Parnell and McGreavy of the Central and Western Railroad push a handcart along the tracks. En route they encounter a crew walking along the tracks in the other direction. Parnell pleads with the men to return to work and then tries insults. Nothing works. The men ignore him. Soon enough, he and McGreavy discover why: someone has erected a wooden frame across the tracks and from it, hung four men. McGreavy utters a soft prayer as the men drift closer, noting that the victims’ were tied. Parnell recognizes the men – all friends: Cassidy, Denniston, Gwyneth, and young Danny. He stops and turns to face the hills. Bitter and frustrated, he yells at the “heathen savages” who lurk there. Then he sends Mike McGreavy back for a burial crew. Mike reminds Parnell that the threat they received said five men would die each day until the railroad paid. And that there are four corpses swaying on the crude frame. Angry, Parnell tells Mike that he’ll murder five times five himself if they don’t return, and sends McGreavy away, reminding him as he goes to bring cloth for winding sheets. McGreavy turns to one of the men and swears no friend of his will be buried with a heathen arrow in him. He pulls the arrow, and fails to note the cord tied to it. A tremendous blast kills Parnell and collapses the scaffolding. McGreavy realizes the trap claimed the day’s fifth victim, crosses himself, and pumps his way back to the depot. On other tracks, James West’s custom train approaches.
Inside the train Artemus Gordon adds the finishing touches to his latest disguise – an Indian brought low by the white man’s vices. Jim reminds him only to look the part, cautioning him to steer clear of whiskey and women. A disappointed Artie confirms he’ll seek only information. Jim reminds Artie that a week has gone by without progress. Tennyson enters the car, and states his opinion that the railroad should pay. Jim replies that he’ll never own a railroad because he’s too careless with the funds.
The railroad doesn’t want to pay, and the government doesn’t want to pay blood money to murderers – especially if they are a band of Cheyenne, as some believe. Artie notes that Indians don’t use money and Jim reminds him that they do when they buy arms. And that is the reason Washington has sent the agents to find the killers and get the railroad construction going again – within one week.
Outside Tennyson has brought a horse. Jim explains how to reach the town of Manifee two miles through the woods, and cautions Artie to take care – the townsfolk aren’t too fond of Indians. Artie reminds Jim that he’ll be a tame Indian, not a Cheyenne, and rides down the path.
The train drifts into Manifee, a small town entirely built on one side of the tracks. When the train pulls to a stop Jim meets General Ball, an old acquaintance. Ball lost his right hand and now sports a fancy metal stump cap. He is Jim’s contact with the railroad people. He explains that Jim may have problems with the men behind the railroad, whom he describes as “Wall Street politicians.” Jim does not understand precisely what General Ball means, so the general invites him to meet the men.
General Ball and Jim enter the second floor offices of the Central and Western Railroad, and the general introduces Jim to Mr. Adamson and Mr. Penrose. Adamson immediately asks for a plan of action and Jim replies only that he will solve the problem his way, and soon. Penrose wonders that he can be so confident. Jim notes that the railroad is an important commercial venture, but also that it is an absolute necessity to the union. He plans to stop the killing – or become a victim.
Adamson scorns words, claiming that the problem requires immediate action. He explains how the Indians have demanded $500,000 in gold for protection against their own killings, and castigates them as scalawags! Jim agrees those executing this plan are scalawags but wonders whether they are Indians. The plan seems to him better organized than Indians could manage. General Ball explains that the chief of the Indians is a man named American Knife, an educated and civilized man perhaps cunning and arrogant enough to engineer this plan. The extortionists have demanded the gold in the form of railroad spikes. The railroad men agreed, realizing they could bring the gold in secretly in this form. They ordered the gold cast and it now waits for shipment in Chicago. General Ball explains why paying the ransom is a poor idea: paying extortionists simply encourages them to return for more. The railroad men reply that they asked for troops and received one man. Ball explains that the government cannot provide sufficient troops to patrol a thousand miles of track, and suggests the men not underestimate the skills of Jim West, a man more effective than a good number of troops.
