The phones are out of order at a street-corner restaurant on a snowy early morning thirty miles from Kansas City. It is 1:00 a.m., and restaurant proprietor Grace Hoylard and her teenage waitress Elma Duckworth await the arrival of the Kansas City-to-Wichita bus. Will Masters, the local sheriff, comes in to tell Grace that the blizzard has closed the roads; the bus will need to stop at the restaurant until further notice. The bus arrives, and passengers enter the restaurant. They will be marooned together until just before sunrise.
Cherie, a young woman in flashy clothes and wearing too much makeup, asks Sheriff Will for protection from a cowboy who is still on the bus. Cherie claims that the cowboy had abducted her from her job as a singer at the Blue Dragon nightclub in Kansas City. Dr. Gerald Lyman, an alcoholic has-been college professor in his fifties, makes a connection with Elma. Carl, the bus driver, shares a flirtation with Grace at the counter. Cherie tells Elma about her job as a chanteuse, or nightclub singer, and about her family background. Carl and Will have a brief exchange that establishes some information about Lyman, then Carl announces he is going for a long walk, which Will finds hard to believe, given the blizzard. The look between Carl and Grace, however, reveals that something is up between them.
Lyman quotes poetry to Elma, and they converse about William Shakespeare with Cherie. The door to the restaurant swings open, revealing a young cowboy, Bo Decker, and his older friend, Virgil Blessing, who is carrying Bo’s guitar case. Arguments ensue between Bo and Will about closing the door and between Bo and Cherie about her name—is it or is it not Cherry? Virgil tries to warn Bo not to antagonize the sheriff, but Bo is headstrong, launching into a tirade about his ranch and his prowess at the rodeo. He then orders food and sits at the counter to talk to Cherie. He hugs and kisses her roughly, which embarrasses Cherie, and demonstrates his arrogance and lack of manners. Grace excuses herself to her apartment, complaining of a headache.
Lyman begins to tell Elma about his first wife, and Bo demands to know why Cherie’s suitcase is hidden behind the counter; she tries to evade him. Will intercedes, allowing Cherie to tell Bo the truth: that she is not interested in him. Bo refuses to acknowledge this. He reveals that they have been “familiar” with each other, so, he reasons, she has to marry him; still she refuses. Will promises Cherie she will not have to go with Bo on the bus. Virgil takes Bo aside and tries to calm him down. Bo is bewildered that any woman would not love him.
Dr. Lyman tries to impress Elma with his vast learning and experience and arranges to meet her in Topeka the following day. Bo reveals to Virgil the loneliness he has been feeling. Cherie tells Elma about her life and begins to realize that marrying Bo might be a reasonable choice, despite her reluctance. Elma encourages the passengers to put on a floor show to pass the time. Virgil plays his guitar, and Dr. Lyman and Elma reenact the balcony scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597), during which time Lyman, overcome with intoxication, passes out.
Cherie sings “That Old Black Magic,” inflaming Bo’s passion to the point that he lifts her off her feet. Will comes to her rescue by lunging at Bo, enabling Cherie to free herself. Bo and Will move outside to engage...
(This entire section contains 904 words.)
in fisticuffs, as Grace enters the restaurant in her dressing gown. Outside, Will finally subdues Bo, slapping handcuffs on him. Lyman wakes up long enough to go to the restroom, and Virgil convinces Cherie not to press charges. He reveals to her that she is the first woman Bo has ever made love to. Cherie seems to be touched by Bo’s naïveté.
It is now early morning, around 5:00. Carl and Grace had spent time together in Grace’s apartment upstairs. Will announces that the highway will soon be cleared. He then explains to Bo that a person does not have a right to get whatever he wants, until he earns it. At Will’s urging, Bo apologizes to everyone, offering money to Cherie to return to Kansas City. Bo shows genuine humility, which softens Cherie’s attitude toward him and leads her to decide to go with him to Montana. Virgil, knowing that Bo will be happy with Cherie and that he will be in their way, lies to Bo, telling him that he has taken another job.
Carl reveals to Grace that Lyman has been in trouble many times for getting involved with girls. Will teases Carl and Grace about their rendezvous, which embarrasses Grace in front of Elma, who later assures her not to worry about it. Lyman appears to feel remorse for his inappropriate attention to Elma and begs off their meeting in Topeka; he goes outside to the bus. Bo and Cherie bid everyone good-bye and leave happily. Grace sets about closing the restaurant as the bus pulls away. She sends Elma home and sends Virgil outside so she can go to bed. Virgil has no idea where he will go next. Grace takes one last look around the restaurant and turns off the lights.