Far Bright Star


By Robert Olmstead

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"Gleaming, spellbinding fiction . . . Terrifying and abruptly beautiful, the new novel gleams with a masculine intensity; it is hard to read and hard to put down."—The Cleveland Plain Dealer

The year is 1916. The enemy, Pancho Villa, is elusive. Terrain is unforgiving. Through the mountains and across the long dry stretches of Mexico, Napoleon Childs, an aging cavalryman, leads an expedition of inexperienced horse soldiers on seemingly fruitless searches. Though he is seasoned at such missions, things go terribly wrong, and his patrol is suddenly at the mercy of an enemy intent on their destruction. After witnessing the demise of his troops, Napoleon is left by his captors to die in the desert.

Through him we enter the conflicted mind of a warrior as he tries to survive against all odds, as he seeks to make sense of a lifetime of senseless wars and to reckon with the reasons a man would choose a life on the battlefield. Olmstead, an award-winning writer, has created a tightly wound novel that is as moving as it is terrifying.



Thus far the summer of 1916 had been a siege of wrathy wind and heated air. Dust and light. Sand and light. Wind and light.

There was drought and the land was parched and dry and the country bleached, burned out, and furnacelike. At first, dogs attended the troopers, but then they experienced a plague of fleas, so the order went out to shoot the dogs.

It was 125 miles south of the international line in Colonia Dublán where the expedition had established its headquarters. They were well supplied. They shipped in tons of material by rail, truck, and mule team and employed thousands of civilian workers. The cantinas and whorehouses were open all night long and the only hardship, other than being there, was riding out each day to patrol the dry dusty roads. They were in search of Pancho Villa and his bandits who on March 9 audaciously attacked Columbus, New Mexico, burning, looting, killing, and they'd been hunting him ever since.

But everywhere they went it was the same story. They just missed them a day ago, an hour ago, the next high valley, the next mountain peak, a cave that did not exist. By most measures the expedition had been a failure.

His brother's job was to turn out as many horses as possible in service to the U.S. Army, while his was to turn out as many horsemen as possible. He took his men out every day and led them over country of all kinds, to teach them every plateau, arroyo, bajada, canyon. He had little faith in their ability and even less in their capacity for improvement.

He remembered Bandy's lips so cracked and blistered it was near impossible for the boy to eat and when he spoke his mouth was too swollen to form words enough to make sense. Every one of them had a case of the piles from so many hard days in the saddle. The seat of Turner's pants was spotted black where they'd bled into the cotton material and would not wash out.

Each morning the red dawn came and all day long was the blazing and deadening heat, but the night could be freezing cold with a swing in temperature of thirty degrees between high noon and midnight.

They wore their peaked Stetsons low on their foreheads and still the light so bright they spent their days squint eyed, or staring through the color-tinted lenses of their goggles. There were wire-framed glasses to purchase: deep green, rose colored, and blue. But there was no blazing corona in the sky to see and only light as if there was no head or brain or mind, but only the idea of light.

He remembered these as the conditions of their lives when they departed expedition headquarters that white chalky morning to hunt the wild beeves. He remembered the morning itself and its dim blue light and upon waking the decision he made to begin another day.

This is what he remembered of those days in Mexico and much later in life some of it he would talk about, but not everything. He was not inclined to talking, but about these days in the desert, he was even less so.

He remembered a small man, a minor jefe politico, wearing a black felt hat. He was peddling a red hen and a white hen, held by the legs in each hand, and inside the perimeter, down the wind, there were penned and mudded barrow hogs, their flies and their drift of stink.

He remembered a horse trader talking to his brother. Their father had named his brother Xenophon after the ancient horseman and his own name was Napoleon after the great general. Xenophon liked to feed the horses peppermints and the smell of peppermints was constantly on his hands and breath. While he talked to the horse trader, the horses slopped their lips in the trough, their tails idly whisking flies.

