Western Short Story
Gregory George “Greg” Knighthawk was a Kootenai Indian, Northern Idaho branch, and the first Indian or tribal sheriff in Taxico County, Idaho. Even today, 140 years later after his death, he is still part of everyday discussions among the remaining members of the Kootenai tribe. I first heard about him from a comrade in the Korean campaign in 1951-1952, in the 31st Infantry Regiment, near Lake Hwachon, where life and death came by the numbers.
“They didn’t know, not at first, that he was an Indian, a Kootenai Indian, when they made him sheriff, and he was so good at his job, that they forgot about his past in a hurry.” These words came to me in a foxhole with Elliot “Chief” Hillborn, a corporal in my squad, the gutsiest man I ever met, out to prove something to somebody, for sure.
I’m sure they talk about him, too.
Chief said, “Some townsmen saw him attack three men who were going to abuse a woman whose husband they had just shot dead from ambush. He killed all three opponents, freed the woman, and accepted on the spot the badge they offered him, making him sheriff of Taxico County, Idaho in 1878. He served but a year on the job before he was shot from behind by six men from a prison break.
“The good parts,” added Chief, “are the ones in between, like three days on the job and the bank is robbed and he doesn’t kill the robbers, but disables each one and disarms each one and locks each one in a cell, then counted out the money recovered to the bank president in front of the whole town. Don’t bother trying to tell me that doesn’t make a big on-the-spot splash for customers of the bank, never-you-mind the banker himself.”
I thought it was one helluva story, and told Chief how it hit me.
It brought a smile to Chief’s face, and then he plusses it with another lulu. “That’s not the end of it. A week later, another gang tries to rob the bank and the sheriff ends up having to shoot three robbers, and then he again counts out the money for the banker in front of the whole town, and this time, believe me or not, there’s half as much in the pile as counted out the first time. He arrests the banker on the same damned spot. After a long search, he finds the balance of money in the banker’s barn, stashed up in the loft under some hay. Knighthawk’s from then on a hero to everybody.”
Chief and I had some real action then, of our own, and he’s the master not only of his rifle bayonet but a hand-knife some magician must have made and blessed ‘cause it’s got miracles in it, on it, all over it. Saved my bacon, he did, for the next breakfast on the side of the mountain. I’m chewing all the time and he’s spewing about the Kootenai Indians and their very special roles in life, way back when right up to now, and the miracles are evident.
“Keep me handy,” he says, casual as all outdoors, but probably meaning it to the core of the matter. “We have our destinies just like Knighthawk did, and we have to keep our appointments with Time.”
There was a sort of spiritual revelation at that moment, and it came to me as the very Lord’s truth, the pair of them in closer contact than I could realize.
I finally said, after a bit more palaver, “How did he die?”
“Oh,” Chief replied, “you rush toward the end too quickly. Enjoy the revelations, the spirit of a special man, a special Kootenai Indian right from his very start, when his mother said, every tie asked, that she was a virgin and never touched by man, Kootenai Indian or white man, never once.”
“Oh,” I leaped in with, “that can’t be. You know that.”
“You saying it could never happen? Not in all our times, not in all of histories of man? Are you telling me that Knighthawk was just a man born to be good at whatever, or that he was special? If he was special, then all the facts about him could be as we believe them to be, as we Kootenai Indians believe them to be?”
The pride practically rang in his voice, coming so loud and sure it almost knocked me over. I was in the company of a special man, and it brought, almost to life, a sense of what it was like way back when Knighthawk was making his solid way in a white man’s world, short though it was. I tried to recall any Indians which had the same impact and their names leaped at me in a rush, and with a few surprises in the mix, like Will Rogers. I guessed at them being peacemaker, but they came as warriors, for sure, a host of leaders in America: Cochise, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Red Cloud, Pontiac, Squanto, Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, right into the movies that kept them somewhat alive, at least their being made aware of.
Almost at the same time, I was aware of what most of us do not know nor ever cares. but history has a way of coming back on one’s ignorance of it, a special compilation and awareness of footsteps in all the ages of man that retain proper names of most proper men, proper heroes. They start, incidentally, when somebody speaks the name of such a person; asks a question, reads a quote, hears a loud exclamation of greatness never before brought to mind, but is there, forever, for the grasping, like someone saying to me, down the road away, “Have you ever heard of Knighthawk, Chief of the Kootenai Indians?”
Near asleep, one of those deadly nights, images at a gallop in my mind, seeking resolution, truth, the next statement rich with a kind of hunger, a slash of sustenance, I found Knighthawk in my head, no tomahawk in his hand, no bow and arrow, no silky maiden of the tribe making advances, no target in his mind that I could invent. He came forward, not in stealth but eagerness to clasp my hand, and I could not refuse his reach.