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While goose hunting one day in Texas, wealthy landowner Capt. Wade Hunnicutt's right-hand man, Raphael "Rafe" Copley, pushes Wade out of harm's way when young John Ellis tries to shoot Wade for sleeping with his wife. Later, while Dr. Reuben Carson tends Wade's superficial wounds, he advises the middle-aged man to quit his violent hunting and womanizing. As good-natured Rafe drives him home, Wade indifferently reminds him that he has already expressed his gratitude by providing Rafe with a job and shelter. When Wade arrives at his mansion, his wife Hannah coldly tells him that someone will kill him for his adultery and forbids Wade from telling their 17-year-old son, Theron, the real reason for the incident.
One night, Hugh, Dick and other townsmen are whittling on the square when they decide to entice the inexperienced but eager Theron into a phony snipe hunt as a joke. When Wade finds Theron abandoned at a nearby pond, he tells the humiliated boy that as heir to the Hunnicutt's fortune, Theron must become a man whom the citizens respect and fear. That night when Wade allows the boy to shoot a gun into the fireplace as practice, Hannah reminds her husband that she agreed to stay with him as long she was able to raise Theron as she saw fit and forbade him to hunt. Wade insists that Theron must now become a man, but Hannah warns him that their son has a mind of his own.
Over the next few months, with Rafe's generous help, Theron learns to track and shoot and grows addicted to the sport. When he comes home late from hunting one night, his father confronts him about skipping school to hunt, but Hannah announces that she has told the school that Theron will not return in attempt to win her son's affection again. Days later, several of Wade's tenants complain that a vicious wild boar is killing their livestock and ask that the landowner kill the beast. Wade assigns Theron to the task and on the morning of the hunt sends Rafe to accompany Theron despite his son's protests that the town will only applaud his efforts if he goes alone. Out in the vine-strewn wilderness, Wade's hunting hounds lead the men to the boar's tracks. When the boar savagely kills one dog and exhausts the others, the men camp for the night. Early the next morning, Wade arrives at the campsite with a group of hunters to find Theron missing. In the distance, Theron finds the beast near the edge of the foggy Sulphur Bottoms.
At first paralyzed with fear, Theron finally takes careful aim and kills the boar. Led by the sound of the shot, Wade, Rafe and the hunters find Theron, who is thrilled by killing and his father's acceptance. Days later, Theron, who is shy around girls, asks Rafe to invite Libby Halstead to the party celebrating the kill on his behalf. She accepts, but when Theron goes to pick Libby up, her father Albert refuses to let Wade's son date his daughter and slams the door on him. Back at the party, Wade reminisces with Hannah about their early romance in an effort to win her affections but she rebuffs him. He reminds her that he sought the company of other women because she became "frigid" toward him. Days later, when Libby comes to the Hunnicutt house to apologize for her father's bad behavior, an awkward Theron professes his love for her.
One day, during a community cemetery cleaning, Hannah finds Rafe cleaning a grave in the reprobate's field. When he explains that it is the grave of his mother, Ann Copley, who died when he was a child, Hannah says she remembers Ann. Meanwhile, Theron and Libby are picnicking nearby and their amorous embrace turns into lovemaking. When Theron arrives home in the early morning hours, Hannah lectures him about keeping a girl out past a respectable hour and asks that Libby come to the house for dinner instead. Theron explains that her father will not permit her to come and recounts his rejection on the eve of the party. Hannah then shamefully explains to Theron that the town believes he has inherited his father's philandering tendencies. Shocked by the truth, Theron bitterly suggests that his mother's cold treatment might be to blame, but Hannah tells him that early in their marriage she discovered that Rafe was the product of Wade's affair with Ann. The next day when Theron confronts his father, Wade refuses to acknowledge Rafe as worthy of his attention, causing Theron to renounce the Hunnicutt fortune and take a job at the cotton mill.
Soon after, Theron goes to Rafe's modest cabin and offers him his meager savings as an acknowledgment of Rafe's true heritage. Rafe is grateful and recounts how, as an orphaned child, he longed for his father to shower attention upon him. Days later, when Rafe finds a bedraggled Wade suffering from a three-day drinking binge, the latter offers Rafe his respect, but his son asks for more. Soon after, Hannah, traumatized by her son's departure, falls seriously ill, prompting Carson to order Theron to move back into the house to care for her. After six weeks of silence from Theron, Libby confronts him and finds that Theron, having lived with a bitter and resentful couple all his life, is too scared to start a family of his own. One night, when a nervous Albert visits Wade to suggest that Theron might be a suitable husband for Libby, Wade suspects Libby is pregnant and confronts Albert about his attempt to fix a "shotgun wedding." Humbled by the truth, Albert leaves the house in shame.
Soon after, Libby blatantly flirts with Rafe at the grocery store. When he questions her about Theron, Libby tearfully admits that she is carrying Theron's child, but will not force him to marry her. Rafe then gladly offers to marry her, explaining that he cares for her and wants the child to have a home and a father. The couple is wed soon after and has a baby boy. After the christening ceremony, Albert overhears Dick, Hugh and others gossiping that Wade fathered Libby's child, causing Albert to seethe with rage. Back at the Hunnicutt house, Wade and Hannah discuss Theron's deepening depression and agree that they must mend their relationship if Theron is to survive. After Hannah leaves the den, Wade remains behind to contemplate a new beginning with his wife. Suddenly an enraged Albert sneaks into the room, shoots Wade and flees in Wade's truck.
Hearing the gunfire, Theron rushes into the den, where Wade calls out for Rafe. As Theron runs to fetch Rafe, servant Chauncey tries to keep his employer alive. When Rafe arrives at the house, he begs Wade to call him "my son," but Wade dies without uttering a word. Both Rafe and Theron run to the nearest vehicle to pursue the killer, but Theron knocks Rafe down and speeds off, finding the abandoned truck near the Sulphur Bottoms, where he tracks Albert down and shoots him. When Rafe finds Theron beside the dead man, he suggests that he and Theron return home, but Theron walks away, claiming that he must leave town and make it on his own, much like Rafe had done when Wade abandoned him. Weeks later, Rafe seeks out Hannah at the cemetery, where she thanks him for visiting her while she lay bedridden with grief over Wade's death and Theron's disappearance. When Rafe suggests that she visit the baby and acknowledges that the child is Theron's, she eagerly agrees and then shows Rafe the inscription for Wade's headstone, "beloved father of Raphael and Theron."