Prescott asks Jim then if he will gamble the lives of five men each day. Jim agrees, saying one cannot bribe a railroad into existence. He will gamble his own life and that of others. The first part of the plan is to deploy an armed guard for every work crew – Ball says he will arrange that. For his part, Jim will look for the killers. He asks if the railroad men have any leads and Adamson tells him trying to find American Knife is like trying to nail smoke to the wall. Jim asks three days and Prescott reminds him that could be fifteen lives. Adamson says no but Prescott agrees to give friend West his chance. Jim departs, saying he had better not waste any of his precious time. Adamson asks for regular reports and Jim promises them – every three days.
Jim exits the offices, pausing to strike a match and light a cigar. Just as he steps to the sidewalk a very pretty young woman charges past and Jim follows her. She approaches the Silver Dollar saloon but before she enters, three men emerge. Mike McGreavy tells her the saloon is no place for her; overhearing, Jim learns her name is Sheila Parnell. She berates McGreavy and his two friends McCafferty and Connolly, complaining bitterly that he father is barely in the grave and his supposedly dear friends are lying about and telling the world his killers should be paid a prize. The men object and Jim intervenes, ducking under a punch and easily knocking his attacker back into the saloon. Artie emerges, ready to back his partner.
Sheila notes she never asked Jim to mix in her affairs and he says gallantry did not drive him. He intervened because he wished to question her about her father. She’s curious why. He explains what he knows of her father’s death and his wish to learn more, suggesting a more private venue for a conversation. Sheila agrees and leads Jim to her home. Artie follows with his eyes – and so does another.
Inside the small Parnell home, Sheila asks who Jim is and why he is interested. He introduces himself and gives the gist of his mission. And that’s when McGreavy enters, urging Sheila not to believe Jim. McGreavy says he was there, and explains that Parnell died violently and swiftly and should rest in peace. Sheila then reveals that she knows something: a man approached her father days before his death and tried to bribe him, and when he refused, the stranger threatened to kill him!
Suddenly, there is a small pistol in McGreavy’s hand! He orders Jim to drop the gun belt and explains to Sheila that the world is a hard place, and she has run up against some of that hardness. She asks if he killed her father and he denies that, but admits that he has been paid handsomely to ensure no one learns who did kill Parnell. He orders Jim to put his gun on the table and then open the trap door – the cellar is solid rock and the door is thick wood. Jim and Sheila will keep down there until McGreavy’s employer comes to speak to them. Sheila lunges for Mike but Jim catches her and stops her, the Mike orders them both down the ladder. McGreavy tosses a blanket down after them, then shuts and bolts the hatch.
In the small cellar, Sheila upbraids Jim for stopping her. Jim explains his plan to step into this particular situation so that he can see the man he really wants to see – the boss. Then he lights a lantern and extracts a wire from his hat, climbing partway up the ladder to secure the hatch from this side. That gives them some privacy. Jim returns to the cellar and asks Sheila about her father. She reveals that three nights past she awoke to hear her father speaking with someone. All she could see was his shadow – the shadow of a big man – and hear his voice, refined and cruel. The shadow asked her father to sabotage the rails so they would slide in the first rain. Jim says he’s sorry but Sheila has done her mourning and now wants revenge. Then he explains that she’ll be all right because he has friends waiting. They plan to comfort each other through the cold night, starting with a kiss...
The next morning someone tries to open the trap but cannot do so – the wire still secures it. Jim climbs up and removes the wire and the trap opens – Artie has come to their rescue. They climb out as Artie explains the delay: he followed Mike McGreavy for a time but eventually lost him, then returned here to free his partner and Sheila. Someone did find McGreavy – he lies in the next room with an arrow in his back, quite dead.
Back on the train Artie exchanges his down and out Indian disguise for a new seeming: an old codger suitable for working on the railroad. Jim realizes the shadow learned that Sheila cannot identify him, so he killed McGreavy to sever the link and went on his way. They have a dead goon and little else. The work gangs believe the Indians are behind their troubles, so Jim next asks Artie what he learned of American Knife. Unfortunately Artie didn’t learn much – the man lurks in the hills somewhere, no one is sure where. Sheila knows two waitresses at the Silver Dollar who are Indians, and leaves to see what she can learn from them. Jim calls Tennyson into the room and asks about a telegram to the Indian Bureau. Tennyson reveals that missionaries raised American Knife; they evaluated him as very intelligent but ungrateful, that last presumably because he chose to return to the Cheyenne as an adult. Considering Jim’s suspicion that the Cheyenne are not behind this extortion, Artie wonders why Jim wants to meet American Knife. Jim tells him he hasn’t dismissed the Cheyenne yet. Artie recalls Sheila’s statement that the shadow was an educated man, and Jim explains that Sheila is very pretty and very charming, but he does not trust her. About this point, Artie completes his old codger disguise with a shapeless and battered hat, and Jim sends him to build the railroad.
