Away beyond the Thin Hills, above the Big Lone Tree upon the Powder River, the Uncpapa Sioux had celebrated their Sun Dance, some forty years ago. It was midsummer and the red folk were happy. They lacked for nothing. The yellowish green flat on either side of the Powder was studded with wild flowers, and the cottonwood trees were in full leaf. One large circle of buffalo skin teepees formed the movable village. The Big Horn Mountains loomed up against the deep blue sky to the westward, and the Black Hills appeared in the far southeast.
The tribal rites had all been observed, and the usual summer festivities enjoyed to the full. The camp as it broke up divided itself in three parts, each of which had determined to seek a favorite hunting-ground.
One band journeyed west, toward the Tongue River. One followed a tributary of the Powder to the south. The third merely changed camp, on account of the grazing for ponies, and for four days remained near the old place.
The party that went west did not fail to realize the perilous nature of their wanderings, for they were trespassing upon the country of the warlike Crows.
On the third day at sunrise, the Sioux crier's voice resounded in the valley of the Powder, announcing that the lodges must be razed and the villagers must take up their march.
Breakfast of jerked buffalo meat had been served and the women were adjusting their packs, not without much chatter and apparent confusion. Weeko (Beautiful Woman), the young wife of the war-chief Shunkaska, who had made many presents at the dances in honor of her twin boys, now gave one of her remaining ponies to a poor old woman whose only beast of burden, a large dog, had died during the night.
This made it necessary to shift the packs of the others. Nakpa, or Long Ears, her kittenlike gray mule, which had heretofore been honored with the precious burden of the twin babies, was to be given a heavier and more cumbersome load. Weeko's two-year-old spotted pony was selected to carry the babies.
Accordingly, the two children, in their gorgeously beaded buckskin hoods, were suspended upon either side of the pony's saddle. As Weeko's first-born, they were beautifully dressed; even the saddle and bridle were daintily worked by her own hands.
The caravan was now in motion, and Weeko started all her ponies after the leader, while she adjusted the mule's clumsy burden of kettles and other household gear. In a moment:
"Go on, let us see how you move with your new load! Go on!" she exclaimed again, with a light blow of the horse-hair lariat, as the animal stood perfectly still.
Nakpa simply gave an angry side glance at her load and shifted her position once or twice. Then she threw herself headlong into the air and landed stiff-legged, uttering at the same time her unearthly protest. First she dove straight through the crowd, then proceeded in a circle, her heels describing wonderful curves and sweeps in the air. Her pack, too, began to come to pieces and to take forced flights from her undignified body and heels, in the midst of the screams of women and children, the barking of dogs, and the war-whoops of the amused young braves.
The cowskin tent became detached from her saddle, and a moment later Nakpa stood free. Her sides worked like a bellows as she stood there meekly indignant, apparently considering herself to be the victim of an uncalled-for misunderstanding.
"I should put an arrow through her at once, only she is not worth a good arrow," said Shunkaska, or White Dog, the husband of Weeko. At his wife's answer, he opened his eyes in surprised displeasure.
"No, she shall have her own pack again. She wants her twins. I ought never to have taken them from her!"
Weeko approached Nakpa as she stood alone and unfriended in the face of her little world, all of whom considered that she had committed the unpardonable sin. As for her, she evidently felt that her misfortunes had not been of her own making. She gave a hesitating, sidelong look at her mistress.
"Nakpa, you should not have acted so. I knew you were stronger than the others, therefore I gave you that load," said Weeko in a conciliatory tone, and patted her on the nose. "Come, now, you shall have your own pet pack," and she led her back to where the young pony stood silently with the babies.
Nakpa threw back her ears and cast savage looks at him, while Shunkaska, with no small annoyance, gathered together as much as he could of their scattered household effects. The sleeping brown-skinned babies in their chrysalislike hoods were gently lowered from the pony's back and attached securely to Nakpa's padded wooden saddle. The family pots and kettles were divided among the pack ponies. Order was restored and the village once more in motion.
