Bessie, an intelligent, strong-willed, and observant woman from the Ute tribe, lives with her son Tom and her husband George Black Bull in Pagosa, Colorado. George Black Bull has killed Frank No Deer in a fight after Frank repeatedly steals from him. Seeking an escape from arrest for murder by the Sheriff, George Black Bull leaves Pagosa for Horse Mountain, where they had previously made their home, telling Bessie to join him there. The Sheriff and a man from the sawmill at which George works arrive at the house in search of Black Bull. Affirming that she has not seen her husband, Bessie convinces the men to leave. After packing the family's belongings, she leaves the house with her young son under the cover of the dark night. This sudden departure brings a twinge of sadness as she recalls living there for the past two years.
Bessie recalls the events of two years ago, in the summer of 1910, and the circumstances that brought her family and friends to Pagosa. Charley Huckleberry, a council member on the reservation on which they lived, invited Black Bull and other friends to go fishing at the Piedra reservation line. Traveling further and further upriver to catch fish and hunt deer, the group soon encountered Blue Elk, who told them they must pay a fine for fishing and hunting without permits. Penniless, the group had no method by which to pay Blue Elk, who in turn offered them work in the Pagosa sawmill. At a wage of two dollars a day, it would take the men two months of labor to accumulate enough money for the fine. Unfamiliar with Blue Elk's manipulative nature, they did not question the fine or the offer and willingly followed him into town. There they were made to sign documents stating that they would continue working in the sawmill as long as they were in debt. Above and beyond their debt for the fine, the families needed to cover the additional costs associated with their new life in town, such as rent, food, and purchases at the company store; it appeared as if an escape from Pagosa had become impossible.
Bessie reflects the control that Blue Elk attempted to exert on her family's life. When he discovered that Bessie and Black Bull had never formally married, he convinced them to get married; he also persuaded them to have their three- year-old son Tom, baptized. Despite Black Bull's hard work and his best efforts to save money, he has ever escaped the debt that confined him to Pagosa. When a fellow worker at the sawmill, Frank No Deer, steals his hard-earned money on three different occasions, Black Bull loses patience and challenges him to a fight, in which Black Bull's rage overcomes him and kills Frank No Deer.
In the first chapter of the novel, action provides the central element of the story. The author has chosen to save lengthy descriptive passages for later in the work. Through this technique, the dramatic events of the first few pages pique our interest and curiosity.
When the Sheriff approaches the family's home, Bessie must negotiate his line of questioning. This matter challenges her sense of morality, and, while those of the Ute tribe despise lying, they also possess a strong sense of loyalty toward their families. Bessie ultimately determines that she would rather lie than betray her husband, and further issues of honesty recur throughout the novel.
At the end of the first chapter, as Bessie leaves her home for Horse Mountain, Borland alludes to the past few years Bessie's family has spent in Pagosa. While the first chapter highlights action, the next two chapters provide background information essential to our understanding of the family's present circumstances. Borland employs flashbacks to recount the family's difficulties, and, in these passages, the author also pays particular attention to the development of Blue Elk's character and what he represents. As a Ute, he has the same heritage as Bessie and her family. However, while he has a familiarity with the tribe's traditions and codes, he has lived in the civilized world for quite some time and has become accustomed to it. Blue Elk uses the advantage of his knowledge of civilization to manipulate George Black Bull and his friends, who, having lived by Native American codes, possess a certain naïveté regarding the rules of civilization. Blue Elk represents the power of civilization to alter the traditional Native American lifestyle. For example, he urges Bessie and George Black Bull to gain official recognition of their marriage, despite the fact that they have lived together for several years and that their tribe has recognized their union. He also convinces the couple to baptize their son, despite their lack of affiliation with Christian principles. In this way Blue Elk betrays their trust as well as his shared heritage with them.
Given the family's indebtedness as a result of the fine and other costs of living in Pagosa, George Black Bull begins working at the local sawmill, where the white men who run the operation consistently take advantage of the local Native American population. The sawmill's low wages make it nearly impossible to pay back the accrued debts, and the sawmill also serves as the primary place of employment in Pagosa for this population, leaving few other options. This pattern speaks not only to George's growing frustrations and his desire to return to the wilderness of his youth but also to the historical reality of the treatment of Native Americans in the first part of the twentieth century.