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As veteran picker Pete Tucker lays dying from heat stroke in a Texas cotton field, he urges his young nephew, Sam Tucker, a fellow picker, to find his own land to work. Sam takes Pete's advice to heart and, after discussing the matter with wife Nona, asks his boss, Ruston, for permission to rent a piece of his land that has been idle for several years. Equipped with only two mules and some cotton seed, Sam, Nona, their children, Jot and Daisy, and Sam's cantankerous grandmother move their meager belongings to Ruston's farm. The Tuckers are dismayed to discover that the farm house is small and barely livable and the water well, non-functional. Although Sam immediately offers to return to his old job, Nona concludes that if they can borrow some water from their neighbor, they can survive until spring. When Sam asks neighbor Devers for access to his well, Devers, a cynical, embittered man, grants it grudgingly and lets Sam know that his chances for success are slim. As autumn turns to winter, the Tuckers battle cold and hunger. Because she has no coat, Daisy is forced to stay home from school, until Sam insists that Granny sacrifice half of her wool blanket so that Nona can make Daisy a little coat. Then, after weeks of fruitless hunting, Sam finds an opossum to shoot, and the family enjoys a much-needed meaty dinner. Later, Sam and Nona work together to plow the overgrown fields and, in the spring, plant their seed in the fertile, muddy ground. At the same time, however, Jot contracts "spring sickness," or pellagra, because they have no milk or vegetables. Distressed by Jot's quickly deteriorating health, Nona takes him into town to see Doc White, who informs her that unless Jot is fed milk and vegetables, he will die. Sam asks general store owner W. Harmie, his widowed mother's suitor, to extend him some credit, but Harmie refuses. When Sam confides his problem to his best friend Tim, the citified Tim offers to get Sam a high-paying job at the same factory where he works. Sam is tempted, but finally refuses, explaining that only by working his own land can he call himself a free man. Jot's condition continues to worsen and, out of desperation, Sam goes to Devers for help. Although Devers has plenty of milk, he spitefully refuses to give Sam any. Devers' daughter Becky tries to sneak some milk to Sam, but Finley, Devers' cruel, slow-witted nephew, stops her. Sam returns home to find Nona crying from fear and exhaustion, and prays to God for guidance. Soon after, Harmie presents the Tuckers with a cow, and Jot is saved. The cotton then sprouts and the Tuckers plant a vegetable garden. One morning, however, Sam and Nona see Devers' pigs and cow trampling through their garden and conclude that Finley, at Devers' behest, herded them there. When Sam storms over to Devers' place and confronts him, Devers admits to wanting to ruin Sam, because he has plans to buy Ruston's land. Devers, whose wife and son died during his own lean sharecropping years, also admits that he resents Sam's unabashed determination and resourcefulness. The two men fight, and during the struggle, Devers tries to stab Sam. With help from Becky, Sam finally beats his rival and leaves, but Devers goes after him with his gun. Devers finds Sam at the river, fishing for Lead Pencil, an enormous catfish that Devers has been trying to catch for years. Momentarily forgetting his anger, Devers helps Sam snag the big fish and agrees to give the Tuckers his garden, in exchange for the fish and bragging rights. Later, as the cotton nears harvest time, Harmie and Mama Tucker marry. Their wedding is an especially sweet celebration for the Tuckers, as Jot is fully recovered, Daisy is excelling at school, and the crop is promising a good yield. Joy is soon replaced by sorrow, however, when a vicious thunderstorm ruins the cotton and almost destroys their house. After rescuing the cow from the flooded river and saving Tim from drowning, Sam, tired and discouraged, announces to his friend that he is quitting the farm. As soon as Sam sees Nona and Granny cleaning up the house with determined smiles, however, he changes his mind. Then, buoyed by the promise of spring, the Tuckers return to plow their land once more.