An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
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 tranquillity in the men--with what accurately measured intervals fell those cruel words:
"Attention, company! . . Shoulder arms! . . . Ready! . . . Aim! . . . Fire!"
Farquhar dived--dived as deeply as he could.
The water 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.
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 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.
The 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.
The 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!"
An 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 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.
"They 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."
Suddenly 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 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 olian harps.
He had no wish to perfect his escape--was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.
A 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 forest.
All 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.
By 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
His 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!
Doubtless, 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!
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
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 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. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
by Ambrose BierceAn Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge 1
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