After a stagecoach is held up by Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton) and his gang, the gunmen retreat to an isolated cabin to spend the night. Passing through are three cowboys Vern (Cameron Mitchell), Wes (Jack Nicholson), and Otis (Tom Filer) headed to Waco Texas after the rodeo they were to perform in is canceled. They pass a lynching victim strung up on a pole, and stop at the same cabin where the gang is holed up looking for some rest. Surprisingly, they are welcomed by Blind Dick, ostensibly the one responsible for the lynching but find that they soon have unwelcome visitors. The sheriff and his posse have surrounded the house and begin shooting at the occupants, wrongly assuming that the three travelers are also part of the gang.
Inarticulate, the cowhands are unable or unwilling to try and explain to the lawmen the fact that they are innocent. After a protracted shootout, Otis is killed and the gang members are burned out of their cabin and hanged. Vern and Wes escape on foot but are followed and tracked by the lawmen, bound by their code of unthinking frontier justice. The two innocent men stumble upon a farmhouse that had already been visited by the posse and are looked after by a farmer Evan (George Mitchell) and his daughter Abigail (Millie Perkins).
Eating and passing the time playing checkers, they know that sooner or later the posse will come back, if only to court Abigail. When they do return, Evan's inability to see that Vern and Wes have no choice but to steal two horses is very costly. In debunking the Western myth of good guys and bad guys, Hellman has directed a film in which the ordinariness of the life overshadows the mythos of the exciting frontier. Yet while Ride in the Whirlwind may be one of the most authentic and haunting Westerns ever made, it is also one of the saddest, a film in which the operative word is not justice or camaraderie but loneliness and lost opportunity.