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In antebellum Kentucky, the beautiful Amantha "Manty" Starr arrives home from finishing school in Cincinnati just after the death of her father, kindly plantation owner Aaron Starr. During the funeral, it is revealed that Manty's mother, who had died years before, was one of Starr's slaves and that Manty, now considered chattel of the estate, is to be sold by a slave trader to whom Starr had been deeply in debt. At a slave auction in New Orleans, a wealthy gentleman named Hamish Bond pays a huge sum for Manty, intending to treat her as a lady in his household. Because she assumes she is to be a kept woman, however, she rebuffs his offer of friendship. Michele, the head housekeeper, who is herself in love with Hamish, secretly gives Manty a ticket to Cincinnati, but Rau-Ru, an educated slave who helps Hamish manage his business affairs, prevents Manty from boarding the boat. Later Hamish confesses that he is tormented by his past, and Manty, who now sees another side of Hamish, kisses him. The next morning, Hamish takes Manty to his largest plantation and offers to free her. She hesitates but decides to remain with Hamish. Soon afterward, Hamish learns that war has been declared. While he visits another of his plantations, Manty accepts the attentions of his wealthy white neighbor, Charles de Marigny, which leads Rau-Ru to accuse her of betraying her people by attempting to live as a white woman. When de Marigny attacks Manty, however, Rau-Ru strikes him, and subsequently is forced to run away to the North. There he becomes a Union soldier under the command of Seth Parton, a self-righteous minister who had courted Manty when she was at finishing school. Hamish returns to the plantation and, in defiance of Union general Benjamin Butler's order, sets his own crops ablaze in order to keep them out of Yankee hands. As his fields burn, Hamish confesses to Manty that in his younger days, he had been a ruthless slave trader. With some reluctance, Manty leaves Hamish to begin a new life in New Orleans, and there she encounters Parton, who threatens to tell her new sweetheart, Ethan Sears, that she is black unless she makes love to him. Horrified, Manty returns to Hamish's New Orleans home, where she learns that he is on the run for burning his crops. Rau-Ru, who despises Hamish for having treated him with kindness, which he calls, "the worst kind of bondage," discovers where his old master is hiding and holds him at gunpoint. When Hamish tells Rau-Ru that he rescued him from a slave trader's bullet when he was an infant, however, Rau-Ru decides to let Hamish go. At that moment, Union troops arrive and Rau-Ru, while loudly proclaiming that he has captured Hamish, quietly slips his former owner the handcuff keys. Hamish escapes from the Union soldiers as Rau-Ru leads Manty to the cove where Hamish plans to rendezvous with an old seafaring friend. Bidding farewell to Rau-Ru, Hamish and Manty embrace and then board the boat that will take them to safety.