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Cross Many Rivers, Together Always in Spirit

Short stories are at the heart of why Phyllis loves to write. Her father left her a legacy of the art of storytelling.

Missouri River

Missouri River

Cross Many Rivers

Mary Little Deer could still hear his promise after almost thirty summers. "I will cross many rivers to find you." That dearest of all voices was still in her heart, as fresh and young as it was that last summer they were together.

Now she lay in bed waiting for her spirit to leave and join him in the land of their ancestors. She had that same old lung disease she had contracted during the migration from South Dakota when she was just thirteen back in 1781. She felt this would be her final bout with the disease that so weakened her.

Mary is an author of several books of poetry and stories of the Lakhota people. She lived in British Columbia in the house her father built with the help of their new friends so many years ago. Always close by was Jane, her life long friend. Both of them always knew they were sisters in spirit. Jane helped Mary edit and publish her books. They were of the Oglala Lakhota tribe of the Black Hills in South Dakota. They were both thirteen that summer when their whole life changed.

Mary was very much in love with a young Cheyenne man named Billy Cross Many Rivers. He was just a few years older than her. Many battles between the two tribes separated Mary from the man she loved. Then Mary's father decided to join many other members of their tribe, all sensing much harder times to come, and move their families to safer land. They all migrated to Canada and kept moving west, eventually ending up in western Canada, settling near the Coast Salish tribe in British Columbia.

Mary mourned for many years, for in her heart and soul she was Billy's wife. He was part of her. Though from different tribes, their souls were the same in thought and belief. Mary felt she could not live without him. Yet she knew she had to, because he promised he would find her and his word was always true. After many years she still believed they would one day be together again. To endure the pain she turned to writing, where she could pour out her sorrow in poems and stories.

Mary and Jane

Mary and Jane were still close. When Jane's husband died, she moved in with Mary. On cold wintry afternoons they spent most of the time in Mary's bedroom with the wood burning stove keeping them warm as they wrote and edited stories.

Mary was feeling quite well this day and sat up in bed, leaning against many pillows and sipping tea. She wanted to continue on one of her stories so Jane could get it ready for publishing. Jane looked at her and said, "Mary, you have written so many books and they are well loved by all. You have never written about your only love in life. It would make such a beautiful story. Will you do that, for me? After all these years I still miss seeing you and Billy Tall Boy together. Do you think he is still called Billy Cross Many Rivers?"

"Oh yes. He will always be called by that name by those who know him." Mary looked out her window, gazing at the little mountain behind her house. It was covered with snow, and she thought of the last time she saw Billy. A smile came to her face and her eyes glistened when she heard his voice in her heart. "I will find you, Mary Little Deer. My father named me Cross Many Rivers, so if I have to cross every river and mountain between us till I find you, then I will do that. If one or both of us die before then, we will be together always in spirit."

Mary Tells her Story

Almost thirty summers have passed, but I remember the last time I saw him. I remember, too, the first time I ever saw Billy. I was in my fourth summer and he was two summers older than me. He was tall for his age, like his father, the warrior chief of the Cheyenne tribe.

My mother had sent me out to gather berries and nuts for the pemmican she would make. Warriors and hunters always carried pemmican with them when on long journeys. Women kept it in stock for winter meals when meat was scarce. I had my basket almost full and it was getting too heavy for me. I sat down and cried, thinking mother would be disappointed if I did not get a full basket.

A boy came running by me, then stopped and came back. He laughed at me and wanted to know why I was crying. I told him my basket was heavy and I still needed to gather more. He picked up my basket and said, "Ha! I can carry it, for I am Billy Tall Boy and strong." He told me to get up and we would find more berries and nuts. It was not long before the basket was full. Billy carried it all the way back to my mother as I followed. Mother was very pleased and gave us each some parched corn to snack on.

From that day on, Billy and I were together. He always helped me do my heavy chores and was proud of me when I learned the ways of a girl's responsibilities to prepare for some day having my own home and husband. He often told me that he would be my husband when we grew up. The Cheyenne and Lakhota tribes were friendly with each other back then and my father was pleased that Billy paid so much attention to me.

We grew very close, Billy and I. We often spent many hours together without even talking. We knew each other spiritually and had no need for much talk. He could motion with his chin and I knew if he wanted us to go in a different direction or if he was showing me an animal or something to be aware of. He was so beautiful and wise. His long black hair was always shiny and very straight. He would tie a piece of cloth on his head to keep hair out of his face. He was straight as an arrow, tall and proud. He grew so fast that I thought never would I be tall enough to reach his shoulder. He called me Little Deer, because he said I was so gentle and little. The name has stayed with me all my life.

When I was nine summers old, Billy brought a beautiful horse to my father and asked if I could be his wife. Father was very impressed and promised Billy that my mother and grandmother would teach me how to be a good wife for him. Father said I was valuable and he would require more gifts from Billy when the time came for our ceremony. Every day after that, when Billy came to our home, he brought father another gift. It made me so proud that Billy admired me that much.

