The mice held court. In their grand hollow between two great oak trees, they thronged to hear accusations against two members of their clan. A pair of defendants had been caught with willow bark in their burrows. Chewing too much of the bark made mice light-headed and unreliable so it had been outlawed. Now the elders gathered to determine the facts and, if the defendants were found guilty, decide whether they should be torn apart or merely banished.
The guard mice who had discovered the caches of willow bark testified first. There seemed to be no doubts. Both of the accused had been caught with willow not only in their nesting chambers but in their mouths. Indeed, when the initial testimony was finished one of the defendants crept forward to beg for his life.
"I'm not like the other fellow," he pleaded. "I'm sorry for what I've done. I agree with the rule against willow. I'll never even look at it again."
"You let your children go hungry," said one of the elders. "You put a great burden on your mate and on your neighbors."
The defendant trembled. "I didn't notice. My ears were ringing. I'm very sorry."
The most senior, powerful mice conferred for a moment. They agreed that ringing in the ears was a symptom of too much willow bark.
"You step back," they said. "Bring the other one forward."
The second defendant had fought his arrest. His forelimbs and snout bore wounds from the struggle. The guards around him bore bloody wounds, too.
"What do you have to say for yourself?" asked one of the oldest mice in the burrow.
"I have a toothache," said the defendant. "So I'll eat willow bark if I want. It's up to me, not you elders. I didn't let any children go hungry. I kept my side of the stores full. I went on my patrols. I brought back better food than anybody. All I did was eat willow bark. Who cares how much? That's up to me."
His words caused a roar in the cavern as mice gossiped to one another. How could this solitary mouse dare to oppose the will of the majority? A few of the audience tried to shout him down toward the end of his speech.
Angrily, the head judge called a conference of the elders. He wanted to decide on sentences for the defendants right away. The other judges wanted to call character witnesses first. The head judge prevailed, however, shouting down the others. They took a poll among them. It did not produce a unanimous result. Some of the elders voted for clemency, mostly for the apologetic mouse. They polled themselves again and again, sniffing and talking and trying to reach consensus.
By the fourth vote, only one of the judges voted against the sentence levied by the others. However, she was one of the eldest and deemed the wisest despite her frail body. The difficult part for the head judge to understand was that the elder had voted to pardon the rude mouse and execute the contrite one.
"Did you make a mistake, venerable one?" he asked. "I can't help noticing that you may have gotten their names reversed. Did you mean to vote the other way?"
"I'm not so old that I'm confused," she said. "The rest of you should be ashamed for not understanding."
"But you're letting off the unrepentant fellow!"
"Be calm. Think," she replied. "Some of us here remember when willow bark was first made legal. Then it was made illegal again. Our ways change. Our laws change. All that defiant mouse needs is a change in our laws for him to be an upstanding citizen. But the other mouse, the one you like so much, he made excuses. I've heard him before. He did many things wrong and he excused himself from our rules many times and he says he is sorry. Well, I've dealt with his kind of mouse before. He would be a criminal under any laws, in any circumstances."
The other judges looked to one another. They sniffed. They talked. They voted again. All of them changed their verdict except for the one who had gotten it right in the first place. And so the defiant mouse was spared.