In 1865, a former Confederate soldier, Cullen Bohannon journeys to the Union Pacific Railroad's westward construction of the first transcontinental railroad to seek work and vengeance on the Union soldiers that have killed his wife. Cullen gets hired by the railroad and supervises an all-black "cut crew," one of which is Elam, to prepare the terrain for track laying. Through conversation, Cullen learns more about his wife's death from railroad foreman Daniel Johnson, who knows the name of her murderer. But tragedy strikes before this name is given. Thomas "Doc" Durant begins his "mad, noble quest" to expand his Union Pacific Railroad westward in order complete the transcontinental railroad. Lily Bell, accompanies her ailing husband Robert as he surveys the landscape for the Union Pacific. Reverend Nathaniel Cole baptizes Joseph Black Moon, a Cheyenne, then takes him under his tutelage.

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