The Uncollected Prose of Pauline Johnson

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The Call of the Old Qu'Appelle Valley

In the very heart of the great Province of Saskatchewan stretches the most wonderful valley in all the prairie country. Its early history, its present productiveness, its all-time beauty and romance are unequalled by any portion of the vast country that outrolls between the Red River and the Rockies. That magic name “Qu'Appelle” has lured men from overseas, from the far reaches of the Maritime Provinces, from the great country to the south of us, from the borders of our own Pacific. The charm of its past, the promise of its future have beckoned with irresistible finger. When a man gets the name “Qu'Appelle” into his blood, it is like the enticement of the sea; to strive against it is useless, for it will get him eventually. It is the unexpected beauty that captivates, and as you drive along the level prairie trails you have no warning that a few rods before you Nature has opened her arms so silently that it seems like a transition into a dream world when at your feet there stretches a long peaceful chain of lakes margined with wolf willows and cottonwoods, and enclosed by a distant rim of russet-colored heights, whose summits are peakless and level, for from their topmost reaches the prairie again rolls out its limitless miles into the north. Only the artist in sepia understands how strangely beautiful a landscape can be painted in tints of brown alone. The valley is prodigal with its browns, and a score of shades blend into a harmony of russet I have never elsewhere seen, and in this cup of warmth and color sleeps the old Hudson's Bay trading post, Fort Qu'Appelle. Its stockade has long since given place to a large cluster of houses that cling like a fringe about this base of supplies, and from the slender mast that uplifts above the “Post” floats the Union Jack from dawn to dark—in accordance with one of the old-time laws of the H.B.C. It is the one touch of brilliant color that only serves to accentuate the world of velvet brown that sweeps from east to west as far as the eye can see.

For one hundred and fifty miles the valley lolls and lounges through the prairie; its ranch lands are very desirable, its farm lands hold in high favor, crops seldom suffer the tragedy of early frosts, and no one ever complains of “hard times,” unless we except the peculiar experience of an English homesteader who in his first year in Saskatchewan had the most unusual adventure which resulted in the ruination of his entire season's work. It all arose from the every-day fact that like most ranchers he chose lands bordering on a waterway—an innocent little river that made one of the myriad streams that feed the Qu'Appelle lakes. It had been a dry season, but just before his crops were ready for the reaper this little river began to rise—there were no rains up country, nothing to swell the streams and the circumstance was looked upon as a phenomenon. The water arose above the banks, then began to back, the stream seemingly running up grade. His lands became inundated, while he stood helplessly by and watched field after field of grain being gradually submerged. He had toiled early and late to establish this home in a new land, and now within a few days his efforts must go for nothing. His voice arose in anything but benedictions on Canada—Saskatchewan and Qu'Appelle in particular. Then an Indian happened by and smilingly informed him that he need not worry, that the disaster was the result of a large colony of beavers, who had made their haunts and built their dams at the lower edge of his farm.

“I'll shoot the whole bally lot of them,” announced the rancher.

“Don't,” said the Indian. “Close season for seven years. The government will fine you more than your crops are worth. There are hundreds of beaver down there working on that dam.”

“Then I'll break the dam,” declared the rancher in despair.

“Just as bad as killing them,” answered the Indian. “Government says no one must destroy beaver lodges.”

“Then I'll see the government,” growled the ruined man. And this, the Indian agreed, was the sensible thing to do. And the outcome of it all was the government at Ottawa paid the rancher richly for his crops, presented him with a more valuable ranch up the valley, but at the same time impressed him that the beaver must not be molested in any way, that they were more precious than wheat and oats, that the rancher may ask and would receive any compensation he desired, but that the little workers that had ruined his crops must have a free hand to build and to breed wherever they chose. So eventually the English rancher announced that apart from having any quarrel with them, that he owed his initial prosperity to the busy little animal homesteader that crests the Arms of the Great Dominion. That was four years ago, but the rancher's mischievous little enemies have meanwhile been nursed in the hollow of the government hand, and have developed into the largest colony of beaver inside the borders of civilization of the prairie country.

