As a child, Emma Malloy left Coal River, Pennsylvania, vowing never to return. Now, orphaned and penniless at 19, she accepts a train ticket from her relatives and travels back to the rough-hewn town. Treated like a servant, Emma works for free in the company store. There, miners and their families must pay inflated prices for food, clothes, and tools, while those with debts are turned away. Emma begins leaving stolen food on families' doorsteps, and marking the miners' bills as paid.