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In 1847, South African Paul Van Riebeck travels to County Limerick, Ireland to buy horses from Squire O'Neill for his commando group that is fighting to establish a Dutch Free State in land controlled by the fierce Zulus. Paul is immediately attracted to O'Neill's fiery daughter Katie, who returns his affections, despite the fact that both are stubborn and proud. Katie is annoyed, however, that Paul, who calls her by the South African diminutive Katje, talks only about his duties toward his country. After a ball hosted by the O'Neills, Paul embraces Katie, and his passionate kisses make her believe that he will stay. The next day, Paul announces his intention to return to South Africa alone, and although Katie pleads with him to take her along, Paul maintains that she is too refined to survive the rough life he endures in the untamed environment of South Africa. After Paul departs, O'Neill dies and the potato blight sweeps through the country, impoverishing everyone. Katie marries her good-hearted neighbor, Shawn Kildare, and, remembering Paul's advice to find "a more merciful land," convinces Shawn to start a new life in South Africa. Their son Terrance is born during the long sea voyage to Cape Town, and upon their arrival, they learn that the other settlers are making an 800-mile trek to the Hoffen Valley, a burgeoning farming community. Katie is especially pleased to hear that Paul's commandos are to escort the travelers through the dangerous Zulu country, and persuades Shawn to join the trek. The leaders of the group, Oom Simon Hout and his son Kurt, are wary of Shawn's inexperience, but Kurt, who desires Katie, helps them. Upon arriving at the river where they are to meet Paul, Kurt is puzzled by Paul's absence, and grows concerned when every Zulu village they pass is inhabited only by women and children. Soon after, one of the scouts reports the nearby presence of a massive Zulu war party, and the settlers prepare for battle. Although they are equipped only with spears, the warriors greatly outnumber the settlers and claim many lives, including Shawn. Just when it appears that they are doomed, the group is rescued by the arrival of Paul and his commandos, whose ferocious fighting overwhelms the Zulus. Paul is surprised to see Katie, but over the next few weeks, as the wagon train continues its journey, keeps his distance because he believes that Kurt is courting her. Katie ignores Kurt's overtures, however, and one evening, plainly tells Paul that she has always loved him. Kurt grimly keeps watch, waiting for the couple to emerge from the forest, and the next morning, accuses them both of lying to him. Paul tries to reason with his friend but is forced to fight him in a duel with bullwhips. Paul wins and soon settles with Katie in the Hoffen Valley, where they blissfully build a house and begin farming. After three months, however, Christian, Paul's lieutenant, tells him that his men need him, and Paul leaves, infuriating and wounding Katie. Knowing that she cannot manage alone, Katie flirts with Kurt, inducing him to help her work the farm with promises that someday they will be together. Kurt labors diligently, although he knows that Katie still loves Paul, and one stormy evening, attempts to rape her when she refuses to allow him to cut down a tree that symbolizes her union with Paul. Lightning splits the tree in two, pinning Kurt to the ground and crushing his leg, which then must be amputated. Despite the destruction of her farm, Katie continues and soon bears Paul's child, a son she names Paul. Katie begins selling her furnishings to local natives in exchange for gold nuggets, and strikes it rich when one brings her a fist-sized diamond. Moving to Cape Town, Katie and her sons buy Abend Bloem, Paul's grand, ancestral home, although her wealth does not prevent Katie from being lonely. It does buy her influence, however, and two years later, when the Dutch are finally granted their free state by the British government, Paul comes to Cape Town to petition the governor to allow them representation on the national assembly. The governor refuses to see Paul until they "accidentally" meet at a ball hosted by Katie, and the cunning Irishwoman persuades the governor to agree to meet with Paul the next day. Following the meeting, Paul visits Katie at Abend Bloem, and after spending an idyllic day with her, learns that young Paul is his son. Upset that Katie did not tell him sooner, Paul lashes out at her and, after the couple quarrel, storms away. Katie gradually loses her fortune and is forced to pack up her sons and join the search for gold in the rough towns of the frontier. She heads for Kolesburg, despite warnings that it has been taken over by outlaws, and is distraught to find that Kurt has become the outlaws' leader and is ruthlessly destroying town after town. Kurt taunts Katie, telling her that he at least would have married her and kept her "decent" if she had been truthful with him, then locks her and the children in a house while he awaits the arrival of soldiers coming to avenge the mayor's death. The men are led by Paul, and Kurt looks forward to killing his rival. Paul's commandos outwit and outfight the outlaws, however, and soon Kurt is reduced to taking young Paul hostage. Unable to harm Katie's child, Kurt returns the boy to her, and is about to shoot the now-unarmed Paul when Paul's faithful servant, Tschaka, kills him with a spear. Paul then tells Katie that he had come to Cape Town not only to see the governor but to marry her, and after he slips a wedding band on her finger, the couple vows to start a new life in the Hoffen Valley.