As the action opens, Chief Nanchez (Rudolfo Acosta) signals an order for the execution of a US cavalry troop that has been surrounded on a cliff by his Apache warriors, and the entrapped soldiers are summarily massacred. Arriving on the scene, cavalry reinforcements attack the Apaches, and Sgt. Clovis Hook (Joel McCrea) tackles Chief Nanchez, the two old adversaries falling off their horses and wrestling on the ground in fierce hand-to-hand combat. The army troop defeats the Apaches, and according to orders, take Nanchez alive, along with most of his braves, but a few manage to escape. The soldiers then torch the Apache village, rounding up the women and children for resettlement to the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. Among the native women and children, a soldier spots a white woman and calls out to Sgt. Hook. The woman, dressed native style, except for a short haircut, appears emotionally detached, yet possessively clutches a small half-Indian child of perhaps five years. Although she remains silent and unresponsive, they subsequently learn that she is Cora Sutcliff (Barbara Stanwyck), who was taken captive in a raid some years before on a journey westward to join her rancher husband. Upon determining that the white woman is the mother of Chief Nanchez’s son, the soldiers express disgust that she is “an Indian’s leavings” and that she would let herself give birth to Nanchez’s “whelp.” Sgt. Hook tactfully suggests that they simply report ahead to the fort that a white woman who is the mother of Nanchez’s son has been recovered and will be returning with them.
They mount Cora on a horse for the trip to the fort, and the Indian boy, Quito (Terry Lawrence), kicks and squirms when he is lifted onto a soldier’s horse. When the soldier threatens to tie Quito to his horse, Sgt. Hook takes Quito onto his own horse, declaring that a boy just needs a firm hand, and slaps Quito across the rump, placing the child in front of him on his saddle. Quito immediately stops fussing. “How long do you have to be married to learn to handle children like that?” the trooper asks. Irritated, Sgt. Hook replies, “You talk too much.”
News of the white woman’s recovery precedes them, and the general consensus at the fort is unsympathetic toward the “defiled” white woman. The wife of the commanding officer alone expresses sympathy for the woman’s ordeal, and asks her husband how he would feel if she had been in the unfortunate woman’s situation. When the CO states that he is certain that his wife would have preferred to kill herself rather than allow herself to be so debased, her response is “I wonder.” At the fort, Cora Sutcliff remains detached and unresponsive when questioned. When read a list of white women who have been reported missing over the years, she stirs slightly at the name “Cora Sutcliff” and this is how her identity is established. It is determined that Cora will be returned to her husband, along with her son, and that Sgt. Hook will escort them.
A defiant Nanchez is on display in the fort’s courtyard, made to stand in chains on a platform for punishment until he promises to lead his people to the San Carlos Reservation. Passing through the courtyard on the way to their overnight quarters, Quito breaks away from his mother and attempts to run to his father. Sgt. Hook restrains Quito within sight of Nanchez. Aware of Nanchez’s pain at being in shackles in front of his son and anticipating their separation, Sgt. Hook expresses to Nanchez that the boy belongs with his mother, “as is meant to be.” Nanchez expresses defiantly, “Who knows what is meant to be.”
The CO’s wife knocks at the door of Cora’s quarters, bringing her a present of European-style clothes to replace Cora’s tattered apparel. Cora does not open the door, and the gift-giver leaves the package outside for Cora to retrieve. Cora is pleased with the fresh feminine clothes, a white frilly blouse and full dark skirt, the first time she shows any animation. When she holds the new clothing against herself, eager to cast off her Indian identity, however, her young proud Indian son, Quito, reprimands her curtly in Apache dialect. Presumably out of consideration for her son’s distress at his whole world being shattered, Cora rewraps her European clothing with a sigh, reluctant to add to her son’s sense of alienation by taking away the one constant left to him, his familiar mother. Instead she dons a clean hybrid costume, an unconventional blouse and pants with buckskin boots.
The next day, before setting off from the fort, Cora and Quito wait for Sgt. Hook at the general store. An ugly scene ensues when an aggressive man insults Quito and Cora, expressing that decent women at the fort should not be exposed to a half-breed and his disreputable mother. The bully grabs Quito, pulling him away from Cora, while a crowd gathers around them. Cora hits the bully hard with a shovel, threatening to kill any man who lays hands on her son, the first words she has spoken. Sgt. Hook arrives on the scene and intervenes, forcibly removing the bully. To the onlookers, Sgt. Hook suggests that they find some clothing suitable for a small boy to wear. Quito is then presented with denim overalls to replace his ragged native-style clothes, but he retains his long Apache hairstyle and headband. Cora, Quito, and Sgt. Hook then set off on a stagecoach to reunite Cora with the husband she has not seen in some years. Quito does not speak English, and Sgt. Hook asks Cora if Nanchez treated her badly. Cora replies that he only beat her once, but that was because she had refused to work. It was the Indian women who made her life hell, she adds, until she began to look and smell like one of them. Sgt. Hook attempts to reassure her that she need not fret, that a husband who loves her will likely accept her child. Cora expresses that she is not worried; she is certain her loving and understanding husband will come to accept Quito because he is a part of her.
