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After serving almost ten years in a rodeo prison for passing a bad check and hitting a sheriff, J. W. Coop finally gains his release. At the door, Warden Morgan, who wants J. W. to remain on his championship rodeo team, warns him to watch his behavior on the outside. J. W. heads for his hometown in Texas, and at his rundown family home discovers that his mother has lost her mind. Believing that J. W. is still young and his father still alive, she treats him with gentle affection. After leaving her some money and briefly stopping by the abandoned rodeo grounds where years earlier he learned his trade, J. W. takes his father's jalopy to a gas station to repair it. There, he sees his old friend Hector, whose brother Chico has risen to wealth as the owner of a taco stand franchise. J. W. contemplates how his town, and the whole country, has become more commercial during his time in prison. When the car is fixed, J. W. heads to the nearest rodeo, where the sheriff he hit ten years earlier watches him carefully. He wins his event and moves on, stopping at a topless bar where he is mesmerized by the stripper's dancing. As he drives on, a motorcycle policeman issues a ticket for the exhaust pouring out of his tailpipe. Although the dimwitted officer believes J. W. will meet him the next morning in municipal court, J. W. abandons the car, takes his saddle and hitchhikes. His first ride is with a pig farmer who complains about hippies and unions, but later confesses that he earned his farming stake as a high-paid unionized machinist. Next, a garrulous diesel driver picks him up and, after lamenting about the Communists and radicals, reveals that his union pays him well enough to afford a sailboat. The driver drops J. W. at the side of the road across from fellow hitchhiker Bean, a young hippie. She attempts to talk to him, and although he initially disdains her and her ilk, when she is picked up, he abandons his route and hops in the truck with the pretty, engaging girl. Along the road, she schools him on the health benefits of soybeans and the attitudes of her generation. When they both stop off at the Woodlake rodeo, J. W. bids Bean goodbye and chats with his old friend, African-American cowboy Myrtis Dightman. After winning several events, J. W. heads to a local bar with Myrtis, whose appearance causes a stir among the racist patrons. In the bathroom, the two cowboys fend off several attackers, then flee before the sheriff can investigate. The next day, Bean finds J. W. and they spend the day together, sharing stories about their pasts. They sleep side-by-side in a field, but the next morning J. W. sends the girl off unceremoniously. He bumps into Big Marge, one of the rough rodeo regulars from his past, who wraps him in a bear hug and drags him into the trailer where the rest of his friends reside. They fill in J. W. about the changed nature of the rodeo world, where big business presides and the young riders now "bail out," or jump off the bucking bulls and broncos, before they can get hurt, amassing points to earn the most money. The hottest new star is "Hot Pistol" Billy Hawkins, who flies his private plane to multiple rodeos a day to rack up as many points as possible so he can score a big payday in the national finals. J. W. scorns this abandonment of old-school ideals and enters the Woodlake rodeo alongside Billy, who sends messages to his broker from the back of a bronco. After Billy wins the events handily, everyone celebrates at a party held by oil-rich buffoon Billy Sol Gibbs. Later, J. W. joins Bean in the field where she sleeps, and at her urging, makes love to her. They spend the next months together traveling the rodeo circuit. J. W. hopes to vie with Billy at the nationals but cannot compete with Billy's ability to attend so many rodeos per day. The affection between J.W. and Bean grows deeper, and as he begins to earn winnings, he rapturously provides them with hotel rooms and dandified clothes. One day, he purchases a battered plane and teaches himself to fly, hoping to follow Billy directly. The first time he beats the younger man, Marge plans a celebration, but J. W. calls home first and learns that his mother has died. Returning briefly to bury her, he recalls his father's death at the local oil refinery. Shaking off his grief, he returns to the circuit, now a star with adoring fans. In their hotel suite, J. W. describes for Bean the ranch he hopes to buy, not noticing that the trappings and accumulation of wealth do not interest her. Soon after, J. W. proposes to Bean, stating that he cannot succeed without her. Demurring that he needs nothing but his own continuing faith in himself, Bean despairs that they want different lives. He is unsurprised but despondent when she leaves him just weeks before the nationals. In the finals, J. W. has a slight lead over Billy when he breaks his leg riding a bull. Afterward, he plans to re-enter the competition, despite the risk to his injured leg, feeling that he has waited ten years for a victory and that coming in second is tantamount to coming in last. Marge urges him to take his winnings and leave, stating that his heartbreak is no excuse for stupidity and that Billy has already dominated all of the events. However, J. W. insists on entering the final event by attempting to stay on the bull reputed to be the toughest ever to ride. To the delight of the crowd, he rides well, holding on to the bull despite his injured leg. When he dismounts, however, the bull charges, goring and trampling him. The critically wounded J. W. is dragged to the side of the arena, clutching his old championship belt.