Joshua Ryder is eight when his mother is murdered. An old cowboy becomes the father he has never had and, when he is dying, asks Josh, now 18, to leave the ranch with their neighbor, Miguel, and get some experience working for another outfit. Riding Shadow, the buckskin he's raised from a colt, Josh comes to the Rawlins' ranch and hires on to help drive a herd of longhorns to Kansas. Martha Rawlins, the widowed ranch owner, and her children accompany the herd, and she teaches Josh to read and write while on the trail. He becomes friends with the Rawlins' son, falls in love with the older daughter, and adores her little sister, Kit. Another tragedy again changes the course of Josh's life, and he heads back to Texas to hunt down the man who murdered his mother.
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