From a narrow dirt street there emerged a wedding party, women in summer dresses and men in shirtsleeves, returning home from a long night's celebration. A little wind was moving but not much. Then it concentrated, took a man's straw hat from his head, and disappeared. A water cart trundled by, sprinkling down the dust that would dry and rise again.

He remembered the butchers hooking a team of horses to the hide of a steer they'd slaughtered, slowly dragging the hide off the steer inside out, pearly with tallow and white as snow. The small man wearing the black felt hat, peddling the red hen and the white hen, his jaw working as he watched as the horses tore away the hide.

There was Arbutus, a liquor-head, and from time to time he'd throw himself onto all fours and bark like a rabid dog and he'd howl from the end of his outstretched neck. It was after the dogs were shot Arbutus could be seen dragging a leash with an empty collar and after that he started going down on all fours.

There was the sleeveless baker in his stiff white apron gritted with flour. The baker smoked a cigar he never ashed but let the ash gray and curl and when cold it fell of its own accord. He thought the baker disagreeable and to possess violent proclivities.

There was a goat he remembered and a butcher wearing a bleached-white apron carrying a sticking knife pointed at the sky. The blade gleamed and he caught its light in the corner of his eye. A gaggle of boys followed behind waiting for their chance to lug off the head and guts. Among them was the boy who shined his boots and carried a tin whistle he blew and there was the legless boy strapped to a wheeled platform propelling himself forward with his fists.

And he remembered the chaplain that morning, his joyful greetings and feral sense for all human weakness except his own. He was Protestant, but in Mexico he'd assumed the black cassock, cincture, and a dangling gold crucifix. The people thought him mad for how clamorous his expressions of faith. He descended on the wedding party and snatched a baby from a frightened mother and was lavishing its head with kisses. The mother bowed in fear and held out her hands in supplication, hoping to recover her baby before its soul was eaten. Napoleon did not like the chaplain and suspected him of simony and the selling of indulgences.

And he remembered Preston, a robust young man, his arms and shoulders and neck roped with muscles. Preston wore a very beautiful deerskin jacket that morning, elaborately beaded with long fringe at the sleeves and shoulders. He preferred riding a gray horse with long and rangy legs and that morning was no different. He was urging the photographer to hurry in setting up his camera. He insisted upon a photograph of himself, Stableforth, and Turner on horseback. Preston organized socials and the three wore military cloaks and silver cuff links and all belonged to the same men's club in Delaware. They wore white linen shirts that smelled of eau de cologne and favored flowery bow ties carelessly tied in exploding knots.

The photographer stood at his tripod holding his hat over the lens. The photographer had a habit of setting fires with his flash powder and had managed to burn up a small portion of Mexico.

Why Napoleon consented to such an outlandish request, he had no idea, because for Preston, for what he'd done, he felt only contempt.

A flash went up, an explosion of powder and coming toward him through the rags of smoke was Preston riding the gray.

"What do you want?" Napoleon said before Preston could address him.

"I just want to talk."

"I don't know what I have to say that'd be of any interest."

The others watched their exchange, looking for some sign that might ease the unrest rippling through the camp.

"I apologize for the trouble," Preston said.

"You don't know what trouble is."

"I'd give anything I have to make it not that way."

"You don't know the half of it."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't sorry me," Napoleon said, dismissing the man.

The gray turned and back-stepped and Preston rejoined the men. Napoleon thought to light the cigarette he'd been carrying behind his ear. He put it between his lips. He looked to the sky, a wind-gall. Black disklets floated in his eyes. He closed his eyes and opened them. Today would be weather.


The horse Napoleon rode that morning was a night-colored stallion called the Rattler horse. It had legs like iron posts. It was known as a hard-mouthed bastard, sharp and difficult rather than easy and lazy, and was blind in one eye so refused to turn on the forehand in that direction, but it didn't matter because it always knew where to go. The horse was able to take a ditch without a spill, clear a wall, leap down a bank at the gallop, or spring up one. It was the very demonstration of impulsion and forward mobility, but was a mean and unforgiving horse.

