The film starts at a rodeo. Smokey Banks is in his trailer, and he is due to compete in the bull-riding. He is obviously hung over as he drags himself outside and accepts his competition entry number (179)
We see Danny O'Neill sitting on the bleachers with some other young boys. He calls out happily when he sees Smokey getting ready for his ride. The ride lasts no time at all, and Smokey is thrown. He picks himself up off the dusty ground, rubbing his left shoulder. The boy is disappointed and suffers the jeers from his friends concerning his hero.
Smokey goes into the men's room and fills a basin with water. Two men follow him inside. They demand he pays back the money he owes, and they hold his head under the water when he says he cannot pay. Danny sees this happen. Smokey comes out of the men's room and puts looks in his pocket for some money for the drinks machine but he comes up short. Danny offers him some money which he takes. The machine doesn't deliver so he kicks it. Despite taking money from Danny, he is quite rude to him.
Smokey goes back to his trailer, only to find it has been hitched up to a repo truck and is being hauled away. He jumps into the nearest vehicles and goes after the truck, forcing it to pull over. He has an argument with the repoman when the man refuses to hand back the trailer saying it has been repossessed by the Bank. He hits he Repo man and ends up in jail.
Smokey is sentenced to 90 days but is given the option of serving his time in jail or by assisting the man whose vehicle he stole when he went chasing after his trailer. He sees Danny standing with Mike Stillwell and groans... but agrees.
A policeman delivers him to the Saguaro Boys Ranch where he learns that he owes his 'freedom' to Danny as long as he is prepared to work out his sentence. Stillwell tells Smokey that Danny's parents were killed by a drunk driver - and that Danny wants to learn how to ride a bull.
Stillwell sets down a few rules: Smokey will be a ranch hand, which means he cannot leave the ranch unless someone of Scout rank goes with him. Smokey agrees, reluctantly.
That evening the other boys play a practical joke on Danny which Smokey finds really amusing. He offers to help Danny pay them back but Danny refuses. He tells Danny that no one would ever be able to play a joke like that on him.
Smokey wakes up the next day and finds he has been tied to the bed.
A few nights later. Three boys are down by the pond. They hear laughter and see Smokey skinny-dipping with some equally naked young women. They send one boy back for binoculars but he gets questioned by Stillwell, and the next scene has Smokey standing in Stillwell's office clad in his cowboy hat, boots and a very short towel getting reprimanded.
Stillwell sets down a few rules: Smokey will be a ranch hand, which means he cannot leave the ranch unless someone of Scout rank goes with him. Smokey agrees, reluctantly as the alternative is to go back to jail.
Smokey decides to play a game of poker with the young boys, obviously expecting to beat them, and wins all of their money. Danny refuses to gamble for money, but is willing to play for something else... a promise that Smokey will attend the service held after each rodeo if he wins, a free pass from the ranch if he loses. They play and Smokey loses to Danny.
Danny wants to learn how to ride a bull but Smokey says it is impossible to teach him without the necessary equipment. The following day, like a miracle, a truck pulls up with a mechanical bull that has been donated to the ranch
First bull riding lesson: Smokey gives Danny two rules. 1. Cowboys don't hug. 2. Sir is Daddy's name.
Danny asks why Smokey never married. He responds that he's never been caught, that he puts over 100,000 miles on his truck each year and never stays long in one place as he travels the rodeo circuit.
Smokey teaches Danny as much as he can on the mechanical bull but tells Stillwell that he needs to try his hand on a real bull. Next day a real bull is offloaded, but it is too placid.
Smokey is started to get close to Danny, and he offers him his champions buckle, but Danny refuses to take it, saying he wants to win his own. He discovers, by chance, that the reason Danny wears a hat constantly is because he has no hair - lost through chemotherapy as Danny is dying of cancer. Smokey is upset.
Smokey packs his stuff, ending up getting drunk at a local bar with a friend and some girls. There is a fight. When Smokey wakes up he finds he is back in his cabin at the ranch. When he asks how he got there Stillwell's niece says the Police identified him from the shorts he was wearing - they had the ranch's name printed inside them.
Smokey is told that he caused a lot of damage and has been fined on top. Stillwell pays the debt. Stillwell also pays off the debt to the bank so Smokey can have his trailer returned.
The two thugs catch up with Smokey, still demanding payment for his gambling debts. They follow Smokey to the Saguarro ranch and try to demand the money there but Stillwell pays them off. When they are still not satisfied, and come back to hurt Smokey, they are caught and arrested.
The day of the ride: Danny steps into the line with all the other competitors, and then is horrified o realise he will have to remove his hat in front of everyone for the national anthem. He looks at the boys, believing they would ridicule him but, one by one, they remove their own hats and he sees they have ALL shaved their own heads. He takes his hat off with pride.
Danny is in chute 2... he rides well and gains a cheer from the other boys.
After the rodeo he goes to the bar tent as Smokey had promised to attend the service with him after the show. Smokey refuses but the men with him call him on it as it was gambling debt. He is forced to stand in the tent and listen to the sermon. When the preacher asks if anyone present is ready to be saved, Smokey gets upset and has a go at Stillwell - in the tent - about a God who can let someone as good as Danny have so much tragedy in his life.
They get back to the ranch and Danny is presented with his buckle. Danny collapses at the dinner table and is rushed to hospital. Smokey rides out across the mesa and sits down at the edge looking over the plain - and cries, pleading with God to let Danny live and take him instead.
Danny dies but Smokey has started to understand that it is not how long you live that matters, but what you do with the time you have.
Smokey has done his time and is free to go, but he has agreed to come back between rodeo seasons to help around the ranch and teach the boys how to ride, having finally found some place he could call home.