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In 1863, rambunctious teenager Lotta Crabtree eagerly anticipates the arrival of famed entertainer Lola Montez to the small town of Rabbit Creek, California. Lotta's stern mother Mary Ann discourages Lotta's interest in Montez, although her henpecked father John encourages her affection for music and dancing. Determined to be an actress, Lotta skips school and studies her idol's every move as she parades into town, accompanied by disguised townsman Mart Taylor, who publicizes her performance by pretending to shoot himself out of love for her. Although Mart adores Lotta, he is reluctant to sneak her into the saloon where he works to watch Montez perform. The next morning, as Lotta plays outside, her singing and dancing are observed by handsome Southerner Tom Richmond, who is amused by Lotta's costume and imperious demeanor. Tom agrees to escort her to Montez's show, and the delighted girl slips out of her room that night. While Lotta is reveling in Montez's exuberant performance, John accompanies Cornelius, one of the lodgers at the Crabtree boardinghouse, to the saloon to gamble. Cornelius assures John that he has a surefire scheme to win at roulette, but the unlucky John winds up losing his money and the boardinghouse. Mart, who has informed Tom that Lotta is only sixteen, escorts her home, and when she learns about her father's misfortune, she convinces Mary Ann that she can help the family by becoming a touring entertainer. John leaves with Cornelius during the night, and in the morning, Mary Ann and Lotta, accompanied by Mart and some local musicians, begin to tour the many mining towns in California. During her first show Lotta is billed as "The Golden Girl," but is disappointed when the miners do not throw gold pieces, as had happened during Montez's performances. She then tears off part of her costume and does a risque dance, which the infuriated Mary Ann criticizes. Tom, who is in the audience, saves the day by encouraging the miners to throw gold onto the stage. During the following weeks, the Crabtrees and Mart continue their travels, and Lotta's fame spreads. Tom trails her to every show and meets her secretly, and the couple fall in love. One night, Mary Ann confronts Tom, who confesses that he is a professional gambler. Before Lotta's next performance, Mary Ann reveals Tom's profession to Lotta, and accuses him of following them only to fleece the gathered crowds. Crestfallen, Lotta refuses to talk to Tom, although her attentions are diverted by the appearance of a Union officer, who asks her to transport gold to her next stop at Fort Yucca. The officer explains that a notorious bandit named "The Spaniard" has been stealing Union gold, and Lotta agrees to his request. Before Lotta leaves, however, Tom finds her and professes his love, which Lotta gladly reciprocates. Soon after, the Crabtree wagon is held up by masked bandits, led by The Spaniard. Despite his disguise, Lotta recognizes Tom as The Spaniard, but is comforted by his explanation that he is actually a Confederate captain ordered to provide for his starving men. Promising to sing "Dixie" for him in the future, Lotta bids farewell to her beloved and continues her travels. Lotta's fame grows and soon she goes to San Francisco, where she is reunited with her father. John wins the deed to a prominent theater in a card game, and Mart uses it to stage a successful show for Lotta. As the Civil War rages on, Lotta becomes the darling of San Francisco. Hoping to find Tom, Lotta reluctantly leaves California on a cross-country tour, ending in New York. The Golden Girl's appearances in New York are constantly sold out, and although Mary Ann gently reminds Lotta that it has been a year since she last saw Tom, Lotta refuses to give up hope. One night, just after learning that the war is over, Lotta receives a letter from Tom, stating that he has been wounded but will soon recover. Mary Ann also receives a letter from Tom's doctor, who explains that Tom will probably not survive. Heartbroken, Lotta continues the show, although the audience boos when she sings "Dixie." Mart then champions Lotta, telling the crowd that they should be generous in victory, and soon everyone joins Lotta in song. After the show, the family lets Lotta grieve alone, but as she gazes across the empty stage, she hears Tom call her name and rushes into his arms.