Ep. 2: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

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AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE
By Ambrose Bierce

I

NARRATOR. Peyton Farquhar stood upon a railroad
bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the
swift water twenty feet below. His 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. At a short remove
upon the same temporary platform was an armed
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 the sentinels, nobody was in sight; the
railroad ran straight away into a forest for a
hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view.
The other bank of the stream was open ground— a
gentle slope topped with a stockade of vertical
tree trunks, loop-holed 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 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 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 the two ties. 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 nearby— 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.

PEYTON. If I could free my hands, 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 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.

NARRATOR. As these thoughts were flashed into the
doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it,
the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant
stepped aside.

II

NARRATOR. 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. No service was too humble for him to
perform in the 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.

SOLDIER. The Yanks are repairing the railroads,
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.

PEYTON. How far is it to the Owl Creek Bridge?

SOLDIER. About thirty miles.

PEYTON. Is there no force on this side of the
creek?

SOLDIER. Only a picket post half a mile out, on
the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end
of the bridge.

PEYTON. Suppose a man— a civilian and student of
hanging— should elude the picket post and perhaps
get the better of the sentinel,

NARRATOR. ...said Farquhar, smiling,

PEYTON. ...What could he accomplish?

NARRATOR. The soldier reflected.

SOLDIER. I was there a month ago. 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.

NARRATOR. 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 Union scout.

III

NARRATOR. 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.

PEYTON. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!

NARRATOR. 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.

PEYTON. To be hanged and drowned,

NARRATOR. ...He thought,

PEYTON. That is not so bad; but I do not wish to
be shot. No. I will not be shot.

NARRATOR. 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, and 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. 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 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. 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 downstream; 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 water. 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 the 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 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:

Lieutenant. Company! Attention. Shoulder arms...
Ready. Aim! FIRE!

NARRATOR. 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. As he rose to the
surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had
been a long time underwater; 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:

PEYTON. The officer will not make that martinet’s
error a second time. God help me, I cannot dodge
them all!

NARRATOR. A splash within two yards of him was
followed by a loud, rushing sound, which seemed
to travel back through the air to the fort and
died in an explosion which stirred the very river
to its depths! 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
beyond.

PEYTON. They will not do that again,

NARRATOR. ...He thought.

PEYTON. 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.

NARRATOR. 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. Then 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. And
suddenly he stood 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 pushed open the gate and
passed 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.

PEYTON. Ah, how beautiful she is!

NARRATOR. 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.

Northern Alabama, The Civil War: A Confederate farmer stands on a bridge, a noose around his neck. He contemplates his life, and the choices that led him to this moment. What follows is his breakneck escape from an impossible situation.

Cast (in speaking order):

  • BOYD GAINES as The Narrator
  • RYAN MAC as Peyton Farquhar
  • ROB NAGLE as Soldier
  • ALEX AQUILINO as Lieutenant
  • with SAM TSOUTSOUVAS, the voice of RPR

 

Original music by HARRIS OWENS

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