A poor boy runs away from home and joins a gang of homeless boys who are put in a work camp to be exploited.
At 5:30 in the morning an alarm goes off, and the boy Jesse Thompson (Roger Daniel) wakes up. He and his mother help his brother wake up. He says he was fired and tells his mother why. She slaps him and apologizes to him. She cries, and he says he will get a job soon.
Jesse leaves a note for his mother saying that he is leaving to find a job. He walks along a country road. A gang of kids see him coming and surround him. The leader Tim (James McCallion) gives a signal, and the others grab him. They find he has 15 cents, and it is handed to the leader. That night they are camping out by a stream. Jesse asks why they jumped him. Tim asks Miser (Walter Ward) how much money that have in their treasury. Miser says they have 45 cents. Tim suggests they give him back 10 cents. Jesse learns he lost 5 cents because of taxes. Tim gives Jesse a can for food and charges him 10 cents. Jesse asks why Tim does not pay. He says he is the leader because he knows the answers. Jesse decides to eat. They hear two men looking for them and take off. They run and jump aboard a freight train. Tim calls Jess “Stooly” and tells him to get some sleep.
In the morning the gang is walking on a road. Tim asks a boy on a rig for a lift. They walk along and talk with him. The boy driving the rig lets them climb on with him, and Tim drives. Tim pushes the boy off, and Jesse jumps off to comfort him. Tim stops and asks where Jesse is. He sends them on and gets off. Tim tells Jesse to get back to the hide-out. A car arrives, and three men capture Tim and Jesse.
In an office at his desk the Sheriff (Arthur Hohl) questions Tim and Jesse. Tim refuses to answer questions and is taken out of the room. He tells Jesse not to talk as he goes. The Sheriff asks Jesse where his pals are, and he refuses to tell him. The Sheriff lets Jesse go and asks if he has a place to sleep. The Sheriff figures out where they are sleeping and keeps Jesse.
The Sheriff and three men take a car to arrest the boys. The boys throw bricks at them. One man is hit and fires tear gas at them. The Sheriff fires him for that.
In a store a Judge behind a desk listens to the boys talk. He fines the Sheriff $2 for contempt of court, and the boys laugh. He asks how they will make a living. They say they are not old enough for the CCC. They have nothing and are poor. They left home so that their parents would not have to worry about them. Albee (Charles Lane) suggests that he has a camp making turpentine, and they pay high wages. The Judge asks who wants to work for their livelihood, and the boys raise their hands except for Tim. He says he has worked all his life and would rather be a hobo. The Judge sentences him to pay a fine of $100 for vagrancy, and the Sheriff takes Tim away. Jesse tells Tim he will work overtime to pay his fine. Tim calls him a rat.
At night the other boys are riding in the back of a truck. In the morning the truck enters a camp surrounded by wire fencing. A man with a stick tells them to get out. Graff (Alan Baxter) looks at them and tells them they will have breakfast, but they will have to pay for it. They will be given things on credit, and he sends them to the store. One boy asks about the barb wire, and Graff says it is for their protection.
At Albee’s store the boys eat candy. Miser orders many things, and the store clerk says he needs working clothes too. Jesse gets little extra so as not to be in debt too much. Annie (Anne Shirley) warns Jesse not to order more than he needs. The store clerk makes her leave. She says they will be in debt until the cows come home. Jesse cuts back his order.
The boys are working with the trees to get turpentine. A cook orders boys to move the pot of food as he calls the boys to eat. He serves it and says it costs twelve cents credit. The boys do not like the swill. The boss says it is the only food they serve. Miser and the other boys say they quit. Graff tells Miser he owes $37.20. Miser says the prices are too high. The boys decide to eat.
While working in a tree, Miser says he feels funny. He becomes dizzy and falls out of the tree. Later the boys are waiting for him at the building called a hospital. Albee says he will lose an arm. Albee says he will do something about the food and sends them over to the kitchen. They all go except Jesse, who goes in and finds Miser in a bed. Miser tells him to get away from him. Jesse offers to write a letter for him. Miser asks who he would write to. He blames Jesse for getting them into this. Miser says now he has a legal right to beg. He will not have to work anymore. Jesse cries. Miser tells him to cut it out and cries too.
Inside a house Annie serves a turkey. Albee tells Graff it is his house, and he does not want any trouble. Annie says Jesse is there to see Albee, who says he can come in. Jesse asks for to trade his scrip for cash, but Graff says they do not give cash. Albee offers to pay Tim’s fine, and Jesse says he will pay him back. Jesse goes out, and Albee tells Graff to parole the boy into his custody and charge $100 to Jesse.
At night Tim comes into their cabin. The black boy arouses the others. Tim learns what happened to Miser. They suggest making a break for it, and Tim agrees. Jesse comes in and is glad to see Tim. He says he is not a squealer, and he paid his fine. Tim laughs he was a sucker because he was paroled so as not to cause the town money. Jesse tries to fight, and the other boys hold him down. Tim says they can make use of his being loose at night.
