Small-town Pueblo, Colorado, was hit hard during the years of the Great Depression. The Mueller family lost their father, leaving a gravely ill mother struggling to keep her children fed. The youngest of the Mueller children, Hazel, a naive but headstrong girl, has just turned 13. An overprotected Hazel determines that she's w old eugh to defy her mother's rule of never going alone to the river, where vagrants and other unsavory types can be found. Hazel's decision to sneak off to the secluded cattail marsh by the river results in tragic consequences. As the local police rush to try to discover what happened to Hazel, the dirty laundry of the small town is revealed and more tragedy follows.