At a stagecoach stop Cora and Quito encounter prejudice as they attempt to enter Wilson’s restaurant for a meal. The owner is unwilling to allow Quito and Cora to enter, and instead Sgt. Hook buys cheese sandwiches and they have a picnic. While Sgt. Hook stands guard at a respectful distance, Cora and Quito playfully bathe in a pond, enjoying a break from their cares. When they dress and join Sgt. Hook, Cora notices his intent gaze on her and says, “Why don’t you go ahead and ask what you’ve been wanting to ask?” Cora expresses bitterness that white men hate her for what she went through. Sgt. Hook says he doesn’t hate her and doesn’t want to offend her. Cora says she knows he doesn’t hate her and that was why she doesn’t mind him asking and is willing to talk to him about it to unburden herself. Cora asks Sgt. Hook if he can understand wanting to live so much that you put up with any humiliation. In response, Sgt. Hook relates that he had been in a situation where wanted to live so much that he actually masqueraded as a dog for a month to survive. During the Civil War, as a Union prisoner of war at the Confederate prison at Andersonville, he pretended to be a dog, on his hands and knees, so that a dog-loving prisoner, who was dying and hallucinating with fever, would share his rations with him. Sgt. Hook can indeed understand Cora’s drive to live at all costs.
Meanwhile Chief Nanchez has broken free from his chains, escaped from captivity, rounded up his remaining braves, and set out to track Cora and Quito to take back his son.
Resuming its journey, the stagecoach picks up and drops off other passengers, such as a nosy salesman who comments on Cora’s short hair (lice, Cora explains shrilly) and buckskin boots (comfortable) and blatantly asks where they got the half-Indian child traveling with them. Sgt. Hook tosses the insolent salesman out of the stagecoach to sit next to the driver, Mr. Trude (Royal Dano). Next the stagecoach picks up a young cowboy, Jeff Bennett (Earl Holliman), whom everyone refers to simply as “Cowboy.” Cowboy is courteous toward Cora and Quito. Taking Quito on his lap to give Cora a break, he sympathetically muses of a sleeping Quito in his arms, “You can sure see the Indian strain in him.” When Cowboy leaves them at his destination, San Miguel, the middle-aged Sgt. Hook pointedly expresses to Cora that any man who raised such a fine son would feel that he has done something worthwhile in his life. Cora responds that surely Sgt. Hook has had that sense of accomplishment that with his own children. Sgt. Hook replies that he has two daughters, but was specifically referring to sons. Next, the stagecoach takes on an aristocratic elderly Spanish woman, Senora Sandoval (Celia Lovsky) and her granddaughter, Consuela (Susan Kohner), who has left her convent school for an arranged marriage. A rancher, Charlie Travers (Edward Andrews), joins the stagecoach carrying his entire fortune in a money belt, a large sum of money he has won in a poker game that he intends to use to stake his future plans. Meanwhile, back in San Miguel, Cowboy learns from the telegraph operator that Nanchez has escaped from the fort and is likely in pursuit of his son. Determined to warn his friends of the danger, Cowboy sets out on horseback to catch up with the stagecoach.
Cowboy manages to slip past Nanchez’s braves and catches up with the stagecoach to warn Sgt. Hook. Honor bound to disclose their situation to the fellow passengers, Sgt. Hook informs them why Nanchez is stalking them. All but Travers, the rancher with the money belt, agree to stand by Cora’s decision to keep Quito. As Mr. Trude drives the stagecoach forward at a break-neck pace, the stagecoach hits an obstruction in the road, overturns, and breaks a wheel. They are forced to spend the night while the driver makes repairs. Sgt. Hook informs them that they are safe for the time being as Apaches do not attack at night. Cowboy and Consuela spend the evening conversing on mutual cultural topics and an attraction develops between them.
In the morning, Nanchez and his braves find the stagecoach. Nanchez negotiates a parley and sends word that he will attack unless his son is returned to him. Travers offers Cora money to give up Quito “The boy belongs with his own kind, with his father.” When Cora remains undeterred, Travers sneaks off to find Nanchez, to whom he offers his money belt—containing $15,000 he suggests Nanchez can use to purchase guns, ammunition, and whiskey—to spare the group. Nanchez disdainfully kills the rancher, leaving the money belt untouched on the ground beside the dead rancher.
The stagecoach passengers are in a dire situation, surrounded and outnumbered by Nanchez and his braves. To save their lives, Sgt. Hook plots a cruel strategy, playing their one ace, Nanchez’s love for his son. Mr. Trude restrains Cora, and Sgt. Hook ignores Cora’s pleas while he positions the cowboy holding a gun to Quito’s head within full sight of Nanchez. Sgt. Hook instructs the reluctant Cowboy that if Sgt. Hook drops his arm during his parley with Nanchez, the cowboy is to shoot Quito. Cowboy protests that he is not in the army and doesn’t have to follow those orders. Sgt. Hook responds that in tough situations one has to make tough decisions. Sgt. Hook rides out to negotiate with Nanchez. Nanchez declares that Sgt. Hook must be part Indian to use such a ruthless tactic. Nanchez informs Sgt. Hook that the Indians had given Sgt. Hook the nickname “Stone Face” but that he has shown this to be inaccurate because he instead has a “heart of stone.” Sgt. Hook replies that Nanchez must be part white to love his son as he does. Nanchez warns Sgt. Hook that there will be another day when the circumstances are more favorable, and orders his braves to retreat. As the stagecoach drives away unmolested, Cora has Quito safely in her embrace, and the elderly Spanish noblewoman asks Sgt. Hook, “Would you have carried out your threat?” Sgt. Hook gravely replies yes.
