The film opens with the Teale family moving west on a wagon into Indian Territory. They reach their home, and plan to go on the cattle business. The father, Jacob, rides out to get the cattle, promising to return in a month. However, he is killed along the way when his horse falls over on him, and he bleeds to death internally.
Meanwhile, a Stagecoach passes by the Teale farm; Evie Teale agrees to work for the Stagecoach by feeding customers who come by. One of the men on the Stagecoach warns Evie of a man named Conn Conagher, who he says is a fierce gunfighter. One day, Conagher does stop by for food, along with his partner Mahler. The Teale farm later comes under attack by Indians. The Stagecoach arrives by again in the middle of the gunfight, and the drivers and the passengers defend the farm. The Indians retreat in the morning.
Conagher, meanwhile, drifts out in the wilderness. He and Mahler meet an old rancher, Seaborn Tay, who hires both of them for work. Conagher proves to be a hardworking cowhand, but the ranch comes under threat by the Ladder Five gang, led by Smoke Parnell. Mahler deserts the ranch after an argument with Conagher and joins the Ladder Five. Conagher saves the ranch and Tay's cattle twice from the Ladder Five, both in a series of quick gun battles. He also visits the Teale farm regularly, and he and Evie grow fond of each other and he becomes a father figure to her children.
One day, when Conagher is out herding Tay's cattle, he is ambushed and shot by the Ladder Five gang. The wounded Conagher hides out during the day, and but at night returns and holds the Ladder Five, including Parnell, at gunpoint. Weak from his wound, Conagher eventually collapses and passes out, but not before he demands the Ladder Five to clear off of the land. Parnell knows now that he can finish Conagher, as his gang has sworn to do, but instead orders his man to take Conagher to Seaborn Tay. The next day, the Ladder Five gang clears off the land.
Evie Teal writes anonymous poems and ties them to tumbleweeds. Conagher chases tumbleweeds all over the prairie but we never know if he figures out. This runs through most of the film. He doesn't guess she is the Tumbleweed poet until the end.
When Conagher recovers, he tells Tay he feels like drifting again. Tay says he can stay and own part of the ranch, he's earned it, but Conagher has always been a drifter and he feels he needs to move on. He stops in the saloon in town and sees the stagecoach manager, who buys him a drink. Conagher tells him he has "tumbleweed fever" and the stagecoach manager laughs and says "you, too?" Apparently cowboys all over the county have been finding the notes tied to the tumbleweeds, and wondering about the woman who wrote them. The conversation shifts to Mrs. Teal, and the stagecoach manager says the family had a hard winter but they made it through. He tells Conagher he should go visit, but Conagher says he feels like heading north.
However, in the next scene we see him riding up to the family's cabin. He has brought some groceries as a gift and she asks him to stay for dinner. He ends up staying for a few days and helps fix the roof and do other chores. He and Mrs. Teal are sitting in rockers in front of the house and it seems like he may be about to say something romantic when Mahler rides up. Apparently he has been courting Mrs. Teal, although she is not very interested. He and Conagher have a quiet argument about the Ladder Five gang in front of Mrs. Teal, and when Mahler sees that she believes Conagher, he turns and rides away.
Evie asks Conagher what he was about to say when Mahler rode up, but he says he can't remember. He tells her it is time for him to be moving on, and he gives her some money to buy more groceries, saying he'd like to be able to come back but he doesn't want to be an imposition. She gets mad at him for giving her the money, but says he's always welcome. He rides off, telling himself he's a fool, but he doesn't think he's worthy of Evie.
In town, he plans to get drunk and then drive north, but he finds a drunken Mahler in the saloon. The two argue again, and Conagher challenges Mahler to a fist fight. Mahler starts out beating up Conagher; Conagher finally gains the upper hand. Evie arrives at that moment where she tells Conagher, "It's time for you to come home now." Conagher is physically hurt, but asks her why she came back. She tells them they all felt lost without him. He takes one of her tumbleweed notes out of his pocket and asks her if she wrote them. She said she did. She was just so lonely she had to talk to someone even if there was no one there to hear. He says, "There was, Evie, there was me." They kiss, and he says they can start a new life together. She smiles and they walk out the door together.
The film features Elliott’s friend Buck Taylor, formerly the gunsmith-turned-deputy on CBS’s long-running Gunsmoke, as Tile Coker, a rider for the Ladder Five Ranch. Pepe Serna, a native of Corpus Christi, played Casuse, another Ladder Five rider. Rugged James Gammon plays Smoke Parnell, the owner of the Ladder Five, who is suspected of rustling. Buck Taylor’s father, character actor Dub Taylor (1907–1994), plays the station agent.
Ken Curtis (1916–1991) plays an elderly but prosperous rancher, Seaborn Tay, fearful of losing his assets to the rustlers. This was Curtis’ last acting part; he died just weeks after Conagher finished production. Curtis had also costarred with Buck Taylor as Deputy Festus Haggen on Gunsmoke. Tay (Curtis) tells Conagher (Elliott), "Well, I'm up into my 70s . . . got a bum ticker to boot. I was kind of hoping to just live out my days and not die out on some sandy slope with lead in my guts. If they get me out on that range, they'll kill me for sure. And then just take my cattle as they please... with nobody to stop 'em."
Ellott was the executive producer of Conagher, John A Kuri was the film producer and Reynaldo Villalobos was the director. The teleplay was developed by Jeffrey M. Meyer. Elliott was nominated for a Golden Globe award for his Conagher role but lost out to Beau Bridges. The 94-minute picture was filmed about the Royal Gorge and Buckskin Joe Frontier Town and Railway in Canon City in south central Colorado.
Barry Corbin, who grew up in Lubbock, Texas, won the "Buffalo Bill Cody Award" for quality family entertainment and the Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City for his performance in Conagher.Sam Elliott as Conn ConagherKatharine Ross as Evie TealeBarry Corbin as Charlie McCloud, Stage DriverBilly "Green" Bush as Jacob TealeKen Curtis as Seaborn Tay, Cattle RancherPaul Koslo as Kiowa StaplesDaniel Quinn as Johnny McGivernPepe Serna as Casuse, Ladder Five RiderBuck Taylor as Tile Coker (Ladder Five Rider)Dub Taylor as Station AgentCody Braun as Laben TealeAnndi McAfee as Ruthie TealeJames Gammon as Smoke Parnell (Ladder Five Owner)Angelique L'Amour as Stage Passenger