In 1845, a small band of settlers traveling across the Oregon High Desert suspect their guide, Stephen Meek, may not actually know where he is going. What was supposed to be a two-week journey, via what became known as the Meek Cutoff, stretches into five. With no relief in sight, tensions rise as water becomes increasingly scarce and supplies run low. The wives look on as the husbands discuss what to do, unable to participate in the decision making. The dynamics of power begin to shift when they capture a lone native and hold him captive in the hopes he will lead them to water. Meek argues the native can't be trusted, though doesn't present a more trustworthy leader himself. When he steps up to shoot the native, Mrs. Tetherow intervenes. In the end, when Mr. Tetherow succumbs to hardship, Meek submits to Mrs. Tetherow, who pins her hopes on the native.