A cowboy starts a cattle ranch with a boy, and fourteen years later they drive 9,000 cattle on the Chisholm Trail and come into conflict.
In 1851 Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) and Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan) leave a wagon train. Dunson promises Fen (Coleen Gray) he will send for her and gives her a bracelet. Dunson and Groot see distant smoke and fight off Indians. Dunson finds the bracelet on one. The boy Matt (Mickey Kuhn) joins them with a steer. Dunson claims the land by the Red River and kills Fernandez in a gun duel.
Fourteen years later Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) has come home, and they have thousands of cattle. Dunson plans to drive them to Missouri. Meeker asks Dunson for his strays, and Dunson offers to sell them for him. The gunslinger Cherry Valance (John Ireland) joins them. He and Matt both shoot skillfully. Dunson asks who is going and warns them that none can quit.
They start the trail drive. Cherry says he heard Abilene has a railroad. At night coyotes howl, making the herd nervous. Bunk steals more sugar, and the noise starts a stampede. The cowboys try to stop them, and Dan Latimer (Harry Carey Jr.) is trampled. Dunson takes a whip to Bunk, who pulls a gun. Matt shoots the gun out of his hand before Dunson can kill him.
A survivor from a massacre arrives and advises them to take the Chisholm Trail to Abilene. Some men refuse to go to Missouri, and in a shoot-out Dunson kills them and is wounded in the leg. Matt and Groot blame Dunson. Three men have left, and Dunson sends Cherry after them. They cross a river, and Dunson keeps the men tired and watches all night.
Cherry brings back Laredo and Teeler Yacey. Dunson says he will hang them for stealing, but Matt stops him. Matt says he will take them to Abilene and that Dunson is staying. Dunson warns Matt that he will kill him.
Matt sends Cherry and Buster McGee (Noah Beery Jr.) to scout ahead for Comanches. Buster reports there is a wagon train with women. They see Indians attacking the wagon train, and Matt orders a relief attack. He joins the wagon train and shoots a rifle while Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) loads. She is hit by an arrow, and he pulls it out. Tess asks Groot about Matt and learns about Dunson. She finds that Matt is scared. They talk, and she kisses him.
A week later Dunson and some men arrive at the wagon train. Tess feeds Dunson and asks to go with him. Matt and his men see a railroad. Melville (Harry Carey Sr.) welcomes them to Abilene. He offers to buy the entire herd of 9,000 for $21 a head, and he gives Matt a $50,000 check for Dunson.
Matt finds Tess in his room. In the morning Dunson approaches. Cherry intervenes, but Dunson shoots him and is wounded. Matt refuses to draw or fight back at first. Then they fight until Tess shoots and makes them stop. Dunson tells Matt to marry her and makes him a partner.
This classic western portrays an ambitious rancher who
becomes an aggressive trail boss, but his adopted son has more
sense and corrects some of his mistakes.