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PRESCOTT ROE (Richard Harris), a man who looks as weather-beaten as the prairie he travels, is on a mission of mercy. His son TALBOT (River Phoenix) has just lost his beloved wife, AWBONNIE (Sheila Tousey), in childbirth. Insane with grief, he sits by her corpse, refusing to let go. Prescott has decided that there is only one person who can comfort his son... VELADA, Awbonnie's sister.
Velada (Jeri Arridondo) lives with her father, EAMON MCCREE (Alan Bates), the dissipated proprietor of the Kickapoo Traveling Medicine Show. Her mother, a Kiowa Indian named SILENT TONGUE (Tantoo Cardinal), abandoned her daughters years ago to return to her tribe. Then, last year, Eamon sold Awbonnie to the Roes in exchange for three horses, a crime his son REEVES MCCREE (Dermot Mulroney) has never forgiven. Now, Prescott Roe has returned, offering more horses -- and gold -- for Velada. When Eamon resists, mainly because Reeves intervenes, Prescott has to take matters in his own hands, kidnapping the girl to save his troubled boy.
Talbot is in trouble, but grief is the least of his worries. The ghost of Awbonnie, a powerful spirit bent on revenge, has come to demand her freedom. She wants Talbot to burn her corpse so that she can enter the next world. When he refuses, she threatens terrible vengeance. But Talbot is firm. He will never let go of her... never.
Meanwhile, Prescott and Velada make their way across the prairie. She has agreed to accompany him in exchange for the horses and gold he would have paid her father. Velada senses that this is dangerous business -- that there is an angry spirit hovering over them. Later, she realizes it is the ghost of Awbonnie, who appears demanding that Velada find a way to help lay her spirit to rest.
Prescott and Velada make their way to Talbot, while Eamon and Reeves are right behind them. This time, Reeves is determined to save his half-sister from bondage. Eamon is too drunk to argue with him, although he repeatedly asks to return to the familiar world of the medicine show.
The prairie holds unpleasant memories for Eamon. He remembers the time -- many years ago -- when he raped SILENT TONGUE, while young Reeves watched. Eamon has forgiven himself because he married SILENT TONGUE and raised their daughters. But SILENT TONGUE has not forgiven him. She ran back to the Kiowa, preferring them and their punishing ways to the shame of living with this drunken white man. Now, she watches from a distance, waiting for her people to capture Eamon and finally bring him to justice.
In another part of the prairie, Talbot still clings to Awbonnie's corpse -- and the past. He wants no part of Velada, who makes overtures only because she wants to follow Awbonnie's wishes. But, in the end, it is Prescott who appeases Awbonnie's troubled spirit. He has the courage to wrest the corpse away from Talbot and place it in the flames.
Awbonnie's spirit smiles at Velada, happy to be free. SILENT TONGUE is satisfied, too. She watches from a distance as Eamon, who has been abandoned by Reeves, is captured and tortured by the Kiowa. Finally, the women have been avenged.
As for the Roes, they walk across the prairie, stripped of their horses and other possessions. In the end, it is the Kickapoo Medicine Show that endures. The performers set up in another dusty location. And, as always, an eager crowd gathers, ready to be entertained and seduced by the clowns selling remedies for all their ailments.