Mystery explores Arapaho-Shoshone conflict

Boulder, Colo., author Margaret Coel loves wolves, because they “can see very far, and are alert to changes in their environment.”

Using the wolf as metaphor in her mystery, “Eye of the Wolf,” she creates a villain that resembles a wolf. “He or she can take advantage of things, and make things happen.”

That keeps the book’s main characters, Boston Irish priest Father John O’Malley and Arapaho lawyer Vicky Holden, busy on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. There, the Arapaho share land with their traditional enemies, the Shoshone.

How did a Boulder writer develop an interest in Indians living in an area spreading from the foothills of the Wind River Mountains into the plains of west-central Wyoming?

The Arapaho originally lived in Colorado, where Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs now stand. Coel also started her career writing history. Her interest in the Arapahos grew from research.

“My first book, ‘Chief Left Hand,’ was a biography of an Arapaho chief in the 1800s,” she explains. It tells “the story of Arapaho history.”

“They were traders. The first white people who encountered them called them the businessmen of the plains.”

Though they fought to protect their villages and hunting grounds, the Arapahos made peace if they could. “War is bad for business,” Coel says.

When the Arapahos arrived at Wind River in 1878, the Shoshone had lived there for seven years. “They are very different people,” explains Coel. The Arapahos migrated with the buffalo. The Shoshone farmed and raised sheep. Hunting supplemented their economy. Conflict between them arose over land use.

Once on the reservation, the groups learned to live together. The Shoshone settled along the foothills of the Wind River Mountains, the Arapahos in the valley. Today, they jointly manage the land.

In “Eye of the Wolf,” Coel explores the time before coexistence. “What I’m looking at is how maybe anger and animosity might translate into the present. That becomes the basis of the plot.”

As the story opens, someone has killed three Shoshone college students on the Bates Battlefield, where in 1874, Shoshone scouts led the United States Cavalry to an Arapaho village. The soldiers slaughtered everyone living there.

Father John fears the worst when he sees the bodies at Bates, all posed like dead warriors in old photographs. Someone wants to encourage the hatred. Why? And who?

He, his parishioners, and the police suspect Frankie Montana, an Arapaho trouble-maker who fights constantly with Shoshones. Because he drifts around the reservation drinking and crashing at drug houses, most decent people of both groups despise Frankie.

His mother, Lucille, begs Vicky to become Frankie’s lawyer. Because Lucille is a friend, Vicky agrees to take the case.

Frankie asserts he did not commit the crime, but is too terrified to talk to Vicky or the police. Looking at the evidence, Vicky begins to think he may not be the killer. Can Vicky and Father John find the murderer? Or is the killer like the wolf, so far ahead of his pursuers, he or she can’t be caught?

The answer places Vicky’s life in danger. “I like to put my characters into tough situations, because I think it’s fun to see how (they) get out of those situations,” Coel says.

“Eye of the Wolf” is the 11th in a series of John O’Malley/Vicky Holden mysteries, so when Vicky gets into a tight spot, “(readers) know she has to survive.” They stay with the book to see how.

Coel also has fun with subplots. Father John and Vicky have been close friends since he arrived at the reservation’s Catholic mission several years ago. “They’re not old. They’re in their 40s. And he is a bit attracted to her.”

However Father John is a priest, and a good one, who wants to keep his vows. “That adds a little spice to the novel,” Coel chuckles.

Coel makes her depiction of Arapaho life as authentic as she can. She attends many tribal ceremonies and powwows each year. An Arapaho friend reads her manuscripts to make sure Cole has “said nothing wrong and given no false impression” about the tribe.

“I’m very aware that someone in Rhode Island, or Hawaii or Germany may pick up one of my novels and it may be the only book they ever read about the Arapahos.

“(The Arapahos) all read my books, and have wonderful comments. They’ll say, ‘Oh, you wrote about Sage Creek Road. I used to live on Sage Creek Road.’ They like to read about places they know.”

They enjoy the attention the books bring, she adds. People don’t hear much about the Arapahos.Most authors write about the Sioux or Comanche. “I try to stay on top of the issues important to them, and work those issues into my novels,” she says.

From April 2006, Arts & Entertainment.