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Authors: Margaret Coel

Killing Custer

Berkley Prime Crime titles by Margaret Coel

Catherine McLeod Mysteries



Wind River Mysteries





















Margaret Coel


Published by the Penguin Group

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This book is an original publication of The Berkley Publishing Group.

Copyright © 2013 by Margaret Coel.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

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PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA).

eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-60796-1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Coel, Margaret, 1937–

Killing Custer / Margaret Coel.—First Edition.

pages cm.

ISBN 978-0-425-26463-8 (Berkley Prime Crime hardcover)

1. O'Malley, John (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Clergy—Fiction. 3. Holden, Vicky (Fictitious character—Fiction. 4. Women lawyers—Fiction. 5. Custer, George A. (George Armstrong),

1839–1876—Fiction. 6. Celebrity impersonators—Fiction. 7. Arapaho Indians—Fictions.

8. Murder—Investigation—Fiction. 9. Wind River Indian Reservation (Wyo.)—Fiction.

10. Wyoming—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3553.0347K53 2013

813'.54—dc23 2013019110

September 2013

Cover illustration by Tony Greco & Associates Inc.

Cover design by Lesley Worrell.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.


Berkley Prime Crime titles by Margaret Coel

Title Page





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

For my mother, Margaret Speas,

whose gentle voice guides me still.


Many thanks to all those who took an interest in this novel and generously helped me navigate tricky areas of expertise, especially Mark Stratmoen, deputy coroner, Fremont County, and Detective Sergeant Fred Cox, Lander Police Department, both in Wyoming (with apologies to Detective Cox, who is nothing like Detective Madden in the story). And to my friend Veronica Reed in Albuquerque, and my family, especially my daughter, Kristin Henderson in New Mexico; my niece Denise Saxon in Colorado; and my nephew John Dix in Virginia.

And thanks to my group of astute readers who were willing to read some very rough drafts and make helpful suggestions: Karen Gilleland, Beverly Carrigan, Sheila Carrigan, Carl Schneider, all of Boulder; and Virginia Sutter, Ph.D. and Jim Sutter, of Wind River Reservation.

And a special thanks to the many 7th Cavalry, Civil War, and Old West reenactors in Colorado and Wyoming who generously spoke with me about their experiences impersonating historical people and reenacting historical events. My hat is off to them for their dedication to authenticity and for educating new generations about our common past.

It's a good day to die! Brave up, brother! Hoka hey!

—Eagle Elk, Sioux, at the Battle of the Little Big Horn from
Custer's Fall
by David Humphreys Miller


trumpets blasted. The noise floated ahead of the parade. Crowds lined the curbs on Main Street in Lander and clustered around aluminum chairs and ice chests. The sun blazed like a hot poker. A dry, scorching breeze ruffled the flowers in the pots hanging from the streetlamps and snapped at the brim of Father John O'Malley's cowboy hat. He fished two dollars out of his blue jeans pocket, purchased two tall glasses of lemonade from the Girl Scouts behind one of the booths, and handed a glass to Bishop Harry. They made their way through the crowd toward a vacant space as the parade came down the street. A giant, multi-legged monster. It was the second Sunday in June, the Moon When the Hot Weather Begins in the Arapaho Way of marking time, and the breathless days were already beginning, the heat gathering and settling in for the summer.

“Hey, Father John!” A man's voice cut through the undertones of conversation and noise, the blare of trumpets, and the harsh staccato of drums. Father John glanced around and lifted his lemonade glass toward Edna and Mike White Eagle, who were pushing a baby carriage along the sidewalk. Brown faces mingled with white, sunburned, freckled faces. Lander sprawled along the southern border of the Wind River Reservation in the middle of Wyoming, and Arapahos and Shoshones from the rez joined the town folks every year for the parade that preceded the big county rodeo. He hadn't missed the parade in ten years at St. Francis Mission on the rez, eight years as pastor. Long enough to watch kids grow up and have children of their own, to settle into the rhythms of the seasons. Summer meant parades and powwows, rodeos and tourists.

Bishop Harry waved to a group of Arapahos across the street, then leaned forward and said something to Ellen Redbird seated in an aluminum chair. Father John smiled. The Right Reverend Bishop Harry Coughlin was enjoying himself. He liked getting out with the Arapahos, being part of the life here. But he couldn't stop worrying over the mission. What if there were an emergency? Father John had assured him phone calls would be transferred to his mobile, so anyone needing help could reach them. The old man had arrived at St. Francis almost two years ago with orders from the provincial superior to take it easy, recuperate after two heart attacks and bypass surgeries. Bent forward, with a U-shaped fringe of thick, white hair and slitted blue eyes in a face that might have been blasted out of sand, the bishop worked harder than any assistant priest Father John had ever had. Technically he was a guest, not an assistant. Father John had given up trying to get the old man to take it easy. He'd take it easy later, he always said, which meant, Father John knew, when he was dead.

