This fablelike story of vendetta and reconciliation begins with a short history of conflict between two families in the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe. Ulrich von Gradwitz, the local nobleman, is patrolling a narrow stretch of scrubby woodland that borders his much larger and more valuable holdings of forestland. The land that he patrols, however, acquires its value in his eyes because it was the subject of a lawsuit between his grandfather and the grandfather of a neighbor, Georg Znaeym, now his archenemy. At the origin of the conflict, each family held that the other claimed the woodland illegally; now, although Ulrich patrols the land as his, Georg regularly hunts its poor woods, simply to indicate his continued claim of rightful possession. What began as a legal battle generations before has become a personal and hate-filled conflict between the two current representatives of the families in the dispute.
On this particular night, both Ulrich and Georg, assisted by their retainers and huntsmen, have come out onto the land. Each comes nominally to defend his claim, but actually to destroy his great enemy by shooting him down in his tracks on the land over which they have disputed for so long. Despite a windstorm that would usually keep the wildlife in secure hiding, many animals are abroad, and Ulrich is sure that this restlessness indicates the presence of his enemy on the slopes.
Straying from his party of retainers and wandering through the woods, Ulrich unexpectedly comes face-to-face with Georg. Each is armed with a rifle, and each intends to use it because no interlopers will interfere, but not without some parting words of vengeance and hatred. Before either can speak, however, a sharp blast of wind tears from the ground the giant beech tree under which they stand, pinning them underneath.
After the impact and first physical shock that leaves them speechless, Ulrich and Georg realize that they are both still alive, and they pick up their conflict in words rather than rifle shots. Each threatens the other with the possibility that his retainers will arrive first, in which case it will be easy for an “accident” to be arranged in which the tree will have apparently crushed the hapless victim, leaving the survivor free of the charge of murder. Their threats made, they relapse into silence and discomfort as they stoically await the arrival of one or the other party of retainers.
After some effort, Ulrich frees an arm and reaches into his pocket for a wine flask that he carries, greatly enjoying the restorative effect of the drink as it warms his body. As he looks across at his enemy, some unaccountable change comes over him. He offers Georg a drink from the flask, which the other is barely able to reach. Under the combined effects of the situation, the shock, and the wine, Ulrich sees the similarity between him and his fellow sufferer, and a sudden transformation alters his old hatred. He tells Georg that, although the other is free to do as he pleases, if Ulrich’s men arrive first, they shall be instructed to free Georg; at first surprised, Georg is then caught up in the change of attitude and makes a similar promise to Ulrich.
Each now awaits his retainers more eagerly than before, but instead of eagerness for vengeance, each feels anxious that he may be the first to demonstrate his magnanimity. Instead of raging at each other, the two now reflect together on the impact that their reconciliation will have on the surrounding countryside—how amazed the other landholders and peasants will be when they see the sworn enemies in the marketplace as friends! The two begin planning the ways in which they will demonstrate their reconciliation by sharing holidays and visits back and forth between their two houses.
During a lull in the wind, Ulrich suggests that they shout together for help. After no response, they call again, and Ulrich thinks that he hears an answering cry. A few minutes pass before Ulrich cries out that he can see figures coming down the hill, and the two shout again to attract the attention of the hunters. In the last few sentences of the story, Georg, anxious to know whose party will arrive first, asks Ulrich if they are his men. The figures are not men but wolves.