A former Confederate soldier, John Chandler (Alan Ladd) has come to an Illinois town with his 10-year-old son David (David Ladd) to see Dr. Enos Davis (Cecil Kellaway). The boy was struck mute after witnessing his mother's death in a fire, and hasn't spoken a word since. Dr. Davis recommends an operation by a doctor he knows in Minnesota.
With a flock of sheep blocking their path, John has their expertly trained dog Lance clear the way. The sheep belong to rancher Harry Burleigh (Dean Jagger) and his sons, Jeb (Harry Dean Stanton) and Tom (Tom Pittman), who try to steal the dog. John fights them while a passing stranger, Linnett Moore (Olivia de Havilland), holds the child. Harry knocks out John, pours whiskey on him, then tells the sheriff about being attacked by a drunk.
John must pay $30 or serve 30 days in jail. Linnett intervenes, suggesting to the sheriff, that Chandler can work off the debt on her farm. In exchange she offers to cover the fine, so that he will be released. Chandler disagrees at first, but is won over by her decency. Over the course of time, he discovers that Linnett is being pressured by the overbearing Burleigh to sell her land. It transpires that her land is blocking the easy passage of his sheep to pasture and the railroad. Gradually, John and Linnett grow closer, despite John determined to remain aloof, knowing he and his son will leave soon.
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