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In 1916, as Pancho Villa besieges the towns along the U.S.-Mexican border, Colonel Rogers is assigned to rout Villa's troops, led by the rebel Arreaga, from the hacienda where they have taken refuge. Accompanying Rogers is Major Thomas Thorn, the officer in charge of nominating candidates for the Congressional Medal of Honor, and his nominee, Pvt. Andrew Hetherington. Rogers relishes the conflict as the "last glorious cavalry campaign" before mounted riders will be supplanted by trucks and airplanes. The hacienda is owned by American Adelaide Geary, who Rogers suspects is aiding the rebels. Upon reaching their objective, Rogers orders his regiment to form a single line abreast and charge, while Thorn and Hetherington are to remain on the sidelines because their safety is of utmost importance. In his zeal, Rogers has neglected to survey the terrain, and consequently, the men charge into a trench that the rebels have dug around the walls of the hacienda. As Thorn watches the attack through a pair of binoculars, he witnesses Lt. William Fowler lead a one-man charge while Cpl. Milo Trubee risks his life to toss a firebomb over the hacienda walls. Sgt. John Chawk then scales the walls, followed by Pvt. Renziehausen, who throws opens the gates, allowing the regiment to breach the walls and rout Arreaga and his men. When Thorn and Hetherington join the others, Thorn is dismayed by the fervor with which Rogers asserts that "God was on his side," as well as his eager anticipation of being awarded a general's star for his feat. After Rogers suggests that Thorn nominate him for a medal, Thorn vehemently refuses, prompting Rogers to denounce Thorn and remind him of his own cowardice in facing the enemy at Columbus, New Mexico. Thorn, however, decides to nominate Chawk, Fowler, Trubee and Renziehausen for medals, and as they mount up and ready to ride to Cordura, the Texas town at which the ceremony is to take place, Rogers arrests Geary for treason and sends her with them. After heading out, the men begin to grumble about the hardships of the journey, and Geary claims that the charge of treason against her is both unwarranted and unenforceable. That night, Thorn, trying to discern the true nature of courage, asks Renziehausen what made him risk his life, but the private is unable to recall what spurred him to action. Meanwhile, the others, antagonized by Geary's flagrant smoking of cigarettes and drinking of tequila when they have neither, begin to squabble with her, but Thorn breaks up the fight. Later, a drunken Geary confesses to Thorn that she is the "dissolute daughter of a disgraced United States Senator." Having lost custody of her two children, her only companion is now a pet parrot. The following morning, Geary awakens to find her bird has been killed, an act Thorn denounces as savagery. As they continue on their trek, Fowler, the only other officer in the group, asks Thorn to withdraw his nomination because he fears it will generate jealousy among his superiors and thus hurt his chances for promotion. Soon after, Arreaga and his men attack, boxing Thorn and his heroes into a canyon. Thorn insists on outwaiting their assailants, and as they mark time, Renziehausen, who lost his ear in the battle, requests that Thorn withdraw his nomination because he is ashamed of his disfigurement. When Thorn asks Chawk his motivation for bravery, Chawk states that he enjoys killing and can use the pay raise that the medal will afford him. Next, Trubee asks Thorn to use the medal as leverage to transfer him out of combat duty because he is sick of fighting. When Fowler challenges Thorn's decision to outwait Arreaga, Geary suggests that Arreaga is only interested in their horses, prompting Thorn to order the animals turned loose. After Arreaga rounds up the horses and begins to ride away, Geary tries to join him but is restrained by the others. With forty miles to cover before reaching Cordura, Thorn tries to defend his decision to sacrifice the horses, explaining that the men need to stay alive to present role models to the U.S. troops about to enter the war in Europe. Unimpressed, Trubee offers to trade his medal for some time alone with Geary. Trubee's diatribe is interrupted when Hetherington collapses from fever, necessitating the others to carry him on a litter. With water in short supply, they begin trudging through the desert burdened by Hetherington. When they stop for the night, Chawk and Trubee try to rape Geary. After Thorn stops them, Trubee says that he knows of Thorn's cowardice at Columbus and calls him "yellow guts." Furious, Thorn orders Fowler to confiscate the men's weapons, and after disposing of the guns, Fowler tells Thorn that he is "on his own," then accuses him of trying to repair the damage wrought by his own cowardice by making them heroes. As Geary and Thorn treat the delirious Hetherington, Geary asks about Columbus and Thorn explains that in the chaos of battle, he panicked and took cover, and from that moment on, defined himself as a coward. Geary responds that one of act of cowardice or bravery does not make a man a coward or a hero. When she expresses incredulity that any of the five deserve a medal, Thorn asserts that they have redeemed themselves through a single act of bravery. Continuing their journey, they finally reach the railroad tracks that Thorn hopes will lead them to Cordura. Along the side they find an abandoned handcar, and begin to pump their way down the tracks. Chawk, who is wanted for murder, is desperate to avoid the notoriety of being a hero and so determines to kill Thorn before reaching Cordura. After Chawk hurls a knife at Thorn, Fowler tries to assume command but is met with contempt. Aware that Chawk is awaiting an opportunity to kill him, Thorn tries to remain vigilant, but eventually succumbs to exhaustion. Geary then offers to stand watch, and after Thorn awakens, she confides that she, too, is ashamed of the way she had led her life. Moved, Thorn entrusts her with the journal he has kept of the men's statements. When they reach an uphill slope, the others refuse to assist, forcing Thorn to pump on alone. After his hands become too blistered to continue, Thorn straps the cart to his back with a rope and begins pulling it, but loses his footing when Fowler hurls a rock at him. Because Thorn is near death after being dragged downhill by the cart, Fowler assumes command and decides to finish him off. Fowler demands that Geary turn over the journal, and when she refuses, he rips it from her bodice, then haltingly reads Thom's glowing description of their bravery and his recognition of the "crippled child in all of them." Chagrined, they listen to Thorn's conclusion that they must all make it to Cordura and thus prove that good lives in all men. Just over the hill, they spot Cordura, and after Geary helps Thorn to his feet, they join the others and begin their descent into Cordura.