Paladin is in the lobby of the Carlton going through ads, and finds one from a Colonel H.P. Lathrop. Lathrop is looking for a man who matches Paladin's personality and abilities almost exactly, and says that anyone interested should contact him at River Acres in Sacramento, CA. Paladin clips out the ads and sends it to Lathrop along with his card.
When Paladin travels to the River Acres estate, the maid, Tuolumne O'Toole, lets him in. While they wait for Colonel Lathrop, Tuolumne explains that her name is Cherokee from her mother's side, and her father was an Irish railroad worker. Lathrop comes in and Paladin wonders how the colonel knows so much about him and what he wants done. The man avoids his questions while his wife Martha comes in. She introduces herself briefly to Paladin and then begs off, saying that she has to tend a sick local boy, Pablo.
Paladin tries to get down to business but Lathrop instead talks about his family's distinguished military background. The colonel finally says that they'll talk about it that night after dinner and has Tuolumne show Paladin to the guest room. That night after the meal, Paladin has tea with Lathrop and Martha and the colonel finally tells Paladin that he wants to hire him to find a woman, Gloria Morgan. She was the queen of the tenderloin district in the town of Lodestar, AZ, until the settler boom went bust. She disappeared since then and Lathrop claims that he wants information on her for a book of the history of the West that he's writing.
Martha is clearly upset when Lathrop describes Gloria in glowing terms. Seemingly satisfied, Lathrop takes Paladin to his study and shows him clippings of Gloria. Paladin notes that there are no pictures of the woman, and Lathrop tells the gunfighter that he wants him to find out if Gloria is still alive and where she is. He claims that his physical condition due to injuries in the Civil War preclude him from travelling, and admits that Paladin is the second man he hired. When Paladin wonders what happened to the first one, Lathrop tells him that the man never returned and Paladin doubles his standard fee.
Paladin goes to his room and finds Tuolumne waiting for him. She claims that Lodestar is dangerous but Paladin isn't impressed by her attempts to scare him away. He wonders what is going on and Tuolumne says that Lathrop is a monster that enjoys torturing others. Lathrop deliberately waited until after supper when Martha was present to describe Gloria to Paladin, and takes pleasure from her suffering. Tuolumne believes that Lathrop will have Gloria brought to River Acres and use her presence to torment his wife further. Paladin points out that he was only hired to confirm Gloria's existence and what happens afterwards isn't his concern. Tuolumne draws her knife and promises to kill him if he comes back. Paladin easily disarms her, gives her a kiss, and shoves her out of the room.
After taking the job, Paladin rides to Lodestar and goes to the local hotel. The clerk tells Paladin that they have plenty of rooms. However, when Paladin asks about Gloria, the clerk goes silent and a man standing nearby, Steve, tells the clerk that they're booked up. The clerk hastily agrees, saying that they have a group of herders coming in. Paladin is clearly unconvinced and Steve starts to draw his gun. The gunfighter disarms him and tells the clerk to give him a room. Once he has the key, Paladin tosses Steve his gun back and goes upstairs. As he checks his gun, Steve tells the clerk to tell Clay Sommers that they've got trouble.
Paladin goes to the town saloon, walking past a saloon girl drinking alone at a table. The bartender knows about Paladin and tells him that they've got no alcohol whatsoever. Paladin grabs a bottle from around the table and says that Gloria is no lady. The bartender tells him to get out of town, but Paladin ignores him and sits down with the saloon girl, Mazie. She eagerly accepts a drink and starts talking about Gloria, saying that she was better looking and could hold her alcohol better than her rival. Paladin wonders where he can find Gloria and Mazie tells him that the saloon owner, Clay, knows but won't tell. She then suggests Paladin talk to Gloria's best friend, Lulu, who is a laundress when she became too old to work as a saloon girl.
Before Mazie can say anything else, Clay comes out of his office and tells Mazie to leave. She quickly scurries out and Paladin tries to talk to the owner. Clay calls the bartender over and the man attacks Paladin with a keg hammer. Paladin easily disarms him and tries to get answers from Clay, but the owner ignores him and goes into his office.
Following Mazie's advice, Paladin goes to see Lulu. He pays her a dollar to wash his shirt and compliments her on her skill as a laundress. He then turns the conversation to Gloria, repeating his technique of saying she was no lady. Lulu come to her friend's defence, insisting Gloria was a saint. Before she can provide details, Clay arrives and shoots the shirt out of Paladin's hands. Lulu hits Paladin with her washtub and pours water on him, and Clay enters the yard with Steve and the bartender. They take Paladin's revolver, escort him to his horse, and tell him to ride out of Lodestar and keep riding. Paladin reluctantly rides out of town, none the wiser.
That night, Paladin rides back into Lodestar and takes out his derringer. He goes into the saloon and wounds the bartender in the shoulder when the man tries to attack him. Paladin then shoves Clay into his office, recovering his revolver, and sees a picture of Gloria on the desk. He recognizes the woman and wonders why everyone in town is so loyal to Gloria when she was nothing but trash. Clay flies into a rage and tires to attack him, but Paladin slams him in his chair and tells him to start talking. The saloon owner explains that he was in love with Gloria but another man felt the same. They held a gunfight to see who would earn the chance to marry her and Clay lost. The other man was wounded as well, and when they both recovered, Gloria told them that she wasn't in love with either one of them. Rather than cause more trouble, Gloria left town.
Paladin convinces Clay of his intentions and the owner sends a message to Steve. The gunfighter meets Steve at the hotel and the man, following Clay's advice, tells Paladin that he was the other man and describes Gloria.
Once he has what he needs, Paladin rides back to River Acres. Tuolumne meets him at the door and Paladin assures her that he isn't there to hurt Martha. Lathrop brings Paladin into his study with Martha and tells the gunfighter to make his report. Paladin tells them that the important thing is to understand what Gloria was like in Lodestar. A man brought her there as a teenager under false pretences, claiming that he was going to marry her. He abandoned her instead and she got a job as a saloon girl. Lathrop notices his wife's reluctance and eagerly tells Paladin to continue. The gunfighter tells them that when there was a cholera outbreak in Lodestar, there were no nurses or doctors. Gloria stepped in to administer the sick despite the risk, proving that she was a fine woman.
Noticing the last comment was directed to his wife, Lathrop tells Paladin to continue. Paladin says that Gloria finally saved enough money as a saloon girl to travel to San Francisco and train as a nurse. He hesitates to continue but Martha tells him to go on. Paladin then says that she took on a new name to escape her past and married a man. However, someone sent Gloria's husband a poison pen letter revealing Gloria's disreputable past. Her husband, offended and humiliated, tries to get revenge by hiring a third party to find out the truth about Gloria and report back to him... and Martha.
Lathrop, having heard enough, and tells Paladin to shut up. Refusing, Paladin says that Gloria would have told her husband everything if she had asked for her story. Martha agrees and tells Paladin to continue, overriding her husband. Paladin says that Gloria Morgan is dead, but she lives in the memories of those in Lodestar who loved her. Realizing who his wife really is for the first time, Lathrop tells Martha that he believes it all and goes to embrace her.
Paladin walks out and Tuolumne, who has heard everything, promises not to kill him ever again. When he asks her why she is so loyal to Martha, Tuolumne explains that when she was 14 she tried to work in the saloon in Lodestar. Gloria spanked her and told her never to come back there again. When Gloria moved to San Francisco, she took Tuolumne with her. Tuolumne admits that she's in love with Pablo's big brother. Paladin apologizes for kissing her earlier, and Tuolumne says that her boyfriend will get her third kiss... and then kisses Paladin again before running off.