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In the late 1870s, just before his annual cattle drive to Belle Fourche, South Dakota, sixty-year-old Montana rancher Wil Andersen faces the loss of everything he has worked for when his hands quit to mine a new gold strike. Strict but honest, Wil stubbornly refuses to hold his creditors off until the next year's drive, and reluctantly considers general store owner Anse Peterson's suggestion to utilize the only able-bodied males in town, the boys in Miss Ellen Price's school. The next day, a group of the boys arrive at Wil's Double-O ranch hoping to sign on. Skeptical, Wil suggests a grueling test to determine their mettle: staying on a green horse's back for the count of ten. Charles "Slim" Honeycutt, who, at fifteen, is the oldest, is the first to pass the test, and is followed by several others. Then Mexican teenager Cimarron arrives to show Wil that he already is an expert rider. Wil says that he will think things over, then, after visiting the graves of his two sons, goes to the schoolhouse to tell the boys that he will hire them on for the summer and give each $50 when they reach Belle Fourche. On the first day, Wil trains the boys in roping, branding and herding, and eventually accepts all of them, even the youngest, Hardy Fimps. When Cimarron shows up, though, and starts a fight with Slim for calling his mother a "puta [prostitute]," Wil sends Cimarron off, then tells the boys that he will lock up all of their weapons in the chuck wagon until the end of the drive. A short time later, long-haired stranger Asa Watts, whom the boys call Long Hair, arrives at the ranch with two cohorts and asks to sign on, claiming that they have worked on many spreads. When Wil catches Long Hair in a lie for claiming to have worked recently for a man who died years before, Long Hair admits to being an ex-convict. Wil refuses to hire them because they lied, causing the disgruntled men to ride off. A short time later, black former slave Jebediah Nightlinger is hired as the new chuck wagon cook, after proving his worthiness to Wil and his wife Annie. The boys are perplexed by Jebediah because they have never seen a black man before, but soon accept him. On the first morning of the drive, the boys say goodbye to their parents as Annie lovingly makes Wil promise to come home. Off in the distance, Cimarron rides parallel to them, unseen by everyone but Wil and Jebediah. The boys are exhausted by the end of the first day and quickly fall asleep, only to be roused at 3:00 a.m. by Jebediah's biscuits and bacon and Wil's admonition to hurry because they are "burning daylight." One afternoon, as they are crossing a swiftly moving river, Slim, who cannot swim, falls off his horse. Stuttering Bob cannot get the words out to alert Wil, but Cimarron quickly rides into the river and saves Slim. Wil tells Cimarron to bring his gear into camp and join them, then suddenly yells insults at Bob for not being able to make himself understood. Bob starts to sob, but then starts swearing at Wil, thus curing his stammering. That night, Wil confides in Jebediah that he had two sons who died many years ago after "going bad" and wonders if it was his fault. As the drive continues, the boys soon become able hands, and Wil begins to soften toward them. One day, when Dan, a younger boy called Four Eyes because he wears glasses, chases after a stray horse, he is accosted by Long Hair, who reveals that he and his men have been tracking the drive for days and plan to take the cattle. After dunking the terrified Dan into the river, Long Hair lets him return to the drive but warns him not to say anything or his throat will be slit. That night, when it is Dan's turn to keep watch over the cattle, he says that he is afraid of the dark but Wil insists that he must pull his weight and sends him to watch over the herd. A short time later, kind-hearted Charlie Schwartz comes to join him, and when Dan's glasses fall down into the canyon holding the herd, Charlie offers to retrieve them. Charlie picks up the glasses and tries to remount his horse, but the cattle become restless and trample him to death. After they bury Charlie, Wil comforts Dan, but the frightened boy still says nothing about Long Hair. One afternoon, just three days away from Belle Fourche, while Jebediah and Weedy lag behind to fix a broken axle on the chuck wagon, Wil notices that a group of men have been following them from a distance. He then sends Homer to summon Jebediah and tell him to come as soon as possible, with his guns loaded. Now a tearful Dan confesses everything to Wil, who gently tells him not to worry and warns the others to ride along as if nothing is wrong. That night, when Wil and the cowboys stop, Jebediah still has not returned. Soon after, Long Hair and his men ride into camp with a bruised Homer in tow. Long Hair tells Wil that it will be no trouble to take over the herd from the boys, but when he taunts Dan and breaks the frame of his glasses, Wil angrily challenges him to a man-to-man fight. Although Long Hair initially gains control, Wil soon gets the upper hand and wins. However, as Wil walks away, the beaten Long Hair reaches for a gun and shoots Wil in the shoulder. Undeterred, Wil stands up and starts to walk away again, but Long Hair continues to shoot until Wil collapses. The next morning, when Jebediah and Weedy arrive, the cattle have been taken and Wil is near death. As Wil dies, he says that every man wants his children to be better than he, and they are. After burying Wil, the boys determine to regain the herd and take the guns from the locked chuck wagon while they tie up the protesting Jebediah. As they ride along, the now resigned Jebediah tells them that they must first have a plan and asks them to untie him. Soon the boys ambush and kill several of Long Hair's men, one by one, and disguise themselves by dressing in their coats. When Long Hair rides up to the herd, he quickly realizes that his men have been replaced by the boys and begins to pursue them. He loses the boys, but when he sees Jebediah, apparently alone with the chuck wagon, he goes to him and drags him to a tree to be hanged. Jebediah requests a few moments to atone for his sins, then shots ring out as the boys gallop in with drawn guns, killing or badly wounding all of Long Hair's men. Long Hair himself begs for help to extract his broken leg from his stirrup, but instead, Cimarron shoots into the air, causing the horse to spook and drag the screaming Long Hair away. When the boys finally arrive in Belle Fourche, the townspeople are shocked that the herd is being led by mere boys. After settling the cattle, the boys buy a headstone from a stonemason who suggests the carving "beloved husband and father." When the boys go to the spot where they buried Wil, they cannot find the grave because the prairie winds have obliterated the marker. Jebediah smiles and says that they are close enough, so the boys put the stone down and ride home, led by Slim, who warns them to hurry because they are burning daylight.