Shop teacher Eric Dorsey is murdered at the mission school in Thoreau, for no obvious reason. Delmar Kanitewa slips out of his boarding school in Crownpoint, and his grandmother pushes the Navajo Tribal Police to find the boy. Lt. Joe Leaphorn heads up a new unit for investigations, with Jim Chee as his staff. Chee and Bureau of Indian Affairs officer Sgt. Harold Blizzard learn the boy came home to his mother the day the teacher was killed. Delmar had a package with him, for his uncle, to do with religion. Delmar said he must see his uncle a second time and left. Janet Pete, Cowboy Dashee and Ashton Davis meet up at the Tano ceremonial of kachinas and koshares, where Chee spots Delmar. He slips away before they can tell him to call his grandmother. The ceremonial includes Delmar’s uncle, Francis Sayesva, who is a koshare. In a break of the ceremonial, Francis is found murdered, not 40 yards from where Chee is standing.
A hit and run driver leaves his victim to die on the road, making a homicide of Victor Todachene’s death. The chief of the NTP really wants the driver found. Leaphorn asks Chee to find this driver. The driver speaks anonymously over the local radio apologizing for what he did. He will send money to the family. The radio station staff notice enough about the man for Chee to find Clement Hoski. Chee trails him home, seeing grandson Ernie get off the school bus. After talking with Ernie, a special needs child, Chee puts off arresting his grandfather.
The murders of two valuable men, Dorsey and Sayesva a few days apart, done the same way, has Leaphorn looking for connections. He finds one when a second search of Dorsey’s workshop and a visit with Sayesva’s brother reveal the story of the Lincoln cane possessed by the Tano Pueblo since 1863. Dorsey made a replica of it, based on the ebony wood shavings and silver mold found. The Lincoln cane is kept by the governor of the pueblo, currently Bert Penitewa, who has the original safe in his office. The boy Delmar visited Dorsey to get something for a friend, and seeing the cane, explained its story to Dorsey, who is shocked and angry at how he has been used. Delmar left with the replica cane, under instructions from Dorsey to give it to his people, the Tano.As Delmar leaves, a man enters, and that is the one who kills Dorsey. Delmar gives the replica cane to his uncle, who uses it in the ceremonial, as he worries that the governor might sell the original. Then he is killed, and the replica cane disappears.
Chee is distracted completely by the change in his relationship with Janet Pete, local lawyer and long time friend. He is in love, but now he must learn if the Navajo incest taboo in any way prevents them from being more than friends. He takes off for two days to consult with his uncle Frank Sam Nakai and another hataalii . He leaves without explaining a cassette tape that he plays in the tape player in Leaphorn’s office. The tape is of a phone call between Navajo Councilman Jimmy Chester and Ed Zeck, lawyer for the firm seeking to use an old open mine for a toxic waste dump site. They discuss money, leaving an appearance of pay-off. The tape is also played over the local radio station in the public time. The next day, while Chee is with his uncle, Leaphorn is suspended in response to the furious Councilman demanding an investigation. The suspension forces Leaphorn to cancel his trip to China, planned with Prof. Bourbonette. He wants to visit Mongolia, while she has colleagues to see there.
Leaphorn finds that this is the second replica that Dorsey made. Chee returns to work, explains the tape. That ends the suspension for Leaphorn. The two search Dorsey’s office one more time, noticing that the sketch for the first replica cane is written on the blank side of a flyer from two years earlier, prepared by an environmental group led by Roger Applebee. Dorsey has no connection with this group. Applebee needed someone reliable to get the first cane sold privately two years earlier, and that must be his friend Ashton Davis, a trusted dealer in Indian artifacts.
Chee presents his ethical dilemma with the Hoski case to Janet Pete. She meets young Ernie, and watches Chee give him a new bumper sticker to put on his grandfather’s truck, with a message to take the old one off, or the police might stop him. The Navajo approach to Hoski’s problem is to help him get back in the blessing way. The law will arrest Hoski, taking him away from his grandson. Leaphorn feels the arrest will earn Chee promotion to sergeant, whichChee ignores. Janet Pete is pleased with Chee’s actions, and they become lovers.
Delmar recognizes Applebee’s face in the newspaper as being the man he saw. Leaphorn calls Dilly Streib, the FBI agent on the Dorsey case, to arrest Applebee. Within hours, Streib tells Leaphorn that Davis killed Applebee in front of the FBI, and then turned himself in. Davis saw the second replica cane at the Tano ceremonial, and knows he has no future as an honest trader. He has no part in the second one, but its existence makes his role in the first one known. Applebee made this second cane to ruin the Tano governor. Applebee played the tape of the phone call to ruin the Councilman, as he took the other side in the dispute about the toxic waste dump. The call was not about payoffs, but the cattle business that Chester and Zeck have together. Leaphorn learns that Louisa did not go on the trip without him when she appears at Saint Bonaventure Mission School, finally learning where he is.