The lives of a deputy U.S. marshal, a teenaged farm girl, and a Quaker farmer collide in a way that changes the lives of each during the winter of 1862. JAMES HARPER, 31, has served since the war began and now seeks to command a company. KATIE MALLOY, 15, a saloon-girl, seeks ways to improve her situation knowing that she cannot escape the brothel. GUSTAV MAGNUSSON, 19, an Iowa farm boy, must decide which officers he can trust while he strives to protect his men.
Lieutenant Harper has a reputation for recklessness and for getting the job done—even if it means getting his own men killed in the process. But when Harper sacrifices a colonel’s son, even the army can’t turn a blind eye. Harper, demoted and ostracized, is doomed to spend the rest of the war pushing papers for politically appointed commanders.
But sharpshooting skills like Harper’s can’t be ignored and when he’s ordered to train the incoming recruits and eventually lead them on a skirmish, Harper senses an opportunity to return to command. The only problem is he’s stuck with a Quaker farm boy, Magnusson, the very person who rescued the colonel’s son whom Harper had abandoned. Every look in the tall boy’s eyes speaks of Magnusson’s distrust and the other soldiers fall in line behind him.
When Harper and the young recruits are taken captive and held as prisoners-of-war they struggle to work together. While imprisoned, Harper learns of a Paducah saloon conducting a deadly rebel spy ring and works on a plan to escape and bring the information back to the North. As luck would have it, Harper is exchanged for a rebel officer and his orders for release arrive. Their captors plan to execute the rest of the men. Harper, realizing that there is more in this world than duty and command, turns down the release to help his men escape. Magnusson and the others, realizing that Harper didn’t abandon them, work with him and together they return from behind enemy lines.
In Paducah, Katie earns enough to pay against her indenture until she accompanies an officer with abusive tendencies. He beats her and she has a near-death experience with her dead mother. Katie is out of work after her ordeal, depressed, and fearful to return until her friend in the saloon buys Katie a dagger, a “ladies’ companion”.
Katie learns about a higher level of working girl: the courtesan. She will need to learn entertainment skills beyond those she currently possesses. Katie persists and her friend promises to teach her how to entertain at the officers-only club planned for the near future.
When wounded Confederate prisoners arrive at Paducah, Katie visits in company with several of the other saloon girls. The ward nurse offers to train Katie and she becomes a regular volunteer. A male worker at the saloon insults Katie and her roommate. Katie watches her roommate take control by using her own “ladies’ companion”. Katie vows to demand respect, using her dagger if necessary. Now she knows how to make her life better: become a courtesan, learn to be a nurse, demand respect.
Back at Fort Donelson following their parole, Harper is blamed for their capture and undergoes a kangaroo court. The judge attempts to alter Magnusson’s testimony. Magnusson corrects this but now he knows how far the battalion commander will go to be rid of Harper. Magnusson vows to set the record straight about which officers can be trusted. Harper realizes that not only did the men need him to watch over them but he needed them too.