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|John Wayne||Wil Andersen|
|Roscoe Lee Browne||Jebediah Nightlinger|
|Bruce Dern||Long Hair|
|Alfred Barker Jr.||Fats - Cowboy|
|Nicolas Beauvy||Dan - Cowboy|
|Steve Benedict||Steve - Cowboy|
|Robert Carradine||Slim Honeycutt - Cowboy|
|Norman Howell||Weedy - Cowboy (as Norman Howell Jr.)|
|Stephen R. Hudis||Charlie Schwartz - Cowboy (as Stephen Hudis)|
|Sean Kelly||Stuttering Bob - Cowboy|
|A Martinez||Cimarron - Cowboy|
|Clay O'Brien||Hardy Fimps - Cowboy|
|Sam O'Brien||Jimmy Phillips - Cowboy|
|Mike Pyeatt||Homer Weems - Cowboy|
When his ranch hands abandon him to join a gold rush, rancher Wil Andersen (John Wayne) is forced to find replacement drovers for his yearly 400-mile (640 km) long cattle drive. He rides into deserted Bozeman, Montana. There, Anse Peterson (Slim Pickens) suggests using local schoolboys. Andersen visits the school but departs unconvinced. The next morning, a group of the boys show up at Andersen's ranch to volunteer for the drive. Andersen tests the boys' ability to stay on a bucking horse. As the boys successfully take turns, Cimarron (A Martinez), another young man slightly older than the others, rides up. After successfully subduing and riding the test horse, Cimarron gets into a fight with Slim, the oldest of the boys. Andersen, though impressed by Cimarron's abilities, has misgivings because of his angry nature and sends him away. Andersen reluctantly decides to hire the boys.
While Andersen and the boys prepare for the cattle drive, a group of mysterious men led by "Long Hair" Asa Watts (Bruce Dern) show up asking for work. Andersen catches Watts in a lie about his past, and refuses to hire them. Jebediah "Jeb" Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne), a Black camp cook arrives with a chuck wagon, making Anderson's trail crew complete.
Under Andersen's continued tutelage, the boys learn to rope, brand and herd the cattle and horses. Much to Andersen's concern, Cimarron follows the drive from afar. However, while crossing a river, Slim slips off his horse and, unable to swim, starts to drown. Although Slim is saved by Cimarron, Andersen berates one of the boys for his stuttering problem which nearly caused Slim's death. The stuttering boy swears at Andersen repeatedly, losing his stutter in the process. Satisfied, Andersen decides to let Cimarron stay. During another episode, the boys steal Nightlinger's whiskey and drink it, all of them getting severely drunk. Afterwards, one of the boys falls off his horse and is trampled to death by the herd. Slowly, the boys learn under Andersen's tutelage and become rather good cowhands, impressing both Andersen and Nightlinger.
Soon after, Mr. Nightlinger's chuck wagon throws a wheel. As the cowboys continue to drive the herd, Mr. Nightlinger stays behind to fix the chuck wagon. That night, the rustlers surprise Andersen and the cowboys in night camp, leading to a fistfight between Andersen and Watts in which Andersen ultimately gets the upper hand. Watts mortally wounds Andersen and steals the herd, the horses, and in Watts' words "everything but the fire." The following day, Nightlinger catches up to the group to find the boys tending to the dying Andersen. Before succumbing to his wounds, Andersen tells the boys how proud he is of all of them, that every man wants his children to be better than he was, and that they have become so. Following Andersen's burial and on a prearranged signal, the boys overpower and bind Nightlinger, seizing the weapons stored in his chuck wagon and vowing to re-take the herd and finish the trail drive. When the group catches up to the herd and the rustlers, Nightlinger offers to help the boys make a plan to overcome the outlaws. Using ruses, trickery, and ambush, the boys kill the rustlers to a man, including Watts.
After the boys complete the drive to Belle Fourche and sell the cattle, they use some of the proceeds to pay a stonemason to carve a marker with Andersen's name and the legend "Husband and Father," in clear reference to the position that Andersen had earned in their lives. They place the marker in the approximate location of Andersen's grave and head for home.