The story begins with a simple tableau (a grouping of silent figures), kind of like you might see in a movie: a man and his executioners stand on a railroad bridge in Alabama. The Civil War is on and military justice is about to be served; the only spectators are a handful of soldiers. The man to be executed is a civilian dressed in the clothes of a plantation owner, and his executioners are Federal (Union) soldiers. As he waits for his executioners to get on with it already, the man looks down at the water below him and imagines ways he could escape home to his wife and children. With a nod of the captain's head, the hanging begins.
Part 2 opens with the narrator introducing Peyton Farquhar, a wealthy Alabamian slave owner. Farquhar is not in the army because of personality issues, but he is determined to support the Confederate cause by any means necessary. An opportunity arises when a soldier dressed in a gray Confederate uniform rides up to his house. The soldier tells him that Union troops are repairing railroads in the surrounding area and have recently rebuilt the nearby bridge over Owl Creek. Apparently the head honcho has issued an order stating that any civilian caught tampering with the railroad will be hanged. The soldier leaves after informing Farquhar that a pile of flammable driftwood has accumulated near the bridge. An hour later, the soldier rides past the Farquhar residence heading north. It turns out that he is actually a Union scout. Tricky.
Now we know that the man being hanged at the beginning of the story and the plantation owner from Part 2 are one and the same. Part 3 of the story begins as Farquhar falls through the bridge. Unable to think rationally, he feels himself freeing his hands from their bindings, removing the noose around his neck, and pushing up to the surface. Diving beneath the water keeps him safe from the soldiers' bullets and he swims with the current toward the opposite shore. Narrowly evading a cannonball, Farquhar gets caught in a vortex that eventually flings him on the sand.
Celebrating his escape, Farquhar hurries toward home, traveling all day through a wild forest straight out of a horror movie. By nightfall, Farquhar reaches the gate to his home. He sees his wife, but, as he is about to grasp her, he feels a powerful blow against the back of his neck. Bright white light turns to complete darkness.
Farquhar is dead, his neck is broken, and his body hangs beneath Owl Creek Bridge.