This novel describes Pathfinder John Charles Frémont’s fourth expedition, an effort to find a railroad route over the Rocky Mountains. Wheeler portrays this insensitive maniac as a man with a well-developed ability to blame his flaws on others. The opinions of the various narrators range from fawning admiration (“Well, hell, a Frémont just don’t come down the pike every day”) to hyperbolic antipathy (“…he was the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve, no doubt about it.”) As the snow buries the treetops and the mules begin to die, it is apparent that the expedition of thirty is facing potential doom. The Pathfinder does not share the fate of his men, having gone on ahead, leaving dead men behind and the gold fields of California ahead.
Wheeler, a veteran writer of Westerns, has fashioned a dramatic character study while staying faithful to the outline of events. Frémont had a fascinating career, eloping with a senator’s daughter, mapping and exploring the West, and later going on to be a governor, a senator, the first Republican presidential candidate, a Civil War general and a businessman of dubious ethical standards. Although the time frame is limited to the events of the winter of 1848-9, Wheeler carefully draws the Pathfinder true to history, unafraid to expose his foibles.