The book opens as the narrator, Johannes Verne, age 6, travels with his slowly dying father in a stagecoach to California. It was the last stagecoach west for the season and the journey was dangerous. A lone stagecoach was a likely target for Indians and bandits and although the drivers were well-acquainted with the route and skilled with their weapons, they could easily be outnumbered. They were, in fact, attached near a river crossing, but managed to drive off the attackers. Then they crept slowly across the desert.
During this slow time we gradually learn that Johannes’ father was well-educated and great frontiersman. He married the daughter of a Spanish nobleman in southern California, who never forgave the insult of an American commoner sullying his noble family. He attempted to kill Johannes’ father, who escaped with his wife into the desert. Papa was acquainted with the ways of the desert and would do things like go to places with little water and drink it all, leaving nothing for his pursuers. He was also friendly with the Indians and an excellent hand with a gun. But now Papa was dying, Johannes’ mother had died earlier, and there was no family to raise Johannes, so Papa was taking him to his father-in-law’s in hopes that he would accept his grandson.
At Agua Caliente, a friend of Papa’s, Peter Burkin, convinced him that it was futile to try to go to California. So they settled in an abandoned adobe building. Johannes met Francisco, a local Indian boy, where he learns that his house is the home of Tahquitz, a spirit of the mountains rumored to take young girls and eat them. Certainly the house was uncommonly well-made. Life was quiet. Peter brought some books that had arrived, which Johannes read.
One day some men came to kill Papa, but being slow with a gun, did not succeed. Some weeks later, Don Isildro himself came with a band at dusk. They killed Johannes’ father quickly, then took Johannes into the desert to die, because Don Isildro did not want to personally kill his own blood. Johannes did not die, however. He walked through the night and was found during the day by Peg-Leg and his band. Peg-Leg was a bandit who respected Johannes’ father, so he took Johannes back to the house of Tahquitz. After his return, Francisco informed him that Tahquitz had been there, and Johannes discovered that one of the books had been taken and replaced with another.
Johannes spent much of his time among the Francisco’s Cahuilla Indians, where he learned the way to live in the desert. Then one day some years later, one of the drivers from the stagecoach came to his door. He was sent by Miss Nesselrode, a single lady who had ridden with them in the stagecoach. Johannes had liked her, and she felt it was her duty to raise him. When she got to the small town of Los Angeles, she opened a book store, where she learned all the goings-on around town. She was an intelligent woman, and even though women were not allowed to do business, she managed to do a lot of business and build a good life for herself, which she invited Johannes in to.
Johannes attended school, helped Miss Nesselrode with the business, learned the economy of California, and grew up. One night Don Isildro’s sister, Tia Elena, came to visit Miss Nesselrode, to ask for investment advice. All the Californios like Don Isildro liked to live the big life, but did not understand money. So they took out loans from the Americans and never paid them back, forfeiting their lands. The Americans did not ask for the land, and the Californios were quietly losing their wealth. Tia Elena followed Miss Nesselrode’s advice, and did quiet well.
When Johannes was older, Miss Nesselrode heard rumors that Don Isildro’s grandson was still alive, so she asked him to get and break four hundred wild horses for a business venture of hers. Johannes rounded up a couple men, went back to Agua Caliente, and enlisted the help of Francisco. Francisco introduced him to Ramon, an old Indian from a tribe that perished in the aftermath of an earthquake. He led them to a fine herd of wild horses, which they corralled. They started the process of breaking them, with Johannes taking a natural leadership role. Johannes was particularly enamored of a black stallion, whom all the other men warned him was death if he tried to ride him, so he took the slow approach After some skirmishes with bandits which Johannes expertly handled, mostly with words and psychology, they arrived back at the ranch with the horses.
Johannes had taken interest in his former schoolmate, Meghan, a pretty red-haired girl. Her father was a sailor, who had known his father (also a sailor before he met Don Isildro’s daughter). One day he visited Meghan and she commented that Don Federico, who had also been courting her was a nice man. Don Federico had been in Don Isildro’s party that killed his father and left him to die. In fact, Don Federico wanted to kill him, rather than let him die. Johannes expressed this, and left upset. Then he received word that the horses had been stolen.
Meghan’s father had warned Johannes that Don Federico wanted to kill him and that the theft was probably a plot to draw him out so that he could be killed, so the party followed the trail cautiously. After many days, they found the thieves in a canyon. They were expected to come up the canyon, but they found an old Indian trail and came down from behind. A fight followed, and Johannes ended up without a horse being pursued by those on horses. He knew only one way to survive: go into the desert.
Johannes ran straight into the desert, following a trail of oases he knew. He used similar techniques as his father had to evade capture, and one by one his pursuers died. He knew that the rest, who had not followed him into the desert would be waiting at oases at the edge of the desert. His only hope would be to make it through the gauntlet to the mountains on the other side and escape back to California. He managed to kill several of the men, but again he ended up on foot, with pursuers on horseback behind him.
As he paused, seeking a hiding place from the pursuers, he briefly saw an old Indian pointing towards some rocks. He went in that direction, found some water and a hidden place he could sleep. Throughout his life he always added a stone to the cairns in the desert, as a way of honoring and remembering the gods of the desert who now had few people to remember them; perhaps this was one of them returning the favor. Refreshed, he escaped to the mountains, where he found his black stallion. Determining to stop being hunted and become the hunter, he made it back to Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Meghan was distraught that he had left for the desert, as Miss Nesselrode observed that he might not come back, and it was her fault that he was gone. Johannes had gotten a secretive but skilled Chinese fighter to guard her, but she had run off after him with a couple guys, and fallen in with some bandits. They barely managed to escape, up into the mountains, followed by a couple bandits. She was rescued by Tahquitz, a giant named Alfredo. He, too, was a son of Don Isildro, and was an embarrassment to him. His nanny been told to take him away from the house when he was young. She loved him, and took him to a Mexican priest who taught him. Because he was so big, he was not accepted in society, so he lived alone in the mountains.
At the same time, Don Isildro learns that Don Federico pursues Johannes because Federico will be Isildro’s heir if Johannes dies. He also learns that he, himself, has nothing. Everything he thought he had was purchased by his sister, Tia Elena from the creditors. We also learn that Peter Burkin who had helped Johannes and his father at Agua Caliente also regularly brings provisions to Alfredo. Alfredo could feel that his time was coming, and that day went out to the ledge and died.
Francisco had taken Meghan to his wife, and found Johannes and brought him there. There was one bandit left, so Johannes and Meghan went to find him. The Chinese fighter had found him first and killed him, but Johannes did find Don Federico and settle the score. And Miss Nesselrode decided that she might marry Meghan’s father.