When a truck transporting chain gang convicts back to prison crashes on a rainswept Southern road, two of the prisoners escape: Noah Cullen, a black man who reacts violently to racial insults, and John "Joker" Jackson, a Southern white bigot. While the two try unsuccessfully to break the three-foot chain that binds them together, Sheriff Max Muller, under pressure from the governor, organizes a posse of state troopers and civilian volunteers. Muller reminds the well-armed troopers and local hunters that the convicts are men, "not rabbits," and his refusal to allow one volunteer's brutal Dobermans off the leash angers police captain Frank Gibbons, who would just as willingly capture the men dead as alive. Meanwhile, Joker and Cullen argue about which direction they should take. Cullen, who realizes he has little chance of attaining freedom in the South, finally convinces his reluctant partner to proceed around the swamp and then try to jump a train to Ohio. While attempting to cross a rushing river, Cullen loses his footing, and the two are carried away by the rapids. Joker eventually grabs onto a branch, but when Cullen thanks him for pulling him out of the river, the white man snarls a cutting response. The convicts manage to kill a frog, and as they devour it, Joker advises Cullen to be less sensitive about racial epithets. Countering the white man's claim that "I didn't make the rules," Cullen answers that Joker breathed in his racism at birth and has been spitting it out ever since. In order to avoid the detection of a passing farmer, Cullen and Joker leap into a clay pit, and only by coordinating their efforts are they able to climb back out. That evening, as the men wait for the cover of darkness before sneaking into a small settlement, they begin to discuss their past experiences and future hopes. Their attempt to break into the general store for food, however, produces disastrous results: Joker seriously injures his wrist, and the townspeople capture them. The locals are about to lynch the escaped convicts when Big Sam, who had been a convict himself, rescues and later frees the men. At the same time, Gibbons, exasperated with what he considers the slow pace of the pursuit, threatens that Muller will lose his job if the posse fails to recapture the prisoners. A portable radio carried by one of the civilians endlessly blares rock and roll, which further erodes the tempers of the pursuers. The next day, Cullen and Joker are surprised when a young boy named Billy aims a shotgun at them, but they easily overcome the youngster, who leads them to his farm. There they hungrily devour a meal and hammer the chain from their wrists. Billy's mother, whose husband had abandoned her eight months before, is attracted to Joker, and as she tends to his injury, she confesses that she is deeply lonely. While Cullen sleeps, the couple makes love, and in the morning, the woman announces that she wants to escape in her car with Joker. Reluctant to abandon Cullen at first, Joker finally agrees to the plan just as Cullen appears. The woman advises Cullen to take the shortcut through the swamp to the railroad tracks, but after he leaves, she admits that the swamp is impenetrable bog and quicksand. Furious at his own inadvertant betrayal of Cullen, Joker pushes the woman away and starts to go after his cohort. The boy shoots Joker in the shoulder, and when the injured man finally locates Cullen in the swamp, he protests that he is too weak to go on. The posse has now reached the woman's farm. Proceeding through the swamp, Muller threatens to shoot the Dobermans if Gibbons removes their muzzles. Cullen and Joker, hearing the train whistle, stumble up the hill as the train crosses a trestle. Cullen leaps on, but cannot hold onto Joker, and both men tumble to the ground. Cradling Joker's head against his chest, Cullen muses, "We gave 'em a hell of a run for it, didn't we?" As Muller, who wants to confront the prisoners alone, approaches the men, Cullen sings his blues anthem, "Long Gone," and then laughs.