As Ambrose Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” opens, we see a man standing on a railroad bridge with his wrists bound and a rope around his neck. He is about to be hanged by Union soldiers. The narrator describes the prisoner, a man about thirty-five years old, as a planter and a civilian with a “kindly expression.” Yet this man is about to drop to his death, and we readers wonder why. As the soldiers make their final preparations, the narrator describes the man's thoughts. He looks down at the stream so far below and remembers his family. He hears the loud ticking of his watch and thinks that if he could only free his hands, he might have a chance to escape. With this thought, the narrator plants a seed in readers' minds.
Just as the Union sergeant steps aside, ready to complete the hanging, the story flashes back, and we learn that the man on the bridge is Peyton Farquhar, an Alabama planter who has had the misfortune to hint at his plans to burn the Owl Creek bridge in the presence of a Union scout.
The story then shifts back to the present, and readers watch as Farquhar drops from the bridge and straight into the river. Something has happened. The rope around his neck breaks, and after a few moments of near drowning, he surfaces in the water. Then the soldiers on the riverbank see him and open fire. They miss, and Farquhar begins to swim rapidly away. But then the cannon opens upon him. He whirls around in the water before catching the gravel on the shore and pulling himself up onto land, running flat out toward home as the cannon shot whizzes above his head.
Just as Farquhar reaches home and sees his wife, running toward her with arms outstretched, he feels a “stunning blow upon the back of the neck” and sees “a blinding white light.” Then all is dark and silent, and Peyton Farquhar's body swings from the Owl Creek bridge.
Readers are left to interpret these events and to decide for themselves whether Farquhar really escapes only to be recaptured and hanged a second time or whether the whole thing is the desperate final vision of a dying man.