Henry Tawes is an aging sheriff in small-town of Gainesboro, Tennessee, who is becoming bored with his wife, Ellen, and his life. He meets young Alma McCain, oldest daughter and de facto housewife of a poor family led by her single parent father. Her age is ambiguous, but she is clearly far younger than Henry.
Henry and Alma become romantically and physically involved, meeting secretly at various points around their town, particularly an abandoned house. Her family quickly learns and is very accepting of the relationship, appearing also to take his forceful advice to destroy their still and all evidence it had existed before a visiting excise official named Bascomb returns and is likely to find it. Henry Tawes clearly doesn’t see harm in the manufacture of moonshine but needs to balance his personal views and his role as county sheriff. The couple start to discuss running away together.
A deputy, Hunnicutt, starts taking an active interest in the McCains, ignoring warnings from Tawes to leave them alone. Henry’s wife also starts to suspect that he is having an affair and confronts him about it, although she is apparently more concerned about pleasing him and protecting her family than his obvious infidelities. Against this background, Bascomb returns to the town and organizes a systematic search of the county, with the McCains being a family of particular interest because of prior history of the father; Henry also learns from him that Alma is married, her husband being in prison; at their next meeting he becomes angry with her about the fact she hadn’t told him, but then they make love and he proposes that they run away together. She is reluctant, fearing the response of her family, but they arrange to meet and leave for California early the next day.
In the meantime, however, Deputy Hunicutt visits the McCain family, clearly looking for an illegal still, where he meets Alma. After an argument, the deputy draws his weapon and shoots dead the family dog in front of her, an act witnessed from a distance by her father and brothers.
The film cuts forward to scenes of Sheriff Henry Tawes being informed that his deputy is missing and the McCain family frantically packing up their still. Tawes visits the McCain family to find them disposing of Hunicutt’s body. He tells them to “clear out”, and with them gone, disposes of the deputy’s body himself by weighting it and dropping it into a nearby reservoir. As he returns from disposing the deputy’s body, he is met by Bascomb, who has found the remains of the McCains still. Believing she isn’t with her family, Henry starts searching frantically for Alma as soon as he can. Unable to find her, he pursues the McCain family out of the county, finding her with them; he ends up fighting with her father and brother, shooting her father, but Alma attacks him with a farmer’s hook. Neither injury is fatal. Leaving him in the road, alive and conscious but badly injured, the McCains drive off.