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One hot summer day in 1945, when the Streamliner train stops at the remote desert town of Black Rock, Arizona, for the first time in four years, the townspeople greet the visiting stranger, a one-armed man named John J. Macreedy, with suspicion and hostility. Hastings, the telegraph agent, learns that Macreedy wants to visit nearby Adobe Flat, whereupon he immediately telephones Pete Wirth, the hotel keeper. Explaining that war restrictions make it impossible for him to let a room, Pete is flustered when Macreedy reminds him that World War II ended several months earlier. Macreedy finally settles into a room, but cowboy Hector David soon enters and, for no apparent reason, challenges him to a fight. Macreedy is baffled by the town's hostility but remains calmly determined to reach his destination. As Macreedy tries unsuccessfully to rent a car, locals Reno Smith and Coley Trimble drive up. A group of men, some of them obviously jumpy, enter the hotel lobby and begin to talk. Doc Velie wonders aloud why Smith, Coley, Hector, Pete and Sam are so worried about the stranger, but Smith silences Doc and orders Hastings to get information about Macreedy's identity from a private detective in Los Angeles. Macreedy visits the sheriff's office and finds the head lawman, Tim Horn, just waking up from a drink-induced sleep. When Macreedy mentions that he is looking for a farmer named Kumoko in Adobe Flat, Tim becomes hostile, too, and refuses to answer the stranger's questions. Smith approaches Macreedy in the street and explains that Kumoko, having arrived in Adobe Flat just before the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, was soon shipped off to a relocation camp. Just then, Pete's sister Liz drives up in her jeep, and Macreedy rents the vehicle and heads for Adobe Flat. Smith is furious with Liz, but she insists that Macreedy will surely find nothing. Tim, protesting that he never really knew what happened to Kumoko, reminds Smith that he is still the law, but Smith only laughs at him. When the private detective telegraphs that there are no records available on Macreedy, Smith orders Coley to get rid of the stranger, adding that "these maimed guys are all troublemakers, do-gooders." Pete objects to this plan, and Doc tells Tim that the town, in blindly obeying Smith for so long, has lost its self-respect. At Adobe Flat, meanwhile, Macreedy finds nothing but a burned house, a deep well and some wildflowers growing in the dirt. As he returns to town, Coley races up behind him and rams him off of the road. Shaken but unhurt, Macreedy returns to Black Rock, where Coley calls him a roadhog. Macreedy finally decides to check out, but Pete informs him that the train will not arrive until the next morning, and Liz refuses to take him to the next town. Smith drives up and asks why Macreedy would look for "a lousy Jap farmer." Macreedy remarks that because wildflowers were growing at Adobe Flat, he believes something is buried there. Convinced that Smith is going to kill him, he then tries to telephone the state police, but Pete refuses to put the call through. Doc, telling Macreedy that he is "consumed by apathy," nonetheless offers his hearse as an escape vehicle, but the wires have been tampered with and the car will not start. Macreedy then attempts to telegraph the state police about his "urgent and dangerous situation," after which he pays a visit to the local bar. Smith and Coley enter, and Coley tries repeatedly to goad Macreedy into a fight. When Coley calls Macreedy a "yellow-bellied Jap lover," Macreedy injures him with several swift judo slices to the throat and neck. He then turns to Smith and openly accuses him of having murdered Kumoko. Hastings shows Smith the wire he never sent, whereupon Macreedy accuses the telegraph agent of having committed a federal offense. Smiling, Smith leaves, and Doc exclaims that this is the town's last chance to redeem itself. Defeated, the sheriff departs, but Pete admits to Doc and Macreedy that he has never forgotten what happened four years ago. Macreedy reveals that Kumoko's son Joe died in battle in Italy trying to save his life, and that he has come to Black Rock to give Kumoko the young man's medal. Upon hearing this, Doc and Pete reveal Kumoko's fate: Smith leased Adobe Flat to Kumoko, promising good land and plenty of water. Soon realizing that Smith had cheated him, Kumoko dug a sixty-foot well, thereby infuriating Smith. When Smith was turned down by the Marine recruiting office, he returned to Black Rock and got "patriotic drunk" with Coley, Pete, Hector and Sam. The men decided to scare Kumoko, and when the farmer locked his door, Smith began shooting. Kumoko's clothes caught fire, and as he ran from the house, Smith shot him. Abruptly, Pete calls Liz and asks for her help in getting Macreedy out of town. At night, Doc and Pete knock the watchful Hector unconscious, and Macreedy jumps into Liz's waiting jeep. Liz drives Macreedy into the desert, but she soon delivers her passenger to Smith, who is waiting in the rocks with his rifle. Explaining that he wants no witnesses, Smith shoots Liz dead and then starts shooting at Macreedy as Macreedy hides behind the jeep. Macreedy fills a glass bottle with gasoline from the jeep, stuffs his tie into the neck and touches his lighter to the bottle. When he throws it at Smith, the bottle explodes, and Smith catches fire. Macreedy returns to town to find the four other murder witnesses locked in a cell. Later, as Macreedy walks to the train, Doc asks if Black Rock might have Kumoko's medal. Smiling, Macreedy gives Doc this token of courage and climbs onto the train.