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In an old Kentucky town in 1890, Judge William Pitman Priest reads the comics, and confederate veterans argue about their battles as ex-State Senator Horace Maydew tries to prosecute Jeff Poindexter, a sleeping black man, for stealing chickens. After the judge questions Jeff about his favorite fishing spot, he and Jeff go fishing, and Jeff subsequently becomes a part of the judge's household. When the judge's nephew Jerome, "Rome" for short, returns after getting a law degree, he is disappointed that the girl next door, Ellie May Gillespie, whom he loves, wants to end their courtship because Rome's mother Caroline objects that Ellie May's mother died in childbirth and no one knows the identity of her father. When Flemming Talley, an uncouth barber, visits Ellie May, the judge scares him away and encourages Rome to court her. Feeling lonely, the judge visits his wife's grave and sees Bob Gillis, an uncommunicative blacksmith, place flowers on the grave of Ellie May's mother. After Gillis punches Talley for making jokes about Ellie May's background and character, Talley and two others attack him with pool cues. Gillis cuts Talley with his knife, and Talley takes Gillis to court for starting the fight. Rome represents Gillis, and Maydew, who is running for circuit court judge against Judge Priest, demands an impartial judge. The judge, hurt and upset, steps down, and during the trial, Gillis' refusal to mention Ellie May hurts his chances to win. After Reverend Ashby Brand, who knows Gillis' past, confides in Judge Priest, the judge joins the defense and has the reverend testify that during the "war for the Southern confederacy," he recruited Gillis, a chain-gang prisoner, who fought nobly. The reverend's recitation of Gillis' heroic deeds builds to an emotional peak and climaxes when he reveals that Gillis, Ellie May's father, has secretly paid him to provide for her education. The courtroom explodes with adulation, Caroline wants to be Ellie May's mother, and during the veteran's parade that day, Gillis is asked to carry the confederate flag.