Macarger's Gulch is an isolated landmark - a little depression between two wooded ridges. Near the gulch is the ruins of a little shack high up on a hill.
The narrator of the story, a man named Elderson, passed through Macarger's Gulch in 1874 while quail-shooting. As the night falls, he decides to settle down in the ruins of the old cabin. As the world grows darker, though, he feels a sense of dread. He glances frequently at the blank doorway and window, and even points his gun towards them. He is a bit puzzled at his reaction, since he frequently sleeps outside in desolate places without any such sense of fear.
He falls asleep and dreams that he is in a distant city. A great castle overshadows the city. In the dream he wanders the meandering streets looking desperately for someone he has never seen yet knows he will recognize. He stops at a house where a gravely beautiful woman and a man with a scarred face sit in silence. He wakes with a sense of this dream overlying his current reality. He recognizes the city as Edinburgh, which he knows from books but has never been to. Yet he finds himself saying aloud, "Surely the MacGregors must have come from Edinburgh." He quickly realizes how odd it is that he should know the name and history of the characters from his dream.
He chuckles and gazes at the embers of the fire. But when the embers die out, he hears a loud thump and the sound of a struggle, then the piercing scream of a woman. He grabs his gun and restores the fire, but he is alone in the cabin. There are no footprints on the floor. He restarts the fire and crouches by it all night, refusing to let it die down again.
Some years afterward he dines with the friend of a friend named Morgan in Sacramento. Morgan mentions that he was once in the region of Macarger's Gulch, and Elderson asks if he is familiar with this specific landmark. Morgan replies that he is - after all, he was the one who told the newspapers about the skeleton found there. Elderson asks for clarification on this shocking point. Morgan explains that he stopped at an old cabin near there, and found the skeleton of a woman wrapped in a shawl. The skull was fractured in several places, and the murder weapon - the handle of a pick - was buried nearby. There was evidence that the murder of Janet MacGregor was committed by her husband, Thomas MacGregor, who disappeared.
Morgan continues to say that the couple was from Edinburgh originally, and he found a little picture of Thomas MacGregor in the cabinet of the house. He shows it to Elderson - it is the man with the scarred face he saw in his dream. Morgan asks Elderson why he is so affected by news of this area, and Elderson replies that he lost a mule near there once many years ago.
Bierce begins the story with a vivid description of a gulch, a small dry riverbed. He deftly shows the isolation of this place, commenting that it does not even enjoy the civilizing distinction of being near a sawmill (29) - which itself is not generally considered a characteristic of great sophistication. This description serves to create a sense of loneliness and tension.
This story is also an example of what Paul Juhasz calls a "time hub," " a specific narrative moment where multiple timelines intersect." (This is also known as a "time slip," a moment in which one point in time slips into another.) Juhasz points out that there are actually three distinct temporal moments overlapping the night of Elderson’s stay: the past moment (broadly speaking) in Edinburgh presented in his dream, a second past moment when Janet MacGregor’s murder is represented, and the present moment of Elderson’s overnight stay in the ruined cabin. As in many Bierce stories, the time hub is prompted by an event of great cruelty, in this case the murder of Janet MacGregor by her husband Thomas.
Domestic violence has a major role in this story, and it is utterly senseless and goes completely unpunished. Thomas MacGregor has no reason to kill his wife, he just does. He also never suffers any consequences for this action, as he runs off after committing the heinous act and his wife's murdered body is only discovered months later by the visiting Morgan. Instead, this unpunished act continues to play out in an endless loop. In this story, domestic violence is an act that tears through time and space, causing moments from the past to collapse in on the present.
There is a great example of understatement at the end of this story. When asked by Morgan why he looks so distressed, Elderson replies that he lost a mule near Macarger's Gulch many years ago. In fact, something far more traumatizing happened to Elderson there.