A famous gunslinger has to defend his reputation against other gunfighters while he is trying to reunite with his wife and son for a more peaceful life.
In the 1880s Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) comes into a saloon in Santa Fe for a drink. Young Eddie (Richard Jaeckel) makes fun of him and tries to provoke him into a gunfight. Eddie draws first, and Ringo kills him. Eddie’s three brothers go after Ringo. In the desert Ringo takes their guns and makes them walk by chasing away their horses.
In the next town the bartender Mac (Karl Malden) knows Ringo and alerts Marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell). He and Ringo are friends, and Mark tells Ringo to move on. Ringo asks to see Peggy. Mark sends his deputy Charlie Norris to get Hunt Bromley. Kids gather around the saloon, and Mark finds Peggy (Helen Westcott) alone in the school. She declines to see Ringo. Mac tries to make the kids leave, but they throw things at him. Jerry Marlowe believes Ringo killed his son and gets a rifle to ambush him from a window.
Mark tells Ringo that Peggy said no. Molly (Jean Parker) sees Ringo and tells him that Peggy has no one else. Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier) hears of Ringo and goes to the saloon. Ringo says he has a gun under the table and gets Hunt to walk out. Molly tells Peggy that Ringo has changed. Charlie uses a gun to make Hunt go to the Marshal, who orders him to get out of town or he will be arrested. Mark sends Charlie to guard Ringo with a shotgun.
Ringo sees the rifle in the window and goes out the back to get it. He makes Marlowe go to the jail and locks him in. Six women come in and talk to Ringo about the murderer. Mark comes back, and Ringo suggests they give him an hour.
Ringo and Mark go back to the saloon, and Ringo tells Mac to give his share of the extra profits to the schoolteacher. Molly takes Ringo to see Peggy. He says he wants to go away and get a ranch for her and their son Jimmy. Peggy says Ringo is too well known. Ringo asks her to consider it in a year. Mark tells Ringo to leave, but Ringo insists on seeing his kid. Peggy gets Jimmy as the three brothers ride into town. Ringo tells Jimmy that Mark is the toughest man. Ringo tells Jimmy to get the boys out of there.
Charlie and Mark catch two of the brothers laying for Ringo. Then Hunt shoots Ringo. Dying Ringo says he drew first so that Hunt won’t hang but will suffer more. After Ringo dies, Mark hits Hunt and orders him to leave his territory. In the final scene Peggy attends church as Mrs. Jimmy Ringo.
Whereas the historical Johnny Ringo shot unarmed men and probably committed suicide, this gunslinger is glamorized as letting the other guys draw first. Yet he is trapped by the ambitions of other gunslingers into gun duels, which becomes a major motif of the American western.