A rancher, C. Palmer, wires for Paladin to come for a job. When Paladin rides up to the house, a man aims a gun at Paladin from inside a doorway and orders the gunslinger inside. The badman, a younger man, is wearing a fancy Western outfit and even Paladin is impressed. However, an older woman storms up and tells the gunman, Travis, to put down his gun and stop fooling around. The young man complains that his Aunt Cynthia should call him Laredo, and he fumbles his gun and shoots out a lamp. Paladin quickly takes the gun away from Travis and while Ruth insists that her nephew's name is Travis and that's what she's going to call him.
Once Travis goes outside, Paladin laughs and Ruth explains that Travis was a teacher at a woman's seminary school back East. He spent most of his time reading penny-dreadfuls and fancies himself a badman. Ruth gets down to business and explains that she's C. Palmer and that she runs the ranch. She ships her cattle to nearby Cedar Wells but the town is filled with criminals and outlaws. Last year she lost nine of her men to Indians, gamblers, and drunkenness, and the citizens have run out any lawman that tried to civilize the place. She's hired a man, Bart Reynolds, to take over as sheriff but hasn't heard from him. Ruth offers Paladin $1,000 to go to Cedar Wells and make sure that Bart keeps the job until her herd arrives. Paladin accepts but Ruth has one more condition: she wants Paladin to take Travis with him and put him on a train back East. He refuses and she offers him $200, and Paladin finally agrees but only for what he says are humanitarian reasons. He also insists that Travis leave his gun behind.
Paladin and Travis ride for Cedar Wells. As they take a break, Travis explains that he always dreamed of being something more than a teacher, but admits that he's realized that he'll never be man enough to become a gunfighter. What he really wants is to teach literature and make it come alive in the minds of his students, and have a day when people thought he was somebody who mattered. Paladin admits that it's an admirable goal and they mount up again.
When the two men arrive at the stagecoach station, the agent tells them that the stage will be late because the local head outlaw, Amos Saint, has been shooting them up. A bruised Bart is waiting for the next stage and Paladin asks him what happened. Bart tells him to tell Cynthia that he's not taking the sheriff's job and that the townspeople are too cocky to be afraid of anything. Paladin gets an idea and tells Travis that he was convincing when he held the gun on Paladin back at the ranch. Travis is hesitant when he realizes what Paladin wants, but Paladin takes Bart's gun and tells Travis that now is the day he wanted where he'd be somebody who mattered.
Paladin rides into Cedar Wells on his own but no one pays attention to him. He pulls out his gun and starts shooting up the place, yelling and acting drunk. Ezra Heath, the local mortician, runs out to see if he has any new business, but then sees Paladin and dismisses him as just another rowdy cowboy. When he tells Paladin to keep it quiet so they can play blackjack, Paladin shoots out the mortician's sign. Ezra warns him that if Paladin persists then he'll have to answer to Amos Saint, who runs the town. However, Paladin says that he's with the Laredo Perkins gang and that he rode in ahead.
As he walks over to the saloon, Paladin confronts two of Amos' men and decks them. Impressed, an intimidated Ezra starts making up stories about the Laredo Gang while Paladin grabs a saloon girl and orders everyone to drink up. The owner comes downstairs with the two men from outside and Paladin breaks a bottle over his head and takes down his henchmen.
Once Paladin has spread the tale of Laredo Perkins, Travis manages to ride into town. When Ezra spots him riding down the street, he yells a warning and Paladin orders everyone out to welcome his boss. As Travis rides off, the townspeople beg him not to bring the rest of his gang into town. Travis just manages to dismount from his horse without breaking his neck and Paladin, watching from inside, sighs with relief.
Travis walks around the town making an impression while Ezra meets with the hotel clerk. Paladin overhears them as they discuss hiring him to kill Travis. The gunslinger refuses, insisting Travis is too tough for him, but figures that Bart can handle him. Ezra grabs onto the idea and goes to get Paladin's horse so he can go to the station and bring Bart back.
On the street, a young boy named Ted talks to Travis and is eager to learn how many people he's killed. The schoolteacher, Ruth, comes out and tells Ted to come inside for school. She confronts Travis and tells him that he's a depraved killer. When she complains about how it's the criminal element that means the town has a half-dozen saloons but only one run-down schoolhouse, Travis gets an idea of his own. Ted asks Travis if he's going to gun down the schoolteacher, but Travis tells the boy to get all of the townspeople to school with paint and tools. As Ted runs off, Travis turns back to Ruth and starts talking about his theory of teaching students by appealing to their imagination.
Fearing for their lives, the townspeople go to work on the school and wait for Paladin to bring Bart back so he'll kill Travis for them. Meanwhile, Ruth shows Travis her copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, the only set in the territory. Travis receives and Ruth stares at him in admiration, admitting that he would be a great teacher if he wasn't so vicious and depraved.
Amos and his two men ride into town and the townspeople call Travis out and then hide. Ezra points out Travis to Amos and explains that he's the newest outlaw leader in town. However, Amos doesn't back down and insists on shooting it out, willing to die rather than look like a coward. Travis refuses and Amos finally walks over to him, takes his gun, and discovers that there's no firing pin.
As Amos prepares to kill Travis, Paladin and Bart ride up and open fire. Amos' men go down and the outlaw leader grabs Ruth and Travis and takes them into the schoolhouse. Paladin has Bart provide cover fire while he climbs up to the second floor and climbs in through the window. Meanwhile, Amos tries to shove the shelf with the copies of Shakespeare to block the window and Travis finally has enough. He tries to stop Amos but the outlaw clubs him down. However, Paladin is able to drop down and shoot Amos dead, while Ruth runs to Travis and makes sure that he's okay.
Later, Paladin tells Travis that it's time to catch the train back East. Ruth, who still doesn't know who Travis really is, insists that he's changed his ways and tells him that he will never wear a gun again. She insists that Travis will help rebuild the school and become a teacher, and Travis is more than willing to agree. The schoolteacher orders Paladin out and he plays along, warning them that Travis will never reform. The gunslinger rides out, leaving Bart in charge of the now-settled town.