The first time he mounted the horse it reached back and took his foot in its mouth and dragged him out of the saddle. It was a bitey horse and tried to take a chunk of him. The next time the horse went to bite him he jammed a sizzling beefsteak into its mouth. The horse screamed and lunged from the burn, but it never tried to bite him again.

But on the whole, the Rattler horse was a most absolute and excellent horse. By many accounts the best horse in the army. The horse could start and stop quickly, reverse itself, back up, change directions, stand still when he fired the Springfield and charge at a controlled canter. The Rattler horse was deep chested with a short back, strong haunches, flat legs, a small head and small feet. The horse never lamed, crippled, or galled. The Rattler horse, leaned down to bone, was tireless and unflagging, and his collection of the horse always certain.

On the other hand, his brother rode a succession of mounts. He liked horses with broad short loins because the more easily they collect the hindquarters and lift on the forehand. He believed conformation was behavior and yet, however conformed, they would eventually displease him and go out of favor.

Riding out with him that morning were Extra Billy, Bandy, Preston, Stableforth, and Turner. Extra Billy was named because they already had a Billy when he arrived so he was an extra Billy. He wore a razor scar from ear to chin, a wound he took in the Philippines, back in the day when drunk he cheated at cards. Extra Billy's nose was already bleeding from the dry and heated air.

Extra Billy and Bandy were regular cavalry. Preston, Stableforth, and Turner were all three irregular, America's eager export of losers, deadbeats, cutthroats, dilettantes, and murderers come to Mexico to be part of the hunt for the bandit Pancho Villa. They were the rich and bored gallants. They'd already showed signs of sadism, filing down bullets and hollowing out their points. Now they were half asleep and hung over and as useless to him as tits on a boar hog, with little promise they'd ever be more.

It was last night when word came to him the men were tearing it up and he set out to find them before someone was killed. It wasn't long before he found them in a cantina. Turner and Stableforth were at a table awash with the light of an oil lamp. They wore wing collars and black silk neckties. They were sitting with two other troopers, Drunk Pete and the German. They were smoking cigars and each had his own bottle of whisky and they had long since dispensed with the use of glasses. They told him they were having a whale of a good time. When he asked after Preston they told him he was in the back with a woman. Drunk Pete was saying how much he loved the army, the rations and liquor being first rate, when there came a summoning scream of pain and horror from the curtains hung at the back. For what reason he did not know, Preston had cut off the woman's ear.

Fools like them were arriving every day: freebooters, felons, Christians, drifters, patriots. They claimed to be marksmen and veterans of battles no one ever heard of. They were surgeons, mechanics, assassins. Some invented names like Cash McCall, Tennessee Slim, the Kid, Tex, Reverend Joe. In turn, names were invented for them. They were called Fathead, Stupid, Numbnuts. Most were just a bunch of losers and jerk-offs, more trouble than they were worth. They were the future dead, Napoleon thought.

The old soldiers and the young soldiers—both died. They died accidental and intentional. They died from disease and crushing falls. They died from ass-to-hand dysentery. They died from their own horses.

But for Napoleon and his brother, life and death were the same and meant nothing. They'd served from the Indian wars through the Philippines, living in the closed world of the soldier, mistrusting outsiders and only certain of their own, and even then you were obligated to constantly demonstrate your trustworthiness or you were no longer trusted and then you were shunned and driven out. For instance, Arbutus was crazy, but they still trusted him.

As they prepared to ride out that morning there was the distant stuttering of a machine gun gone silent on the firing range as another belt was loaded through the feedlock. The marching band was gathering beneath a shade tarpaulin. Fires blazed in burn pits and the smoke wove above the ground with the stench of the latrines.

He caught sight of his brother again, feeding the horses peppermints. His brother preferred life with the horses, the Negroes, the Apaches. He was a tamer of horses and stayed with the horses and was rarely anywhere but with the horses. His brother loved horses, pleasured in rubbing them down, currying and brushing, and was a sight to behold when witnessed from the ground. He rode with his feet forward and his back and shoulders in perfect arch. Other men stopped to watch him make his pass. He was like a god flying above the earth.

