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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 729

In the summer of 1904, Percy Munn attends a rally of the Association of Growers of Dark Fired Tobacco in Bardsville, Kentucky. After an impromptu speech pleading for the defense of an “idea,” he joins the association’s board of directors, having been impressed by the leadership of such men as...

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In the summer of 1904, Percy Munn attends a rally of the Association of Growers of Dark Fired Tobacco in Bardsville, Kentucky. After an impromptu speech pleading for the defense of an “idea,” he joins the association’s board of directors, having been impressed by the leadership of such men as the smooth-talking Senator Tolliver and Captain Todd, a courageous former Confederate officer. He, however, has small success in gaining support for the association.

Curtailing his association activities to defend Bunk Trevelyan, accused of murdering a neighbor, Mr. Munn commits the first of a series of lawless deeds in which he convinces himself that an end justifies the means to attain it. Trusting Bunk’s protestations of innocence, Munn leads an illegal search of the home of an African American in the area to find a knife like the one belonging to Bunk, which had been found at the murder scene. When a knife is found and the African American owner tells an unlikely story of how he got it, Bunk is released and the innocent man dies for the crime.

Two rises in prices paid by the tobacco companies and an association decision to continue holding out brings a public denunciation of the association by Tolliver and a suit to recover his crop. Bitter over Tolliver’s betrayal, Munn joins an activist organization, the secret Ku Klux Klan-like Free Farmers’ Brotherhood of Protection and Control, whose bands of night riders scrape the tobacco beds of farmers who refuse to join the association. Captain Todd, a man of both courage and probity, disapproves of the new group within the old, and withdraws from the association. Munn inwardly defends his own action because he believes the raids will finally bring “justice” to the farmers. He learns, though, that lawlessness begets lawlessness: Bunk Trevelyan attempts to blackmail a Brotherhood member, and Munn becomes by lot the leader of a group that shoots Bunk after he refuses Munn’s offer to let him escape. Again Munn defends his deed: Bunk was the killer, he tells himself, of the man for whose death an innocent man died; thus Bunk deserves death. However, Munn is nauseated at the part he had played, and, returning home, he rapes his wife, May, as if to blot out one violent deed with another. Deserted by May as a result, he soon begins a loveless liaison with Lucille Christian, at whose father’s home he frequently spends his nights.

Since the companies are still buying tobacco at the prices they set, the Brotherhood members dynamite the company warehouses in Bardsville. Pursuit of the raiders leads to the death of young Benton Todd, whose body Mr. Munn delivers to Captain Todd. Troops move into the area the next day to restore order. New violence, however, develops outside the Brotherhood, with the burning of the homes of planters who use African American laborers instead of white workers. Senator Tolliver’s home is burned, and then Mr. Munn’s. Munn is roused from bed by Mr. Christian with news of the burning. After Munn’s departure, Christian finds Lucille hiding in Munn’s room and suffers a stroke that leaves him speechless.

Now homeless and rejected by both his wife and Lucille, Munn moves into the Ball home where, not long afterward, he witnesses the arrest of Dr. Macdonald on a charge of arson. At Macdonald’s trial only Al Turpin, a former association member, is in a position to identify Macdonald. When Turpin is killed by a shot fired from Munn’s rifle through his law office window, Munn is forced to flee. He later divines that Ball killed Turpin to win an acquittal for Macdonald.

Hiding out at the farm home of Willie Proudfit, one of Macdonald’s friends, Munn is visited by Lucille with news of her father’s death and the suggestion that flight and marriage would solve their problems. Learning of advances that Senator Tolliver had made to Lucille, however, Munn rejects her offer and determines instead to kill Tolliver, whom he obsessively identifies as the source of the downfall of the association and of himself. For this, Tolliver has to die. When he confronts Tolliver, however, he finds he cannot shoot, and, learning that troops, informed by a relative of Proudfit’s, are coming to arrest him, he flees and is shot down in the dark.

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