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When his wife becomes ill, Virginian Jeb Hawkins phones a doctor, but the doctor refuses to visit her, saying that her condition is not serious. Shortly thereafter, she dies, causing Jeb to lose control and kill the doctor. One evening, many years after Jeb has been hanged for murder, his son Danny decides to visit a dance hall near a swamp called Brother's Pond. When another young man, Jerry Sykes, a banker's son, teases Danny for being a murderer's son, Danny grabs a rock and smashes his skull. Realizing that he has killed Jerry, Danny quickly departs the scene, leaving an important clue, his pocketknife, behind. When Danny remembers that he stuck his knife in a tree before killing Jerry, he decides to return to the scene with his only friend, a mentally handicapped deaf-mute named Billy Scripture. Unable to find the knife, Danny goes to the dance hall to dance with Jerry's unsuspecting sweetheart, schoolteacher Gilly Johnson. Danny convinces her to come for a drive with another couple, but nearly crashes when he thinks he sees Jerry's corpse in the road. Danny later confesses his love to Gilly, and she apologizes for misleading him, saying that she is engaged to Jerry. Later, Danny visits his black friend, Mose Johnson, at his home, a shack near Brother's Pond. As he watches Mose's bloodhounds chase and kill a raccoon, Danny begins to fear his own capture. Later, Gilly tells Danny that she is worried because Jerry has not phoned her since the dance. After Mose finds Jerry's decomposing body, Sheriff Clem Otis decides to question Danny about his feelings for Gilly. From the shop across the street, Danny fondles a knife similar to the one he left in Brother's Pond while watching Jerry's corpse being carried into the coroner's office. After a bank examiner tells J. B. Sykes that his son Jerry stole $2,000 from his cash box, Clem learns that Jerry owed some money to Ken Williams, the drummer for the dance hall band. Later, Clem asks Danny if he saw Ken leave the bandstand during the dance on the night that Jerry was killed, and he says no. The next day, Clem and his wife Martha see Danny and Gilly at the county fair. Gilly tells Danny that after his missing knife was found by Billy, Clem came to ask her some questions. As Danny boards the ferris wheel with Gilly, he notices Clem and his wife also boarding the ride. After Danny panics and falls from his seat, he limps to Brother's Pond on a badly injured leg. Inside Mose's shack, Danny sees Billy resting peacefully and, in a fit of desperation, nearly strangles him. When Clem and his deputies arrive at the swamp, Danny limps to the home of his grandmother, who lives nearby. There, Danny takes up his father's rifle, but after a reflective moment at his mother's and father's graves, decides to turn himself in. When Clem sees that Danny is willing to cooperate, he forgoes the handcuffs and allows him to walk to jail "like a man."