silhouette of a man half submerged in water wiht a noose around his neck

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

by Ambrose Bierce

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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Summary

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a short story by Ambrose Bierce set in the Civil War–era South about a man who prepares to be executed and dreams of escape.

  • Peyton Farquhar stands on Owl Creek Bridge, which he was arrested for trying to burn down, and prepares for his execution.
  • In a flashback, the third-person narrator tells of how and why Farquhar came to be at Owl Creek: Farquhar was tricked into trying to burn the bridge down in order to prevent Union troops from crossing it.
  • Returning to the moment of his hanging, Farquhar loses consciousness. In his mind, Farquhar escapes, but the execution is ultimately successful.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

On an isolated railroad bridge in Alabama in the American south, a roped and bound man waits to be hanged. Loose boards serve as a platform to support him on the rickety bridge under which a river swiftly flows. The man’s hands are tied behind his back, and the rope around his neck is fastened to a crossbeam above. Sentinels guard the two ends of the bridge, so the site of the execution remains cordoned off; other soldiers and officers make preparations for the planned execution. All the personnel are from the Union or Northern army, as the American Civil War is currently transpiring. The man about to be hanged is a thirty-five-year-old Southerner civilian named Peyton Farquhar. The time is early morning.

On one side of the stream is a fort and on the other a forest. After the troops have prepared the site of the hanging, they leave the bridge. Only the senior officers, a young sergeant and his captain, remain on the bridge, the captain standing on the other end of the board from the condemned man. The sergeant salutes the captain and they switch places. Now it is the sergeant’s weight keeping the board upright. Once the captain gives him the cue, the sergeant will move off the board, causing it to tilt downwards. Peyton will then slip through the railroad ties and get hanged to death.

The condemned man’s face and eyes have not been covered. He looks at the stream and tries to focus on the memory of his wife and children. The landscape is deceptively idyllic, but now something else draws Farquhar’s attention: a percussive metallic sound. Peyton tries to gauge the nature of the sound. It seems both close and distant, a rhythmic pounding of a smith’s hammer. The strange sound hurts his ears’ the intervals between the clangs seem to grow longer and longer. Farquhar realizes the sound is only his watch ticking. With the spell broken, Farquhar awakens from his passive reverie. He looks at the stream again and reasons that if he can manage to free his hands, he may be able to slip out of the noose and jump into the river. He can then swim away from his executioners. His home is beyond the forest, still outside the area controlled by the Union army. He can run home and retreat there. Meanwhile, the captain nods to the sergeant and the sergeant steps off the board.

The narrative shifts to a flashback from Peyton’s point of view. He was a well-to-do planter from a highly regarded family in Alabama. Employing enslaved people on his plantation, he was a supporter of the Confederate secessionist cause. Thus, Farquhar had wanted to serve in the Confederate army but wasn’t allowed to serve in the military. Keen to demonstrate his courage, Peyton aided the army however he could. One day, a Confederate soldier stopped by his plantation for a drink of water. The soldier told Peyton that the Union forces were making inroads in their territories, repairing the railroads and constructing a fort near the Owl Creek bridge, thirty miles away. Any civilian who interfered with this activity would be hanged. Sensing an opportunity to show his courage, Peyton wondered if he could somehow evade the picket post and destroy the bridge. The soldier indicated there was a huge stash of dry driftwood near the post, which could catch fire very easily. After planting this idea in Peyton’s head, the soldier left the plantation and circled back north. He was in fact a Union army scout and was on his way back to Yankee territory.

In the present, Peyton Farquhar slips between the ties of the railroad, fainting as the noose tightens around his neck. The explosive pain and the choking sensation around his neck jolt him awake. Overcome by torment, he cannot form a rational thought. Just then, he falls into the water, and the cold and dark restore his senses. He knows the rope has broken. He can feel himself sink into the river and focuses on a point of light above. The light recedes and then grows brighter, as if he has now begun to rise towards the surface. A sharp pain around his wrist makes Peyton realize he has managed to untie his hands and thus loosen the rope around his neck. He breaks the water’s surface, taking in a deep breath. He feels renewed and acutely aware of his surroundings. Peyton feels he can even see the spiders in the forest spin their webs and hear the fish swim in the water.

Peyton notices the soldiers on the bridge yelling and gesticulating at him. The captain draws out a gun, and moments later bullets smash into the water. To escape the gunfire, Peyton dives under the surface and emerges for air further downstream. He needs to get away fast, as the soldiers are preparing to fire at him again. Barely two yards away from him, a cannonball explodes into the water, the resulting wave nearly choking him. But the wave also pushes him onto the shore across the fort. He springs to his feet and dashes off into the forest.

Peyton runs through the dense woods for hours and finally discovers a road. Traveling on the road, he cannot find signs of another human being or human dwelling. The trees on either side of the walkway are like sentries closing in on him. As day turns to night, Peyton can see the stars overhead. He begins to notice a pain in his face. His tongue, mouth, and eyes are congested. Yet he continues to walk on, delirious. Somehow, he finds himself at the gate to his own house. He glimpses his wife on the terrace. Just as Peyton moves to embrace her, he feels a blinding blow at the back of his neck. Light flashes before him, stunning him, followed by absolute darkness. Peyton Farquhar is dead. His body swings under the timbers of Owl Creek Bridge, his neck broken.

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