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At a summer camp in Colorado's Royal Gorge National Park, young Danny Lambert suffers a severe asthma attack after running in a race. Terrified by nurse Emily Evans' attempt to give him an injection, Danny runs away and is found the next day by a passing stranger. The man, Jerry Barker, claims that he heard about Danny's disappearance on the radio and takes him to an abandoned fire lookout tower, which he says will be a safe place for the still-ailing boy to wait while he goes for help. Meanwhile, at the park's headquarters, Chief Ranger Will Erickson attempts to calm Danny's hysterical father, wealthy businessman Robertson Lambert. Lambert visits the park's restaurant and there receives a call from Barker, who has already left a note for him that Danny has been kidnapped but will be released for a $200,000 ransom. Lambert agrees to Barker's terms and promises not to tell the authorities, and later, finds Danny's jacket in his car, along with instructions about dropping off the ransom money the following morning. When Barker returns to the lookout tower, he discovers that Danny had wandered outside, and the decrepit railing gave way, causing Danny to fall to his death. Barker cold-bloodedly tosses Danny's body into the gorge, and the next day, Lambert, as instructed, gives the money to a passing, uninvolved motorcyclist, who leaves it at the pre-arranged spot. That afternoon, Lambert, frantic that Danny has not been returned, tells Erickson about the kidnapping, and the ranger calls the FBI. Special Agent James Madden is sent to investigate, while the rangers continue to interrogate tourists leaving the park. When an unregistered pistol is found in a truck belonging to a man named Hanson, the man is brought in for questioning, and his story that he was fishing at a particular lake heightens Erickson's suspicion because there are no fish in that lake. After a small amount of the ransom money is found in the truck, the FBI in Washington discovers that the man is actually Barker, a wanted extortionist. Despite Madden's certainty that Barker kidnapped and killed Danny, Barker claims that he merely found the lost boy and took advantage of the situation by demanding money from Lambert. Without either Danny's body or the rest of the ransom money as proof, Barker is convicted only of extortion, and is sentenced to one to five years at Cascabel Island Prison in the Gulf of California. Knowing that he will be released in a few months for good behavior, Barker had pled guilty, and in the prison, avoids contact with other prisoners so coldly that he is dubbed "The Iceman." Determined to "break" him, the warden assigns Barker to share a cell with four hardened criminals: bank robber Rollo Lamar; mob contract killer Machinegun Mason; narcotic smuggler Alamo Smith and thrill killer Benny Kelly. The other men despise Barker for his supposed involvement in the death of a child, until one day, Barker inadvertently witnesses his cellmates preparing an escape route through the prison's steam tunnels yet does not report them to the warden. Lamar then orders his cohorts to be less hostile to Barker and, hoping to retrieve the hidden ransom, decides to include the Iceman in their escape. Meanwhile, Madden continues to investigate the case and discovers that not only was Emily aware of Danny's phobia about needles, she came into contact with Barker three years earlier when he attempted to blackmail the doctor for whom she was working. Under interrogation, Emily breaks down and admits her part in the kidnapping, although she swears that Barker had promised not to hurt Danny. Finally having proof of Barker's crime, Madden arranges for him to be released into FBI custody to stand trial for kidnapping. Before Barker can be released, however, he is himself kidnapped by Lamar and his gang when they make their escape attempt. The gang swims to a waiting boat, and once there, Lamar orders a horrified Mason to kill Benny, then clothe him in Barker's prison uniform, and burn his face and hands in the hope that he will be identified as Barker. Lamar intends to mislead the authorities into believing that Barker was killed during the break, so that they can go to the national park without being followed. Upon learning what Lamar has done, Alamo attacks him, but Lamar shoots and kills him. Benny's body is soon discovered, and although he is accurately identified, Madden guesses Lamar's strategy and issues a news report that Barker is dead. Realizing that he has no choice but to share the money, Barker accompanies Lamar and Kelly to the park, but when they encounter a passing ranger, Barker repeats his earlier, false story about fishing, thereby deliberately alerting Erickson and Madden to his presence. The rangers and FBI men follow the prisoners, and near the gorge where he disposed of Danny's body, Barker unburies the ransom money. Lamar knocks him unconscious and is about to toss him into the gorge when the rangers order him to surrender. During the ensuing shootout, Mason is killed, and Lamar, after running out of ammunition, begs for his life to be spared. With the case solved, Madden reports that Barker was sent to the gas chamber for felony kidnapping, and Lamar was sentenced to death for killing Alamo. For her part in the crime, Emily was sentenced to twenty years to life, and although the ransom money was recovered, Danny's body was never found.