The protagonists come in sets of three. On one hand there are Samuel Drake, a hapless thirty-year-old who has just squandered his inheritance in a Deadwood card game; his fickle wife Joy; and Louis Devlin, a smooth-talking, fast-fingered gentleman gambler. Devlin is not above talking about philosophy; he even paraphrases Nietzsche. On the other hand are Monte Joe, a drunken scoundrel, Punkins, a young man fresh off the farm, guileless and easy pickings; and Nellie, a mining-camp prostitute.
Women and gold lure men to go on living, but Fortune is "a capricious jilt." Neihardt puts a lot of colorful characters in motion and then, along with the reader, watches them collide.