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By 1851, Roy E. Whitman has established a growing ranching community in his California valley. The one thing missing is women for the men to marry, which would enable them to set down roots in the valley. Whitman hires scout Buck Wyatt to travel with him to Chicago, where he hopes to recruit enough women to provide wives for one hundred men. Buck thoroughly disapproves of the idea, believing that the journey across the country is too hard for women, but when Whitman offers him double his usual salary, he reluctantly agrees. The 140 women whom Whitman recruits are a varied group, including Patience Hawley, the aging widow of a New England sea captain; farm girl Maggie O'Malley, an expert with a gun; Rose Meyers, who is pregnant with an illegitimate child; Mrs. Maroni, an Italian widow traveling with her nine-year-old son Tony; and French-born Fifi Danon and Laurie Smith, two former prostitutes looking for a new life. Buck also hires fifteen men to help him get the women to California, warning both the men and the women against fraternization. After a quick lesson in mule driving, the journey begins. Buck immediately has to send one of the men away when he behaves familiarly with one of the women, and promises that he will kill the next man he catches breaking the rules. The journey is every bit as difficult as Buck had predicted. Indians circle the wagon train and, although they do not attack, they announce their intention to return later. When Laurie is raped by a man who believes that her former profession allows him to treat her any way he wants, Buck carries through with his promise and kills the man. That night, many of the men leave, taking some of the women with them. Jim Stacey, who has fallen in love with Rose, asks her to leave with him, but when she refuses to abandon the train, he stays with her. The next morning, Buck discovers the defections, but rather than turn back, he announces that he will make the women into men. The first step is to teach them how to use a gun. During the practice Tony is accidentally shot and killed. Mrs. Moroni becomes temporarily insane, and Buck must drag her off her son's grave and put her in Patience's care. The women negotiate a difficult pass, clearing the rocks and trees before lowering the wagons with ropes, and one woman is killed in the process. Later, the mules stampede when Danon fires a gun at a rabbit. In reaction to Buck's anger at her, Danon rides away from the train, and he chases after her. After an argument, they admit they love each other. When they return to the train, they find it under attack from Indians. After the attack, a roll call of the casualties reveals the deaths of Whitman, Jim and several of the women. Buck and Ito, the Japanese cook, are the only men left. Later, Laurie is killed when her wagon is washed away during a thunderstorm. The last big obstacle facing the women is the desert. Rose goes into labor during the crossing, and when a wheel falls off the wagon in which Patience is caring for her, the women hold it up until after the birth of her baby boy. Finally, the train reaches its destination, but the women refuse to meet their future husbands until they have had time to clean up. When they are ready they drive into town to meet the waiting men. Buck is now the admiring champion of these plucky women and warns the men to be good to them. As the women choose their husbands, Danon stops Buck before he can leave, and they join the line of couples waiting to be married.