One of the immigrants loses his life, crushed under a wagon wheel as Paramount+’s 1883 season one episode three gets underway. Elsa (Isabel May) informs the audience death is everywhere and takes forms “your worst nightmare couldn’t muster” as scenes of animal attacks, wagon accidents, and a snakebite confirm her narration.
Animals, accidents, sickness, and bandits shrink the group’s numbers, but it’s crossing the river that strikes the most fear in the hearts of those making this perilous journey.
James Dutton (Tim McGraw) and Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott) discuss the best way to get the wagons across the river, with Shea certain taking a ferry at Denison is the answer. James reminds him Denison’s the wrong direction, but Shea believes it’s the safest way to cross.
James disagrees and informs Shea he’s going west, even if that means the Duttons will be parting ways with the group. After James rides off, Thomas (LaMonica Garrett) reminds Shea heading to Denison puts them two weeks behind. Shea’s worried about drowning the immigrants if they cross now or running out of water if they head west.
The group hasn’t left Texas yet and Thomas seems to agree with James that going west might be the best option. He believes any delay would leave them more vulnerable to the winter weather.
Ennis (Eric Nelsen) visits the Duttons’ camp and tells James the cowboys are about to return home. A few more men will be needed to watch over the herd after the cowboys take off and, unfortunately, the immigrants can’t speak English or ride. Ennis asks for James’ help and both Elsa and Margaret (Faith Hill) volunteer. Margaret would rather be riding a horse than handling their wagon, which means James will be left in charge of babysitting John while also hunting for their dinner.
John (Audie Rick) promises his dad he can be quiet, but James doesn’t appear to be convinced any of this is a good idea.
As James rides out of camp to hunt, Shea and Thomas carry on a conversation about his skills. He’s not a team player and Thomas is concerned that having two leaders in the group – Shea and James – won’t work out well.
As they’re riding through camp, Thomas and Shea spot a gypsy woman named Noemi (Gratiela Brancusi) having trouble with her horses. Her husband was shot by the bandits that attacked the camp, and Shea and Thomas help her out. They also share useful tips and provide her young sons with water.
Noemi’s desperate and doesn’t have any family members to turn to. She suggests she could be Shea’s wife, but he turns down her offer. However, Shea will help her set up camp and take care of her horses. He promises he’ll get her to Oregon and maybe she’ll find a husband there or learn how to farm. She pleads with him to be there to teach her, but Shea once again says no. He’s not interested in ever getting married again.
Thomas shows Noemi how to hobble the horses and makes her smile when he says a handsome farmer will woo her once she arrives in Portland. He assures her they’ll help her on the journey and suggests she shouldn’t marry out of fear.
Shea asks about her supplies and learns others in the group stole them after her husband was murdered. Shea beats the man she points out and Thomas joins in after a man excuses their behavior by saying Noemi and her family are just gypsies. Thomas warns the man to never question his orders and Shea takes an ax and disables the wagon’s tongue.
The man’s family can no longer travel with the group. “If you steal, you will stay where you stole,” growls Shea. He sets their horses loose, and then he and Thomas retrieve Noemi’s stolen supplies.
Shea adds a warning that if he sees them again, he’ll kill them. He tells Josef to police his people or else he’ll find someone else willing to take charge.
Thomas and Shea admit they’re having second thoughts about this trip, but Thomas also admits he’s thinking ahead. There’s a possibility one of the kids in the group will have children someday who will do something to make the world a better place.
Shea remains pessimistic. “The world ain’t getting better, Thomas, no matter how many kids are in it,” he says.
Margaret and Elsa join Ennis and Wade (James Landry Hébert), and Margaret immediately takes charge of the situation. She orders the cattle moved to the river and won’t take no for an answer. Wade follows Margaret and Elsa flirts with Ennis, making him blush. Ennis jokes that she has terrible taste in men, and Elsa snaps back calling him a boy. She whispers, “I guess I have terrible taste in boys, too.”
Ennis is overjoyed when Elsa admits she likes this flirting thing they’ve got going on.
