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Published on Monday, January 3, 2011

Strawberry Moon

By Ray Busler


A fresh breeze rose suddenly, shattering the vast green stillness into a million dancing facets; darkness and light, silver then shadow, advancing and receding, obedient to the music of the wind. A lost mariner might have taken this vista to be a great and placid sea, a sea that extended in unbroken monotony to the blue wall of the horizon. But, there was no mariner because there was no water. There was not yet even a proper name for this place -- no Bay of Colorado or Gulf of Nebraska. This was simply the prairie, and if it was any kind of sea at all, it was a sea of grass.


Atop a low hill that rose like an ocean swell, two brothers looked down onto this sea counting the buffalo that lay like islands where they had fallen. The hunt was over. Lame Beaver and Running Fox sat astride lathered ponies, watching as the women came onto the killing ground to dress the buffalo. Boys and young men raced their ponies among them, yelling and claiming kills. The brothers were above all this now. They bore on their bodies the marks of manhood. They were Dog Soldiers of the Cheyenne.

Running Fox jumped down from his mare and began to groom her flanks with handfuls of the fresh grass. He was exultant and still flush with the hot blood of the hunt. "Come, let us ride down and eat buffalo liver with the boys. We should let these children see a hunter; it will be a good example for them."

Lame Beaver sat calmly upon his pony, his eyes fixed on the northern horizon. "I am tired of buffalo. My heart is empty for the buffalo of this place. I will have none of them."

"Here then," Running Fox said with a whooping laugh, "you can eat this, like your horse." He held a handful of grass up to his brother.

"I am a man, and it is for me to choose what I will eat. I will not eat the buffalo, and I will not eat your foolish grass. I have no hunger for these. I think I am hungry for elk. I will eat elk."

Running Fox shaded his eyes and pantomimed a scan of the horizon. "I see no elk." He said, looking innocently up to Lame Beaver. He made the elaborate scan again. "I see no mountains for the elk to live on," he said, with an exaggerated shrug.

"Your name should be Snail. Your eyes can see nothing above this grass," Lame Beaver said. "I see beyond all this. I see the mountains that are north on the Yellowstone. I see the elk on these mountains, and I will go there and seek my elk among the Oglala."

"Snail!" His brother said, heatedly. "Why are you called Lame Beaver? The lame beaver is the wisest of the animals and can live when all others would die. This is fool's talk, to leave all the buffalo we have on this ground, and hunt far away for an elk... an elk you might not find!"

"I will have my elk." Lame Beaver turned his pony back along the track of beaten grass toward the camp.

"You are lost already," Running Fox said to him. "That is west- the Oglala are to the north."

"I must take my horses," Lame Beaver said.

"How many horses do you think it will take to get an elk?" Running Fox called out to him.

"I think it will take them all," his brother called back.

Running Fox watched as his brother grew smaller and smaller in the sea of grass. He watched the Cheyenne women moving among the mounds of buffalo. "Bagh," he spat. Then he twisted the pony's mane in the hand that held the reins and mounted her to follow Lame Beaver.

The boys of the Oglala village were the first to see the approaching Cheyenne. These small sentinels were playing the games of "Warrior," and "Hunter" in apprenticeship of the day when they would be allowed to play the biggest game, the game called "Manhood." Little warriors and hunters raced each other for the honor of being the first to report the Cheyenne.

Escorted by this boy army, the Cheyenne rode single file into the center of the village and to the lodge of Red Cloud, chief of the Oglala Lakota. Lame Beaver trailed behind him six ponies loaded with buffalo robes and fresh haunches of mule deer. Running Fox and three Dog Soldiers, who had refused to let the brothers hunt alone followed.

Standing in front of the lodge, Red Cloud with Medicine Horn and other elders waited in silence as the Cheyenne dismounted. Lame Beaver was dressed in ceremonial buckskins decorated with mussel shell, polished bone, and porcupine quills. His shirt was painted with scenes of his exploits as a warrior and hunter, and it bore the symbol of the Sun Dance.

