Jesse decides there will be no more beatings at the hands of his drunken father. He runs away from his family’s ranch and joins a group of homeless teenage boys in squatting on an abandoned ranch house. To get by they rustle cattle in western New Mexico during the 1930’s depression. Jesse is arrested and sentenced to the state penitentiary. He discovers that prison is a place of vicious guards and brutal convicts. He learns that his survival is based on knowing and following the prison’s unwritten code. Jesse survives his sentence and is released from prison. He believes that being feared is the secret to survival. To him everyone is either a predator or the prey.
Jesse joins a rustling syndicate when he returns to the ranching community. While hiding out, he learns about a lost treasure in western New Mexico and becomes obsessed with finding it. The more he searches for the treasure, the greater his need for finding it. His fear that someone else will find his treasure triggers a surge in his distrust of other people. As his paranoia rages, it drives him to commit multiple murders.
Jesse’s two younger brothers, Joe and Wade, return from World War II as grown men hardened by combat who no longer idolize Jesse. Instead, they suspect him of killing their father while they were away fighting in the war. The hard feelings between the brothers sparks a fight between them at a reunion on Mom’s ranch. The mutual distrust between the brothers culminates the following summer in a tragic confrontation between the three brothers on the malpais, a desolate lava flow.