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Traveling south on a Greyhound bus, along a California highway formerly known as the El Camino Real, thirteen-year-old Jimmy Rawlins is headed for a Boy Scout Jamboree in Washington, D.C. Another passenger, embittered Fred Schroeder, is also going to Washington to receive a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor on behalf of his son, who died serving in the Korean War. As they approach San Francisco, the people on the bus realize that they are near the site of Sutter's Field, where gold was first found in 1848, causing millions of people to rush to California in hopes of making their fortune. Another rider, a friendly stranger who is dressed in black, tells Jimmy that during the Civil War, an Army detachment sent by Gen. Grant to bring back gold for the Union was massacred by Indians. At the San Francisco bus terminal, Jimmy, Fred and the stranger switch to a bus heading east. Mary, a young woman who is returning to New York after a vacation, also boards, followed by Bill Roberts, a football player for the Philadelphia Eagles, who takes an instant liking to her. As the bus travels along the historic route of the Pony Express, Jimmy reads from his guidebook about the heroic young men, some hardly older than himself, who risked great dangers to deliver the mail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. Fred, seeing in Jimmy a younger version of his son, makes disgruntled comments about risking the lives of young men. This annoys Bill, a Korean War veteran who considers Fred's comment unpatriotic, until the stranger explains to him that Fred's only son was killed in Korea. While talking to Mary, the smitten Bill, seeing an engagement ring on her left hand, learns that she is dating her boss Waldo. While passing through Las Vegas, Nevada, the undeterred Bill suggests that marriage is a gamble and that one should be careful to marry the right person. When Mary explains that Waldo is dependable with good prospects, Bill asks her, "Do you have fun together?" Seated near Jimmy is famous movie cowboy Tex Ritter, who has been on a personal appearance tour. When Jimmy asks him to sing a song, Tex obliges by singing about the men who died fighting at the Alamo. Fred, grieving that his son's life was wasted, complains that even songs glorify senseless sacrifice, prompting the stranger to mysteriously promise to help him understand the reason why men offer their lives to fight losing battles. To her dismay, Mary is becoming attracted to Bill, which threatens the "planned and ordered" life she thought she had made for herself. As the bus continues on the highway, Tex enjoys the scenery and talks about the pirate Jean Lafitte, who offered his men and services to Gen. Andrew Jackson out of patriotism, thus saving New Orleans. As the bus approaches Chicago, Illinois, Tex tells Jimmy how a terrible fire in 1871 almost destroyed the city, but that it was rebuilt bigger and better than ever. At the Chicago terminal, Tex disembarks, but the other passengers continue eastward. Near Cleveland, Bill tells Jimmy about the pirate treasures said to be hidden in the Florida Keys. On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Mary admits her disappointment that the trip is almost over, causing the stranger to cryptically suggest that "a woman can always change her mind." In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the stranger tells Jimmy about the Continental Congress that met in 1776 to debate whether to break free of England and become a separate country. Although many people were happy with the status quo, he explains, many were not. The stranger then recalls the actions of a secret organization called the Sons of Liberty, who responded to England's unfair Stamp Tax imposed on Americans by throwing a "Boston Tea Party." He tells Jimmy how John Hancock proudly signed the Declaration of Independence in large script. Noting that the country is rich with history, the stranger encourages Jimmy to see as much as he can and informs him that the original flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner" still hangs in the Smithsonian Institution. In Philadelphia, the stranger convinces Fred and Jimmy to accompany him on a short side trip, promising Fred that he will be glad he did for the rest of his life. Bill, who has reached his destination, has an appointment to sign his new football contract and wants Mary to stay with him. Unsure of herself, Mary calls Waldo to break up, but is unable to do so over the phone. When Bill becomes impatient, she gets angry and leaves him, taking the bus to New York to reunite with Waldo. However, when Waldo meets her, she breaks off their relationship and then returns to Philadelphia to be with Bill. Meanwhile, the stranger has taken Fred and Jimmy to Gettysburg, the great battlefield where Abraham Lincoln made his famous speech now known as the Gettysburg Address. Reading Lincoln's words, "the dead shall not die in vain," that have been carved on a great monument, both Fred and the stranger can hear Lincoln's voice and take comfort. The stranger says that those who died sometimes wonder if the people who inherited the country are worth the sacrifice, and now, having seen both the country and its people, he feels that they are. Fred, equally moved by Lincoln's words, understands that they apply to his son, whose short life held meaning. The stranger, mysterious as ever, says he must leave and, promising to see him in Washington, leaves before Fred, who no longer resents his son's death, can thank him. Later, in Washington, Fred invites Jimmy to accompany him to Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. They plan to meet the stranger at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which honors those nameless men who died in war, but, when he is nowhere to be found, Fred realizes that the stranger did not promise that they would see him. Amused and grateful, he supposes that the friendly stranger, whose name they never learned, has accomplished his mission.