The crude little cottage had been surrounded and two stalwart peasant boys routed out, but only one gun had been found. Each lad stoutly swore that he was responsible for the sniping. The old mother stood near them.
“Choose one or we will shoot both!” the German officer again ordered the old woman.
Her shrunken, toil-worn frame seemed to suffer pain of death. She wound her rough hands in her apron. Terror, hatred, love, devotion, helplessness filled her eyes.
Alphonse, the tall, light-haired boy, was urging the smaller and more delicate Petro by gestures and eager, low words to yield the punishment to him.
With equal intensity the little fellow pleaded to take the blame because Alphonse would be better able to care for their mother.
The imperturbable German, not asking for more than one life, set the decision before the mother herself. Apparently it would be necessary to shoot both of them.
The soldiers stood waiting for their part in the procedure.
The old woman turned aside. “Take Alphonse,” she groaned.
Surprised, but satisfied, they took the boy to the side of the house and fired upon him.
Perhaps a thought of another youth, perhaps the wonder of why the old woman had chosen, perhaps a burden of conscience delayed the officer as he followed his men from the yard.
“Quick, Petro,” whispered the mother, and the boy who had been standing rigid, with the horror of his brother’s death gripping his heart, came to life. Like a shadow he disappeared. The next instant there was a shot and the German officer fell in the road.
A pack of wild beasts rushed toward the house. Two of them fell.
Somewhere inside the dwelling Petro was killed, but there was neither shot nor cry.
They found the old peasant kneeling beside the doorway.
“I said, ‘take Alphonse!’ oh, God,” she moaned, “but,” she shrieked with fierce satisfaction as her enemies appeared, “because Petro could aim better with his gun!”
Three graves on the right of the cottage held the peasants, but three graves on the left held their toll.