At work the next day the cook brings the food. Tim and the others refuse to come and get it. Tim whistles, and the boys climb up in the trees. Tim asks for a taste as a sample. The cook serves him a bowl, and Tim tastes it but spits it out. He says they can’t eat rich stuff. He asks for plain food. Tim throws the soup in the cook’s face. Tim says they must have good food before they will work.
Graff learns the kids are refusing to eat or work. He finds the boys in the trees singing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Annie arrives and tells them to come down. She argues with Tim, and Jesse intervenes. Graff and another man arrive carrying clubs. Graff orders Tim to bring the brats down. Tim says they want an eight-hour day and pay in US money. Graff promises him, and Tim asks for it in writing. Graff tells him to come to the house. Tim whistles to bring the boys down, and Graff hits him with the club.
The boys are imprisoned in their barracks. They discuss what to do. Jesse says someone could go and tell. They think he is a stool pigeon. Jesse suggests they write a letter to the President’s wife. Tim considers it, and Jesse says he will get pen and paper. Tim tells him to come back with the goods.
Jesse sneaks into the house, and Annie sees him. She tells him to get out. Jesse says he needs paper and pen. Annie says she will call Albee. Jesse goes out the window, but she gives him paper and a pen, asking him to mention her.
Jesse returns, and Tim has him sit down and write the letter. They discuss what to say, and Tim takes Jesse’s suggestions. Jesse writes the letter, and the black boy reads it aloud. They realize they are being treated like animals, and Tim agrees. Tim tells Jesse they will distract the guard so that he can go out the gate. Jesse leaves, and the boys make noise as if they are fighting.
Jesse climbs over the gate as the barb-wire makes his hands bloody. He walks in the woods at night. He looks at the trees and feels lost. He runs into a tree and falls.
The boys are wondering what happened to Jesse.
At the gate the guard brings Jesse back and takes the letter from him. He takes Jesse back to the barracks. He is crying and tells them they got the letter. Jesse says he ran in a circle. Tim takes a hot poker from the fire, and Jesse pleads. Jesse puts up his hands, and Tim sees they are bloody. Annie comes in and asks if she can stay there. Tim says no. Graff comes in, and Tim says she stays. Graff hits Tim in the face, knocking him down. Tim signals, and all the boys attack Graff who pulls out a gun. The fire spreads as they fight. The gun goes off and hits Jesse in the back. Tim tells them to get out of there, and they all flee from the fire. They run to the gate, and Tim uses a sledge hammer to break the lock. They run away, but Jesse lags behind and falls down. He cries. Tim finds him and realizes he was shot. Annie arrives and holds Jesse’s hand. She says he did not want them to stop. Jesse tells them to go on. He says it hurts bad. Annie asks if it hurts, and he says not as much now. Jesse thinks of his mother and wants her. He dies.
The black boy is playing his harmonica as they stand around the grave. Tim tries to say a prayer, asking God to give him a break. They hear dogs and move on.
In the morning two men with a dog are chasing them. They are tired, and Tim tells them to keep going. A car pulls up, and they go in a farmhouse. Tim takes a rifle and gives one to another boy. Albee and other men have rifles. Albee tells them to put down their guns and come out. He promises no harm will come to them. Tim says he is coming out. He opens the door and holds up a coat. They shoot at it. A boy says they will kill them, and he wants to get out of there. They grab him, and Tim slaps him. Albee says they will teach them about law and order, and they throw a torch on the porch. One boy throws it back. Two policemen on motorcycles arrive and ask what is going on. Albee says they killed Graff, and they are smoking them out. The policeman tells him to put down their weapons. The policeman waves a white handkerchief and says he is leaving his gun there. He walks to the house. Annie warns Tim not to harm him. They are not all the same. She says some want to help them. She asks if he has anything besides hate. She says he killed Jesse. Tim points the rifle at her, and she says he can shoot. She says they are nothing, not even to each other. Tim lowers the rifle, and the policeman comes in. He tells them they are going.
In a real courtroom a lawyer is prosecuting the boys, calling them “enemies of society.” The Judge asks if society has been just. He tells how his ancestors came to this country and went west. He says they did it to build a state where their children could live as free men. The Judge says this is the first time he has felt shame. He accuses the men of cruelty. He asks the boys to forgive them. He says they may get over their bitterness. He remands them to the state farm where they will be taught a trade and have the opportunity to be children. The Judge declares the debts to Albee void, and he charges Albee with peonage.
This realistic drama set in the Depression exposes how homeless children may be exploited by greedy men who make them work as virtual slaves by using a system of debt to keep them in bondage. In poor circumstances the boys are afraid to trust anyone, but the hope of one boy eventually helps them find someone who treats them justly.