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Drifter Billy Bonney works one full day as a ranchhand, only to have foreman Parsons refuse to pay him full salary simply because he is new. Billy takes the full salary and when he is pursued by Parsons and hand Carl Trumble, he is forced to kill Trumble in self-defense. Fellow worker Pat Garrett is fired for siding with Billy, and the two ride into New Mexico territory to avoid the law. When Billy kills a steer for food, he and Pat are confronted by Bob Ollinger, foreman for John H. Tunstall, a wealthy Englishman who is the victim of continuous assaults by competing cattle baron L. G. Murphy and the corrupt local sheriff, Tom Watkins. Tunstall asks Billy and Pat to work for him to defend his herds against Murphy's vicious tactics, and after Billy meets Tunstall's young niece, Nita Maxwell, he agrees to stay. Over the following weeks, Billy works hard, earning Tunstall's approval. Jealous of Billy and Nita's blossoming relationship, however, Ollinger beats up Billy, claiming he is disrespectful. When Tunstall fires him, Ollinger goes to Murphy and Watkins, revealing that Billy may be a fugitive. Watkins discovers a wanted poster of Billy, and Ollinger insists on his arrest. Murphy encourages Watkins to arrest not only Billy, but Tunstall as well for harboring a fugitive. Watkins then takes a posse out to Tunstall's ranch. Billy hides when he sees their approach, but witnesses Tunstall's murder by a posse member, who assumes that Tunstall is reaching for a gun, instead of his spectacles. Only three of Tunstall's ranchhands, Dave Rudabaugh, Tom O'Folliard and Charlie Bowdre, agree to join Billy in seeking revenge. Billy kills Tunstall's murderer, then returns to the ranch. Nita's father, Pete Maxwell, informs Billy that Pat has agreed to run the ranch, but Pete and Nita are dismayed when Billy enthusiastically relates his revenge and intention to pursue Watkins. Upset over their lack of support, Billy departs and takes up horse thievery with his small gang to survive. After Tunstall's death, Governor Lewis Wallace removes Watkins as sheriff and summons Pat to offer him the post. Wallace explains that he believes Billy might surrender to a friend, then proposes to offer Billy a full pardon, but not to pursue Watkins, who claims the killings under his tenure were legal. When Pat hesitates, Wallace reveals that should Pat refuse the post, he will place Lincoln County under martial law and have Billy shot on sight. Faced with this option, Pat agrees to become sheriff. Soon after, Pat visits Billy, who is surprised, then pleased by Pat's new job, believing Pat will help him catch Watkins legally. Pat informs Billy of the governor's wish to speak with him and Billy grudgingly agrees to meet at the Tunstall ranch when he visits Nita. The next night, Nita pleads with Billy to listen to the governor's proposal, but Billy responds angrily to Wallace's acknowledgment that Watkins will remain free and refuses the offer. Afterward, Billy gives Nita a brooch and tells her that it is part of a set with a ring. Nita suggests that if Billy is serious about a future with her and Wallace's offer, he should bring her the ring. Billy reconsiders and gets the ring, but later runs into Watkins and Ollinger in the saloon. When he tries to leave peaceably, however, Watkins draws and Billy kills him, then beats up Ollinger. Pat rounds up a posse, which Ollinger demands to join, and tracks Billy and his men down to a small cabin. After a shootout in which all the other members of Billy's gang are killed, Pat arrests Billy, who is compliant. Pat stops the posse at the Tunstall ranch, where Ollinger purposely brings the handcuffed Billy to a stunned Nita. She discovers the ring, however, and realizes he intended to give himself up. Nita then agrees to wait for Billy, but he is found guilty and sentenced to hang. Billy's request for help from Wallace is rejected because he refused the governor's initial offer. Ollinger taunts Billy daily at the jail, until Billy tricks the sheriff and escapes. He tracks Ollinger to the local hotel, where he kills him then goes into hiding for several months. Pat pursues Billy to no avail, but eventually Billy returns to Tunstall's to see Nita. Billy tells her he has a small house in Mexico and asks her to run away with him. She agrees, but before she can finish packing, Billy is shot dead by Pat.