Based on Harry Kroll's novel, the son of a tenant farmer manages the books for a planter and finds stealing and romance on both sides of the conflict.
The planter Lane Norwood (Berton Churchill) tells Tom his son Marvin is needed in the field not in school. That night Tom dies of exhaustion. Madge Norwood (Bette Davis) tells her father Marvin is the best student, and so after the funeral he arranges for him to go to school. Marvin Blake (Richard Barthelmess) graduates and works for Norwood, doing the books and running the store. Norwood asks Marvin to watch for thieves and be on the planters' side. At the tenants' birthday party for Betty (Dorothy Jordan), Marvin dances with her, and she kisses him. Her pa Joe (Russell Simpson) tells him Norwood has been stealing from them; but they are getting some back and want Marvin to sell it for them.
Norwood brings in the district attorney Carter, and he notices in the books that the poor are charged 30 and 40% interest plus carrying fees. The poor tenants show Marvin their cotton stash. Madge invites Marvin to her party with a jazz band. The poor watch from outside as guests make fun of the "peckerwood wiggle." Madge tells Marvin he is to live in their house, and they kiss. That night Marvin's stepfather throws him out of his family home. Carter tells Norwood a peckerwood shot a planter, and they form a posse. Dogs lead men to the fugitive Bill, who asks Marvin for help; but Bill is caught and lynched. The Norwood store is on fire, and Marvin tries to save the books; but they were stolen. Norwood thinks he is ruined until Marvin tells him he has a copy of the books. Madge tries to seduce Marvin, and the next day Jake tells Marvin his sons were arrested for burning the store. He reminds him how his father was cheated, and he asks for the books. Marvin refuses to be crooked; but he looks in the records and tells Norwood that he worked his father to death. Marvin packs and quits, though he is stopped from leaving by Madge's kisses.
Marvin calls on Carter to ask about the records, and Carter plans a mass meeting of the planters and the tenants. Carter seeks a remedy and calls on Marvin. He says the planters take risks; but the tenants work for nothing and get in debt. Land and the people need attention. He suggests a plan for cooperation. Norwood states his side, but some planters agree to sign the contracts. Marvin says Norwood stole their crops, and Norwood agrees to sign. Carter promises Marvin a future, but he still has to choose between Betty and Madge.
The age-old conflict between wealthy land-owners and poor tenant farmers reveals the economic injustice. Stealing does not work well, but the educated Carter and Marvin manage to arrange a better solution. It would seem Marvin has more in common with the wholesome Betty than the smoking and drinking Madge; but wealth can be tempting.