Artie delivers supplies to the railroad gang on a flat car between two handcars – rails and spikes. While younger men unload these Artie speaks to the guard, whom he catches taking a long pull from a whiskey flask. Artie comments that it’s “a mite early” for that and the man dismisses him, explaining that he’ll just relax while Artie fetches more supplies. Artie boards the supply cart and it returns to the depot.
Disembarking, Artie finds Jim not far away and reports that the guards are careless, and some of them half drunk. Jim notes there remains an hour until dusk and tells Artie he expects an attack between now and dusk. Suddenly, that attack happens! Indians ride past a nearby flat car, whooping and shooting. The five men on the car die, shot multiple times. Jim and Artie ride past, briefly stopping to confirm the men are dead and then ride in pursuit of the raiders. They ride up a low hill; the trailing Indian slows and turns to shoot; Artie plunges from his horse! Jim reins up and discovers Artie’s not seriously injured, and Artie encourages him to go on lest he miss the fun...
Curving past a large rock, Jim pauses and takes up a rifle in his right hand. Laying it across his left arm to steady it, he shoots and the last Indian falls from his horse. Then another Indian jumps from the top of the boulder, unhorsing Jim and gaining enough advantage to lay a knife across the agent’s throat! On top the boulder, a severe looking Indian with an angular face says simply, “Captain West, I presume?”
Two Indians escort Jim to his host, the severe looking man, who offers the Secret Service man a seat and introduces himself: he is American Knife. Jim notes his accent and guesses Harvard, but American Knife corrects him – he is Dartmouth educated.
American Knife expresses an interest in the religious customs of the white man, as they involve the use of scapegoats. Which brings him to his point, and the reason he and his band captured Jim: they are being set up as scapegoats in the railroad extortion scam. He does not want his people forced into war. Jim asks for proof and he takes the agent across the camp to the body of the man Jim shot. Bending, he pulls the hair from the man – it comes off in one piece, a wig designed to conceal them man’s real hair. The raider is no Indian at all.
American Knife asks a favor. He wants amnesty for his people, and says they will come into a military post Jim designates and wait until Jim finds the real culprits and brings them to justice. Jim agrees readily, surprising his host, because he has suspected the Indians weren’t the real culprits from the beginning. American Knife must appease the traditionalists in his tribe, who demand some torture to prove Jim’s sincerity. He promises to be as painless as possible.
Somewhat later the Indians have tied Jim to a frame and removed his shirt. Little Willow, a squaw of the tribe, enters. American Knife selected her to torture Jim. Jim suggests she seems an intelligent girl and not superstitious, then asks if the torture is strictly necessary. She repeats American Knife’s statement that the traditionalists must hear screams to believe Jim will help them. Jim obliges and she tells him he screams well, and that it would be a shame to make him with knife cuts – a waste. Jim agrees waste is bad and Little Willow cuts the thong holding his left arm. When she moves to cut the other thong, he gathers her into an embrace and tells her he doesn’t want to wear his throat out screaming, asking then if a few moans would suffice. Outside, the tribal traditionalists hear the collection of moans and screams have laugh at Jim’s expense.
Jim emerges from the tent and a brave points him to the other side of the camp. There he discovers Artie tended by a pair of squaws! Jim introduces American Knife who is pleased to meet Artie. Artie offers his first name, as friends do, and American Knife sardonically comments about the incomprehensible white man’s names. Then American Knife offers to help them locate the renegade camp. Jim notes the renegades should return to collect the body for security purposes.
Soon enough two men drive a cart to the site where Jim shot the fake Indian. The body is there, returned by American Knife. When the men hop down to recover it, Jim and Artie ambush and easily overpower them. At first they say nothing, but American Knife’s steely gaze and large bowie knife loosen their tongues...
