AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE
by Ambrose Bierce
(THE MILLENNIUM FULCRUM EDITION, 1988)

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 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 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.

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 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 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 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!

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 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 trust 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.

<End of part 1 of 3.>


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