“Colin's riding with the warriors.” Lou Morningside, an Arapaho elder, moved in close. A mixture of pride and worry creased his narrow, brown face. He was stoop-shouldered around a ropy, chest-sunken frame. He had long black hair cut through with gray and pulled into a wiry ponytail that hung below his tan cowboy hat. “He's gonna compete in the rodeo tonight. I got a bad feeling. I wish he'd skipped the parade.”

Father John waited a moment. Lou had passed over the polite preliminaries, the how-are-yous and how-do-you-like-the-weathers. He'd launched into what was on his mind. “What's going on?” Father John said finally.

“Custer's back.”

The parade passed the flower shop, the bakery, and the restaurant across the street and carried itself forward. Blue pickup in the lead, wrapped in red, white, and blue streamers. Hoisted over the cab, a white banner with large red print that said, “Welcome Fremont County Rodeo.” The Wind River High School band followed, Arapaho and Shoshone kids with dark, serious faces, marching, playing flutes, trumpets, and trombones, eyes straight ahead shadowed by the peaks of blue uniform caps, the drummer in the lead, pounding the drum.

“The Seventh Cavalry?” Father John moved close to the old man to make himself heard. He felt the same unease that had come over him when he'd read the list of parade entries in the
Reenactors of General George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry. Thirty troopers who had marched in parades across the country led by a Custer impersonator named Edward Garrett. County fairs, rodeos, civic celebrations, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Illinois, and always a big hit, according to the newspaper, always marching to war. The 7th was passing through on the way to Montana for the reenactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn on its anniversary, June 25. What a coup for the parade to have the cavalry, a real incentive to bring out the crowds. Father John remembered dropping the newspaper on his desk as if it were on fire. Custer? In Indian country?

“Who decided that?” Bishop Harry leaned into the conversation.

“Nobody asked us,” Lou said. “Colin went into town and told the organizers: ‘If
marches, we march, too.'”

The band with Indian kids had moved past, the sound of brass instruments fading, drumbeats drifting behind. Then came the Lander Valley High School band, with drums, flutes, and trumpets blaring loud enough to drown out the Indian band ahead. Passing now, a long line of floats decorated in a rainbow of tissues and paper flowers with beautiful girls in flowing dresses and cowboy hats waving to the crowds, tossing red and white carnations. Banners with large colorful letters fluttered on the floats: Rotary Club, Mike's Auto Dealership, Lions Club, Gillespie's Good Food, Summer Reading Program for Kids, Kiwanis Club, Lander Kiddie Camp.

A space opened behind the floats, then a short, wide-shouldered man in a blue cavalry uniform with yellow cords running down the sides of his pant legs, black boots, and a blue cap rode down the middle of the street. He lifted a brass coronet and blew the tune of “Garry Owen,” swinging from side to side, mischief and amusement in his eyes. Behind the bugler rode the 7th Cavalry. Some looked like cowboys, with light-colored canvas pants, slouch hats, and beards and goatees. A few in fringed leather jackets; others in canvas jackets. Most wore blue uniforms. “Authentic impersonators of Custer's men in dress and appearance,” the newspaper had said. The horses pranced and balked and neighed so that, instead of rows, the columns advanced in waves behind a sergeant holding aloft a red-and-blue guidon with crossed swords in white. At the head of the column rode three men. Custer was in the center, riding a muscular, chestnut stallion with a blaze and three white fetlocks.

My God, Father John thought. It might have been the man himself, the resemblance to photos of Custer was so strong. The man rode tall and straight-shouldered, master of his stallion, which pranced along. He wore a fringed white buckskin shirt and trousers with a light gray, wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his forehead. A dark blond handlebar mustache obscured his mouth. He faced straight ahead, but Father John saw the way his eyes darted back and forth, taking in the crowds at the curbs.

The riders flanking him wore blue uniforms and peaked hats. Mounted on smaller horses, which made them seem shorter and less important than the man between them. Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen, Father John guessed, officers under Custer.

A low roar started up, like a gust of wind crashing about, and Father John looked around. Groups of Arapahos and Shoshones were shouting and waving their arms, faces dark and angry. “We remember the Washita,” someone yelled. Other voices shouted: “We remember Wounded Knee.” “Go back to hell.” Father John watched a white couple pull two children close. Other whites started moving away from the Indians, stepping back onto the sidewalk. A few of the troops turned toward the crowd and waved, as if they were being cheered on, an air of invincibility about them.

