“Barn Burning” opens in a general store that is being used for a courtroom, where a ten-year-old boy—Colonel Sartoris (Sarty) Snopes, though he’s usually referred to as “the boy”—is crouching in the back, barely able to see his father, Abner Snopes, and his neighbor, Mr. Harris, who has made a complaint against Abner. According to Harris, Abner allowed his hog to get into Harris’s yard several times—after Harris finally kept the hog and ordered Abner to pay if he wanted it back, Abner allegedly set his barn afire that night. Since Harris has no real proof, he wants Sarty to testify. With a rush of fear, Sarty realizes he’ll have to lie and defend his father, but then Harris changes his mind. The Justice says he can’t find Abner guilty, but advises him to leave town: Abner says he was planning to anyway.
Abner, Sarty, and his brother go outside, where his mother, aunt, and two twin sisters are waiting with their meager possessions loaded into the wagon. That night they stop and make a small fire. Abner pulls Sarty aside and accuses him of having wanted to betray him to the Justice during the trial. He hits Sarty, deliberately but without rage, and tells him that being a man means being loyal to one’s own blood.
The next day the family arrives at a two-room house, just like all the other ones where the family has lived. Abner tells Sarty to accompany him to the main house where his employer, the Major de Spain, lives. Upon seeing the mansion Sarty feels a surge of joy, imagining that it’s impervious to his father’s destructive tendencies. But as Abner marches up to the house, he (seemingly on purpose) steps in horse droppings; a black servant opens the door and says the Major isn’t at home, but Abner brushes past him and stamps his foot into the fancy imported rug, soiling it. He turns around, Sarty following him, and after they leave he scoffs at the fact that black laborers built this house.
Later that day, the servant brings the rug to the Snopes family house to be cleaned. Abner orders the two sisters to clean it, and they do reluctantly and lethargically—but he throws a stone fragment into the homemade lye, ensuring that it will streak the rug. The Major comes back to the house and, almost shocked, tells Abner that he ruined a hundred-dollar rug, but since Abner will never make that amount in his life, he’ll charge him twenty bushels of corn against the next crop.
Sarty works hard the rest of the week, and on Saturday his father orders him to prepare the wagon. He takes his two sons to another courtroom. Sarty is confused and begins to protest to the Justice that his father didn’t burn anything, but his father orders him out. Instead, however, he remains at the back of the courtroom, where he can see the Major de Spain, incredulous that Abner has dared to sue him for charging him the bushels of corn. The Justice finds against Abner, but thinks twenty bushels is too much for a sharecropper, so he modifies the amount to ten.
After the trial, Abner takes the boys to the blacksmith’s, where he regales the shop owner with false stories about his prior days as a horse trader. He buys the boys some cheese, then takes them to a horse lot, where he watches the horses and comments on them. They finally return home.
Soon, however, Sarty hears his mother’s cries, and realizes that his father is filling a kerosene can with oil. He orders Sarty to get more oil from the stable, and although Sarty doesn’t want to, he can’t stop himself from racing to get it. Once back, he asks his father desperately if he’s going to send someone to warn the Major, like he did last time. His father orders Sarty’s mother and aunt to restrain him. They do so, although the aunt claims that if Sarty isn’t let go, she’ll go up to the main house herself. Finally Sarty wriggles his way out of his mother’s grasp and races up to the main house, where he shouts, “Barn!” in the Major’s face before wheeling around again. He hears the Major on his horse behind him and waits in a ditch for him to pass; then he continues to run, this time away from his house—as he’s running he hears one shot, then two, and begins to cry out for his father. He reminds himself that his father was in the war, though he doesn’t know that his father was only it in for his own, private gain. Cold and grieving, Sarty prepares to continue walking away from his home and family.