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In 1850, the schooner The Golden Tide leaves New York with a cargo of forty-nine women destined to become brides of California gold miners. The women are under the supervision of Miss Olivia Schuyler, who has guaranteed their virtue to their prospective husbands. En route, the schooner's pious captain, Eph Allan, who originally wanted to be a preacher, proposes marriage to Olivia, but she is interested only in making money and not in matrimony. When the ship docks at Panama to pick up supplies, Olivia forbids the women to go ashore, but Francie Landreaux disobeys her. Unknown to Olivia, Francie is already married and is searching for her husband, Richards, who has deserted her. Richards, now a Panama saloon owner, is playing cards in his saloon with Monty Breed, who has sailed from Sacramento to buy roulette tables. Also at the saloon is Shard Benton, a Texas gambler, seeking to buy passage to California on Breed's sloop. During a poker game, Shard accuses Richards of cheating, shoots and wounds him and a brawl breaks out. In the ensuing chaos, Francie, disguised as a sailor, fails to find Richards, but runs into Shard, whom she has known previously. Having discovered that Francie has sneaked ashore, Olivia and Eph find her and bring her back to the ship along with Shard, who is now broke as Breed took off with his money. Once at sea, Shard rescues Francie from the attentions of a male stowaway and she then confesses to Eph that she is already married. Later, when the schooner reaches Sacramento, Shard goes to Breed's saloon where he learns that Breed virtually runs Sacramento. Eph and Olivia nearly cause a riot at the Parker House when she demands rooms for forty-nine respectable, unmarried young women. After Sam Austin, a young goldminer, asks Shard to help him meet Christy, one of the young women, Shard tells him he should volunteer to help build a lodge for the women. Later, Sam, who has found gold along with some other miners, meets with Breed to discuss the fact that Breed's flume has diverted water from their creekbed. Without warning, Sam is shot and killed by Breed's bodyguard Sprague. Construction on the lodge begins and at a picnic prepared by the women, Breed meets Francie and offers her a job as a singer in his saloon. She accepts, as she still owes Olivia a thousand dollars. When Shard and Eph ride out to the gold fields, they find that the creek is still dry and Shard promises the miners that he will get back their water. On Francie's opening night, Sprague arrives with the news that a dam has been blown up and Breed's flume is now dry. When Breed goes to the creek, he is driven off at gunpoint by Shard, but vows to rebuild the dam. Later, Olivia announces that twelve men have qualified as fiancés for her young ladies, but each must first deposit one thousand dollars in Olivia's bank account. Later, Abby, one of the women, runs away with Sprague and Olivia goes to Breed's casino to find her. When Olivia protests their marriage, Abby takes her new husband's checkbook and writes Olivia a check. Eph criticizes Olivia for her mercenariness, but nevertheless asks her again to marry him. This time she agrees and they marry immediately. Breed has become romantically interested in Francie and proposes to her. When she declines, he swears that no other man will have her. After Shard also proposes to her, Francie explains about her missing husband, whom she has to find in order to gain her freedom. When she shows Shard a photograph of Richards, Shard recognizes him from the card game in Panama. Meanwhile, Richards, who has lost his saloon, has arrived in Sacramento, looking for work as a croupier. When he sees a painting of Francie over the bar in Breed's saloon, Richards tells Breed that she is his wife and he will have to pay him for her services. When Shard and Francie enter the saloon, Richards draws a gun on Shard, but is shot and killed by Breed, who challenges Shard to a duel. Francie then offers to marry Breed if he will give Shard a fair chance. After Sprague locks Francie in Breed's office, Shard tells Breed that he has fifty thousand dollars in gold deposited in a bank and challenges Breed to a roulette game before their gun duel. Shard wins, then wins again, finally forcing Breed to wager his sloop and saloon. After Breed loses everything, they then prepare for the duel with the understanding that if Shard is killed, Francie will receive everything. When Shard discovers that Sprague has removed the bullets from his gun, he grabs Breed's gun just as Eph shoots Sprague. Shard then places Breed's gun and his empty one on the roulette wheel and spins it. When Breed picks up the empty gun, Shard shoots him dead. Shard and Francie then plan their future together.