Howard Kemp (Stewart), an embittered former rancher, is now a bounty hunter chasing Ben Vandegroat (Ryan), a fugitive wanted for murder in Abilene. He meets a prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), who assumes Kemp is a lawman and guides him to where Kemp saw some tracks. They trap Vandegroat on top of a hill but can't get at him, not until they run across a disgraced Army lieutenant, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), who also agrees to help.
The three of them catch Vandegroat but find out in the process that he is travelling with a very good-looking young woman, Lina Patch (Leigh), whose late father was Vandegroat's best friend. Tate and Anderson get a second surprise when they find out that Kemp isn't a lawman but instead is a bounty hunter; they promptly demand a three-way split of the $5000 reward. The five of them then start a tense trip back to Abilene, with Vandegroat playing the other three men off against each other as the three men clash over both the reward and possession of Lina.
- Anti-Hero: Howie Kemp.
- Bittersweet Ending: After Lina begs Howie not to carry Ben's corpse back to Abilene, Howie starts to bury the body, and thus loses his chance to get the reward and buy back his ranch. But Lina says she'll marry him, and they elect to go off to California together.
- Bounty Hunter: Howie wants the $5000 reward so he can buy back his ranch, which his faithless girlfriend sold off while Howie was away fighting in The American Civil War. He's not very happy when Ben reveals he's a bounty hunter and Tate and Anderson both demand a share.
- Comforting Comforter: Howie tucks Lina in.
- Disney Villain Death: Ben is shot by Anderson, whereupon he falls off the bluff into the river.
- Faux Affably Evil: Ben is chipper and upbeat for almost the entire movie, which makes the psychological games he plays with the other three men more effective. He reveals his true colors when he suggests killing Kemp and when he shoots Tate in cold blood.
- Feet-First Introduction: Doubling as a visual Title Drop in the first shot of the movie, a close-up of Howie's booted, spurred foot.
- HeelFace Turn: Lina saves Howie's life by knocking Ben's gun away as Ben is squeezing the trigger.
- Hollywood Healing: The bullet in the leg that Howie gets while fighting Indians is played as an aversion of sorts—Howie is badly hobbled, grows faint with blood loss, gets feverish—but by the end it's played straight, when he's running around and climbing rocks to get Ben.
- Manipulative Bastard: Ben plays Kemp, Tate, and Anderson off against each other throughout the movie, eventually convincing Tate to free him in exchange for the location of Ben's gold mine.
- Minimalist Cast: The five characters listed in the introduction are the only speaking parts in the movie, and in fact are the only actors that appear in the movie at all, except for the scene where they're attacked by Indians.
- Prospector: Tate has never found any gold, and he's bitter about it.
- The Smurfette Principle: Lina is the only woman in their odd little group. Kemp and Anderson are both attracted to her, and Ben uses this to his advantage.
- "Wanted!" Poster: Howie carries Ben's. He's careful to rip off the bottom part that mentions the reward, but Ben has a copy too, and shows it to Anderson and Tate to prove that Howie is a bounty hunter and not a lawman.