Bill (Richard Gere), his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his young teen sister Linda (Linda Manz) are forced to flee Chicago when Bill accidentally kills the foreman (Stuart Margolin) at the steel mill at which he works. They hop a train and eventually arrive at a wheat farm in the Texas panhandle. Bill secures work for them as sackers by lying to the foreman (Robert J. Wilke) about prior experience. Bill and Abby pretend to be brother and sister to avoid suspicion.
Although Bill squabbles with the foreman who considers his performance subpar, the three enjoy the work. The wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard) begins to fall in love with Abby and asks her to stay with him after the harvest. Bill is jealous, but when he overhears the doctor tell the farmer that he has only a few months to live, he encourages Abby to accept his proposal. After the other itinerant workers leave, the farmer and Abby are married. The foreman is suspicious and considers Bill and Abby to be con artists, leading the farmer to send him away.
The farmer, Abby, Bill and Linda spend an idyllic year on the farm, playing in the river and fields and having many picnics. The farmer's health recovers quickly, and he no longer seems near death. He treats Bill like a brother but notices that Bill has begun to grow restless and irritable. Bill realizes that Abby is beginning to fall in love with the farmer. However, she is actually torn between her love for the two men. During a visit by a wayward Italian circus troupe, the farmer begins to suspect that Bill and Abby are lovers. When Abby tells Bill this, he decides to leave the farm with the circus troup.
With Bill gone, Abby, the farmer and Linda form a stable family for nearly a year. But as the itinerant farmers return, so does Bill. He tells Abby that he doesn't blame her for deciding to stay with the farmer and that he will leave them alone. But the farmer, watching them from afar, misinterprets their final embrace and realizes the true nature of Bill and Abby's relationship. But before he can confront them, locusts arrive at the farm. Bill tries to help with the efforts to burn the pests out, but the farmer attacks him. In his rage, the farmer sets his fields on fire. Bill races off into the night, and the farmer, nearly insane, ties Abby to a column on the porch.
The next morning, while surveying the damage, the farmer finds Bill. When he threatens Bill with a gun, Bill stabs him and mortally wounds him. Bill takes Abby and Linda away in the farmer's car, which they later sell in order to purchase a boat. They travel down river but a posse, led by the foreman, pursues them. One morning, the police catch up to the fugitive trio. Bill is shot down trying to escape.
Abby has inherited the farmer's fortune. She deposits Linda in the kind of boarding school/dance academy that she herself had dreamed of as a child, then leaves on a train with American soldiers going off the fight in World War I. An older girl (Jackie Shultis) who Linda had befriended that first fall on the farm finds her in the boarding school. Together they run away.
----- Note to author of below: opening credits, narrators and concepts such as "scenes" are not part of a synopsis. It also does not include every single detail, such as one character helping another with a cigarette, or use dialog in lieu of narrative description. ------ The films opening credits portray old photos of turn of the century America with a musical theme that recurs throughout the film, Carnival of the Animals The Aquarium by Camille Saint-Saens. Outside Chicago, Bill (Richard Gere) is shown firing up the furnace at a steel mill. He gets in a fight with the steel mill foreman (Stuart Margolin) and accidentally kills him. He runs away. His kid sister Linda (Linda Manz), begins narrating the story. She begins by recounting how things were that have not happened in the movie yet the days of heaven. Bill is helping his lover Abby, (Brooke Adams) with a cigarette as he explains that things will change for them eventually they are down on their luck. The three of them hop a train to Texas, where they sit with dozens of others on the roofs of the trains boxcars. Linda explains that she met someone once who told her that someday the world will go up in flames and the good people will avoid it, but for the bad people, God don't even hear you talkin'. Everyone gets off the train and Bill quickly negotiates a job working on a wheat field for $3 per day as a sacker. He lies about his experience as a "sacker" to get the job.
All three get jobs as laborers on the vast wheat field of a farmer (Sam Shepard). Linda makes a friend (Jackie Shultis) in the wheat field. The farmer checks the quality of the wheat in the field to see if its ready for harvest. Prayers are said for a good harvest. Scenes of people using farming equipment follow. Linda narrates that the farmer is falling for Abby for some intangible reason. Bill has told everyone that Abby is his sister, and gets in a fight with a field hand who suggests otherwise. Bill and Abby share a moment in the shade of a wagon. Linda is shown plucking a pheasant. There are more scenes of the harvest. The farmer is shown asking questions of one of his workers about Abby. The farm foreman (Robert J. Wilke) comes by inspecting Bill and Abbys work and docks them $3 for wasting wheat when making bushels. Bill complains but the foreman threatens to fire him and Bill backs down. Bill is concerned about Abbys hands which are sore and rough from the work and wants to find the doctor. The men swim in a pond after the days work is done.
Bill sneaks up behind the doctors wagon and steals some ointment for Abbys hands. While he behind the wagon he overhears the doctor explaining that the farmer has about a year to live. Linda narrates that the farmer knew he was going to die, and that people live only once so they should have it nice. The farmer finally speaks with Abby. She explains she is from Chicago. Linda roasts a peacock over a spit, as Bill tells her a joke: "I saved your life today. I killed a shit-eating dog. I'm always lookin' out for you." Apparently a joke by comedian Redd Fox - acknowledged in the end credits in the Thanks section. Bill and Abby have a talk in a haystack. Bill explains they will eventually go to New York and this is only temporary. The harvest continues on. Linda explains if people didnt work they were shipped right out they didnt need you. They could always find someone else. The farmers accountant explains its a 6-figure harvest, his best ever. The farmer gets up and takes a look at Abby through his telescope. There are more scenes of the harvest.
