In order to free his best friend Bondi, Jack Burns lets himself be imprisoned only to find out that Bondi does not want to escape. Thus Burns breaks out on his own and is afterwards being chased by sheriff Johnson with helicopters and jeeps.
The movie opens with modern day cowboy Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) stretched out beside a dying campfire at dawn, awakened by the roar of fighter jets above the vast, open scrublands of New Mexico. Burns is a cowboy ill at ease with the modern world of the early 1960s. He rolls his own smokes and cuts through fences when they block his path. He carries no ID, not even the requisite draft card. He is on a collision course with the world around him. His only constant companionship comes from Whiskey, his spirited and beloved buckskin mare.Burns rides into Duke City, New Mexico, crossing a busy highway atop his spooked horse and nearly getting killed in the process. He surprises Jerry Bondi (Gena Rowlands), the wife of his best friend, in her kitchen. Her husband Paul (Michael Kane) is in jail, having been sentenced to two years in prison for helping Mexican immigrants cross into the United States illegally. Burns wants to go see him, but Jerry explains that the next visiting opportunity is several days off. Burns divulges that he has been forced to herd sheep just to earn a living. He says he started for Duke City as soon as he learned of Paul's plight.Meanwhile, a long-distance truck driver (Carroll O'Connor) exits a diner in Joplin, Missouri and climbs into the cab of his vehicle, headed for Duke City. He is hauling a load of porcelain toilets in his tractor-trailer.Burns plans to go into town, get drunk, and somehow get thrown in jail in order to see his friend. He finds a Mexican bar and heads for a back table with his beer and a whiskey chaser. On the way to his table, he trips over the intentionally outstretched foot of a one-armed man (Bill Raisch). Burns starts to complain, then notices the man's missing arm and apologizes. Burns sits down, drains a glass of whiskey, and starts nursing his beer, but the one-armed man suddenly throws a whiskey bottle across the room, smashing it against Burns' table. Burns calmly tells the man to watch himself and returns to his beer. The man then throws his whiskey glass at Burns. Burns once again tries to avoid a confrontation, but the man gets up from his table and approaches threateningly. He obviously has a chip on his shoulder about his missing arm, daring Burns to fight him. He kicks the chair out from under Burns, dumping him onto the floor. Amazingly, Burns still tries to avoid a fight, offering the truculent man a drink. The man calls Burns a coward, provoking Burns to slap him. Burns offers to even things up by putting one arm behind his back, and a savage fight ensues. The one-armed man is more than a match for Burns, using his good arm, the stump of his missing arm, a chair, a billiard ball, and a cue stick to attack Burns. A wild melee erupts before the police arrive. Burns is taken to the police station, only to discover that the cells are overloaded and he is therefore being released. When he realizes he won't get to see Paul, he intentionally slugs a cop, earning a lengthy stay in jail.Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) arrives at the police station, where he is greeted by his deputy (William Schallert). Discipline at the police station and jail is noticeably lax, but another sadistic deputy named Gutierrez (George Kennedy) enjoys riding roughshod over the prisoners. Burns quickly earns the hatred of Gutierrez. Burns confides in Paul that he intends to spring him from the jail, but Paul says he doesn't intend to escape and incur a stiffer sentence. Burns then reveals that he has smuggled two hacksaw blades into the jail. He and his Navajo cellmates spend the night sawing through one of the bars before Gutierrez shows up and calls Burns out of the cell. Gutierrez brutally beats Burns before bringing him back. Burns hurriedly resumes his escape efforts before daylight can arrive.As Burns slithers through the opening in the bars, Paul once again declines to escape. Burns is disappointed but understands the difference in their situations. Paul has a wife and child to think of; Burns is all alone. Burns climbs down the side of the jailhouse with the aid of a rope and returns to Jerry's house. Jerry packs him some food before he gathers up spare ammunition and puts a saddle on Whiskey. It is now revealed that Burns and Jerry were once in love before Jack selflessly backed away in favor of Paul. Burns kisses Jerry goodbye and rides off, certain that his pursuers won't be far behind.Sheriff Johnson soon learns that escapee Jack Burns served in the army during the Korean War, earning a Purple Heart and the DSC, along with jail time for striking an officer. Up in the foothills, Burns watches over his shoulder for activity down below and heads for a distant mountain ridge that promises safety. The route gets steeper and more difficult with every switchback. Burns spots several armed deputies in pursuit far below. He is forced to dismount and lead Whiskey up the slippery and treacherous mountain face. Sheriff Johnson now deploys a helicopter to locate Burns. The skittish horse causes Burns considerable delay, allowing the helicopter crew to spot him. Burns expertly puts a rifle round through the tail rotor, causing the helicopter to spiral down and crash.Deputy Gutierrez eventually comes across the tethered horse and thinks he has gotten the drop on Burns, but he soon feels a rifle barrel pressed up against his face. Burns repays his earlier vicious beating with a rifle butt across the face of the sadistic deputy, knocking him out cold. Burns now leads Whiskey up an incredibly steep talus slope, nearly plunging down the mountainside. They are rapidly approaching the summit and freedom, but the deputies are closing in. Just as the deputies are able to get a clean shot at him, Burns reaches the crest and quickly mounts up, spurring his horse downhill into a thick stand of timber and complete concealment. Somehow they have made it. Burns painfully discovers that a bullet has passed through his boot and into his lower leg. He gingerly slides off the horse and fashions a splint from the rifle stock. Mounted up again, Burns rides down to the edge of an interstate highway as a heavy downpour begins. Across the highway is Manzano Mountain and the freedom of Mexico.Barreling down the rain-slick highway is the tractor-trailer introduced earlier, carrying the load of toilets. Burns desperately tries to maintain control over his nervous horse and coax him across the highway through the heavy traffic. At the critical moment, Whiskey spooks and rears up in the middle of the highway. The truck driver cannot possibly stop in time, slamming into man and horse and hurling them onto the shoulder. As a crowd gathers and surrounds the critically injured Jack Burns, Whiskey screams in agony. Burns is in obvious shock, but every scream from the horse is registered on his contorted face. Sheriff Johnson and a deputy soon arrive at the accident scene. Johnson sends the deputy to dispatch the mortally injured horse, and the resulting gunshot causes Burns to wince noticeably. Sheriff Johnson is asked to identify Burns as the escaped fugitive, but the sheriff declines. Burns is loaded onto an ambulance as his cowboy hat washes across the rainy highway.