Place: A mining camp at the foot of the Cloudy Mountains, California
Time: During the gold rush; 1849-50
Act I – The Polka saloon, at sunset
Miners drift into the Polka saloon where they are greeted by Nick, the bartender. The saloon’s owner is Minnie who cares for the miners and leads them in Bible studies. Minnie is attended by two Native Americans, Billy Jackrabbit and his girlfriend, Wowkle. Miners Happy, Harry, Bello and Joe sit down to play a game of faro. Jake Wallace, the camp minstrel, begins to sing a nostaglic tune (Che farrano I vecchi miei) that causes Larken to break down in tears. Sonora, another miner, takes up a collection for Larken to go home. Sid (the “banker” for the faro game) is caught cheating and the miners threaten to hang him. Sheriff Jack Rance steps in and pins a two of spades to Sid’s chest as a mark of shame. Rance tells the miners that Sid is no longer allowed to play, spread the word around the camps, and if Sid removes the card, he’ll be shot on sight.
Ashby, a Wells Fargo agent, enters and asks after Minnie. Ashby tells Rance that he’s hot on the heels of the notorious bandit, Ramerrez. Rance begins to brag that soon Minnie will be Mrs. Rance and Sonora taunts him, for he also loves Minnie. A fight begins but is soon broken up by Minnie herself. She tells them to behave or they’ll be barred from the Polka. As the miners give her small tokens of their esteem, she takes down her Bible and begins the Bible study class. The Pony Express arrives with letters and newspapers. Ashby has received a letter from Nina Micheltorena, a former girlfriend of Ramerrez, who is supposed to tell him Ramerrez’ whereabouts.
Nick announces that there is a stranger outside asking for whiskey and water. Rance declares his love for Minnie, who brushes him off. Rance sings of his unhappy childhood (Minnie, dalla mia casa) and his gambling life and how he’d give a fortune for just one kiss from Minnie. In return, Minnie sings of her happy childhood memories of her parents (Laggiu nel Soledad, ero piccina) and how she’ll only marry for love. Nick brings in the stranger, Dick Johnson. Rance demands to know his business but Minnie vouches for him as they’ve met before. Johnson and Minnie dance to a waltz. Ashby and a group of men drag in Jose Castro, a member of Ramerrez’ gang. Castro says he has no loyalty to Ramerrez and will lead the men to Ramerrez’ camp. Castro, as an aside to Johnson, tells him that the gang is ready to plunder the saloon and Castro will lead Ashby and his men on a decoy away from the Polka. Johnson is to return a whistle when the coast is clear to rob the saloon. Castro and the other men depart leaving Minnie to guard the saloon. Johnson comments on Minnie’s strange situation, but she declares that she loves her life and wouldn’t trade it for anything. Nick says that a bandit’s been seen around the saloon, but Johnson comforts Minnie and agrees to come to her place for dinner. The bandit whistles to Johnson who does not return the whistle and instead declares that Minnie has the face of an angel.
Act II – Minnie’s cabin, later that evening
Wowkle is singing a lullaby to her child. Wowkle and Billy discuss whether they should get married. Minnie sends Billy on his way and begins dressing up for dinner. Johnson enters and wonders at Minnie’s lonely life which Minnie defends as being most exciting (Oh, se sapeste). As dinner is finished, Johnson offers to leave but a blizzard makes that impossible so Minnie prepares a bed by the fire. Voices are heard outside demanding entrance. Minnie hides Johnson behind the bed curtains and admits Rance, Nick, Ashby and Sonora. They were worried about her safety because they’ve discovered that Dick Johnson is really Ramerrez. Minnie sends them out and becomes furious with Johnson/Ramerrez. Johnson pleads for her forgiveness and swears he will abandon his bandit ways to be with her. Minnie says she can forgive the bandit but not the man who stole her first kiss. Johnson leaves. A shot is heard and Johnson appears at the door, wounded. Minnie helps Johnson to the attic just before Rance arrives. Minnie says that Johnson is not there and challenges Rance to search her cabin. Rance is about to leave when a drop of blood from the ceiling falls on his hand. Rance orders Johnson to come downstairs, which he does. Minnie challenges Rance to a game of poker. If she loses, then she’ll marry Rance but if he loses, then Johnson belongs to her. Rance accepts. During the game, Minnie pretends to faint and switches her cards so she ends up with the winning hand. Rance does not accept his defeat well.
Act III – A clearing in the forest, sometime later
Nick, Ashby and Rance are sitting around a campfire. Ashby declares that he believes his men have caught up with Ramerrez but it turns out to be a false alarm. They talk about the changes in their lives since Johnson appeared. Rance points to Minnie’s cabin and says that she’ll never see her lover again unless it’s at the end of a rope. There is another false alarm and then Sonora rides up declaring that they have caught Johnson at last. Johnson is brought in tethered to his horse and Billy is ordered to prepare his noose (Nick has bribed Billy to take his time with his task). Johnson defends himself against the murder charges and asks only that Minnie never be told of his fate. He wants Minnie to believe that he is free and leading a better life somewhere else (Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano). Rance punches him in the face to the dismay of some of the men. Johnson is about to hang when Minnie’s voice is heard. She rides in on horseback and pleads for mercy for Johnson. When her pleas go unanswered, she rushes to Johnson’s side and draws a pistol, threatening to kill both Johnson and herself. The miners are divided over this tactic, but Sonora finally sways the decision and Minnie and Johnson are allowed to leave and find their happiness. The miners bid a sad farewell to Minnie.