When Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of Navajo Tribal Police attempts to determine the identity of a corpse left beside the Santa Fe Railroad tracks, he finds himself hunting a trail of evidence that leads him to the Smithsonian Museum and Henry Highhawk, a curator with a penchant for trouble and a nose for publicity. Highhawk, who is a quarter Navajo, has become an activist for the return of the ancestral remains of some eighteen thousand Native Americans stored by the Smithsonian for future scientific study. When Highhawk digs up the remains of the grandparents of a Smithsonian lawyer and sends her the bones in protest of the museum’s policy, a warrant is issued for his arrest. As Highhawk is attending a tribal ceremony in New Mexico for the dying Agnes Sosi, a distant Navajo relative, he is arrested by Officer Jim Chee.
Highhawk chooses Janet Pete, the only Navajo lawyer available in Washington, D.C., to represent him; he plans to use the trial as a platform for his cause. The prestigious law firm for which Janet Pete works seems unconcerned about their client’s stance, and encourages her to continue with the case. Suspecting that she is being used, she contacts her friend and confidante, Jim Chee. When Chee discovers that Janet Pete is being followed and that the usually unflappable lawyer is frightened, he goes to Washington to find out for himself what is going on. Meanwhile, Leaphorn too has followed Highhawk to Washington, but for very different reasons; as the ever-analytical Leaphorn reflects, “We are like two dogs who followed two different sets of tracks to the same brush pile. One dog thinks there’s a rabbit under the brush, the other thinks it’s a bobcat. Same brushpile, different information.”
Once again, Hillerman has woven an intricate puzzle whose different threads are untangled by the logical Leaphorn and the intuitive Chee.