Bierce uses auditory imagery throughout the short story to create an atmosphere of immediacy, violence, and tension. The sounds are loud, graphic, and startling. The protagonist, Peyton Farquhar, is assaulted by sounds before his hanging and during his imagined near-drowning and escape.
One recurring example of auditory imagery is the sound of water. In part one, the swirling water beneath Peyton seems sluggish yet ominous. In part two, a Federal scout asks for a drink of water, which Peyton’s wife brings him. The sound of water grows louder and more vivid, though, in part three as Peyton hallucinates almost drowning and escaping. As he falls into the water, he hears a loud splash and “frightful roaring.” Upon surfacing, he feels and hears rippling waves hit. A particularly effective instance of noises coalescing to create an sense of immediacy (as if the reader were in the water with Peyton) is the passage:
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.
The sounds of natural life in the water are heightened to seem both beautiful and overwhelming. The cacophony is disturbing and creates a tense atmosphere as Peyton tries to escape.
Later, when Peyton is shot at, the sounds of water become more threatening again, with it roaring “in his ears like the voice of Niagara” while dulling the “thunder” of bullets being shot at him. A cannon generates “an appalling splash” and “a loud, rushing sound” that then diminishes in “an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps!” These sounds are powerful and overwhelming to Peyton, a lone and powerless man in the swirling water.
Another recurring example of auditory imagery is the sound of weaponry. In part one, Peyton is assaulted by the ticking of his watch, which sounds like the striking of an anvil and hurts his ear like a stabbing knife. This beating sound creates suspense and tension, making the anticipation for Peyton’s excruciating. In part three, Peyton hears the “sharp report” of bullets being fired at him and hitting the water. At the end, just as he is about to reach out to his wife (all in a hallucination), he sees a “blinding white light” that “blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!” This last action is startling…before Bierce calmly reveals that Peyton was actually hanged and is now dead.