The feud between the Gradwitz and Znaeym families stretches back three generations and is inherited by the two main characters, Ulrich and Georg, who continue to quarrel over a narrow strip of precipitous land that the Gradwitz family possesses.
On a wintry night, Ulrich von Gradwitz patrols the disputed territory with his men in hopes of discovering Georg Znaeym poaching on his land. Ulrich von Gradwitz plans on killing Georg the instant he runs into him. However, when Ulrich and Georg cross paths alone in the forest, both men hesitate and do not immediately shoot their rifles.
The narrator mentions that both men uphold a moral code, which prevents them from murdering an enemy in cold blood. Both Ulrich and Georg view themselves as civil men who adhere to the moral code and will not kill each other unless they are immediately threatened or formally challenged, which is why both men refrain from firing their weapons. A massive tree falls on both of them during their moment of hesitation, which further prevents them from killing each other.