A gang robs a stage coach and gets away, but the leader lingers with a farmer’s wife and is captured. Her husband needs money and volunteers to hold him until a train comes.
A stage coach moves through western country and stops in front of a herd of cattle surrounded by cowboys with guns. Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) rides over to the coach. From inside Mr. Butterfield (Robert Emhardt) says he is the owner of the stage and if he harms any of them, he will hound them to kingdom come. Wade says they only want the gold.
Dan Evans (Van Heflin) to his two young sons on horseback says he can hear their cattle over the ridge. They see the cowboys robbing the stage. Wade tells Charlie Prince (Richard Jaeckel) to tell Dan to stay away. Dan says they are his cattle, and they tell him he will get them back in five minutes. A son asks his father if he is going to let them do this to him, and Dan says he cannot help it. A man on the stage pulls a gun on one of the robbers and warns the others not to move, or he will kill him. Wade shoots both men and orders his men to put his man on his horse. Wade asks Butterfield what the other man’s name is and tells him to send him back to his home for burial. Wade rides over to Dan and tells him they need his horses. He makes them get off and says they will leave them on the other side of Bisbee. Wade and his gang ride off. Dan goes to round up his cattle and tells Butterfield he will help them later.
Dan and his sons return home and tell Mrs. Alice Evans (Leora Dana) what happened. Dan says he will saddle some horses and take water to the others. He says all he could do was stand by and watch. He talks about things that can kill you, like the three years of drought that killed their cattle. She asks why he is cross, and they discuss their difficulties in maintaining the ranch. She suggests he could use other water, but he says he does not have the $200 it costs. He hopes it will rain. She asks him to borrow money in town, and he says he could try. He tells his sons he is going into Bisbee. He gets on a horse and says it will be green there in six months. He rides off leading a second horse.
Wade and his ten men ride into town and go into the saloon. Emmy (Felicia Farr) behind the bar serves them all drinks. Charlie offers a toast to the boss who had to say goodbye to one of them to save the others. Wade tells her that the stage coach does not have any horses and suggests she tell the marshal. She says he takes a nap from one to two. Most in that town do, but she naps later and works there. Wade calls her a nice girl and asks how far the Mexican border is. She says no one knows exactly. He says the stage-coach driver was killed. She goes to wake the marshal because of the killing. The Bisbee marshal (Ford Rainey) comes out and asks them why they did not help the stage coach. They make excuses, and the marshal orders a man to get everybody. Wade says they are working for a cattle company. He pays, and they leave.
Outside from a window a woman says her husband is not fit. As other men gather, Wade and his men ride out of town. Wade remains and asks Emmy where he saw her. She says she worked in Dodge City. He remembers two women’s names she recognizes. He says he spent a lot of money there. He asks if there are young men around there, and she says no. He says she must get lonely. He gets on his horse, and she goes back in the saloon. Wade gets off his horse, and Alex Potter (Henry Jones) comes out of a house and asks him where the men went. Wade points, and Alex asks if he is going to help catch them. Wade says they are three big men on three white horses. Alex mounts his horse and rides off.
Wade goes back in the saloon and asks Emmy if she still sings. He says she looks skinny, and she feels skinny. He hopes she has blue eyes, but she looks at him and says they are brown. He likes them and kisses her.
The marshal and his men meet Dan and Butterfield on horses. Dan tells them about a dozen men who held up the stage and asks if they saw them. The marshal admits they did. The marshal sends a man to hitch up the stage. Dan says it was Ben Wade, and the marshal is surprised. Alex rides up, and the marshal asks if he has been drinking. Alex says one man is still in Bisbee, and they discuss arresting him. Dan agrees to go with them.
Wade and Emmy come out of a back room to the bar, and she pours him a drink. She asks if he is coming back there. He asks if she cares, and she does. They are glad they have something to remember. They see Charlie ride up outside, and he says someone else is coming. Dan walks past Charlie into the saloon, and Emmy asks if he wants something. Wade asks what he wants. Dan asks for money for his cattle, and Wade gives him $4. Dan asks for $2 more, and Wade gives it to him. Dan asks for $2 for making him nervous. The marshal comes up behind Wade and has him raise his hands.
