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In the hills of Colorado, Ute Tribal Reservation representative Blue Elk seeks out young Thomas Black Bull who is living alone with his pet bear after the death of his father. Convincing the boy that he is needed to teach tribal members forgotten old customs, Blue Elk escorts Tom and his bear to the reservation. Once there, however, the superintendent, a white man, tells Tom that he must give up the old traditions to learn new ways. Despite his protests, Tom is placed in a classroom where other native boys mock his appearance and pet bear, who has been chained up outside. When Tom tries to break out that night, he is apprehended and locked in an empty room where he chants to the gods for consolation. The next morning, Blue Elk takes Tom and the bear back into the hills where he chains the bear to a tree and threatens to leave the animal there to starve unless Tom agrees to return voluntarily to the reservation. Over the next several years, Tom grows up at the reservation but remains a loner, comfortable only with horses. When Tom loses a job watching over a herd of wild horses due to his catching and breaking several without permission, the superintendent advises him to learn a trade or be destined to become a worthless drunk. In town soon after, bronco rider Tex Walker teasingly offers Tom a dollar if he can bring him his horse tied up across the street, knowing that the animal is barely tamed. Tom easily thwarts the horse's attempts to buck him off, which is witnessed by former rodeo rider Red Dillon, who then offers Tom a job. When Tom explains that he does not have a permit to leave the reservation, Red meets with the superintendent who provides papers that place Tom in Red's care. Red then takes Tom to his small farm that he runs with cook and handyman Meo and, over the next several days, works with Tom to improve his bronco riding skills. At the next rodeo, Tom wins handily, but Red criticizes his ride as too tame. In a bar afterward, Tex invites Tom for a drink while deriding him with ugly slurs about being an Indian. A drunken Red knocks Tex out after which he announces that Tom is his "boy," then calls for bets on Tom's ride the next day. Tom's continued success cements his partnership with Red and over the next several weeks the men follow the rodeo circuit throughout the region. After Tom wins several competitions, however, Red asks him to lose intentionally and, although puzzled, Tom complies. Red then pretends to let several irate bettors goad him into forcing Tom to ride again so that they might win back their money by betting that Tom will lose. When Tom wins, Red gleefully collects their winnings. Although Tom silently disapproves, he agrees to repeat the behavior through the next several competitions. At one show, a frustrated Tex reveals the scam to several glum losers and in a fury they attack Red until Tom comes to his rescue. Driving away from the melee, Tom expresses his discomfort with Red's tactics, but Red dismisses his objection. Later that night, Tom asks what the point of his winning is when Red continually drinks and gambles away the money. Red reminds Tom that he would be selling blankets on the reservation without him, but when Tom continues to protest, Red angrily beats up the young man. Soon after, Red and Tom return to the circuit where Tom continues winning and losing at Red's behest. One night, as a drunken Red lolls in their motel, Tom abruptly snaps and beats Red savagely. The next morning he sells Red's pickup and buys a flashy red convertible then retrieves the bleary Red. At a gas station stop, while Red goes inside to purchase some liquor, Tom abruptly drives away, abandoning him. Several miles down the road, Tom stops, takes Red's saddle out of the trunk and flings it into the river. Over the next several months, Tom continues on the rodeo circuit alone, where his brutal treatment of the horses gains him the nickname "Killer Tom Black." Tom's success leads him to the national championships, but during his ride he is thrown off the horse, which then rolls over him, breaking his leg. Tom recovers slowly in the hospital with no incentive to get well until a nurse, Mary, grows interested in him. Touched by her kindness and attention, Tom moves in with Mary when he is released from the hospital. Although Tom appreciates Mary's genuine affection, he soon grows frustrated by his limitations in finding work and leaves her. Tom returns to Red's farm, where his haggard former partner happily greets him and relates that he has lived alone since Meo's sudden death. Red reacts with surprise when Tom presents him with a beautiful new saddle and, acknowledging that he has followed Tom's career through newspapers and magazines, suggests the men resume their partnership. When Tom hesitates, Red lashes out, accusing the younger man of failing without his influence. Tom cuts Red off, stating that he earned several thousand dollars the previous year on his own, but has grown tired and fed up with the rodeo circuit life. Red does not reply, but retires with a bottle of Tom's liquor. That night, Tom awakens to hear Red driving away. The following morning, the town physician, Dr. Wilson, arrives to report that Red is holed up in a motel desperately ill with cirrhosis that has plagued him for many months. Tom hastens to the motel where Red feebly greets him before dying. At the funeral service, Tom leaves the saddle on top of Red's grave, then returns to the farm, which he burns down as dictated by Indian ritual. The next day Tom goes back to the Ute reservation where he meets the new head of the facility, a native tribal chairman. When the chairman asks what he wants, Tom explains that he was brought to the reservation to teach the old ways but was ignored. He declares that he has since learned the new ways and now only wants to be left alone with the horses.