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In the 1850s, upon arriving at a small U.S. Cavalry outpost on the banks of the Colorado River, Captain Harper finds most of the fort's soldiers dead after a series of attacks by Ute Indians. Among the nine survivors are Laura Evans, the daughter of the dead commander, and her suitor, the arrogant Lieutenant Wayne Ford, who has temporarily taken charge of the remaining soldiers. The source of the trouble with the Ute tribe is assumed to be the fort's prisoner, Captain Brett Halliday, who, a few years previously, had defected to the Ute and is now awaiting a court-martial on charges of treason and murder. Halliday defends himself, explaining that when captured by the Army, he was escaping the Ute in order to reach an Apache chief with the power to stop the Ute's progressively violent attacks against the whites. However, no one believes Halliday's story, and Harper, whose brother was killed in a skirmish with the Ute while Halliday was aligned with the tribe, vows to bring the former Army captain to justice. When it becomes obvious that they can no longer remain in the fort, the soldiers, along with Laura, Halliday and Garode, a fur trader, build makeshift boats and take the only escape route possible, the treacherous and uncharted Colorado River. Ute warriors follow the two boats from the cliffs of the canyon and manage to kill a number of men, while others are nearly lost in the rapids. Halliday succeeds in a daring rescue of the helpless Private Livingston, who had earlier been blinded in a Ute attack, leading Sergeant Miles, whose life was once saved by Halliday, to defend his former captain to Harper. However, Harper and Ford, who is jealous of Laura's apparent interest in Halliday, continue to insist he is a traitor and cannot be trusted. After one of the boats breaks apart in the rapids and Halliday attempts more selfless rescues, Halliday finds himself briefly alone with Laura, who wants to know the truth behind his defection from the Army. Halliday reluctantly reveals that Laura's father, Commander Evans, was a brutal and intolerant man who treated the Ute Indians with great cruelty and injustice. Halliday was unwilling to carry out Evans' orders and defected to the Ute in the hope that he could protect them while he worked for a peaceful end to Evans' campaign of terror. Later, the Ute chief became as intolerant and warmongering as Evans, and Halliday tried to reach the Apaches for assistance in ending the violence. Although she must now face the truth about her father, Laura believes Halliday and falls in love with him. After Laura rebuffs Ford's advances, Ford angrily claims that Halliday is a "squawman" with a Ute wife awaiting him, but later Halliday explains to Laura that his wife was killed in the same battle in which Harper's brother died. An increasingly bitter Ford attempts to kill Halliday, but stumbles over a cliff and falls to his death. Finally, the small and exhausted band of survivors near the safety of a U.S. fort and spy a band of peaceful Apaches on the shore. The two remaining soldiers and Garode want Harper to release Halliday so that he can carry out his plan to attain peace and clear his name. However, Harper, an honorable man who cannot shirk his military duty, insists that he must deliver Halliday to the court. Nevertheless, Harper has come to trust and respect Halliday, so he subtly encourages him to make an escape, after which the soldiers dutifully shoot in Halliday's direction, purposefully missing him. As they watch Halliday swim to shore, Harper assures the grateful Laura that the man she has come to love will return to prove his innocence.