“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is divided into three sections. In section I, Peyton Farquhar is standing on a railroad bridge, twenty feet above the water. His wrists are bound behind his back, and around his neck is a noose that is tied to a beam overhead. He is positioned on loose planks that have been laid over the crossties of the train tracks to create a makeshift platform. Two soldiers from the Northern army, a sergeant, and a captain immediately surround him, awaiting the execution. Beyond them, armed sentinels stand at attention. The bridge is bordered on one side by forest and, across the stream, open ground that gives way to a small hillock on which a small fort has been erected. A motionless company of infantrymen, led by their lieutenant, stands assembled before the fort. As the two soldiers finalize the preparations, they step back and remove the individual planks on which they had been standing. The sergeant salutes the captain then positions himself on the opposite end of the board supporting Farquhar, as the captain, like the soldiers, steps off and away from the crossties.
Awaiting the captain’s signal, the sergeant is about to likewise step away, sending Farquhar to dangle from the bridge’s edge. Farquhar stares into the swirling water below. He watches a piece of driftwood being carried downstream and notes how sluggish the stream seems to be. He shuts his eyes to push away the distractions of his present situation and focus more intently on thoughts of his wife and children. He suddenly hears a sharp, metallic ringing, which sounds both distant and close by. The sound turns out to be the ticking of his watch. Opening his eyes and peering again into the water, Farquhar imagines freeing his hands, removing the noose, and plunging into the stream, swimming to freedom and his home, safely located outside enemy lines. These thoughts have barely registered in Farquhar’s mind when the captain nods to the sergeant and the sergeant steps away from the board.
In section II, we learn that Farquhar was a successful planter, ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Unable to join the Confederate army, he yearned to help the South’s war effort in some significant way. One evening in the past, Farquhar and his wife were sitting on the edge of their property when a gray-clad soldier rode up, seeking a drink of water. The soldier appeared to be from the Confederate army. While his wife was fetching the water, Farquhar asked for news of the front and was informed that Northern forces had repaired the railroads in anticipation of launching another advance, having already reached the Owl Creek bridge. Any civilian caught interfering with the North’s efforts in the area, the soldier went on to reveal, would be hanged. Farquhar asked how a civilian could attempt some form of sabotage. The soldier told him that one could easily set fire to the driftwood that had piled up near the bridge after the past winter’s flood. The man, who was actually a Northern scout in disguise, finished his drink and rode off, only to pass by an hour later heading in the opposite direction.
Section III brings us back to the present, at the hanging. Farquhar loses consciousness as he plummets down from the side of the bridge. He is awakened by currents of pain running through his body. A loud splash wakes him up even more abruptly, and he realizes that the noose has broken—sending him falling into the stream below. Farquhar sees a light flicker and fade before it strengthens and brightens as he rises, with some trepidation, to the surface. He is afraid he will be shot by Northern soldiers as soon as he is spotted in the water. Freeing his bound hands, then lifting the noose from his neck, he fights extreme pain to break through the surface and take a large gasp of air, which he exhales with a shriek. Farquhar looks back to see his executioners standing on the bridge, in silhouette against the sky. One of the sentinels fires his rifle at him twice. Farquhar can see the gray eye of the marksman through the gun’s sights.
Farquhar then hears the lieutenant instructing his men to fire, so he dives down to avoid the shots. He quickly removes a piece of metal that sticks in his neck. Farquhar comes back up for air as the soldiers reload, and the sentinels fire again from the bridge. Swimming with the current, Farquhar realizes that a barrage of gunfire is about to come his way. A cannonball lands two yards away, sending a sheet of spray crashing over him. The deflected shot goes smashing into the trees beyond. Farquhar believes they will next fire a spray of grapeshot from the cannon, instead of a single ball, and he will have to anticipate the firing. Suddenly he is spun into a disorienting whirl, then ejected from the river onto a gravelly bank out of sight and range of his would-be executioners and their gunfire.
He weeps with joy and marvels at the landscape, having no desire to put any more distance between him and his pursuers, when a volley of grapeshot overhead rouses him. He heads into the forest, setting his path by the sun and traveling the entire day. The thought of his family urges him on. Taking a remote road, he finds himself in the early morning standing at the gate of his home. As he walks toward the house, his wife steps down from the verandah to meet him. He moves to embrace her but feels a sharp blow on the back of his neck and sees a blinding white light all about him. Then silence and darkness engulf him. Farquhar is dead, his broken body actually swinging from the side of the Owl Creek bridge.