After nearly 20 years and 18 novels in her outstanding Wind River mystery series, Boulder author Margaret Coel finally has written a cowboys-and-Indians story. But don’t worry: This is no formulaic Louis L’Amour knockoff.
It’s just that Coel has given her fans a textured portrait of real life among contemporary Cheyenne Arapaho Indians — whose traditional home included Boulder County — on a Wyoming “rez” and the conservative, white cowboy culture that surrounds them.
But “Night of the White Buffalo” isn’t Anthro 101. As always, visiting with Coel’s familiar sleuths, Father John O’Malley, priest at the reservation’s Catholic mission, and Arapaho lawyer Vicky Holden is a page-turner.
“Night of the White Buffalo,” by Margaret Coel. Berkley Prime Crime, 290 pages.
The story turns on a mythic Lakota tradition adopted widely by Indian nations and mystically revered by millions of non-Indians around the world: the birth of a rare white buffalo calf. According to the myth, a white calf transformed into White Buffalo Woman before the eyes of two warriors, promising to return in times of “chaos and disparity” as a hopeful sign from the Creator.
“Throughout the generations, White Buffalo Woman kept her promise, and from time to time, a white buffalo calf was born,” Vicky learns. But not often: According to the National Bison Association, only one in 10 million births.
Now the Wind River Reservation has been blessed with its first white buffalo calf, but to the consternation of the Arapahos, on a ranch owned by a white couple that refuses to hire Indians and treats their white cowboys badly.
Someone also is taking potshots at white cowboys as they drive the area’s lonesome highways — and the first white man actually killed is Dennis Carey, owner of the Broken Buffalo Ranch where the calf, Spirit, is attracting hundreds in search of blessing.
The novel actually opens with a mysterious encounter in the confessional, when a man in a cowboy hat on the other side of the screen tells Father John he wants forgiveness for murder, but refuses to repent. Nobody has turned up dead on the reservation of late, but the priest is haunted by the strange encounter when Carey turns up dead two months later.
Vicky, meanwhile, meets a Colorado cowboy, Reg Hartly, who is in search of a friend who disappeared after working for Carey and his wife Sheila. She soon learns he isn’t the only white, out-of-state Broken Buffalo cowboy who has gone missing.
As crowds flock to see Spirit, another shocking murder sends the priest and lawyer hurtling toward a harrowing confrontation at the ranch.
As always, Coel is excellent in painting a realistic, non-sentimental portrait of the Arapahos. In this novel she does the same for itinerant cowboys, who, despite society’s romantic notions, are no more (or less) noble than anyone else.
If there is anything missing here, it’s the illicit spark that once tempted Vicky and Father John. It would be implausible, even silly, to continue beating that drum year after year. But the “replacement” relationships — with Adam and the priest’s platonic friend, Bishop Harry — just don’t have the same juice. At least, Walks on Three Legs, Father John’s beloved rescued dog, is having a good time.
In the end, there is something almost elegiac in the longing felt by people struggling to keep afloat in the mercenary, disconnected currents of the modern world.
“She’s a miracle from the Creator. Don’t matter how bad things get, the Creator is still with us,” Lewis White Feather says, explaining why he is taking a pledge to abstain from alcohol for 60 days. “Spirit come to us to let us know we are not alone.”
And it’s not just cowboys and Indians—who doesn’t wish for some hopeful sign? Coel has deftly captured the zeitgeist of our troubled times.
Though perhaps not as neatly crafted as the best in the series, “Night of the White Buffalo” might well be the most poignant. But don’t worry: It’s also a lot of fun.