When Glanton's crew rides out from a new town, they take with them a new recruit—a young kid named Sloat. They have a new contract from the governor asking them to get more Apache scalps.
They spend weeks wandering and looking for someone to kill. But they never find anyone. Eventually, they run into a Mexican general named Elias who has been sent out with a bunch of soldiers to kill Glanton's group. They fight and Glanton takes some serious losses, but most of the group escapes while Elias and his men come in pursuit.
One of the wounded men is Dick Shelby, and the kid is put in charge of finishing him off while the other men ride away. The kid waits with him and Shelby tells him to get it over with. Instead, the kid gets Shelby under the arms and drags him into a nearby bush to give him half a chance at survival. Shelby snatches at the kid's gun, but the kid backs away in time and leaves him.
The kid catches up with another guy named Tate whose horse has been badly hurt. Tate basically has no ride, so the kid gets off his own horse and they walk together, leading their horses by the bridle.
Snow starts falling and the kid and Tate make camp for the night. The men of General Elias practically trip over them during the night. The kid makes a narrow escape, though he doesn't know what happened to Tate. We can only assume that Elias' men got him.
Now the kid has to walk carefully through the cold desert, sleeping under the stars and nearly dying of hypothermia.
He sees a fire in the distance and moves toward it. When he reaches it, he realizes that it's a single tree burning in the desert. He falls asleep in its warmth, and it's almost as if some higher being put it there for him to keep himself warm.
He finds some tracks the next day and follows them, figuring that they have to lead somewhere worthwhile. Eventually, he comes across a burned wagon and a wander horse. He mounts it with some difficult and rides on.
Then he sees a group of riders and catches up to them. It's Glanton's crew, and they're all looking like they're about to die. Elias' soldiers have put them through the ringer.
The next night, the men need food. So the judge takes a horse and kills it by smashing its head in with a rock. The next day, they reach another town and stay there for the night.