In this version of Peter Kyne's story filmed before in 1919, 1930, and 1936, three bank robbers adopt an orphaned baby in the desert while running from the marshal.
Robert Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro Fuerte (Pedro Armendariz), and William Kearney (Harry Carey Jr.) plan to rob a bank, and in Welcome, Arizona they meet Pearley Buck Sweet (Ward Bond), who is a marshal. While getting away from the robbery William is wounded and loses his horse but goes with Bob. Sweet shoots their water bag as they enter the desert. The marshal swears in deputies and has the banker put up a reward. They take the railroad, and he leaves two men to guard the water tower at Mohave Tanks.
Bob is thirsty but plans to outsmart Sweet by doubling back. Bob and Pedro walk in a sandstorm while William rides. They stop, and the horses disappear. Sweet and his men get off the train at Apache Wells, where Miss Florie (Jane Darwell) is glad to see men.
Bob finds a covered wagon with a woman, who gives birth with help from Pedro. The sinkhole tank was blown up with dynamite, and Bob squeezes water out of a cactus. The mother (Mildred Natwick) asks them to save her baby and be his godfathers. They promise, and she dies. At her burial William sings.
Sweet realizes they doubled back. Pedro and William find baby clothes and six cans of condensed milk. William reads a book on baby care. Bob puts wagon grease on the baby. William holds the baby and sings. Pedro feeds the baby with a bottle and nipple. Bob and Pedro argue about where to go, and William says they should go to Jerusalem. William carries the baby, and Pedro makes him drink water.
Sweet finds they were at the wagon of the woman. The three men cross a dry salt lake on foot and drink the last water in a canteen. William runs and collapses. Pedro reads Psalm 137 before William prays and dies. Sweet and three men cross the salt lake on horses. Pedro falls and breaks his leg. Bob leaves his pistol and goes on, hearing a shot. Bob climbs a mountain and gives the baby the last drops of water. Bob hears the voices of William and Pedro. Bob calls to them, and Sweet hears him. Bob finds a donkey and staggers into a saloon with the baby on Christmas Eve. Sweet comes in, and Bob collapses.
In jail Bob plays chess with Sweet and eats at his house. Sweet and his wife want to adopt the baby. The jury finds Bob guilty with "exterminating circumstances." The judge (Guy Kibbee) offers Bob a suspended sentence if he will give up the child, but he refuses to do so permanently. So the judge sentences him to one year. Bob says goodbye, and a pretty woman says she will write to him.
John Ford dedicated this classic western to Harry Carey
Sr., who starred in the 1919 version, which was also directed
by Ford. Even violent criminals can be turned into caring people
by circumstances that appeal to their love.