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In 1845, trader Oliver Hale is returning to California with his bride Garnet, whom he met during his business trip to New York. The newlyweds are dining in a New Orleans music hall, where Garnet is fascinated by the "shocking" performance of the show's star. When Oliver steps away briefly to converse with a colleague, the performer rescues Garnet from the advances of two presumptuous men, then introduces herself as Florinda Grove. Later, at their hotel, a New York detective who claims that Florinda is wanted for murder, is searching for her, but the Hales, believing her innocent, disguise and smuggle her aboard a riverboat headed for St. Louis. Eventually the newlyweds join a wagon train traveling the Jubilee Trail. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, they re-encounter Florinda, who now keeps house for "Deacon" John Bartlett, a mule trader who is nicknamed for the fiery sermons he preaches when drunk. While Oliver is away on a short business trip to Taos, Oliver's friend, John Ives, comes to town looking for him and before realizing who she is, kisses Garnet flirtatiously. Upon learning that Oliver is married, Ives waits for his return to deliver personally a letter from Oliver's brother Charles. The letter informs Oliver that, while he has been away, Charles has arranged for him to marry Carmelita Velasco, a girl he got pregnant, whose father owns a large Spanish land tract that Charles covets. After reading the letter, Oliver procrastinates telling Garnet about the problem, despite Ives's counsel to prepare her. Later, Florinda, dressed in a glittery dance hall costume, sings at a cantina, where the outraged Bartlett slaps her for being a "jezebel." An admiring gambler, Silky Van Dorn, comes to Florinda's defense, starting a cantina-wide brawl. Days later, when Ives and the Hales leave with a horse pack caravan, Silky and Florinda, who are now business partners destined for Los Angeles, join them. During the trip, Garnet discovers Charles' letter and Ives tries to console her, but attacking Indians interrupt their conversation. The group fends off the attackers, but Garnet is wounded in the battle and treated by Texas, a doctor who was dishonorably discharged from the Army for drunkenness. Watching Garnet's quiet display of courage, Ives's concern for her grows. Meanwhile, at the Hale ranch, the Velascos wait with Oliver's newborn son, but leave after learning that Oliver is married. After Oliver and Garnet arrive, the resentful Charles blames Garnet for ruining his plans to build an empire and takes every opportunity to insult her. Oliver admits that he never loved Carmelita, but Garnet feels only sorrow for the young woman and her baby. Meanwhile, the Siberian-born trapper Nicolai, a charming, heavy-drinking friend of the family, is introduced to Florinda, who nicknames him "Handsome Brute," and the caravan, with Ives, Florinda, Silky and Nicolai, resumes its course toward Los Angeles. However, after hearing from a scout that Carmelita has committed suicide, Ives returns to the ranch. That evening, Velasco family members kill Oliver and demand revenge on Garnet, but Ives stands them down and takes her to Los Angeles. Months later, Garnet, who is pregnant with Oliver's child, resides above Florinda and Silky's swanky saloon, and Ives and Nicolai remain close at hand. Texas remains sober, so that he is able to assist Garnet when her son Stephen is born. Observing Texas, Florinda says that everyone in the city seems to have a "past" that is better left behind. Later, California becomes part of the United States and Ives is hired to guide U.S. troops into Los Angeles. While he is away, Charles begins a series of attempts to take Stephen away. The second time he arrives with gunmen, but Ives shows up in time to stop them. Longing to be safe from Charles, Garnet considers returning to New York. Despite his suppressed passion for Garnet, Ives feels unable to settle down with her and explains how he spent his orphaned childhood feeling trapped amidst unloving relatives. Later, Charles finds Garnet and the toddler Stephen at the bedside of the dying Texas. Falsely claiming legal custody of Stephen, Charles tries to take the child away, but Texas shoots him from his bed. Capt. Brown of the U.S. Army, who investigates Charles' death, admires Garnet and later proposes to her. When Garnet tries to convince herself that she and Ives are not in love, Florinda finally confides how her own love, an abusive husband, killed himself and their child in a fire he started, and she was blamed for his death. Although she advises Garnet to forget about love and marry for comfort, Florinda is later upset to find herself in love with Nicolai. When gold is found at Sutter's Mill, Florinda decides to set up a restaurant there. Ives is also planning to go, but after a long trip away from Garnet, has realized how much he needs her, and asks her to come along. As they make new plans, Silky, Florinda, Nicolai, Ives and Garnet drink a toast to the future.