When Lucas Beauchamp, a dignified elderly black man, is wrongly accused of murdering a white man, he refuses to defend himself from what he sees as a malicious and racist society and it is up to 16-year-old Chick Mallison to find some way to save him. Chick Mallison’s first encounter with Lucas Beauchamp is far from any courthouse. Out hunting with some friends, Chick falls into an icy creek and is only saved by Lucas Beauchamp, who happens to live nearby. Chick is white and from a respectable southern family. Lucas doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. He simply rescues Chick and then takes him back to his home, where he feeds him and lets him dry off. Chick leaves with a profound awe and respect for Lucas’s deeply dignified self-possession.
Chick tries to pay him for his help, but Lucas refuses to enter into any scenario where he could be seen as being indebted to anyone else, especially someone from white society. But Chick has his own sense of dignity and honor, and feels overwhelmed by his debt to Lucas for saving his life. So Chick tries sending gifts. But when Chick sends Lucas a gift, Lucas sends him one back. Things kind of devolve from here as the back-and-forth dies down and the two go their own ways.
Then Chick learns that Lucas has been arrested for murdering Vinson Gowrie, a backwoods hick with disreputable friends and family who make no attempt to hide the fact that they intend to lynch Lucas for this murder. Chick doesn’t believe the charge. Lucas insists on his innocence but does little more to defend himself than ask Chick’s uncle, Gavin Stevens, to represent him as lawyer. Gavin is not a bad man, or even explicitly racist, but he assumes Lucas’s guilt from the start. Rather than craft a genuine defense, Gavin immediately tries to convince Lucas to plead for clemency and make a play for prison so as to hopefully avoid the gallows. In this way, Lucas’s reluctance to defend himself seems justified – who would believe a black man’s innocence when a white man is dead?
But Chick knows Lucas and he knows he would never murder anyone. Lucas is convinced at last that at least someone cares enough to believe him, and he tells Chick that if he wants to clear his name, he should dig up Vinson’s body in the cemetery. Lucas says the evidence there will prove his Colt .41 had no role in the shooting death, and thereby exonerate him. With his young black friend Aleck Sander and an old white lady named Miss Habersham, who was friends with Lucas’s dead wife, Chick goes to the cemetery.
They dig up Vinson’s coffin, but there’s a problem. The body in the coffin is not Vinson Gowrie. Realizing that this just might exonerate Lucas on its own, they all rush back to the sheriff to tell him the news. When they return to the gravesite, though, the coffin is empty. The sheriff has them search the surrounding area and they find two bodies: Jack Montgomery (this is the body Chick, Aleck, and Miss Habersham first found) and Vinson Gowrie. The sheriff realizes that Lucas is in fact innocent. He releases Lucas from prison and arrests Vinson’s brother Crawford, who is the real killer.
It turns out that Crawford and Vinson were involved in a lumber scheme. But Crawford wasn’t satisfied with his share and began stealing some of the lumber. Somehow Lucas found out. Fearing that Lucas might rat him out, Crawford killed his brother and framed Lucas for the murder. Jack Montgomery was another business partner of Crawford’s who attempted to use Vinson’s body as blackmail, and got killed for it. Crawford dumped Jack’s body in the coffin. But when he realized Chick had dug up the body, he hid it before the sheriff could come and find it. None of that saved him in the end, of course. The novel ends with Crawford committing suicide in the sheriff’s holding cell and Lucas going free, but not before he pays the doubting Gavin Stevens for his legal “services” – in a mountain of pennies.