Rafe Earle bends his brain about little else than what will become of his money once his toes are turned up. Retirement can do that to an old man. The only other matter that occupies his thoughts is who his sole heir, nephew Oliver, will marry. Without a doubt his concern for Oliver and his worries over money are connected. The world is round in more ways than one. Trouble is, Oliver is more comfortable around cows than women and has little ambition. Coarse and blunt, Rafe mutters to himself, "He ain’t gonna inherit my money and then sit on his bucket the rest of his life. I worked too hard to get mine and by God he needs to learn the value of work, too." This is the 1920’s world of the Deep South where work and honor and family name mean something.
Wistfully, Oliver tells Uncle Rafe of his lust for the adjoining property that belongs to Willie Hadley, a cantankerous and senile hermit who hasn’t spoken to his neighbors for an entire generation. When presented an unsolicited offer by Rafe and Oliver to purchase his land, Willie is insulted to the point of anger. A cock fight between the old men ensues and Willie ends up dead, much to the horror of Oliver and indifference of Rafe. Because there were no witnesses, the Earles succeed in making Willie’s death seem accidental. They even attend his funeral to prove that they have a Christian attitude toward the dead buzzard. "He wouldn’t make peace with me while he was livin’. I’m just doin’ what I can to let the ol’ boy know I can’t hold a grudge forever" Rafe tells a gossipy woman at the gravesite.
For Rafe, Willie’s death marks an opportunity to buy his land from the estate, which passed to Carrie Bristow, daughter of Willie’s estranged child Addie. To Rafe’s disappointment, the comely Carrie intends to move to the country so her sickly husband Brice can take up a presumably less stressful lifestyle of farming melons. She also wishes to learn about a family history that her deceased mother refused to disclose. Soon after her arrival, she confides to Oliver that she wishes no one to know her identity as Addie’s daughter.
Rafe issues a challenge to Oliver: "Become fast friends with the new neighbors. Help them set up their operation. Help the sickly man clear his field. Assist in digging a well and setting an irrigation system. And then when the time is right, go to the hills and plug the source of their underground water flow. With any luck at all, their farm will fail and they’ll be happy to sell their property to the only friend they have - you!" A spineless man who refuses to think for himself, Oliver does precisely as directed. The plan seems to be working to perfection when the unexpected occurs. Brice is so determined to save his farm from summer heat and drought that he works himself into utter exhaustion and an untimely death. His death is so sudden, Carrie is unable to tell him she is pregnant with their first child.
Carrie accepts comfort from her only friend, Janty, a black woman who years earlier took up temporary residence on Willie Hadley’s land with young son Noah and never left. Janty has a dark history, which she eventually reveals to Carrie alone as the women seek a way out of life’s unending traumas. For her own part, local businessman Julius Roberts who seems to have an unusual, if unconventional, interest in her befriends Janty. We learn from him that he and Janty share the same family heritage. His interest in her is born of his shame over past family history.
With neither money nor means of income, Carrie tells Janty she feels compelled to sell her land a section at a time so she can have an income. Janty explains that it is common knowledge that her neighbor has an interest in her property. Unaware of the Earles’ role in the deaths of her grandfather and husband, she approaches Oliver with an offer to buy her property. Though Rafe is elated, Oliver is guilt-stricken that he has been an unwitting party to Carrie’s despair and destitution. He tells his uncle that he has developed an affection for Carrie and even holds secret fantasies of marrying her. Rafe laughs, "If you can manage to win the young Widow Carrie’s hand in marriage, just think of the land as a wedding present from me!"
Unknown to Oliver, when he made a clandestine Springtime run into the hills to dam the water source to the Bristow well, young Noah followed him and witnessed his sinister act, though at the time, the child failed to realize its significance. Shortly after Brice’s death, Noah discloses his secret to Carrie and Janty. Horrified at the implications of this announcement, Carrie vows to expose Oliver when the time is right.
During the annual autumn dinner on the grounds at the Cassville Methodist church, a conversation between Oliver and an otherwise well-meaning local man gives Carrie just the chance she wants to expose Oliver as a fraud and murderer. With a mixture of humiliation and guilt clouding his capacity to think rationally, Oliver initially denies any wrongdoing, then promises to make up for his evil acts by loving Carrie and giving her good home and family. For all his bravado, Rafe hangs in the shadows while his nephew takes a figurative whipping, the old man’s only hope being that he is not dragged into Oliver’s public row with Carrie. Disgraced beyond imagination, Oliver immediately rushes home and hangs himself.
The tables turn when Rafe learns of his nephew’s suicide. Crushed by his own ill-gotten game of deceit, he now faces death with the knowledge that he has no heirs and no one to whom he can bequeath his money. His depression matching the gloom of the mid-winter season, he makes a nighttime visit to the cemetery where Oliver’s body lays to brood over his loss. To his surprise and chagrin, an unlikely visitor meets him in the graveyard, Ola Reeves, childhood caregiver to Adeline Hadley. Knowing she is in her last days of life, she tells Rafe that her visit is not social. She wishes to tell him of the disdain she has had for him for years because of his refusal to respond to letters Addie sent him while he served in the army before the turn of the century. Ola wants an answer for his refusal to communicate with a woman she thought he loved.
Rafe is bewildered by Ola’s accusatory questions. He never received letters from Addie. Indeed, he had no secure knowledge that she was devoted to him. Realizing that she is the bearer of tragic news, Ola explains, "Addie loved you, but as you know, she wasn’t inclined to let men know where they stood with her. It was a game she played." The bitter old woman goes on to clarify that Addie "asked her father to accept you. She said she wanted to marry you, but Willie said he’d rather die first" given that she was pregnant by a man who refused to answer her letters. Thus, Rafe learns that the sole love of his life, Addie Hadley, moved away from home and never told her only child that Rafe was her father, preferring instead to tell the girl her father was dead.
Now depressed beyond despair, Rafe secretly observes the daughter he had never bothered to meet. He now awaits the birth of her child, his heir, so that he can end his life. When the time arrives, he secretly bequeaths his handsome estate to Carrie and threatens to "rise up from the grave and personally haunt" the only man who knows that it is he who has made Carrie his beneficiary.
Seeing that his miserable life is now over, Rafe shaves, dresses in his best suit, lies on his bed and wills himself into a final sleep.