One of the most viewed paintings in American history, Custer's Last Fight, copied and distributed by Anheuser-Busch at a rate of over two million copies a year, was destroyed in a fire at the 7th Cavalry Headquarters in Fort Bliss, Texas, in 1946. Or was it? When Charley Lee Stillwater dies of an apparent heart attack at the Wyoming Home for Soldiers & Sailors, Walt Longmire is called in to try and make sense of a piece of a painting and a Florsheim shoebox containing a million dollars, sending the good sheriff on the trail of a dangerous art heist.
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Years ago, on one particularly beautiful, high plains afternoon when I was a deputy with the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department, I propped my young daughter, Cady, on my hip and introduced her to Charley Lee Stillwater. Charley Lee was one of the Wavers, as they were called, the old veterans who sat in front of what was originally Fort McKinney, which then was called the Wyoming Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home until the name was changed to the Veterans’ Home of Wyoming, to wave at passing traffic.
Charley Lee put Cady in his lap and sang old cowboy tunes to her all afternoon—she’d been enraptured.
On the drive home, the five year-old asked, “Has Charley Lee been out in the sun too long?”
I’d smiled. “No, honey—he’s a different color than us.”
She thought about that one, her hair swirling in the wind. “He’s brown.”
“Well, yep, he is. Like your uncle Henry.
She spoke with the certainty of one well acquainted with her colors. “Uncle Henry is tan.”
“Um, yes, he is.” “What are we?”
The future lawyer studied her hand and then me as if I was trying to get something over on her. “We’re pink.”
“Yep, but they call it white.”
She’d been silent for a moment and then proclaimed with solemnity. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Few things about skin color do, Punk.”
Fort McKinney was built in response to the intense reaction caused by the defeat of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. It was one of many forts constructed to combat the fanciful Indian menace that was sweeping across the high plains, even though the Indian Wars were over with by the time Custer may or may not have saved the last bullet for himself. By 1894 it was pretty well figured out that wild Indians weren’t really much of a threat and the fort was closed; in 1903 the grounds and structure were handed over to the state of Wyoming.
It’s about a half mile along the cottonwood-lined entrance from the fort’s front door to State Route 16 that winds its way through Durant and up into the Bighorn Mountains range, but Charles Lee Stillwater would make the trip every morning and every afternoon in his electric wheelchair to sit by the red-brick sign that read Veterans’ Home of Wyoming and wave at the sporadic traffic.
That’s how I had met Charley Lee, an exuberant man who liked to refer to himself as “the last of the Buffalo Soldiers” down to the Union kepi he wore on his head. Of all the men in their modified wheelchairs at the entrance to the home, he was the one who waved as if his very life depended on it.
I always waved back, and one day, when I served as a young deputy under former sheriff Lucian Connally’s command, my curiosity got the better of me, and I’d stopped for a visit. Maybe it was because I was freshly back from Vietnam or maybe I was still in need of a little enlisted conversation, but I’d driven the Bronco Lucian had assigned me into the pull-off, handed out Reed’s Root Beer candies to the small group, and leaned on the fender to talk with them. It became a routine that became a habit during the slow afternoons special to rural law enforcement, and one I continued with through today.
“He was born in Saint Louis, Missouri, July Fourth, 1923, to George and Lula Stillwater, and was the older of two sons,” Kenny Cade offered from his wheelchair. A chief petty officer, he was a small man and a bundle of energy who had lost his legs when a jet had run over them. It was a little cool this morning, so Kenny was wearing his khaki N-1 Deck Jacket, the faux fur pulled up near his tanned face. “He worked at the family general store his parents owned, but when a traveling negro baseball team, the Indianapolis Clowns, stormed through the town, Charlie threw out twelve base runners and hit three lingering curveballs so far into the weeds that no one could find them. He played pro ball after that.”
I leaned against my truck and nodded. “How did he end up in the military?”
Someone driving by honked their horn, and I watched as the men all waved.
Kenny continued, “Yeah, he joined up and they sent him to Fort Bliss, Texas, in ’42, where he shoveled shit in the stables and slung shit on shingles at the commissary.”
