The film is set in Rio County Texas and starts with Sergeant Cliff and Mikey close to Fort McKenzie. Mikey is an artist who metal detects bullets to make works of art. While metal detecting in the area of Fort Mckenzie, he discovers a skull, a mason ring and a sheriff’s badge. Both men call the current Sheriff, Sam, and thus the film’s plot is based on the body that was uncovered. Many flashbacks throughout the movie shed light as to whose body it is and why the person was murdered. The film is framed by racial tensions intertwined with political and commercial interests in the county of Rio.
Sheriff Sam Deeds suspects that the skull belongs to a previous Sheriff, Charlie Wade. He goes to the Mexican Restaurant, Santa Barbara to ask Mayor Hollis if he remember how Charlie Wade disappeared more than 40 years ago. While finding Mayor Hollis having lunch with Fenton and another man they discuss the current tensions of the town. The mayor wants to currently open a Courthouse under the name Buddy Deeds Memorial Courthouse but there are some locals especially reporters that disagree with giving it the name of Buddy Deeds. Fenton argues that, “Everything else in the country is called after Martin Luther King. We can’t have one measly courthouse.” Hollis makes the comment, “King wasn’t Mexican.” Clearly, there is a binary division between whites and non-whites in the County of Rio. Hollis proceeds to retell the story of how Charlie Wade disappeared from Rio County.
According to the account of Hollis, Wade left after a feud he had with Sam’s father Buddy Deeds. He describes Wade as an “old-fashioned bribe-or-bullets kind of Sheriff”. Apparently Wade used to let Mexicans cross the border illegally as long as they pay him a certain amount to look the other way. Wade would not arrest any of the undocumented workers working for Jimmy Herrera as long as Herrera paid him a portion. Charlie Wade wanted Buddy Deeds to take over the operation by saying, “it’s your deal”. Wade justifies his actions by saying that its better for Jimmy Herrera to have a business in the U.S than in Mexico, insinuating that he’s doing him a favor. Buddy Deeds refuses to take over and threatens Wade to skip town or he’ll be either in jail or dead. He continues to threaten him by telling him that he knows about the money taken from the County Road Project and that he would be pressing charges. Once the flashback is over, Hollis tells Sam that Wade picked up some money from Roderick’s Club and then he disappears the next day with $10,000 worth of County funds from the safe. When Sam asked if Buddy Deeds imprisoned all of Jimmy Herrera’s undocumented workers, Hollis answers that they had, “come to an arrangement.”
Meanwhile at Fort McKenzie, Colonel Payne announces that the post will be closed. Colonel Payne is the son of Otis Payne who runs the “colored” club, Big O’s. The Colonel reveals in the film that Otis had left him while he was a boy and moved in with his mother’s best friend. He is resentful of his father and refuses to visit him. They both are forced to become acquainted when a shooting happens at Big O’s. Colonel Payne is not aware that his son Chet was there at the night of the shooting when he went to see his grandfather Otis. The shooting involved two “colored” privates from Fort Mckenzie, the shooter happened to be Private Johnson’s ex-boyfriend. Private Athena Johnson is having a conversation with Sergeant Cliff and Sergeant Priscilla Worth of the events that transpired at Big O’s. She is told that the infraction will not be recorded and that the victim, Private Ritchie, will be transferred and be medically discharged once he gets out of the hospital. Later in the film, Private Johnson is asked to give a urine sample for drug testing. Colonel Payne and Private Johnson have a conversation involving her getting an Article 15. He asks her what her true beliefs are while in the Army. Private Johnson tells him that she can do the job and that, “It’s ‘their’ country. This is one of the best deals they offer.” Colonel Payne asks her how she believes that he got a job position in which she answers that he’s good at doing his job and doing what “they” (Anglos) tell him to do. She believes that the reason why people of color are allowed in the Army is because the military has to fight other people abroad and, “might as well use them.”
Rio County is facing other prejudices in the education front. Pilar, a teacher, is meeting with some parents and educators at her school. Parents are complaining about how she is teaching the Alamo and that she is ruining “their” heritage and the memory of the “people” who fought and died for the land. A Mexican parent exclaims that Mexicans fought and died for the land as well. Another parent argues that Mexicans lost and therefore winners get bragging rights. One of the parent’s believe that facts not written in the textbook should not be taught because it is not “the standard.” Another parent believes that the people who “founded” Texas, should have their story told while someone else believes that the only reason they founded the state was to make slavery legal. The educators try to defend their position and claim that it is not about winners or losers but that they are trying to teach the complexity of their current situation and show a more complete picture. Pilar is having her own family battles as well. Her son Amado was put in jail at the beginning of the film. Pilar goes to the jail to find her son but they tell her that they can’t find him. She sees Sheriff Sam, her high school ex boyfriend, and asks him to help her. Sam finds Amado at the jail and tells him that most people that steal could afford the stolen items on minimum wage. Amado defends himself by saying that he didn’t steal anything and was just helping install a stereo.
