Montana in the summer warmth of the 1960s. The unnamed narrator is 32 and a member of the Blackfeet tribe. As the story commences, he is arriving home drunk from a bar in which he just came into physical conflict with a white man. His home is a cattle ranch shared with his mother and her mother. For the past three weeks his girlfriend Agnes—a member of the Cree tribe—has also called the ranch her home. But now she’s take a powder…along with his electric razor and his gun.
A few days later, the narrator’s mother—Teresa—announces that she and her boyfriend Lame Bull have gotten hitched. When Lame Bull is helping out with chores around the ranch, he tells the narrator about the day he drowned some ducks he’d won at the fair—purely by accident—and how his father froze to death after getting drunk one night ten years earlier. Then Lame Bull hires a man named Raymond Long Knife to help out on the ranch, but a payment dispute results in an altercation and with a sock to the nose, Raymond is escorted off the ranch.
Despite suggesting that it is hardly worth the effort, the narrator heads to the nearby town of Malta to track down to Agnes. Once there, he comes across her brother, Dougie, drinking in a bar and before too long the two of them are making plans to roll a white patron so deep in the drink he’s passed out cold. The night stretches out to include a meeting with a strange man from New York who left his wife and instead of flying to the Middle East decided to drive to the Midwest. The next morning begin with a hangover and the realization that a barmaid he seemed to recognize was actually in his hotel with him overnight.
The narrator takes a ride on a horse named Bird for a visit with a man who can’t see. He and Yellow Shack come to a profound agreement: the world is cockeyed. Later he tags along with Lame Bull and Narrator over to Harlem where he meets a girl named Malvina in a bar. The next morning he wakes up on Malvina’s sofa, but is driven away after making a pass at her. Next on his travel agenda is Havre where he has heard Agnes may be staying. Instead, he runs into the same strange man from New York who is now convinced that the senior citizen at the bar is furtively listening in on his conversations. Turns out, the old man is actually, literally, the sitting dead.
Taking the mysterious man up on his offer to meet later at the Legion Club, he watches in bemusement as the guy wins chocolate and toys as prizes in games of chance. He asks the narrator to come along with him to Calgary with the enticement of being able to keep the car on his solo trip him. Apparently, Canada is the central element in his plan to escape the clutches of the FBI. As they walk through Havre, the man purchases a hunting knife and an old Ford Falcon. While in the Falcon, he sees Agnes in the street with her brother.
The plan to head to Canada at midnight is preceded by a walk past a movie theater airing an old Western. The film stimulates a flashback to a day twenty years previous when a 12 year old narrator and his 14 year old brother Mose were sent by their dad to bring in the cows. Back in the present, he finally tracks down Agnes in a bar, but Dougie gets some buds to give the narrator a beating. A girl named Marlene helps him up off the street and into a bar for a whiskey. While there he witnesses the mysterious man from NYC get arrested. He Marlene spend the night together in a hotel before he decides to get the heck out of Havre.
Hitchhiking his way back home, the narrator gets a ride from a man in an Olds, but nobody is home when he finally arrives. When he cannot even find his grandmother who never leaves, he figures she must have passed away while he was gone and is soon proven correct upon the return of Teresa and Lame Bull. The next day they set to work digging her grave.
The death of his grandmother prompts a return to the flashback to the memory of him and Mose herding the cattle. The thing is, as dark was drawing over them, they were trying to move the cows across the highway and when a calf broke from the herd and Bird gave chase Mose got hit by a car and died.
After they finish digging the grave, he sets off to see Yellow Calf again.
The conversation with Yellow Calf revolves around the narrator’s recently deceased grandmother. Yellow Calf recalls when she was the youngest wife of Standing Bear and how they were forced to flee the onslaught of the soldiers after a winter with almost no food. Standing Bear wound up getting killed in a battle and this resulted in the members of the Blackfeet turning on his grandmother and leaving her to starve to death which she would have if it for Yellow Calf secretly getting food to her. Only at this point does the narrator realize that Yellow Calf is actually his grandfather. When he returns to the ranch, the narrator tries to free a cow that has gotten itself stuck in the mud. Eventually, he succeeds, but at the cost of the life of Bird, his horse.
The next day they bury the narrator’s grandmother as he starts focusing on his future. Those plans just may very well include marrying Agnes, he figures.