Clay Morgan, a Union veteran who wears a black patch over the eye he lost in battle, never returned home to Iowa after the Civil War, but instead traveled to New Mexico, where he was hired as the marshal of Santa Rita. Clay uses his natural authority, backed with combat-tested shooting skills, to keep the town free of drifters and troublemakers. Two of his loyal supporters are the tequila-loving Pedoline, who uses the jail to sleep off drunkenness and escape family duties, and eighteen-year-old Carl, jokingly known in the town as "Flytrap," who does odd jobs for the Harper Hotel and aspires to be a deputy. Carl is the first to take notice of two strangers who have come to town. One is a beautiful woman who entrances him when she steps off the stagecoach. The other, a gunman who rode into town separately from the stage, wins Carl's devotion by standing up for him in Frenchy De'Vere's saloon when Holman, the saloon bouncer, harasses him. Later, Carl learns that the gunman is Hank Danner, Clay's best friend from back east and that the woman, Helen, is Clay's former sweetheart, to whom he did not return after the war. Clay is delighted to see Hank, but feels mixed emotions when he learns that Hank and Helen are married and moving west to start a ranch. Later, Helen, who waited two years before agreeing to marry Hank, slips out to meet Clay. Clay confides that he had always meant to return, but postponed it, due to his emotional state and injuries. Although Clay and Helen realize they are still in love, they agree not to hurt Hank by giving in to their feelings. Hank, who is aware that Helen married him on the rebound, feels jealousy toward Clay, despite his deep affection for him. The next day, the sheriff and deputy from a nearby town report to Clay that their bank was robbed. When the deputy identifies Hank as the robber, Clay arrests his friend, but insists that the sheriff get a warrant before taking him into custody. While the deputy remains in town, the sheriff proceeds to the county seat, a day and a half away, to procure a warrant, and Clay rides to another town to find a lawyer for Hank. Having stayed to keep watch over Hank, the deputy spends his time at Frenchy's saloon, gossiping about the robbery and about Clay's special treatment of his friend. When the deputy mentions the money, Frenchy listens attentively. With his mistress Kitty present, Frenchy loads a gun with damaged bullets, thus rendering it nonoperational, and orders Holman to the jail to talk to Hank. After Hank agrees to give Frenchy a percentage of the proceeds from the robbery in exchange for help in escaping, Holman leaves the gun for Hank. When Clay returns, Hank uses the gun to escape and knocks out Clay. However, when Hank goes outside to the street, Holman shoots him in the back. Upon regaining consciousness, Clay follows Hank, and when Carl sees Clay standing over Hank's body, he presumes that the marshal killed him. Clay finds part of the loot on Hank's body and hides it in the jail until he can determine what happened to the rest of it. Because the money appears to be missing, the townspeople come to believe that Clay killed Hank for it. Having found the defective bullets, Clay confronts Frenchy, whom he has guessed is involved, and threatens to have him hanged. However, at the inquest, the judge rules that Clay killed Hank under suspicious circumstances, but in the line of duty. Afterward, Clay tries to talk to Helen, but she believes that he killed her husband out of love for her and spurns him. She gives Hank's guns to Carl, who is increasingly enamored of her, and he begins practice using them. Carl demonstrates his prowess with a gun when a traveling salesman comes to town, touting a new kind of fast-shooting gun, the Wesley double-action revolver, which does not need to be cocked before each shot. In front of the crowd of townspeople, the barker asks Carl to compete with the "Colonel," a sharpshooter demonstrating the gun, by shooting at targets. At the signal, Carl draws his gun and outshoots the surprised Colonel. After the demonstration, Frenchy and Holman begin to cultivate Carl's friendship, turning him even more against Clay. As the young man grows more belligerent and aggressive, he tries to pick fights with Clay for killing Hank. Neither Carl, who is now referred to as "the loco kid," nor Clay, who has been nicknamed "Black Patch," are popular with the townspeople, and only Pedoline remains loyal to Clay. When a group confronts Clay to demand that Carl be run out of town or lynched, Clay refuses, and rumors of his cowardice are circulated by the gossips. After getting drunk, Carl and Holman shoot off their guns in the street, breaking windows. Clay arrests them, and when he releases them the next day, Carl taunts him as being a "backshooter." Helen is packing to leave and, realizing the trouble the guns have caused, asks Carl to give them back. Admitting that he overheard her talking to Clay the night she arrived in town, Carl naïvely accuses her of making a fool out of him and having secret plans to leave town with Clay, which causes her to realize that Carl is infatuated with her. When Holman tells Frenchy that Carl is in love with Helen, the two contrive to maneuver Carl into killing Clay. Kitty overhears them, and after Frenchy beats her up, she takes revenge by telling Helen about Frenchy's plans. Carl, encouraged by Frenchy, goes to Clay's house and challenges him to a shootout. Clay meets him on the street and outdraws him, but does not shoot, risking his life on his belief that Carl will not kill him. Carl is shocked that although Clay outdrew him, he refrained from killing him. During that moment of stalemate, Helen arrives and reports what Kitty told her. Reunited, Clay and Carl proceed to the saloon, intending to arrest Frenchy and Holman, and Helen makes herself at home in Clay's house.
George Montgomery Productions, Inc.
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Black and White