The McCoys try to coerce Johnse Hatfield into taking his own life.
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In 1863 as the American Civil War rages, two Confederate brothers-in-arms choose different paths as Union soldiers bear down on their vulnerable position. 'Devil' Anse Hatfield (Kevin Costner) opts for strategic withdrawal, while Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton) musters as many firearms as possible and repels the oncoming forces as best he can while his comrades make their escape.
When the war is over, McCoy, released from the prison camp where he saw out the conflict, returns to find that his wife and children are barely scraping by, while Hatfield has moved, very successfully, in to the timber industry. They are the patriarchal figures of their respective families, the McCoys being from Kentucky and the Hatfields coming from West Virginia.
The McCoys are soon claiming, with dubious proof, that the Hatfields' land is rightfully theirs. The Hatfields' attorney Perry Cline advises: "War changes men, peace time can turn them into scheming
snakes." This is the beginning of a feud that sees the families come to blows over love, land and livestock, nearly pushing the states of Kentucky and Virginia towards another civil war.
"There's no North or South. Just people who've got money and I’m here to do business," says Devil, outlining how he sees the post-war landscape. The alleged theft of a Hatfield pig at the hands of a
McCoy brings the clans to court, where the jury of twelve is divided in half, six from each family.
"This is about honour and lying and stealing and murdering," says Randall. "It's about sin."
"If you two don't mend what's wrong between our two families, hellfire's gonna certain rise up and consume both," Judge Wall tells the assembly. His prediction proves to be well-considered.
Devil's good-looking son Johnse Hatfield falls for Randall's beautiful daughter Roseanna. She is banished from the McCoy household, only to be later rejected by the Hatfield matriarch, Levicy (Sarah Parish).
Heartbroken and pregnant, she seeks shelter with a distant aunt, while a drunken Johnse falls into the clasp of Roseanna's cousin Nancy. Perry surreptitiously offers Roseanna away to make the baby legitimate, but when he is rebuffed he suggests to the McCoy menfolk a more robust way of dealing with the issue.