It's a hot afternoon, and Paladin is trying to find the best trail to Santa Fe. He sees a purposeful-looking group of horsemen go thundering by. Sometime later, he comes across a campsite, where a hidden man rises and points a carbine at him. The man promptly switches tactics and becomes obsequiously friendly. Paladin clearly finds the man distasteful, but it's getting late, and there's no point in wasting an established campsite. The man unsaddles Paladin's horse--slipping a knife into the trappings as he does so.
Having shared a meal, they hear the horsemen approach. The man brings out a leather thong and begins wrapping it around his wrist. Oddly, Paladin does not notice this, although he's looking right at the man. The man then states that he killed a man and a woman earlier that day--that's why the horsemen are out. When Paladin gets up to greet the posse, the man ties his own hands behind himself, and bangs his head to create a small wound. He then leaps up and screams that Paladin is the man that they're after. Totally ignoring the fact that Paladin walked up to them openly and without fear, they swarm over Paladin and disarm him, one man, Curley, viciously striking him down in the progress.
Mr. and Mrs. Willis had been murdered in the course of a robbery--stabbed and then shot. Paladin's companion, Dobie O'Brien, claims that he witnessed Paladin killing them and went in pursuit, only to be captured himself. Although the posse had assumed that Dobie was the guilty party, they are more than happy to accept Dobie's version of events--all except the sheriff, who knows that there are always two sides to every story. Unfortunately, the sheriff is not strong enough to stand up to the others--they regard him with contempt, as being a man too weak or lazy to do a "real" job, instead settling for being a sheriff. McKay, the ringleader, makes a token bow to the Sheriff's authority--but only as long as the sheriff does just what he wants. They can't be bothered fussing with a formal trial--the cattle buyer is coming, and they've all got work to do.
Paladin listens to the proceedings with disgust, and makes no attempt to defend himself, despite the sheriff's pleadings--he knows that they're not prepared to listen--not just yet. The sheriff would listen--but he's not the man in charge. Curley is infuriated by Paladin's quietly contemptuous attitude, and Paladin narrowly escapes more abuse. A stray remark makes it clear to Paladin and the audience that this is not the first time Dobie has framed someone for murder.
Growing more impatient, the men set up the noose and place it around Paladin's neck. McKay tries to justify the way they are doing things--it's a rough, hard life out here, but they're good people, doing what needs to be done. Paladin remains quiet--no pleading, no begging. Impressed in spite of himself, McKay finally concedes that Paladin should have the chance to make a statement--and that they should listen. Paladin makes it clear that he thinks Dobie is the killer--although for some reason, he never mentions that Dobie actually confessed to him. Paladin's points are logical--would a man with a carefully crafted, well tended handgun carry a rusty old carbine? Would he stop for a leisurely meal and coffee while on the run? (He could also have asked why he would bother to capture Dobie instead of just killing him and continuing on his way.) He demands that they compare his saddle blanket with the sweat marks on the pinto horse--a horse that had been previously stolen. This would have proven that Paladin had been riding his own horse--but the men discover the knife that Dobie had planted. All listening stops. No matter that most men carry knives, no matter that Dobie had the chance to plant that knife. They hoist Paladin up on the horse.
No one notices Paladin wiggling the noose in front of his ears--perhaps they're ashamed to look at him. The noose pops off as the horse takes off, and Paladin, stretched horizontal over the horse's back, manages to keep from falling off. The truth abruptly comes out--but not from any reasoned discussion and observation of the facts. If Dobie had kept his mouth shut, Paladin would have been brought back to hang. Curley snatches up the old carbine to shoot at Paladin, and Dobie yells that there is a spring missing--the gun has to be cocked by hand. McKay grabs the gun from Curley and aims, but Curley, to his credit, realizes that the gun must belong to Dobie, and therefore....
Dobie digs up the stolen money, while Paladin is brought back. McKay orders him untied, and manages an apology of sorts. Paladin looks at him coldly. There's no mention of the other, probably innocent man that had been lynched at Dobie's instigation--which could have served to remind them of the need for properly administered justice. It's Dobie's turn at the noose, now, and he provides the ingredients for a good lynching--screaming and begging. Perhaps because he knows that Dobie is guilty, Paladin does not remain, although he does try to remind them of what they nearly did that day. As he rides off, a slap, a yell, and a running horse make it clear that the posse did not learn anything, and Paladin grimly continues on his way.