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When her abusive, rum-running husband Ed storms into their Louisiana bayou shack one night, hotly pursued by the sheriff, pregnant Naomi Trice refuses to allow him to flee with their son Curtis. Determined to take Curtis, Ed knocks Naomi to the floor and tries to force his way to the boy's bed, but is shot and killed by Naomi. After dumping Ed's body in the swamp, Naomi gives birth to a boy, Neddie, whose leg is misshapen because of Ed's abuse. The sheriff, whom Ed had shot while escaping, questions Naomi about her husband, but she refuses to reveal her deed. Later, she makes a pledge to God that if she is allowed to rear all of her children--Curtis, Yancey, Roseanne and Neddie--safely into adulthood, she will give herself up and pay the consequences of her crime. Naomi then moves her family away from the swamp and the still suspicious sheriff, changes her name to Stroud and eventually settles in a small Northern town. Over the next ten years, she relentlessly teaches her children, who, she believes, know nothing of their father's demise, to be strong, hard-working and frugal, while she herself slaves to make ends meet as a seamstress. Naomi's single-minded determination, however, jeopardizes her relationship with the rebellious Roseanne, who is especially resentful of her mother's stern attitudes toward play and leisure. Even as her financial situation greatly improves, Naomi refuses to relax her maternal watchfulness, fearful that if she does, her nearly grown children will fall prey to their weaknesses and suffer the consequences as she did. Curtis' employer, Pat Naylor, the publisher of the local newspaper, however, pursues a romance with Naomi and gently encourages her to let go of her children and enjoy herself. Naomi at first resists Pat's advice, but when she finally realizes that she is deeply in love with him, she agrees to marriage. Before she can announce her engagement, however, she discovers that Roseanne has snuck out of the house to see Bill Renton, a man she disapproves of, and later confronts her about him. Fed up with her mother's domination, Roseanne denounces Naomi and runs off to Bill's apartment. After the womanizing Bill coldly rejects Roseanne, Curtis bursts into the apartment and, while fighting with Bill, falls down a set of stairs. As Curtis fights for his life in a hospital, Roseanne and Naomi tearfully reconcile, and Naomi asks God to spare her child in exchange for her belated confession. After Curtis recovers, Naomi tells Pat and her children that she must return to Louisiana, but withholds the true purpose of her trip. During her trial, Naomi pleads her innocence, but refuses to involve her children, whose testimony the judge believes is crucial to her case. To her surprise, however, Pat and her children burst into the court, and Curtis reveals on the witness stand that he saw his mother kill his father to protect him. Finally free from her past, Naomi marries the devoted Pat.