"The Old Man at the Bridge" is one of Hemingway's stories in which he deliberately leaves out most exposition in order to focus on the here and now. The reader has to make all kinds of assumptions and deductions based on what the author actually tells him; but this requirement tends to draw the reader into the setting and make it more vivid. In this story Hemingway is describing an incident that occurs during the Spanish Civil War, which took place between 1936 and 1939, resulting in the overthrow of the elected socialistic government by Fascist reactionaries assisted by foreign powers, notably Nazi Germany. The Spanish Civil War was considered a prelude to World War II. Hemingway was in Spain as a foreign correspondent and was sympathetic to the Loyalists. Eventually he wrote about the Spanish Civil War in what many consider his best novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).
In "The Old Man at the Bridge" the Fascist rebels are obviously winning all over Spain and are on the offensive everywhere. Soldiers and civilians are fleeing the advancing army across a pontoon bridge. The old man has crossed the bridge and is sitting on the ground. Hemingway's famous prose style is one of the interesting features of this story. For example:
The trucks ground up and away heading out of it all and the peasants plodded along in the ankle deep dust. But the old man sat there without moving. He was too tired to go any farther.
Notice that Hemingway even avoids using commas after "up and away" and again after "out of it all." He avoids using a hyphen in "ankle deep." The words "ground up and away" are effective because they describe the sound the trucks make as the drivers have to shift into a lower gear to make it up the hill. They also suggest the mood of desperate retreat.
The old man tells the narrator that he is seventy-six years old. He will be one of the many civilian casualties of this war. Although both the narrator and the old man converse in English, it is to be understood that they are really speaking Spanish. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway made it more apparent that the characters were mostly speaking Spanish by phrasing his English dialogue somewhat foreign syntactically. In "The Old Man at the Bridge" there is just a hint of this "Spanish-ness" in such lines as:
"No," he said. "Only the animals I stated. The cat, of course, will be all right. A cat can look out for itself, but I cannot think what will become of the others."
Other good examples of Hemingway's creation of dialogue in English which is supposed to be understood as actually being spoken in Spanish are to be found in his stories "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" and "The Undefeated." Hemingway loved many things about Spain, including the bull fights, which he wrote about in his nonfiction book The Dangerous Summer. But he refused to go back to Spain after the brutal Generalissimo Francisco Franco's Fascists won the war and took control of the government.