The farmer comes up to Abby and offers her to stay instead of going on up north. She excuses herself quickly without answering to go talk to her brother. Bill and Abby splash around in a river. Bill begins to scheme. He suggests that she tell the farmer she will stay. There is a night scene of the harvest, the very end of it. Linda asks Bill if they are going to stay and he explains its up to Abby. Linda has a conversation with her friend about a worker who she was going with who abandoned her. Linda continues to narrate about Bill getting tired of living like the rest of them, like pigs. Bill figured some people need more than they got, and others got more than they need. It was a matter of getting everyone together. A man dances on a wooden plank to a tune played by harmonica. Bill and Abby continue their discussion about staying. A night time celebration with a bonfire and music occurs. Abby tells the farmer she can stay but shes got to keep her brother and sister with her. Lindas friend says good bye and many people leave on a train similar to the way they arrived. Linda questions Abby about why she wants to stay and she explains this isnt so bad to the way she had to live earlier, wrapping cigars, never seeing the light of day. The foreman questions Linda about what they did in Chicago before. Bill explains to the farmer a half-story about how he worked at the mill in Chicago. The farmer tells Abby he loves her. Bill begins to scheme.
He suggests she marry him (since he is about to die). She is reluctant. The farmer and Abby get married along the river. The foreman is a joyless best man. The farmer and Abby take off of on their honeymoon. When they get back Linda explains they all never had it so good. The rich got it figured out. All four of them have a playful meal on a gazebo. They play makeshift golf. Bill sneaks Abby out of the house one night for some play in the river and tells her he never wanted to fall in love with her. They sneak in a bit late, after the farmer has begun calling for her. Life goes on. The foreman tells the farmer he thinks they are a couple of con-artists. The farmer takes offense and they have a falling out. The foreman quits and leaves and as he drives away, he stops to tell Bill and Abby he knows what they are doing and warns them that boy is like a son to me. The farmer senses some distance from Abby. A shot of a newspaper shows that president Wilson is on a whistlestop tour. They all go out to watch his train go by. Linda narrates that the farmer wasnt getting sicker as fast as they planned. Maybe the doctor gave him some medicine. Bill and the farmer go hunting for pheasant. The farmer remarks that Bill seems jumpy. Right during their conversation a Fokker tri-plane and a Sopwith camel come into a view as a flying circus lands right in their field. just as things were about to blow says Linda. The circus brings entertainment. Bill kisses Abby one night at the gazebo but the farmer sees it. He confronts Abby later about this strange behavior with her brother. She denies anything unusual but remarks to Bill that the farmer seems more paranoid. Bill is now angry that Abby seems to be in love with the farmer. Bill who is in a bit of a huff, gets a lift from the flying circus to take care of some business. The farmer and Abby are now alone.
There are loving scenes between Abby and the farmer. Linda narrates that the farmer taught her the keys on the piano, the parts of a globe. Life continues. The following spring comes. The wheat begins to ripen. Bill comes back on a motorcycle and sees Abby dancing on the porch. Later, Abby apologizes to Bill. Bill explains he regrets not knowing what he had with her, and pushing her into this plot. Bill kisses Abby on his way to leave, and the farmer sees him from up on the roof with his weathervane. He seems a bit sickened.
A close-up of a two locusts on some lettuce in the kitchen is a portent of a problem. They are shown bothering the birds. Things evolve rapidly. Abby begins swatting locusts all over the house. They are shown all over the wheat. A red storm flag is hoisted, and a warning siren is sounded, and the workers pile into the field to get rid of the swarm by any means possible. The farmer out in the smoking fields is suspicious of Bill and swings his lantern at him starting a fire. The fire spreads and starts to burn the entire field. Bill and Abby are silhouetted against the fire and she says, "He knows".
The hands desperately try to put the fire out but it burns everything. The farmer aggressively intimidates Abby up in the bedroom, throws her down and gets a gun out of his desk. He ties her hands together and calls her a liar. The next day, the farmer is riding through his burnt out fields looking for Bill and finds him fixing his motorcycle. The farmer aims a gun at Bill but bill stabs him with a leather punch. The foreman finds the dead Sam Shepard. The three of them flee.
They head down river in a boat. Linda narrates that no one is perfect, youve just got half devil and half angel in you. She explains that Abby will lead a good life from now on, she blamed it all on herself. Linda talks about all the things they see on the boat ride. In parallel action, the foreman begins to track them down.
Wild turkeys gobble in the forest, where Bill, Abby, and Linda have camped. Bill walks under some trees, and notices police officers at their ferry boat at the river, presumably looking for him. They spot him and come chasing after him with dogs and horses. He gets back to the tent and grabs a shotgun. He tells them to keep down and then tries to run away as he is pursued. Eventually, he makes a run along the shore line and ends up in a gunfight. He is shot and killed by one of the pursuers on horseback. In her grief, Abby sobs over Bills body as detached people on the shoreline look on.
The next scene is Linda in a dancing class. Abby has enrolled her in a dance academy. We dont know exactly how much time has passed. She tells Linda shell be all right, turn around and go inside. Abby walks to the train station through a small town. Young men are boarding a train to participate in World War I which the U.S. has just gotten involved in. A band plays a tune to bid the soldiers goodbye as Abby boards the train with the soldiers.
The next morning, Linda escapes from the dance academy. She runs into her friend from the fields who has a new boyfriend. He's in the Army. Maybe he'll get killed or something. I don't know. Anyway, he said I'm pretty. They race away and chat at the railroad tracks, and then walk down the rails towards an uncertain future. Linda narrates This girl, she didn't know where she was goin' or what she was goin' to do. She didn't have no money on her. Maybe she'd meet up with a character. I was hopin' things would work out for her. She was a good friend of mine.