Officers Chee and Nez agree to meet at Red Rock trading post for a break from patrol. Chee hears Nez laughing on the radio about seeing the person who has been defacing local rock formations with paint, so takes his break. Chee realizes he should be with Nez. He passes one vehicle en route to finding Nez in his burning patrol car. Chee uses the fire extinguisher and then pulls Nez out of the still-burning car. Chee is severely burned and Nez is dead from a gunshot, as well as burned. Chee finds Hosteen Ashie Pinto walking on the road, holding an expensive bottle of brandy, and a gun recently shot; he is drunk and says he is ashamed, in Navajo. Chee arrests him.
Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is pulled into this case by two women: Mrs. Keeyani, the niece of Ashie Pinto and a clan relative to Leaphorn, and Professor Louisa Bourebonette, who works with Pinto for her scholarly research and an upcoming book. Pinto is a crystal gazer and recalls stories in detail. They are sure Ashie Pinto is not guilty. Mrs. Keeyani describes her uncle’s struggle with whiskey, which long ago led him to murder a man and a vow to stop drinking. Leaphorn learns that money-short Pinto got a letter from history professor Tagert at McGinnis's trading post, unknown to his niece. McGinnis read it and sent Pinto’s reply agreeing to work. From Agent Kennedy, Leaphorn learns that the FBI investigation avoided talking to the owner of the vehicle that passed Jim Chee, because Huan Ji came to the US under the protection of the CIA. Arriving to talk with Ji, Leaphorn learns Ji was murdered. Ji left two messages on his wall: save Taka, and Lied to Chee. Leaphorn and Bourebonette find the place in the photographs in the darkroom at the Ji home. Going to the vantage point of the photos, they see that the paint vandalism was the teenage son Taka's message to the girl he loves: ‘I love Jen’ is visible from her home.
Jim Chee was seriously burned, and is only recently released from the hospital in Albuquerque. Janet Pete, back from Washington D.C., visits Chee at the burn unit. She is an attorney for defendants in federal trials and Ashie Pinto is her client, though he tells her nothing about what happened. Chee promises to quit once the trial is over, disgusted at his failure to assist Nez immediately. He learns of Pinto’s links to Professor Tagert and that Tagert’s research interest is Butch Cassidy’s true final resting place. Tapes made by Pinto tell a story indicating Cassidy and his fellow bandit died on the reservation decades ago. Chee meets Odell Redd, a graduate student in languages, who also works with Tagert. Chee visits Huan Ji, who says it was his car, but does not recall passing Chee’s police vehicle, which was not credible.
After Ji is found murdered, Leaphorn and Captain Largo call on Chee to learn why his name is in the message on the wall. Chee is angered by Leaphorn’s involvement. Leaphorn explains how he was drawn into the case. The three lawmen realize that Ji’s son was driving the car, and they need to learn what he saw when Nez was killed. Taka Ji saw three people enter the area, and waited to leave, so they would not see his car. One was Pinto, who sat drinking from his bottle, while the other two went farther into the rock formation. He heard a gunshot. He saw Nez’s car. Realizing Pinto was drunk, Taka left, passing Chee’s car with its flashing lights. Taka marks on a large map exactly where he saw those three people.
Chee drives back to Shiprock area to the site. He finds the mummified old corpses, sees a saddle and a saddlebag. The spot is home to many rattlesnakes, which Chee handles safely. After failing to get the saddlebag, he turns to see drag marks and a third, more recent corpse, Professor Tagert. Right next to him is Odell Redd, pointing Cassidy’s old gun at Chee. Redd drove the three originally, and disagreed with Tagert on how to handle this historical find: recognition versus wealth. When Tagert marched Redd out with his gun, Pinto took the gun and shot Tagert. Redd drove away. Thus Chee found Pinto walking down the road, saying he isashamed. Learning that Taka Ji was the driver of that vehicle, Redd rues murdering the father. Redd now reaches for the saddlebag, and the perturbed rattlesnake bites him on the neck. Chee leaves, as Redd still holds the pistol. Redd reaches his vehicle and drives off. Chee’s vehicle was disabledby Redd, so Chee walks to Red Rock trading post. He then flies to Albuquerque for the court case opening that morning. Before Chee can reach Janet Pete with what he learned overnight, Ashie Pinto makes his statement before judge and jury. He describes the effect of whiskey on him, and confesses tothe murders of Tagert and Nez. He makes a plea that all whiskey be poured away.
Redd is found dead in his car by the side of the road. Janet Pete sees Chee differently and hugs him in public. Leaphorn, cleaning all paperwork off his desk, is ready to take a vacation trip, and he calls Professor Bourebonette to ask if she would accompany him on a trip to China.