There's a point midway through Welcome to Hard Times where Henry Fonda tries to assure a stagecoach driver that Hard Times is still worth being a stop on his route. He says the town is fed by 'a spring of life'.
He says this among the burned out remains of the half-dozen or so structures that make up the town. Some crazed drunk cowboy came in one night, killed about half of the town (so, 4 people), and burned most of it to the ground. For no apparent reason other than he could. Fonda, as Will Blue, is the mayor, and at one point attempts to deal with the guy. He does this by hoping the remaining dancing girl, Molly (Janice Rule), can distract the guy so Blue can get the drop on him. But the ruse fails, as does Blue's nerve. He runs out of the saloon, and even after the lunatic fires the last of his shots in the air, Blue keeps running. I yelled at him to turn around and shoot the guy, but to no avail.
In the aftermath, Blue stays, believing the town can rebuild. It's pretty much him, Molly, and Jimmy, a young boy whose father was the undertaker (who was also killed). And the silent Indian who serves as town doctor. Blue, Molly, and Jesse form this odd little family, and the town does gradually come back. There's a mine nearby in the hills, and it's those miners that keep the place going, since Hard Times is the only place to spend their pay. And it just so happens Keenan Wynn shows up with a covered wagon full of ladies and booze, just in time for the miners to show up, looking for liquor and companionship.
There is this undercurrent of hope through the whole thing, people working together to survive winter in homes mostly made of canvas, the life of the town surviving on the shoestring that is the miners receiving their pay on time. Blue's quite the pitchman, I'd like to have seen what he could have done in Buffy's Sunnydale. Probably insist it was a real buyer's market for homes, and that the rapid turnover was a sign of businesses that encouraged upward mobility (leaving out the part where you moved on up to Heaven, rather than the East Side).
At the same time, there's the ugly undercurrent of Blue and Molly's little family. Molly was raped after Blue fled, and burned badly on her back in the rampage, and she has a lot of understandable bitterness, a large part of it towards Blue. Who did tell her to go in and distract the cowboy, and who did utterly fail to actually stop said cowboy. She sort of seems to care about Blue, but it's overwhelmed with her disgust at how he fails to measure up to her idea of manliness, meaning, kill anyone who gives you any trouble. To that end, she's encouraging Jimmy to become just that sort of man, while Blue tries his best to encourage Jimmy to get a job, be a productive member of society, telling him there's no future in becoming the kind of man Molly wants him to be. At one point he even calls Jimmy a mama's boy, which is not usually applied to someone being taught to shoot people at the slightest provocation. it's also pretty hypocritical of Blue, considering he's trying to just as hard to make Jimmy into what he wants him to be.
Neither one really seems to care what Jimmy wants.
There are also these humorous moments, such as the storekeeper leaving in the aftermath, only to have his twin brother (played by the same actor, John Anderson) arrive, and with no leads to his brother's new location, take over the store. There's the man from the governor's office, riding up on horseback to charter the town, with his own little table and chair strapped to the horse's back. He writes down the town's name, appoints a sheriff, tells him to take a collection to build a jail, hands Blue the papers on elections and such (because the sheriff can't read), gets back on his horse, and rides away. It fits with a lot of the movie after the initial visit by the stranger, but it's kind of odd viewed against that, or against Molly's burning hatred.
The stranger does return, with no more rhyme or reason to his actions than the first time, and Molly gets what she wanted out of Blue, not that she's in any position to enjoy it. But I guess Blue will get to mold Jimmy as he wants, so that's the important thing, right? Yeah, sure. I don't know. The movie ends on this hopeful note, with a young guy getting married to one of the dancing girls, and the stage driver telling Blue he was right about the spring of life. This as Blue and Jimmy leave Molly's grave, so I don't know. The people who can't let go of their awful pasts have to be removed for the wheels of progress to move? People have a remarkable capacity to ignore horrible things that happen to people that aren't them? There's no point in getting bothered by maniacs who want to watch the world burn, because they're always be another one? I can understand the idea that you can't become obsessed with trying to stop every maniac, because you won't have time to build anything, but Blue seems perfectly willing to let the guy do what he pleases, figuring they'll just rebuild after. But if he keeps killing and burning everything, what's the point in rebuilding? At some point you have to try and actively stop the guy, not just hope he'll go away.
So it's a muddled mess of a movie.