Mason fills out an application questionnaire for Indiana University. Although Mason doubts he can achieve his dream of attending the school on a basketball scholarship, Tex assures him that their absent father will soon return with money earned from his five-month rodeo tour. After catching a ride to school with his wealthy friend, Johnny Collins, Tex flirts with Johnny’s impertinent younger sister, Jamie, who teases him for smelling like horses. That afternoon, Mason reveals that he sold their two mares to pay for bills and groceries. Distraught, Tex attacks his brother and storms out in search of the animals, but Mason forces him to return home. That night, Tex overhears Mason griping to the eldest Collins boy, Bob, that he may have to sacrifice his chances for a basketball scholarship in order to look after his brother.
After meeting a fortune teller, Tex returns home intoxicated, remembering the fight he witnessed between his parents when he was young, which led to his mother running away during a rainstorm and fatally contracting pneumonia. The boy awakens early the next morning to hear Cole Collins interrogating Mason about why Bob and Johnny came home drunk the night before. Insisting that his sons would never abuse alcohol, Cole blames Tex for their behavior and threatens to report the McCormicks to state welfare officials unless they stay away from his family. Tex asks if he can accompany his older brother to school in Indiana, but Mason continues to doubt his chances of attending, despite his relentless dedication to the basketball team. In art class that afternoon, Tex sets fire to his craft project, eliciting a stern warning from the otherwise sympathetic school principal, Mrs. Johnson. Following two weeks of tense separation between Tex and Johnny, Jamie encourages Tex to confront her brother during a dirt bike race after school. When Johnny crashes his motorbike, Tex mounts the vehicle and boldly jumps over a creek, earning praise for the stunt and instantly rekindling his friendship with Johnny.
One day, Tex runs into Jamie at a Tulsa shopping mall while waiting for Mason to have tests done the hospital. After learning that Mason has contracted an ulcer, the boys visit Lem’s new baby, and Mason criticizes their friend for earning extra money peddling drugs. On the ride home, Tex asks Mason about kissing girls and is shocked to discover his brother is a virgin. Suspicious of Tex’s interest, Mason discourages him from beginning a relationship with Jamie because of their class differences. They then pick up a hitchhiking fugitive, who points a gun to Mason’s chest and instructs Tex to drive toward the state border. To attract the attention of a following police car, Tex suddenly swerves off the road, and the officers shoot the criminal dead. Seeing the boys on that evening’s television news report, their father, “Pop” McCormick, telephones to announce his return from the rodeo. He arrives early the next morning and is berated by Mason for his negligence as a parent. As a result, Pop promises to buy back Tex’s horse, but Tex is heartbroken when the new owners refuse to return the animal, which has been domesticated as a show horse for a young girl. Over the next few weeks, Mason becomes dispirited by an injury and the lack of response from Indiana University, unaware that Tex hid the application form out of revenge.
One day, Tex and Johnny are suspended for vandalizing the school typewriters, and Cole scolds Pop, who laughingly dismisses the punishment. However, Mrs. Johnson tells Tex that she recognizes his love of horses and has recommended him for a job as a ranch hand. Thanking her, he leaves her office and overhears Mason reveal that Pop is not Tex’s biological father. Overwhelmed, Tex runs outside and finds Lem, whom he accompanies on a trip to resolve a disputed drug deal. When Tex attempts to leave, the angry buyer points a gun at his head, but Tex wrestles the weapon from his hands. Although Tex momentarily intends to kill the man, he quickly calms down and agrees to leave. In the car, however, he realizes he was shot in the scuffle, and Lem, afraid of running into trouble with the police, abandons him in a parking lot. Using a pay telephone, Tex calls Jamie to tell her he has been shot, but Cole gets on the line and instructs him to hang up. Just as he sits to staunch the bleeding, Lem returns and takes him to the hospital. Once Tex awakens from surgery, Pop explains that Tex’s mother once had a tryst with another man while he served jail time for illegally selling alcohol as a bootlegger. Knowing that Mason now plans to defer his college application another year, Tex pulls the crumpled envelope from his jacket pocket and secretly fills out the form while alone in his hospital room. Upon learning of his unexpected admittance, Mason eventually realizes that Tex was responsible and stops by the ranch to thank him. With a smile, Tex encourages Mason to accept the offer and returns to his duties among the horses.
- In the movie, Mason knew the whole time that it was Pop's fault that he had to sell their horses after his absence. However, in the book, he didn't know it and was told by Bob that he should know that Pop was responsible.
- After Tex gets shot, Mason implies that he beat up Lem for that in the book.