Bayard Sartoris and his slave/friend (yeah, it's weird, but they seem to get along) Ringo are a couple of kids from Mississippi growing up during the Civil War. Sartoris' dad, John, is an officer in the Confederate army who is away fighting, so Bayard's grandmother is in charge of the house while he's gone.
Then one day John comes home and it becomes clear that things aren't going too well in the war. He has the boys and the slaves, Joby and Loosh, help him build a pen to hide their livestock from the Union army (a.k.a. the Yankees) and he buries household silver in a trunk in the garden. Seems like a safe way to stay Confederate.
John rides off to fight again, and the boys (Bayard and Ringo) feel they must defend their house. Yeah, even though they're pre-pubescent. They see some Union soldiers coming, and shoot at them. Oops. They run home and they know they've got to hide.
But where? Under Granny's skirts, of course.
The soldiers come in looking for them. Luckily, their commander, Colonel Dick, orders all the other soldiers out, even though it's clear he knows the boys are hiding under Granny's dress. They chat for a minute and he leaves too. Whew!
Granny makes the boys wash out their mouths with soap for having said, "We shot the bastud!" Yes, they could have died, but the swearing thing is definitely the worst part.
Fast-forward. Granny takes Bayard, Ringo, Joby, and the trunk full of silver by wagon to Memphis, because she dreamed she saw a man pointing out where it was buried to some soldiers (everyone knows it's Loosh, the slave no one trusts, in her dream). On the way, though, some Yankees steal their mules. Bayard and Ringo run off, leaving Granny behind but coincidentally running into John (yup, Bayard's dad), who uses them in a battle (yup, not cool for a dad).
They rebury the silver, but this time Loosh really does show some Yankees where it's buried, and also up and leaves with his wife, Philadelphy, as the Northern soldiers burn down the Sartoris home. After living in Joby's cabin for a bit, Granny, Bayard, and Ringo once again pack up and head off to visit some family in Hawkhurst. Bayard is deeply impressed by his Cousin Drusilla, who acts and dresses like a man after her fiancé was killed in battle.
The boys and Granny follow Drusilla to a river, where escaped slaves are trying to cross, but they fall in when the Union soldiers blow up the bridge. It's kind of a freaky moment.
Due to a clerical error, Granny and the boys end up with a letter saying they are entitled to 110 mules, 110 slaves, and ten trunks of silver, rather than the two mules, two slaves, and one trunk that they lost in the Yankee raid.
Once Granny sees how handy the letter is for getting mules, she, Ringo, and a neighbor, Ab Snopes, start forging letters and stealing mules from the Yankees, only to sell them right back and make a profit. Granny is a big-hearted woman, though, and also lends the mules to the poor white people who live around the Sartoris plantation; she also prays for forgiveness regularly, which basically makes it okay.
Ab Snopes turns out to be an untrustworthy partner though, and sells Granny out as the last of the Union troops are leaving the region. He then convinces her to forge a Confederate General's signature to trick some Southern bandits into giving up their horses, which Bayard and Ringo know is a bad idea. Yeah, it is such a bad idea that it gets her killed. This is a shocker: Granny was our rock! (Oh, not just for the boys—we freaked out too.)
With the help of another neighbor, Uncle Buck, Bayard and Ringo track Ab Snopes and the bandit Grumby, the man who killed Granny. Uncle Buck gets shot in an altercation and has to head home, so the boys go on alone. They finally catch him and bring his hand back to nail onto Granny's tombstone. Now that's vengeance served up cold.
Drusilla, in the meantime, has joined John's regiment and fights with the men, which scandalizes her mother. Mom shows up and makes Drusilla wear a dress. Then she makes Drusilla and John get married. Hey, it's wartime: that makes the cousin thing not seem like that big of a deal.
Fast-forward. Bayard is now off at college, studying law, when he gets word his father has died. Bayard knows he's expected to seek revenge for his father's murder, but, well, he doesn't really want to. He faces his father's murderer unarmed, which is pretty brave if you ask us. But it does the trick: the killer dashes outta town on a southbound train.