The story is set in early twentieth-century Ireland, during the Irish nationalist uprising against the British occupation. The events take place in an isolated farmhouse where two Englishmen, Hawkins and Belcher, are being kept prisoner by a group of Irish nationalists. One of the nationalists is Bonaparte, who also narrates the story. Another is called Noble, and the third, Donovan, is in charge of the group. There is also an elderly woman who lives in the farmhouse.
Part I. We get a glimpse of life in the farmhouse with the two prisoners. Things actually appear quite relaxed; Bonaparte and Noble get on fairly well with the prisoners, and they all spend the time chatting convivially and playing cards. Belcher, the quieter of the two Englishmen, helps the old woman with the chores and they become quite good friends.
Part II. Noble and Hawkins get into an argument over religion and politics. Donovan, who generally holds aloof from the others, goes out for a walk and Bonaparte joins him. Donovan reveals that the two prisoners are actually being kept as hostages and that they will be shot in retaliation for any Irish prisoners being shot by the British. Bonaparte is dismayed, although Donovan is quite matter-of-fact about it. On returning to the house, and after the Englishmen have been locked up for the night, Bonaparte tells Noble what Donovan told him. Noble debates whether they should let the prisoners know also. Bonaparte decides against it, trying to convince himself that maybe they won't have to be shot, anyway. However, now his peace of mind has gone and he and Noble find it hard to face the prisoners the next day.
Part III. That evening, the news comes that Bonaparte had been dreading. An intelligence officer called Feeney arrives to inform them that four Irishmen have been shot, and that now Belcher and Hawkins will have to be executed in return. Donovan orders Bonaparte and Noble to bring out the prisoners, and to tell them a lie: that they're just being shifted to a new place. Noble demurs at this, so Donovan tells him to go with Feeney to dig a hole by the bog. It is left up to Bonaparte and Donovan to carry out the execution. Donovan pretends to the Englishmen that they are just being moved on,while Bonaparte struggles internally with the enormity of what he has to do.
Everything if I can so express myself was tottering before my eyes, and I left Jeremiah Donovan to do the explaining as best he could,while I took a seat and said nothing.
The old woman wants the Englishmen to stay, and the men themselves appear unwilling to leave. However, once they're brought up to the graves by the bog, Donovan finally reveals that they're going to be shot. In an emotional outburst, Hawkins remonstrates with Donovan and then appeals to Bonaparte in the name of their friendship. He says that if the situation were reversed, he would never shoot a 'chum'.
Part IV. The group arrive at the bog where Noble and Feeney are waiting. Hawkins appeals to Noble as he had to Bonaparte. Donovan shoots him. Belcher, who keeps his cool throughout, points out that Hawkins is not quite dead, so Bonaparte finishes the job off. Finally Donovan shoots Belcher dead and the Irishmen then bury the bodies in the bog. When they return to the farmhouse, the old woman asks what they've done, and starts to pray. Noble joins her, but Bonaparte slips outside alone, trying to deal with his sense of shock. He notes that the events of that night changed him forever:
And anything that ever happened me after I never felt the same about again.