Young Colonel Sartoris Snopes crouches on a keg in the back of the store that doubles for the town court. He cannot see the table where his father and his father’s opponent, Mr. Harris, are seated. The justice of the peace asks Mr. Harris for proof that Mr. Snopes burned his barn. Mr. Harris describes the numerous times Snopes’s hog broke through the fence and got into his cornfields. The final time, when Mr. Harris demanded a dollar for the animal’s return, the Black man who was sent to fetch the hog gave Mr. Harris an ominous warning that wood and hay are combustible. Later that night, fire claimed Mr. Harris’s barn. While the judge claims that that by itself isn’t proof, Mr. Harris has Sartoris called to testify before the court. The boy knows his father is expecting him to lie on his behalf. After doing so, the judge asks Mr. Harris whether he wants the child cross-examined, but Mr. Harris snarls to have the boy removed.

The judge dismisses the charges against Snopes but warns him to leave the county for good, and Snopes agrees to comply. Snopes and his two sons then leave the store and head to their wagon. A child in the crowd accuses them of being barn burners and strikes Sartoris, knocking him down. Snopes orders Sartoris into the wagon, which is laden with their possessions and where his two sisters, mother, and aunt are waiting. Snopes prevents his crying wife from cleaning Sartoris’s bloodied face. That night, the family camps around the father’s typically small fire. Snopes wakes Sartoris and takes him onto the dark road, where he accuses him of planning to inform the judge of his guilt in the arson case. Snopes strikes Sartoris on the head and tells him he must always remain loyal to his family.

The next day, the family arrives at its new home and begins unloading the wagon. Snopes takes Sartoris to the house of Major de Spain, the owner on whose land the family will work. Despite the servant’s protests, Snopes tracks horse manure into the opulent house, leaving only when Miss Lula asks him to. He resentfully remarks that the home was built by slave labor. Two hours later, the servant drops off the rug that Snopes had soiled and instructs him to clean and return it. Snopes supervises as the two sisters reluctantly clean the carpet with lye, and he uses a jagged stone to work the surface of the expensive rug. After dinner, the family retires to their sleeping areas. Snopes forces Sartoris to fetch the mule and ride along with him to return the cleaned rug. At the house, Snopes flings the rug onto the floor after loudly kicking at the door several times.

The next morning, as Sartoris and Snopes prepare the mules for plowing, de Spain arrives on horseback to inform them that the rug was ruined from improper cleaning. In lieu of the hundred-dollar replacement fee, the major says Snopes will be charged twenty additional bushels of corn. Sartoris defends Snopes’s actions, telling him that he did the best he could with the soiled carpet and that they will refuse to supply the extra crops. Snopes puts Sartoris back to work, and the following days are consumed with the constant labor of working their acreage. Sartoris hopes that Snopes will turn once and for all from his destructive impulses.

The next weekend, Snopes and his two sons head once again to a court appearance at the country store, where the well-dressed de Spain is in attendance. Sartoris attempts to defend Snopes, saying that he never burned the barn, but Snopes orders him back to the wagon. The judge mistakenly thinks the rug was burned in addition to being soiled and destroyed. He rules that Snopes must pay ten extra bushels of corn when the crop comes due, and court is adjourned. After a trip to the blacksmith’s shop for wagon repairs, a light meal in front of the general store, and a trip to a corral where horses are displayed and sold, Snopes and his sons return home after sundown. 

Despite his wife’s protests, Snopes empties the kerosene from the lamp back into its five-gallon container and secures a lit candle stub in the neck of a bottle. Snopes orders Sartoris to fetch the oil. He obeys but fantasizes about running away. He tries to dissuade Snopes, but Snopes grabs Sartoris by the collar and orders his wife to restrain him. Sartoris escapes his mother’s clutches and runs to the de Spain house, bursting in on the startled servant. Breathlessly, he blurts out the word Barn! Sartoris runs desperately down the road, moving aside as the major’s horse comes thundering by him. Three shots ring out and Snope is killed, his plan to burn de Spain’s barn thwarted. At midnight, Sartoris sits on a hill. Stiff and cold, he hears the whippoorwills and heads down the hill to the dark woods, not pausing to look back.