When Chinaman saves Li, a young cook, from a pair of drunken Irishmen, little does he realize he's about to become embroiled in much a larger struggle. For Li is one of a group of Chinese laborers brought in to help build the transcontinental railroad—much to the resentment of the Irish who preceded them. And they aren't the only ones after Chinaman: Sing, whom he dishonors and displaces as headman of the Chinese group, also nurses a grudge. These tensions come to a head in a fiery, balletic battle as a young Samuel Clemens looks on, witness to history.
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