AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE
by Ambrose Bierce
THE MILLENNIUM FULCRUM EDITION, 1988
A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down
into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind
his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his
neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the
slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the
ties supporting the rails of the railway supplied a footing for him
and his executioners--two private soldiers of the Federal army,
directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy
sheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an
officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A
sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the
position known as "support," that is to say, vertical in front of the
left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight
across the chest--a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect
carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two
men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they
merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.
Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran
straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was
lost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. The
other bank of the stream was open ground--a gentle slope topped with
a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a
single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon
commanding the bridge. Midway up the slope between the bridge and
fort were the spectators--a single company of infantry in line, at
"parade rest," the butts of their rifles on the ground, the barrels
inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands
crossed upon the stock. A lieutenant stood at the right of the line,
the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his
right. Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a
man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless.
The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues
to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent,
observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a
dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal
manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In
the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of
The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about
thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from
his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good--a
straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark
hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar
of his well fitting frock coat. He wore a moustache and pointed
beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a
kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose
neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The
liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of
persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.
The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped
aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing.
The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself
immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace.
These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on
the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties
of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not
quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the
weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a
signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would
tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties. The arrangement
commended itself to his judgement as simple and effective. His face
had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his
"unsteadfast footing," then let his gaze wander to the swirling water
of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing
driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the
current. How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!
He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and
children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding
mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the
soldiers, the piece of drift--all had distracted him. And now he
became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought
of his dear ones was sound which he could neither ignore nor
understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of
a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality.
He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by--
it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the
tolling of a death knell. He awaited each new stroke with impatience
and--he knew not why--apprehension. The intervals of silence grew
progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater
infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt
his ear like the trust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he
heard was the ticking of his watch.
He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. "If I could
free my hands," he thought, "I might throw off the noose and spring
into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming
vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My
home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little
ones are still beyond the invader's farthest advance."
As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were
flashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it the
captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.
Peyton Farquhar was a well to do planter, of an old and highly
respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave
owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and
ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious
nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from
taking service with that gallant army which had fought the disastrous
campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the
inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the
larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That
opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in wartime.
Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to
perform in the aid of the South, no adventure to perilous for him to
undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at
heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much
qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous
dictum that all is fair in love and war.
One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench
near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the
gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy
to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the
water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly
for news from the front.
"The Yanks are repairing the railroads," said the man, "and are
getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek
bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The
commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring
that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges,
tunnels, or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order."
"How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?" Farquhar asked.
"About thirty miles."
"Is there no force on this side of the creek?"
"Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single
sentinel at this end of the bridge."
"Suppose a man--a civilian and student of hanging--should elude the
picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel," said
Farquhar, smiling, "what could he accomplish?"
The soldier reflected. "I was there a month ago," he replied. "I
observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of
driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is
now dry and would burn like tinder."
The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He
thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away. An
hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going
northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal
As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost
consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was
awakened--ages later, it seemed to him--by the pain of a sharp
pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen,
poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every
fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well
defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid
periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him
to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of
nothing but a feeling of fullness--of congestion. These sensations
were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature
was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was
torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud,
of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material
substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a
vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light
about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful
roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of
thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had
fallen into the stream. There was no additional strangulation; the
noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water
from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!--the idea
seemed to him ludicrous. He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw
above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was
still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a
mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he
was rising toward the surface--knew it with reluctance, for he was now
very comfortable. "To be hanged and drowned," he thought, "that is
not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot;
that is not fair."
He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist
apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the
struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a
juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort!--what
magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor!
Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the
hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them
with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the
noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside,
its undulations resembling those of a water snake. "Put it back, put
it back!" He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the
undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had
yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire, his
heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to
force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched
with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed
to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward
strokes, forcing him to the surface. He felt his head emerge; his
eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively,
and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great
draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!
He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were,
indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful
disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that
they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the
ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck.
He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual
trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf--he saw the very
insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant bodied flies, the gray
spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the
prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass.
The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream,
the beating of the dragon flies' wings, the strokes of the water
spiders' legs, like oars which had lifted their boat--all these made
audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the
rush of its body parting the water.
He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the
visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point,
and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the
captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were
in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated,
pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire;
the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible,
their forms gigantic.
Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water
smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with
spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with
his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the
muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge
gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that
it was a gray eye and remembered having read that gray eyes were
keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one
A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was
again looking at the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound
of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind
him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and
subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears.
Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread
significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the
lieutenant on shore was taking a part in the morning's work. How
coldly and pitilessly--with what an even, calm intonation, presaging,
and enforcing tranquility in the men--with what accurately measured
interval fell those cruel words:
"Company! . . . Attention! . . . Shoulder arms! . . . Ready!. . .
Aim! . . . Fire!"
Farquhar dived--dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his
ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dull thunder of the
volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of
metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. Some of
them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing
their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was
uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.
As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been
a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther downstream--nearer
to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal
ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from
the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The
two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.
The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming
vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms
and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning:
"The officer," he reasoned, "will not make that martinet's error a
second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He
has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me,
I cannot dodge them all!"
An appalling splash within two yards of him was followed by a loud,
rushing sound, DIMINUENDO, which seemed to travel back through the air
to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to
its deeps! A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon
him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken an hand in the
game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten
water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and
in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest
"They will not do that again," he thought; "the next time they will
use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke
will apprise me--the report arrives too late; it lags behind the
missile. That is a good gun."
Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round--spinning like a top.
The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and
men, all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by
their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color--that was all
he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a
velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick. In few
moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of
the stream--the southern bank--and behind a projecting point which
concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the
abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept
with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself
in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies,
emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not
resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted
a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their
blooms. A strange roseate light shone through the spaces among their
trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of AEolian harps.
He had not wish to perfect his escape--he was content to remain in
that enchanting spot until retaken.
A whiz and a rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his
head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a
random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank,
and plunged into the forest.
All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The
forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not
even a woodman's road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a
region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.
By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famished. The thought of his
wife and children urged him on. At last he found a road which led him
in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and
straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields
bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a
dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed
a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point,
like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. Overhead, as he looked up
through this rift in the wood, shone great golden stars looking
unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they
were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign
significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises,
among which--once, twice, and again--he distinctly heard whispers in
an unknown tongue.
His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly
swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had
bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them.
His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting
it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the
turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue--he could no longer feel the
roadway beneath his feet!
Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking,
for now he sees another scene--perhaps he has merely recovered from a
delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left
it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must
have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes
up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his
wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to
meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile
of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how
beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is
about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck;
a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the
shock of a cannon--then all is darkness and silence!
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently
from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.