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 soundlike a hammer
striking an anvilinterrupts 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
Farquhars 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
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:
looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees,
the leaves and the veining of each leafsaw 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 boatall these
made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the
rush of its body parting the water.
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 cannonthen 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.
Farquhar: Southern plantation owner who is to be hanged by Union soldiers
as punishment for his attempt (or suspected attempt) to destroy Owl Creek
Mrs. Farquhar: Farquhar's
Soldiers: They include executioners, sentinels, and overseeing officers
on the bridge and a company of soldiers along the shore of Owl Creek.
Scout: Soldier who wears Confederate gray when he rides onto Farquhar's
plantation (in a flashback) and asks for a drink of water.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
of Work and Years of Publication
An Occurrence at Owl Creek
Bridge is a short story that observes the classical unitiesthat 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
Francisco Examiner in 1890, then appeared in 1891 in Tales of Soldiers
and Civilians, a collection of Ambrose Bierces stories.
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
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.
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.
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.
The following passages from
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" appear to allude to slavery.
Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy
to serve him with her own white hands
(Part II, Paragraph 2).
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).
He knew that it had a circle
of black where the rope had bruised it (Part III, Paragraph
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."
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 Ćolian
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)
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.
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)
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)
and rattle of grapeshot among the branches
above his head roused
him from his dream. (Onomatopoeia)
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
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a
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
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?
Reader Presents His Interpretation
Hazzard, a reader of this study guide, has offered the following additional
observations about Farquhars end-of-life experience:
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 doesnt 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge By
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
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.
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
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.
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."
far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?" Farquhar asked.
there no force on this side the creek?"
a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at
this end of the bridge."
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?"
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
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.
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."
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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
company! . . Shoulder arms! . . . Ready! . . . Aim! . . . Fire!"
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.
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.
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.
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!"
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!
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.
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."
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.
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 Ćolian harps. He had no wish to perfect his escape--was content
to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.
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
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.
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.
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!
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!
Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side
to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.