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As a posse tracks an outlaw trio headed by Sam Older, who is known for giving the spoils of his robberies to the poor, Sam kills one of his wounded compatriots and races home with the other, his best friend, Wes Tancred. There, Wes spurns the attentions of Sam's wife Cathy, and announces that although he originally admired Sam, he has been steadily disillusioned by Sam's self-glorification and veiled viciousness, exemplified by his most recent murder. Sam, jealous of Cathy's attentions and certain that Wes will turn him in for the $10,000 reward, reaches for his gun when Wes turns his back, but Wes outdraws him. Just then, the posse arrives, and Cathy spitefully announces that Wes killed Sam without provocation. Wes is jailed, and although he receives a full pardon, is universally ostracized as a coward who killed a hero and his best friend. After traveling for days he arrives at a small town, where the citizens, upon learning his name, taunt him by singing a ballad about his guilt and then beat him up. He travels on alone, finally reaching a makeshift farm and stagecoach stop run by the crippled Ed Burrows and his young son Jody. Wes introduces himself as "John Bailey" and discourages any questions about his past, especially after Jody sings the ballad. Despite Wes's reticence, Ed kindly offers him a job as a horse wrangler, and within days, Jody has grown to idolize Wes. One day, three bandits ride up, planning to rob the stage when it arrives. While they force Ed to cook them dinner, Jody informs Wes in secret that they have a rifle hidden in the bedroom. Although Wes advises Ed not to fight, when the stage approaches, Ed pulls out his gun and is shot down. Wes dives for the gun and rapidly kills all three bandits as Jody kneels by his father's lifeless body. Wes refuses the subsequent reward, instead escorting Jody to the nearby town of Table Rock, where Ed's brother-in-law, Fred Miller, is the sheriff. There, Fred, who bears both the physical and psychological scars of a brutal beating, is worried about the upcoming arrival of violent trail herders, who invade Table Rock each year and vandalize the town. Fred and his wife Lorna welcome Jody and press Wes to stay, but he insists on traveling on. Jody follows him onto the trail, however, and Wes is forced to take him home. Over a drink, Fred reveals that he needs a deputy to help defend the town, and although Wes declines the job, he accepts Lorna's plea to stay until Jody is settled. The herders, led by Hampton, enter the area the next day. Svenson Brink, whose farm has been trampled before by the herd, guards his fence with a rifle, but is ignored by the herders. He then confronts Fred about enforcing the law, but Fred merely asks Hampton to stay out of town. Hampton argues that the boys need to amuse themselves, but agrees to have trail boss Cord control them while they are in Table Rock. Meanwhile, both Jody and Lorna wish that Wes would stay, but he plans to leave soon. At Wes's suggestion, the three ask newspaperman Harry Jameson to give Jody a job, and although the editor considers Fred a coward, he hires Jody. As the herders enter town, Lorna refuses to clear the streets, as do the rest of the citizens, but Fred insists that she go home. There, she reveals Fred's beating to Wes, who states that Fred must work things out by himself. That night, the herders, who have been warned not to make trouble, grow restless. One, Lerner, is thrown out of the saloon, which Wes also leaves to escape the sound of the ballad. Lerner immediately provokes Brink, and as Fred and Wes watch from across the street, the cowhand shoots Brink, then places his pistol in the dead man's hand. Fred arrests Lerner, but when the herders threaten him, he says that the killing was in self-defense. Later, Lorna chastises Fred and pleads with him to leave town, but he refuses to return to the impoverished life of a farmer, even though he realizes that he is an inadequate sheriff. Soon, Lerner is released and, upon seeing Jameson's editorial naming him as a killer, attacks the newspaper office. Wes arrives in time to save Jameson and Jody, whose arm is broken in the assault. At the Millers', Lorna thanks Wes and, not realizing that Fred has returned and is listening, expresses her admiration for his strong character. Lerner's trial soon begins, during which Fred testifies that Lerner shot in self-defense. At the last moment, however, Wes reveals that he saw Lerner kill Brink, then warns Fred that if he continues to lie he will never be able to escape himself. Wes confesses his true name, knowing this will cast doubt on his testimony and force Fred, now the only credible witness, finally to admit that he saw the murder. As everyone shakes Fred's hand, Wes walks out alone, but is pleased when Jody follows and declares his ongoing faith in him. Soon after, saloon owner Kirk, who has been secretly backing the herders, sends for hired gun Jim Breck. Meanwhile, the townspeople ostracize Wes, and when he asks Jameson about Lorna, the editor accuses him of staying in town only to steal Fred's wife. Wes later spots Breck, an old friend, and upon learning that Breck was hired to kill Fred, is forced to challenge him to a duel to protect the Millers. In the street, Fred, Lorna and Jody approach just as Wes outdraws Breck. While Wes stands over his friend's body, Fred spies Kirk aim a gun at Wes, and shoots the saloon owner. Just then, the herders enter town planning to break Lerner out of jail. Fred, finally cured of his fear, confronts them, and although they assume they outnumber him, they soon realize that the armed townsmen surround them. Hampton leads his men out of town, after which the citizens congratulate Fred. He tries to thank Wes, who explains that he must leave, even after Jameson apologetically asks him to stay. After saying goodbye to Lorna and Jody, Wes rides off alone.