"Red Cloud, great Lakota chief, once in the Moon When the Grass Dies our fathers brought us north to hunt for elk with the Oglala. Now in the Moon of the Strawberry, our hunger for the elk has brought us northward again. This time we come as men, and we ask to hunt, as our fathers hunted, in the Yellowstone country." When Lame Beaver had recited this set piece he spread a buffalo robe at Red Cloud's feet. Running Fox and the other Cheyenne piled mule deer haunches upon the robe.

"I am pleased to see our brothers, the Cheyenne. Hunt with our young men and take whatever game you choose. Stay by our fires and be welcome in this land," the chief said.

"My heart is full, Red Cloud. I seek the lodge of Gray Horse, the great hunter and companion of my father," Lame Beaver replied.

"The Cheyenne are welcome in all the lodges along the Yellowstone, as would be the Oglala in your Platte River country. The women will show you the lodge of Gray Horse."

The Cheyenne separated to visit the friends they had made on their boyhood hunts. Lame Beaver followed a gaggle of tittering women who guided him to Gray Horse.

Red Cloud and Medicine Horn remained at the chief's lodge watching the departing Cheyenne. "Tell me, Medicine Horn, what do you think? What do your eyes see?"

"I see buffalo robes that are fresh and fat horses, so there is meat and grass in the Platte River country. I do not think he is hungry for meat. He passed by good country for elk, better than we have here, and much closer to the Platte, but here he is. I do not think he wants elk so much." Medicine Horn said.

Red Cloud nodded, "I think you are right. Now look beyond your eyes. Do you think this young man will be trouble?"

"Young men are always trouble, but this one is not your trouble. This one is trouble for Gray Horse."


Gray Horse kept his lodge on the outer perimeter of the camp. This was a place of honor among warriors because an enemy had to pass this outer guard to reach the main body of the camp. No one disputed Gray Horse's right to be there. His lodge pole held many scalps and when he spoke in the meetings of elders his words were listened to with respect. He had hunted with Lame Beaver's father in the hunt of the Dying Grass Moon, a time when Lame Beaver had been "almost a man." Lame Beaver knew all these things and more about Gray Horse; he had thought about these things for a long time before he left the sea of grass to come north.

Gray Horse had a daughter; her name was Sparrow.

Gray Horse welcomed Lame Beaver to his lodge. He welcomed him as a friend for the sake of the young man's father, and as a hunter for the gifts of fresh meat and buffalo robes. He welcomed him as a warrior because of the three Pawnee scalps woven into the mane of his pony. And, he was welcome because Gray Horse had wisdom -- he had the kind of wisdom peculiar to the fathers of daughters.

That night they ate from the deer Lame Beaver had brought. Gray Horse had his wife divide out portions of the meat for his neighbors to cook over their own fires, leaving the two men alone by the fire of Gray Horse.

"You have come far, Lame Beaver." Gray Horse said, beginning the conversation.

"I am a man now, Gray Horse, a Dog Soldier of the Cheyenne." He held out a hand to show the missing finger of his initiation, and opened his shirt to show the flesh offering of the Sun Dance. "I have six Pawnee horses, and the one I ride. I have taken three scalps. I kill many buffalo and feed the widows among my people."

Gray horse was silent for a long time. "I can see these things and I am glad you help the old women, but I only meant you are a long way from the Platte River country."

Lame Beaver paused; he had been impatient, babbling like a child even as he asserted his manhood. "My heart was hungry for the elk," he said, looking into the fire.

After a time Gray Horse spoke again. "It is a good thing for a young man to feed upon the food of his heart. It is a good thing to be young and strong and a great hunter. I was a great hunter in the days of my youth. I was well respected then. I an old now and I have only my last daughter, Sparrow, to respect me.

