A young Frenchman named Daru sees two men climbing toward the schoolhouse where he teaches and resides in the desert mountains of French Algeria. One man, the old Corsican gendarme Balducci, rides on horseback and holds a rope tethered to his prisoner, an unnamed Arab, who proceeds on foot. Balducci informs Daru that he is to receive the prisoner (who has killed a cousin of his in a fight over some grain) and deliver him to police headquarters at Tinguit, some fifteen kilometers away. At first Daru refuses Balducci’s order, then relents and takes the prisoner in; having been offended by Daru’s reluctance, Balducci leaves in a sullen mood.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear to the reader that Daru would welcome the escape of the prisoner: It would relieve Daru of the demands thrust on him against his will. It is a time of uprising, the Arabs against the French government. The Arab prisoner asks Daru to join him and the other rebels, but it is unlike Daru to make an active commitment to anything. In the inscrutable world in which he lives it would make no difference anyhow, for actions are misconstrued over and over again. Still, one must do what one must do, in spite of the absurd interpretations society might make: This is a central message that runs throughout Albert Camus’s work. Daru, after a restless night, walks with his prisoner to a point between two directions, one of which leads to the French administration and the police, the other of which leads to the nomads. Having given the Arab dates, bread, sugar, and a thousand francs, he leaves the choice of directions to him. The Arab remains motionless in indecision as Daru turns his back on him and walks away; when, after a time, Daru turns around, he sees that the Arab is walking on the road to prison.
A little later, as Daru stands before the window of the classroom, he watches, but hardly sees, the panorama of the plateau; behind him, written on the blackboard, are the words: “You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.” Daru feels alone.