Martha Hale, a farmwife in rural Dickson County in the early 1900s, must leave her kitchen chores half-finished on a frigid day. She is asked to accompany the sheriff and his wife, Mrs. Peters, to the home of John and Minnie Wright. Along with her own husband, the sheriff, his wife, and the county attorney Mr. Henderson, Martha reluctantly leaves her bread dough half-mixed as her husband scolds her to hurry up. She’s needed to keep timid Mrs. Peters company while she gathers necessities for Minnie Wright. Mrs. Wright is being held in the county jail and is a person of interest in her own husband’s murder. Mrs. Hale hardly knows Mrs. Peters, a slight, frail woman, and she worries about what Mr. Peters, a no-nonsense sheriff, will do at the Wrights’ isolated farmhouse.

When they arrive, Mrs. Hale hesitates to enter the house. She regrets not having visited Minnie, her girlhood friend, more often over the busy years. A deputy has lit a fire, and the party stands near it. Mr. Hale reports on his visit to the Wrights the morning before. Mrs. Hale worries that her husband will ramble and reveal details she feels should be concealed.

As Mr. Henderson takes notes, Hale explains what happened. He and his son dropped by to ask whether John Wright wanted to join him in getting a party telephone line. They found Minnie sitting in her worn-out rocker, repeatedly gathering her apron fabric into folds in her hands. She quietly told them that John Wright was dead, with a rope around his neck, in the bedroom on the second floor. Mr. Hale and Harry went upstairs and found exactly the scene she described. They touched nothing. Downstairs again, Harry asked Mrs. Wright who killed John. She reported that it happened while she slept. Mr. Hale then sent Harry for the coroner and waited with Mrs. Wright, making awkward small talk. Minnie, Hale tells the group, laughed at odd moments, and looked fearful but was otherwise quiet.

The men look around the kitchen for anything that would point to a motive. Mr. Henderson finds that the glass jars in which Mrs. Wright put up fruit have broken in the cold night when no one was there to keep the fire going—just as she had worried. The sheriff laughs at the woman’s concerns about fruit, given that she is accused of murder. Mr. Hale agrees, noting that “women are used to worrying over trifles.”

The men find fault with Minnie Wright’s housekeeping in general, and Mr. Henderson pumps Mrs. Hale for any hint that the Wrights’ marriage was unhappy. She dodges his questions, and he says they’ll talk more about the subject later. As the men go upstairs, the sheriff notes that his wife can be trusted to get the items Minnie Wright needs for her time in jail and will report any clues that she might see. Mr. Hale jokes that the women wouldn’t know a clue if they saw one.