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In a small Illinois town in 1841, thirteen-year-old Joey Slade watches as a man purposely hurts a boy while breaking up a fight. Joey throws a rock at the man that accidentally kills him, forcing Joey and his father Alf to flee on the next stagecoach. While Joey sleeps, stagecoach driver Tom Carter reassures Alf that they will be able to make a new start in Texas. However, Alf is later killed while defending Joey against stagecoach robbers, and the embittered boy adopts Tom's nickname for him, Jack, and agrees to live with Tom in San Antonio. By 1850, Tom, who now shoes horses, receives a letter from Jack, who is fighting with the Army in Mexico. When Jack returns home to visit, he admits that he attracts trouble wherever he goes. A visit to a saloon proves his theory when Toby MacKay challenges Jack after hearing a drunken Tom boast about his "son's" fast shooting. Jack quickly subdues the man by shooting his shotglass, then takes a job as guide and guard of a Great Missouri Freight Lines wagon train headed north. When the wagon train is attacked by outlaws, Jack kills three and leaves the others hanging from a tree. In time, Marshal Mitch Talbot pressures the freight line owner, Hill, to fire Jack because he has become a ruthless gunfighter. Jack next moves to Julesburg, Colorado, where he is hired as the new superintendent of another freight line, replacing the alcoholic Jules Reni. The owner, Dan Traver, introduces Jack to his friend Virginia Dale, and the passion between Jack and Virginia is immediately apparent. After Dan leaves Julesburg for his headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, Virginia pursues Jack and persuades him to marry her immediately. Although he is convinced his lifestyle will eventually cause conflict between them, they vow not to have any regrets. Jack soon learns from his assistant, Hollis, that rancher Johnny Danton and his sons have been increasing their herd by stealing horses from the freight line. Before Jack can deal with the Dantons, however, he is confronted by the drunken Jules, who challenges him to a duel. Although Jules initially appears to falter, he then shoots Jack in the back and escapes. Jack convalesces under Virginia's care, but immediately returns to work when he recovers, and appoints himself the unofficial lawman of Julesburg. After Hollis reports that one of their men has been killed by the Dantons, Jack rides to the ranch where, without provocation, he kills Danton and his sons. Jack then discovers an unkempt boy named Tump cowering inside the cabin and learns that he is an orphan who worked for the family. Jack sees himself in Tump and is determined to save him, but one of the Dantons revives long enough to fire a shot that kills the boy. Distraught over the boy's death and his own murderous lifestyle, Jack goes on a drinking binge despite his wife's pleas. Jules, meanwhile, allies himself with the Prentice brothers gang and plots to steal the wagon train's payroll when it is transported to Salt Lake City. The brothers, Ned, Rufe and Tad, boldly visit the Julesburg saloon where Ned taunts Jack with a song about the gunfighter's old age. When Jack warns them to stay out of trouble, the brothers claim that they are leaving on the stagecoach that day. Shortly after, Dan returns to Julesburg for a visit and Virginia confides in him that Jack's work has changed him for the worse. In an effort to help his friend, Dan has him sign a contract prohibiting profanity and drinking. Later, Julesburg's Judge Davison, representing a citizen's committee, demands that Jack sober up. Jack assigns Hollis to ride shotgun on the outgoing stagecoach carrying the Prentice brothers, but when he learns that they are allied with Jules, he and Dan gather a posse. They find Hollis gravely wounded and he confirms that the Prentices and Jules were behind the attack. Jack and two men, Peel and O'Brien, track the outlaws to their hideout, where the gang cruelly sends out their elderly cook to face the gunfire. Jack shoots the cook, unaware that he is his adoptive father, Tom. One by one, Jack kills every gang member except for Jules, who escapes, and Ned, who surrenders. Jack is so mortified to discover that he has killed Tom that he hangs Ned without a trial. Filled with self-loathing, Jack goes on a drinking spree and terrifies the saloon patrons with his rage. When he then rides out of town at full gallop, he fails to stop for a child playing in the roadway, and severely injures her. At home, Jack learns that Hollis will recover from his wounds. In the meantime, the citizen's committee demands his dismissal. Jack refuses to accept his dismissal and then apologizes to an unforgiving Mrs. Ward for crippling her daughter. When he bursts into the saloon to announce his imminent departure, Jules and his cohort take Jack hostage with plans to kill him. Virginia appears unexpectedly and shoots Jules's partner. Jules then fires at Jack, and although wounded, Jack fires back repeatedly until Jules is dead. Jack then bids his wife farewell and departs. Although the citizen's committee, led by local leader Farnsworth, demands that Jack be hanged, Dan vows to return the gunfighter for a fair trial after securing their commitment not to lynch him. Dan finds an ailing Jack hiding far from town, but Jack refuses to return peaceably. Aware that his time is at an end, Jack promises to emerge from behind a boulder if Dan "calls the shots." Jack staggers out and Dan calls out as he guns down his friend. A dying Jack then warns Dan that he will now inherit the reputation as a gunfighter that ruined Jack's life.