.. .
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
By Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site
..
Characters
Setting
Time of Day
Point of View
Grant's Reference to Owl Creek
Type of Work
Publication Years
Foreshadowing
Themes
Allusions
Dream Within a Dream
Imagery
Questions and Essay Topics
Reader's Interpretation
Biography of Bierce
Complete Free Text
.
Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2007
.
.......Standing on a plank on a railroad bridge in northern Alabama is a man with his hands bound behind his back. Around his neck is a noose. Twenty feet below him is the swift water of Owl Creek. Next to him are two Union soldiers, acting as executioners, with a sergeant directing the proceedings. Nearby is a captain. Sentinels stand watch at each end of the bridge. On one bank of the creek is a forest, and on the other bank is a line of trees serving as a stockade. Poking out of an opening is a cannon. A company of soldiers on the shore observes the scene on the bridge.
.......The man to be hanged is a civilian, about 35. He wears a frock coat and has a well-trimmed mustache and pointed beard. From all appearances, he is a gentleman, perhaps a plantation owner. As the moment of execution approaches, he closes his eyes to picture his wife and children. A sound–like a hammer striking an anvil–interrupts his thoughts. It is rhythmic, like a tolling bell, and grows louder and louder, hurting his ears. The noise is the ticking of his watch.
.......If he could somehow free his hands, he thinks, he could remove the noose, jump into the creek, swim to shore below the surface of the water, and escape into the woods. 
.......The narrator reveals in Part II of the story that the condemned man is indeed a prosperous planter, with slaves working his land. His name is Peyton Farquhar, a strong supporter of Southern secession. Circumstances prevented him from fighting on the Confederate side, although he wanted to. However, he worked on behalf of the South in any way he could whenever an opportunity presented itself. One evening, a soldier in Confederate gray rides onto Farquhar’s plantation to get a drink of water. He told Farquhar that Union forces had advanced to the Owl Creek bridge, taken control of the railroad running over it, and issued an order to execute anyone who attempted to subvert Union activities at the bridge. Questioned by Farquhar about the vulnerability of the bridge, the soldier told him that a pile of dry driftwood at one end of the bridge “would burn like tow.” After Mrs. Farquhar brought him water, he drank it and rode off. He was a Union scout, not a Confederate soldier.
.......At the beginning of Part III, Farquhar is falling. He loses consciousness when the noose catches, then awakens moments later. Excruciating pain radiates from his neck throughout his body. There is a splash. Beneath the surface of the cold, dark water, he realizes that the rope has broken. However, the noose remains tight around his neck. After his body sinks to the bottom, it begins to rise. To be hanged and drowned is one thing, he thinks, but also to be shot is unfair. Pain in a wrist alerts him that his hands are working frantically to free themselves. They succeed, then remove the noose. Severe pain wracks his body. His hands keep working, bringing him to the surface, where he gulps air. 
.......Farquhar is now keenly aware of his surroundings, as if infused with superhuman perception. The narrator says:
    He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf–saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the grey spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies' wings, the strokes of the water-spiders' legs, like oars which had lifted their boat–all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.
.......When the soldiers begin to fire, Farquhar submerges, the rush of water sounding to him “like the voice of Niagara." When he resurfaces, he is much farther downstream. The soldiers fire again and again and Farquhar swims with the current. A cannon shot flies over his head, cracking and splintering trees in the forest ahead. A vortex catches and whirls him while carrying him forward. Moments later, he reaches the left side of the creek, the southern shore. Overjoyed, he throws handfuls of sand over himself as he smells the fragrance of the forest and hears the wind rustling the tree branches.  After cannon grape shot hits the trees, he disappears into the forest.
.......Farquhar travels all day through the wilds, looking for a road but not finding one. At sunset, tired and hungry, he finally comes across a straight, wide, empty road with no houses in sight. Above him the stars shine down.  From the woods on the left and right come strange noises, including a whisper in an unknown language. His neck is sore and swollen and bruised. He is now so thirsty that he sticks out his tongue to expose it to the cool air.
.......Sometime later, he comes to the gate of his home. It is morning. When he steps through the gate, his wife comes down from the veranda to meet him. After he opens his arms to greet her, he feels a tremendous blow on his neck. The narrator then says,
 “A blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon–then all is darkness and silence! Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.”

