While a funeral generally comes at the tail end of a life, our story begins with the protagonist, Georgie Burkhardt, staring down into an open grave everyone says belongs to her sister, Agatha. But Georgie's not buying it. She knows the body in that grave is badly decomposed, and the only things identifying it as her sister are Agatha's dress and a few locks of red hair.
Because this is Placid, Wisconsin in 1871, the forensic scientists from CSI aren't around to help out. The opinions of Sheriff McCabe, who found the body, and Georgie's Ma and Grandfather Bolte aren't enough to convince her, either, so Georgie decides to set out on her own to find out what really happened to her sister.
Georgie grudgingly allows Agatha's ex-boyfriend, Billy, to accompany her on her road trip to Dog Hollow, Wisconsin, where Agatha traveled with a bunch of pigeoners and then disappeared. Because pigeons are happening right now, too—1871 is the year of the biggest passenger pigeon nesting Wisconsin has ever seen, and there's loads of cash to made from this. Apparently, there's money in pigeons. Who knew?
As they travel, Georgie recalls everything that went down between her and Agatha, between Agatha and Billy, and between Agatha and her new squeeze, Mr. Benjamin Olmstead, from the time the pigeons arrived in February.
Following up on a lead they find in Dog Hollow, Billy and Georgie go to the Garrow family's farm outside of town. There, they discover that Darlene Garrow, a young woman about Agatha's age who has the same color hair, is also missing. Coincidence? No one thinks so.
They also stumble onto Mr. Garrow's counterfeiting operation. They run, but Mr. Garrow and one of his henchmen come after them, so they get into a shootout with Georgie and beat Billy so badly that he's close to death. Believing he's dying, Billy confesses that he wanted Georgie to see him kiss Agatha so she would tell and break up Agatha and Mr. Olmstead—which is exactly what Georgie's been feeling guilty about this whole time.
In a stroke of luck, Mr. Olmstead himself finds the two of them by the side of the road. He gets Billy to a doctor in Dog Hollow and takes Georgie home to Placid, where her Grandfather Bolte has died.
Georgie gets to be pretty tabloid famous for her shootout with the Garrow Gang, and a letter arrives from Agatha, who has no clue her disappearance has caused this much hubbub. She's studying natural sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is what she's always wanted to do. Later, Mrs. Garrow arrives. She has discovered that Darlene died in an accident and her husband dumped the body—wearing Agatha's dress, which Agatha sold to her.
Georgie decides to stop shooting pigeons and people, to stop killing anything in fact, because she's seen enough death.