians). There are slight differences between these versions, such as the appearance of "apparently" in the phrase “at the end of the third day she fell into unconsciousness and so passed away, apparently, with never a gleam of returning reason" in the1898 and 1909 versions, but not in the earlier versions of 1891 and 1892. This single sentence changes the meaning of the story; the insertion of "apparently" is a potent example of foreshadowing, as it indicates to the reader that the wife is not actually dead.