Savage Country

A Novel


By Robert Olmstead

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“The year was 1873 and all about was the evidence of boom and bust, shattered dreams, foolish ambition, depredation, shame, greed, and cruelty . . .”

Onto this broken Western stage rides Michael Coughlin, a Civil War veteran with an enigmatic past, come to town to settle his dead brother’s debt. Together with his widowed sister-in-law, Elizabeth, bankrupted by her husband’s folly and death, they embark on a massive, and hugely dangerous, buffalo hunt. Elizabeth hopes to salvage something of her former life and the lives of the hired men and their families who now depend on her; the buffalo hunt that her husband had planned, she now realizes, was his last hope for saving the land.

Elizabeth and Michael plunge south across the aptly named “dead line” demarcating Indian Territory from their home state of Kansas. Nothing could have prepared them for the dangers: rattlesnakes, rabies, wildfire, lightning strikes, blue northers, flash floods—and human treachery. With the Comanche in winter quarters, Elizabeth and Michael are on borrowed time, and the cruel work of harvesting the buffalo is unraveling their souls.

Bracing, direct, and quintessentially American, Olmstead’s gripping narrative follows that infamous hunt, which drove the buffalo to near extinction. Savage Country is the story of a moment in our history in which mass destruction of an animal population was seen as a road to economic salvation. But it’s also the intimate story of how that hunt changed Michael and Elizabeth forever.


Also by Robert Olmstead

River Dogs

Soft Water

A Trail of Heart's Blood Wherever We Go

America by Land

Stay Here with Me

Coal Black Horse

Far Bright Star

The Coldest Night



a novel



See now that I, even I am he, and there is no god with me, I kill and I make alive, I wound and I heal, neither is there any can deliver out of my hand.


Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

About the Author

About Algonquin

Chapter 1

Some distance from town he was met with the smell of raw sewage and creosote, the stink of lye and kerosene oil, the carrion of dead and slaughtered animals unfit for human consumption. He struck the mapped, vacant streets where there was a world of abandoned construction, plank shacks with dirt floors and flat-­pitched roofs hedged with brambles and waste. Two cur dogs snarled at each other over a bone. Dead locust strewed the ground three inches deep.

The year was 1873 and all about was the evidence of boom and bust, shattered dreams, foolish ambition, depredation, shame, greed, and cruelty. Notes were being called in for pennies on the dollar. Money was scarce and whole families were pauperized.

For weeks countless swarms of locusts, brown-­black and brick-­yellow, darkened the air like ash from a great conflagration, their jaws biting all things for what could be eaten. They fed on the wheat and corn, the lint of seasoned fence planks, dry leaves, paper, cotton, the wool on the backs of sheep. Their crushed bodies slicked the rails and stopped the trains.

Michael rode light in the saddle, his left hand steady on the reins. His trousers were tucked inside the shafts of his stovepipe boots, and the buckhorn haft of a long knife protruding above the top was decorated with plates of silver. His black hair was long and plaited into a queue, which hung down his back. A shotgun was cradled in his free arm and on the saddle before him sat a setter dog and behind his right leg hung a string of game birds. The red dog had fallen out a mile ago and he thought that was perhaps for the best.

Farther on was a ravine of tents and dugouts where gambling, drinking, dog fights, and cockfights were taking place. Dingy flaps of canvas were flung back and barefoot women swept their dirt floors into the road. From a tent advertising Turkish baths came the bleating sound of a hurdy-­gurdy. Men lay sleeping on the ground undisturbed, a paste of dirt and saliva on their bruised faces.

Ahead was the darker line marking the railroad grade and the looming warehouses lining the tracks, the bone pickers and hair scavengers converging and departing from across the open land. Along the right-­of-­way was a rick of bones twelve feet high, segmented in the shape of boxcars, and a half mile long. This was the last of the Kansas buffalo.

Soon he could hear the hammering and banging of the blacksmith. There was a fine dust in the air that remained suspended. An eastbound train chuffed to a stop to take on bones, water, and the broke families bankrupted by the plague of locust.

A portly man in fawn-­colored trousers and black overcoat came off the platform in a hurry. He stepped into a two-­horse fringed-­top surrey parked at one end. The man reached for the whip and gave the team a smart cut across the flanks. The drays stepped out and in tandem, their broken tails lifting in cadence.

