Many years ago a large body of the Sioux were encamped at midsummer in the valley of the Cheyenne. It was customary at that period for the Indians to tie up their ponies over night within the circle of the teepees, whenever they were in disputed territory, for they considered it no wrong to steal the horses of the enemy. Hence this long procession of young men and maidens, returning at sunset to the camp with great bundles of green grass hanging gracefully from their saddles!
The "green grass parade" became a regular custom, and in fact a full-dress affair, since it was found to afford unusual opportunities for courtship.
Blue Sky, the pretty daughter of the Sioux chief, put on her best doeskin gown trimmed with elks' teeth, and investing her favorite spotted pony with his beaded saddle-blanket, she went forth in company with one of her maiden friends. Soon two young warriors overtook the pair; and as they approached they covered their heads with their robes, exposing only the upper part of the face disguised with paint and the single eagle feather standing upright. One carried a bow and quiver full of arrows; the other, a war-club suspended from his right arm.
"Ah, hay, hun, hay!" saluted one of them; but the modest maidens said never a word! It was not their way to speak; only the gay calico ponies pranced about and sportively threw back their ears to snap at the horses of the two young men.
"'Tis a brave welcome your horses are giving us!" he continued, while the two girls merely looked at one another with perfect understanding.
Presently Matoska urged his pony close to the Blue Sky's side.
"It may be that I am overbold," he murmured in her ear, "to repeat so soon my tale of love! I know well that I risk a reprimand, if not in words, then by a look or action!"
He paused to note the effect of his speech; but alas! it is the hard rule of savage courtship that the maiden may with propriety and dignity keep silence as long as she wishes, and it is often exasperatingly long.
"I have spoken to no maiden," he resumed, because I wished to win the war-bonnet before doing so. But to you I was forced to yield!" Again he paused, as if fearing to appear unduly hasty; but deliberate as were speech and manner, his eyes betrayed him. They were full of intense eagerness mingled with anxiety.
"Sometimes I have imagined that I am in the world with you alone, traveling over the prairie of life, or sitting in our lonely white teepee, as the oriole sits with his mate before their swaying home. Yet I seemed to be never lonely, because you were there!" He finished his plea, and with outward calmness awaited her reply.
The maiden had not lost a word, but she was still thinking. She thought that a man is much like the wind of the north, only pleasant and comfortable in midsummer! She feared that she might some time have to furnish all the fuel for their love's fires; therefore she held her peace. Matoska waited for several minutes and then silently withdrew, bearing his disappointment with dignity.
Meanwhile the camp was astir with the returning youths and maidens, their horses' sides fringed with the long meadow grass, singing plaintive serenades around the circular rows of teepees before they broke up for the night.
It was a clear and quiet night; the evening fires were kindled and every teepee transformed into an immense Chinese lantern. There was a glowing ring two miles in circumference, with the wooded river bottom on one side and the vast prairie on the other. The Black Hills loomed up in the distance, and the rapids of the wild Cheyenne sent forth a varying peal of music on the wind. The people enjoyed their evening meal, and in the pauses of their talk and laughter the ponies could be heard munching at the bundles of green grass just outside the teepees.
Suddenly a chorus of yells broke cruelly the peace of the camp, followed by the dashing charge of the Crow Indian horsemen! It was met as bravely and quickly by the Sioux; and in the clear, pale moonlight the dusky warriors fought, with the occasional flash of a firearm, while silent weapons flew thick in the air like dragon-flies at sunset.
The brave mothers, wives, and sisters gave their shrill war-cry to inspire their men, and show the enemy that even the Sioux women cannot be daunted by such a fearful surprise!
When the morning sun sent its golden shafts among the teepees, they saw it through glistening tears – happy tears, they said, because the brave dead had met their end in gallant fight – the very end they craved! And among those who fell that night was Brave Hawk, the handsome brother of the Blue Sky.
In a few days the camp was moved to a point further up the Cheyenne and deeper into the bosom of the hills, leaving behind the decorated grave lodges belonging to the honored dead. A great council teepee was pitched, and here the people met to credit those who had earned them with the honors of the fight, that they might thereafter wear the eagle feathers which they had won.
"The first honor," declared the master of ceremonies, "belongs to Brave Hawk, who fell in the battle! He it was who compelled the Crows to retreat, when he bravely charged upon them and knocked from his horse the Crow chief, their war leader."
