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As his car is being towed through downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico, down-and-out reporter Charles "Chuck" Tatum passes by the Sun Bulletin newspaper office and rushes inside. After Chuck boldly informs conservative editor Jacob Q. Boot that he is a $250-a-week reporter but can be had for $50 a week, Boot offers him a job on condition he stay clean and sober. Chuck, who admits his reckless, caustic behavior led to his dismissal from many prestigious Eastern newspapers, embraces Boot's terms, confident that his next big break will soon come. A year later, however, Chuck is still working at the Bulletin when Boot assigns him and cub reporter-photographer Herbie Cook to cover a rattlesnake hunt. On the way, Herbie and Chuck stop for gas at a remote trading post and soon discover that the young proprietor, Leo Minosa, is trapped in a cave in a nearby Indian cliff dwelling. When an Indian tells Chuck that the cave is in the sacred Mountain of the Seven Vultures, Chuck senses a story opportunity. Ignoring a deputy sheriff, Chuck pushes his way into the cave with Herbie and locates Leo, pinned under a heavy plank inside a narrow, unstable crevice. Chuck soothes the frightened Leo, who had crawled into the crevice in search of Indian artifacts, and snaps a photo of him. As soon as he returns to the trading post, Chuck calls Boot and boasts that he has a front page feature. Chuck then arranges with Leo's cynical wife Lorraine to stay in her in-laws's bedroom, and while he is typing up his first article, they talk about Leo. Lorraine reveals that she married Leo, a veteran, right after the war, but quickly became disillusioned and bored. When Lorraine declares that she is leaving Leo while she can, Chuck, mindful of how her desertion will hurt his story, tries to shame her into staying. Lorraine refuses to feel guilty, but changes her mind about going after the vacationing Federber family shows up, eager to observe Leo's rescue and buy food and trinkets. Along with Chuck, Lorraine realizes that as news about Leo's predicament spreads, business at the trading post will explode. The next day, after Chuck's first story appears in the Bulletin , the trading post is besieged by visitors. After learning from Dr. Hilton, who has gone into the cave, that Leo can survive a week of entrapment, Chuck approaches Sheriff Gus Kretzer with a proposition. Noting how much publicity the sheriff would earn if the rescue went on for a week, Chuck convinces Kretzer to use his position to prolong the operation and, in exchange for Chuck's silence and support, guarantee him exclusive access to the story. By threatening to ruin his career, the sheriff then coerces engineer Sam Smollett to drill a shaft from the top of the cave down to Leo, instead of shoring up the walls and getting Leo out in a day. That evening, Lorraine, now flush with cash, tries to flirt with Chuck, but he slaps her. As Smollett's rescue team begins drilling the next day, the area is flooded with reporters, cameramen and tourists. Taking in the spectacle, Chuck tells the wide-eyed Herbie that they are quitting the Bulletin . When other reporters complain about Chuck's favored position, the sheriff announces that he has deputized Chuck and will not allow anyone else inside the cave for safety reasons. In the cave, Leo tells Chuck about his upcoming anniversary and his hope that his predicament will somehow save his marriage. Chuck again reassures Leo and is nonplussed when Leo declares him his best friend. At the trading post, Chuck runs into Boot, who has deduced Chuck's scheme and condemns his "below-the-belt" journalism. Nagel, a New York editor, then calls and agrees to pay Chuck $1,000 a day to cover the story. While the sheriff makes campaign speeches, spectators and newsmen continue to pour into the area, which now boasts a full-fledged carnival. Restless, Lorraine asks Chuck to take her to New York with him, and he responds with a hard kiss. Five and a half days into the ordeal, Dr. Hilton informs Chuck that Leo has developed pneumonia and will only last twelve more hours in the cave. Leo begs Chuck to stop the drilling, which is only twenty-six feet away, and bring a priest. Although Chuck refuses, he asks Smollett to shore up the walls as originally proposed but learns that because of the drilling, the walls have become dangerously weak, making shoring impossible. The next morning, Leo, struggling for breath, asks Chuck to give Lorraine the anniversary present he bought for her. Desperate and angry, Chuck finds Lorraine as she is about to cut her platinum hair and forces her to put on Leo's present--a cheap fur stole. When Lorraine protests, Chuck starts to strangle her with the stole, and she stabs him with her scissors. Though bleeding, Chuck stumbles to the sheriff's car and drives the priest to the cave. Leo dies as the priest prays, and once outside, Chuck grabs a microphone and announces his death. As the stunned crowd takes in the news, Chuck's rivals rush to file the story. Numb with pain and guilt, Chuck calls Nagel, declaring that he has murdered Leo, and drives Herbie to the Bulletin office. After shoving Herbie back to his desk, Chuck tells Boot, "You can have me for nothing," then collapses and dies.