At the post office Michael asked after mail for himself or anyone at Meadowlark. There was a letter for him from Mr. Salt.

"Michael Coughlin," the postmaster read, handing him the envelope.

"This letter has been opened," he said.

"It must not have been adequately sealed," the postmaster said.

He handed the postmaster the sealed envelope he carried. He paid the postage to London and inquired when the mail would be sent. The stamp affixed, he took back the envelope.

"I will be happy to take care of that for you," the postmaster said, his hand out.

"You can take care of this one," he said, handing him another.

"You can do that?" he said.

"Yessir," the postmaster said.

There was a plaza in town and a collection of shops on the four sides of it: saddler, watchmaker, gunsmith, mercantile, hotel, barroom, two druggists. Michael stopped at each one, explaining that his brother, David Coughlin, had passed and Michael would settle outstanding balances. From the druggists he purchased their supply of quinine and asked that they order more and make delivery to Meadowlark. The first had nothing to say, but the second one did.

"Malaria?" the druggist said.

"I was very ill for several weeks," Michael said, switching his shotgun from the cradle of one elbow to the other.

"It will be here tomorrow. Your brother, he was a never-­give-­up man. He will be missed."

Stalls were erected in the plaza and men and women were raising money to leave by selling what little they owned to immigrants newly arrived. From one, a tatterdemalion boy was selling honey and beeswax candles. Michael paid for a mixture of nuts, candies, figs, and four oranges. He stood about, drinking gently a cored orange.

The postmaster stepped out and went down the street where he entered another building that represented itself as the Kansas Land Office. Young boys of a hard nature loitered in front, posing and strutting. They wore shiny revolvers and knives. Their neckerchiefs were as if brilliant plumage. The black runner and a big raw-­boned sorrel were hitched at the rail.

"Mister," the tatterdemalion boy said, offering him an envelope of gold stars to put in the night sky. He'd cut them with scissors out of tissue paper. Michael paid for the stars as the postmaster was setting off again in the direction of the church steeple, carrying Elizabeth's letter in his hand.

Beneath a tarpaulin roof an old man with a brick-­red face and deep-­set eyes was selling bread drenched in sweet molasses, wolf pelts, and broken pinchbeck timepieces he displayed on a three-­legged stool. The old man had a walleye and his cheeks were deeply pitted by smallpox. He carried the heavy scar of an edged weapon. The stroke was vertical and cut through his forehead, his nose, lips, and chin. The halves of his face were sewn together in a ridged seam, stitch holes scarring both sides. He wore a fur hat decorated with two stuffed blue jays. He smoked a pipe with a red clay-­stone bowl and a cane-­joint shank and labored with each weary breath.

From somewhere off came the slurred harmonizing of men singing. A strange languor settled in the space between Michael and the old man as they watched two little girls play marbles in the dust.

"What happened to yo'r pony?" the old man said, asking after the scars on Khyber's flanks.

"A lion," Michael said.

"A big big lion," the old man said, inclining his head as if to hear better.

"Big enough," Michael said. "Nine feet seven inches from tooth to tail and near four hundred pounds."

"Where are you from," the old man said, "they have such lions?"

"I am from away," Michael said.

The old man told him his name was Bonaire and he was a wolfer and he was also from away. His mother was Lakota and his father French. He fished inside his shirt for the medallion he wore around his neck, Agnus Dei, the lamb of God.

"What is it you are wanting?" the old man said, letting the medallion drop. "A woman or a drink?"

"I do not want neither nor."

"What man from away does not want neither nor?"

The old man dragged off his fur hat and rubbed at his forehead. He had no ears. The auricles had been cut away, and left were the receptacles of his ear holes. He then slyly lifted a cloth and invited Michael to look. Beneath was a collection of six skulls he said were Kiowa.

"Make me an offer," he said, but Michael declined.

At a street corner a man in a derby hat let down the leg in his barrel organ. His companion, a capuchin monkey with cup in hand, bounced from his shoulder to the organ to the street. The man had fixed mechanized birds to the top, and when he played, the birds bobbed their heads and flared their tail feathers. The little girls gathered their marbles and ran in his direction.

