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In Missouri in the 1920s, fifteen-year-old Bairn Turner, on the run from an orphanage, is spotted on the road by rancher Tobias Brown. Tobias gruffly offers the boy a ride to the town of Delphi, where, he notes, there is no sheriff to take him back to the orphanage. Once in the quiet, quaint town, Tobias immediately stirs up trouble by hitching his horse to the statue of the town's founder, Gen. Price. The townspeople gather for the familiar spectacle as the general's granddaughter, Anna Love Price, chastises Tobias roundly, declaring that he flaunts his newfound wealth in town because of his shame at his poor roots. While Tobias issues Anna a public scolding in return, newspaperman Doyle Magee takes Bairn under his wing, offering him lunch at Finas Daughtery's restaurant. The townsmen soon gather to complain about Tobias, but none is courageous enough to stand up to the arrogant, sometimes violent rancher. As Bairn politely chokes down Finas' over-spiced chili, Finas and Doyle discuss how best to help the runaway. Just then, stableman Henry Craig announces that Doyle's horse, Twister, whom Doyle accepted from Tobias in lieu of payment of a bill, has destroyed the stable for the last time, and insists that Doyle remove the horse. Impressed with Bairn's ability to handle the skittish animal, Doyle asks the boy to help him bring the horse to Tobias'. There, the rancher refuses to take the horse back, prompting Doyle to proclaim that Tobias tries to appear tough only to hide his loneliness. On the way back to town, Bairn suggests that they board Twister at the abandoned Lammereau farm, and although Doyle suspects the land belongs to the government, he agrees to the temporary lodgings. They fix up the farmhouse so Bairn can stay there and care for Twister, who soon grows tame under the boy's attentions. One day, local boys Red Poole and Jimmy Price, Anna's brother, visit the farm. When Jimmy pokes fun at Bairn's low social status, Bairn is forced to fight the boy, but as soon as he wins, they form a fast friendship. When Anna sees Jimmy's bruises, however, she confronts Doyle, who reminds her that he, too, was once a runaway orphan, and promises to watch over the boy. Soon after, Tobias visits Bairn and announces that although he owns the Lammereau farm, he will allow Bairn to stay and teach him to farm. Over the next weeks, Tobias shows Bairn how to plow his vast fields, promising to allow him to work his own patch when they finish. At night, Doyle tends Bairn's blistered hands and vows to help him achieve his goal of owning his own farm. Bairn works night and day to finish Tobias' fields, but when they are done, the rancher states that he will not allow Bairn to use his plow or mule to till his own field, counseling him to get every deal in writing. As soon as Doyle learns about Tobias' treachery, he brings school principal Willie Poole to Tobias', where he declares that as the town educator, he must officially inspect Tobias' teaching methodology. To do so, they order him to bring the plow to Bairn's plot and show him how to plant a crop. Although he quickly deduces the ploy, Tobias, watched closely by the townspeople, goes along with it, leaving his plow for Bairn to use. Soon after, however, he tells Bairn that he is taking the crop in lieu of rent payment, and insists that Twister be moved off the farm. Tobias begins to beat the horse with a stick, and when Bairn runs to stop him, he accidentally hits the boy over the head. As Bairn lies unconscious, the townspeople gather in a fury, hoping to arrest Tobias, but Doyle counsels restraint. When Bairn awakens and states that Tobias hit him by accident, Doyle is proven right, and the men are chastened. Anna has searched the countryside for a doctor for Bairn, and when she sees his meager home, organizes the townswomen to donate furniture. A few days later, as Finas and Doyle visit a recovering Bairn, they see Anna there, transforming the farmhouse into a cozy home. Having conducted background checks on the townsmen, Anna knows that Finas used to be a horse trainer, and now asks him to train Twister to race, using the equipment she has purchased. Bairn recovers his strength by working out Twister, who soon develops into a fine racehorse. One day, Tobias presents Bairn with an eviction notice, and when the boy protests that Tobias promised he could stay in return for the crop, Tobias points out that Bairn has no written proof of their agreement. Defeated, Bairn writes a note to Doyle and leaves town on foot, but Doyle is able to catch up with the boy. Knowing that Bairn is afraid to be sent back to the orphanage, Doyle pledges that, given a chance, the town will open their arms to Bairn and provide him with a real home. After he also promises that Bairn can race Twister, the boy agrees to stay. Soon after, Doyle and Finas propose a horse race to Tobias, to take place at the upcoming Fourth of July celebration. Doyle bets all of his money, $1,000, against the deed to the Lammereau farm, and Tobias agrees. On Independence Day, the town sponsors a festive parade and a series of events. As Willie recites the same speech he reads each year, the men line up to bet on the horse race. Although the neighboring town's sheriff, Peavy, reveals that betting is illegal, he suggests that Finas gather IOUs instead of money, thus skirting the legality issue. At the race, Anna watches nervously as Tobias pulls ahead of Bairn. Despite the boy's best efforts, Tobias wins the race, to the whole town's disappointment. When Tobias suddenly attacks a townsman, Doyle, a former boxer, challenges him to a fistfight, and the two men vent their longstanding mutual frustration in a long, involved fight that destroys most of Main Street. The whole town cheers on Doyle until finally Tobias admits defeat. When Finas, who has finally screwed up his courage, tries to attack Tobias, Anna stops him, and Tobias responds by kissing her. Tobias then congratulates Bairn on losing the race but winning the town, and offers the boy the use of the farm, for a payment of 10% of the crops, until he is eighteen, at which point he can buy the land. After Bairn insists on getting the deal in writing, the townspeople chant their desire for Tobias to kiss Anna again. As he does so, Doyle points out to Bairn that the town has proven their acceptance of him, and the boy happily agrees.