"Ho, it is true!" exclaimed the warriors in chorus.
"The second honor," he resumed, "belongs to Matoska, the White Bear!"
"Hun, hun, hay!" interposed another, "it is I, Red Owl, who touched the body of the Crow chief second to Brave Hawk!"
It was a definite challenge.
"The warriors who witnessed the act give the coup to Matoska, friend!" persisted the spokesman.
Red Owl was a brave youth and a close rival of Matoska, both for war honors and for the hand of the prettiest maiden in the tribe. He had hoped to be recognized as one who fought in defense of their homes by the side of Brave Hawk; that would please the Blue Sky, he thought; but the honor was conferred upon his rival!
There was a cloud of suppressed irritation on his dusky face as he sullenly departed to his own tent – an action which displeased the council-men. Matoska had not spoken, and this caused him to appear to the better advantage. The worst of it was that Blue Sky herself had entered the ring with the "orphan steed," as it was called – the war-horse of her dead brother, and had therefore seen and heard everything! Tanagila, or Hummingbird, the beautiful charger, decorated according to custom with the honors won by his master, was led away by the girl amidst resounding war-whoops.
Unable to remain quiet, Red Owl went out into the hills to fast and pray. It was sunset of the next day when he again approached the village, and behind a little ridge came suddenly upon Matoska and the girl standing together. It was the first time that they had met since the "green grass parade," and now only by accident, as the sister of Brave Hawk was in deep mourning. However, the lover had embraced his opportunity, and the maiden had said that she was willing to think of the matter. No more words were spoken.
That very night the council drum was struck three times, followed by the warriors' cheer. Everybody knew what that meant. It was an invitation to the young men to go upon the war-path against the Crows!
Blue Sky was unconsciously startled by this sudden announcement. For the first time in her life she felt a fear that she could not explain. The truth was that she loved, and was not yet fully aware of it. In spite of her fresh grief, she had been inexplicably happy since her last meeting with Matoska, for she had seen in him that which is so beautiful, so compelling in man to the eyes of the woman who loves. He, too, now cherished a real hope, and felt as if he could rush into the thickest of the battle to avenge the brother of his beloved!
In a few days the war-party had reached the Big Horn and sent out advance scouts, who reported a large Crow encampment. Their hundreds of horses covered the flats like a great herd of buffalo, they said. It was immediately decided to attack at daybreak, and on a given signal they dashed impetuously upon the formidable camp. Some stampeded and drove off a number of horses, while the main body plunged into the midst of the Crows.
But the enemy were not easily surprised. They knew well the Sioux tactics, and there was a desperate struggle for supremacy. War-club was raised against war-club, and the death-song of the arrow filled the air! Presently the Sioux were forced to retreat, with the Crows in hot pursuit, like wolves after their prey.
Red Owl and Matoska had been among the foremost in the charge, and now they acted as a rear-guard, bravely defending the retreat of their little army, to the admiration of the enemy. At last a Crow raised his spear against Matoska, who in a flash dismounted him with a stroke of his oaken bow; but alas! the blow snapped the bow-string and left him defenseless. At the same instant his horse uttered a scream and fell, throwing its rider headlong!
There was no one near except Red Owl, who clapped his heels to his pony and joined in the retreat, leaving Matoska behind. He arose, threw down his quiver, and advanced alone to meet the oncoming rush of the Crows!
The Sioux had seen him fall. In a few moments he was surrounded by the enemy, and they saw him no more.
The pursuit was stopped, and they paused upon a hilltop to collect the remnant of their force. Red Owl was the last to come up, and it was observed that he did not look like himself.
"Tell us, what were Matoska's last words?" they asked him.
But he silently dismounted and sent an arrow through his faithful steed, to the astonishment of the warriors. Immediately afterward he took out his knife and stabbed himself to the heart.
"Ah!" they exclaimed, "he could not live to share our humiliation!"
The war-party returned defeated and cast down by this unexpected ending to their adventure, having lost some of their bravest and best men. The camp was instantly thrown into mourning. Many were in heavy grief, but none was more deeply stricken than the maiden called the Blue Sky, the daughter of their chief.
