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Wilderness tracks young Thaddeus Morley, who flees from St. Louis by Mississippi River paddle wheeler after his mother dies and his father goes mad with grief. Thaddeus is taken in by Horatio Reilly, a charming flimflam artist, who sees the territorial land grab as a chance to exploit the hopes of others. 

A boiler explosion hurls the boat’s passengers into the muddy river outside St. Paul. Reilly views this disaster — as he sees virtually everything — as an opportunity. He saves Thaddeus, then promotes him as a hero who boldly rescued drowning children. Thaddeus’s sudden fame legitimizes Reilly’s scheme to sell plots in a town which may or may not eventually exist. Reilly becomes Morley’s substitute father; generous but with a topsy-turvy moral sensibility.

Reilly and Thaddeus undertake an expedition to the western prairies to claim a site along the Red River. They are joined by Milly LaCroix, a woman of Thaddeus’ age who is escaping a tainted history. Also among their crew: a scheming thug with a gang of brutes, a pampered East Coast Army captain hoping to create a name for himself on the prairie, and a native guide schooled in the cardsharp’s arts by Reilly. 

Reilly is boundlessly enthusiastic about the prospects for the would-be metropolis he describes. Whether the plan will be anything more than lines on paper is of scant concern to him. But the investors, blinded by greed, expect to cash in on a town that will actually exist. The expedition ends well for no one except Reilly and the native, who manages a land grab of his own.

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