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In Mississippi, Lawyer Douglas tells how he lost his first trial, back in the 1930s. He says he was representing H. T. Bookwright, a respectable man who, in self-defense, killed young Buck Thorpe, a known criminal and ruffian who was attempting to run off with Bookwright's daughter. Although everyone in the county expected the jury to acquit Bookwright swiftly of murder, after many hours of deliberation the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision. Despite all the evidence to support Bookwright's action, jurist Jackson Fentry, a poor but respected cotton farmer, mysteriously refused to vote for Bookwright's acquittal. After the trial, Douglas says, he felt compelled to look into Fentry's background for an explanation to his behavior. By talking with neighbors, Douglas came to realize that Fentry should never have been a jurist on the trial because of events that happened to him many years earlier: Although most of his life Fentry and his widowed father farmed the small cotton plantation owned by his family for generations, as a young man he takes a job thirty miles away as a winter caretaker at a sawmill owned by the father of Isham Russell. Isham, who tries to befriend the proud and soft-spoken Fentry, says his father will build him a small house if he stays with the job. However, for the first winter, Fentry is to reside in a building housing the boiler, which he cleans up and makes homey. On the morning of Christmas Eve, Fentry plans to walk to his father's farm, but instead discovers that a very pregnant woman, Sarah Thorpe Eubanks, has fainted from hunger and weariness outside his hut. After inviting her in, Fentry learns that she is homeless, as her husband Eubanks abandoned her when she became pregnant, and her disapproving family, a widowed father and three brothers, had previously disowned her when she married. Because of her weakened condition, Fentry suggests she rest on the bed and, while she sleeps, walks to the general store and buys her hard candy as a Christmas present. When she awakens hours later in the evening, he makes a pallet on the floor for himself and tells her to remain in bed the rest of the night. As if she rarely has anyone to listen to her, Sarah chatters about losing her mother at a young age and hints at a difficult life dominated by insensitive men. The taciturn Fentry listens and the next morning asks her to stay until the baby is born. For several days, they live amiably together as Fentry takes care of her. He proposes to her, but she reminds him that she is already married. When he tells her about the house the Russells will build him, Sarah accompanies Fentry to the spot on which it is to be constructed and reminisces about a big white house she saw when she was a girl. Days later, he again proposes, but she refuses, despite loving him. When Isham drops by and is surprised to find Sarah, Fentry says they are married. Fentry and Isham later go hunting, and they lay out stakes for the new house. Soon, Sarah has labor pains and Isham is sent to fetch the midwife, Mrs. Hulie. When Sarah says she is afraid to die, Fentry insists she will live and promises never to leave her, unless she asks him to. After bringing the competent Hulie, Isham waits with Fentry outside. Although Fentry says little, he asserts that Sarah will survive and constructs a cradle for the baby. In the morning, Hulie tells him the baby is a healthy boy, but confides her concern about Sarah, whom she fears may not live much longer, as she was sick long before becoming pregnant. Sarah is "played out," Hulie says, but Fentry vows to keep her alive. At Sarah's request, Fentry promises to raise the child as if he were his own and she then asks him to fetch Preacher Whitehead, so that they can be married. While Fentry walks the seven miles to the preacher's house, Hulie inquires if her family should be notified, but Sarah insists that they not be told. Several hours later, Fentry arrives with Whitehead, who marries the couple in an abbreviated ceremony. Afterward Fentry tells Sarah that their house will have three rooms, a big porch and three trees, as well as flowers in the yard. She asks him to bring her the baby, but immediately dies, leaving Fentry unwilling at first to believe she is gone. Wondering why they met after she was "worn out" and why she wanted him to rear the baby instead of her own family, Fentry promises that the child will never be without anything he needs. In the morning, Fentry announces that he will return to his father's farm with the baby. As he cannot afford a cow, Hulie sells him a goat, which must be milked every two hours, and shows him how to care for the baby. After Sarah is buried on the site where the house was to be built, Isham takes Fentry and the baby home in a horse and buggy, with the goat tied to the back. Fentry tells his father that the baby will be named after the two generals the old man served under during the Civil War, and the boy is henceforth called "Jackson and Longstreet." As the baby grows to a happy childhood, Fentry never leaves him alone, except when he travels once a year to pay the taxes. One day, however, Isham rides up with the three Thorpe brothers, Bud, Les and Billy, who have recently learned of their nephew's existence. They want the boy, simply because he is their "kin," and say that Eubanks, when confronted, "gave" the child to them. Fentry tries to stop them, but two of the brothers pin him down, while the third rides off with the crying boy. Afterward, Isham explains that he was ordered by the sheriff to bring them here, and although the Thorpes presently have the law on their side, perhaps they can fight for the boy in court. Fentry walks off, without hearing him, and never again mentions the child's name. When his father dies, Fentry works the farm alone. Years later, a young, hard-drinking, cattle thief, Buck Thorpe, who is believed to have murdered a man in Memphis, comes to town and stirs up trouble everywhere before he is killed. During Bookwright's trial, Fentry listens, but realizes that Thorpe is Sarah's son, "Jackson and Longstreet." During the deliberation, Fentry acknowledges that Buck was attempting to kill Bookwright, but says he cannot vote in favor of the defendant. Although the judge is forced to declare a mistrial, the following spring, in a second trial, Bookwright is acquitted. In the present, a sympathetic Douglas agrees that Fentry had no choice, because he could not act against the son he lost. Sadly, Douglas has come to the conclusion that "the world isn't run like it oughta be run." Admitting that he never would have guessed Fentry's capacity for love, Douglas says that he expected several generations of poverty and hardship would have bred the feeling out of him, replacing it with only the will to endure.