Napoleon loved horses too and the way he and Xenophon sorted through the government horses made them worth their weight in gold. When they first crossed the international line, their horses were fat and indulged, but now their horses were so lean and fit you could see the rippling muscles of their diaphragms. He and his brother, they had no deep feeling for land or people, only horses.

"Hey, Bandy," a trooper named Wheeler yelled. "Kiss my ass."

"You are welcome to go to hell," Bandy yelled back, his words clotted and garbled. Bandy tipped his hat and there followed an exchange of shouted abuse. Wheeler was a loudmouth and no good and Napoleon had told Bandy to stay clear of him.

Bandy was fair skinned with a rash of freckles across his nose and cheeks. His hair was red as a rooster and in all ways he was vulnerable to the sun. He burned and blistered and suffered heat illness. He tried to keep his lips coated with Vaseline, but was always eating. It seemed the boy ate everything he could get his hands on and made him wonder if as a child he'd been starved.

"You covered up good?" Napoleon said. He himself wore a wide neckerchief and slung around his neck were sand goggles. His belt was full of ammunition in five-round clips and he carried extra in a bandoleer over his shoulder and another across his saddle, a Springfield rifle fitted with a scope in a saddle boot.

"I am sweating like a pig," Bandy said.

"When you stop sweating is when you're fucked."

"Yessir," the boy replied. He wore a wide-brimmed Stetson and a large square neckerchief, his face only in shadow. He wore long sleeves and stout gloves with a long loose wrist. He claimed to be eighteen years old, but the truth was more like fifteen.

"It's surely gonna be hot today," Bandy said, puffing the words from his mouth.

"Don't talk about it," he said.

"It's gonna be hot enough to put hell out of business."

"What'd I say?"

Bandy knuckled his forehead and begged pardon, but there is so much to remember when you are in the army.

He would have the boy trade wonder for reason, but maybe it was not meant to be.

He stood in his stirrups and twisted around to look back. They were bringing Koons on a stretcher. When he saw Koons his heart tightened. With his right hand he gestured toward his heart the way a superstitious might.

Koons had broken his back in a fall from a horse. They thought him dead when they brought him in so they slung him over his saddle for ten miles, the loose stirrup knocking at his head and mangling his face.

They perched the stretcher handles across sawbucks under a shade tarpaulin. Koons was tall and needed his legs held by a chair. They'd hung mirrors overhead so he could see what was happening. They didn't know what else to do. Being wounded or crippled was worse than death, far worse. The doctor said the trip back north would kill Koons, but sooner or later he'd have to go. Sooner or later they'd all have to go. They couldn't stay in this godforsaken place forever. They'd move on to another country, another war.

Curls of smoke rose from the baker's ovens. He knew the roads and his job was to teach them to these men. But already he was burdened and tired and the day hadn't even begun.

He caught sight of his brother who returned the look as if an intimate of his inner thoughts—what is it?

He shrugged and smiled—nothing.

A flying Jenny buzzed overhead, its pistons firing sporadically. Everyone stopped to watch. Sometimes men shot at the Jenny, said it was something to do, or they said he'd been asking for it.

In an hour the ice wagons would follow to collect the wild beeves. This day would somehow be different, not good, and this feeling he could not escape. He thought the words, begin as you mean to move on.

He nodded to his brother who touched a finger to the brim of his Stetson. He then turned to his men and barked out a command.

Then he clicked his tongue and the Rattler horse stepped off smartly, impatiently, and they were in motion. They formed in column behind him and passed before the files of Sibley tents picketed to the ground, passed through the barb wire and the fixed sentinels at the perimeter.

Behind them the photographer triggered another great flash and rising skyward was a vast cloud of white smoke. Soon their column would be a thin black silhouette quavering in the absolute sunlight.


For months they'd ridden the stony trails. They'd searched the scattered ranges and barren hills, the dry flat basins, dust and rock to no avail. Every trail they cut was the same story. The bandits were to be found in the next high valley, the next mountain peak, a cave that did not exist. A day ago, an hour ago. The orders they carried were catch in the act and kill on the spot, but the one they sought was as if a wind passed by and his trail ended and cold and all sign disappeared. The bandits knew this broken land and were used to poor food and poor water. They were used to starving.

