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Young Lena Grove, far along in her pregnancy, marvels at how far she has come since running away from her home in Alabama. She left less than a month earlier, walking and hitching wagon rides in the seemingly hopeless task of finding Lucas Burch, the father of her child. Burch left the state after Lena became pregnant, promised to send for her, and then vanished.
Resting beside the road, Lena meets a man named Armstid, who gives her a ride in his wagon. Like everyone else Lena meets, Armstid quickly realizes that she and Lucas Burch are not married, which means that her pregnancy is a major moral wrongdoing. Although Armstid worries what his wife, Martha, will say about him giving a ride to an unwed, teenage expectant mother, he nonetheless resolves to put Lena up for the night.
When Lena and Armstid arrive at home, the matter-of-fact Martha scolds Lena for her naïve belief that Lucas is in the neighboring town of Jefferson—and also scolds Armstid for encouraging Lena’s naïveté. Lena, however, continues to defend Lucas’s actions and tries to convince herself that the apparent scoundrel has honorable intentions. Martha, despite her disapproval, smashes her small porcelain bank and gives all the contents to her husband to give to Lena, on condition that the girl is sent away in the morning.
The next day, Armstid drives Lena into town and helps her find a ride to nearby Jefferson. Although he sees Lena’s situation as somewhat hopeless, he believes that her pluck and charm will help her navigate her way through her predicament. Lena buys a fifteen-cent can of sardines and waits; eventually, a man offers her a ride on his wagon. Later, as they come over the hill and see Jefferson below them, they see two large plumes of smoke, and the man tells Lena that a house is on fire.
Byron Bunch, a worker in the planing mill in Jefferson, remembers the day three years earlier when Joe Christmas, an inscrutable, silent, sneering man dressed in tattered city clothes, came to work at the mill. The men assume he is a foreigner because of his name. Unbeknownst to most of the men, he begins living in a run-down cottage on the estate of a middle-aged spinster named Miss Burden, where he makes and sells illegal whiskey for a few customers.
Bunch also remembers the day about six months ago when a new worker named Joe Brown joined Christmas at the mill. Brown quickly developed a reputation as a loudmouth and a flagrant bootlegger. Eventually, Christmas quit his job at the mill, and he and Brown were seen driving around town in a new car. After a while, Brown quit at the mill as well. Byron wonders whether Miss Burden—the descendant of a hated family of Yankee abolitionists who moved from the North during Reconstruction—knows what Christmas and Brown are doing on her land.
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