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When Missouri farm boy Jesse James witnesses the lynching of his father by the Yankees, he forsakes his family's homestead to find his brother Frank, a soldier in Quantrill's Raiders, a renegade band of Confederates. Bent on revenge, Jesse begs to join the raiders, but Quantrill rejects him as a hot-headed kid. Quantrill reconsiders, however, when Jesse proves his prowess with a gun by shooting a water dipper from the hand of his cousin, Cole Younger. Quantrill sends Jesse, Frank and Cole to a Yankee-controlled town, where Jesse, disguised in a woman's dress, is to contact Fowler, a printer who is working undercover for the Confederates. As Jesse waits in the print shop, a Yankee officer enters, and upon noticing the boots that Jesse is wearing under his dress, challenges him. Just then, Frank and Cole burst in and shoot the officer through the head, sickening Jesse. The three then gallop out of town in a hail of bullets. Back at camp, Zack, a sadistic young tough, provokes a fight with Jesse, prompting Pitts, one of the calmer men, to befriend Jesse. Quantrill next orders Cole, Jesse and Zack to sabotage a Yankee ammunition dump while Frank waits in ambush for some Union supply wagons. Although Cole admonishes the boys to avoid violence, Zack decides to defy him and kill a couple of Yankees. When one of the sentries overpowers Jesse, Zack saves his life by shooting him. Their mission completed, they return to camp and soon after, Frank arrives with the wagons and several Union prisoners. When Jesse recognizes among them the man who lynched his father, he coldly shoots him in the back. Having achieved his revenge, Jesse returns home to his mother and sweetheart, Zerelda. There, Jesse confides to Zee that he fears the war has permanently changed their lives. When Zee shows Jesse a sampler reading "God Bless Our Home" that she has embroidered for his mother's birthday, Jesse realizes that his calling is with Quantrill and rides off. Quantrill's ensuing campaign of terror transforms Jesse into a bloodthirsty killer. One day, while he and Cole break Zack out of jail, Jesse cold-heartedly hurls a knife into the sheriff's chest, arousing Cole's anger. Afterward, Quantrill sends Cole to hijack some wagons and Cole warns Jesse to stop trying to emulate the unscrupulous Quantrill. When Jesse's horse throws him, breaking Jesse's ankle, Cole takes him to a cabin owned by Belle Starr, Cole's erstwhile lover. Cole resumes his affair with Belle, but once Jesse recovers, the two men depart to complete their mission. Upon reaching a fork in the road, Cole stops and announces that, disillusioned by Quantrill's tactics, he has decided to leave and join the regular Confederate army. After pointing Jesse to the trail over which the Union wagons will pass, Cole rides off. Soon after, Jesse triumphantly returns to camp with the wagons. Zee has come there to talk to him, and when Zack tries to rape her, Jesse guns him down. After Zee reports that the Yankees have burned down the family farm and that his mother lost her arm in the attack, Jesse renews his vow of revenge. Just then, word comes that General Lee has surrendered and the war is over. When Jesse asserts that he still has a score to settle, Zee swears that she will never marry him unless he renounces his bitterness and turns himself over to the Yankees. Jesse consents to her terms, but when he rides peacefully to Yankee headquarters, a soldier recognizes him as one of Quantrill's men and shoots him. Upon recovering from his near fatal wound, Jesse returns home to marry Zee and resume his life as a farmer. Unable to raise the funds to plant a new crop, Frank and Jesse asks Knox, the town banker, for a loan, but he turns them down because of their notoriety. Soon after, Cole and his brothers Bob and Jim, who have turned outlaw, come to the farm to recruit Frank. When Frank refuses to join without Jesse, Cole reluctantly agrees to work with his old nemesis and outlines his plan to rob the bank, insisting that there be no violence. Once inside the bank, however, Jesse shoots Knox for rejecting his loan. In the ensuing gunfight, Jim is shot, but the outlaws escape. As Cole grimly bandages his brother's wound, Jesse brandishes the bag stuffed with money. Cole orders Jesse to toss him the bag and when Jesse refuses, Frank pulls his gun and forces him to turn it over. After Cole dumps out the cash to use the bag as a bandage, Jesse warns Frank that he will kill him the next time he pulls a gun on him. Seizing his share of the loot, Jesse defiantly rides out alone, and Frank, blaming himself for his brother's decline, follows.