His brother's work was with the horses and his was to lead men over country of all kinds and to find the bandits. Between them they were to turn out as many cavalrymen as possible in service to the government. But times had changed and this was the new army of the chaplain, the bookkeeper, the teamster, the mechanic, the factotum.

They were entering the rain shadow desert, thousands of square miles that lay between the Sierra Madre Occidentals to the west and the Sierra Madre Orientals to the east. Briefly it had been wet, but now it was dry and rainless and had been for several weeks and what was green and lush and overrich had lost its verdancy and was now desiccated and the memory of one made no difference to the experience of the other.

"Give those horses breathing space," he commanded, and each paused until the distance lengthened and they strung along the trail and the only sound was the silent lift and hushed fall of shod hooves.

Bandy rode behind and then Preston, Stableforth, Turner, and Extra Billy in the rear. Extra Billy was most dependable when sober, though he had a talent for sleeping in the saddle, his eyes wide open.

Often Napoleon looked back to the light rising behind them, the sun seeming to resize each new moment, the land shredding into gold, and there was nothing to be seen but weltering shimmer and tangle of glitter and the dazzle inside his eye.

A voice in his head kept telling him something would happen today.

He felt the sweat trickling inside his collar. He thought by now he was so old and dried up to be incapable of sweat, even when bathed in heat inescapable. Already the horses' hides were shining with sweat. He skimmed the Rattler's neck and snapped the sweat from his fingers. However ill tempered and unmanageable the horse, its backbone was sunk deep and riding the horse was more pleasant than sitting or standing.

His mind went to the place of thought. He'd long passed the middle life and now faced the last of his years. He thought how a man reaches an age where he's done a lot and when he looks back he can see it all. He sees what he's done and can't imagine doing as much in the years to come.

He felt a momentary trembling and recoil of the Rattler horse beneath him, so complete had their minds become.

His father once told him the day has eyes and the night has ears. He looked back to find the hazy rim made by earth and sky, the barren, borderless, and immense world they'd come to, its fearful and consoling emptiness. The wind was increasing and their dust signature drifted behind them. The still puffs seemed to bloom and fall where they rose, but they did not. The blossoms traveled. There was something different. It drew on his mind and try as he might he could not figure it out.

"It's the wind," he said to himself. "The wind has switched."

For months the prevailing winds came from the east. But the wind had changed directions and was now coming from the west.

"That ain't all," the voice said. It was a woman's voice he heard and the Rattler horse scissored its ears.

He turned in his saddle, half expecting the column vanished, but they were still there, plodding the cracked and calcined earth, drowsy and dodgy, still drunk and about asleep in the saddle.

The expedition had become a stage for so many men to play out their ambitions and imaginations. Preston was tall and young and his was a handsome face. He was lean and still weighed two hundred pounds and was strong through his legs and chest and arms. He had blond hair he wore parted in the middle and greased to the sides where it curled. He was in the first part of being young and comported himself as if immortal. He was from Maryland and often spoke of sailing on the Chesapeake. An avid gambler and consistently unlucky at dice and cards, he owed debts to many of the men and some amounts were not insignificant. He really was a boy and not a man. He was a boy grown up but still not a man.

Riding behind Preston was Stableforth, bright eyed and pink cheeked and attempting a mustache. On the whole, a good stout-hearted fellow, but a scientist, he had no business being where he was.

Next was Turner, who was artistic. He carried pencils, watercolors and brushes, a tablet of paper, and also had no business being where he was.

The three were well fitted, their kit tailored and custom made in Baltimore and London. They were warrior princes who presumed lions in their blood, and having killed a trophy hall of wild animals, they were hunting their first man killing, preferably without much fall of their own blood.

