The old man, Smoky Day, was for many years the best-known story-teller and historian of his tribe. He it was who told me the story of the War Maiden. In the old days it was unusual but not unheard of for a woman to go upon the war-path – perhaps a young girl, the last of her line, or a widow whose well-loved husband had fallen on the field – and there could be no greater incentive to feats of desperate daring on the part of the warriors. "A long time ago," said old Smoky Day, "the Unkpapa and the Cut-Head bands of Sioux united their camps upon a vast prairie east of the Minne Wakan (now called Devil's Lake). It was midsummer, and the people shared in the happiness of every living thing. We had food in abundance, for bison in countless numbers overspread the plain.
"The teepee village was laid out in two great rings, and all was in readiness for the midsummer entertainments. There were ball games, feasts and dances every day, and late into the night. You have heard of the festivities of those days; there are none like them now," said the old man, and he sighed heavily as he laid down the red pipe which was to be passed from hand to hand during the recital.
"The head chief of the Unkpapas then was Tamakoche (His Country). He was in his time a notable warrior, a hunter and a feastmaker, much beloved by his people. He was the father of three sons, but he was so anxious to make them warriors of great reputation that they had all, despising danger, been killed in battle.
"The chief had also a very pretty daughter, whose name was Makatah. Since all his sons were slain he had placed his affections solely upon the girl, and she grew up listening to the praises of the brave deeds of her brothers, which her father never tired of chanting when they were together in the lodge. At times Makatah was called upon to dance to the 'Strong-Heart' songs. Thus even as a child she loved the thought of war, although she was the prettiest and most modest maiden in the two tribes. As she grew into womanhood she became the belle of her father's village, and her beauty and spirit were talked of even among the neighboring bands of Sioux. But it appeared that Makatah did not care to marry. She had only two ambitions. One was to prove to her father that, though only a maid, she had the heart of a warrior. The other was to visit the graves of her brothers – that is, the country of the enemy.
"At this pleasant reunion of two kindred peoples one of the principal events was the Feast of Virgins, given by Makatah. All young maidens of virtue and good repute were invited to be present; but woe to her who should dare to pollute the sacred feast! If her right to be there were challenged by any it meant a public disgrace. The two arrows and the red stone upon which the virgins took their oath of chastity were especially prepared for the occasion. Every girl was beautifully dressed, for at that time the white doeskin gowns, with a profusion of fringes and colored embroidery, were the gala attire of the Sioux maidens. Red paint was added, and ornaments of furs and wampum. Many youths eagerly surveyed the maiden gathering, at which the daughter of Tamakoche outshone all the rest.
"Several eligible warriors now pressed their suits at the chieftain's lodge, and among them were one or two whom he would have gladly called son-in-law; but no! Makatah would not listen to words of courtship. She had vowed, she said, to the spirits of her three brothers – each of whom fell in the country of the Crows – that she would see that country before she became a wife.
"Red Horn, who was something of a leader among the young men, was a persistent and determined suitor. He had urged every influential friend of his and hers to persuade her to listen to him. His presents were more valuable than those of any one else. He even made use of his father's position as a leading chief of the Cut-Head band to force a decision in his favor; and while the maiden remained indifferent her father seemed inclined to countenance this young man's pretensions.
"She had many other lovers, as I have said," the old man added, "and among them was one Little Eagle, an orphan and a poor young man, unknown and unproved as a warrior. He was so insignificant that nobody thought much about him, and if Makatah regarded him with any favor the matter was her secret, for it is certain that she did not openly encourage him.
"One day it was reported in the village that their neighbors, the Cut-Head Sioux, would organize a great attack upon the Crows at the mouth of the Redwater, a tributary of the Missouri. Makatah immediately inquired of her male cousins whether any of them expected to join the war-party.
"'Three of us will go,' they replied.
"'Then,' said the girl, 'I beg that you will allow me to go with you! I have a good horse, and I shall not handicap you in battle. I only ask your protection in camp as your kinswoman and a maid of the war-party.'
"'If our uncle Tamakoche sanctions your going,' they replied, 'we shall be proud to have our cousin with us, to inspire us to brave deeds!'
"The maiden now sought her father and asked his permission to accompany the warparty.
