An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, p.1Ambrose Bierce
AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE
THE MILLENNIUM FULCRUM EDITION, 1988
A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking downinto the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behindhis back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled hisneck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and theslack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon theties supporting the rails of the railway supplied a footing for himand his executioners--two private soldiers of the Federal army,directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputysheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was anofficer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. Asentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in theposition known as "support," that is to say, vertical in front of theleft shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straightacross the chest--a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erectcarriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these twomen to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; theymerely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.
Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ranstraight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, waslost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. Theother bank of the stream was open ground--a gentle slope topped witha stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with asingle embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannoncommanding the bridge. Midway up the slope between the bridge andfort were the spectators--a single company of infantry in line, at"parade rest," the butts of their rifles on the ground, the barrelsinclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the handscrossed 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 hisright. Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not aman moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless.The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statuesto adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent,observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is adignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formalmanifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. Inthe code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms ofdeference.
The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently aboutthirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge fromhis habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good--astraight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, darkhair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collarof his well fitting frock coat. He wore a moustache and pointedbeard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had akindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whoseneck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. Theliberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds ofpersons, and gentlemen are not excluded.
The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers steppedaside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing.The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himselfimmediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace.These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing onthe two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-tiesof the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but notquite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by theweight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At asignal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank wouldtilt and the condemned man go down between two ties. The arrangementcommended itself to his judgement as simple and effective. His facehad not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his"unsteadfast footing," then let his gaze wander to the swirling waterof the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancingdriftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down thecurrent. How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!
He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife andchildren. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the broodingmists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, thesoldiers, the piece of drift--all had distracted him. And now hebecame conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thoughtof his dear ones was sound which he could neither ignore norunderstand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke ofa 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 thetolling of a death knell. He awaited each new stroke with impatienceand--he knew not why--apprehension. The intervals of silence grewprogressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greaterinfrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurthis ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What heheard was the ticking of his watch.
He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. "If I couldfree my hands," he thought, "I might throw off the noose and springinto the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimmingvigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. Myhome, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and littleones are still beyond the invader's farthest advance."
As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, wereflashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it thecaptain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.
Peyton Farquhar was a well to do planter, of an old and highlyrespected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slaveowners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist andardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperiousnature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him fromtaking service with that gallant army which had fought the disastrouscampaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under theinglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, thelarger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. Thatopportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in wartime.Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him toperform in the aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him toundertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was atheart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too muchqualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainousdictum that all is fair in love and war.
One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic benchnear the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to thegate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only too happyto serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching thewater her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerlyfor news from the front.
"The Yanks are repairing the railroads," said the man, "and aregetting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creekbridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. Thecommandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaringthat 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 singlesentinel at this end of the bridge."
"Suppose a man--a civilian and student of hanging--should elude thepicket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel," saidFarquhar, smiling, "what could he accomplish?"
The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. Hethanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away. Anhour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, goingnorthward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federalscout.
As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lostconsciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he wasawakened--ages later, it seemed to him--by the pain of a sharppressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen,poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through everyfiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along welldefined lines of ramification
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