Dutch Fields wants the homestead of Charles Lassiter, a frontier muzzleloader riflesmith, and his son, William ("Billy"). Unable to coerce Caleb's father to sell, Dutch and his son Claude (a/k/a "Slip") murder Charles Lassiter. Slip lives up to the nickname given him by some mountain men and disappears.
After taking personal retribution against Dutch, Billy embarks on an 800-mile journey across the frontier's "prairie ocean," making his way through Indian lands until he reaches Santa Fé, in what was then a part of Mexico. Billy changes his name to "Caleb Landers" to disassociate himself from the crime he has committed (i.e., the revenge murder of Dutch Fields.) There he sets up his trading station in nearby Taos, which endeavor is fraught with the troubles of the times.
In Independence, Missouri, seven year-old Polly Larson is left with the Hydes, a farming family. They do not allow her to go to school. Instead, she labors on the farm, for which she receives only room and board. Some years later, teenage Polly is sexually abused by the farmer's sons, a nightmare which lasts for several years.
One day Polly accidentally trips Mother Hyde, who becomes enraged and accuses Polly of seducing her sons. Polly is kicked off the farm and sent down the road with no idea where she will go. Her only thought is to try to find her older brother who is believed to be living in Santa Fé, in Mexico.
Soon Polly meets Jeremy, an Irishman who works as a freight wagon driver, who is en route to Santa Fé. She accompanies him on his journey along the Santa Fé Trail as part of a small wagon train. Despite the fact that Jeremy is much older than Polly, they fall in love. Their lovemaking adds spice to the story.
The wagon train is attacked and all perish except Polly who was off chasing a runaway horse. Caleb finds her and they continue on their way to Santa Fé. The descriptions of daytoday livingchores like butchering their own food and fighting with Indians and renegade mountain men makes for an exciting story.