Outside two men shoot at Charlie, but he shoots back and escapes on his horse. In the saloon Wade is handcuffed and says he will bring the others back. The marshal refuses to free him. The marshal hands the rifle to Dan who says he has to go. The marshal tells Mack to watch him and goes out. Dan sits down.
Outside the marshal talks with Alex about what to do with Wade. They decide to take Wade on the coach to Yuma. The marshal describes a plan to fool them and draws a map on the ground.
Dan tells Mack he has to go home and gets up. Outside the marshal asks for two volunteers. Butterfield offers to pay $200 for each man, and Dan volunteers. Alex asks to be the second man. The marshal does not want him, but no one else volunteers. Another man tells Dan they are going to transfer him at his house. The stage coach arrives, and the passengers get out.
A man with a rifle goes in the saloon and orders Wade to come out, and after saying goodbye to Emmy he gets on the stage. Two other men are on the stage, and two ride behind and one ahead. They go through the country and come to the Evans ranch. Dan, Alex, and another man go to help lift the coach out of a ditch. Charlie and others watch from a mountain as the coach drives off. Dan brings handcuffed Wade into his house with Alex. Alice has supper ready, and they all eat. Alex asks the son Mathew where his father keeps a drink. The boy says his pa told him he would ask for that. The young son Mark asks why they did not say grace, and Alice does so briefly. Dan cuts the meat for Wade who asks him to cut the fat off.
Outside Alex is shooting, and Dan goes out and asks him why. Inside Wade talks about the eyes of women. Dan has Alex go inside to watch Wade. Alice and Dan talk outside. Dan orders Mark to get the horses. Dan tells his wife not to worry, and she says their sons and her are proud of him for catching Ben Wade. The outlaw comes out, tells Alice he will send her husband back all right, and mounts one of the horses and leaves with Dan and Alex.
As they ride slowly, Wade asks where they are going. Dan says they are going to Contention to wait for the stage.
They arrive in the morning, and Butterfield tells them to walk the horses so as not to wake up the town. Alex explores the town, and they agree to meet behind the hotel. There a man says they have the bridal suite ready for them. They go in the hotel and upstairs. Dan tells Butterfield to cover downstairs. Dan and Wade go in the room, and Dan locks the door. Wade sits on the bed and suggests that Dan is tired and could sleep. Dan warns him not to cross the eight feet between them, or he will shoot. Wade says it is hot and asks to open the window. Dan opens it and orders Wade to stay on the bed. The window slides down, and Wade suggests he use a stick. As Dan reaches for it, Wade lunges at him. Wade says he had to try if Dan would shoot. Dan says he will the next time.
Alex comes in and talks with Butterfield, saying he does not want a drink. Alex says Dan can count on him, and he goes out to keep watch. Butterfield asks the clerk how long a man has been sleeping there. The clock strikes eleven.
Wade whistles and asks Dan how much money he makes. Dan admits he needs money and that they are paying him $200. Wade offers to double that if he lets him leave. Wade says his men are coming, but he likes to do things the easy way.
In the street a funeral procession goes by for the stage-coach driver, and Dan describes who they are. He says he will let him walk out for the 3:10 train. Wade says he would not corrupt this morals and lays down. He says the driver shot first, and it was self-defense. Wade says he is quiet, and Dan tells him to shut up.
Downstairs Charlie wakes up and asks if anybody came in, and the bartender says no. Charlie buys a drink and goes out.
Wade talks about a big outfit that does not have to worry about drought. He says Dan needs money and suggests a partner. He offers him $7,000. Dan hands him a cigarette.
Charlie walks across the street, and the funeral procession returns. Four men go in the saloon and order whiskey. Butterfield is asked why he did not go to his employee’s funeral.
Dan asks Wade how he knows he can trust him. Wade says it will be $10,000, and Dan tells him not to talk to him for awhile. They hear a knock on the door and hear it is Butterfield. Dan unlocks the door, and the stage-driver’s brother Bob Moons (Sheridan Comerate) pushes his way in, knocking the rifle on the floor. Wade goes to pick it up, and Bob orders him to leave it there. Butterfield says he couldn’t help it. Dan says if Bob kills Wade, he will hang for murder. He tells him to hand him the gun and hits him, getting a pistol. Dan picks up the rifle. Butterfield says someone may have heard that shot.