Meanwhile, James tries to explain to John why he needs to be quiet even if the horse is making noise. John’s about to start crying when James points out a herd of deer. They use the cover of tall grass and James takes aim, instructing John to put his finger on the trigger and pull. The deer goes down and John’s made his first kill.
The deer’s large enough to feed the family for a week. James places some of its blood on John’s cheeks and says, “You took a life to give us life so now we say thank you.” John does as told and thanks the dead deer.
Shea’s at the Dutton camp when James and John return with their fresh kill. Shea explains their situation and that he needs everyone – including James – to follow his orders without question. James points out he questioned the decision to go east and now Shea’s decided they will go west as he suggested. James says he’ll always put his family first and reminds Shea he doesn’t work for him.
When Shea says he’s going to let James go first and he’ll follow with the group in three days, James immediately disagrees. He tells Shea to go first and says he’ll follow with the herd. Shea agrees and it’s apparent from how quickly he changed his mind that this was always his plan.
James initially offered Shea some of the deer but changes his mind. Shea leaves camp without sharing a meal with the Duttons.
Elsa watches her mother herd the cattle and suddenly understands she’s not just a mother, she’s a powerful woman in her own right.
Night falls and Josef (Marc Rissmann) attempts to calm the group. They’re upset that Shea’s booting members of the group from the caravan and mistakenly believe they don’t really need Shea and Thomas’ help anymore.
Shea walks up and challenges the group to come and take the horses and his guns. He then has the troublemaker step away from the group and prepare for a duel. Of course Shea’s a faster draw, but he doesn’t pull the trigger.
Shea recalls a battle during the war in which he fired so many rounds that his rifle’s barrel melted. He switched to his pistol, then his sword, and ultimately killed his enemies with his boots and bare hands. “We killed 5,000 men that day. When I say killing you means nothing to me, I mean it,” says Shea in a quiet, controlled voice.
Shea walks a short distance away and reminds the man he promised to kill him if he ever saw him again. This will be his only opportunity to make a liar out of him. The family he booted out must leave immediately.
Before he retires, Shea instructs the immigrants to boil as much water as they can. It will be scarce from now on.
Shea joins Thomas at the campfire and says they’ll need to keep Noemi’s wagon at the front of the group. He believes the people he’s kicked out will round up men in Fort Worth to come after them.
Thomas and Shea agree Shea should have just shot them.
Wade sings as they watch over the herd and Margaret tells Elsa it calms the herd. Ennis thanks the women and suggests they get some sleep. Margaret notices the smiles exchanged between her lovely daughter and the cowboy but doesn’t say anything about it.
Margaret and James share a quiet moment together by the campfire and discuss Elsa. They realize she’s turning into a woman, and Margaret compliments her horsemanship. Margaret tells James that Elsa and Ennis are interested in each other, and James jokes that he’ll shoot Ennis in the morning.
Margaret admits she’s worried it’s not fair there aren’t any gentlemen where they’re heading. James reminds her she didn’t marry a gentleman and she tells him she wouldn’t change a thing. She confesses she wouldn’t mind a big house and James replies, “I’m going to build you a house so big you get lost in it.”
“Deal,” responds Margaret as James gently kisses her forehead.
The following morning the group gets on the move again. Margaret and John are in the wagon while James and Elsa join Ennis and Wade with the herd. James tells Ennis he has permission to court Elsa and Ennis is confused. He’s uncertain what “court” means.
James describes it as talking and going on rides, and Ennis says they’re doing that already. James warns that if Ennis gets handsy or breaks her heart, there will be hell to pay.
Ennis asks James to define handsy and then quickly realizes he picked a rotten time to make a joke. He issues a sincere apology and knows he’s made a serious error in judgment.
In a voice-over Elsa describes the group as being on two journeys. One is full of despair and danger, and the other is full of adventure and wonder. At the present time, she’s on the latter and loving this life. But she adds, “I didn’t know enough to know they would collide. I didn’t know enough to know how cruel and uncaring this world could be.”
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