An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge HTML version

A Horseman in the Sky
One Sunday afternoon in the autumn of the year 1861 a soldier lay in clump of laurel by
the side of a road in western Virginia. He lay at full length upon his stomach, his feet
resting upon the toes, his head upon the left forearm. His extended right hand loosely
grasped his rifle. But for the somewhat methodical disposition of his limbs and a slight
rhythmic movement of the cartridge-box at the back of his belt be might have been
thought to be dead. He was asleep at his post of duty. But if detected be would be dead
shortly afterward, death being the just and legal penalty of his crime.
The clump of laurel in which the criminal lay was in the angle of a road which after
ascending southward a steep acclivity to that point turned sharply to the west, running a
on the summit for perhaps one hundred yards. There it turned southward again and went
zigzagging downward through the forest. At the salient of that second angle was a large
flat rock, Jutting out northward, overlooking the deep valley from which the road
ascended. The rock capped a high cliff; a stone dropped from its outer edge would have
fallen sheer downward one thousand feet to the tops of the pines. The angle where the
soldier lay was on another spur of the same cliff. Had be been awake he would have
commanded a view, not only of the short arm of the road and the jutting rock, but of the
entire profile of the cliff below it. It might well have made him giddy to look.
The country was wooded everywhere except at the bottom of the valley to the northward,
where there was a small natural meadow, through which flowed a stream scarcely visible
from the valley's rim. This open ground looked hardly larger than an ordinary door-yard,
but was really several acres in extent. Its green was more vivid than that of the enclosing
forest. Away beyond it rose a line of giant cliffs similar to those upon which we are
supposed to stand in our survey of the savage scene, and through which the road had
somehow made its climb to the summit. The configuration of the valley, indeed, was such
that from this point of observation it seemed entirely shut in, and one could but have
wondered how the road which found a way out of it had found a way into it, and whence
came and whither went the waters of the stream that parted the meadow more than a
thousand feet below.
No country is so wild and difficult but men will make it a theatre of war; concealed in the
forest at the bottom of that military rat-trap, in which half a hundred men in possession of
the exits might have starved an army to submission, lay five regiments of Federal
infantry. They had marched all the previous day and night and were resting. At nightfall
they would take to the road again, climb to the place where their unfaithful sentinel now
slept, and descending the other slope of the ridge fall upon a camp of the enemy at about
midnight. Their hope was to surprise it, for the road led to the rear of it. In case of failure,
their position would be perilous in the extreme; and fall they surely would should
accident or vigilance apprise the enemy of the movement.