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Friends Bert Killian and Tracy Powell are young men when they leave Missouri in search of California gold in the mid-1800s. After a long, hard journey, the pair reach the mining area and are surprised to find only a meager settlement of hundreds of tents, a grub line and a gold exchanger named Willis Havers, who "turns dust into coin." After days of panning for gold, Bert and Tracy, along with most of the other men, have only enough gold dust to pay for their supper meal each night. When a frustrated Tracy sees prospector Sam Wilkins with a large quantity of gold, he seeks out Havers, who introduces him to Wilkins. Despite warnings that Wilkins has killed men, Tracy accepts Wilkins' offer to become his partner. Soon after, Tracy watches as Wilkins uses physical force to drive some prospectors from their claim. Tracy then helps Wilkins work the stolen claim, but when they return to the settlement days later to exchange the gold, Tracy is so distraught by the means he used to achieve his wealth that the usually sober man gets drunk. When Tracy asks for his half of the gold, Wilkins gives him only a fraction, requiring Tracy to take his share at gunpoint. After Havers exchanges the gold for $1,900, Tracy learns that Wilkins is working for Havers, who offers Tracy a job as well. Later, a concerned Bert, in hopes of saving his friend from "gold fever," suggests that they leave, but Tracy refuses to quit. As the years pass, Bert sets up a successful dry goods store and marries, while Tracy continues to search in vain for his big gold claim while dating laundry owner Julie, with whom he is in love. Although Julie waits patiently for Tracy to tire of the search for gold, one day she tells him that she is ready to make a home, prompting Tracy to propose to her. Feeling even more pressure to secure a fortune to start a new life, a broke Tracy begs Bert to give him the stake for a new claim in trade for twenty-five percent of the gold profits, but Julie, overhearing the offer, tells Tracy that he must choose between prospecting and her. When Tracy then accuses her and Bert of having an affair, Julie orders Tracy out. Tracy asks Havers for a loan to stake the claim, but Havers, now the town banker, refuses, explaining that he owns the title to all the claims he finances and that prospectors are paid only a small allowance for working them. Later that night, after a drunken and desperate Tracy breaks into Julie's house and begs her for help, Julie agrees to let him stay on the condition that he quit looking for gold. Over ten years, Julie and Tracy build a modest farm, but one night Tracy openly laments that they are "breaking their backs" to earn only a meager living. Later, Tracy starts drinking at a bar with elderly Irish prospector Jimmo McCann, who offers to share a big claim outside of Havers' control. After considering the proposal overnight, Tracy accepts and leaves a pregnant Julie. By 1869, the gold rush has been forgotten, while the settlement has grown into a thriving civilized town where Julie and her young son Billy continue to live. Meanwhile, Tracy and Jimmo are digging in the hills when a beleaguered Wilkins attempts to jump their claim at gunpoint. After Tracy knocks him down, Wilkins admits that he is fleeing from Havers, whom he hates for forcing him to be his lackey. To prevent Wilkins from divulging the location of their claim, Tracy and Jimmo reluctantly offer him work for a share of the gold. One day, after setting off some explosives in the mine, they find a cavern veined with gold. Overjoyed, Jimmo races into the cavern alone, but is trapped when the walls crumble. Tracy and Wilkins help their friend out, but Jimmo is mortally injured. As he dies, Jimmo asks Tracy to describe what their lives will be like with the new wealth. Upon returning home, Tracy and Wilkins receive an advance from a banker named Baxter for the "Jimmo" claim, enabling them to parade through town in new attire, bragging about the claim. When Tracy gives Julie several thousand dollars to make amends, Julie explains that all she ever wanted was for him to be a good husband and father. When their child Billy enters the room, Julie flees in tears while the boy tells Tracy that Julie promised him that his father would return one day. Over the following weeks, Julie allows Billy to live with his father while she ponders their future together. One day, Tracy learns from Havers that Baxter works for him and that the major gold vein lays in a nearby hill owned by Havers and not in the Jimmo claim, which is worthless. When Tracy complains to Julie that he has lost his wealth to Havers' deception, Julie accuses him of being a coward for running after money instead of trying to make a life. When she begs him to come home, he runs away, promising to return with gold. Many years later a now-elderly Tracy continues to wander the hills in search of gold, but when Jimmo, his mule, dies one bitter winter day, Tracy returns to town. Finding Bert at a city father's lunch, a dejected and feeble Tracy once again begs him to invest in a "promising" claim, but Bert suggests he see Julie and Billy, a young man with his own business. After Bert departs to fetch Billy, Tracy, seeing his embarrassingly shabby appearance, decides to leave for the hills. After Billy finds Tracy and leads him to the waiting Julie, Tracy finally realizes that her love, not gold, is what he needs.