Based on Walter V. T. Clark's novel, men in a town go after the murderers of a popular rancher and hang three men by mistake.
In 1885 Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art (Harry Morgan) come into a Nevada town and share a bottle of whiskey. Word arrives that Larry Kinkaid was murdered. Jeff Farmley and others want to form a posse. Storekeeper Davies (Harry Davenport) asks Carter to help get the sheriff because they don't want deputy Mapes. Carter and Art call on Judge Tyler, who speaks to the mob. Davies asks them to wait until the sheriff comes back from Kinkaid's. Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) says there was rustling, and he will lead the men. Mapes deputizes the posse, and Carter and Art go along. Minister Sparks tells Carter that his brother was lynched. Rose arrives with her new husband, who is jealous of Carter.
During the same cold night at the ox-bow they find Kinkaid's cattle. Major Tetley orders the men, and they capture three men by a campfire. They are tied together and are accused of murdering Kinkaid and rustling his cattle. Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) asks for a trial and says he bought the cattle from Kinkaid for an old ranch he just bought. Some want to hang them, but Davies objects. Carter also argues that they may be innocent. Juan (Anthony Quinn) is accused of being wanted for murder. Major Tetley says he will wait on two if they say who killed Kinkaid, but all three claim they are innocent. Tetley says he will wait until dawn. The men eat, and Sparks sings. Davies asks Major Tetley to read Martin's letter, but Martin gets upset and asks for it back. Davies says it is a good letter to his wife. Juan is shot in the leg and cuts out the bullet. Juan has Kinkaid's gun but says that he found it. Major Tetley suggests the majority decide whether to delay, and only seven men vote to wait. Tetley lets Juan confess to a Mexican. Major Tetley makes his son Gerald (William Eythe) participate and gives the three men two minutes to pray. Martin pleads that they are innocent and reproaches Tetley. Martin, Juan, and an old man are hanged and shot. The sheriff arrives and is told what they did. He says Kinkaid is not dead and that he caught the men who shot him. The sheriff asks Davies who did the lynching, and he says all but seven. Major Tetley goes home, and his son is locked out, criticizes his father, and hears a shot. In the bar Carter reads Martin's letter about the wrong of lynching and the importance of conscience. Carter and Art decide to take the letter to Martin's wife.
This powerful drama shows the power of darkness working
at night without the light of conscience stopping them, showing
that fascist murders can occur in the American west too.