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Tom Kittredge, a young vagabond, is beaten and robbed by three vagrants in a boxcar, then thrown from the train. After tumbling down an embankment, the unconscious Tom is rescued by "Joss" Jossman, a mentally disabled steeplejack worker. Tom awakens later under the watchful eye of Joss's co-worker Casey, in a trailer owned by their employer, steeplejack contractor Harry "Stretch" Clay. They take him to Websterville, where he is treated by a doctor and then nursed by Stretch's mistress, former burlesque dancer Mary "The Babe" Thompson, who is ashamed of her past. When Tom recuperates, Stretch insists on hiring him to replace an employee who fell to his death. Tom, who is afraid of heights, feels indebted to Stretch and reluctantly agrees after being assigned to be the groundsman. On Tom's first day, Joss accidentally drops a ladder from the top of a water tower, which strikes Casey on its way down. Casey is knocked unconscious and hangs from the rigging until Stretch and Tom rescue him. When he awakens, the resilient Casey cheerfully returns to work, after Stretch agrees to pay for boardinghouse lodgings. That night, Stretch is dismayed when Mary invites Tom to join them for a drink. When a stranger grabs Mary in the bar, Stretch assaults the man, and Mary insists on leaving while the men are still fighting. Mary later reveals that she loves Stretch because he has political ambitions and respects her despite her background. Tom falls for Mary and distrusts the volatile Stretch, even after Stretch thanks Tom for looking after "The Babe." When Stretch and Casey leave for their respective weekend plans, Joss privately tells Tom that Casey is seeing Stretch's wife Rosemary. A resentful Joss then admits that prior to his brain damage, which was caused by an accident, he and Rosemary had been in love, but she married Stretch while Joss was in the hospital. Joss's disability now prevents him from finding work elsewhere. Later that night, Tom meets Mary for a drink, but they leave the bar when Stretch arrives with another woman. At the trailer, Tom confesses that after he returned from the Korean War, his younger brother fell to his death from a cliff because Tom was unable to rescue him due to his fear of heights. To help Tom, Mary climbs the water tower, and Tom follows her. However, when she reaches the top platform, a thunderstorm breaks and Mary is too frightened to climb down. Tom fixes the rigging to lower Mary by rope, then climbs down on his own. After they reach the ground, Tom declares his love and they kiss. One day, Stretch discovers that the rigging ropes have been cut, and he suspects that Forrest, a competitor, has sabotaged them. Stretch, who is jealous of Tom and Mary's friendship, assigns himself and Tom to night guard duty. When they are alone, he warns Tom to stay away from Mary. Moments later, Forrest arrives with two workers, and Stretch and Tom pelt them with stones from above. One of the workers, Rocky Milliken, is struck on the head and collapses and, after a second scuffle, is left behind. Owing to a previous friendship between the men, Stretch hires Rocky. The next night at a bar, Stretch incites a brawl against Forrest and his men. The police are called, after which Stretch and his crew take refuge at a mission where Joss regularly attends services. However, Joss threatens to kill Stretch after the employer makes insulting remarks about the female Rev. Claver. When Casey restrains Joss, Joss blurts out that Casey is having a relationship with Rosemary. Stretch appears to be unmoved by the revelation, and Casey kindly accepts Joss's apology. When Tom tells Mary what has happened, she warns Tom to keep Casey away from Stretch for his own safety, but Casey is unconcerned. The next day, when they arrive to work on a smokestack, Tom suspects that Stretch has been drinking, but Casey and Stretch appear to be on friendly terms. Casey notices that their rigging is new, and Stretch assures him the ropes are sturdy, but stays on the ground claiming that he is dizzy. Casey climbs up and as he nears the top of the smokestack, the rigging fails and he drops to his death. Stretch vows the rope was safe, and disappears for three days. He later insists that he is not responsible for Casey's death, but when Mary says she is leaving him because of his destructive nature, Stretch warns her that she will always be his woman. Although Tom believes the rope was intentionally cut, he cannot prove that Stretch killed Casey, and plans to quit after the smokestack job is complete. Mary has decided to return home to face her disapproving family, and Tom agrees to join her. The next day, a drunken Stretch arrives at the job site and climbs the smokestack with Tom and Rocky. However, when they reach the narrow, unsteady platform, Stretch sends Rocky down to fetch a bottle of whiskey. He then admits to Tom that he knows about Tom's plans with Mary, and warns the younger man that he will never release her. Stretch menacingly lunges for Tom, who finds his courage and confronts Stretch. Stretch pretends to apologize, but again attempts to attack Tom. Stretch then becomes agitated and incoherent, and slips and falls to his death. After the ambulance leaves with his body, Tom and Mary sadly walk away from the towering smokestack.