Born on Emancipation Day, 1863, to a sharecropping family of black and Indian blood, Elijah Yancy never lived as a slave but his self-image as a free person is at war with his surroundings: Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the Reconstructed South. Exiled for his own survival as a teenager, Elijah walks west to the Nebraska plains and, like other rootless young African-American men of that era, joins up with the U.S. cavalry.
The trajectory of Elijah’s army career parallels the nation’s imperial adventures in the late 19th century: subduing Native Americans in the West, quelling rebellion in the Philippines. Haunted by the terrors endured by black Americans and by his part in persecuting other people of color, Elijah is sustained only by visions, memories, prayers, and his questing spirit which ultimately finds a home when his troop is posted to the newly created Yosemite National Park in 1903. Here, living with little beyond mountain light, running water, campfires, and stars, he becomes a man who owns himself completely, while knowing he’s left pieces of himself scattered along his life’s path like pebbles on a creek bed.