AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE
by Ambrose Bierce
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 sleepers supporting the metals
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 centre 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 acclivity 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 of the slope between bridge and fort were the
spectators--a single company of infantry in line, at
"parade rest," the butts of the 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
centre 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 deference.
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
mustache 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 judgment 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 a 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 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 thrust 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
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 the
gallant army that 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 war time.
Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too
humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no
adventure too 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
"About thirty miles."
"Is there no force on this side 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
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 tow."
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 fibre 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 fulness--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 plash; 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
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--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
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 had missed.
A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half
round; he was again looking into 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 intervals
fell those cruel words:
"Attention, company! . . . 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 dulled 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
As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw
that he had been a long time under water; he was
perceptibly farther down stream--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 plash 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 a
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 a 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 no wish to perfect his
escape--was content to remain in that enchanting spot
A whiz and 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, famishing. 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
His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it he
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 forward 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.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~