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A census taker (James MacArthur) arrives in the Texas town of Cold Iron, with a population of 789. He goes into the local bar for a cold beer, and tells the bartender the town has an unusual number of citizens named "Jonas" and "Reprisal." He observes a painting above the bar of a violent street fight. He is then told of the events behind the fight involving a buffalo hunter and gunman named Jonas Trapp and the night the local Mexicans still call "The Night of Reprisals".In flashback, we learn that Jonas Trapp is a poor cowboy in love with a wealthy woman named Jessie Larkin. They intend to marry despite the objections of her aunt (Gloria Grahame). The aunt sees Jonas as a man of no prospects and prefers she marry someone more substantial.To gain the aunt's permission, Jessie pretends to be pregnant. Jonas marries her, but quickly tires of his dull life in town. He heads for the hills without her to become a buffalo hunter, hoping to amass enough money to give Jessie the life he feels she deserves - without her aunt's involvement.Jonas is gone for more than 10 years. He amasses a small fortune of his own and a reputation as a dangerous gunman who once fought Clay Allison and walked away. He decides it is finally time to return home. On the trail, Jonas stumbles over the campfire of an obvious rustler and is ambushed by three men: Brooks Durham, the local banker; John "Johnsey Boy" Hood, a sadistic young hustler with a love only of fine clothes and himself; and Coates, a notorious drunk. They accuse him of being the rustler and, despite his denials, beat him, take his money, then brand him with a running iron and leave him for dead.A farmer named Hanley finds Jonas and helps nurse him to health. Trapp, learning that his money has been stolen, is consumed by a desire for revenge and heads back for Cold Iron, where he learns from his father that Jessie's aunt has died and his wife is now engaged to another man - Brooks Durham. When Jessie encounters him on the street, she doesn't recognize him. She thinks he's just another "filthy, smelly animal" and runs away.In the course of his remaining in town, Jonas continues hunting for the men who branded him. He takes "Johnsey-Boy" Hood on his way back from romancing the lonely wife of a local farmer in hopes of cheating her out of some money. Under the threat of being "branded and gelded" by Jonas, Hood's sanity cracks. He grabs the hot iron and rams it repeatedly into his stomach as he runs screaming into the woods. He later commits suicide.Jonas also encounters the saloon bouncer (Buddy Baer), a giant of a man whom Jonas had met the night before. He[clarification needed] doesn't like the town laughing at him and now wants the money for the bottle[clarification needed] Jonas took. The resulting fight is the subject of the painting we saw in the framing sequence, and the bouncer is nearly beaten to death. Only the arrival of Jonas' father stops the fight.Hanley is revealed as one of the rustlers involved with Coates. Coates kills Hanley when the old man denies having Jonas' money. Coates reasons that Durham must have it and tries a little blackmail. Durham threatens to kill Coates, but the alcoholic Coates is beyond reasoning. Jonas runs into Durham on the street, the last man on his list, but both are ambushed by Coates, who is on a drunken rampage. Coates is eventually beaten to a pulp by Jonas, then killed when he tries for his gun. That act of violence apparently takes the thirst for revenge out of Jonas and he leaves his now-empty forty-five behind on the bar.When Durham finally confesses to the town what he and the other did to Jonas and that he took the money, Jonas can only knock him down in disgust and walk away. He leaves the cash - and his need for revenge - behind.The flashback ends with Jonas mounted up and on his way out of town. His invitation to Jessie to go with him ends with her standing in the street as she watches him ride off.The film ends with the bartender showing off the pistol Jonas left behind. He and the census taker wonder if Jessie left with Jonas. The bartender wants to believe she did, but the census taker says she probably didn't, echoing the film's song, says "You can never go home again."