Sheriff J.P. Harrah comes into the town of El Dorado to talk to his old friend, gun-for-hire Cole Thornton, who has just arrived in response to a mysterious job offer from wealthy landowner Bart Jason. Harrah reveals to Thornton that Jason is actually trying to muscle the honest MacDonald Family off their land. Thornton agrees to turn down the job and rides out to Jason's ranch to tell him so.
Kevin MacDonald and his family hear about Thornton's arrival, and fear the worst. The youngest son, Luke, is made sentry, but falls asleep on his post. As Thornton returns from his confrontation with Jason, Luke is startled awake and fires. Thornton reflexively fires back and wounds Luke in the stomach, and Luke commits suicide before Thornton can stop him, believing his wound fatal. Feeling guilty, Thornton brings the body to the farmhouse and tells Kevin what happened. The only daughter of the MacDonald clan, Joey, rides off before she can hear the truth, and shoots Thornton on his way back to town. Thornton survives, but the bullet has lodged against his spine. Local medic Doc Miller doesn't have the skill to remove it, so Thornton departs after healing, despite the protests of local saloon owner Maudie, who has feelings for him. Over time, the bullet in his back presses against his spine, causing bouts of temporary paralysis in his right side.
Six months later, Thornton is in a saloon out of town, having avoided El Dorado. He witnesses a naive young man, "Mississippi" Traherne, confronting and killing Charlie Hagin, who killed Mississippi's foster father. Thornton steps in to save Mississippi from retaliation from Charlie's friends, and Charlie's employer, famed gunslinger Nelse McLeod, is impressed. He offers Thornton a job in El Dorado, revealing that he has accepted Bart Jason's job offer and that Harrah became a drunk after a girl ran out on him.
Thornton refuses McCleod, and he and Mississippi return to El Dorado ahead of McLeod. They meet with Maudie and Harrah's deputy, Bull, who confirm Nelse's story. After a fist fight with the drunken Harrah, Thornton agrees to use a sobering concoction made by Mississippi to bring Harrah around, with violently effective results. Harrah, ashamed of the laughingstock he's become, agrees to stay sober.
After three men shoot one of the MacDonald's, Thornton, Bull, Mississippi and Harrah hunt the men into an old church and gun them down. One man escapes, leading them straight to Jason, whom Harrah arrests and holds for trial. Mississippi stops Joey from killing Jason on the walk back to the jail, and the two begin a relationship.
Bull officially deputizes Mississippi and Thornton. They patrol the town to keep the peace, stopping an attempted attack by McLeod's gang on the jail, during which Harrah is hobbled by a bullet to the leg. Maudie brings them some supplies while they are holed up in the jail, whereupon McLeod's men start harassing her and her patrons. Thornton and Mississippi go to rescue them, but Thornton suffers an attack of paralysis and is captured by McLeod. Harrah agrees to trade Jason for Thornton and leave town, despite Thornton's protests.
Jason and McLeod's men kidnap Saul MacDonald and demand that Kevin turn over his water rights for the return of his son. Rightly suspecting Jason will kill both Saul and Kevin once he has the water rights, Thornton rides a wagon up to the front door of Jason's saloon while Harrah, Bull, and Mississippi sneak in the back. Once Bull gives a signal, Thornton opens fire, killing McLeod, while the rest free Saul. Joey takes out Jason personally, saving Thornton from being shot and making amends for her previous mistake. Doc Miller's new assistant, Dr. Donovan, agrees to operate on Thornton if he stays in town, and Thornton implies he may give up wandering to stay with Maudie.
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