CAUTION: Plot reveled below!
The story opens with the tragic death of Chee's good friend and fellow officer Delbert Nez in a senseless roadside shooting. Chee, first on the scene, picks up the only suspect in sight: a liquored-up Navajo shaman named Ashie Pinto (Jimmy Herman), who has the murder weapon under his belt.
Although Pinto confesses to being "ashamed," he says nothing else and doesn't confess to the crime. Even so, the case against him is persuasive -- but Pinto happens to be a kinsman of Leaphorn's wife, Emma who wants her husband to check out puzzling leads that may prove Pinto's innocence.
One is that Pinto had no way of getting to the murder scene on his own. Another is that just before his death, Delbert radioed to say he had finally apprehended a mystery vandal who had been haunting the hills, painting strange shapes on rock formations. Old and frail, Pinto could hardly be the person Delbert fingered.
Meanwhile, Chee is also investigating, convinced that he could have prevented Delbert's murder and determined to reach closure in the case -- not to mention closure with Janet Pete, the public defender whose romantic interest in Chee is hampered by the fact that she's representing Pinto.
Leaphorn and Chee's leg work leads to a trading post frequented by Pinto and presided over by a shady operator named McGinnis; to a Navajo high school where a possible witness to the crime turns out to be an ex-CIA operative from the Vietnam era, Colonel Huan Ji to the colonel's troubled son, Taka who is obsessed with telephoto photography of rock outcrops; to a university history department where a missing professor named Tagert has hired Pinto to instruct him in Navajo lore; and to Tagert's graduate student Odell Redd who reveals the secret of Tagert's research.
It seems that the professor believes the notorious outlaw Butch Cassidy escaped his supposed ambush in Bolivia only to die in a shootout on the Navajo reservation in 1909. Presumably, Pinto is Tagert's contact for the location of Butch's last redoubt. But where is Tagert? The question becomes all the more urgent as bodies mount and the spirit of Coyote, the Navajo specter of evil, malice and chaos, awaits its next victim. Navajo proverb: says, "Coyote is always out there waiting, and Coyote is always hungry."