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In 1880s Arizona, Maj. Cartwright of the U.S. Cavalry is faced with capturing Apache Ulzana, a renegade warrior, who has left the reservation. The pragmatic Cartwright asks aging scout McIntosh to go with a small contingency of soldiers to find Ulzana, and assigns idealistic, green young Lt. Garnett DeBuin to lead the troop. Working with McIntosh is Ke-Ni-Tay, a young Apache scout, who knows Ulzana well because their wives are sisters. Trooper Horowitz is sent to warn "Dutch" Rukeyser, who runs the Indian store, that the cavalry cannot protect his homestead and ask him to return to the fort. Rukeyser refuses to leave his home, but sends his wife and son along with Horowitz. Later, as the trio is riding toward the fort, they are attacked by Ulzana's men. Mrs. Rukeyser and Horowitz are killed, but Ulzana spares the boy before riding off. Meanwhile, following Ulzana's trail, McIntosh and Ke-Ni-Tay find his tracks and inform DeBuin that Ulzana is only a day or so ahead. When the troop later come upon the Rukeyser boy cradling his mother's body, DeBuin wonders why the Apache would leave him unharmed and sends him back to the fort with two of the soldiers. A short time later, Ulzana and his men observe Rukeyser from a ridge above his cabin and silence his barking dog with an arrow. When Rukeyser discovers the dog's body, he barricades himself inside the cabin and shoots through peep holes while the Apache attack and set his roof ablaze. Just when they are on the verge of breaking the door down, Rukeyser hears a bugle blowing the Cavalry charge and the sound of horses galloping away. In the silence, Rukeyser thanks God for saving him, then opens the cabin door. Some time later, when McIntosh and the troop arrive at the cabin, they find Rukeyser's mutilated corpse tied to a tree. That night, the horrified DeBuin, who, like his Philadelphia minister father has always espoused Christian treatment of the Indians, asks Ke-Ni-Tay why Ulzana would torture and kill a man yet leave his son unharmed. Ke-Ni-Tay explains that the Apache gain power from a man's death, and even more from a lengthy one, but do not gain power from a boy's death. Ke-Ni-Tay also admits that he might do the same, then adds that because Ulzana is aging, he needs more power. Later, DeBuin confesses to McIntosh that he now hates the Apache for what they have done. The next morning, DeBuin and the troop follow Ulzana's trail. When McIntosh and Ke-Ni-Tay find horse droppings indicating that they are less than a day behind Ulzana, DeBuin wants to speed up, but McIntosh urges patience and reminds him that the first to make a mistake will "wind up burying people." Further along the trail, Ke-Ni-Tay reports to McIntosh that the tracks now indicate that Ulzana has divided his men, and that the tracks they are following are of a smaller group of men riding alongside rider-less ponies. McIntosh explains to DeBuin that having most of their horses unfettered will provide the Apache with fresh horses when they need them. McIntosh then suggests that they send two two-man teams out in opposite directions to find which is the main group and report back. When McIntosh and his partner locate Ulzana's trail, he sends the trooper back to DeBuin. Later, McIntosh sights two young Apache with the fresh ponies, and in a gun battle, shoots them off their horses, then uses the carcass of his own dead horse as a shield. McIntosh kills one of the Apache but lets the other, who is wounded, run away. When the rest of the troop arrive, DeBuin wants to track the young Apache who has escaped, but McIntosh refuses, saying that the young Apache has merely run off to die. That night, when he learns that some of his troopers have mutilated the corpse of the Apache shot by McIntosh, DeBuin is horrified at their brutality. After ordering a proper burial for the boy, DeBuin confides in McIntosh that he has difficulty understanding the soldiers' brutality. Meanwhile, after the second scouting pair, the sergeant and Trooper Miller, are attacked in the hills, Miller dies and the sergeant returns to the main troop with Miller's now badly needed horse. The next day, the troop comes upon the Riordan homestead, which has been attacked by Ulzana's men. Riordan has been killed, but Mrs. Riodan, although brutally raped, was left alive. Sympathetic to the catatonic woman, DeBuin wants to send her back to the fort, but McIntosh warns that Ulzana left her alive knowing that DeBuin would divide the troop again by assigning some men accompany her. Using that knowledge to their advantage, McIntosh and DeBuin set in motion a plan to thwart Ulzana's next move. The next morning, one of the soldiers leaves with Mrs. Riordan but only pretends to return to the fort. McIntosh and the sergeant then ride ahead through a rocky passage in the hills while Ke-Ni-Tay and DeBuin stay behind with the rest of the troop. As Ulzana observes from the hills, Ke-Ni-Tay takes DeBuin's binoculars and rides toward McIntosh after telling DeBuin that when he sees a flash of light reflected from "the long glass" he must go back to McIntosh. The plan is to make Ulzana think that McIntosh and the sergeant are down to their last bullet. Then, at the crucial moment, when Ulzana's men are on the attack, DeBuin's larger group will blow the cavalry charge and ride in, overwhelming the Apache. At the same time that Ke-Ni-Tay is looking out from the hills, one of Ulzana's men, who also has binoculars, looks through them, creating a flash of light that DeBuin thinks comes from Ke-Ni-Tay. DeBuin then leads his men toward McIntosh, but the timing is not right and a melee ensues during which the sergeant and the soldier who accompanied Mrs. Riordan are killed and McIntosh is mortally wounded. DeBuin and his men soon arrive and rout Ulzana's men, after which DeBuin orders that all of those killed, whether soldiers or Apache, be given proper burials. Ke-Ni-Tay now chases the fleeing Ulzana into the hills and confronts him. Realizing that he has lost his power, Ulzana kneels on the ground while Ke-Ni-Tay shoots him. At the site of the battle, McIntosh, knowing that he is on the verge of death, refuses to return to the fort and asks only for a cigarette. After McIntosh calls Ke-Ni-Tay "Scout," the two men nod to each other before DeBuin and the troop depart. Moments later, McIntosh dies.