When Preston spoke, which was often, his stories were too earnest to be bragging and too fantastic to be lies and were corroborated by Stableforth and Turner. In the presence of his superiors he exhibited extravagant manners and cloying deference and was liked for how exaggerated his person. He talked unabashedly about becoming a senator one day.

The three of them together spoke of France with mystery and fascination: the machine gun, the flamethrower, the gas. He could not deny them the seductive power of violence. They spoke of the war as if the new God. He didn't know if they'd get their taste; he supposed they would and he wished for them everything they wanted, the poison and fire, the mud and gut shreds, the invisible streams of lead.

Napoleon didn't hate anyone, because he didn't particularly care about anyone enough to hate them. But for these men he held slight regard and for Preston he felt only disdain.

He looked back again and Preston smiled, a tight line his mouth, and touched a gloved finger to the brim of his Stetson. He made no gesture in reply and turned his back to the man. Sooner or later he'd have to be dealt with.


Midmorning the sky was blue and shot with spears of light. They came to a rail bed bordering a wide, arid, waterless basin. The rails continued on, winding the mountainside before disappearing into a tunnel. Beneath, the broad plain was covered by sage and mesquite, and crossing it was a tiny figure the field glasses revealed to be an old man leading a mule loaded with pick and pan as well as minimum and necessary provisions.

Napoleon told them to stay put and pointed the Rattler horse toward the old man. He pressed with his legs and light in hand, the Rattler horse crossed the tracks to where the trail bent and fell in switchbacks to the desert floor.

He dismounted and called to the old man. Startled, the old man looked up. A whirlwind ginned and skittered across the desert grassland. A jag of wolf lightning descended from the clear blue sky.

The old man worked his way up through the light pulling a short lead rope attached to the mule's halter ring. He wore blue denim overalls, an overshirt to match, and a coat stitched from canvas. His other hand was wrapped in a dirty rag. He grew in the shimmer, huffing up the last rise to stand beside him.

He'd heard rumors the man was down here prospecting the last unexplored mountains on the continent. He couldn't remember when last he'd seen him. Nevada, the Dakotas—he could not remember.

But now, he did not look well. It was more than age and the grim life he lived in the rough wild. There was a smell he carried, of decay.

The mule, roach backed and broken winded, brayed three great honking noises and then went silent. The mule's ears were tatters and in its head was one fixed eye and one loose sclerotic eye. Its neck was skinny and its legs no more than spindles. The Rattler horse nickered and shook its head, rattling the bit in its mouth and scattering froth, wanting away from the stench of these two.


  • “Olmstead delivers another richly characterized, tightly woven story of nature, inevitability and the human condition ... Reminiscent of Kent Haruf, Olmstead’s brilliantly expressive, condensed tale of resilience and dusty determination flows with the kind of literary cadence few writers have mastered.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

    Publishers Weekly
  • “Another meditative, beautifully written novel from Olmstead . . . Olmstead is wondrously attuned to the natural world and the realities of war; he uses sand, heat and distant mountains as a stage set, and his narrative unfolds with all the formal rigor of a Greek tragedy . . . Brutal, tender and magnificent.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

    Kirkus Reviews
  • "Tautly written and laced with tension . . . Riveting visual effects . . . Olmstead offers a sort of 'thinking-reader's' western . . . Verbal precision and historical accuracy combine with a poetic distillation of a tragic event presented in a solidly captivating reading experience that haunts the mind long after the final page is turned.” —The Dallas Morning News
  • "Gleaming, spellbinding fiction . . . Terrifying and abruptly beautiful, the new novel gleams with a masculine intensity; it is hard to read and hard to put down . . . i did succumb, yet again, to the strong spell of Olmstead’s storytelling."—The Cleveland Plain Dealer

On Sale
May 25, 2010
Page Count
218 pages
Algonquin Books

Robert Olmstead

Robert Olmstead

About the Author

Robert Olmstead is the author of eight previous books. Coal Black Horse was the winner of the Heartland Prize for Fiction. The Coldest Night was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Far Bright Star was the winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award. Olmstead is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA grant and is a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University.

Learn more about this author