After a time, McEachern notices that Joe’s suit has been worn and realizes that his son is sneaking out at night. One night, he watches as Joe slithers down the rope outside his window and is picked up by a car. Hitching his team, McEachern is guided almost instinctively to the schoolhouse, where a dance is being held. He bursts in on the scene, calling Bobbie a harlot, and begins beating his son, who smashes a chair over his father’s head, killing him.
Joe rides his father’s horse back to the house, where he takes all the money his mother had been saving, hidden in a tin beneath a floor plank. Eventually abandoning the fatigued horse, Joe runs to Max and Mame’s house, where Bobbie is packed and ready to return to Memphis. Another man, a stranger, is present as well. The men ask Joe whether he thinks he has actually killed his foster father. Bobbie curses him for getting her into a potentially compromising situation and threatening Max and Mame’s prostitution business. Joe takes his mother’s money out and gives it to Bobbie as his proposal of marriage. She throws the offering back at him and calls him a “nigger son of a bitch.” The men set on him, beating him until Mame finally stops them.
As Joe lies semiconscious on the floor, the group moves about him, discussing whether they should take the money that he tried to give Bobbie. Mame puts some of her own money in Joe’s pocket, and the group pulls off in the car, leaving him behind. Badly beaten, Joe eventually regains full consciousness and manages to get out onto the street and out of town.
For the next fifteen years, Joe wanders, hitching rides and working in oil towns and wheat fields as a laborer, miner, and prospector. Finally, he enlists in the army and then deserts. He patronizes prostitutes, eventually making a habit of telling them afterward of his black ancestry in an attempt not to pay. For a short time, he settles down among blacks and lives with a dark-skinned woman for a while. Eventually his wanderings bring him to Jefferson, where he presses a local boy for details about Miss Burden’s property. Waiting until nightfall, he slips into the kitchen through an open window and, famished, eats some leftover field peas. When he hears Miss Burden approach, he does not flee. When she appears, she tells him calmly that he is free to finish his meal.
Though they are lovers, Joe and Miss Burden have a strange and distant relationship. They talk little. She leaves food on the kitchen table for him but rarely visits him when he comes in to eat. During the day, Joe never ventures beyond the kitchen, though at night he sneaks up to Miss Burden’s bedroom, where she waits for him. Joe, however, is repulsed and threatened by her strength, fortitude, and independence, which he views as overly masculine qualities. When she sets out a full meal for him, Joe enters the house and smashes the dishes against the wall, as he did with his foster mother.
After getting a job at the mill, Joe continues to live in the cabin but neither enters the main house nor sees Miss Burden for months. One September evening, he returns to the cabin to find her seated on his cot. She tells him her life story, going on for hours. She tells of the various generations buried on the property, including her grandfather and brother, who were killed by a local man, Colonel Sartoris, over a disagreement concerning black voting rites. When Miss Burden finishes and it is Joe’s turn to speak, all he is able to reveal is that one of his anonymous parents was part black.