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In the 1860s, during peace negotiations at Fort Yuma, an elderly Mimbreno Apache chief is killed by a white settler, prompting the chief's son, Mangas Colorado, to declare a resumption of war. Capt. Santley sends a message to Gen. Crooke at Fort Apache, requesting two full companies as reinforcement, but the messenger is captured by the Indians and killed before reaching his destination. Meanwhile, at Fort Apache, veteran officer Lt. Ben Keegan is given command of a cavalry column to escort ammunition and supplies to Fort Yuma. Although Keegan harbors an intense hatred for Apaches and is displeased at having an Apache, Sgt. Jonas, assigned as his scout, he is secretly in love with Jonas' sister Francesca, who is accompanying missionary schoolteacher Melanie Crowne on her journey to the fort. Melanie, an Easterner with strong opinions about racial equality, tries to befriend both Francesca and Jonas, but is rebuffed. Despite Keegan's attitude, Francesca is in love with him. Jonas knows of his sister's involvement and does not approve of it. The column leaves, unaware that war has resumed and, during the journey, the Indians kill off the troopers by ones and twos and take their uniforms. Melanie is attacked by two Indians, but Jonas rescues her by drowning one of her assailants while the other is captured. When the prisoner is interrogated, he tells Keegan that they will never reach Fort Yuma. After Keegan orders the Indian be hanged, Melanie protests, but to no avail. While this is happening, Mangas Colorado ambushes the rear of the small wagon train, killing two more soldiers, then attacks the others. Eventually, Keegan, Jonas and the two women are all that is left of the column and are forced to take cover on a mountainside from which they can see the Apache. The Apache, masquerading as travelers on the expected wagon train, are preparing a sneak attack on Fort Yuma. Jonas refuses to continue fighting against his own people, although Melanie convinces him that the walls between their peoples are crumbling. After Francesca is mortally wounded while trying to help Keegan and dies in his arms, Keegan, Jonas and Melanie ride ahead to try to warn the fort. Fortunately, a sentry with a telescope sees that the "soldiers" in the train are Apaches dressed as troopers and the fort's gates are closed. When the Apache propel a wagon full of ignited explosives towards the fort, Jonas manages to turn it around. The troopers then charge out and win a fierce battle, during which Keegan kills Mangas Colorado in a fight pitting saber against tomahawk. Now contrite about his prejudice, Keegan rides off after burying Francesca and wishing happiness to Melanie and Jonas, who now share the same philosophy regarding relations between Indians and whites.