The story opens with two Englishmen, Hawkins and Belcher, being held prisoner by a small group of rebels, somewhere in Ireland, during the Irish War of Independence. They all play cards and argue about politics, religion, and capitalists. The group is housed in the cottage of an old lady, who in addition to tending the house engages the men in arguments. She is a religious woman and quick to scold the men if they displease her.
Bonaparte, the narrator, and his compatriot, Noble, become friends with the English soldiers. Jeremiah Donovan, the third Irishman, remains aloof from the others. He is the officer in charge of the small Irish group. One evening Donovan tells Bonaparte and Noble that the Englishmen are not being held as prisoners, but as hostages. He informs them that if the English kill any of their Irish prisoners, the Irish will order the execution of Hawkins and Belcher in retaliation. This news disturbs Bonaparte and he has difficulty facing his prisoners the next day.
A few days later, Feeney, an intelligence officer for the rebels, arrives with the news that four Irishmen were shot by the English and that Hawkins and Belcher are to be executed that evening. It is left to Donovan to tell Bonaparte and Noble.
In order to get the Englishmen out of the cottage, Donovan makes up a story about a transfer; on the way down a path into the bog, he tells them the truth. Hawkins does not believe him. But as the truth settles in, Hawkins tries to convince the Irishmen not to kill them, arguing that, if their positions were reversed, he would never shoot“a pal.” He asks to be allowed to become a traitor and to fight for the Irish side.
Bonaparte has misgivings about executing the two men. He hopes that they attempt to escape, because he knows that he would let them go. He now regards them as men, rather than the anonymous enemy. Despite Hawkins’s pleadings, the party makes their way to the end of the path where Feeney and Noble are waiting.
Donovan shoots Hawkins in the back of the head. As Belcher fumbles to tie a blindfold around his own eyes before he is shot, he notices that Hawkins is not dead and asks Bonaparte to“give him another.” Belcher displays an inordinate amount of dignity and composure, considering the circumstances. Donovan then shoots Belcher in the back of the head. The group digs a shallow grave and buries them. Feeney leaves and the men go to the cottage, where the old woman asks what theyhave done with the Englishmen. No answer is given, but she knows nevertheless and falls to her knees to pray. Noble does the same. Bonaparte leaves the cottage and looks up at the dark sky feeling very small and lost. He says that he never felt the same about things ever again.