As the story opens, ten-year-old Colonel Sartoris Snopes (he is named for Colonel John Sartoris, one of the central figures in William Faulkner’s fiction) sits in a makeshift courtroom in a dry goods store and listens as his father is accused of burning a neighbor’s barn. Young Sarty is called to the stand, but because the plaintiff is ultimately unwilling to force him to testify against his own father, the case is closed, and the father, Abner Snopes, is advised to leave that part of the country. As the family—Sarty, his parents, two sisters, an older brother, and an aunt—camp out that night on their way to their next home, Snopes, for whom barn burning seems to have become a habitual means of preserving his integrity in the face of men who have more power and wealth than he does, is absolutely cold and unemotional as he strikes Sarty and accuses him of having been prepared to betray his father back in the courtroom. He warns his son, “You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you.”
Moving from one run-down tenant farmer shack to another has become a way of life for Sarty: He and his family have moved at least a dozen times within his memory. When Sarty and his father first approach the home of Major de Spain, on whose land they have most recently come to labor, Sarty finally feels that here are people to whom his father can pose no threat, that their mansion exists under a spell of peace and dignity, “rendering even the barns and stable and cribs which belong to it impervious to the puny flames he might contrive.” Snopes, in his pride and envy, however, immediately forces a confrontation between the landed de Spain and himself, the landless tenant. As Snopes and Sarty walk up the drive, Snopes refuses to alter his stiff stride even enough to avoid some fresh horse droppings and then refuses to wipe his feet before he walks across the pale French rug that graces Mrs. de Spain’s entrance hall. The shaken Mrs. de Spain asks the Snopeses to leave her house, and later in the day her husband brings the rug to their home, ordering that it be cleaned. In spite of his wife’s pleas that she be allowed to clean it properly, Snopes sets his lazy and inept daughters to work cleaning the rug with harsh lye and, to be sure that it is ruined, scars it himself with a piece of stone.
Major de Spain seeks reparation for the damaged rug in the form of twenty bushels of corn from Snopes’s next crop. He is amazed when Snopes, instead of accepting the fine, has him brought before a justice of the peace on the charge that the fine is too high. The justice finds against Snopes but lowers the fine to ten bushels. Any fine at all, however, is too much of an affront to Snopes’s dignity. He goes home that night and, once more against his wife’s protestations, gathers the kerosene and oil that he will use in burning de Spain’s barn.
Sarty is faced with a decision that will shape the rest of his life. His father already knows what the decision will be. Snopes orders his wife to hold the boy so that he cannot warn de Spain. As soon as Snopes leaves, that is exactly what Sarty does. He wrenches himself free from his mother’s grasp, warning her that he will strike her if necessary to free himself, and runs to alert the Major. As Sarty runs back toward the barn, de Spain, on his horse, passes Sarty on the road. Sarty hears first one shot and then two more. When he starts to run again, this time it is away from the fire, its glare visible as he looks back over his shoulder.
At midnight, Sarty is sitting on the crest of a hill, his back toward his home of four days and his face toward the dark woods. He tries to convince himself that his father was brave, that he even served nobly in the recent war. Later he will know that his father was in the war only for the booty it had to offer. For now, though, Sarty dozes briefly and then, near dawn, as the morning birds start to call, he walks off into the woods, not looking back.