“Why'd he come here?” Lou said, almost under his breath. “Killed the Cheyennes at Washita.” He was shaking his head, remembering an old story he'd probably heard from his grandfather. “Peaceful people, Black Kettle's people. Went to the Washita to get away from all the troubles on the plains, and Custer followed them. Lot easier to kill peaceful folks than warriors.” The old man gave a little laugh. “Oh yeah, Custer didn't want to go near the warriors. After Washita, the Cheyenne warriors put their pipes out on his heels.”

The first time Father John had heard that expression from one of the elders, he had wanted to ask what it meant. It was impolite to ask for the gift of information, and he had remained quiet. Then the elder explained that Cheyennes had followed Custer's tracks across the plains for eight years after Washita, until 1876, waiting for the chance to kill him.

“Wounded Knee massacre in 1890,” Lou was saying, pulling out the memory of another story. “Big Foot and his people trying to get away from the soldiers in a freezing blizzard. The 7th mowed them down—women, children, old people—all of them killed. Troopers bragged they did it for Custer. Called it revenge for the Little Bighorn.”

The troopers rode in front of them now. The old man drew in a long breath and nodded toward the columns of Arapaho warriors riding up next. “I tried to tell Colin, no good was gonna come from Custer being here.”

Father John watched the mounted Indians—about thirty, he guessed, the same number as the troopers—drawing closer. It was hard to recognize anyone. All the warriors had painted their faces. Some wore long, feathered headdresses, others cowboy hats, black braids hanging down their backs. A few in buckskin shirts and trousers, but most were shirtless, chests and arms streaked with red, black, white, and yellow paint.

“Do you see Colin?” Father John bent his head toward the elder.

“Looks like Crazy Horse,” Lou said, nodding toward the warrior in the center of the first row. “Smeared his face with dirt, 'cause Crazy Horse's vision told him to cover his face with dirt and braid his hair with grass, then nobody could shoot him. They stabbed him when they killed him.”

Father John kept his eyes on the warrior with a face the color of putty and what looked like stalks of green grass woven into his braids. He rode bare-chested, skin painted in geometric symbols that made it look as if he had on a shirt. His tan canvas trousers looked old and worn. He wore moccasins, beads flashing in the sun.

The crowd cheered and waved as the warriors passed, but Father John could hear the angry shouts and taunts farther up the street. There were fewer people about, vacant places where white families had congregated. Groups of people were heading down the sidewalk, as if the fun had wooshed out of the parade like air out of a balloon. He could feel the tension crackling through the cheers.

The bishop stepped over. “I think we've seen everything.” He might have read Father John's mind.

Before Father John could reply, the warriors broke into a gallop, two abreast on both sides of the street, hugging the curbs. The crowd moved forward, craning to see, pressing against one another. Two women pushed themselves into a vacant spot in front of him. The warriors galloped along the sides of the cavalry, crossed in front and circled back. Around and around they rode, whooping, hollering shouting, making double circles that forced the cavalry to a standstill.

Father John hurried along the sidewalk, dodging past groups of people, his eyes on the circling Indians. The rest of the parade had moved on. Just as he reached the front of the cavalry, the warriors swirled about, shouting and shaking their fists overhead, and formed into neat columns, side by side, ahead of the cavalry. A smooth, expert maneuver that Father John had seen at rodeos and horse shows. A dare ride, an old tradition. Circling the enemy, showing contempt and superiority, daring the enemy to do anything. The warriors had circled the troops, as if they were counting coup. Now they rode ahead.

The cavalry had stopped moving, stranded in the middle of the street, the gulf between the troopers and the warriors widening. Something was going on. Three horses in the lead, riderless. Father John dodged through the little groups gathering at the curb. Troopers were dismounting, running to the front. They crowded around the buckskin-clad figure lying in the street. The parade had moved half a block away, the shouting and cheering a dull, muffled echo. One of the troopers straightened up and scanned the crowd. “Medics,” he shouted. “Get the medics.”

As if they had materialized out of air, two uniformed policemen ran down the middle of the street toward the stalled cavalry. Behind them was a man in khaki trousers and a white shirt carrying a blue kit with First Aid written across the sides and a woman in green scrubs with a folded stretcher under one arm. The troopers were standing up, backing away from the man in the street. Father John could see the bushy handlebar mustache, the prominent nose and sunken cheeks, the wide-brimmed hat lying next to his head.

The crowds started stepping off the curb, but the policemen flapped their arms and motioned them back. Across the street another policeman was trying to control the people surging forward. “He's been shot,” a man shouted. The words reverberated through the crowd: He's not moving. He's not moving.

“God help us.” It was Lou Morningside's voice, and Father John realized the elder had come up beside him. “The warriors did it again,” he said.

“Did what, Grandfather?” Father John said.

“Killed Custer.”

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