Crossing the River

The battles between our tribes began when I was twelve summers old. Our tribe was powerful and eventually forced the Cheyenne out of the Black Hills. They finally settled in the southern plains area. For over a year I did not see Billy.

One day I was out gathering berries with some other girls. There were four young warriors guarding us, for times were bad with enemy attacks between many tribes. We heard a greeting from someone behind large boulders. All us girls hid behind the bushes. I sensed something and shivered, I knew that voice. Our lead warrior called back for the stranger to identify himself. "Friend. Billy Cross Many Rivers. You know me as Tall Boy."

"Aieee! Billy!" I cried out and stood up. I started to run to him, but our warrior stopped me. "It could be a trick! Stay back!" He told the stranger to come out and show himself. When Billy stepped out with his hands up I broke free and ran to him. Everyone called out to Billy and welcomed him, but Billy and I were in each other's arms, in a world of our own and heard nothing but our hearts beating together.

Billy was alone. He explained to us that his father gave him the new name, because many times Billy had crossed the rivers to find me. How he did it without being attacked by warring tribes, he would tell no one, not even me. We all sat in a circle and talked for a few hours. Then Billy and I spent some time alone. He told me that he must see my father. He wanted us to be husband and wife before he went back to his Cheyenne band. He said his father had been badly wounded and was near death.

"I have to go back, for when he dies I must take his place as Warrior Chief. I cannot take you back with me," he hung his head to hide the sadness. "It would be too dangerous," he said. I cried and clung tightly to him.

Our Ceremony and Farewell

When we got back to our camp, many people gathered around. They all recognized Billy and welcomed him. Billy told them he came to claim his wife. He turned and put his arm around me. I had grown a lot and stood proudly by my husband to be. My hair was very long and as black as Billy's hair. Everyone said we made a handsome couple.

We saw my father and mother walking towards us and they joyfully greeted Billy. Then Billy showed my father respect by giving him a beautiful hunting knife with elaborate carving on the bone handle. Billy told father that since he travelled on foot and had to cross the Missouri river, he could not bring more than his what small weapons he needed and the gift for father. My father was so proud of the knife that he said it is a gift to cherish and more than enough.

Our marriage ceremony was simple, yet all the proper traditions were carried out. Even though it was short notice, my mother and grandmother made sure I had a beautiful beaded wedding dress they had worked on since I was twelve years old. Father took out the shirt he wore at his own wedding and let Billy wear it. Billy offered the pipe to the Earth, a Cheyenne ritual for blessing on our marriage. We were married in the summer of 1780.

Billy stayed with us for two days then had to get back to his father. I had prayed to Great Spirit that Billy left me with child, but it was not meant to be. The last time I saw him, he tried to hide the tears in his eyes, but mine flowed like a river. My husband again crossed the Missouri River when he left me.

Missouri River

Missouri River

Jane's Story is not Finished

Jane was crying by the time she had finished writing down Mary' story. The two women sat in silence and watched the sun slowly sink behind the mountain. Jane got up to get supper for them. Mary called her back. "Jane, I feel my story is not finished yet." She slept till Jane brought supper in.

Cheyenne in Wyoming

The year was 1806. Billy Cross Many Rivers sat on his horse on a high bluff as he gazed down at what was the battle field in northern Wyoming. So many dead lay there. He watched his warriors search for their men and wrap them in blankets before placing them on horses. They had won this battle, as they did many before, but they had lost more warriors. The journey back to their camp was silent. Many were wounded, including Billy, but they would survive.

Billy had led his warriors to many battles since his father had walked on to the land of their ancestors. Often they won and gained more horses and weapons that were left after the battles. Sometimes they were outnumbered and had to retreat.

Always, Billy survived to live another year, fight another battle, but it was getting worse with the United States Calvary now trying to wipe them out or make them prisoners on reservations. The one thing that kept Billy going was the determination to find his wife, Mary Little Deer. He often felt her close and at night slept with her spirit. He knew not if she was still alive, for he had not been able to find her people and he could not risk his life by searching for them. His people needed him.

He knew in his heart that the day would come when he left the Cheyenne to find Mary. He had made a promise to his father to lead their people to victory and safe lands. But now he knew there were no safe lands for his people or for any Indians. He wished he had brought Mary back with him after they married. It was too dangerous at the time, but now he felt it would have been better had they at least tried and if they were killed crossing the last river they would be together in spirit always.

Search for Mary Little Deer

The Cheyenne had made a strong alliance with the Arapaho. This enabled the two tribes to expand their territory.

Billy saw how strong and formidable the new unified peoples were and felt it was time for him to begin the journey he had waited over twenty years for. In his youth he had crossed many rivers to be with Mary, and now he would cross many more.

He called a counsel with his warriors and the elder chiefs and told them he was leaving on a journey to find his wife. "It is time," he said. "Great Spirit knows I belong with Mary Little Deer, wherever she is, and He will guide me." The chiefs and warriors were upset and sad, but could not talk Billy out of his plans.