Sam is still investigating the skull found on Fort Mckenzie. It’s confirmed that the skull belonged to a 40-60 year old caucasian, male. This confirmsthat the skull belongs to Charlie Wade. Sam is convinced that his father, Buddy Deeds murdered Charlie but everywhere he goes people in town defend Buddy Deed’s reputation. Mexicans seem to respect Buddy Deeds and so do African Americans. Sam is not convinced but everyone seems to know something that he does not. The Mayor and Fenton along with others are nervous since they are trying to have the Buddy Deeds Memorial without old history coming up. During the Buddy Deeds Memorial Courthouse ceremony it is discovered that the Fort McKenzie is being closed down and will be replaced by a county jail. Sam argues that the county does not need a jail. As it turns out, Jorge wants the jail built because it will bring more jobs to the county and he can use that in exchange for votes in order to become County Mayor. Fenton’s construction company is building the jail therefore it would be beneficial for him to have Sam tell the people that they need one. Pilar is there and her mother, Mercedes Cruz, is the one that cuts the ribbon. A statue of Buddy Deeds with a child is revealed. Fenton makes the comment that the child is Mexican and that Buddy Deeds would, “run that Mexican kid for loitering”. Sam sees Pilar at the event and both of them walk off to talk in private. Sam had been away for some time and came back to Rio County because he quit his father-in-law’s business and divorced his wife. The film portrays a flashback in which Sam and Pilar were each other’s first sexual experience but their parents did not allow them to be together. They later reestablish a romantic relationship. Pilar goes and talks to her mother at the restaurant she owns. Mercedes makes a few side comments and says that she does not hire illegals, that all her workers have green cards but after arguing with her daughter over the past, she yells at her workers, “You people are stealing from me”.One of Mercedes employees, Enrique, decides to bring the mother of his child to the United States by crossing the river. His fiancee hurt her leg while crossing and Enrique takes her and his friend to the home of Mercedes. Mercedes is clearly upset and offers to call Border Patrol but Enrique begs her to help them instead. Mercedes reluctantly takes them to a friend of hers who used to be a doctor from “the other side”. The irony lies in the fact that Mercedes herself met her first husband Eladio Cruz while she was crossing the river many years ago. Eladio Cruz is shot by then Sheriff Wade when he discovered that Cruz was smuggling Mexican workers across the border. Mercedes marries the infamous Charlie Wade.
After much digging, resentful of his relationship with his father, Sam comes to the conclusion that Buddy Deeds killed Sheriff Wade. He confronts both Hollis and Otis about the night that Sheriff Wade disappears. Otis starts to tell his story and the film goes back in time and shows one final flashback. After Wade and Buddy Deeds argued at the Mexican restaurant, they made a stop at the “colored club”, then owned by Roderick. Otis at the time was working for Roderick and did not expect for Wade to show up so soon. While Sheriff Wade and Deputy Hollis enter the club, they find Otis gambling, a side gig that Wade knew nothing about and therefore had received no cut from. Sheriff Charlie Wade brawls with Otis with the intention of teaching him a lesson. While Otis is getting some money and a gun to give to Charlie Wade, Buddy Deeds appears and a shot has been fired. In defense of Otis, Deputy Hollis has shot Charlie Wade in the back. The three of them carry the body and bury it by Fort Mckenzie. Buddy Deeds took the $10,000 from the County and gave them to Mercedes as “widow’s benefit” which she used to open the Santa Barbara restaurant. Sam reassures Hollis and Otis that he will not tell anyone what really happened that night and that even if people found out they would most likely dismiss it since Buddy Deeds is a legend. During Sam’s investigation, he discovered that Pilar is not the daughter of Eladio Cruz but of his father Buddy Deeds. Even though Sam and Pilar are half siblings, they decide to stay together in a romantic relationship but not have children. At the end of the film Pilar suggests to forget the past. She says, “Start from scratch? All that other stuff and all that history…to hell with it right? Forget the Alamo”.