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A man stands on loose boards with a rope around his neck. He's on top of a railroad bridge in Alabama and the rope around his neck is attached to a cross-timber above his head. He looks down at the river below him. Can you tell where this is going?
The man is being executed, and a sergeant and two privates of the Federal army serve as his executioners.
History alert: the Federal army was another name for the Union army (a.k.a. the North) during the Civil War. We'll use both names to refer to it, so don't forget!
A captain and two sentinels are also chillin' on the bridge. (Don't worry too much about the specific ranks/jobs of all these dudes. Just know that they're Union military men.)
There aren't many people watching the execution: just a few soldiers and their boss, the lieutenant. (Before TV, executions were public spectacles – some people even brought picnics. These soldiers bring their guns.)
The man with the rope around his neck is a civilian (that means he's not in the military). He's dressed like a planter. Since he is living in Alabama during the Civil War, we can assume that he's a plantation owner who owns slaves. He also probably likes mint juleps. He's about 35 years old, quite dashing, and mustachioed – not too shabby.
We're told that the man has a "kindly expression" (1.3) on his face while waiting to be hanged. Hmm, not the reaction we'd expect from a guy in his position.
The narrator lets us know that the man hasn't been condemned for murder. He has, however, done something punishable by hanging under the military code (the collection of laws governing the operation of the military).
The preparations for the hanging are complete, so the two privates remove their planks and move away from the man.
After some more shifting around (the sergeant and captain switch places), the man is on one end of a plank. Once the sergeant moves off the other end, the plank will tilt and the man will fall through two railroad ties. And military justice will be served.
Because the man's eyes haven't been covered (a common practice during hangings), he's able to look down at his "unsteadfast footing." It's like a Survivor immunity challenge, just way more important.
Looking down at the creek below him, the man notices a piece of driftwood moving slowly in the current. The stream is "racing madly" (1.4), but, from his point of view, it looks "sluggish" (1.4).
The man closes his eyes and thinks of his wife and children, but he's distracted by a percussive (that's a fancy word for something that beats like a drum) sound. The man can't tell what the sound is and starts to freak out a little as the interval between the sounds lengthens. The narrator informs us that the man is just hearing his watch ticking. Tick tock, tick tock – pretty eerie, if you ask us.
Once again, the man opens his eyes and looks down at the water. He thinks that if he could get his hands free, he could remove the noose and dive into the water below (kind of optimistic for a man with a rope around his neck). A plan starts to form: diving beneath the water would keep him safe from bullets. Then, if he were able to swim to the bank, he could run home.
His home, he thinks, is past the enemies' lines, and his wife and children are (so far) safe from the Union invaders.
The captain nods to the sergeant and the sergeant steps off the plank. Dun dun dun!