The next morning, Billy chose two of the strongest horses, one to ride and one as a pack horse. When he was ready to leave, his people gave him a blessing ceremony. Three Arapaho warriors and three Cheyenne warriors insisted they would ride with Billy as far north as the Skagit River, to a point where when Billy crossed the river he would be in Canada and out of danger from the US Calvary. The Upper Skagit tribe were friendly and might be able to help Billy.

Billy had figured that the Lakhota people who had left the Black Hills of South Dakota would have gone north into Canada then traveled west from there. That would have been the wisest move. So, he decided to start as far west in Canada as he could and backtrack towards South Dakota. He had learned many languages of different tribes and some English, so could ask people along the way for any news of Lakhota people.

The Last River

When the small party of warriors reached what is present day Marblemount, Washington, they followed the Skagit River east till they reached the point where Billy could cross into British Columbia, Canada.

They stopped only long enough to wish Billy good luck and say their farewells. It was a sad few moments for all of them. As they were ready to leave a Calvary troop was heading towards them. Billy told his friends to leave and save themselves then he headed into the river to cross as quick as possible.

He could hear gunfire behind him, but when he turned to look, his friends had disappeared into the woods and were riding fast. Billy felt a piercing hot pain in one leg and then one in his shoulder. He managed to get across and head into the woods before he passed out and fell off his horse.

"Shall we go after him, Captain?" The corporal asked when the troop stopped. "Naw, he's in Canada now, not our territory. Besides, he's probably dead. I saw he took at least two bullets," the Captain replied. With the rest of the warriors gone, the troop continued on.

Billy had not known how close he was to Mary, and it was the last river he crossed.

Skagit River in Marblemount, Washington

Skagit River in Marblemount, Washington

Salish Friends

A week later, Mary awoke to the sound of voices in the main room of the house. She felt so much better and started to get up when Jane came rushing in. "Mary, I have to leave for awhile," she was tying a wool scarf on her head. "Two women just came to tell me they needed you to come and help them with," she paused tying the scarf and stared at Mary. "with a sick person. I told them you were ill and that I would go."

Both Mary and Jane were very knowledgeable about healing the sick with herbs and prayer. The Salish people called them medicine women. "Oh! I can go, too, Jane. I am feeling very good today," Mary started to get dressed. "No, no, dear. It is so cold out and you cannot take the risk. There is hot porridge and chicken broth on the stove. You wait in the kitchen for me and drink as much chicken broth as you can." Jane pulled on her shawl and left.


On the way to the Salish village, one of the women explained to Jane what had happened. Several of the women were out in the woods a week ago, gathering nuts and roots. They heard gunfire, saw the Calvary troop and hid, then saw a man fall off his horse. When the Calvary left, they went to the man to see if he was alive. He was. They managed to lift him, lay him across his horse saddle and tied him on securely. They walked the horses back to the village and got help to put the badly wounded man in one of their cabins.

The women cleaned and dressed his wounds then put warm blankets over him. They took turns sitting near him. For days he did not awaken. When he did, he was delirious and kept calling for Mary. "He would mumble, "Little Deer, Mary, Mary." over and over then pass out again. He was feverish and had lost a lot of blood. We kept giving him warm broth when he was awake, which he managed to swallow. He is just coming out of the fever. When he said Mary's name we came to you right away."

Jane was shocked. She did not think it possible that Billy had come this far. They had heard from travelers that the Cheyenne were in many battles and fighting hard to survive. She was almost numb with shock yet felt a glowing excitement. She did not want to let Mary know Billy was here, for she knew Mary would rush to Billy and going out in the bitter cold would set her back with the illness.

When Jane entered the cabin she saw Billy sitting up on the side of his bed. He looked at the women and said, "My horses. I need my horses. I have to find my wife." He was weak, but very alert. "Billy, Billy, it's me, Jane. Mary is just a short ways from here. We will take you to her."

"Jane? It is really you?" he was so short of breath. "My Mary is here? My Mary Little Deer?" He stared at Jane's face when she knelt down and took his hands, tears flowing down her cheeks. Billy was weak, but able to walk, but Jane would not let him walk all the way to Mary. The women ran to get a wagon and they bundled Billy up in the wagon bed. He kept saying, "My Mary Little Deer."


Mary sat at the kitchen table, sipping the hot broth. She had not felt this good in several days. No longer did she want to give in and die to find Billy in spirit. Something was very good about today she kept thinking.

The kitchen door opened and Jane came in with two women, helping a man wrapped in blankets. They guided him to a chair and uncovered his head. Mary felt everything had stopped then return to that last summer with Billy. She stood up, but could not move as she stared at his beloved face.

Billy tried to get up, but Mary was suddenly kneeling beside him, hugging him and kissing his face, her tears flowing like they had that last summer with him.

"I am home. I have crossed my last river, Mary," Billy put his arms around her and they both cried.

© 2017 Phyllis Doyle Burns

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