Pop. 1280 opens on a note of irony. Sheriff Nick Corey, the top lawman in Potts County, is upset that he cannot sleep and eat, even though he does sleep eight or nine hours a night and manages to eat more than six pork chops, some eggs, grits, and gravy all at one sitting.
He gets dressed, but on his way out to consult his friend Ken Lacy about a problem, Nick catches sight of his wife, Myra, who is still in bed. Nick becomes sexually excited, but she treats his desire with contempt, calling him stupid and reminding him that they had to get married because he raped her. She threatens to reveal this fact, and he counters with the suggestion that if he were out of work, Myra and her “half-witted brother” would have nowhere to go.
On the train to Ken’s town, Nick runs into an old girlfriend, Amy Mason, whom he has not spoken to since he broke up with her. He tries to explain, but Amy turns a cold shoulder.
Once he arrives, Nick gawks at Ken’s town because it is so much larger than Pottsville. He then goes to see Ken and explain his problem: the Pottsville pimps have been talking back to Nick when he tries to keep them in line. Ken advises that it is not enough to use word to put them in their place, and he drives this point home by kicking Nick in the buttocks. Ken even suggests that Nick kill the pimps. Ken’s deputy, Buck, then walks Nick back to the train station.
When he returns to Pottsville, Nick confronts the pimps. The two men sneer at him, and Nick shoots them dead. After a peaceful night of sleep, Nick is awakened by his wife, followed by Ken Lacey, who is concerned that Nick killed the pimps. Nick denies that he would do any such thing, and puts Ken up in the town’s whorehouse for the night. The next day, Nick walks Ken back to the train and gets him drunk. He then manipulates Ken into talking about how Ken himself might have taught the pimps a lesson. Ken also suggests that Myra’s mentally handicapped brother may not really be her brother but someone she keeps around for sexual purposes.
On his way back from the train station, Nick encounters Tom Hauck beating Uncle John, an older black man. Rather than having a direct confrontation, Nick manages to distract Tom long enough for Uncle John to slip away. Afterward, though, county attorney Robert Lee Jefferson says Nick should have arrested Tom and warns Nick that in the upcoming election for sheriff, Sam Gaddis is likely to beat him. Nick says that he will have to do some “hard” campaigning, which means that he will attempt to manipulate the townspeople by denying that he believes any of the dirty stories circulating about Sam.