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On the trail home to Abilene, Kansas, at the close of the Civil War, Union soldier Chip Tomlin runs into childhood friend Jim Trask, the town's former sheriff, who left to serve in the Confederate army. Chip is shocked to discover that Jim is alive, contrary to long-standing rumors, and that he no longer wears a gun. They travel together to Abilene, where Chip happily rejoins his wife and the son he has never met, and the townsmen rush to welcome Jim home. Jim heads straight for the office of his best friend, Dave Moseby, whose right hand Jim accidentally shot off years earlier. Dave has transformed his small ranch into a cattle-trading empire, and proudly shows Jim a map of his vast landholdings. Jim sadly informs Dave that he saw Dave's brother Tad killed in action, and is about to say more when they are interrupted by some men, who are outside, beating up Chip because of his Union uniform. When Jim rushes to his aid, Sheriff Dan Claudius threatens him, but Dave secretly signals the lawman to back off, after which the townsmen surround Jim and ask him to return as sheriff. Later, Dave reveals to Jim that he is engaged to Jim's ex-fiancée, Peggy Bigelow, who waited years for Jim's return but finally accepted the news of his death. Jim and Peggy meet again soon after, and Dave notes with alarm that they are still drawn to each other. Later, in the saloon, farmer Jack Bedford explains to Jim that the cattlemen are feuding with the farmers, whose land they habitually overrun, and details how Claudius worked as Dave's foreman until the old sheriff was mysteriously killed. Back in his hotel room, Jim fingers his gun but cannot pick it up. The next day, cattle drivers trample crops, and a group of furious farmers stand on Main Street and demand that Dave come out. Hoping to keep the peace, Jim assures them that Dave will pay reparations, and Dave is forced to comply. Dave invites Jim to dine at his house, where Jim admits that he plans to leave town, but Dave, who wants Jim to stay on as sheriff, guesses correctly that if he brandishes his right arm to evoke Jim's guilt, Jim will give in. On his way home, Jim passes by Peggy's house, and she races out to meet him, distressed that he no longer seems to love her. After he admits that he is staying out of guilt, she realizes that this is also why he will not fight to win her away from Dave. Meanwhile, Dave explains to Claudius that he wants Jim around in order to have a lawman who is both under his control and trusted by the farmers. Jim's first rule as sheriff is to outlaw guns in the city, and when a rough cattleman tears up Jim's posted signs, Jim earns the townsmen's respect by beating him up. One night, Dave subtly warns Peggy that he must have her all to himself, mentioning how he has lost both his hand and his brother and cannot stand to lose anything more. Pressured, Peggy agrees to marry him immediately, but rushes to inform Jim, hoping to push him into admitting his feelings. Soon after, Claudius catches Chip returning a cow that has wandered onto his farm, and, hoping to force a showdown between the farmers and ranchers, accuses him of theft and whips him sadistically. Jim and deputy Verne Ward find Chip and bring him to the doctor, and within hours the farmers vow to wage war if he dies. That night, Peggy's father urges her not to marry a man she does not love, and she breaks down in tears. Across town, Chip weakly tells Jim that, although he wants only to live quietly with his family, sometimes a man must fight to keep peace, and Jim is stirred. The next day, Jim visits Dave but finds only Peggy, who is waiting to inform Dave that she cannot marry him. Dave shows up and listens outside, and after Peggy pushes Jim to admit that he has been overtaken with fear since the war. Jim finally breaks down and reveals that he lost his nerve during a desperate battle and, mistaking Tad for the enemy, shot and killed him and has not been able to shoot a gun since. Dave, incensed at what he sees as Peggy's rejection and Jim's treachery, grabs his gun, but Jim easily takes it away from him and secretly empties it of bullets. Dave screams at them to leave, and when Claudius appears at the ranch minutes later, Dave tries to shoot him but, with his gun empty, instead is killed. In town, Jim and Peggy learn that Chip's death has catapulted the town into violence, and Jim tucks a pistol into his waistband. Seeing this, the farmers agree to let him personally seek revenge on Claudius, and Jim tracks the henchman to Dave's office, where he is robbing the safe. From behind the door, Claudius shoots Jim in the shoulder, and Jim hides in the hotel, where Peggy finds him and begs him to flee. Jim explains that he cannot run away, and praying that he will be able to pull the trigger, steps into the street. Claudius shoots but Jim is quicker, and as Claudius falls, Jim struggles back into the hotel so he can finally embrace his beloved.