"Come now, Nakpa; you have your wish. You must take good care of my babies. Be good, because I have trusted you," murmured the young mother in her softest tones.
"Really, Weeko, you have some common ground with Nakpa, for you both always want to have your own way, and stick to it, too! I tell you, I fear this Long Ears. She is not to be trusted with babies," remarked Shunkaska, with a good deal of severity. But his wife made no reply, for she well knew that though he might criticise, he would not actually interfere with her domestic arrangements.
He now started ahead to join the men in advance of the slow-moving procession, thus leaving her in undivided charge of her household. One or two of the pack ponies were not welltrained and required all her attention. Nakpa had been a faithful servant until her escapade of the morning, and she was now obviously satisfied with her mistress' arrangements. She walked alongside with her lariat dragging, and perfectly free to do as she pleased.
Some hours later, the party ascended a slope from the river bottom to cross over the divide which lay between the Powder River and a tributary stream. They had hitherto followed that river in a westerly direction, but here it took its course southward, winding in a blue streak until lost to view among the foot-hills of the Big Horn Mountains. The ford was deep, with a swift current. Here and there a bald butte stood out in full relief against the brilliant blue sky. The Sioux followed a deep ravine until they came almost up to the second row of terraces.
"Whoo! whoo!" came the blood-curdling signal of danger from the front. It was no unfamiliar sound – the rovers knew it only too well. It meant sudden death – or at best a cruel struggle and frantic flight.
Terrified, yet self-possessed, the women turned to fly while yet there was time. Instantly the mother looked to Nakpa, who carried on either side of the saddle her precious boys. She hurriedly examined the fastenings to see that all was secure, and then caught her swiftest pony, for, like all Indian women, she knew just what was happening, and that while her husband was engaged in front with the enemy, she must seek safety with her babies.
Hardly was she in the saddle when a heartrending war-whoop sounded on their flank, and she knew that they were surrounded! Instinctively she reached for her husband's second quiver of arrows, which was carried by one of the pack ponies. Alas! the Crow warriors were already upon them! The ponies became unmanageable, and the wild screams of women and children pierced the awful confusion.
Quick as a flash, Weeko turned again to her babies, but Nakpa had already disappeared!
Then, maddened by fright and the loss of her children, Weeko became forgetful of her sex and tenderness, for she sternly grasped her husband's bow in her left hand to do battle.
That charge of the Crows was a disastrous one, but the Sioux were equally brave and desperate. Charges and counter-charges were made, and the slain were many on both sides. The fight lasted until darkness came. Then the Crows departed and the Sioux buried their dead.
When the Crows made their flank charge, Nakpa apparently appreciated the situation. To save herself and the babies, she took a desperate chance. She fled straight through the attacking force.
When the warriors came howling upon her in great numbers, she at once started back the way she had come, to the camp left behind. They had traveled nearly three days. To be sure, they did not travel more than fifteen miles a day, but it was full forty miles to cover before dark.
"Look! look!" exclaimed a warrior, "two babies hung from the saddle of a mule!"
No one heeded this man's call, and his arrow did not touch Nakpa or either of the boys, but it struck the thick part of the saddle over the mule's back.
"Lasso her! lasso her!" he yelled once more; but Nakpa was too cunning for them. She dodged in and out with active heels, and they could not afford to waste many arrows on a mule at that stage of the fight. Down the ravine, then over the expanse of prairie dotted with gray-green sage-brush, she sped with her unconscious burden.
"Whoo! whoo!" yelled another Crow to his comrades, "the Sioux have dispatched a runner to get reinforcements! There he goes, down on the flat! Now he has almost reached the river bottom!"
It was only Nakpa. She laid back her cars and stretched out more and more to gain the river, for she realized that when she had crossed the ford the Crows would not pursue her farther.
