On Sunday, Reverend Gail Hightower watches the street from his small bungalow. He looks through his study window and out across his lawn, gazing at the faded sign advertising the services he once offered as an art teacher. Hightower originally came to Jefferson years earlier as the minister of the local Presbyterian church. Aloof and disengaged, he was prone to giving obsessive sermons about his grandfather, a Civil War cavalryman who was shot from his horse in Jefferson.
Ultimately, Hightower was driven from his post at the church after his adulterous wife was found dead at a Memphis hotel, where she had been staying with another man. Hightower had long tried to cover up for his wife’s behavior, but once word of the scandal at the hotel spread, his parishioners turned on him and forced him out of his ministry. Rather than leave town, he bought a home and settled permanently in Jefferson, despite being ostracized from the community, accused of taking a black woman as a lover, and severely beaten by the Ku Klux Klan. After twenty years, the townspeople have grown to ignore if not accept Hightower, who lives as a recluse. Much of his sordid past has been forgotten, although vicious rumors of interracial lovers still circle him.
Hightower watches the August darkness fall over the street outside when suddenly he sees a strange figure walking up his path. It is Byron Bunch, who is never in town on Sundays.
Unnerved and guilt-ridden because of his feelings for Lena, Byron has sought out Hightower for words of comfort and advice. He tells the minister what happened after Lena’s unexpected appearance at the mill. After convincing Lena not to go off immediately in search of Joe Brown at the Burden place—which was still burning—Byron took Lena to his residence at Mrs. Beard’s boardinghouse, telling his landlady that Lena would be meeting her husband and needed to rest. Mrs. Beard put Lena in the boardinghouse for the night.
Moreover, Byron informs Hightower that the fire was not the only disaster that occurred at the Burden house the previous day. The first man to reach the burning house was a man passing by with his wife in a wagon. Running into the house, the man found Joe Brown drunk at the bottom of the stairs, suspiciously trying to deflect the man’s attentions from upstairs. Nonetheless, the man forced his way through and went upstairs to find Miss Burden slumped on the floor, almost entirely decapitated. When the man went back downstairs, Brown was gone.
Once the fire was put out, Byron says, Miss Burden’s nephew in New Hampshire offered a reward of $1,000 for the capture of her killer. Brown showed up promptly at the police station to claim the reward, declaring Joe Christmas the killer. Brown revealed that Christmas had been Miss Burden’s lover for nearly three years and that Christmas threatened to kill him if he spread this information. Then, Brown said that on the morning of the fire, Christmas told him he finally killed Miss Burden. When Brown sensed that the sheriff was questioning his credibility, he abruptly revealed that Christmas was part “negro” blood. Suddenly convinced of Christmas’s guilt, the officials locked Brown up and rounded up a posse to search for the presumed fugitive.