"'I wish,' said she, 'to visit the graves of my brothers! I shall carry with me their war-bonnets and their weapons, to give to certain young men on the eve of battle, according to the ancient custom. Long ago I resolved to do this, and the time is now come.'
"The chief was at this time well advanced in years, and had been sitting quite alone in his lodge, thinking upon the days of his youth, when he was noted for daring and success in battle. In silence he listened as he filled his pipe, and seemed to meditate while he smoked the fragrant tobacco. At last he spoke with tears in his eyes.
"'Daughter, I am an old man! My heart beats in my throat, and my old eyes cannot keep back the tears. My three sons, on whom I had placed all my hopes, are gone to a far country! You are the only child left to my old age, and you, too, are brave – as brave as any of your brothers. If you go I fear that you may not return to me; yet I cannot refuse you my permission!"
"The old man began to chant a war-song, and some of his people, hearing him, came in to learn what was in his mind. He told them all, and immediately many young men volunteered for the war-party, in order to have the honor of going with the daughter of their chief.
"Several of Makatah's suitors were among them, and each watched eagerly for an opportunity to ride at her side. At night she pitched her little teepee within the circle of her cousins' campfires, and there she slept without fear. Courteous youths brought to her every morning and evening fresh venison for her repast. Yet there was no courting, for all attentions paid to a maiden when on the war-path must be those of a brother to a sister, and all must be equally received by her.
"Two days later, when the two parties of Sioux met on the plains, the maiden's presence was heralded throughout the camp, as an inspiration to the young and untried warriors of both bands to distinguish themselves in the field. It is true that some of the older men considered it unwise to allow Makatah to accompany the war-party.
"'The girl,' said they to one another, 'is very ambitious as well as brave. She will surely risk her own life in battle, which will make the young men desperate, and we shall lose many of them!'
"Nevertheless they loved her and her father; therefore they did not protest openly.
"On the third day the Sioux scouts returned with the word that the Crows were camping, as had been supposed, at the confluence of the Redwater and the Missouri Rivers. It was a great camp. All the Crow tribe were there, they said, with their thousands of fine horses.
"There was excitement in the Sioux camp, and all of the head men immediately met in council. It was determined to make the attack early on the following morning, just as the sun came over the hills. The councilors agreed that in honor of the great chief, her father, as well as in recognition of her own courage, Makatah should be permitted to lead the charge at the outset, but that she must drop behind as they neared the enemy. The maiden, who had one of the fleetest ponies in that part of the country, had no intention of falling back, but she did not tell any one what was in her mind.
"That evening every warrior sang his warsong, and announced the particular war-charm or 'medicine' of his clan, according to the custom. The youths were vying with one another in brave tales of what they would do on the morrow. The voice of Red Horn was loud among the boasters, for he was known to be a vain youth, although truly not without reputation. Little Eagle, who was also of the company, remained modestly silent, as indeed became one without experience in the field. In the midst of the clamor there fell a silence.
"'Hush! hush!' they whispered. 'Look, look! The War Maiden comes!'
"All eyes were turned upon Makatah, who rode her fine buckskin steed with a single lariat. He held his head proudly, and his saddle was heavy with fringes and gay with colored embroidery. The maiden was attired in her best and wore her own father's war-bonnet, while she carried in her hands two which had belonged to two of her dead brothers. Singing in a clear voice the songs of her clan, she completed the circle, according to custom, before she singled out one of the young braves for special honor by giving him the bonnet which she held in her right hand. She then crossed over to the Cut-Heads, and presented the other bonnet to one of their young men. She was very handsome; even the old men's blood was stirred by her brave appearance!
"At daybreak the two war-parties of the Sioux, mounted on their best horses, stood side by side, ready for the word to charge. All of the warriors were painted for the battle – prepared for death – their nearly nude bodies decorated with their individual war-totems. Their well-filled quivers were fastened to their sides, and each tightly grasped his oaken bow.
"The young man with the finest voice had been chosen to give the signal – a single highpitched yell. This was an imitation of the one long howl of the gray wolf before he makes the attack. It was an ancient custom of our people.
