A civilian man stands on a railroad bridge with a rope around his neck. He waits for his military execution to begin.
The man is a gentleman and a planter, but he has done something – we're not told what – punishable by hanging under the military code.
A kindly expression on his face, the man looks down at the stream below and notices a floating piece of driftwood.
The man turns his thoughts to his wife and children, but is distracted by a thundering and repetitive sound. It is the sound of his watch ticking.
As he waits, the man imagines the possibility of freeing his hands. He could take the noose off his neck, jump down to the water below, and perhaps swim to safety.
The hanging begins.
We then learn that the man is Peyton Farquhar, a wealthy planter and slave owner from an old and prestigious Alabama family. He supports the Confederacy but isn't part of the military due to unidentified personality traits. Still, he does his part to support the cause.
Prior to his predicament (a nice word for being in a sticky situation) on the bridge, Farquhar sits with his wife near the front of their property.
A Confederate soldier approaches and gives Farquhar news from the front. Farquhar learns that Union troops have repaired the railroad bridge over Owl Creek, and that any civilian caught tampering with the railroad or any of its bridges will be hanged.
Farquhar asks how far away the bridge is and finds out how many soldiers are guarding it. The guard tells Farquhar that there is a pile of driftwood near the bridge that could easily be set on fire. Only after their conversation is over do we find out that this soldier was in fact in disguise. He was actually a scout from the Federal army.
This all leads to the initial scene we encountered. Back in that scene, Farquhar falls through the bridge and loses consciousness.
After some time, Farquhar regains consciousness, but has a horrible pain in his neck and body. He can't breathe or think and his body is engulfed in light.
Everything goes dark and Farquhar is able to think again. He realizes that the rope tied to his neck is broken and that he has fallen into the stream. The rope around his neck has kept him from drowning and he manages to get his hands free.
Having successfully removed the noose from around his neck, Farquhar pushes toward the surface.
He turns around and notices the soldiers on the bridge preparing to shoot at him. In fact, a few bullets narrowly miss him.
Farquhar swims to the opposite shore as the soldiers continue to shoot at him. A cannonball also misses him and he assumes the soldiers will start using grape shot (just another way to kill a guy, no big deal).
Swimming for his life, Farquhar gets caught in a vortex and is flung to shore. Protected from further shooting, he celebrates his good fortune.
Having made it to safety, Farquhar travels all day through the forest, following the sun. He marvels at the size and wildness of the forest he thought he knew well.
By nighttime, he is tired and hungry. Thinking of his wife and children, he presses on and finds a familiar road.
The road shows no sign of human life and the constellations above are unfamiliar. Farquhar hears strange noises and words whispered in a language he doesn't know.
Feeling horrible pain in his neck, Farquhar reaches up to discover that it is extremely swollen. His eyes are congested and his tongue is swollen, too
Farquhar reaches the gate of his property and sees his wife moving towards him. Just as he is about to reach her, he feels a horrible blow against the back of his neck and everything goes dark.
Farquhar is dead. His neck is broken and his body swings back and forth beneath Owl Creek Bridge.