Two Civil War veterans are separated in Texas; one becomes a rustler and the other a trail herd boss, bringing them into conflict over a woman.
In 1866 the railroad comes to Abilene, Kansas. Southerners Dan Thomas (William Holden) and Tod Ramsey (Glenn Ford) are fined for stealing a pig, but Windy Miller (George Bancroft) pays their fines. At a boxing match Windy pays Dan to substitute. Champion Dutch Henry knocks Dan silly; but he keeps getting up, and in the 40th round the fight becomes a brawl.
In Texas Dan and Tod see a stagecoach robbed and hold up the robbers. Dan ropes a steer for food while the sheriff and his posse prepare to hang Tod. Dan cries Indians, and Tod is released to fight, enabling Dan and Tod to flee separately. Dan stops a buckboard and gets a tumultuous ride to town with Mike King (Claire Trevor). Mike finds Tod working on the ranch. In a saloon Dan eludes arrest, and dentist Buford Thorpe (Edgar Buchanan) says Dan was not one of the robbers. Buford fixes Dan's tooth and gets him a job with Matt Lasher (Addison Richards). In the bunkroom Dan finds the robbers but joins them rustling cattle.
Mike's father Dusty King (Joseph Crehan) suggests the ranchers hire gunfighters, but he is killed. Windy Miller calls a meeting. Mike and Tod see Dan. Windy says he will buy the cattle and take them himself but offers only $2 a head. Tod says they can get $18 a head in Abilene. Dan courts Mike. Windy confers with Buford and Lasher, and Buford tells Lasher to join the drive. Buford announces that Tod is driving 7,000 cattle, and Tod sees Dan kiss Mike. On the drive Dan persuades the rustlers to betray Lasher for their own profit by delaying the rustling. Dan finds a buyer in Abilene. Windy is told and comes to Dan, who takes his money and leaves him without a horse. In Abilene Tod gets a check for the cattle. Angry Windy lost $20,000 and finds Dan, who shoots him. Tod helps Dan escape. Tod tells Dan that he loves Mike too.
Buford tells Dan that he owns the Lasher ranch that Dan took over, and he urges Dan to kill Tod; but Dan refuses. Dan takes Mike a fancy saddle and asks her to marry, but she wants to wait for Tod to be there. Tod is welcomed as a hero and takes a drink. Tod tells Dan not to marry Mike and offers to leave with him. Tod is shot, and Dan shoots Lasher. Dan flees, and Tod tells Mike that Dan did not shoot him. Cattle stampede. Dan goes to Buford, who shoots him and is killed by Dan. In the final scene Mike rides with Tod.
This western portrays war veterans having trouble adjusting
in a devastated society, resulting in their becoming robbers.
The one with the robbery money manages to go straight; but the
other finds that crime and violence make for a short life.