Characters

Peyton Farquhar: Southern plantation owner who is to be hanged by Union soldiers as punishment for his attempt (or suspected attempt) to destroy Owl Creek Bridge. 
Mrs. Farquhar: Farquhar's wife.
Union Soldiers: They include executioners, sentinels, and overseeing officers on the bridge and a company of soldiers along the shore of Owl Creek. 
Union Scout: Soldier who wears Confederate gray when he rides onto Farquhar's plantation (in a flashback) and asks for a drink of water. 

Setting

The action takes place at a railroad bridge in northern Alabama during the U.S. Civil War, not long after the Battle of Corinth in northern Mississippi on October 3 and 4, 1862. The bridge runs north-south over Owl Creek. (See Grant's Reference, below.) On one side of the creek is thick forest. On the other is a company of Union soldiers. A cannon pokes from a line of trees the soldiers are using as a stockade. On the bridge are other Union soldiers preparing to execute a man with a rope around his neck. 

Time of Day

The story begins early in the morning, as disclosed by the boldfaced words in the following passage in Part I:

    He [Peyton Farquhar] closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of driftall had distracted him. 
The story ends in the evening of the same day. 
 

Point of View

Bierce tells "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" in three parts. Part I is in objective third-person point of view except for the last three paragraphs. In objective third-person narration, the storyteller observes events but cannot enter the mind of any character and disclose his or her thoughts. In the last three paragraphs of the Part I, the narration shifts to omniscient (all-knowing) third-person point of view in relation to Peyton Farquhar. This shift enables Bierce to take the reader inside Farquhar's mind to demonstrate how emotional upheaval alters not only the way the mind interprets reality but also the way it perceives the passage of time. First, Farquhar mistakes the ticking of his watch for the tolling of a bell or the ring of an anvil struck by a hammer. Then, after Farquhar drops from the bridge at the moment of execution, he perceives a single second as lasting hours. In presenting his psychological study, Bierce could not have used first-person point of view. Here is why:

  • Farquhar dies at the end of the story. Obviously, dead men can tell no tales. 
  • If a Union soldier had told the tale in the first-person "I" and "me," he could not have entered Farquhar's mind. He could report only what he saw or heard. 
  • If Farquhar had revealed his thoughts to a first-person narrator, the pace, suspense, and immediacy of the action would have been lost.   
General Grant's Reference to Owl Creek

After the Battle of Shiloh (southern Tennessee, April 1862), General Ulysses S. Grant marched his Union forces south into Mississippi on his way to Vicksburg, a strategically important Mississippi River city. At Corintha northeastern Mississippi town just south of the Tennessee border and just east of the Alabama borderGrant and General William Starke Rosecrans repulsed a Confederate attack while solidifying control of the town, an important railroad center. In Chapter 26 of his memoirs of 1885 and 1886, Grant refers to Corinth and Owl Creek. (In his short story, Bierce also refers to the Battle of Corinthand, of course, to Owl Creek.) Here is the passage written by Grant:

    Preparations were at once made upon the arrival of the new commander for an advance on Corinth. Owl Creek, on our right, was bridged, and expeditions were sent to the north-west and west to ascertain if our position was being threatened from those quarters; the roads towards Corinth were corduroyed and new ones made; lateral roads were also constructed, so that in case of necessity troops marching by different routes could reinforce each other. All commanders were cautioned against bringing on an engagement and informed in so many words that it would be better to retreat than to fight. By the 30th of April all preparations were complete; the country west to the Mobile and Ohio railroad had been reconnoitred, as well as the road to Corinth as far as Monterey twelve miles from Pittsburg. Everywhere small bodies of the enemy had been encountered, but they were observers and not in force to fight battles. 
Whether the Mississippi Owl Creek is the same Owl Creek over which the railroad bridge passes in northern Alabama is uncertain. However, because Corinth is only a short distance from the Alabama border, it may well be that Owl Creek ran east from Mississippi into Alabama. 

Type of Work and Years of Publication

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a short story that observes the classical unities–that is, it takes place in a single location on a single day while focusing on a single subject. There are no subplots. Although the story is fiction, it is based on real events during the U.S. Civil War. The story first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in 1890, then appeared in 1891 in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, a collection of Ambrose Bierce’s stories. 