The stagecoach reaches its final destination, and Cowboy takes his leave of them and informs them that his name is Jeff Bennett. He receives Sgt. Hook’s best wishes in his pursuit of Consuela. Cora’s husband is not there to meet her. Cora expresses concern that perhaps her husband has heard of Quito and is unable to accept him. Sgt. Hook reassures her that his own wife is frequently not there to meet him after he has been away for a long time, especially if she is uncertain of exactly when he will arrive. Cora asks Sgt. Hook to accompany her to her husband’s ranch, and he agrees. Anticipating reunion with her husband, Cora changes into the feminine clothes given to her by the CO’s wife.
When they arrive at the ranch in a hired wagon, Cora’s husband, Fred (John Dehner), comes out to meet them. Cora presents Quito to Fred. Fred says that he has heard about the boy, but expresses disbelief that Cora has brought him along. “He’s my son.” Cora insists emphatically. Sgt. Hook accepts an invitation to stay for dinner, perhaps sensing trouble ahead. While the two are attending to a horse, Sgt. Hook attempts to reason with Fred, man-to-man, suggesting that Fred accept Quito as the son Cora and he were unable to have in 9 years of marriage. Fred warns him not to interfere. During an uncomfortable dinner, Fred points out that Cora has put Quito to sleep on a blanket on the floor instead of a bed, as an indication that Quito does not fit in. Cora encourages Fred to give it some time to see how he feels then. When Sgt. Hook goes to the stable to prepare for departure, Fred intensifies his attempts to convince Cora to send Quito off with Sgt. Hook. Cora insists that Quito belongs with her and she won’t give him up. Fred states that he is willing to “forgive” Cora and welcome her back, but he can’t be expected to accept Nanchez’s son and keep his sense of manhood. “FORGIVE ME?” Cora exclaims in amazement, what has she done, she asks, for which she has to be forgiven? Realizing that her husband will never accept her son, Cora rouses Quito and heads with him out to the stable to depart with Sgt. Hook. Fred comes out with a rifle to stop her, pointing the rifle at Sgt. Hook and affirming that Cora belongs to him, but that he and Quito can leave. Sgt. Hook asks Fred whether he intends to kill him and Quito to keep Cora. While Sgt. Hook and Fred are squaring off over the issue, Nanchez and his men appear menacingly over the horizon.
A chase ensues in which Cora, Quito, Sgt. Hook, and Fred, in the wagon, attempt to outdistance Nanchez and his men on horseback. Sgt. Hook drives the wagon, and Fred rides in the back with his rifle, shooting at Nanchez and his braves, who in turn shoot arrows at their fleeing quarry. Fighting for his son, Nanchez is shot and killed by Fred, who is fighting to hold on to Cora. Simultaneously, Fred is killed by an Apache arrow. Seeing Nanchez fall, the Apache warriors abandon the pursuit and depart.
Quito stoically accepts his father’s death, an observation that Sgt. Hook makes as a positive “Indian trait” of taking whatever happens in stride. As they drive away, Sgt. Hook suggests to Cora that his enlistment is up in 4 months’ time and that she and Quito can wait for him at the settlement next to the fort, if she will have him. Cora asks about his wife and children. Sgt. Hook admits to Cora that he made them up as a shield against wives at posts who relentlessly try to fix up bachelors. Cora exclaims that she always suspected the wife and daughters were fictitious. Quito makes a remark in Apache dialect. Sgt. Hook looks affectionately at Quito and says he now needs to learn English, as he hands a delighted Quito the reins and lets the young boy pretend to drive. Sgt. Hook slips an arm around Cora. Having formed a family with a bright future, they ride off contentedly into the sunset.Joel McCrea as Sgt. Clovis Hook
Barbara Stanwyck as Cora Sutliff
Earl Holliman as Jeff Bennett
Edward Andrews as Charlie Travers
John Dehner as Fred Sutliff
Susan Kohner as Consuela
Royal Dano as Mr. Trude
Cathleen Nesbitt as Señora Sandoval
Stanley Adams as Heathcliff
Terry Lawrence as Quito
Rodolfo Acosta as Nanchez (as Rudolfo Acosta)
Richard Shannon as Trooper Ryan
Sheb Wooley as Townsman
Jeanne Bates as Weaver's daughter
Patrick O'Moore as Col. Adam Weaver
Cyril Delevanti as Junius
Rush Williams as Cpl. Stoner
Paul Newlan as Mr. Wilson
Dee J. Thompson as Tess (as D. J. Thompson)
Charles Gray as Soldier