Ernesto Cata is in training to play his role as Shulawitsi the Fire God in an upcoming Zuni religious ceremony. He sees a kachina that can be seen by the initiated, which he is not, or by those about to die. The next day, his friend George Bowlegs leaves school early, after learning Ernesto is not there. Lt. Joe Leaphorn works with the Zuni police chief Pasquaanti, who seeks Ernesto, while Leaphorn will seek George, a Navajo boy. A patch of blood-soaked soil is found at the meeting place where George was returning Ernesto’s bicycle. That is the starting point in the search for the two boys.
Near the home of the Bowlegs, Leaphorn is approached by George’s younger brother Cecil, who tells him that George is running away from the kachina, the one that got Ernesto. Cecil says that Ernesto had stolen some flints from the dig site. Next, Leaphorn talks with Ted Isaacs, who is about a mile from where the blood was found, at an anthropological dig siteunder the aegis of Professor Reynolds. Reynolds is ambitious to prove that Folsom Man culture continued longer than the accepted notions of its duration. Isaacs tells Leaphorn of the success in the field work. Reynolds bars Isaacs from having his girlfriend Susanne with him, and barred Ernesto andGeorge from the site a few days earlier. When questioned, Reynolds denies any thefts from the site. Checking out Jason’s Fleece, Leaphorn sees a Zuni kachina, rather unexpected next to the abandoned Navajo death hogan now housing the commune. He meets Susanne, who confirms that George was afraid of something and asking questions about absolution in the Zuni religion. Leaphorn learns that Ernesto’s body has been found.
Pasquaanti and Ernesto’s family dig up the boy’s body, while Leaphorn examines the area to learn how the bike and the boy were brought there. After the funeral, Leaphorn visits the hogan of the Bowlegs, in time to see the murderer of Shorty slip away. Cecil returns by horse after getting the sheep in. Leaphorn gathers what Cecil needs, as their family home becomes a death hogan. One item cannot be found, a note from George to Cecil. Leaphorn leaves Cecil at the Franciscan mission. Speaking again with Susanne, Leaphorn picks up the phrase ‘dance hall’ as where George means to go, which Father Ingles explainsin terms of Zuni practices. Father Ingles tells Leaphorn how George was searching for a religion, a place to belong. Leaphorn shares with the priest how Ernesto died, by beheading.
Leaphorn finds Susanne hitchhiking. She joins him in the search for George, at a lake in Arizona. They find his horse’s tracks, and then a deer killed for a meal, but not George. At every site there are moccasin prints, but Leaphorn has not found the man who wears moccasins. Then he recalls the stolen note, and knows for certain that the killer of Ernesto is at this same place. Leaphorn gets caught in a trap designed to tranquilize a deer but meant for George. Before he is taken over by the drugs he tells Susanne how to use his pistol, and while he is incapacitated by the drugs, she uses it. It is dawn before the drugs have left Leaphorn's system and he can walk about. They leave the site without finding George. Leaphorn meets with two of the six law enforcement agencies now involved in this case, three local and three federal; the FBI has the lead and is certain that the murders are tied to illegal drug movements.
Leaphorn knows who the killer is now and shares his information with Pasquaanti. He seeks George in the Shalako ceremonial at the Zuni village in the falling snow. Leaphorn sees George in the crowds but is one step behind the man who kills George. The killer is pulled into a doorway, having interfered with sacred Zuni ceremonies, and is never seen again. The next day, Leaphorn explains to Ted Isaacs that Reynolds had been“salting” the dig sites, so the field results would support his theory, and Reynolds is dead. Ernesto had taken some items from Reynolds' box and shared them with George; this meant the secret will come out. Reynolds' choice was to kill all in his way, the boys and Shorty Bowlegs. The FBI seekssellers of illegal drugs and does not care about the dead boys or the old flints; the professor will soon be a missing-persons case, having been dealt his justice by Zuni law. It is left to Isaacs to decide how important his career is to him now, compared to his girl, last seen at the Zuni police station being questioned by the FBI. Leaphorn did find George, but not in time to save his life. Young Cecil will settle with relatives of his father.