Heath (Lee Majors) and Nick (Peter Breck) separate after an afternoon fixing fences on a remote part of the Barkley ranch. Heath rides on to inspect more fence. Soon, four men with guns approach. Heath assumes they mean to rob him but Hemit (Charles Tyner), the patriarchal leader of the group, says: "On the morrow you'll stand before a tribunal of my people to be tried on a charge of murder."
Heath protests but is knocked senseless from behind by a tall man named Cyrus (Richard Peabody). Cyrus continues to beat and kick the fallen Heath until Hemit says: "Enough! He'll be punished properly at the trial." The men sling the unconscious Heath over his horse and ride off with their captive.
That night, at the ranch, Victoria Barkley (Barbara Stanwyck) tires of holding dinner for Heath so Nick tells her he's probably decided to spend the night in the line-shack.
Meanwhile, Hemit and his men arrive at their camp with Heath still slung over his horse. A young woman named Bettina (Quentin Dean) approaches Heath, who remains unconscious, and calls him "Pig!" Then she slaps him and demands: "Kill him! Kill him right now!" Hemit tells her justice will be done in the morning. Some men now pull Heath from his horse and dump him on the ground, jolting him back to consciousness. Next, they stand him up and frisk him. Cyrus finds a coin on a chain around Heath's neck and yanks it off. A man named Benjamin (Timothy Scott) pulls a wallet from Heath's shirt which yields twenty dollars. Cyrus grabs the money and Bettina takes from the wallet a photograph showing Heath standing next to Audra (Linda Evans) and other members of the Barkley clan. Heath is then thust into a wooden cage where he lands, face down, in the dirt. Bettina brings a plate of stew, turns it over, and splatters its contents onto the ground next to Heath. This prompts a round of laughter.
In the morning two men remove Heath from his cage and tie his hands behind his back. Heath now faces Hemit and an assemblage of his followers. Hemit says: "This court has been convened, Heath Barkley, to judge you on a charge of murder. Have you anything to say before judgment is passed?" Heath points out that if he's suspected of murder, he should be turned over to the local sheriff. Hemit counters: "You killed one of our people. Therefore you shall be tried by our laws." Hemit goes on to accuse Heath of shooting Bettina's husband, Joshua, back on the night of March 3, 1872, on a road near White Springs. Heath admits being in the vicinity on that night and recalls shooting at a man trying to steal his horse but didn't know if he hit him. Hemit says the bullet hit Joshua in the back where it festered for five years before finally killing him just five days ago.
Heath asserts he was simply defending himself and his property but Hemit's followers don't believe him and find him guilty. "You can't kill me for something I didn't do," Heath protests. Hemit tells him he won't be killed but rather be required to replace the life he took. Since Joshua's widow has been left without support and provision, Heath must now serve her as directed for the rest of his life.
Bettina speaks up. "I need wood for my fire," she says. "It gets cold at night and I like a nice big fire."
Later that day a shirtless Heath sweats and strains to load heavy pieces of firewood into the back of a wagon, guarded by one of Hemit's men. Bettina watches from a distance, intrigued by the sight of Heath's muscular torso. She then takes out the Barkley photograph and tears parts away so that only Heath and Audra remain.
Back on the Barkley ranch, Jarrod (Richard Long) and Nick find the fence where Heath had been working. They're puzzled by what seems to have been his abrupt departure.
That night, Cyrus tells Heath he'll be expected to carry up all the camp's water from a nearby lake. After putting Heath back in his cage, Cyrus gives him a plate of food brought over by Bettina. Heath knocks the food into Cyrus' face, prompting Cyrus to step back and aim a gun at Heath's head. Bettina pushes down on the barrel of the gun, saying to Cyrus: "Don't kill him! You'd be doing him a favor!" Cyrus regains control of his temper and says to Bettina: "You know I have a feeling for you, don't you?" Bettina tries to discourage Cyrus by walking away.
The next day, guarded by Cyrus and a man named David (Tom Pittman), Heath labors to fill barrels with buckets of water taken from a lake. David notices Bettina watching Heath. He says to Cyrus: "I reckon her seeing him work like that kind of satisfies the hate she's got for him." Cyrus retorts: "Just so it don't satisfy her too much."
That evening in the camp, Bettina gives Heath a plate of food which he rejects, saying he's hoping for something more "digestible." This displeases Bettina but later that night she comes to Heath's cage and gives him some better food. Then she asks what he finds attractive in women. "I might be able to give you a better answer," he tells her, "if you'd clean yourself up and start looking the way a woman should." Insulted, Bettina returns to her wagon, looks in a mirror, and studies that scrap of photograph showing Heath and Audra.
Heath resumes drawing water from the lake on the following morning, guarded by David who becomes distracted when he spots Bettina lurking in some bushes. Heath, taking advantage of this distraction, knocks out David and flees on foot, ignoring Bettina who rushes from the bushes shouting a threat that Hemit will find him and bring him back. "And you'll be sorry!" she calls after him.