Michael asked after Whitechurch, the man he was looking for.

"He would be one of the evil kings of the earth," the old man said.

"Be that as it may, I have business with him."

"He'd eat his own gut for money," the old man said.

"It takes all sorts to make a world," Michael said.

The old man took the bowl of his pipe in his right hand and pointed with the stem at the Kansas Land Office.

Chapter 2

Michael crossed the street with Khyber behind him, the setter perched in the saddle. The boys watched as he came on. He hoisted the saddlebag onto his shoulder and with the shotgun tucked beneath his arm he climbed the steps.

One of the loitering boys stepped up to bar his way. He was a hard boy, they all were. He wore hobnailed lace-­up boots with leather gaiters. He carried revolvers and a knife. On his right hand the little finger had been chopped off and his face was as if permanently bruised.

"I need to pass by," Michael said.

"What are you going to do about it?" the boy said.

"If you fight, try to kill," Michael whispered.

"He thinks he's got brass balls," one of the other boys said, and they all began to laugh.

"I have a good mind to kill you right now," the boy said, squeezing his eye at Khyber.

"I have died before," Michael said.

"I ain't afraid of you, mister," the boy said, but his nerve was fading.

"If I were you, I'd mind my own business," Michael said.

"Is that a warning?"

"I do not give warnings."

The boy looked away to where hogs wallowed in a mud hole in the street.

"You go to the devil," the boy said, and with a wave of his hand he stepped aside. Michael went through the door, and once inside, his attention was alive to the men who sat before him.

Whitechurch was at his desk reading a newspaper. He looked at Michael over the top, a silver toothpick in his mouth. He was a little blue under the eyes and purple about the end of his nose. He wore fawn-­colored trousers and a black vest. There were studs in his white shirt and his sleeve buttons were set with blue stones.

There were two others. The taller one had a shotgun athwart his lap and a battered slouch hat down over his brow. When he looked up Michael could see scars radiating from his right eye. The other was shorter with a heavy paunch and bull neck. His hat in his lap; he had a large head with long, strawlike hair. His chin was square and his cheeks tallowy. He sat with his chair leaned back and his heels hooked in the front spindle.

The tall one stared at him, his heavy eyebrows wrinkled as he struggled to awaken memory, while the other sat contentedly, chewing tobacco and blowing his nose with his fingers.

"What is it you want?" Whitechurch said, dry-­washing the backs of his hands.

"I don't want anything," Michael said.

"Take a seat. Make yourself a cigarette," Whitechurch said. "I have first-­rate tobacco."

"I am here to buy the paper you hold on David Coughlin's property, the Meadowlark. It is my understanding he rented money from you."

"Who are you?"

"I would recognize him in the blackest night," the tall man said.

"I'd know him in hell," the heavy man said, tobacco juice leaking from the corner of his mouth.

"I know you too," Michael said, "and I will kill you."

"I know that," the tall man said. "You've already killed a good many."

"Shut your mouth," Whitechurch said to the taller one. He stirred the papers before him in an idle, absent manner, letting the moment settle. The man controlled any number of deeds, notes, mortgages, and private accounts.

"I am his brother. I am Michael Coughlin."

"I did not know he had a brother," Whitechurch said.

"I tol' you he had a brother," the tall man said.

"And I told you to shut your g.d. mouth."

"I have a passport," Michael said, "as well as letters of credit and introduction."

Michael handed over a leather bifold wallet with printed endpapers. There was a fold-­out sheet pasted inside with his name, purpose, destination of voyage, and date of issue.

"You are a Britisher," Whitechurch said, admiring the office of the papers.

"I am a citizen of England."

"There's a likeness," Whitechurch said, staring across the desk, "but how do I know who you are?"

"I have no interest in this little charade," Michael said.

"You fought in the Southern army," Whitechurch said, drumming on the desktop with his fingertips.

"Anybody is welcome to know my past," Michael said.

"When did you arrive?"


"When was the last time you saw your brother?"

"A long time ago."

"You are younger by?"

"Fifteen years."

"And what is it you do Mr. Coughlin?"

"I am a traveler."

"I have a lively interest in travel. Where have you been?"

"I am not here to waste my time."

