What is the situation Peyton Farquhar faces in part one of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?
Peyton Farquhar faces an impossible situation. He does not appear to have any chance of escaping execution. Ambrose Bierce describes the situation in the opening sentences of the story.
A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's 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.
He is being executed for attempting to set fire to this bridge. Even if he could somehow manage to free his hands and pull the noose off his neck in the next minute or two of his life, as he is thinking of doing, he would still have to escape from a whole contingent of the Union Army. It would seem to be too late for escape when the first part of the story closes with the following short paragraph:
As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it, the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.
Bierce has described the method of the proposed execution. Farquhar is standing on plank with the sergeant standing at the other end of the same plank. When the sergeant steps aside, the plank will give way and the condemned man will fall between the cross-ties of the bridge with the noose around his neck.
The author of this excellent story keeps the reader in suspense by devoting the next section to a flashback explaining how Farquhar managed to get himself in this impossible situation. Then in the last section Bierce returns to the Owl Creek Bridge, beginning with the following sentence:
As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead.
Because of the impossible situation described in Part One, the reader will be utterly astonished when it appears that the rope must have broken and Farquhar has fallen into the river with some chance of saving his life if only he can free his hands and avoid getting shot by all the soldiers.