Hemit and Cyrus soon arrive on horseback. Bettina tells them Heath has fled. The two pursuers split up to cover more territory. Heath, hiding in a tree, jumps down on Cyrus, knocking him from his horse. They fight and Heath succeeds in leveling his opponent. Before he can escape on Cyrus' horse, however, Hemit comes into view with his gun aimed to fire. "Heath Barkley!" Hemit calls out. "You move one step closer to that horse and I'll be forced to blow your brains out!"
Heath, stripped of his shirt, now stands with outstretched arms tied to a T-shaped post in the middle of Hemit's camp. Cyrus stands behind him with a whip, lashing him across the back while Bettina and the rest of Hemit's followers look on. Heath absorbs the blows without crying out but Bettina winces each time the whip cuts into his flesh. "Enough," Hemit says, putting an end to the punishment. "Temper justice with mercy, Cyrus." Hemit orders Heath cut free. Then, as a sweaty and weakened Heath holds onto the post for support, Hemit tells him: "I hope by now that you have learned the hopelessness of trying to escape, for the next time your punishment will not be so simple."
Heath asks Hemit if a way might be found to relieve his family of the worries they must be feeling. "It would weigh heavy on my conscience," Hemit concedes, "if others suffered because of your sin." He asks if Heath has anything recognizable by his family and Heath mentions the coin on a chain taken by Cyrus. Hemit orders Cyrus to hand over the coin, saying: "I will consider the matter." Hemit then orders Cyrus to get Heath working again, despite his just-completed flogging, and Cyrus leads off the still-shirtless Heath so he can haul more water.
That night at the Barkley ranch, where Victoria has grown increasingly distraught about Heath's disappearance, a rock comes crashing through a window. Jarrod and Nick rush over to the rock which has Heath's coin and a note attached to it. Nick reads aloud from the note: "You would do well to put Heath Barkley from your memory. He is as a dead man."
Having "delivered" the rock, Cyrus and Benjamin decide to pay a visit to the nearby town of Stockton.
Meanwhile at the camp, Bettina pays a late-night call on Heath in his cage, telling him she's taken a bath and washed and combed her hair. "Do you like me as a woman?" she asks. He replies: "There's a lot more goes into being a woman than just taking a bath and combing her hair." Bettina tells him she never loved her husband and thought all men were like him but now she's not sure. She then leans through the bars of the cage and kisses Heath but when he does not respond, she angrily says she doesn't want his pity and storms off.
In the morning Hemit prepares to go into Stockton, having learned from Benjamin that Cyrus got drunk the night before and wound up in jail. Before he leaves, Hemit informs Bettina of his decision to marry her to Cyrus on the following day. "As you wish," Bettina sullenly replies. Then she asks if she may accompany Hemit into Stockton so she can buy cloth for her wedding dress. He agrees.
In Stockton, while Hemit bails Cyrus out of jail, Bettina shops in a general store, delighted by all the pretty things she sees. She admires a bottle of perfume. She then confides to the saleslady (Amanda Harley) that she needs cloth for a dress like the one worn by Audra in the scrap of photograph which she's brought with her. An impatient Hemit now comes into the store, sees the photo, and declares Audra's dress a dress for a scarlet woman. He then picks out a plain dress, thrusts it at Bettina, and orders her not to tarry. Bettina pays for the plain dress and the bottle of perfume and hurries out of the store after Hemit. The saleslady looks again at the scrap of photograph which Bettina has left behind.
At the Barkley ranch, Victoria now examines the same scrap. She, Jarrod, and Nick agree it must have come from the photograph which Heath kept in his wallet. Jarrod asks the Sheriff (Douglas Kennedy) where Hemit's followers may be found and the Sheriff suggests they'd probably be camped by a lake. Jarrod, Nick, and the Sheriff then prepare to search around various lakes.
At Hemit's camp that night, Bettina puts off Cyrus by telling him she's tired. Then she dons perfume and sneaks from her wagon to visit Heath in his cage. When he reminds her she's to wed Cyrus in the morning, she tells him that won't happen if she's no longer here. She also tells him she knows how to get the key to the cage's padlock. Heartened by the thought of escaping, Heath promises to help Bettina get a new start and to protect her from Hemit and his followers but he makes clear he's not part of the bargain. Bettina accepts this arrangement.
Bettina then unlocks the cage, frees Heath, and quietly leads him to a pair of horses. Two dogs bark, waking Hemit, Cyrus, and other men. As Heath helps Bettina mount her horse, some of these men fire their guns and a bullet hits Bettina in the back.
Heath lays her on the ground. With her dying breath, Bettina tells him how pretty her wedding dress would have been.
Hemit and the other men approach, troubled by what's just happened. Cyrus aims his gun at Heath and exclaims: "It's his fault she's dead!"
Jarrod, Nick, and their band of searchers ride into the camp at this point. Nick dismounts, walks up to Heath, and asks: "You all right?" Heath replies: "I'm all right."
Hemit now surmises that Heath was helping Bettina to escape. He goes on to charge that Heath had corrupted Bettina's mind. Heath says: "I just gave her a chance to see herself as she could be." He then suggests: "Bettina wasn't trying to free me as much as she was trying to free herself."
Heath then tells Hemit the Sheriff must be informed of events in the camp. Hemit acknowledges this reality and then sadly watches as Heath rides off with his rescuers, passing by the wooden cage which had once held him prisoner.