Foreshadowing

The narrator of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” tells the reader that Peyton Farquhar escapes death after the rope around his neck snaps at the bottom of his fall from the bridge. Farquhar then swims to shore, under heavy gunfire, and makes his way home, by nightfall, through the wilds. However, the narrator reveals at the end of the story that Farquhar's escape is a dream that lasts only from the moment he drops from the bridge to the moment the rope breaks his neck at the end of his fall. To prepare the reader for the expansion of the single second it takes for Farquhar to die into a day-long event, author Bierce presents the following passage in which time begins to pass more slowly. 

    Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near byit seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each stroke with impatience andhe knew not whyapprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer, the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.
.
.
Themes

How Human Beings Deny Reality to Protect Themselves

On the personal and specific level, plantation owner Peyton Farquhar denies reality as a means of forestalling it. First, he lapses into a delusionary dream in which he escapes death after the weight of his body snaps the hangman's rope. Then he swims to safety under heavy gunfire and returns to his plantation. This dream lasts only a second, but Farquhar's mind turns it into an hours-long flight from the enemyand reality. On the impersonal and general level, the slaveholding Southrepresented by Farquharrefuses to accept the reality that slavery is a barbarous institution. 

Bondage

Peyton Farquhar's livelihood depended on holding black men, women, and children in bondage. Ironically, Farquhar ends up in bondage, with a noose around his neck and cords around his wrists. Bondage is terrifying, Farquhar discovers, and all of the last thoughts of his life center on escaping it. 

Allusions

Slavery

The following passages from "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" appear to allude to slavery. 

  1. Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands (Part II, Paragraph 2).
  2. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. (Part III, Paragraph 19).
  3. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it (Part III, Paragraph 20).
The first passage says Mrs. Farquhar fetches water for a thirsty soldier in Confederate gray. Apparently, she thinks that serving the soldier herself, rather than calling upon a lowly slave to perform the task, manifests the depth of her support for the Confederate cause. She is unaware, of course, that the soldier is a Union scout in disguise.
The second passage describes the scene on a road as Peyton Farquharin his end-of-life dreamnears his home. The passage is open to broad interpretation. It may suggest that the black trunks of the trees on both sides of the road represent the multitude of black slaves who stalwartly, though unwillingly, supported the Southern economy on its road to prosperity. 
The third passage appears to suggest that the circle of black represents slavery, the fatal injury to Peyton Farquhar's soul.

There are also direct references to slavery in the short story, such as the second sentence in Part II: "Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause." 

Greek Mythology

In Part III, Paragraph 16, the narrator alludes to Aeolus, the god of the winds in Greek mythology, saying, "A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of Æolian harps."
 

Imagery

Bierce's story relies heavily on imagery centering on sight and sound to vivify his tale. Following are examples of sound imagery. Figures of speech appear in colored type.

    Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. (Simile)

    The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dulled thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. (Simile)

    An appalling plash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, diminuendo, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps! (Onomatopoeia)

    The cannon had taken a hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond. (Personification/Metaphor) (Onomatopoeia)

    A whiz and rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. (Onomatopoeia) (Alliteration)

Farquhar's Dream Within a Dream

Peyton Farquhar experiences a dream within a dream, as noted in the first sentence of Paragraph 17: "A whiz and rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream." Up to this point in the story, Farquhar was already dreaming that he had escaped the Union forces. But after reaching the shore in his first dream, he lapses into another dream, a daydream, in which he becomes entranced with the beauty of nature and the joy of freedom. Is it possible to experience a dream within a dream? Edgar Allan Poe wrote a poem entitled "A Dream Within a Dream

A Dream Within A Dream
By Edgar Allan Poe

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream? 

