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Tarl, a Texas town virtually owned by wealthy banker Val Rogers, is thrown into an uproar when it is learned that Bubber Reeves has escaped from the state penitentiary with another convict. The latter kills a motorist for his car and clothing and then leaves Bubber to shift for himself. Some of the Tarl residents believe Bubber guilty but others think him innocent. One of these is Sheriff Calder, who feels that Bubber will try to come home. The gossip, speculations, and predictions about Bubber's fate serve as the catalyst that alters the lives of some of the townspeople. There is his unfaithful wife, Anna, who has been having an affair with her husband's best friend, Jake, the only son of Rogers, who is himself unhappily married. Also affected are Calder's wife, Ruby, who devotedly tries to guide and protect her husband; Emily Stewart, the bored wife of the bank vice-president, who openly admits her sexual feelings for her husband's colleague Damon Fuller; and the latter's wife, Mary, driven to alcoholism by her loveless marriage. After a wild birthday party for Rogers, Sheriff Calder is mercilessly beaten by those opposing his strict maintenance of law and order. At the same time, Bubber arrives in town and seeks help from his wife and Jake Rogers. The news leaks out that he is hiding in an auto junkyard, and the whole town goes there to smoke him out. During the confusion, Jake is fatally injured by a gasoline explosion. Calder takes Bubber into custody and is leading him to jail when one of the town troublemakers, Archie, kills the young fugitive. Calder thrashes Archie, but Calder, aware that the situation is hopeless, leaves town with his wife to seek a better place to live.