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Eight-year-old Mokey Delano misses the warmth and affection of a mother and so is very excited when his widowed father Herbert remarries. Mokey immediately takes to the young woman, Anthea, but she has not had experience with children and does not know how to respond to Mokey's open affection. Herbert frequently travels on business and must leave Anthea alone with Mokey in the small town in which they live. Though not a bad child, Mokey frequently gets into mischief and Herbert tells Anthea that she must be firm with the boy, whose friends include the wild Brickley Autry and neighboring black children Booker T., Brother and Begonia Cumby. One day, Mokey accidentally ruins a new pair of curtains made by Anthea, who confines him to his room while she goes to church to play the organ. Soon after she has gone, Mokey decides to walk through the woods. When he learns from the Cumby children that Brick has stolen from Pennington's grocery and will be arrested, Mokey tries to warn him. Brick, who has been chronically beaten by his alcoholic parents, tries to hop a freight train with some hoboes, but they plan to take his goods and leave without him. Mokey interrupts them just as the local policeman, Pat Esel, arrives. He catches the boys and arrests them both, even though Brick tells him that Mokey was not involved in the robbery. At their trial, Brick is ordered to go to the nearby reform school, Rocky Run, but Mokey, who, at eight, can legally be sent there as well, is given a year's probation. After eight months, Mokey's sentence is reduced for good behavior, but Anthea has still not warmed to him. No matter how Mokey tries to show his affection for Anthea, who is soon to have her own baby, nothing seems to please her until he decides to try out for a job at Pennington's. She gives him money for new overalls, but by the time he arrives at the store, Pennington informs him that his wife has already given the job to another boy. Too embarrassed to admit he has failed, Mokey tells Anthea that he got the job and pretends to go to work every afternoon. One evening, when Mokey returns home late, Anthea is concerned. When he boasts that Pennington has such confidence in him that he lets him make the store's deposits at the bank, Anthea angrily phones Pennington to complain that Mokey is too young for such a responsibility. After Pennington tells her that Mokey does not even work for him, she is humiliated and tells Mokey she never wants anything to do with him again. Mokey is so hurt that he runs away and asks the Cumbys to take him home and say that he is their "Cousin Julius." To fool their guardian, Aunt Deedy, the children blacken Mokey's skin and put him into dirty, torn clothing. The kindly, nearsighted Aunt Deedy gladly takes the boy in, and Mokey realizes how much he still misses a mother's affection. After three weeks, Herbert fears that Mokey will never be found, and Anthea, who has given birth to the new baby, feels guilty that Mokey left because of her. At Aunt Deedy's house, meanwhile, Cindy Molishus, who has worked as a housekeeper for the Delanos, stops by and tells Aunt Deedy about the baby. A short time later, Pat and Herbert drive to Aunt Deedy's to ask the children if they have seen Mokey, whose clothing was found in the woods. When they say no, Herbert breaks down. Realizing that his father loves him, Mokey reveals himself, after which his father warmly embraces, then spanks him. At home, while Herbert again tells Anthea to take a firm hand with Mokey while he is away, Mokey goes to see the baby and immediately loves her, but accidentally knocks her out of her cradle. Even though the baby is not injured, Anthea explodes with anger and threatens to leave Herbert if Mokey is not sent to boarding school immediately. Herbert chastises her, then leaves for his business trip. Mokey feels so badly that he writes a sweet goodbye note to Anthea, telling her that he is going "to California." He tries to hop a freight, but is interrupted by Pat. Mokey then eludes Pat by stealing the town doctor's car and driving to a nearby farm. There the kindly farmer and his wife, whose own son had recently died, take him in when he says that he is an orphan. Soon Pat tracks him down, however, and returns him to town. The doctor presses charges and after a night in the jailhouse, Mokey goes to court. The judge says that he has no choice but to send Mokey to Rocky Run, but because Mokey has learned that Brick died there, he begins to cry and begs the judge to reconsider. Touched by Mokey's sincere tears, Anthea also cries and pleads with the judge to give her another chance at being a mother, because it is really she who is at fault. The judge agrees and Mokey goes home, where Anthea hugs and kisses him goodnight.