Now she had reached the bank. With the intense heat from her exertions, she was extremely nervous, and she imagined a warrior beind every bush. Yet she had enough sense left to realize that she must not satisfy her thirst. She tried the bottom with her fore-foot, then waded carefully into the deep stream.
She kept her big ears well to the front as she swam to catch the slightest sound. As she stepped on the opposite shore, she shook herself and the boys vigorously, then pulled a few mouthfuls of grass and started on.
Soon one of the babies began to cry, and the other was not long in joining him. Nakpa did not know what to do. She gave a gentle whinny and both babies apparently stopped to listen; then she took up an easy gait as if to put them to sleep.
These tactics answered only for a time. As she fairly flew over the lowlands, the babies' hunger increased and they screamed so loud that a passing coyote had to sit upon his haunches and wonder what in the world the fleeing longeared horse was carrying on his saddle. Even magpies and crows flew near as if to ascertain the meaning of this curious sound.
Nakpa now came to the Little Trail Creek, a tributary of the Powder, not far from the old camp. No need of wasting any time here, she thought. Then she swerved aside so suddenly as almost to jerk her babies out of their cradles. Two gray wolves, one on each side, approached her, growling low – their white teeth showing.
Never in her humble life had Nakpa been in more desperate straits. The larger of the wolves came fiercely forward to engage her attention, while his mate was to attack her behind and cut her hamstrings. But for once the pair had made a miscalculation. The mule used her front hoofs vigorously on the foremost wolf, while her hind ones were doing even more effective work. The larger wolf soon went limping away with a broken hip, and the one in the rear received a deep cut on the jaw which proved an effectual discouragement.
A little further on, an Indian hunter drew near on horseback, but Nakpa did not pause or slacken her pace. On she fled through the long dry grass of the river bottoms, while her babies slept again from sheer exhaustion. Toward sunset, she entered the Sioux camp amid great excitement, for some one had spied her afar off, and the boys and the dogs announced her coming.
"Whoo, whoo! Weeko's Nakpa has come back with the twins! Whoo, whoo!" exclaimed the men. "Tokee! tokee!" cried the women.
A sister to Weeko who was in the village came forward and released the children, as Nakpa gave a low whinny and stopped. Tenderly Zeezeewin nursed them at her own motherly bosom, assisted by another young mother of the band.
"Ugh, there is a Crow arrow sticking in the saddle! A fight! a fight!" exclaimed the warriors.
"Sing a Brave-Heart song for the Long-Eared one! She has escaped alone with her charge. She is entitled to wear an eagle's feather! Look at the arrow in her saddle! and more, she has a knife wound in her jaw and an arrow cut on her hind leg. – No, those are the marks of a wolf's teeth! She has passed through many dangers and saved two chief's sons, who will some day make the Crows sorry for this day's work!"
The speaker was an old man who thus addressed the fast gathering throng.
Zeezeewin now came forward again with an eagle feather and some white paint in her hands. The young men rubbed Nakpa down, and the feather, marked with red to indicate her wounds, was fastened to her mane. Shoulders and hips were touched with red paint to show her endurance in running. Then the crier, praising her brave deed in heroic verse, led her around the camp, inside of the circle of teepees. All the people stood outside their lodges and listened respectfully, for the Dakota loves well to honor the faithful and the brave.
During the next day, riders came in from the ill-fated party, bringing the sad news of the fight and heavy loss. Late in the afternoon came Weeko, her face swollen with crying, her beautiful hair cut short in mourning, her garments torn and covered with dust and blood. Her husband had fallen in the fight, and her twin boys she supposed to have been taken captive by the Crows. Singing in a hoarse voice the praises of her departed warrior, she entered the camp. As she approached her sister's teepee, there stood Nakpa, still wearing her honorable decorations. At the same moment, Zeezeewin came out to meet her with both babies in her arms.
"Mechinkshee! meechinkshee! (my sons, my sons!)" was all that the poor mother could say, as she all but fell from her saddle to the ground. The despised Long Ears had not betrayed her trust.