Jim suggests they stick to the shadows and mix in; American Knife sees no difficulty since all whites look alike! The agents split up and flank the camp; Artie quickly runs into a man and woman kissing. Artie surprises and angers the man, who clearly didn’t expect the interruption. A few clumsy punches and Artie clobbers the man; the woman immediately all but glues herself to Artie, saying he won her fair and square. Artie knows he must continue on, but at the same time doesn’t want to leave...
Elsewhere, Jim discovers a cave by the smoke rising from a vent hole. He watches three men enter the cave and creeps to the top next to the vent. Eyes watering and barely able to hold back coughs, Jim listens to the men plan their attack on the camp the following day – a frontal attack from the west supported by a flanking action from the north. Jim leaves, and the men begin laughing. Farrell, their strategist, reveals he knew Jim was there, and the plan they just discussed was a fake. He’ll set up an ambush based on it and they’ll set up a counter ambush! Farrell enters an inner chamber of the cave and discusses this with a shadowed figure. When the shadow stands, his face enters the light – the mastermind of these attacks is Jim’s old friend General Ball!
Sometime later, General Ball returns to the Central and Western Railroad office. There he meets Adamson, Prescott, Jim and Artie already there. Ball is the last man to arrive so they get to business. Jim explains what he learns and Adamson recommends an ambush to finish off the Indians. Artie reveals the raiders aren’t Indians; Ball feigns surprise on learning this. Adamson becomes more enthusiastic, believing they face only some outlaws, and not the entire Cheyenne Nation. So he’s surprised when Jim recommends paying the ransom. Jim explains they don’t have the men or arms for battle. Ball is aware of this but feigns disgust at paying tribute to a band of outlaws. The railroad men prepared for this – the golden spikes they ordered cast earlier have arrived. They open the safe to show barrels marked “Spikes.” The barrels contain spikes – made of gold!
The raiders instructed the railroad to light a signal fire three miles west of town and then send out a work train with a flat car in front of the engine to the end of the line, where they will remove the gold. Ball says he doesn’t like it, but given the circumstances, what else could Jim advise them to do? Ball also adds that $500,000 could be very dangerous in the wrong hands.
Jim and Artie leave the meeting. On the sidewalk Artie complements Jim on one of his smoother smoke screens. Jim asks if everything else is set and Artie confirms that. Moments after they walk away Ball emerges and speaks to someone, telling him that something isn’t right and ordering him to pick them up.
Tennyson walks down the street. A man asks him to help with an accident, decoying him into an alley where he pulls a gun...
Sheila answers a knock on her door and a man bulls his way into her home and overpowers her...
The engineer tends the engine, adding oil to a bearing race. A man approaches and while the engineer is distracted another thug pistol whips him unconscious from behind...
Inside, Artie prepares a drink. Two men dart around the corner and one of them drops a strangling cord over Artie’s head, choking him unconscious before he can raise an alarm...
Another man enters the main compartment with a gun and captures Jim...
The raiders have tied all five friends and dumped them into the railroad cart. One comments that they have the day’s quota right there! Another says they’ll make handsome corpses.
Later, at the bandit camp, two men hold Jim. Working from a note, they locate his tricky sleeve gun, the knife in the back of his coat, the wire in his hat and the breakaway derringer in his boot heels. One of them even discovers the tiny lock pick in his lapel! Jim complements Farrell on his intelligence work.
Artie jumps in and accuses Farrell of murder, to which the villain admits, poking Artie several time for emphasis. Artie feigns outrage and dances around in a foppish boxing style, landing two ineffective punches before Farrell backhands him to the ground. The men laugh and Artie gets up again. This time Farrell simply ducks under his flailing roundhouses before knocking him back down. Still lying on the ground from the search of his boot heels, Jim asks Artie what he’s doing, and Artie shows him a knife he has recovered by sleight of hand.
