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Sunday, March 31, 2013
SUNDAY REVIEW / AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE / FICTION BY AMBROSE BIERCE
"The Old Gringo," a film starred Gregory Peck as Ambrose Bierce
A STORY OF THE CIVIL WAR, 1891
Note: Ambrose Bierce was an American newspaperman, satirist, and short story
writer. He disappeared in Mexico in 1914 during the Mexican Revolution and his
final fate is unknown. This is from the public domain.
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 ties supporting
the rails 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
Reporter Ambrose Bierce, MIA.
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 slope 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 up the slope between the bridge and fort
were the spectators -- a single company of infantry in line, at "parade
rest," the butts of their rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining
slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock.
A lieutenant 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.
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 moustache 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
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 judgement 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!
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 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 new 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.
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
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.
Peyton Fahrquhar 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 that
gallant army which 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
wartime. Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to
perform in the 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.
evening while Fahrquhar 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. Fahrquhar was only too 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?" Fahrquhar asked.
there no force on this side of 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 Fahrquhar, 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
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.
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 fullness -- 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.
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
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 -- he saw the very
insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant bodied flies, the gray 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.
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 gray eye and remembered having read that gray 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 at 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 lieutenant on shore was taking a part in the morning's
work. How coldly and pitilessly -- with what an even, calm intonation,
presaging, and enforcing tranquility in the men -- with what accurately
measured interval fell those cruel words:
dived -- dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his ears like the
voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dull thunder of the volley and, rising again
toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened,
oscillating slowly downward. Some 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 downstream -- 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
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 splash 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 an 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. In 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.
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 AEolian harps. He had not wish to perfect his escape --
he was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.
A whiz and
a 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.
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, famished. 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 golden 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.
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 forwards 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.
FILM VERSION THIS STORY.
Robert Enrico won an Oscar for his trilogy of short films based on the civil
war stories of Ambrose Bierce. An
Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is one of the three.
Also, Hollywood's "The Old Gringo" starred Gregory Peck as Ambrose Bierce.