“He hated Texas.” All four of the men in wheelchairs nodded as I turned to Army Command Sergeant Major Clifton Coffman, who nudged his boonie hat back on his head.
“Said it was too hot, but hell, you shovel shit or shingles anywhere for four years and I defy you to like it.” Kenny continued. “When he got back, he became the starting catcher for the Kansas City Monarchs, also working part time in the textile mills. He married Clara, a widow with two children. And they had one of their own, whom they named Ella.”
I nodded. “I knew her. She was a nurse?”
“Yep. Charley Lee was well on his way to becoming an all-star when the 999th Armored Field Artillery requested his assistance in a little get-together along the thirty-eighth parallel.” “Hell, I think they just promised him he wouldn’t have to go back to Fort Bliss.” Ray Purdue smiled, the air force master sergeant always seeming to be sharing a joke with only himself. “Korea had to be better than Texas.”
They all nodded some more.
Marine Sergeant Major Delmar Pettigrew rubbed a knob below his knee where his right leg used to be before a malfunctioning hand grenade had removed it and its twin to the left. “Order 9981.”
They all nodded some more.
“What was Order 9981?”
Another horn blew, and the Wavers waved again.
Ray lowered his arm and then squinted a pale blue eye in concentration. “In 1948, President Truman issued Order 9981 that all branches of the US military be desegregated, but some all-black units remained until the mid-fifties.” He continued. “By April 22, 1951, UN forces were trying to recover from a counteroffensive launched by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. It was Charley’s 999th’s job to support South Korean infantry in what would be the Chinese army’s spring offensive.”
Clifton stared at the pavement between his missing legs, lost in a Jeep wreck during the Tet Offensive. “They got their ass shellacked for one full day before they were ordered to fall back because the Chinese were advancing south across the Imjin River. They redeployed at Kumgong-ni and began firing on the pursuing Chinese only four thousand yards away.”
“Four thousand yards?”
His eyes shifted to me. “Did I stutter, Lieutenant? Anyway, the observation outposts began being overrun and communication wires went silent on ’em.”
Delmar sighed. “They abandoned their asses.”
Kenny pulled at an earlobe as if trying to pull the story back. “When a reported battalion of South Korean infantry a thousand yards to the west turned out to be a singular soldier, Charley Lee and the rest of the 999th loaded up a convoy and headed south, hoping for the best.”
Delmar sighed. “They didn’t get it.”
They all nodded.
Kenny, who seemed the most knowledgeable of Charley Lee’s past, continued. “Falling back to Pobwon-ni, they found that that village had been captured and they were gonna be surrounded. They had about a hundred Chinese infantry hiding in the rice patties on either side of the road, and the 999th was getting hell with heavy submachine gunfire. Hell, all our guys had was howitzers, so the convoy was sorely lacking in short-range defensive weapons.”
Clifton smiled. “Charley Lee started catching and throwing the Chinese incendiary grenades back at ’em, but they started taking mortar fire and the damned vehicles were blowing up left and right.”
Delmar shook his head as he watched a blonde in a convertible drive by. “So, Charley Lee jumps in the M39. I mean, shit was on fire everywhere, and this Korean truck blows up in front of him. Well hell, he’d driven through enough cornfields back in Missouri and figured he could drive through rice patties, so he did.”
Kenny made a face. “Ran over at least a dozen Chinamen and then made it back onto the main road but not before taking machine-gun rounds in his left thigh, right hip, and foot.”
Ray pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one with a decorated Zippo he struck to life on his own stump. “That was the end of his ballplayer days.”
Kenny went on. “He rolled back to the textile mills and coached Little League and high school baseball before retiring back in Missouri. After his wife died, his daughter, Ella, brought him here.”
Somebody on the road honked, and they all dutifully waved.
“How did he die?”
Delmar laughed. “High-stakes bingo game Saturday night that Charley Lee won out and began laughing. He laughed so hard that he set to coughing and went off to bed and never woke up. All I could think was that was how I wanted to go.”
Another car horn blew, and the four men waved at the passing driver, all of them grinning.
