It is winter 1797 in Massachusetts, and John Chapman, a soldier in the Continental Army, has been caught in the embrace of a superior officer. Barely escaping a posse of outraged townspeople, he makes his way on foot to the Allegheny Plateau, where he is forced to spend the winter with an odd loner named Daniel McQuay, the sole possessor of the remaining provisions and ammunition.
Snowed in for the rest of the winter, Chapman finds himself in a twisted and abusive sexual relationship with the loner, a secret serial killer of young Indian girls, whose scalps he collects.
After bitter hand-to-hand combat, Chapman makes his way across the Plateau. On the way, his life is saved by a silent Indian woman. Upon settling in the town of Franklin, he falls in love with Palmer, a brash yet innocent 17-year old.
Chapman, Palmer, and the Indian woman, Gwennie, unite to protect themselves and Franklin from McQuay, who has followed Chapman there. In a spectacular final confrontation, Chapman and Palmer lose almost everything in a life-and-death struggle to save their fragile, frontier community.