On the "Tongue River Reservation" in Montana, home to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Photo: Arthur Rothstein / U.S. Library of Congress

Clara Caufield: Big Bad Billy Bahr

Last night I had a vivid dream, somewhat happy and somewhat disturbing, which has somehow demanded this column, driven by the spirit of Billy Bahr, a Northern Cheyenne Vietnam Vet. Indian way, I think he wants me to write his story down. At least the part of it that I know.

Billy Bahr, Northern Cheyenne and part Sioux, was born and raised in "Rabbit Town," a Cheyenne community on the reservation, just across the Tongue River Bridge (boundary of the rez) near Ashland, Montana. Thus, he and other Indian kids who lived there, attended St. Labre Indian School, near Rabbit Town, established by the Ursaline nuns in 1883, still running today, now St. Labre Indian Academy.

Bill was tall, a lean mean fighting machine in his youth. Thus, he became a natural basketball star – that sport being king in rural eastern Montana. He played center for St. Labre and they made it to State, Billy in contention for MVP, though not winning, those ranks and judges white.

Clara Caufield

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After graduation in the 70’s, Billy Bahr enlisted in the Army, quickly dispatched to Vietnam, where he did two tours, one required, the other voluntary. After several years, he was wounded, his right leg maimed. During his recovery at a VA Hospital, the docs wanted to remove it, but Billy would not agree. Thus, when released he drug that useless leg around, hobbling with an ornate silver cane. He came back to "Rabbit Town."

There was little opportunity there for a wounded one-legged Vietnam Vet. He could have gone to college on the VA Bill, but that was unlikely. At that time, I only knew Billy by reputation – one of our basketball greats. I then had a small job at the Justus Inn in Ashland, part-time barmaid, full-time food waitress and if needed, part-time fry cook. The Justus was one of two joints in town, offering food and a small cozy and quiet bar, as opposed to the other livelier joint, The Club Buffet.

Billy came into the Justus Inn every night, sitting at the end bar stool, his face ever toward the door, carefully keeping track of who came in and out. He always ordered a cold Bud Light, sipping slowly, three usually his quota. I worked from 5:00 pm until close, that hour determined by the number of customers. Usually by 7:00 pm it got quiet the locals going home to watch TV, especially in winter, but we had to stay open until at least 8:30.

After cleaning up, there would often be just me and Billy. What we had in common at first was cribbage, then later conversation. Billy who had by all odds graduated high school with honors was a versatile conversationalist, much well-versed than me on subjects such as Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire, great warriors all. But he did not care to talk about Vietnam. “It was what it was. I did what I had to do,” he would only say.

Then, Billy took it upon himself to be a protector of me, making sure that I closed properly, turning off the lights, locking the doors before ensuring1 I got safely into my vehicle each night. “Never know, there might be a bad guy, like me, around wanting to steal your tips,” he joked.


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Contact Clara Caufield at acheyennevoice@gmail.com

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