Marty and Ethan head North through Buffalo Country in the snow. They come upon a large herd of buffalo blocking the way, and decide to shoot one to make room. Suddenly, Ethan begins shooting at the buffalo angrily. As Marty tries to stop him, they are interrupted by the sound of a bugle, and what looks like a face-off between the military and the Comanche.
Ethan and Marty go down a nearby hill and find a Comanche camp ravaged by white soldiers. Marty identifies the Comanche as the tribe that they are looking for, the one that has Debbie. They search the camp for signs of Debbie, and Ethan finds Marty's Comanche wife dead in one of the tents. "She never did nobody any harm," Marty says, mournfully, as Ethan covers the woman with a blanket. They resolve to catch up with the military group that did this.
We see the military group marching towards a base. Ethan and Marty approach, as lilting military music plays. A large group of Comanche are rounded up and brought into a barn. Ethan and Marty go to a small cabin with two men, and ask if they have seen a 14-year-old white girl among the Comanche people. The men take Ethan and Marty to another cabin, where an exceedingly nervous woman sits on the ground anxiously rocking an imaginary baby. Another girl smiles maniacally at him, but Marty decides she is not Debbie.
"It's hard to believe they're white," one of the men says, to which Ethan replies, "They ain't white, anymore. They're Comanche." The woman sitting on the floor makes strange noises and Ethan looks at her horrified. Debbie is not among them.
The scene shifts to Laurie reading a letter from Marty, which tells her that Marty and Ethan have set off towards New Mexico Territory and he won't be back for Christmas. Laurie looks sad and complains about Marty's impersonal writing. When Laurie goes to look mournfully out the window, Charlie wanders over and sings to her with his guitar.
When they arrive in New Mexico, Ethan recognizes Mose Harper's horse outside a cantina and they are greeted warmly by their old friend. They go to the bar for a drink and Mose tells him that he has been helping trying to find Debbie. Ethan tells him about the reward, but Mose says he just wants a rocking chair. "Ethan, I found a man who's seen her, know where little Debry is," Mose says. A Mexican man in a sombrero, Emilio Gravier Fernandes Y Figueroa, stands and says he knows where Debbie is. He orders a tequila and pours some for Ethan.
Ethan gives him some money, and Emilio agrees to bring him to Debbie. As Marty eats some food nearby, a woman named Carmen with castanets tries to get Marty's attention, but he ignores her. Ethan comes over and tells Marty he's going out to meet a Comanche named Cicatriz, which is "Mexican" for "Scar." Marty stands and follows Ethan.
Emilio, Ethan, and Marty ride into the desert, encountering a group of Comanche warriors in a line. They ride past into a Comanche village, where Emilio introduces Ethan and Marty to Scar. Scar speaks English, and invites Ethan into his teepee. Ethan tries to prevent Marty from following, but Marty insists on coming. Inside the teepee, the men sit on the floor, where Emilio tells Ethan that Scar's two sons were killed by white men. Ethan and Marty notice a group of four women huddled nearby, all Scar's wives.
"For each son, I take many scalps," Scar says, as one of his wives brings over evidence of this practice. Suddenly, Ethan and Marty notice that the wife is Debbie. They say nothing, and she goes back to the other wives. When Scar shows Ethan the old medal which he gave Debbie as a child, which he now wears around his neck, Ethan stands and says he plans to pitch camp on the other side of the creek.
Later, Emilio tells Ethan that he must leave, because he is afraid of what Scar will do. "He knows who you are, and why you are here. This I did not know," Emilio says, before giving Ethan back his money and riding back to town. "Do you think old Scar means to kill us?" Marty asks, and Ethan says he does. Suddenly, Debbie comes running towards them over the hill.
Marty reminds Debbie who he is, and she tells him she remembers. "These are my people," she says, speaking Comanche, and telling him to leave. Suddenly, Ethan pulls out his gun as if to shoot Debbie, and Marty blocks her, pulling out his own gun. Just as Ethan goes to shoot, a Comanche warrior shoots at Ethan with a bow and arrow. Marty spins around and begins shooting at the Comanche, who dies and rolls down the hill. As a large group of Comanche begin charging them, Ethan and Marty mount their horses and ride away, before taking shelter in a nearby cave.
Scar orders the Comanche to charge, but Ethan and Marty shoot at them, causing them to retreat.
Later, in their cave shelter, Ethan tends his wound from the arrow and Marty offers him some water. Ethan hands him a notebook and Marty reads it. It's a formal statement that says Ethan is leaving his property to Marty upon his death. Marty gets angry upon reading it, suggesting that Debbie is Ethan's next of kin and he ought not to have tried to shoot his niece. "She's been living with a buck!" Ethan says, but Marty cuts him off and says, "I hope you die."
"That'll be the day," Ethan says.
Ethan's flaw as a hero is his hot-headedness. On the trail, he regularly becomes incensed about small events, shooting at a herd of buffalo at one point, much to Marty's distress. While Ethan's anger and suspicion about the people around him can sometimes be an asset, such as when he anticipates Futterman's attack and removes himself from harm's way, at other times, it is completely unfounded. He is capable of going into a blind rage that seems out of step with the events around him, and must curb his anger to focus on the essentials.
At the military base, Marty and Ethan examine a cabin where some white women who have been living with the Comanche are living. The effects of Comanche living on these women are depicted as a kind of insanity. One woman screeches as she rocks imaginary babies on her arms. Two girls hold a blanket over their heads and smile maniacally at Ethan and Marty. In this unusual scene, non-whiteness is conflated with insanity and instability. As a man observes that these disturbed women hardly seem white, Ethan suggests that they are not anymore, after the time they have spent living among the Comanche. In the logic of Ford's film, life among the Comanche turns a white woman into a basket case, a shell of her former self.
When Ethan and Marty arrive in New Mexico, they encounter an old friend, the comic and ever-inebriated Mose Harper, who happens to have a lead on Debbie's whereabouts. Their reunion with the old codger is a joyous one, as they all take their places at the bar, hooting and hollering. Soon enough, however, Mose is spilling some news about Debbie's whereabouts. Such is the fate of the titular "searchers," Marty and Ethan, they can never rest easy without some new and sobering information coming to light about Debbie.
It turns out that Debbie is not traumatized or driven mad by her experience with the Comanche, but has become a rather willing member of the tribe and wife to Scar. She arrives into the scene rather unexpectedly, when Ethan and Marty are invited into Scar's teepee. Dressed in Comanche garb, Debbie has grown into a Comanche woman, beautiful and poised and seemingly unfazed by her role in Scar's family.
It is this placid acceptance of her integration into the tribe that is most terrifying and disturbing to Marty and Ethan. While they have expected that they might find her dead or traumatized by her experience in Scar's custody, they did not imagine that she would feel accepting of her role. The only thing more disturbing for Ethan than the thought of Debbie being killed and raped by the Comanche is the thought of her willingly integrating with the tribe, so intense is his hatred of the Comanche and his fear of miscegenation.