It’s 1873, and the vast American West is a place of wondrous untamed natural beauty and unrestrained violence. Elizabeth Coughlin, a lovely widow in Kansas left with an enormous ranch and a mortgage to match, must find the means to pay off the cheating banker Whitechurch and save her home. Her enigmatic brother-in-law, Michael, upon receiving the news of his brother’s death, arrives to assist by paying off the debt, thus earning Whitechurch’s ire. To repay him, Elizabeth decides to undertake an ambitious plan: to carry out her dead husband’s scheme for a huge buffalo hunt. The hunt will take them from Kansas south across the “deadline” into Indian Territory, and if successful, will not only enable Elizabeth to settle the debt owed, but will also in effect nearly exterminate the buffalo on the plains.
The Coughlins’ efforts to gather and unify a diverse crew, obtain the supplies for the journey and camp, then locate and slaughter hundreds of huge animals, butchering, skinning, and drying the hides, while experiencing violent encounters with marauding Indians, thieves, and former slaves, and contending with disease and nature, are totally absorbing in their details, and the reader is thrust into the action. Olmstead has written his dark tale vividly in stark, unflinching prose, describing with often disturbing accuracy a time when life was cheap and easily taken and immense herds of animals roamed freely across a gorgeously wild landscape. At its heart, it is a grim story of greed and brutality and courage, involving colorful characters with all their loyalties and desires and secrets and shame, and imbued with a pervading sense of adventure and ever-present danger. I found this a powerful, thought-provoking, and realistic depiction of the true Old West.