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In the late 1870s, as taciturn young William Bonney walks across the open range in Lincoln County, New Mexico, he encounters cattle drovers working for British-born rancher Tunstall. A kind, well-read man who dislikes guns, Tunstall offers Billy a job and a horse. Although Billy wears his gun belt low, like a gunfighter, and an older cowboy recognizes Billy as the boy who once killed a man who insulted his mother, Tunstall takes a liking to Billy and quickly develops a bond with him. When Tunstall sets out alone to ride into Lincoln to make arrangements for his cattle, Billy thinks he hears something in the hills and wants to come along as protection, but Tunstall refuses. Moments later, Tunstall is killed by men working for rival rancher Morton and Lincoln's Sheriff Brady. A bitter and disconsolate Billy stays up all night sitting next to Tunstall's coffin, until McSween, one of Tunstall's close friends, assures him that Tunstall would not want Billy to "take the other way" of vengeance. After Tunstall is buried, Billy shows four bullets to Tom Folliard and Charlie Boudre, two young cowboys who also worked for Tunstall, telling them that they are for Morton and Brady and the actual killers, Moon and Hill. Although Tom and Charlie are reluctant to risk their lives for their employer, Billy shames them by pointing out that Tunstall was a good man¿and unarmed when killed. Later, when Billy and Tom confront Morton and Brady in the street, Billy quickly outdraws and kills both men. Billy then runs to McSween's house but is startled when McSween angrily calls him a murderer. Meanwhile, townsmen chasing Billy set fire to McSween's house. McSween dies as the house is engulfed in flames, while Mrs. McSween, who was not at home, frantically begs them to stop. When the embers are later searched, it is concluded that both Billy and McSween died in the fire, although Billy has escaped and joined Tom on the trail. Feverish from his burns, Billy insists on going to Madeiro to see an old friend, the gun maker Saval. Once in Madeiro, Billy is reunited with another friend, Pat Garrett. Shortly after Charlie arrives in Maderio, Billy recovers from his wounds. One day, a small group of American soldiers enters town to distribute leaflets stating that newly appointed territorial governor Lew Wallace has issued a general amnesty order for all those involved in the Lincoln County War. The information is later confirmed by Joe Grant, a friend of Pat who has been appointed to monitor the amnesty. Tom and Charlie are elated because they want to go home, but Billy still plans to kill Moon and Hill. Although Tom tries to talk Billy out of more killing, Billy is adamant. After the three friends ride into Lincoln, Charlie has a child summon Moon to the sheriff's office. Once there, the frightened Moon says that he only did what Brady ordered and tries to convince Billy that "it's over" and no one wants "to get" him anymore. While Billy is considering Moon's words, Charlie impulsively shoots Moon, killing him. Tom is furious that Charlie has broken the amnesty but accompanies him and Billy to a hideout on the range. After Moon's murder, Hill implores Pat to come back to Lincoln and become the sheriff, but Pat declines because he is about to be married. On the day of his wedding, Billy, Tom and Charlie ride into Madeiro. Pat asks them not to cause trouble during the wedding and Billy promises to be good, even though he sees Hill in the distance. During the celebration, when Billy is posing for a picture, Hill yells that he is not a killer and only intended to arrest Tunstall. He also says that he would not shoot anyone who did not draw on him first. Billy remains silent, but when Hill starts to reach for his gun, Billy quickly draws his, precipitating a melee that results in Hill's death and Tom being wounded. Pat is furious that Billy has broken his word and frightened his wife and their friends. When Billy and Charlie ride out of town with Tom, Pat vows to become sheriff and put Billy in jail. Some time later, Tom has partially recovered but misses his home and decides to leave their hideout. Billy give Tom supplies and helps him mount his horse, but coldly says "that skinny dog ran off¿I don't want you" when he rides off. Unknown to the young outlaws, Pat is leading a posse that has taken cover nearby. When Tom is at the top of a ridge and stops to exchange waves with Charlie, Ollinger, a shotgun-carrying member of the posse, shoots and kills Tom. Although Pat had warned Ollinger not to shoot, a gunfight now ensues in which Charlie is killed and Billy eventually surrenders. After Billy is sentenced to hang for his crimes, people start to pour into Lincoln to witness the execution. As Pat tells his wife, Billy is now famous. Moultrie, a man who has followed Billy's exploits, visits him to display pulp magazines with stories of his exploits that have been published in the East. Before the execution can take place, Billy escapes, murdering his kind young guard as well as Ollinger. After his escape, Billy is helped by strangers and soon arrives in Madeiro. There he again encounters Moultrie, who shows him pictures of Charlie and Tom's bodies. When Billy rebukes Moultrie, the man cries that he writes stories about a Billy who stands up for glory, but "you're not him." Moments later, Billy sees Pat and a deputy ride into town and seeks refuge at Saval's house. Meanwhile, Moultrie finds Pat and tells him that Billy is in town but says he does not want the reward. Although Billy is ill, Celsa, Saval's pretty young wife, angrily demands that he leave. Seeing her emotion, Saval realizes that she and Billy had been lovers and is shattered. Celsa immediately embraces her husband, saying she only wants him, then orders Billy out. Tearfully giving Saval his gun and asking his help, Billy is standing at the open doorway when he hears Pat demand that he drop his gun. Although unarmed, Billy moves his left hand as if drawing his gun, and Pat shoots and kills him. As he approaches the dying Billy, Pat sees that his hand was empty. Shattered at what he has done, Pat compliantly goes with his wife when she guides him toward home.