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In 1867, Verne Brechene and his gang of ex-Confederate soldiers have become guerrillas and now terrorize Kansas. After Brechene breaks his ribs, he stops at the home of veterinarian Gilman S. Hanley and his wife Elly. Gil tries to help by binding Brechene's ribs, but on his way out Brechene secretly trades his horses for Gil's and drops a saddlebag full of money. Though an ex-Rebel himself, Gil has changed his loyalties, but is nonetheless mistrusted by the townsmen. The Yankee soldiers who police the town arrive the next morning to search Gil's house, and arrest him as soon as they discover the saddlebag. Considering only circumstantial evidence, the court indicts Gil for aiding and abetting the guerrillas. Although Gil asks them to catch Brechene so he can clear his name, the criminal condemns Gil when he is captured in retaliation for what he believes was deliberately poor doctoring. Gil is sent to New Mexico's Hellgate Prison, whose warden, Lt. Voorhees, lost his wife and daughter to guerrillas and so despises Gil immediately. The prison, which is built into the caverns below a rugged, arid desert, is considered inescapable. Voorhees has orders not to kill Gil but wants to force him to attempt escape, so his murder will be sanctioned. After Gil settles in with fellow prisoners Nigh, Dundy Boyd, Jumper Hall, Mott, Native American Honchi and their leader, hotheaded Redfield, Gil recognizes that Mott is dying from internal injuries. Although Redfield kicks Mott, further injuring him, he realizes that Mott is the only man who knows a path across the desert and so can help them escape. The next day, Nigh is so tormented by the ringing in his ears that he runs from the guards, but Voorhees lingers before killing him, in order to increase his enjoyment. Over the next weeks, Gil works backbreaking double shifts in the cistern, while at night Redfield insists that he help dig a tunnel out of the cell. Meanwhile, Elly writes to Gil that she is trying to contact officials, but Voorhees taunts Gil by refusing to give him the letters. That night, Mott whispers to Gil that he has scratched a map of the desert on the door, but when Redfield shakes him, Mott dies. Soon, the cellmates reach the end of the tunnel. That night, Gil asks Hall to pick the cell lock so he can steal his letters, but during his attempt, the guards notice that someone is missing. Gil sneaks back in and Boyd lies that no one left. Although Gil tries to save Boyd by confessing, the guards pistol whip Boyd for lying. This infuriates Gil, who escapes again and releases the other prisoners. They storm the gate, where they are met by Voorhees' firing squad. Gil is blamed for the whole situation and sentenced to days in the "hot box," a six-by-three-foot metal box placed in the sun. After he is finally released, he plans a prison break with his cellmates, but Hall reveals the scheme to Voorhees. Although they make it into the desert, all the men except Gil are soon killed by Native American warriors or Voorhees' men. The lieutenant informs Gil that he has received an order to let Gil go home in order to act as bait for Brechene, but now will not release him. While Gil suffers in the hot box, a guard contracts typhus fever and the frightened nearby town erects a barricade, keeping disease from them and water away from the prison. Since a lack of water exacerbates the disease's spread, Voorhees grows desperate, finally realizing that only Gil, who knows the way across the desert, can help. Gil agrees to go in return for Voorhees' promise that he will ask a new prisoner, a guerrilla now in the sick tent, to confirm that Gil is not part of his group. Voorhees reluctantly lets Gil go alone, and his fears are confirmed when Gil veers off the trail to Mexico and heads toward town. Although he appears to be running away, Gil goes to town and allows himself to be shot in the arm in order to appeal to the townspeople. He convinces them that the only way to contain the fever is to treat it. When Voorhees sees Gil returning with the water, he lies to his men that the ailing guerrilla regained consciousness before his death and cleared Gil's name. A few days later, Elly is sending Gil a letter when she hears footsteps at the door, and joyfully embraces her husband.