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The novel begins as two friends, Art and Gil, cross the eastern divide on their horses about two in the afternoon. They are headed to the town of Bridger's Wells, which they have visited several times in the past. Hoping to settle in the town, they are eager to arrive; therefore, they encourage their horses to go speedily. Upon arriving, they head to Canby's Saloon, the local meeting place. They are surprised to find the atmosphere in the bar quite serious; there is no laughter and no cracking of jokes, as is normally found.
Art and Gil soon learn that Bridger's Wells has been beset with the problems of cattle rustling. The locals in the bar are plotting to catch the thieves. Since Art and Gil are newcomers, there is even suspicion cast upon them. When Canby talks to Gil and offers him another drink, he is putting a stamp of approval on the newcomers. To prove that they have been accepted, the locals invite Gil and Art to a poker game. Even though Gil is winning at poker, he gets drunk and aggressive. When his game is interrupted with someone calling him a rustler, Gil gets into a fight. While they are fighting, a boy comes in to announce that Kinkaid has been murdered. Everyone assumes it was the work of the cattle rustlers. They are eager to pursue them, but they do not have guns. They are also afraid since they do not know how many cattle rustlers there are in the group.
Major Tetley arrives at Canby's Bar. He tells everyone that three men have entered Bridger's Pass with Drew's cattle. Since they are in a difficult spot, they should be easily caught. Tetley agrees to lead the posse to find them. He forces his son, Gerald, to go along, for he wants this sensitive boy to become a man. Art and Gil also join the posse, for they want to be accepted by the men in Bridger's Well. In the end, twenty-eight men ride out of town. As they travel, Gerald tells Art that men are worse than animals, for they are hungry for power and hunt their own kind. Art rejects his views and thinks that Gerald is just a young boy.
As the posse proceeds, the men see an approaching stagecoach. They scatter and try to stop the stage. Suddenly, Carnes, the guard on the stagecoach, aims at the nearest man, who is missed, but Art is wounded in the left shoulder by the bullet. The stagecoach, now at a full stop, is filled with passengers. Among them is Rose Mapen, who comes out of the coach with her husband, Swanson. They state that they have seen three men in a small ravine in Ox Bow Valley. The posse heads there.
Arriving in the valley, the members of the posse find three sleeping men. Nearby are fifty of Drew's cattle. When questioned about the cows, one of the rustlers, named Martin, says he has purchased the cattle, but he cannot produce a bill of sale from Drew. Then someone notices that another of the rustlers, Juan Morez, has Kinkaid's gun in his hands. The posse decides that it has enough evidence to convict and kill the three men. They will lynch them in the morning.
Martin, one of the rustlers condemned to die, writes a last letter to his wife and asks Davies to deliver it. Davies reads the letter, which is beautifully written, and then passes it around for everyone to see. When Martin finds out, he grows angry and creates a disturbance. During the argument between Martin and Davies, Juan, one of the rustlers, tries to escape, but is quickly caught. Major Tetley, now worried about the rustlers' escaping, order them hung immediately. He selects Farnley, Gabe, and Gerald to cut the horse to hang the men, but Gerald cannot do it. In the confusion, Martin is shot.
After the other rustlers have been lynched, the posse rides back towards town. On the way, they see Rancher Drew, Judge Tyler, and Sheriff Risley; with them is Kinkaid, who has been injured in the head, but has survived. The members of the posse are shocked to see him alive. Most of them agree to go with Risley in a new posse; the sheriff is anxious to catch Kinkaid's real attackers. Davies is in bad shape and later confesses to Art that he feels responsible for the killing of three men. Unable to face Martin's widow, Davies asks Drew to deliver her husband's letter to her.
To add to the tragedy of events, Gerald Tetley kills himself as promised. He had said if a lynching took place, he would take his own life. Hearing the news of his son's death and feeling like a failure, Major Tetley also commits suicide. Art and Gil are so upset by the events in Bridger's Wells that they plan to move on rather than settling down.