In 1863 US Army lieutenant John J. Dunbar gets a chance to fulfill a long-cherished dream: service on the western frontier of the United States. He did not come by it easily, however. Suffering a severe foot wound in a battle in the eastern theater of the Civil War, Dunbar patches his foot up and returns to service.
A short time later, maddened by pain, he volunteers to ride between the Union and Confederate lines to draw fire from the boys in gray. He also hopes it will result in his own death. Instead, he unintentionally triggers a Union attack that scatters the rebels and sees himself emerge alive. Thanks to a kindly general, he keeps his foot and gets to request a transfer to whatever post he desires.
So it is that as the novel opens he is riding in a wagon with an uncouth teamster named Timmons bound from Fort Hays to Fort Sedgwick in Comanche country. But little does he know that post commander Captain Cargill at Sedgwick, despairing that the army will ever send a supply wagon and down to a tiny garrison winnowed down by disease, desertion, and Indian raids, decides to abandon the garrison.
They miss Dunbar and Timmons by miles, and when the latter reach the fort Timmons notes it is no longer a going concern and advises going back to Hays. Dunbar, however, insists on staying. It is his post, after all, and he will see his duties through. After all, the garrison might be out on other duties and may return at any moment. So Timmons and Dunbar unload the wagon, unhitch Dunbar’s buckskin named Cisco (the same horse that carried Dunbar on his ride to glory), and Timmons departs.
Dunbar does not know he will be cut off from the white man’s world when Timmons gets killed by a band of Pawnee far from Hays, where the commander who gave Dunbar his orders has gone insane. Both men’s fate cause Dunbar to drop off the face of the earth as far as the Army is concerned leaving Dunbar high and dry. Unaware of this, Dunbar begins his duties at the fort by making them up as he goes, taking notice of and become friendly with an old wolf he soon names Two Socks because of the white coloring of his forepaws.
He also begins to encounter Comanche from a nearby village, but they are tense at first, especially whenever the likes of medicine man Kicking Bird, youngsters like Smiles A Lot and Frog, and warriors like Wind In His Hair all try to capture Cisco for themselves only to be thwarted time and again by the mounts strong will and devotion to Dunbar which enables him to break free every time. Finally, Kicking Bird opens a tentative connection with Dunbar that ultimately leads to Dunbar embarking on a journey of friendship, romance, and personal change.
Michael Blake narrates Dunbar’s story with a deft narrative that keeps the pages turning. I wish, however, that he spent a little more time on the backstory of his central character. Who, for example, is the young woman Dunbar dreams of but consciously pushes her memory out of his mind? I kept waiting for a revelation, but none came. Apart from that, however, it is worth a read, especially if you have seen the film version and wonder how it compares to the book.