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Returning from World War I, Sergeant James Allen decides to go into construction work to build something positive after the destruction of the war. There are not enough jobs, however, and soon he unsuccessfully tries to pawn his war medals. By accident, Jim gets involved in a robbery in which the actual thief is killed, and he gets sentenced to ten years on a southern chain gang. The brutal conditions drive him to escape. He slips off his shackles with the help of another prisoner and takes off, dogs baying at his heels. He manages to reach Chicago and, under the name Allen James, works his way up in the construction business. Marie, his landlady, discovers the truth about him, and now that he is successful, blackmails him into marrying her. Their marriage is a disaster. One night at a party, Jim meets Helen and they fall in love. He asks Marie for a divorce, but she refuses and out of revenge, turns him in. When Illinois will not extradite him, southern prison officials offer to pardon him after ninety days if he turns himself in. Anxious to clear his name before he marries Helen, Jim agrees, but when he arrives in the South, he discovers that they lied to him. After his pardon is refused twice, he escapes again, ironically blowing up a bridge during his getaway. This time he must live in hiding. One night he returns to tell Helen goodbye. Completely distraught, she asks him, "How do you live?" "I steal," he answers before he disappears into the shadows.