"Sounds like a man whose pockets are full," Whitechurch said to the tall man, and he and the heavyset man smiled.

"What do you require?" Michael said.

"A good price takes longer than a bad one," Whitechurch said. He then looked to the ceiling as if in calculation. He referenced a faint scrawl of numbers on the cuff of his sleeve and then the ceiling again. The door opened, and when Michael turned, there were a scared-­looking old grandfather and his grandson.

"Not now," Whitechurch barked, and they backed out the door. He then wrote a figure on a piece of paper and slid it forward across the desktop.

"You make capital out of another's tragedy?" Michael said after looking at the paper.

"Everything has its price."

Michael reached in his vest pocket and threw the loose change from his day's trading on the table. "What I'd give for your life," he said.

"Caveat emptor," Whitechurch said.

"I'll not pay that," Michael said, leaving the paper where it was.

"There was a loan and there was an investment. There was the promise of a profit on that investment," Whitechurch said.

It was strange to Michael how embittered a man could be over the loss of what he never possessed. Here was one of those mysterious people of very little conscience who would rule the world and yet he was fooled by the deception of unrealized gain.

"I am not wanting to dicker with you," Michael said. "The loan was secured by Meadowlark, but what you call the investment was not. I will pay on the rented money, but as to the speculative money, you are owed nothing."

"What is it you are saying?"

"You cannot get blood out of a stone."

"I am owed, sir," Whitechurch said.

"It isn't money until it's money."

"What, then, do you propose?"

"I am here to pay not what you think you are owed but what you will take."

"You do not feel bound by the rules that govern most men, Mr. Coughlin?"

"Lex talionis," Michael said as he held the man's gaze.

Whitechurch picked up a sharper pencil and began to cipher on his shirt cuff. His mouth opened and closed like a fish. He dropped his pencil after writing a figure on the paper and sat blinking at Michael. He pushed forward the paper and Michael pushed it back.

"Does it go well between you and the widow?" Whitechurch said. "Not so young anymore, but still a handsome woman."

"You will not talk that way," Michael said, feeling the twitch of reflex.

"Keep your seat!" Whitechurch said to the tall man as he leaped up. The tall man shifted the revolver on his hip, fed a quid of tobacco into his mouth, and sat down.

"In the war I killed better men than you," Michael said to the tall man. This moment he expected and he was prepared to have and even provoke. He was not afraid of the banker and his gunmen, not in the light of day, not in the middle of town, not ever. He let down his shotgun.

"The war is over," Whitechurch said, pounding his desk. "Eight years over."

"Is it?" Michael said as the moment of danger passed.

"I'll tell you what, throw in that horse you ride and we will close the account in no time. I'll bet she's a goer."

"I suggest you do not covet that horse."

"Fair enough," Whitechurch said, and the paper slid back and forth across the desktop several more times until there was a number Michael found acceptable. Whitechurch, having gotten all he could, sank back in his chair.

"A bird in the hand," he said to the air.

"Draft the papers," Michael said, lifting the saddlebag onto the table.

"Call in the penman," Whitechurch said.

The old grandfather returned with his grandson. In his case were steel pens, paper, blotting paper, ink, and a chamois pen wiper. He set to work with a flourish, and when the document was complete with the language of their agreement, Michael began counting out twenty-­dollar gold pieces. Whitechurch fixed his eyes upon the gold, his lips moving as Michael counted.

Chapter 3

When Michael finally took up the road, the hour of twilight had come. He did not want to be in this town any longer and knew to move on as quickly as possible.

He'd made the depot the moment the mail sacks were being loaded and the engineer was getting up his steam. There were so many people who were broken and buying their tickets out. They possessed the clothes on their backs and whatever fit into the carpetbags they clutched.

He left behind the littered streets and miserable shacks and rode into the gloom. Behind him was the clang and cough of the boiler, the successive exhausts of the high-­pressure engine, the smokestack pouring out soot and ash, the steam whistle resounding. He turned in the saddle to see a column of sparks burst from the stack. Jets of lightning flashed over the town. He knew Whitechurch would take what hard money he could get. He knew he'd be caught out by the darkness.

He rode into the red sky of the westering sun. He kept to no single beaten way but rode by many turns of lane and crossed streams and traveled through thickets and over rough hills, his eyes ever turning in the direction of his back trail.

