The narrator describes how he spots the buck he and Mister Ernest have been hunting year after year. He assumes the buck has mistaken the end of hunting season, since it is back in the bayou "where he lived all year until the season opened, like the game wardens had give him a calendar, when he would clear out and disappear, nobody knowed where, until the day after the season closed." He tells Mister Ernest, with whom he lives, and the other men at the hunting cabin, Roth Edmonds, Willy Legate, and Walter Ewell. The men besides Mister Ernest point out that the narrator ought to be in school.
They all go to bed, and in the morning they wake up when it's still dark out to begin the hunt. Uncle Ike McCaslin is set up at the stands, and the narrator gets on the back of Mister Ernest's horse, Dan. Simon leads the dogs out, led by Eagle. They set out, and see the buck's track near the bayou. The narrator and Mister Ernest leave Roth Edmonds with Uncle Ike near the bayou, and follow Eagle after the buck. But Uncle Ike reports that, "He got through us all," so the narrator and Mister Ernest follow the ridge to the south, toward a camp called Hog Bayou.
They hear the dogs barking, and the hunters from the other camp shooting at the buck. The narrator is frustrated because he feels that the buck is theirs to shoot. But when they encounter the men from the other camp, they are searching in vain for any spots of blood. So Mister Ernest and the narrator continue into "strange country" they have not explored before, following the barking of the dogs.
Mister Ernest makes Dan leap across "a place where the bayou had narrowed down to about twelve or fifteen feet." In mid-jump a dangling vine loops around the saddle horn, catching them in the air before flinging them back onto the bank. As they fall, the narrator scrambles around so that he will land on top of Mister Ernest, rather than underneath him. After getting up and cleaning off in the river, they make a makeshift "cinch strop" for the saddle, and get back on Dan.
They hear more shots, and realize they must be near the Hollyknowe camp, twenty-eight miles from their camp, Van Dorn. Once again, they see "two or three men squatting and creeping among the bushes, looking for blood that Eagle had done already told them wasn't there." Mister Ernest decides that the buck must be heading back to the canebrake in their own bayou. Now they move slowly, since they know their destination.
Finally, they see the buck, "big as a mule, tall as a mule," walking into the thicket. Eagle is standing nearby with his legs "spraddled." Mister Ernest stops the horse and tells the narrator to get down and inspect Eagle's feet. While the boy is doing that, he is aware of a "snick-cluck" sound, which is Mister Ernest emptying the cartridges on his gun, but at the time he doesn't know what the sound means. They approach the buck and when he is "not twenty yards away," Mister Ernest aims and shoots but "the gun went, 'Click. Snick-cluck. Click. Snick-cluck. Click. Snick-cluck."
The narrator assures Mister Ernest that he won't tell the others that the old man forgot to load his gun, although this isn't the case at all. They head back, using a box of matches to read the compass in the dark. Mister Ernest tells the narrator to get on the horse, and the narrator describes how the old man had taken him in after both his parents deserted him. Simon comes across the bayou in the boat to pick them up, the narrator drifting in and out of sleep.
In the morning, the rest of the hunting party heads back to Yoknapatawpha county, where they live. The narrator relates again how Mister Ernest came to get him after his parents left him alone at their house, and how they've lived together ever since. He thinks about how the eleven and a half months of farm work compliment the two weeks they get to hunt, and decides that maybe "the hunting and the farming wasn't two different things at all - they was jest the other side of each other."
Then Mister Ernest breaks the news that the narrator has to go to school. The narrator protests that he wants to be a farmer and a hunter, just like Mister Ernest, but the old man tells him "that ain't enough any more." The narrator accuses him of listening to Willy Legate and Walter Ewell, and reveals that he knows Mister Ernest purposefully let the buck get away. When he claims that they'll get him the next hunting season, Mister Ernest answers with, "Maybe. The best word in our language, the best of all. That's what mankind keeps going on: Maybe."
A main theme in the story is the narrator's coming of age. At the very beginning of the story, Willy Legate suggests that he ought to be in school, and at the end Mister Ernest announces that he must go. He has already realized an important lesson about the roles humans and animals play in the world through the hunt that day:
...what we had all three spent this morning doing was no playacting jest for fun, but was serious, and all three of us was still what we was - that old buck that had to run, not because he was skeered, but because running was what he done the best and was proudest at; and Eagle and the dogs that chased him, not because they hated or feared him, but because that was the thing they done the best and was proudest at; and me and Mister Ernest and Dan, that run him not because we wanted his meat, which would be too tough to eat anyhow, or his head to hang on a wall, but because now we could go back and work hard for eleven months making a crop, so we would have the right to come back here next November...
He begins to understand the way of the hunting world, but Mister Ernest insists that that isn't enough: "You got to belong to the business of mankind."
By narrating from the perspective of a twelve-year-old boy, Faulkner is able to demonstrate the narrator's uneducated language consistently. It is obvious in his spelling of words as they sound phonetically to him: "nekkid," "jest," "ketch," and "yestiddy," for examples. He also frequently mistakes the past-tense of verbs, such as "holp" instead of "helped;" "knowed" instead of "knew;" "et" instead of "ate;" "flang" instead of "flung;" and "seen" instead of "saw."
The narrator personifies the buck throughout the story:
I could almost see him stopped behind a bush, peeping out and saying, 'What's this? What's this? Is this whole durn country full of folks this morning?' Then looking back over his shoulder at where old Eagle and the others was hollering along after him while he decided how much time he had to decide what to do next.
The use of this literary technique allows the reader to understand the respect Mister Ernest has for the buck, and why he can't kill it when they finally catch it.
The other animals in the story are personified, too. The narrator describes Eagle as speaking to the hunters: "If old Eagle was still behind him and the buck was still alive, he was too wore out now to even say, 'Here he comes.'" After they arrive back at the bayou, Eagle is standing, exhausted, "his eyes saying plain as talk when we passed, 'I'm sorry, boys, but this here is all.'"
Similes are used throughout; the narrator compares aspects of the buck and of nature to things in his everyday life. For instance, he calls the buck's rack of antler's a "rocking chair," and says "all my insides felt light and strong as a balloon." When the men from Hog Bayou camp are searching for the buck's blood, he comments that, "maybe if they looked hard enough, spots of blood would bloom out on the stalks and leaves like frogstools or hawberries." As they hang from the vine over the bayou, they are "in the tightened loop of that vine like in the drawed-back loop of a big rubberbanded slingshot." The narrator also uses metonymy consistently in referring to the buck's footprint, which he calls its "foot in the mud."
"Race at Morning" was first published in March, 1955 in Saturday Evening Post. It was then included in Big Woods, a collection of Faulkner's hunting stories published the following October. The other included stories were "The Bear," "The Old People," and "A Bear Hunt."
"Race at Morning" is the last of the stories in the collection Big Woods, and echoes the theme of "The Bear," which is the elevation of hunting from a sport to an almost spiritual ritual. Throughout the stories and interspersed extra chapters, the reader is introduced to Uncle Ike McCaslin's desperation as a character.