What is really uppermost in the soldier's mind as he talks with the old man?
The incident described in "Old Man at the Bridge" takes place during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The narrator appears to be one of the many foreigners who volunteered to aid the Loyalists against the fascist reactionaries led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco. The narrator seems to be an American soldier of fortune, not unlike Robert Jordan, the hero of Ernest Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). The unnamed narrator of "Old Man at the Bridge" has been given the assignment of watching enemy movements on the other side of the bridge and reporting back.
It was my business to cross the bridge, explore the bridgehead beyond and find out to what point the enemy had advanced. I did this and returned over the bridge.
What is uppermost in the narrator's mind as he talks with the old man is the approaching enemy troops. He is just making conversation with the old man because he has nothing to do now but wait.
I was watching the bridge and the African looking country of the Ebro Delta and wondering how long now it would be before we would see the enemy, and listening all the while for the first noises that would signal that ever mysterious event called contact, and the old man still sat there.
The fact that the narrator is "wondering" and "listening" shows clearly that the advancing enemy is uppermost in his mind, which is certainly understandable. The old man does not seem in the least concerned about the advancing enemy or about his own possible danger. He only concerned about the animals he had to leave behind. There were two goats, a cat, and four pairs of pigeons. It was the old man's responsibility to take care of them, and he feels sad about having to leave them behind. Without his animals, the old man has nothing to live for. He is seventy-six years old and worn out from the ordeal of retreating before the advancing enemy. Hemingway is using the old man to symbolize the plight of the Spanish peasantry, who suffered the most from the war.