The battle of the Little Bighorn, we're reminded, is "embedded in American folklore like a flint arrowhead in a cottonwood tree." Connell, a writer of many parts, is only the latest to dig it out for reexamination--to all-round effect. He sets the battle in the context of the white man's long war against the Plains Indians and the alliances of the various tribes of Sioux and Cheyenne. The cast of faceted characters includes Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Rain-in-the-Face, Major Marcus Reno, and of course, "Long Hair" himself: General George Custer. Appearing in cameo are Grant, Lincoln, Buffalo Bill ("a curious admixture of thespian and assassin"), and dozens of others. With a diligent historian's patience, Connell probes haunting military questions: Why did Custer split his troops? What was his plan? Did he have a plan? He probes Custer's idiosyncratic, contradictory character too: fearless, ambitious, impulsive, flamboyant, mean to his men (half of whom deserted) and kind to his dogs, a commander who could not be encumbered with Gaffing guns but carried along a special cook and a cast-iron stove. Carefully, Connell strips away legend and apocrypha, leaving enough curious fact and bizarre detail to fascinate. And he embroiders the narrative with marvelous digressions--on buffalo and atrocities and scalping ("never. . . popular west of the Rockies") and the horse Comanche, sole survivor of the Little Bighorn, who wound up stuffed at the 1893 Chicago Exposition "looking. . . like an old brown rug." It's a complicated tale, snarled by time and false memory, and Connell unravels it slowly, playing out every strand. The result is fine, atmospheric reading and a sturdy alternative to the best-regarded history of the Little Bighorn, Edgar I. Stewart's Custer's Luck, and the ranking Custer biography, by Jay Monaghan.