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The logging town of Wakonda, Oregon has been thrown in economic despair because of the local union's strike against a large lumber combine. When the Stamper family, who own an independent logging business, refuse to join the strikers, they are considered traitors by the locals. One day, union president Jonathan Draeger arrives to speak to Henry, the family patriarch who wears an arm cast due to a recent accident, and his son Hank. Draeger appeals to their sense of community, asking them to hold their logs from the combine and sell them later to another company. In response, Henry declares that, as the family has "worked for dogs for generations," no one can tell them how to run their business. Despite Draeger's appeals and veiled threats, the Stamper men remain cold and steadfast, further infuriating their neighbors. Soon after, Leeland Stamper, Henry's other son and Hank's half-brother, appears at the house after years of absence. Henry's nephew, Joe Ben, who lives at the Stamper house with his wife Jan and their daughters along with Henry and Hank and his wife Viv, at first fails to recognize Lee, but soon welcomes him warmly. Lee, who unlike his rural family has attended college, lived in cities and sports the long hair of a modern youth, gives no reason for his sudden return and is uncomfortable with his family. At night, Lee drinks too much and raves that after Henry left him and his mother, who was Henry's second wife, without a word, only Hank helped support them. Despite Lee's assertion that he has come back to help Hank with the business, he bitterly informs his half-brother that his mother committed suicide, after which there was no one to help him or even attend her funeral. At 4:00 a.m., Henry noisily rouses the family. The women serve breakfast while the men banter, Henry voicing aloud his doubts that Lee can "make it" at the worksite. After Joe Ben, a born-again Christian, attempts to entice Lee to attend church, Lee points out that Viv and Jan refrain from speaking at meals. After a brief pause, Hank admonishes Henry to be kinder to Lee, but Henry calls the boy "a sissy." At the worksite, a few other Stamper cousins join the friendly work crew. They stop to give a ride to Les Gibbons, a union man who informs them that at the upcoming Lumberman's Field Day picnic, the locals plan to beat up Hank. The work is dangerous and grueling, but as Lee struggles to learn from and keep up with the other men, he earns grudging respect from Hank, who is met with silence when he asks his brother why he really came back. Later, the family enters town to buy supplies. While some of the townsmen attempt to appeal to Hank and Henry's decency, pleading with them to join the strike because the town will die while it drags on, others must be restrained from assaulting the Stamper men. At work the following day, a log rolls loose and nearly hits Lee. Although Henry blames Lee, Lee informs them at dinner that the rope had been tampered with. The men appear disbelieving, prompting Lee to condemn them for "never giving an inch." When Henry and Hank go hunting with the dogs, Lee stays home, where he watches Viv and Jan doing all the domestic labor. Lee reveals to Viv that he decided to come home after a suicide attempt and a subsequent year of loneliness and depression. He asks Viv for her opinion about the strike, but she responds that she does not think because no one asks her opinion. Viv then recalls meeting Hank, who rode his motorcycle through her small town, causing trouble and winning her heart. Trying to explain why she stays with him, Viv declares that after losing a baby in childbirth, she resigned herself to having her garden and her canary, and never asking for more. Soon after, the family attends the Field Day picnic on the beach. Although the townspeople mostly ostracize them, the men are invited to play football. The game soon turns rough, and after union man Biggy Newton informs Lee that Hank used to sleep with Lee's mother, a brawl breaks out, with Lee and Hank holding strong against the others. The men return home that night drunk and raucous. When Hank unintentionally pushes Viv down and walks away, Lee helps her up and tells her to let him know if she wants to leave. The next day at work, Hank apologizes to Lee for having an affair with his mother, and Lee reveals that when he was ten years old, he witnessed the two of them together. By the next morning, the work crew all call in sick, and the Stamper cousins inform Hank that their children are shunned at school and they all would like to join the strike. Upon driving to the site, they find their equipment burned. Furious, Hank goes to the union hall and uses a chainsaw to cut the desk in two. Outside, Willard Eggleston, who runs the local theater, pleads to an unresponsive Hank that he supports an illegitimate child and will be forced to kill himself if the economic hardships continue. That night, Howie, Elwood, Les and Biggy go to the river to tamper with the Stampers' logs. In their drunken revelry, Les is swept out in the tide, and when Biggy attempts to help, he is pulled along. With no other choice, Howie and Elwood call Hank, whose house sits downriver, to ask him to rescue the men as they are swept down the river. Although he knows the men are vandalizing him, Hank does not hesitate to help. A storm arises soon after, and when Willard tries to erect a movie marquee in the rain, he falls to his death. Though the Stampers' trucks have been burned, Hank hatches a plan to float the logs downriver. However, certain that Willard committed suicide, Viv begs Hank not to go to work, kissing him seductively, but as soon as Henry appears with his cast sawn off, declaring his eagerness to get to work, Hank joins him. Viv, sorely disappointed, asks Henry why they bother, and Henry replies, "We work, sleep, eat, screw, drink and keep on going, and that's all there is." Henry, Hank, Joe Ben and Lee go out to the woods to work alone. At one point during the long day, Hank saws a tree but it splits and falls the wrong way, landing on Henry's arm, which is severed. As he attends to his father, Lee sees that the huge tree trunk has rolled into the water and trapped Joe Ben beneath it. Joe Ben, insisting he is fine, tells Lee to take Henry to the hospital, while Hank stays behind to free Joe Ben. As Henry pleads with Lee to promise to save his arm, Hank tries to drag Joe Ben out from under the log and upon failing, tries to saw the trunk apart, but the water disables the chainsaw. Joe Ben remains cheerful, expecting the tide to move the trunk, but when the trunk begins to move, it rolls farther over him. Slowly sinking under the water, Joe Ben jokes with Hank, who is growing ever more desperate. When Joe Ben's head disappears underwater, Hank breathes into his mouth until Joe Ben slips away. Later, Lee returns home to inform Jan that Joe Ben has drowned, while Hank sits with Henry in the hospital. Upon awakening, Henry informs Hank that he does not mind having lost his arm and refuses to die. After exhorting Hank to fulfill their contract, Henry declares that Lee "really cut it today." Soon after, Henry dies. Hank returns home, only to discover that Viv has left along with Jan and the kids. Hank appears unconcerned, prompting Lee to proclaim his hatred for Hank and his desire that Hank kill himself, as Lee's mother did. Hank finally explodes, stating that Lee's mother seduced him when he was only fourteen, then quietly revealing that Henry had praised Lee before dying. Chastened and unsure, Lee spends the night sitting across the river watching the house while Hank sits inside drinking. When Biggy calls Hank to gloat about the accident and subsequent destruction of the business, Hank decides single-handedly to "run the logs," or transport the four huge floating rafts of logs down the river. As soon as Lee sees his brother leave the house, he joins him, and when Hank goads him to leave, Lee replies that he now owns half the logs. The townsmen soon hear that Hank has rented a tugboat and, realizing his crazy plan, line the banks of the river in hopes of seeing him fail. To everyone's surprise, Lee manages to direct the rafts around the river bends without incident, with Hank bringing up the rear in a motorboat. The townsmen curse the Stampers while Hank joins Lee in the tug, taking something from a sack and attaching it to the tug's prow. As the two brothers sail on together, the townsmen can see what Hank has erected: his father's severed arm, with the middle finger sticking up in salute.