Lame Beaver pondered the words, searching for the real meaning. He watched the fire for a long while before speaking. "Among the Cheyenne a man with many horses is respected."

Gray Horse watched the fire in silence.

Lame Beaver could not bear the wait any longer. "Among the Cheyenne a man with six horses is much respected."

"Six are not so many for a Lakota," Gray Horse replied.

It was Lame beaver's turn to watch the fire. He had failed. There was nothing more he could say to the older man. He silently cursed his lack of wisdom. "I hunt tomorrow. Will you keep my six horses for me?"

"Turn them in with the Lakota horses." Gray Horse said. "The boys will watch them for you. Your six horses will be safe."

The Cheyenne rode out of the village in the gray light of the false dawn. There were few Lakota about to see them go, but from a grove of cottonwood trees that bordered the village Sparrow watched. She saw that the Cheyenne did not follow the "Elk Trail" north to the mountains. She watched the Cheyenne turn their backs to the rising sun and follow the western trail, the one the Oglala Lakota call the "Pawnee Trail." She needed only to be sure he had not gone back south and that he had not taken his horses. He came back for her once, and he would do so again. Sparrow turned and ran to her father's lodge.

The days of the Moon of Strawberries wore on and the Cheyenne did not return. The boys played their game in more earnest now, and the men found reasons to ride more often in the west. But, the man who brought six horses did not return, and the women began to show concern for Sparrow. Even the hard warrior, Gray Horse, rode out. He went a day's ride, west to the great fold in the Yellowstone, but he found no sign of the Cheyenne.

The boys came running into camp on the fifteenth day. Their report was of many riders approaching, of more dust than five Cheyenne ponies could raise. Gray Horse was among the warriors that rode out to meet this threat.

The Oglala Lakota waited on favorable ground for the approaching riders, as the distance closed the Oglala began to whoop and laugh. The Cheyenne had returned, driving before them a herd of Pawnee horses.

The Cheyenne still in paint and dressed for the trail, stopped when they reached the Oglala party.

"Those elk have no horns," Gray Horse said, smiling.

Lame Beaver looked at the horses and waited silently. The horse he rode twitched his ears as flies buzzed up from a fresh scalp woven into his mane.

Finally, when a moment of understanding seemed to have passed between the two men, Lame Beaver spoke. "It is not the elk I want from the Lakota country, Gray Horse. Eight of these horses are mine, and the six horses in the Lakota herd are mine. In the Platte River country a Cheyenne worth this many horses is respected. I think it must be the same for a Lakota. Take these horses from me as a sign of respect, and give me Sparrow in return."

The wedding feast lasted for days, and when the Cheyenne departed for the Platte River it was the beginning of the Moon When the Red Lilies Bloom. The Oglala women already referred to the Strawberry Moon as the "Moon of the Cheyenne Suitor." The bride price had been exaggerated in the telling to a hundred ponies, and there were wedding songs about Sparrow and her Cheyenne husband still being sung in the village. They were good songs that would last a long time and be remembered at other weddings, other Strawberry Moons.

Red Cloud visited the lodge of Gray Horse. It seemed quiet there without Sparrow. "I hope she will be happy," Red Cloud said. "Some say that the Cheyenne women are not always kind to wives from outside their tribe."

"That is all settled," Gray Horse said. "What other woman among them cost her husband so many horses? No harm will come to a woman worth fourteen horses. Everyone in their village will guard her like a treasure."

"You have done well, Gray Horse. Fourteen horses! I have never heard of such a bride price, you are a wise man."

"I am no wiser than Lame Beaver. He found the food of his heart. Not every man finds this, but when he does the wise man pays whatever he is asked."

Red Cloud nodded at the truth of this, then chuckled and said. "Perhaps you should have held out for more horses then."

Gray Horse backed away from the fire a bit then smiled at his chief. "No, I did not think that was wise. A man who could steal so many Pawnee horses could surely steal one Lakota, if he had to."




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