"'Woo-o-o-o!' – at last it came! As the sound ceased a shrill war-whoop from five hundred throats burst forth in chorus, and at the same instant Makatah, upon her splendid buckskin pony, shot far out upon the plain, like an arrow as it leaves the bow. It was a glorious sight! No man has ever looked upon the like again!"
The eyes of the old man sparkled as he spoke, and his bent shoulders straightened.
"The white doeskin gown of the War Maiden," he continued, "was trimmed with elk's teeth and tails of ermine. Her long black hair hung loose, bound only with a strip of otter-skin, and with her eagle-feather war-bonnet floated far behind. In her hand she held a long coup-staff decorated with eagle-feathers. Thus she went forth in advance of them all!
"War cries of men and screams of terrified women and children were borne upon the clear morning air as our warriors neared the Crow camp. The charge was made over a wide plain, and the Crows came yelling from their lodges, fully armed, to meet the attacking party. In spite of the surprise they easily held their own, and even began to press us hard, as their number was much greater than that of the Sioux.
"The fight was a long and hard one. Toward the end of the day the enemy made a counter-charge. By that time many of our ponies had fallen or were exhausted. The Sioux retreated, and the slaughter was great. The Cut-Heads fled womanlike; but the people of Tamakoche fought gallantly to the very last.
"Makatah remained with her father's people. Many cried out to her, 'Go back! Go back!' but she paid no attention. She carried no weapon throughout the day – nothing but her coup-staff – but by her presence and her cries of encouragement or praise she urged on the men to deeds of desperate valor.
"Finally, however, the Sioux braves were hotly pursued and the retreat became general. Now at last Makatah tried to follow; but her pony was tired, and the maiden fell farther and farther behind. Many of her lovers passed her silently, intent upon saving their own lives. Only a few still remained behind, fighting desperately to cover the retreat, when Red Horn came up with the girl. His pony was still fresh. He might have put her up behind him and carried her to safety, but he did not even look at her as he galloped by.
"Makatah did not call out, but she could not help looking after him. He had declared his love for her more loudly than any of the others, and she now gave herself up to die.
"Presently another overtook the maiden. It was Little Eagle, unhurt and smiling.
"'Take my horse!' he said to her. 'I shall remain here and fight!'
"The maiden looked at him and shook her head, but he sprang off and lifted her upon his horse. He struck him a smart blow upon the flank that sent him at full speed in the direction of the Sioux encampment. Then he seized the exhausted buckskin by the lariat, and turned back to join the rear-guard.
"That little group still withstood in some fashion the all but irresistible onset of the Crows. When their comrade came back to them, leading the War Maiden's pony, they were inspired to fresh endeavor, and though few in number they made a counter-charge with such fury that the Crows in their turn were forced to retreat!
"The Sioux got fresh mounts and returned to the field, and by sunset the day was won! Little Eagle was among the first who rode straight through the Crow camp, causing terror and consternation. It was afterward remembered that he looked unlike his former self and was scarcely recognized by the warriors for the modest youth they had so little regarded.
"It was this famous battle which drove that warlike nation, the Crows, to go away from the Missouri and to make their home up the Yellowstone River and in the Bighorn country. But many of our men fell, and among them the brave Little Eagle!
"The sun was almost over the hills when the Sioux gathered about their campfires, recounting the honors won in battle, and naming the brave dead. Then came the singing of dirges and weeping for the slain! The sadness of loss was mingled with exultation.
"Hush! listen! the singing and wailing have ceased suddenly at both camps. There is one voice coming around the circle of campfires. It is the voice of a woman! Stripped of all her ornaments, her dress shorn of its fringes, her ankles bare, her hair cropped close to her neck, leading a pony with mane and tail cut short, she is mourning as widows mourn. It is Makatah!
"Publicly, with many tears, she declared herself the widow of the brave Little Eagle, although she had never been his wife! He it was, she said with truth, who had saved her people's honor and her life at the cost of his own. He was a true man!
"'Ho, ho!' was the response from many of the older warriors; but the young men, the lovers of Makatah, were surprised and sat in silence.
"The War Maiden lived to be a very old woman, but she remained true to her vow. She never accepted a husband; and all her lifetime she was known as the widow of the brave Little Eagle."