A despotic cattle rancher has married an Indian and does not trust his sons. When they come into a conflict with a mining operation that is killing their cattle, the Indian’s son becomes separated from this three brothers.
Joe Devereaux (Robert Wagner) is released from state prison and is told he must see the Governor. On the way he shoots a rattlesnake with his escort’s gun. Horace (E. G. Marshall) is the governor and says Barbara is not married yet. Horace advises Joe to accept his brothers’ proposition, and he lets Ben (Richard Widmark), Mike (Hugh O’Brien), and Denny (Earl Holliman) talk with Joe. Ben says they will buy Joe a spread in Oregon and give him money. Ben tells him to be on the train, but Joe tosses the $10,000 into the spittoon. Joe buys a horse and saddle, and Denny and Mike see him leave.
Joe goes to a ranch gate, and Two Moons (Eduard Franz) shoots at him and then greets him warmly. Joe rides into the ranch alone and finds the house abandoned. He talks to his father’s picture and asks for his advice.
Matt Devereaux (Spencer Tracy) supervises the branding of his cattle. Joe tells his father about some rustlers, and they take off after them. The four capture six men, and Matt reprimands his sons Mike and Denny for stealing. Matt asks Ben, who says he does not pay them enough. Matt lets them keep the cattle but warns them not to steal any more from him. Señora Devereaux (Katy Jurado) asks Matt to let them come back even though they are not her sons. Matt says she is beautiful. Matt sees Mike and Denny and then greets Horace, Clem Lawton (Carl Benton Reid), and Barbara (Jean Peters). Joe tells his father that he was being bull-headed. Ben advises his father to open an office in town so that they will get better prices. Matt admits he does not want to give up control. Outside Barbara and Joe talk about his father. Joe kisses her.
Matt and his sons investigate sick cattle and find copper in the water. Ben advises his father to get an injunction. Matt leads his sons past the guard at the gate by using a whip to remove his rifle. Matt tells Mac Andrews (Robert Burton) that the stream is poisoning his cattle. Mac asks for time, but Matt demands that he close down the operation. Mac insults Matt, who slugs him. Joe has drawn his gun and persuades Mac not to draw his gun. As they leave, Mac orders the miners to rush them. Matt says to shoot at their feet. Cowboys led by Two Moons arrive on horses, attack the miners, and destroy the mining facilities. Matt sends Joe to see Lawton.
Joe finds Barbara in the stable, and they spar verbally. Joe drives Barbara on a wagon to town and tells her he is a half-breed. Joe tells her how his father married an Indian whose father was a chief. Horace tells Matt that they will sue him. Matt says that Horace could appoint the judge and asks what he wants. Horace wants Joe to stay away from his daughter. Matt is disappointed in Horace and angry. Matt says he will tell his son to take her if he wants her.
Joe takes Barbara where his father first met his mother. Joe says he is in love with her, and they kiss. At her home Horace sees Joe kiss Barbara good night and leave.
Lawton tells the Devereaux family that Matt should divide up his property among his sons because of the lawsuit.
In the trial Matt answers questions and says that water is important to him. Matt admits that he hanged three thieves. Van Cleve (Philip Ober) asks him if he ordered his foreman to come with armed men; but Matt says no. Matt threatens Van Cleve, and the Judge holds Matt in contempt. Joe says they will put their father in jail, and he wants to do something; but his brothers do not. Ben calls Joe his father’s “little pet.” Barbara tells Joe that her father had a fight with his father. Lawton tells Matt that they have to give up the land the mine is on. Lawton says that Joe will testify and say he pulled a gun. Matt does not like it. Lawton warns Matt not to say anything.
Lawton calls Joe to the stand, and Joe goes to jail. Matt tells his sons to get away from him. Matt tells his wife that he sent Two Moons for his sons. The three come in, and Matt tells his sons to sign papers to give up some of the land. Ben says they will not sign, and Matt whips him and collapses.
Joe is called down from the rock quarry and is told he has a pretty visitor. He tells Barbara not to come again. She says two years is not so long. She says his father is sick. He kisses her and tells her not to come again.
Ben comes to see his father, who asks why he is selling off some of the land to an oil company. Ben says it is good business. Matt asks him to give up the sale. Matt says that Ben hates Joe, but Ben denies it. Ben says he never asked him anything before. Matt says he will stop him from selling. Ben says he runs the ranch, and he is going into town to sign the deal. Matt asks for his horse, but Two Moons and Señora say he will die. Matt rides off. The three brothers see Matt cutting ahead of them. Matt rides up to them, but he is dead.
At the funeral Joe refuses to shake hands with Ben and sticks a lance in the ground.
Señora comes in and sees Joe by the picture. She advises him to go away with Barbara. She asks for his gun, and he gives it to her.
Joe is riding, and Ben with a rifle tells him to keep riding. Joe says he is leaving, but Ben says he missed his train. Ben takes a chance to ride off, and Ben shoots at him. Ben chases Joe, who hides and jumps him. They fight. Ben gets the rifle, and Joe runs away, diving into a pool. Ben aims at him, but Two Moons shoots Ben, killing him.
Joe drives Barbara in a buggy to his father’s tomb, and he places her wedding flowers there. Joe breaks the lance as Señora watches.
This western portrays a patriarchal father who arrogantly gives too many orders that get him and his family into trouble. The sons of his first wife resent his Indian wife and her son, and they feel that their father treats them badly. These hard feelings lead to hard lessons.