Study-Guide Reader Presents His Interpretation

.......Gregory Hazzard, a reader of this study guide, has offered the following additional observations about Farquhar’s end-of-life experience: 
.......When Farquhar returns in his dream to a world he recognizes, it is from a perspective in which blacks welcome him home along the path to his sanctuary. This is the perspective from which Farquhar feels safe and comfortable. Since he doesn’t know the slaves on a human level, his mind relates to them as trees. The black tree “bodies” and black people are equal objects in his natural environment. The best his mind can offer in the dream is an outline of colored bodies. 
.......This illusion is reinforced in that the welcoming he would ordinarily receive as a slaveholding plantation owner is a parallel of the welcoming he receives in his dream. That is, it is a dream life within a dream life. Because of the way things work in his society, his life as the owner of a plantation and slaves is better than that of other human beings. He ignores the concept that his slaves are not necessarily lined up lovingly and respectfully to welcome him to his sanctuary. He ignores that scouts in an underground system of freedom fighters stand ready to summarily convict him for his crimes against freedom.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Do you sympathize with Farquhar? Explain your answer. 
  • Read a short biography of author Bierce. Then explain to what extent Bierce drew upon his own experiences when he wrote "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."
  • Did the Union forces have a right to hang Farquhar without first trying him in a court of law?
  • Write and essay that compares and contrasts "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" with Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." (Click here for the Poe study guide.) Point out the similarities and differences in the methods the authors use to tell their stories. 
  • Write an essay that comments on the impact of the sight and sound imagery in the story. Click here for background information.
  • Bierce tells almost all of the story in the past tense. However, he writes Sentences 2 through 8 of the second-to-last paragraph of the story in the present tense. Why?
  • The last sentence of Part III, Paragraph 19, states: "The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among whichonce, twice, and againhe distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue." Are these the voices of slaves, whose subhuman existence he could never understand because it was like a foreign language to him? Or do the voices represent someone, or something, else?
  • Bierce points out in his narration that the Owl Creek bridge runs from north to south (or from south to north). Since Peyton Farquhar, a slaveowner, is to be hanged from the bridge, does it thus symbolize the central issue dividing the North and the South? 
  • Were there antislavery movements in the South? Were there proslavery movements in the North? Write an essay that informs the reader about both questions.
.

.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
By Ambrose Bierce
.
.......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. Some loose boards laid upon the sleepers supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners--two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as "support," that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest--a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.
.......Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. The other bank of the stream was open ground--a gentle acclivity topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge. Midway of the slope between the bridge and fort were the spectators--a single company of infantry in line, at "parade rest," the butts of the rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieu tenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right. Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.
.......The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good--a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well-fitting frock coat. He wore a mustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.
.......The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing. The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace. These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties. The arrangement commended itself to his judgment as simple and effective. His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his "unsteadfast footing," then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move, What a sluggish stream!
.......He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift--all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. 
.......Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by--it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each stroke with impatience and--he knew not why--apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer, the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.
.......He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. "If I could free my hands," he thought, "I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader's farthest advance."
.......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.

II

.......Peyton Farquhar was a well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army that had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in war time. Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.
.......One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only toe, happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.
......."The Yanks are repairing the railroads," said the man, "and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order."
......."How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?" Farquhar asked.
......."About thirty miles."
......."Is there no force on this side the creek?"
......."Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge."
......."Suppose a man--a civilian and student of hanging--should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel," said Farquhar, smiling, "what could he accomplish?"
.......The soldier reflected. "I was there a month ago," he replied. "I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tow."
.......The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away. An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.

III

.......As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened--ages later, it seemed to him--by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well-defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fulness--of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream. There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!--the idea seemed to him ludicrous. He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface--knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable. "To be hanged and drowned," he thought? "that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair."
.......He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort!--what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake. "Put it back, put it back!" He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire; his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface. He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!
.......He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf--saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the grey spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies' wings, the strokes of the water-spiders' legs, like oars which had lifted their boat--all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.
.......He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.
.......Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a grey eye and remembered having read that grey eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.
.......A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking into the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears. Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieu. tenant on shore was taking a part in the morning's work. How coldly and pitilessly--with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquillity in the men--with what accurately measured inter vals fell those cruel words:
......."Attention, company! . . Shoulder arms! . . . Ready! . . . Aim! . . . Fire!"
.......Farquhar dived--dived as deeply as he could. xSome of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.
.......As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther down stream nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.
.......The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning.
.......The officer," he reasoned, "will not make that martinet's error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!"
.......An appalling plash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, diminuendo, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps!
.......A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken a hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond.
......."They will not do that again," he thought; "the next time they will use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me--the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun."
.......Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round--spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men--all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color--that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick.
.......In a few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream--the southern bank--and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of Æolian harps. He had no wish to perfect his escape--was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.
.......A whiz and rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.
.......All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman's road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.
.......By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famishing. The thought of his wife and children urged him on. At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great garden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which--once, twice, and again--he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.
.......His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue--he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!
.......Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene--perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon--then all is darkness and silence!
.......Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
.


 

Popular Pages