Charlie looks up and rides out of town. Alex on a horse sees him.
Wade says someone is going for help now. Butterfield says he won’t be back in time. Wade advises them to get help. Butterfield promises to walk with Dan to the station. Alex shouts that a man left town. Bob says the sheriff left town. Bob thinks of his mother and refuses to help them. Dan asks Butterfield to get five more men, and he goes out. Wade sees the streets are empty.
Alice drives a buggy into Bisbee and asks for news. She says there may still be time and drives out of town.
Wade is lying down, and Dan rolls a cigarette. They hear a woman singing. It is almost 2:30. Wade declines the cigarette and says he will rest. Butterfield outside the door says he got five more men in the lobby. Dan tells him not to let them start anything. Wade talks about having a wife someday and boys. He says he would treat her better than Dan does. He says his wife must have been more beautiful before, and Dan gets angry. Wade talks about how quiet the town is.
Charlie and Wade’s gang are riding fast. Alex rides into town and tells Dan that they are coming. Alex goes in and tells Butterfield and the five men who get ready with their rifles. Charlie and six other men ride into town.
Wade asks Dan what he should tell them. Wade at the window tells Charlie to go in and get a drink, and he will come down. Wade urges Dan to say something to them. Dan stays away from the window. Charlie and the men split up. Wade suggests that Dan let him walk out.
The men inside notice there are seven of them. They did not expect a big shootout and leave. Butterfield says they need them and offers them $50 each. He begs them, but they have families and do not want Bisbee’s troubles. They go home.
Wade says people want to live; even Butterfield will walk out on him. He asks Dan what he is going to die for. Butterfield has Alex watch outside. Charlie comes up behind Alex with a gun and makes him drop his gun. Alex shouts to Dan about a man on a roof who shoots at Dan who kills the man with his pistol. Charlie shoots Alex in the back and has two men carry him away.
Butterfield comes in and tells Dan they brought Alex in. Wade tells Charlie he has one more shot and to make it good. Dan sends Butterfield to check on Alex. He sees a shadow of a hanging man and comes back to tell Dan that Alex is dead.
Alice arrives and hears a shot. Wade sees her from the window and says Dan is lucky to have a woman like that. She calls for Dan, sees the hanging body, and goes upstairs. Dan gives the rifle to Butterfield and opens the door and embraces Alice. She asks him not to be stubborn. She tells him she loves every minute. He says he has to do this and that Alex gave his life for peace and decency. She asks him not to go through with it. He hopes this will be worth remembering. He says he will just walk to the station at 3. The boys will be able to remember that. He tells Wade it is time. Wade goes out first, followed by Dan with the rifle and then Butterfield. Dan tells Butterfield to stay there with Alice and drive her out of town.
Wade and Dan go out the back way and walk along the street. A man on a roof shoots at them. Dan tells Wade he will cut him in two if they shoot again. Wade shouts they have only one more shoot and to make it good. They stop at a corner, and Dan pulls Wade around it. Wade notices his man on a roof. They hear the train. Wade says there is still time for Dan to get out of this. Cattle are in the street, and Dan has Wade cross. They walk by a corral. Two men get on horses and follow them. Wade advises Dan to run, but he pushes Wade ahead of him.
The train slows down, and Charlie runs to the station. Wade tells Dan it is not far. Dan gets behind a horse and walks behind Wade. They run to cover. The train starts moving again, and Wade says, “Nice try.” Dan says they will get on the baggage car. Charlie and six men have guns, but Dan is behind Wade who tells Dan they should get out of there. Wade suggests they jump on the car together and do so. The men shoot to no avail. On the moving train Dan asks Wade why he did it. Wade says he does not like to owe any favors, and Dan saved his life at the hotel. His says he has broken out of Yuma before. Dan says his job is finished when he gets him there.
Alice from the buggy sees the train go by as Dan waves. It starts raining, and she and her husband are very happy.
This western portrays a psychological battle between an outlaw and a man trying to enforce the law to gain a reward he needs to sustain his ranch. The crisis tests people’s courage. Several decline to participate, but the rancher and the town drunk turn out to be heroes.