Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 939
Archilde Leon, who is making his living as a musician in Portland, returns to his family’s ranch in Montana for a visit. His father, Max, lives in the big house with Archilde’s sister, Agnes, and her two sons, Mike and Narcisse, while his mother, Catharine, the daughter of a Salish chief and one of the most pious women on the reservation, lives in a cabin on the property and maintains a fairly traditional Indian lifestyle. Upon his return, Archilde discovers that his brother, Louis, stole some horses and is hiding in the nearby mountains. Catharine celebrates Archilde’s return by inviting several Indians, including the highly respected Modeste, an old Salish chief, over for feasting and storytelling. Max is worried about Archilde. Of all of his sons, Archilde is the one he hoped could take over the farm. Max is frustrated to discover that Archilde would rather go back to Portland and play the fiddle than stay in Montana and work the land. Max shares his concern with his confidant, the elderly priest Father Grepilloux, who offers to help Archilde with his music if he will stay and work.
To Max’s surprise and delight, Archilde helps with the harvest that fall and spends time with the priests, practicing his music. These times remind Archilde of his childhood days at the Indian boarding school. He remembers one day in particular when the clouds formed a cross in the sky, and everyone knelt down before the “sign.” Archilde, however, did not kneel; instead, he chose to identify with a bird he saw fly across the sky, unaware of any other “sign.” During the fall harvest, Archilde’s nephews, Mike and Narcisse, are rounded up and sent to the priests’ school against their wishes.
Catharine decides that she wants to go deer hunting, and Archilde goes with her. While they are in the mountains, they encounter, first, Dave Quigley, the sheriff who is hunting for Louis, and then Louis himself. The three—Catharine, Archilde, and Louis—continue with their hunting until they are stopped by a game warden for hunting doe out of season. Louis’s nervous fidgeting alarms the warden, who shoots and kills Louis. When the warden gets off his horse to examine Louis’s body, Catharine kills him with an ax. Archilde, stunned by these events, helps his mother bury the game warden’s body and take Louis’s body home, where they tell people they found him dead in the mountains.
Given the suspicious circumstances, Archilde is detained at the Government Indian Agency for some time. When he is finally released, he discovers that Max became ill at Father Grepilloux’s funeral. Not long after Archilde and his father reconcile, Max dies. Archilde decides to stay on and tend his father’s land, and a series of changes follows. Catharine moves back into the house, and Mike and Narcisse return from the Indian school. Mike, however, is changed; he suffers emotionally as a result of the abusive treatment he received at the school.
At the annual Fourth of July dance, Modeste arranges to have Mike assist him. Mike dances with the other Indians and seems healed by the experience. Catharine, in a meeting of tribal elders, announces that she wants to renounce her baptism. She dreamed that she died and went to the white people’s heaven, where they told her to be happy, but she could not be happy because there were no Indians there; she was sent to the Indians’ heaven, but the Indians would not let her enter because she was baptized. She is upset, not only by guilt at murdering the game warden but also by the loss of her son Louis, and she was been able to gain peace through confession to the priests. She asks the tribe to allow her to be whipped, according to the ancient custom, in order to pay for the wrongs she did. Archilde enjoys the afternoon Indian dancing, but in the evening he goes into town carousing with Elise, Modeste’s raucous granddaughter. Eventually, the two are thrown out of the white people’s dance hall.
Afraid to return to school and in an effort to keep alive what they learned at the dance, Narcisse and Mike go into the hills to live. The relationship between Archilde and Elise develops as they spend the remainder of the summer together; nonetheless, Archilde plans to leave after the fall harvest. His leaving is postponed again, however, when his mother has a stroke.
Archilde, unaware of Catharine’s total return to traditional belief, sends for both a doctor and a priest. She refuses the priest and asks for Modeste instead. Before he leaves to bring Modeste, the priest informs Archilde that Catharine confessed to him the game warden’s murder, and the priest prods Archilde to call in the sheriff. Archilde goes to the Indian commissioner and tells him the story, promising to return after his mother’s death. As soon as Catharine dies, however, Elise, Archilde, Mike, and Narcisse disappear. Elise leads the others into the mountains, traveling a roundabout path to a place where she thinks they will be safe. One night, however, the sheriff, Dave Quigley, who was hunting them, walks into their camp. Elise very calmly offers him a cup of coffee and, going over to him, throws the hot coffee in his face and shoots him, killing him instantly. In the confusion, Mike and Narcisse escape. Elise and Archilde do not escape, however; the Indian commissioner and the tribal police officer are waiting in the bushes and step forward to arrest them.