Set in New Mexico around the turn of the 20th century and told in flashback, the film tells the story of Jeb Rand (Mitchum), whose entire family was slaughtered when he was a child. In the aftermath of the massacre Jeb is found by Mrs Callum, a widow, who raises him in her family. Traumatised by the killings, Jeb does not recall anything of that night, except for vague images that he sees in a frequent nightmare. Mrs Callum raises him as her own son, together with her daughter Thor and her son Adam. Years later Jeb is shot at while riding a colt, but the shooter misses him; although Mrs Callum blames the incident on deer hunters she knows that it was an attempted murder by her brother-in-law Grant. She confronts Grant and it is revealed that there has been a long-standing feud between the Rands and the Callums. Jeb's father, with whom Mrs Callum was having an affair, took the life of her husband (Grant's brother) and, in an act of revenge, Grant killed Jeb's family. The night of the massacre, Grant's arm is so severely injured he eventually loses it. Mrs Callum pleads with her brother-in-law to leave Jeb alone, reasoning that he is not a threat to anyone. Grant agrees to let Jeb live, at least until he grows up, in order to prove to Mrs Callum that one day Jeb will turn on her.