Sophisticated robbers shoot the security guards at the Ute Casino, turn off the electricity and then steal the cash bagged and ready to be picked up for deposit to the bank. Cap Stoner is killed outright, while young Teddy Bye is severely wounded, but immediately suspected by the FBI as the "inside man" for the robbery. Chee returns from a long vacation in Alaska to be drawn into the investigation at the request of Officer Manuelito, who does not believe Bye is guilty. Roy Gershwin draws Leaphorn into the investigation by saying that he knows who did it, leaving a list of three names with Leaphorn. Why does he choose Leaphorn, and not the police or the FBI? The FBI announces that the perpetrators fled in an airplane stolen from Mr. Timms.
Chee and his friend Cowboy Dashee track the aircraft to the second landholding of Timms, so the murdering men are still on the loose. Leaphorn travels with Prof. Bourebonette, who is working near where some of the men on Gershwin's list live. Leaphorn finds Everett Jory in his house, shot dead, leaving a suicide note on his computer screen. The note names his two confederates in the crime, George Badger Ironhand and Alexander Buddy Baker, who misled Jory as to the use of the money. The pick-up truck parked at his place is the second seen at the Casino. The FBI gets active in the case again. The officer in charge, Mr. Cabot, directs a huge systematic search of the area near Jory's home (up near the border of Arizona with Utah), with the local police forces doing the searching. Prof. Bourebonette interviews a Ute woman with Leaphorn in company. The woman relates the story of Ironhand from the early 20th century, a man who fooled the Navajos in pursuit of him. He had a son who was a skilled fighter in the Vietnam War, still alive. About the same time, Chee visits his uncle Frank Sam Nakai, finding him mistakenly in a hospital. Once he and Manuelito move Nakai back to his home, Nakai warns Chee of Ironhand and the coal mine, and gives Chee his final lesson on the Nightway ceremonial. Then Nakai dies of lung cancer.
Leaphorn learns from retired FBI agent Kennedy (the start of the retired cops group) that the broken radio found in the abandoned vehicle had wires cut inside, like a careful sabotage. He realizes that the robbers are hidden where they get no news, so will be appearing soon; one of them fishes for old newspapers at a gas station and drives off just as Chee drives in to fill up his gas tank. The station owner gives enough description to indicate it is Ironhand. The vehicle, stolen like the first one, is found abandoned near Gothic Creek Canyon. In the second day of searching, Chee sprains his ankle. After talking with Leaphorn, he calls on the head of the EPA project at the airport that is using a helicopter to scan for uranium, which is usually found in or near old coal mines. They agree to an extra bit of flying, and Chee finds the long mine shaft likely built by Mormons in the prior century, since abandoned, not visible from the search area, and once used by the original Ironhand. Cabot is scornful of this information, claiming they searched that place already, finding no signs of habitation.
Roy Gershwin meets with Leaphorn again, claiming to be afraid he will be killed as an informer. Chee calls to report the success in finding the mine shaft while Gershwin is present, and Gershwin sees Leaphorn mark it on a map. Chee falls on his injured ankle, so Manuelito takes him to the clinic and then home, where Leaphorn meets them with his new theory of the crime. Leaphorn learned that Jory had lawsuits against both Timms and Gershwin, and that Gershwin is in poor financial condition, worse if Jory’s lawsuit prevails. Gershwin likely wrote that suicide note after killing Jory. They visit Timms, learning that Gershwin is just ahead of them. They proceed to the top of the mine shaft, finding Gershwin’s vehicle there. They position themselves out of sight, with Leaphorn directing their actions. Gunshots are fired. Gershwin walks from the old structure and Leaphorn confronts him, holding a rifle. Gershwin admits to shooting at both Baker and Ironhand, saying it was self-defense. Baker lies dead. Leaphorn introduces Chee, while Manuelito radios for support. Gershwin goes for his own pistol, so Chee tells Gershwin to drop it, which he does. Ironhand shoots Gershwin from beneath the plywood over the mine shaft. Gershwin lies dead. When Cabot arrives, Leaphorn tells him to look in Gershwin’s truck for the casino money, which he finds intact. Riding away from the crowded scene, Cheebegins to realize that Leaphorn likes him, and that he is beginning to like Bernadette Manuelito.