He let down the setter to run alongside and rode with the shotgun across the saddle before him. He looked about for the red dog but could not find him. He knew the value of the signed documents he carried and the number of double eagles still in the saddlebag.

He topped the crest of a hill where he could look off in every direction. He pushed back his brim and stood in the stirrups. He scanned the darker line of the horizon. He ran his eye along a line of timber and came off the hill just as quickly.

He called in the setter and she came running. His right foot was clear of the stirrup and he swung it idly. His left hand held the shotgun perched upright on his thigh and with his right he gripped the cantle at his back.

"What now, Sabi?" he said to her.

The setter uttered a low whimper and once or twice wagged her tail. He slung the shotgun over his shoulder. He said her name again and she leaped up to him where he caught her in his arms.

In that same instant he saw its gray mottled coil and upraised head, lifted and steady. Without warning, the deadly rattlesnake struck from where it lay poised in the grass. It threw itself thrice its length and hit the stirrup iron, its fangs pumping their venom into his boot heel before falling away.

The horse bounced and jinked sideways from where the snake coiled in the grass to strike again. She flung round her head and her ears pricked. A tremble shivered through her body. She champed at the bit, pawed the ground, and collected.

He unclenched himself and caught his breath and felt suddenly the sadness of his brother's death.

"Damn your eyes," he said.

He uncurled his whip, a sjambok made of hippopotamus hide. The sound broke off as short and sharp and with a single stroke he took off the snake's triangular head. No, there was something more to come, more than this snake and more than David's death, and its experience could not be avoided.

The setter shivered and whined softly as he pulled the thistles and cockleburs from her long hair. She was footsore and cut by the hard sun-­burned stubble of the old grass. He rummaged in his saddlebag until he found small leather moccasins to cover her feet.

He urged the horse another mile. They crossed the road and in some trees he reined up. He threw his leg over the saddle horn, slipped to the ground, and let drop the reins. He took a position in a small glade with the shotgun tucked under his arm. The night was chill, damp, and dark. It'd begun to vapor a little and the dank grass was bending under dewdrops. He petted the setter and told her to stay quiet.

He waited in the trees beside the road, scrutinizing the darkness, and then Khyber signaled by throwing up her head and snorting and it was not long before he saw the band of horsemen, one dark figure after another looming out of the darkness, bending low in their saddles, lashing their horses, and galloping ahead with noiseless rapidity two hundred yards away, one hundred yards, and then the ruck of their hoof tracks telling plainly. The tall man was in the lead, riding the black runner, and strung out behind him were the hard boys.


  • “Robert Olmstead gets better with every book. If you know all of his previous books, you know how startling this fact is, and how startlingly good this writer is.”
    ─​Tom Franklin, author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

    “The precision and poetry of the author's language have a paradoxical effect: they make the setting strange and distinct while imbuing characters and their actions with a particular immediacy . . . A story about America told through its land and its animals and its diverse people and, especially, through the experiences of two vivid, singular, powerful characters. Another gorgeous, brutal masterpiece from a great American writer.”
    Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
    “This is a powerful depiction of the brutality of the Old West, where life was cheap and easily taken.”
    Publishers Weekly

    “Fans of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove will enjoy this thoroughly researched epic Western.”
    Library Journal

    “[A] deeply emotional experience . . . Savage Country is an unforgettable, unflinching, yet distinctly moving story of human greed and desire.”

    “Like so many outstanding novels about the taming of the West, there is a tragic ambiguity at the heart of Olmstead’s brutal but beautiful tale of the last buffalo hunt. For a certain kind of uncompromising yet lyrical writer – think Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, or William Kittredge – the West offers a stage for a special kind of archetypal, almost Shakespearean tragedy, and Olmstead makes the most of it.”
    Booklist (starred review)

    “[Olmstead] has crafted another dark, contemplative western with his new novel . . . his brutally spare sentences create an apocalyptic mood reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy.”
    Shelf Awareness (starred review)

    “[A] majestic, thrilling tale of a small band of people hunting buffalo in the territory south of Kansas in the tense and unpredictable years after the Civil War.”
    Columbus Dispatch

On Sale
Sep 26, 2017
Page Count
272 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