Farrell pushes Jim onto a couch; Jim tells the henchman he doesn’t have the brains for this, and General Ball steps into view, clad in an immaculate military uniform. Ball notes Jim doesn’t seem too surprised, and Jim explains that the fake tactics made him suspicious: Ball executed a very similar plan at Shiloh. Ball concedes that Jim always was a clever fellow but asks why he didn’t act, and Jim explains that he needed proof. Jim says he’s sorry and Ball sharply suggests he not pass judgment so easily. Outraged at the man’s arrogance, Jim reminds his old mentor that five men have died every day, and asks what kind of judgment he expects. Ball then reveals his bitterness: the Army took away his command when he was destined for greatness! Jim comments that he’d achieved greatness but Ball wanted more: he devoted his life to the army, but when he lost a hand he was suddenly less than half a man. He describes how he spent eighteen months in a hospital rotting, and his reward was exile to the frontier. He finishes by asserting he is five times the strategist Grant is, and yet Grant occupies the White House and Ball is... here. So he’s taking $500,000 of revenge. With his men, all good soldiers, he’ll go to Mexico and carve out a state, or perhaps even take over the country, and who knows where from there? At this point Farrell enters to report the gold train has left.
Ball and his raiders ride to a spot near the signal fire; when Ball arrives they tell him everything is ready. Ball explains that he suspected a counterplot when Jim recommended payment, and grabbed the agents and their friends to forestall it. He suspects Jim has filled the baggage car with armed men, and his countermove is to mind the tracks! He’ll let the gold car go by and then destroy the baggage car and the men inside it! Jim comments that the general is thorough and Ball accepts the compliment, saying thoroughness is the mark of genius.
The general points out Jackson, a first-class sniper with Quantrill. Jackson will shoot into the package of gunpowder and blasting caps rigged next to the train, and kill Jim’s reinforcements! Then Ball and his men will collect the gold. Jim admits Ball has fashioned a good plan that might work, Ball argues that it will work, and Jim will watch. Sotto voce, Jim tells Artie to get busy with his purloined knife. Ball rides away and instructs his men to go for the gold when they hear the explosion.
Artie frees Jim, who waits for the guard to pass by them. When the guard has his back turned briefly, Jim surges up and overpowers the man, leaving his rifle with Artie. Artie goes to work on his own bonds and Jim hops out of the cart. Artie asks and Jim explains that he must blow up the charge before the train runs over it.
Climbing the bluff behind Jackson, Jim takes him out with a quick chop to the neck, then carefully aims, fires, and explodes the charge before the train reaches it. Cued, Ball’s raiders ride for the train. Cheyenne led by American Knife boil out of the car and a fierce firefight begins. Both sides take casualties. Farrell grabs a barrel of the golden spikes and tries to ride away but Artie picks him off with the rifle Jim left. Soon enough, Ball’s men rout!
Ball realizes what occurred; he finds Jim where Jackson was and prepares to shoot him. Jim tosses the rifle and deflects Ball’s gun hand as he shoots, then leaps onto the general. They struggle for a minute before Ball knocks Jim down and goes for the rifle. Jim grabs him before he gets to it and they struggle again. Finally Ball stuns Jim with an uppercut from his prosthetic hand and then follows with a jab. Jim struggles to recover and finally succeeds, punching Ball twice and knocking him back with a well-placed kick. But Ball sees an opportunity – he retrieves his pistol from the ground. Just before he can shoot Jim there is a dull thud and the general’s face screws up in agony! A knife stands in his back and his pistol falls from a hand that will no longer hold it. Ball tries to reach the knife but cannot. He pitches forward, dead. Behind him Jim sees American Knife. American Knife understands how hard it is to kill an old friend, and so he thought a new friend should do it for him.
Back on the train, Prescott apologizes to American Knife, who simply replies that civilized men must stand together against the outburst of barbarians. Tennyson offers drinks. Prescott refuses; American Knife, told the drink is “firewater,” asks instead for “firewater and soda.” They offer a toast to Captain West and the recovery of a half million dollars. American Knife offers a toast to General Ball... and what he once was.
The railroad men leave, and soon after so does American Knife. He asks the agents to visit when they return, and suggests that one day they may say that some of their best friends are Cheyenne...
Jim suggests they get the train on the road to Chicago, and wine, women, and harmonizing! Sheila and Little Willow enter, each with a covered dish: Sheila has made Irish stew and Little Willow has prepared buffalo tongue. They ask Jim to choose – unless he has the stomach for both. Jim puts an arm around each woman as the train leaves for Chicago.