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In 1876, Johnny Jameson, a "drummer," or traveling salesman, is the only passenger on the inaugural run of the Tomahawk and Western Railroad's narrow gauge train through the Colorado Rockies. During the ride, the conductor tells Johnny that certain people, stagecoach operators for example, would like to see the railroad's franchise fail. Soon after, Dakota, Trancas and Gila, who work for Colonel Dawson, the area stageline operator, cause a giant boulder to fall directly in the path of the train. Engineer Terence Sweeny manages to stop the train in time, and he and the crew then disembark to move the rock. Johnny decides to walk to the town of Epitaph and hitches a ride with Trancas and Gila. At the sheriff's office, when Johnny tries to report the train's delay to deputy Chuckity Jones, he is knocked out Trancas. U.S. Marshal Kit Dodge, meanwhile, prepares to welcome the train with help from his tomboyish, knife-wielding granddaughter Kit. As they are leaving for the depot, however, the marshal and Kit are surprised by Trancas and Gila. The marshal shoots Trancas but is wounded by Gila. Kit suspects that Johnny may be one of the gang and, before Chuckity can intervene on his behalf, orders him to leave town. After Kit is deputized as a U.S. Marshal by her grandfather, she and an Indian named Pawnee are assigned to escort the train to Tomahawk. Colonel Dawson orders Dakota to join the posse that is escorting the train, while other gang members plot to blow up the engine during a night stop, which will be disrupted after Indian Black Wolf stirs up the local Arapahos. On the way to Tomahawk, local businessman Bishop informs Sweeny that there is no track laid for the next forty miles because the rails, which were shipped from England, have been lost at sea. Bishop explains that as the train must reach Tomahawk to fulfill the requirements of the franchise contract, he has arranged for the engine car to be hauled by teams of mules over the next forty miles. Another condition of the franchise contract is that the train must reach Tomahawk by a rapidly approaching deadline with at least one paying passenger. Although Johnny buys a ticket, he must sit alongside the train's boiler while the mules pull the locomotive, and Kit has to ensure his safe journey. Before the train departs, Chinese laundry man Long Time joins the group with laundry for Tomahawk. Madame Adelaide, her dancing girls and a musician also join up. As planned, Dawson's men Bat, Charley and Fargo show up at a night stop claiming to be telegraph men who are there to repair lines cut by the Arapahos and Kit gives them permission to bunk in the camp. Gradually, Kit softens her opinion of Johnny. When all are asleep, Bat and Charley leave while Fargo tosses sticks of dynamite under the engine. Johnny, who is sleeping alongside the train, smells the lit fuse and alerts the others. Kit then cuts the fuse with a shot and disables Fargo. Before Fargo can talk, however, Dakota kills him. Some time later, about five miles from where the track restarts, Bat and Charley place dynamite charges on a trestle bridge. They are then attacked by Indians and the dynamite is set off prematurely. Johnny knows the Arapaho chief, Crooked Knife, and after the Indians attack the train and accompanying wagons, Johnny volunteers to talk peace with him. Johnny has learned that Long Time is carrying a load of fireworks and develops a plan. He is welcomed by Crooked Knife, who agrees to allow the train safe passage. However, some of the braves distrust Johnny and ask him to produce a sign that he is "big medicine." Johnny sets off a rocket, signaling Kit and Dakota to set off the rest of the fireworks on a nearby hill, and the Indians are impressed. As the bridge is out, Kit intends to take the thirty-three-ton locomotive over a mountain by dismantling it and carrying it in sections. Dawson, meanwhile, thinks he has been double-crossed and shoots Black Wolf. He then rounds up his men for a final showdown. After Kit discovers that Dakota has sabotaged a water tower, Dakota slugs Johnny, orders the fireman to start the engine rolling and takes off at high speed down the tracks. Kit jumps into the cabin but is knocked out by Dakota. Johnny revives and while he and Dakota fight on top of the cabin, Kit recovers and throws a knife, causing Dakota to fall into a ravine. Dawson and his gang then try to ambush the train but cannot catch up with it. However, the boiler develops several leaks and the train slows to a halt. Dawson and his gang are driven off by the Indians, who ride to the rescue, and Pawnee throws a tomahawk at Dawson. As the train has stopped just short of its goal, Johnny talks the mayor of Tomahawk into extending the town limits, thereby fulfilling the requirements of the franchise. By now Kit has fallen in love with Johnny and jokingly threatens to cripple him to stop his wandering ways. Some time later, Johnny limps off to his job as train conductor, waving to his wife, Kit, and five daughters.