In this short story by Ambrose Bierce, upon a railroad bridge in Alabama, a man is waiting to be hanged. His hands are tied behind his back, and a rope encircles his neck. He stands upon a platform constructed of loose boards. Members of the Federal Army—the Union Army during the Civil War—are also on the bridge. Some are completing the preparations and some are guarding the bridge. The man about to be hanged, Peyton Farquhar, is a civilian.
On one side of the stream is a forest, on the other a fort. Halfway between the bridge and the fort stand a line of soldiers, all armed. When the soldiers finish their preparations, they move off of the bridge. A sergeant stands at the opposite end of the same board as Farquhar. At the signal from his captain, he will step off the board. The board will tilt down, and Farquhar will fall through the railway ties.
Farquhar closes his eyes to think of his family but he is distracted by a sharp, rhythmic sound. He tries to figure out what it is and how far away it is. He finds he is waiting with impatience and apprehension for the toll, which seems to come less frequently. The sound is so loud that it hurts his ears. What he hears is only the ticking of his watch. Farquhar opens his eyes and looks at the stream. He thinks that if he could free his hands he might be able to dive into the water and swim away from his executioners. He would then flee for home, which is still outside of the territory held by the Union Army. As he is thinking, the sergeant steps off of the board.
The narrative then flashes back to Farquhar and the circumstances that led to his hanging. Though he was a Southern plantation owner, he was unable to serve in combat. Still he longed for the glory of a soldier’s service and waited for the chance to prove that he possessed courage. One evening, a Confederate soldier stopped at the plantation, and Farquhar asked for news of the war: The Yankees were pushing forward. The soldier told him that they were repairing the railroads and had built a fort near the Owl Creek bridge. The Yankee commander had issued an order to hang any civilian caught interfering with the railroad. Farquhar asked about the bridge, and the soldier put in his mind how easily the bridge would burn. An hour later, the soldier passed the plantation again, heading north. He was returning to Yankee territory, for he was a scout for the Union Army.
The narrative returns to the present as Peyton Farquhar falls between the railway ties of the bridge, losing consciousness. The sharp pain in his neck and a feeling of suffocation return him to a state of awareness. He is incapable of rational thought. Then he splashes into the stream, and he is again able to think. He knows that the rope has broken. His body sinks toward the bottom of the stream. Without realizing it, he starts to free his hands, which then loosen the rope at his neck. His hands drive him to the surface of the water. After a breath of air, he finds he has an amazing awareness of his surroundings: he can feel each ripple of water, see the colors shining in the dewdrops on the grass, hear the body of a fish parting the water. He also sees the fort and the soldiers, shouting and pointing at him. A bullet strikes the water inches from his face and he hears the orders to fire.
He dives under the water, under a hail of bullets. When he resurfaces, he is further downstream. He knows he must get out of the soldiers’ range soon because the officer will give his soldiers the order to fire at will. They even fire a cannonball at him. Fortunately, the water throws him upon the bank opposite from the fort. He runs into the forest and travels all day. At nightfall he stumbles upon a road that leads him in the direction of his home. It is a wide road, yet eerily empty with no one is traveling on it nor fields or homes alongside it.
His throat, his eyes, and his tongue are all swollen. Despite his suffering, he continues walking. He believes he has fallen asleep while walking, for he finds he is at the gate of his own home. His wife is on the veranda to meet him. As he is about to embrace her, he feels a sharp blow on the back of his neck. He sees a bright white light, and then there is blackness. Peyton Farquhar has died. His body, the neck broken, swings beneath the timbers of Owl Creek bridge.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Ambrose Bierce, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.