Link Jones (Gary Cooper)
rides into the small town of Crosscut. He sees a beautiful woman (Julie London
) leaving the local saloon; they are taking down the sign advertising her as a singer. He gets a meal, and then hires someone to take care of his horse for a few days. He says he's Link Jones from Good Hope, which is five days' ride west. Then he drops his money bag, and we see he is nervous about the money. Then he washes up and changes his clothes, and after thinking it over, puts his money bag and his gun in his satchel.
Link heads to the train station and buys a ticket to Fort Worth. There he sees that Billie Ellis (London) is also boarding the train, and he meets Sam Beasley (Arthur O'Connell
), a loquacious gambler. The local sheriff seems to recognize Link and asks his name. Link gives a different name, and says his home town is Saw Mill. The sheriff asks if he knows Dock Tobin, but Link denies it.
On the train, Beasley is friendly and talkative, and gets Link to tell him that he is traveling to Fort Worth to hire a schoolteacher. Talking loudly, Beasley observes that you would have to pay someone a year's salary in advance in order to get them to travel so far to such a remote place. Link replies that yes, he has the townspeople's money. A shady character (Jack Lord
) observes it all.
The train stops to load wood and all able-bodied men are asked to help. The train guard assures that Link he'll watch his bag. But it's an ambush; four men lay in wait for the train, and the shady character is part of the gang. Separated from his gun, Link gets knocked out, and the shady guy takes his satchel off the train. The train guard manages to fight off the bandits, wounding one of them, and the train takes off.
When Link comes to, he realizes he's been left behind, and soon he finds that Miss Ellis and Mr. Beasley are in the same predicament. They begin to walk with Link telling them the nearest town is about a hundred miles away.
Link leads the trio to a farmhouse, and says he lived there once long ago. He sends his companions to wait in the barn while he cautiously approaches the house. But the would-be train robbers are waiting in the dark, guns drawn, and Link is caught. The situation is tense, when from the back room comes an old man (Lee J. Cobb
) who introduces himself as Link's uncle
Dock Tobin. Dock reminisces about what a great gang he had when Link was his right hand, and how enraged he was when Link left him all while Link is at gunpoint. He says he wants to rejoin Dock, but guns remain pointed at him.
Meanwhile, the wounded robber is dying. Dock insists one of his men put him out of his misery, and at last, the shady character, whose name is Coaley, shoots him.
With the tension still high, they agree that Link will stay, and Link brings in his friends from the barn. Immediately, Beasely is put to work digging a grave. Dock asks if Billie is Link's woman and to protect her, he says yes.Then Link is sent to bring out the body, but Billie Ellis begins screaming. Link runs back to find that Coaley has her at gunpoint, demanding she undress for the pleasure of them all. When Link tries to intervene, Coaley holds a knife to his throat, drawing blood. Billie removes her shoes, stockings, blouse, skirt, and undershirt, and is wearing only her undergarments when Dock ends the show and allows Link to take Billie to sleep in the barn.
In the barn, Link helps Billie get into bed, where she sobs and sobs while he tries to comfort her. It is here that Billie begins to fall for Link, who is distraught because he has lost all the townspeople's money. He has a wife and two children (ages 8 and 10) at home and he speaks of them with deep affection. Billie says his wife is a very lucky woman.
In the morning, Claude (John Dehner
) arrives. Coaley and Claude are brothers and Link's first cousins.
Dock wants to rob a bank in Lasso, a bank he says is loaded with money. Now that Link is with them again, he's sure that they can pull off the job. They ride off with wagons towards Lasso.
When they stop for a break, a "friendly" bit of wrestling turns into a murderous fight between Coaley and Link. Coaley fights dirty in every possible way, but Link gets the upper hand. He can't bring himself to kill, but Link strips Coaley in the same order he forced Billie to strip and leaves him humiliated. Coaley draws his gun and ignores Dock's order to stop. Beasely leaps jumps in front of Link to save him and is shot dead by Coaley, who is then shot by Dock.
Link tells Billie that the folks in Good Hope know all about his murderous past, and he's "broken his back" working to establish himself with them as a decent man. Now, among this gang, he feels he wants to kill them, but he knows if he does, then he's no different from them.
Dock's plan is to send one man into Lasso to case the bank. If the man feels that they can take the bank, then he will wait in town; otherwise, he will ride back. The rest of the gang is to wait four hours, and if the man doesn't ride back, they will ride into Lasso to meet him, find out how many guns await them, get the layout from their scout, and proceed to get rich. Link convinces Dock that he's the only man who can be the scout: Claude and Dock are known on sight in these parts, Trout (Royal Dano
) is mute, and Ponch (Robert J. Wilke
) is too stupid. Dock reluctantly agrees but sends Trout along with him.
When they arrive, they find that Lasso is a ghost town, and a scared Mexican woman lives in the former bank. She holds a gun on the two men, terrified, but while Link tries to reassure her, Trout shoots and kills her. Enraged, Link kills Trout with the dead woman's gun. She has no ammunition, so Link gets Trout's gun and gunbelt and waits. He also searches Trout, but doesn't find his money.
Claude and Ponch ride into Lasso. A tense, exciting battle follows; Link kills both men and is wounded in the left arm. Again, he searches fruitlessly for the money. As he is leaving, a Mexican man rides up; Link just says "I'm sorry." As Link rides off, we hear the husband's grief as he finds his beloved Juanita dead.
Back at camp, Link finds Billie stripped and weeping. It appears that she has been molested despite Dock's promise to keep her safe. Link goes after Dock, wanting to take him in alive, but he is forced to return Dock's fire and kills him. His search over, Link gratefully pockets the money from the townspeople of Good Hope.
As they ride together away from the awful scene, Billie thinks that Link will be treated as a hero. She says that she regrets nothing because she's never loved before, and although she knows that Link cannot return her love, to have the feeling is worth it.