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In 1875, the Northwest is filled with gold prospectors, and tent cities are overflowing with the saloon keepers, gamblers and entertainers who hope to profit from them. One day, a taciturn stranger rides into a tent city, where he looks for a nine-year-old boy, whom he had sent there from Illinois. The stranger, Matt Calder, introduces himself to the boy, Mark, as his father, and explains that he has returned after an extended absence so that they can be a family, even though Mark's mother died years earlier. Mark insists on bidding farewell to Kay, the saloon singer who has been caring for him while he was waiting, and Kay upbraids Calder for neglecting his son. Although Calder has a low opinion of dance hall girls, he thanks Kay and leaves, and on the ride to their homestead, tells Mark that they are going to have a good life of hunting, fishing and farming. At the saloon, Kay's fiancé, gambler Harry Weston, rushes in to tell her that he has won an important gold claim in a poker game and must go to Council City to file the deed. Kay suspects that Weston cheated his opponent, but his pleas that the gold mine represents their chance for a better life persuade her to leave, and soon they are floating in a raft down the river toward Council City. They encounter trouble in a patch of rapids, but fortunately are near Calder's farm, and he and Mark pull them to safety. Mark is delighted to see Kay, who tells him that she and Weston are now married. When Calder tells Weston that he is crazy to brave the fierce river rapids, Weston offers to buy his rifle and horse so that he can travel overland. Calder refuses, citing his need to protect the farm against the ever-present threat of Indian attack. Weston steals the rifle and horse anyway, and assures Calder that he will return them soon, then knocks him out when Calder attempts to stop him. Infuriated by his actions, Kay decides to stay behind and watches as Weston rides off. When Calder regains consciousness, he sees that nearby Indians have witnessed the incident and are preparing to attack, so he quickly loads Mark and Kay onto the raft and sets off down the river. Calder watches stoically as the farm is burned to the ground, even though he tells Mark that he could have stopped the Indians if he still had his rifle. That night, the threesome camps by the river, and Kay tries to explain that Weston, who has had a hard life, is trying to improve himself, even though he went about it the wrong way. When she realizes that Calder intends to pursue Weston to Council City rather than wait for him to return, she tries to cut the raft free, but Calder stops her and calls her a tramp for her devotion to a man who would leave a child to die. Kay retorts that at least Weston never shot a man in the back, and the couple then realizes that a stunned Mark has overheard their argument. Calder tries to explain to his son that he had been in prison after killing a man for attacking his best friend, but despite his gentle tone, Mark cannot understand why he shot the man in the back. They then return to the river, and Calder relates that the Indians call it "the river of no return," because of the rapids. Kay bravely helps to steer through one bad patch, but the exertion and cold make her faint. That evening, Kay is surprised by how tenderly Calder cares for her and Mark, and the next morning, he succeeds in killing an elk. While the meat is cooking, Mark reproaches his father for disliking Kay, but Calder grimly states that she is nothing to him, and all he cares about is bringing Weston to justice. While Kay and Calder then unload the raft, she tries to tell Calder that they could have been friends under different circumstances, and Calder, misunderstanding her intent, forcibly pins her down and kisses her. Calder's actions are stopped by a cry from Mark, who is being stalked by a mountain lion. A shot from two passing men kills the cat, and the men, Sam Benson and Dave Colby, reveal that they are riding to Council City in pursuit of Weston, who won their gold claim. The vulgar Colby offers to take Kay with them, but repulsed by him, she refuses, and when Calder orders the men to leave, Colby attacks him with a knife. Calder bests his opponent and, taking one of the rifles, boards the raft again with Mark and Kay, who admits that she is not married to Weston. Calder apologizes for his earlier behavior, but again refuses to listen when Kay defends Weston. Soon after, a group of Indians attack them, but Calder is able to fend them off. The raft then enters the worst of the rapids, and after a torturous ride, the group finally reaches Council City. Calder allows Kay to speak with Weston alone while he and Mark wait in the general store, and although she is disturbed that Weston had not returned for her, she pleads with him to be honest with Calder. Kay is horrified when Weston shoots at Calder, and Mark is forced to shoot Weston in the back with a store rifle in order to protect his father. At last understanding what his father had done, Mark reconciles with him, and Kay sadly heads to the saloon. Later, Kay is singing in the saloon when Calder storms in and tosses her over his shoulder. Kay protests as Calder puts her in a wagon with Mark, but when he tells her that she is going home with them, she happily tosses her red shoes, the last link to her past, into the street.