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In 1870, prospector Tom Jeffords, a former soldier in the Union Army, is summoned to Tucson by Colonel Bernall. Riding through the Arizona territory of the Chiricahua Apache, who have been fighting with the white settlers for ten years, Tom finds an injured fourteen-year-old Chiricahua youth. Tom easily dodges the boy's weak attempt to stab him, then removes some bullets from the boy, who is named Machogee. When Machogee is well enough to travel, he gives Tom a necklace to ward off sickness and explains that he must return because he knows his mother misses him. Tom realizes for the first time that Apache mothers, whom he had considered "savages," cry for their children. Then Machogee's father, Pionsenay, accompanied by other warriors, finds them. The warriors interrogate and taunt Tom, then release him as a reward for helping Machogee. At first, Tom is impressed with their sense of fair play, but changes his mind when they tie him to a tree and gag him to prevent him from warning an approaching party of miners. After killing most of the whites, the Apaches find three Indian scalps in the pouch of one man and bury him with only his head above ground. Tom is forced to watch while the man is eaten alive by ants. In Tucson, Tom refuses to be Bernall's scout. Bernall is convinced that he can win the war against the Apache leader Cochise in six months, but Tom believes that Cochise, who now commands the entire Apache nation, will prevail. After Ben Slade, a rancher whose wife was killed in an Apache raid, questions Tom's loyalty, Tom decides to negotiate with Cochise to allow the mail to pass unmolested through Apache territory. To this end, he studies Chiricahua language and customs with Juan, a friendly Apache. Tom travels three days to Cochise's stronghold in the mountains. During his meeting with Cochise, Tom admits that the Americans have done the Apache much harm, but adds that maybe both can live together as brothers. Cochise invites Tom to stay the night, and later, during a ceremonial dance, is surprised by Tom's knowledge of the sunrise ceremony. Pleased with the respect that Tom has for his people, Cochise introduces Tom to the beautiful Sonseeahray, in whose honor the sunrise ceremony will be held. Tom shows her his arm, which has an old war wound, and she touches it, saying it will never hurt again. She then predicts that his life will be long and good. The next morning, while shaving, Tom sees Sonseeahray watching him with interest. When he gives her his mirror, she refuses it uneasily, explaining that she can only talk to young men at ceremonies or dances. Later Tom finds her "by accident" and confesses that although he has willingly lived most of his life alone, he felt lonely when she touched him and prayed for him. Sonseeahray runs off at Cochise's approach. Cochise announces that he will let the mail riders pass through his territory in order to demonstrate his power over his people. Back in Tucson, Tom presents the agreement to the skeptical townsfolk, one of whom bets Tom $300 that five riders in succession will not go through unharmed. Milt Duffield, who is in charge of the mail service, volunteers to be the first rider. Milt returns safely, as do the second, third and fourth riders. Then Bernall escorts a wagon train through Apache territory hoping to be ambushed, as he has secretly armed the wagons. Despite his precautions, Cochise and his men destroy the train. A survivor reports the attack, just as the fifth mail rider arrives safely. Some of the townsfolk think that Cochise knew about the colonel's plan and accuse Tom of spying. A fight breaks out, and General Howard narrowly prevents Tom from being hanged. Howard asks Tom to help negotiate a fair treaty with Cochise, which will grant the Apaches equality and the right to remain free on their own land. Tom takes the offer to Cochise. While Cochise is away, Tom meets Sonseeahray by the river, and they kiss. Cochise returns from his battle against the soldiers and recites the names of the dead Apaches, including Machogee and Pionsenay. During a ceremony, Cochise notices Tom looking at Sonseeahray and explains that she is promised to Nahilzay. She chooses to dance with Tom, however. When Cochise catches them meeting secretly, Tom says that he wants to marry Sonseeahray, who insists that she will refuse Nahilzay as she has in the past. Cochise advises them that no matter where they choose to live, they will face prejudice from both whites and Apaches. Even though Cochise is against the marriage, he broaches the subject to Sonseeahray's parents, who consent to hold the wedding during the next full moon. Cochise then instructs Tom to set up a meeting between Howard and representatives of the Apache tribes. That night, Nahilzay sneaks into Tom's wickiup and tries to kill him. Tom fights him off, and Cochise, aroused by the noise, shoots Nahilzay, one of his most trusted warriors. At the peace conference, when Tom explains the details of the treaty, Goklia, an Apache leader, proclaims that Cochise has lost his taste for battle and demands a new chief. Cochise encourages his people to learn new ways, saying that the Americans are now stronger than the Apache. He proposes a trial lasting three "moons" to see if the treaty will be kept and breaks an arrow as a symbol of peace. Those who stay with him must promise to follow the way of peace. If more walk than stay, he will no longer be their chief. Only a small number join Goklia, who says he is ashamed to be a Chiricahua and will now be known by his Mexican name, "Geronimo." Tom rides with the first Butterfield stage to leave Tucson. At a river, the stage is attacked by Apaches, but Tom realizes they are Geronimo's renegades and sends a smoke signal for help, after which the renegades are driven off by Apaches. On the twelfth day of the peace, Tom and Sonseeahray are married. When Cochise is told about the attack on the stage, he orders his men to protect all whites in the future. While Cochise visits Tom and Sonseeahray, Slade's son Chip is found in the stronghold. Chip says that Apaches stole two colts from his ranch, and Tom convinces Cochise to investigate. When they arrive at the river, Chip signals his father, who is waiting with some other men on the rocks above. During the ensuing battle, Tom is shot, Sonseeahray is killed, and Cochise kills Chip and Slade. Seeing that their plan has failed, the others head for Mexico. When Tom revives and finds Sonseeahray dead, he asks Cochise for a knife to kill her murderer, but Cochise reminds him that peace will not come easily and vows that no one on his territory will start a war again. Later, Tom and Cochise learn that the men who attacked them were executed. Tom rides off, knowing that his wife, whose death sealed the peace, will always be with him.