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Katie Elder's four sons return to Clearwater, Texas, for her funeral. John, the eldest, is a notorious gunslinger, and of the four, only Bud, who has been going to college, shows signs of being responsible. The brothers learn that Pa Elder supposedly got drunk and gambled away the family ranch and was killed on the same night. They decide to investigate the peculiar circumstances and unearth the truth, despite warnings from the sheriff to stay out of trouble. Morgan Hastings and his son Dave had been the only witnesses to the events. In order to protect themselves, the Hastings kill the sheriff, and the Elder brothers, whose reputations were poor to begin with, are blamed. The deputy sheriff swears in a group of Hastings' men to take the Elders to Laredo, unaware that they have been ordered to slaughter the Elders. In the gunfight that ensues, Matt Elder and the deputy sheriff are killed; and those of Hastings' men who escape return to tell that they were ambushed by John Elder's gang. The Elders return to town to get medical attention for Bud; John tells the judge what really happened; and the judge consents to his request that the brothers surrender to a U. S. marshal. Meanwhile, Tom sneaks away and captures Dave Hastings to force from him a confession. When Morgan Hastings goes to rescue Dave, he shoots his son by mistake. Before he dies, Dave reveals that his father shot Pa Elder. Tom, who is mortally wounded, makes John responsible for Bud's upbringing. John engages Morgan Hastings in a gun duel and kills him. Mary, who was a friend of Katie Elder and a close observer of the recent events, assures John that Bud will survive.