Looking up and down the road that led into the mountains, I couldn’t help but feel a wave of sadness overwhelm me. Deaths up at the Fort are a common albeit sad occurrence that almost never necessitated the involvement of the Absaroka County Sheriff ’s Department, unless unfired ammunition or weapons were found. Because the staff knew Charley Lee was a friend and like a surrogate grandfather to my daughter, they contacted me as a professional courtesy.
Having gotten the inside story from the Wavers, I climbed back into my truck.
Delmar, my fellow marine, shouted, “When are you gonna bring us beer, like you used to?”
I hit the ignition, laying an elbow on the sill. “Sorry boys, but I’m not allowed. Carol says it might interfere with your medication.”
“Interferes with our having a good time.”
Turning in a circle and driving by the front opening of Fort McKinney, I glanced at the boys out enjoying the summer sun in front of the red-brick sign, but was distinctly aware of a gap in the middle, where a fifth electric wheelchair used to always sit, for all the world reminding me of the missing-man aerial formation used by squadrons to salute a fallen comrade.
I continued on toward one of the two remaining original buildings, the old fort hospital, now serving as the visitors’ house, the other being an honest-to-goodness chicken shed that was on the National Register of Historic Places.
I opened the other windows a bit and climbed out of the three-quarter ton truck, reached back, and stroked my sidekick and perennial ham-finder on the head. “I’ll take you for a walk when I get back, okay?”
His big Saint Bernard/German shepherd/dire wolf eyes stared back at me.
“I will, honest—this shouldn’t take that long.”
Closing the door, I walked toward the front entrance of the Dutch hip, gable-style building, and paused to take off my hat as I knocked on the door. At the flagpole to my left a staff member was lowering the flag to half-mast.
Inside, I walked by wicker furniture and an abandoned mid-game checkerboard on a small table. I watched as the maintenance man tied off the flag near the AGM-28 Hound Dog air-launched cruise missile that was the centerpiece of the Fort’s static museum.
I stood there for a moment, saluting, when I heard footsteps approaching from behind and turned to find Carol Williams, who functioned as both a caretaker and an administrator.
The small woman with the silver hair leaned against one of the posts. “You been out there talking to the Wavers?”
“They gave me the lowdown on Charley Lee.”
“Do they still ask you to bring them beer?”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Walt, but if the Feds ever found out . . .”
“That’s all right, I’m not so sure I want them drinking and driving those aftermarket contraptions of theirs.”
“Amazing, isn’t it? It’s a competition among all of them hopping up the motors and using different tires; Delmar stole the motor off of one of our washing machines to try to put in his wheelchair.” She sighed. “Boys.” After a moment she stood up on tiptoe, studying my face. “I heard about it, but I hadn’t seen it—that’s some scar.”
She crossed her arms. “I think Charley Lee was one of the last Korean War veterans we had—moving on into Vietnam now.”
“You trying to tell me something?”
She smiled. “I just think about all the history being lost.”
“When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”
I shook my head. “An old African proverb.”
I held the door as she motioned for me to follow, and we ducked into the main building. “We’ll head over to Charley Lee’s room in a moment, but I’d like to show you something first.”
We walked down a short hallway hung with black and white photographs from a time when this was an actual fort.
“Charley leave a bazooka or flamethrower in his footlocker?”
“Something like that.” She stopped at her office where Gene Weller, the security guard, stopped at the door. “Hi, Gene.”
Carol paused to pull out some keys and unlock her door. “Having a security problem here at the Fort?”
She gave me a knowing look, but I had no idea what it was I was supposed to know. “C’mon in.”
Her office was a small room with more photographs and a certificate of commendation for Chief Petty Officer Williams on the walls. There was a bookshelf of mostly military history crowned with a large, handmade model of the USS Missouri and a very clean and orderly desk where, sitting on a leather blotter looking somewhat out of place, there was a large, battered Florsheim boot box with a rubber band holding the lid closed.
I stood in front of the desk, looking down, my hands on my gun belt, the web of my thumb resting on the hammer of my Colt. “So, it’s not bigger than a bread box.”
She sat in her chair, rested her elbows on the blotter, and laced her fingers to provide a cradle for her pointed chin.
“I take it you’ve already opened it?”
“I have. It was on the top when we pulled out his footlocker. I secured his room, brought the box back here, and called you.”