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Danny Lester, a seventeen-year-old orphan, is working as a bellboy in a plush hotel in Texas, but has been on the run from the law for four years with sixty-two different charges against him. Danny enlists the help of another bellboy, Joe Shields, in robbing a dice game going on in the hotel, but as they attempt to escape, Danny is apprehended. A few days later, Danny appears before Judge Florence Prentiss in the Dallas County Juvenile Court. The judge informs Danny that she is required to commit him to the state reformatory until he is eighteen, at which time he will be transferred to the state prison to serve out the remainder of a twenty-year sentence. When Marshall Brown, superintendent of the Variety Clubs' Boys' Ranch at Copperas Cove, Texas, asks Judge Prentiss that Danny be placed on probation in his custody, the judge relents. The next day, Marshall, his associate, "Chief," and Danny arrive at the ranch, and Danny meets some of the other boys, including Bitsy Johnson and Ted Hendry. Almost immediately, Danny challenges Chief's authority and attacks him, but Chief easily out-maneuvers and humiliates him. At night, Danny awakens the other boys in the dormitory by calling for his mother in his sleep and is made fun of by the others. Danny is assigned to work duty in the Browns' kitchen and Mrs. Maud Brown is very sympathetic toward him. One night, Danny leaves the ranch on horseback and rides to a nearby town, where he breaks into a jewelry store, steals some cash, puts it in an envelope addressed to himself at the ranch and mails it. At breakfast the next morning, Danny picks a fight with Bitsy and Ted, but Chief breaks it up and suggests a fight in the gymnasium's boxing ring. Ted has the advantage in the first round, but when he relaxes at the sound of the bell ending the round, Danny slugs him, eliciting jeers from the crowd. The boys then decide to give Danny the "silent treatment," and Marshall becomes concerned that he is making no attempt to improve his situation. Later, Marshall goes to visit Arnold Strawn, a radio "psychologist," who was Danny's stepfather from age four to thirteen, before he ran away. Strawn, however, offers no insights into Danny's behavior. Marshall then asks the boys to drop their silent treatment and involve Danny in a polo game using brooms and a volley ball. After the game, Danny asks to ride the horse Ted has bought with his savings and offers to pay him two hundred dollars for it. At mail call, Marshall announces that Judge Prentiss has signed Ted's release papers and that the Variety Club will pay his tuition and expenses for four years at Texas A & M. When Ted sells his horse to Danny, Marshall wonders where Danny got the money. Still attempting to get through to Danny, Marshall visits a drug store where Danny worked and again goes to see Strawn, who is appearing in a tent show. Lila Strawn, Danny's stepsister, tells Marshall, unsympathetically, that Danny ran away because he had killed his mother and relates the events leading up to her death: Strawn tries to use his "psychological" persuasions to convince Danny's mother that she is not really ill and denies her medicine. However, Danny brings some sleeping pills from the drug store to help his mother, but they apparently cause her death, and Lila becomes convinced that Danny deliberately poisoned her. When Strawn provokes Danny with his ravings and calls him a murderer, Danny attacks and beats him, then burns down his tent and runs away. Lila concludes her highly vindictive story, and Marshall begins to understand Danny's trauma. In town again at night, Danny breaks into a store and steals clothes and a gun, but is spotted by the sheriff, who shoots at him as he escapes on horseback. The next morning, Chief tells Danny that the sheriff has come to the ranch and wants the guilty boy to confess. Mrs. Brown then tells Danny that there has been a terrible explosion in Texas City and that his stepfather and stepsister have been killed. Marshall, meanwhile, learns from Danny's mother's doctor that her death was due entirely to natural causes and not to the pills Danny gave her. When the sheriff returns to the ranch to arrest him, Danny escapes in a car. Several police cars are soon in pursuit and when a tire on Danny's car is shot out, he crashes then escapes, injured, into the woods. When Marshall arrives on the scene, he tells Danny that he was not responsible for his mother's death and Danny surrenders. After Joe, Danny's former partner-in-crime, reads about his exploits in a newspaper, he goes to the hospital where Danny is being held under guard, steals an orderly's uniform and enters Danny's room. Joe does not want Danny to incriminate him and slugs the guard. As they are about to leave, Mrs. Brown comes to visit Danny, and Joe holds her at gunpoint. She tells Danny that her husband is working to get him another chance and, when Joe moves to srike her, Danny intervenes. They fight for possession of the gun until Marshall and Chief arrive and break it up. Later, after Marshall speaks on Danny's behalf, Judge Prentiss rules that Danny return to the ranch for six months. Danny quickly reforms, goes on to study engineering at Texas A & M and becomes a productive citizen.