In his saloon in the town of Vinegaroon, Texas Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan) holds court and proclaims himself the only law west of the Pecos. When Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) is brought before him for judgment on a horse stealing charge it appears that the good-natured drifter will be hanged by the judge. When Cole notices the many images of the famed performer Lilly Langtry around the saloon he begins spinning a tale of his friendship with the woman, intriguing the judge and causing a suspended sentence to be handed down on the agreement t that Cole will give the judge a lock of the womans hair that he has hidden in El Paso. The judge develops a strange admiration for Cole and the men become friendly until a local homesteader Jane Ellen Mathews (Doris Davenport) comes to the judge to complain of his hanging one of her hands. It seems the aggression between the cattlemen, which Judge Ben supports, and the homesteaders is bubbling over and Jane and her father who have a small farm are being pushed out. When Bean initiates a fire that destroys Janes farm and kills her father Cole gets an arrest warrant and has himself deputized to arrest the judge, but a shoot-out erupts ending in tragedy.