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Max Sand is a young halfbreed living in the mountain and desert West of the 1890's. One day three gunslingers torture and kill his parents. Swearing an oath of vengeance, Max makes a funeral pyre out of the family shack and sets out to track down the killers. He is befriended by Jonas Cord, a traveling gunsmith and ammunition maker, who tries to dissuade him from his mission but, failing that, teaches him how to defend himself with a gun. Searching town after town, Max eventually finds one of his parents' murderers, Jesse Coe, and kills him in a brutal knife fight. After his own wounds have been cared for by Neesa, a Kiowa girl, Max heads for Louisiana, where a second killer is serving a prison sentence. Max stages a fake holdup, is thrown into jail, feigns friendship with the man, Bill Bowdre, and joins him in an escape. Aided by an amorous Cajun girl, the two men make their way through the swamps. As they reach freedom, Max reveals his true identity and guns down Bowdre; the girl also dies from a snakebite. Five years have passed since Max began his vendetta, and he has changed from a naive cowhand into a hardened criminal. Finally, Max finds the last man, Tom Fitch. In the showdown, Max shoots his opponent in both legs but is unable to kill him. He throws away his guns and rides off to ask Jonas Cord for a job; calling himself Nevada Smith, he hopes to make a new life for himself.