She remained within her teepee and wept in secret, for none knew that she had the right to mourn. Yet she believed that her lover had met with misfortune, but not death. Although his name was announced among those warriors who fell in the field, her own heart assured her that it was not so. "I must go to him," she said to herself. "I must know certainly whether he is still among the living!"
The next evening, while the village was yet in the confusion of great trouble and sorrow, Blue Sky rode out upon her favorite pony as if to take him to water as usual, but none saw her return! She hastened to the spot where she had concealed two sacks of provisions and her extra moccasins and materials for sewing. She had no weapon, save her knife and a small hatchet. She knew the country between the Black Hills and the Big Horn, and knew that it was full of perils for man and much more for woman. Yet by traveling only at night and concealing herself in the daytime she hoped to avoid these dangers, and she rode bravely forth on the trail of the returning warriors.
Her dog, Wapayna, had followed the maiden, and she was not sorry to have so faithful a companion. She cautioned him not to bark at or attack strange animals unless they attacked first, and he seemed to understand the propriety of remaining on guard whenever his mistress was asleep.
She reached the Powder River country in safety, and here she had more than once to pick her way among the buffaloes. These wily animals seemed to realize that she was only a woman and unarmed, so that they scarcely kept out of her path. She also crossed the trails of riders, some of them quite fresh, but was fortunate enough not to meet any of them.
At last the maiden attained the divide between the Tongue and the Big Horn rivers. Her heart beat fast, and the sudden sense of her strange mission almost overwhelmed her. She remembered the only time in her life that the Sioux were upon that river, and so had that bit of friendly welcome from the valley – a recollection of childhood!
It was near morning; the moon had set and for a short time darkness prevailed, but the girl's eyes had by this time become accustomed to the dark. She knew the day was at hand, and with its first beams she was safely tucked into one of those round turns left by the river long ago in changing its bed, now become a little grassy hollow sheltered by steep banks, and hidden by a fringe of trees. Here she picketed her pony, and took her own rest. Not until the afternoon shadows were long did she awake and go forth with determination to seek for the battlefield and for the Crow encampment.
It was not long before she came upon the bodies of fallen horses and men. There was Matoska's white charger, with a Sioux arrow in his side, and she divined the treachery of Red Owl! But he was dead, and his death had atoned for the crime. The body of her lover was nowhere to be found; yet how should they have taken the bravest of the Sioux a captive?
"If he had but one arrow left, he would stand and fight! If his bow-string were broken, he would still welcome death with a strong heart," she thought.
The evening was approaching and the Crow village in plain sight. Blue Sky arranged her hair and dress as well as she could like that of a Crow woman, and with an extra robe she made for herself a bundle that looked as if it held a baby in its many wrappings. The community was still celebrating its recent victory over the Sioux, and the camp was alive with songs and dances. In the darkness she approached unnoticed, and singing in an undertone a Crow lullaby, walked back and forth among the lodges, watching eagerly for any signs of him she sought.
At last she came near to the council lodge. There she beheld his face like an apparition through the dusk and the fire-light! He was sitting within, dressed in the gala costume of a Crow.
"O, he is living! he is living!" thought the brave maiden. "O, what shall I do?" Unconsciously she crept nearer and nearer, until the sharp eyes of an Indian detected the slight difference in her manner and dress, and he at once gave the alarm.
"Wah, wah! Epsaraka! Epsaraka! A Sioux! A Sioux!"
In an instant the whole camp had surrounded the girl, who stood in their midst a prisoner, yet undaunted, for she had seen her lover, and the spirit of her ancestors rose within her.
An interpreter was brought, a man who was half Crow and half Sioux.
"Young and pretty daughter of the Sioux!" exclaimed the chief, "tell us how you came here in our midst undetected, and why!"
"Because," replied the Blue Sky, "your brave warriors have slain my only brother, and captured my lover, whom you now hold a prisoner. It is for his sake that I have thus risked my life and honor!"
"Ho, ho! You are the bravest woman I have ever seen. Your lover wag betrayed into our hands by the treachery of one of his own tribe, who shot his horse from behind. He faced us without fear, but it was not his courage that saved his life. He resembles my own son, who lately fell in battle, and according to the custom I have adopted him as my son!"
Thus the brave maiden captured the heart of the wily Crow, and was finally allowed to return home with her lover, bearing many and rich presents. Her name is remembered among the two tribes, for this act of hers resulted in a treaty of peace between them which was kept for a generation.