Ambrose Bierce. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (in English, adapted for upper-intermediate)

From «Our collection of the best short stories»

The story «An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge» was written by the American short story writer Ambrose Bierce. His style was noted for dark imagination, unbelievable events and the theme of war. In 1913 Bierce traveled to Mexico to get experience of the revolution and disappeared there. His body was never found. What happened to him is still unknown.

The story «An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge» is the best short story by Ambrose Bierce. You can read  it online in English or in Russian — Амброз Бирс. Случай на мосту через Совиный ручей (на русском языке читать онлайн).

Ambrose Bierce. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

(the best short story by Ambrose Bierce in English adapted for upper-intermediate)

Words for the story that might be not easy to understand:

  • timber — wooden beam or board
  • executioner — an official who carries out a sentence of death on a condemned person
  • sentinel — a soldier or guard whose job is to stand and keep watch
  • sluggish — very slow

Part I

A man stood on 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 were tied with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a timber above his head.

His executioners were two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a captain in the black uniform. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood holding his rifle ready.They blockaded the two ends of the bridge. Behind each of them the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards and then was lost to view. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, watching two soldier making the last preparations. In the code of military etiquette silence means respect. The captain respected Death.

The man who was going to be hanged was about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian. His features were good -a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed back, falling to the collar of his well-fitting coat. He wore a mustache and beard; his eyes were large and dark grey. He had a kind expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the noose.

The preparations were completed and the two private soldiers stepped aside and waited for the sign. The face of the man had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked at 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! (Copyright ©

You are reading one of the best short stories by Ambrose Bierce. The story «An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge» is adapted for English Learners (upper-intermediate level). You can also read the same story for pre-intermediate level on the website

Words for the story:

  • to caught attention — to pay attention
  • distract — prevent from concentrating
  • death knell — the tolling of a bell to mark someone’s death
  • thrust — a stab of a knife that can wound you
  • little ones —  little children
  • doomed — it means that unpleasant will happen, and you can do nothing to prevent it

The captain saluted. The man closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. But he couldn’t. The water, the mist over the river, the soldiers — all had distracted him. And then his attention was caught by some sound. It was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil. He wondered what it was. It sounded regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each stroke with impatience and the intervals of silence grew longer, the delays became maddening.  The sounds increased in strength and sharpness and hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.

He opened his eyes and saw again the water below him. «If I could free my hands,» he thought, «I might throw off the noose and jump into the stream. By diving I could escape the bullets and, swimming quickly, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond their reach.»

These thoughts were flashed into the doomed man’s brain. Meanwhile the captain nodded to the soldier. The soldier stepped aside.

Ambrose Bierce. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (in English, adapted for upper-intermediate). Part 2

Words for the story:

  • All is fair in love and war (an idiom) — means «All is allowed in love and war.» (В любви и на войне все средства хороши.)
  • fortification — something that is built to protect a place and make it more difficult to attack
  • picket post — a group of people who stand to try to persuade others not to enter
  • get rid of — defeat
  • Fegeral scout — a soldier sent out ahead of a main force so as to gather information about the enemy’s position, strength, or movements

Part II

Peyton Farquhar was a planter of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner  he was naturally a politician like other slave owners. Some circumstances had prevented him from taking service in the army. But he did what he could to aid the South. Because he was at heart a soldier, and strongly believed that all is fair in love and war.

One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a grey-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was happy to serve him with her own hands. While she was fetching the water her husband asked the dusty horseman about news from the front.

«The 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 fortification on the north bank. The commandant has made an order, which is posted everywhere, that any civilian caught near the railroad, its bridges, tunnels or trains will be hanged. I saw the order.»

«How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?» Farquhar asked.

«About thirty miles.»

«Is there no force on this side the creek?»

«Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge.»

«Suppose a man—a civilian — should avoid the picket post and perhaps get rid of the sentinel,» said Farquhar, smiling, «what could he do?»

The soldier reflected. «I was there a month ago,» he replied. «I observed that near the wooden pier at this end of the bridge there was a lot of driftwood which the flood had brought last winter. It is now dry and would burn easily.»

The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her, 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.

Ambrose Bierce. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (in English, adapted for upper-intermediate). Part 3

Words for the story:

  • torment — strong pain
  • conscious — aware/ able to feel and understand
  • pendulum — a weight hung from a fixed poin
  • suffocate — prevent air to go into the lungs
  • racked and wrenched — feel very strong pain
  • shriek — a cry

Part III

Peyton Farquhar fell down through the bridge and felt as if he was already dead. From this state he was awakened—ages later, as it seemed to him—by a sharp pain upon his throat. The pain shot from his neck downward through every part of his body and limbs. It was as if streams of pulsating fire heated him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he felt nothing. He had no thoughts, the intellectual part of his nature was already gone; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. It was his body that swung like a vast pendulum. Then all of a sudden, a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. He knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream. The noose about his neck was already on his neck and kept the water from his lungs. It was still suffocating him. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!—the idea seemed to him adsurd. He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface. «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 trying to free his hands.What superhuman strength! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and he watched his hands floating in the water. He watched them with a new interest when the one hand and then the other tore the noose away from his neck and throw it away. It coiled like a water snake. «Put it back, put it back!» He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for after his neck was free, it ached horribly. His brain was on fire; his heart gave a great leap, as if trying to jump out of his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an unbearable pain! But his disobedient hands didn’t obey his command. They beat the water with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface. He felt his head appear above the water. He took a great draught of air and instantly he gave out a shriek!

Now he could feel as his physical senses came back to him. Something in his organic system had changed that he started to notice things he had never paid attention before. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream and saw the individual trees, the leaves; he saw the insects upon them: the brilliant-bodied flies, the grey spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. The humming of the gnats that danced above the stream, the beating of the dragon flies’ wings, the strokes of the water-spiders’ legs like oars —all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.

And suddenly he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, 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.

Words for the story:

  • marksman — a person skilled in shooting
  • volley — sound of a shooting
  • vigorously — like mad
  • blurred — unclear
  • a projecting point — something that is above the ground

Suddenly he heard something struck the water within a few inches of his head. He saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from it. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own. He observed that it was a grey eye and remembered having read that grey eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.

«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 going down slowly. Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away.

As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; now he was  farther down the stream nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading. They fired again.

The man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. A rising water fell down upon him, blinded him, make him unable to breathe! Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round. The water, the banks, the forests, the distant bridge, fort and men—all were blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color—that was all he saw. He had been caught in a whirlpool and the whirling made him giddy and sick. In a few moments he was thrown upon the left bank of the stream -the opposite bank —  and behind a projecting point which hid him from his enemies. He felt the ground and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand and  threw it over himself in handfuls. The grains of sand looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant; he inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of harps. He had no wish to continue his escape—he wished to remain in that enchanting spot forever.

A rattle of shots among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The soldiers had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet and rushed up to the forest.

  Words for the story:

  • exhausted — very tired
  • footsore — his feet hurt
  • starving — very hungry
  • constellation — a group of stars forming a pattern

All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed endless; nowhere did he discover even a woodman’s road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region.

By nightfall he was exhausted, footsore, starving. The thought of his wife and children made him go 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 houses anywhere. Only the barking of a dog suggested human living nearby. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, ending on the horizon in a point. Overhead, as he looked up, 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 evil 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 painful; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he thrusted it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled road—he didn’t feel the pain in his feet!

Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene: 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 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  joy. Ah, how beautiful she is! He runs 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.


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