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In 1881, itinerant cowboys Harry Collings, Arch Harris and Dan Griffin enjoy a lazy morning on the bank of the Rio Grande. Dan, the youngest of the trio, bemoans their lack of supplies, and Arch, the oldest, promises that they will buy more in the small town of Del Norte. When they arrive, they are met by the stares of the few citizens, a mixture of Mexican and Americans. While Dan complains about the town's lack of women and beer to Harry and Arch, Luke and Mace, the henchmen of cantina owner Sam McVey, appraise Dan's fine horse. As they drink, Dan and Arch discuss traveling to California, but Harry suddenly declares that he is going home rather than accompanying them. Dan is nonplussed to learn that Harry has a wife, Hannah, and a young daughter whom he deserted years previously, and after Harry exits the bar, blurts out that they can go on without him. Upset, Arch comments that he and Harry have been riding together for seven years, then follows his friend outside. Harry reveals that when they rode into town, he realized that they had been to the desolate area three years earlier, and pronounces that it is "a waste living like this." Resigned, Arch gets drunk with Harry that evening, while Dan goes to the cantina. Following him, Arch and Harry talk to the bartender, who implies that Dan has hired "company" for the evening. While the men are drinking, however, shots ring out in the street and Dan, with his pants half-lowered, staggers into the bar. After Dan dies an agonizing death, Sam enters and claims that he caught Dan trying to rape his wife. Harry and Arch are suspicious of Sam's accusation, especially as they cannot question Sam's wife, who does not speak English. Luke, Mace and Will, Sam's other henchman, support Sam's story, however, so Harry and Arch can do nothing. Carrying Dan's body outside, the two friends solemnly bury him. The next morning, they ride to Sam's house, where they find Dan's horse in the corral and while Arch secures the horse, Harry finds Sam asleep inside. Unable to enter because a henchman is asleep on the floor, Harry takes aim through the window and shoots Sam in both feet. Harry and Arch then begin the week-long ride north to Harry's farm, although when Arch questions Harry, he discovers that Harry barely remembers what Hannah is like, as they lived together for just under two years. When Harry reveals that Hannah was thirty years old when they married, while he was barely twenty, Arch asserts that Harry "didn't stand a chance," but Harry replies that he ran away because he was not ready for marriage, not because of anything Hannah did. When they reach Harry's farm, the men are greeted by Janey, Harry's daughter, who does not know who he is. Hannah does not recognize Harry at first, and when she does, she sends Janey inside. When the stunned Hannah asks why he returned, Harry admits that he "got tired of the life," and after she protests that he has no right to her or the farm, Harry asks only to work, like any hired hand. Hannah reluctantly agrees, as long as he does not tell Janey his identity, for the child believes that her father is dead. Harry acquiesces and spends the night in the barn with Arch, then, the next day, begins work. Hannah watches as the men make repairs, and that night, sits on the porch with Arch. Although Hannah sighs that it is just a matter of time before Harry deserts her again, Arch politely observes that Harry seems "keen" to be home. The next day, the men go to the nearby town of Calman for supplies, and while Harry is shopping, Arch goes to the saloon. There, upon learning that Arch and Harry are working for "the Widow Collings," townsman Ed Plummer tells Arch that Hannah sleeps with her hired hands. When Ed then taunts Harry, asking him how Hannah divides her time between them, Arch hits him and hustles Harry away. As they are going home, however, Harry demands to know what Ed was saying and Arch tells him, although he advises Harry that Hannah will not take kindly to being judged by him. That night, Harry confronts his wife, and Hannah, embittered by years of loneliness, admits that she did sleep with some of the hired men, although not all of them and not as often as she wished. Hannah speaks forcefully, stating that she maintained her independence by never letting a man stay more than one season. Distressed, Harry leaves without a word, and the next morning, Hannah awakens to see Harry riding away. Although the tearful Hannah believes that Harry has disappeared again, he rides to Calman to post notices. Shortly after, town gossip Mrs. Sorensen visits Hannah to tell her that Harry's notices stated that no more hired help would be needed at the Collings farm. Hannah is shaken and later that night, as she again sits on the porch with Arch, agrees when he remarks that it would be best if he moved on. Defiantly she describes to Arch how she both longed for, and was terrified of, the possibility of male company, adding that it would not make any difference to her if it was him or Harry with her that night. Arch, who is attracted to Hannah, is not sure what to make of her declaration and the next evening, tells Harry that he is going to California. Arch remains resolute despite Harry's protests, and after Arch goes to bed, Harry and Hannah discuss the matter. Hannah explains to Harry that if their marriage is going to succeed, she needs the security of knowing that she and Janey come first, without Arch being a constant reminder of the temptation of the open road. Although Harry nods silently, he worries about Arch being alone, and after one last night in the shed, bids his old friend farewell. The nervous Hannah and Harry then sleep together that night and avow their love for each other. Soon after, however, Will arrives, carrying a finger that has been chopped off Arch's hand. Will warns that Sam has captured Arch, and that until Harry returns to Del Norte, he will slice off another of Arch's fingers every week. Despite Hannah's anguished pleas for him to stay, Harry asserts that it is his fault Arch is in trouble and, promising to return, departs with Will. During the journey, Harry kills Will, then, through hard riding, reaches Del Norte within a week, thereby saving Arch another finger. Arch begs Sam's wife, who sympathizes with him, for a gun, but the terrified woman refuses. After Harry enters town, however, Sam's wife opens Arch's cell, and Arch sneaks out as the gun battle between Harry, Sam, Luke and Mace begins. Harry guns down Mace but is shot by Sam, who hobbles on his crutches to the street, where Harry lies wounded. As Sam is tormenting Harry, Arch shoots Luke. Harry is then able to retrieve his gun and shoot Sam before he can kill Arch, who cannot hold his weapon properly because of his mutilated hand. Arch then rushes to his friend, who asks Arch to hold him while he dies. Later, Hannah, sitting on the porch shelling peas, is startled to see Arch riding up, leading Harry's horse. After briefly looking at the house, Arch puts the horses in the barn and begins his new life, taking up where Harry left off.