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In the 1880s, drifter Dempsey Rae watches from a railroad car as seventeen-year-old Jeff Jimson is beaten for hitching a ride on another car. After the brakeman leaves Jeff under the train wheels, Dempsey rescues him, and later that night stops the headstrong boy from intervening when a vagrant stabs the brakeman to death. The next morning when they reach Wyoming, Dempsey spots a roadblock ahead and helps Jeff off the train, but they are stopped by a malevolent local deputy and accused of killing the brakeman. Although Jeff is willing to take the blame, Dempsey fearlessly points out the real killer, who then tries to stab him and is arrested. Although Dempsey is promised half of the reward money, the deputy warns him to leave town. Instead, Dempsey visits old friend Idonee, a saloon girl, with a worshipful Jeff close on his heels. They visit the saloon, where Dempsey serves Jeff sarsaparilla and meets Strap Davis, a cattle ranch foreman whose Eastern boss, Reed Bowman, is rapidly taking over all of the area's open range. Just then, the deputy appears and immediately picks a fight with Jeff, which Dempsey stops by pulling out his gun. Sheriff Olson then enters, hands Dempsey his reward money and orders him to leave town, but Strap announces that Dempsey and Jeff work for him. They set off for the ranch, where Dempsey is scandalized to see indoor plumbing, and Jeff copies his every move as they prepare for lunch. The cowboys tease Jeff, who attempts to defend himself but is easily beaten up by ranchhand Latigo. Over the next weeks, Dempsey enjoys working the open range and teaching Jeff to ride and rope. One day, they stop at local rancher Bill Cassidy's, and although Cassidy and his daughter Tess welcome them, Dempsey is infuriated when he hears that the smaller ranchers plan to erect barbed wire to keep Reed from monopolizing the grazing area. Dempsey storms off, later revealing to Jeff that he loved Texas until barbed wire ruined the range. Hours later, Dempsey is teaching Jeff to shoot when they are distracted by the watchful eye of a sophisticated woman, who shocks them by introducing herself as Reed Bowman. After witnessing Dempsey beat up Latigo, an impressed Reed invites him to dinner, along with Strap. There, both men are concerned about Reed's plan to bring in even more cattle, exhaust the supply of grass and then leave. When Strap expresses concern, Reed secretly offers Dempsey the position of top ranchhand, and after she hints that her favors may be part of the bargain, he agrees. Soon after, the new herd arrives from Texas, led by Steve Miles and his men. Just as Dempsey recognizes Miles as his old nemesis, Reed hires him and forces Strap to have Jeff drive the cattle to a strip of land being saved by Cassidy. There, Jeff is wounded by a barbed wire fence and captured by Cassidy, who brings him back to Reed's. Furious, she fires Strap and names Dempsey the new foreman. Dempsey, however, warns Jeff not to seek revenge, finally revealing that he left Texas after Miles began a range war, fueled by the introduction of barbed wire, during which Dempsey was scarred and his younger brother killed. Dempsey and Jeff plan to leave, but first Dempsey visits Reed, who offers herself as incentive for him to stay. After Dempsey takes her up on her offer but immediately afterward tells her she is cheap, Reed seeks revenge by seducing Jeff. That night, she brings him to the saloon, where Dempsey is drinking happily and avoiding a fight with Miles. Jeff, however, shoots a man who is bothering Reed, and a furious Dempsey punches him, pulling out his gun when Jeff retaliates. Horrified at his reaction, Dempsey leaves with Idonee, while Reed brings Jeff to her house. Days later, Miles is terrorizing the small ranchers, and though a frustrated Idonee rouses Dempsey from his drunken stupor and urges him to help, he insists on leaving town. On the way to the train, however, Miles's men beat him savagely, and Dempsey is finally stirred to take over the small ranchers' defense. He leads them in stringing barbed wire across the range. When three of Miles's men attack, Dempsey kills two and brings the third to Reed. When Miles arrives at Reed's and learns that Jeff did not kill Dempsey, he shoots the boy, who races to Dempsey to warn him that Miles plans to stampede the cattle through the wire. While Tess administers to Jeff, Dempsey concocts a plan to keep the cattle from running into the wire. When Miles attacks, the ranchers struggle to perform the nearly impossible feat. As soon as they are victorious, Dempsey chases down Miles and beats up his rival, who falls across the wire. Later, the grateful ranchers offer Dempsey some cattle and land of his own, but he demurs. When Jeff tries to follow him, Dempsey gently sends the boy back to Tess's waiting arms, and rides off alone.