The plot follows a country doctor's hapless struggle to attend a sick young boy on a cold winter's night. A series of surreal events occur in the process, including the appearance of a mysterious groom in a pig shed.
It begins with the doctor having to urgently attend a sick patient, but his sole horse died the night before, so his maid Rosa goes off to ask for another. She returns empty-handed — "Of course, who is now going to lend her his horse for such a journey?" —, but, just as the doctor is expressing his distraction and torment by kicking at the cracked sty door, a mysterious groom appears and supplies him with a team of magnificent horses. The groom, being the oaf that he is, boorishly kisses the maid when she tries to hand him a harness, leaving her cheek with two rows of red tooth marks. The doctor scolds him furiously but quickly realizes that he is in his debt and, on the groom's beckoning, jumps happily into the gig. The groom declines to travel with him, preferring to stay with the terrified Rosa, who dashes into the house and makes every effort to secure herself, although her fate is inevitable. The doctor can do nothing to stop the groom, who, with a simple "Giddy up!", sends the horses on their way. The doctor is almost instantly transported to his sick patient's courtyard. It is, he says, "as if the farm yard of my invalid opens up immediately in front of my courtyard gate", when, in reality (insofar as that term may be applied to this story), it is all of ten miles away.
After being ushered into the house by a family whose explications he does not comprehend, the doctor is quietly implored by the patient to let him die. Initially, he deems him completely healthy, but, after he notices the boy's sister holding a bloody towel, he discovers a deep wound on his right side. The kin and assembling kith are pleased to see him at work. The horses, meanwhile, having somehow freed themselves of their straps, have opened the window and are neighing frantically.
The doctor's thoughts are focused on the fate of his maid, for which he blames himself. In accordance with a simple melody from a choir outside the house, the family undresses him and forces him into bed alongside the patient. He assures his skeptical bed mate that the wound is not death-dealing and promptly takes up all his belongings and flees the scene. The horses are now wearied, however; and the doctor, disgraced, finds himself "crawl[ing] slowly through the wasteland of snow men". He feels betrayed by his patients and his community, and his story concludes with the line "A false ring of the night bell, once answered — it can never be made right."
Thin, without fever, not cold, not warm, with empty eyes, without a shirt, the young man under the stuffed quilt heaves himself up, hangs around my throat and whispers in my ear, "Doctor, let me die."
— Excerpt from Franz Kafka's "A Country Doctor"