But the old-timer in the valley talks not to you of beaver, or wheat, or cattle, nor even the early days of the H.B.C. He does not have much to say about the “Northwest Rebellion,” or the stormy history of the half-bloods or fur traders, but you will not be long in Fort Qu'Appelle before he will ask you if you ever heard why the valley was given this name, which he pronounces in a “clipped” fashion that stays in your memory long after he has finished his story. The legend has become a classic in the lore of the Northwest. It is known from the Montana border to far Herchell Island, wherever a voyager dips his paddle blade—whenever a North-West Mounted Policeman patrols his trail, whenever an H.B.C. Trader barters with his Indian hunter, whenever the Metis trapper stalks and snares his game, whenever the moccasined foot of the Indian takes its silent way by the wood or water. This legend of Qu'Appelle Valley is repeated over and over, beside the camp-fire and the cattle corral, beside trail and tepee, from redman and white, you will hear this tale of love and longing and fidelity, which has been perpetuated in that haunting ancient name, “Qu'Appelle.”

She was a slender Cree maiden of rare beauty, and many gifts, no fingers could weave the rabbit skin robe as deftly as hers, no palms get so fine a polish on the black buffalo horns, no teeth could knead to such pliability the braided lariet, no eye could so blend the vari-colored beads on the buckskin moccasin. Many a pale-face trader stopped at the door of her father's tepee, loth to continue his journey while her dark eyes held him, but she would always smile gently and shake her head when they would ask old Fox-Foot for his daughter, and he, an indulgent father, would turn his face away from the proffered blankets and ponies they would offer—and so let her have her own way, her own choice.

But it was not so when one early April day the young Cree warrior, Three Eagles, came paddling his canoe leisurely up the lake towards her father's lodge. She had smiles for him, but no shake of the head, and old Fox-Foot listened to the handsome warrior, and accepted many blankets from his eager hands.

For a few days, Three Eagles lingered, battling against himself, for within his ears two contradictory sounds were conflicting, one melodious and alluring, the other rancorous but compelling one. The voice of the dark-eyed girl in his host's tepee, the other the war cry of the hated Blackfoots, the natural enemies of his tribe. A brief day he gave to love. Then he painted his face with the battle colors of the Cree, and said farewell to Fox-Foot's daughter.

“When the misty days of Indian Summer come to rest in the lake lands, I shall return,” he told her. “We shall have driven the Blackfoots far south of Moose Mountains and the Cypress Hills. You will wait for the Indian Summer, and for me?” he asked.

“I will wait,” she said.

“And when I come—you will return with me? To mine own tepee?”

“Yes, I will return with you.”

He re-entered his canoe, his paddle dipped silently with the still waters of the lake; she watched him slip away to the far reaches of the South-West shore. Then she turned again to her father's tepee, while her little lips said over and over again: “My Three Eagles—my Three Eagles.”

Autumn was breathing above the valley, and the hunter's moon hung in the velvet purple of a sky that only in Saskatchewan broods through the night hours that envelope the countless leagues of level prairie.

Three Eagles paddled noiselessly up the lakes that linked together, stretched many miles through the valley. His head bore proudly a new eagle plume, a token of his victory over the Blackfoots, but his eyes held nothing of the harshness of war, only the eager light of love blazed from their depths—only the nearing of his heart's desire touched his fine young face with a greater nobility—than the war paint of his tribe could ever impart. The distant shores arose about him, shadowy, silent, unpeopled. The distant moon hung above him; a silvery and tender love torch, as each hour dragged by on leaden wings, he quickened his stroke; he must reach Fox-Foot's tepee in the early dawn, for another day of longing was beyond even his warrior heart to endure. Mile upon mile his canoe traversed the waters, swifter, keener as time loitered on. The silence of the night, the vastness of the valley, made him feel singularly, strangely, alone. Suddenly he stilled his paddle blade—from some dim, mysterious distance, a far, faint voice spoke his name; he listened intensely. Then once more, the voice, gentler and fainter.

He lifted his head. “Who calls?” His voice flung across the night. There was no answer. “Who calls?” he repeated. Still no answer. Then once again, that far faint murmur of his name. “Perhaps it is some Metis,” his thoughts urged. “I'll answer in the French. Qu'Appelle?” he called. Then again, “Qu'Appelle!” From the shadowy shores the echo came back. “Qu'Appelle, Qu'Appelle.” That was all.

At daybreak, he reached the bend below Fox-Foot's tepee. Along the shores fires burned—death fires, and the wail of many voices arose mournfully amongst the wolf willows and cottonwoods. Something in his eager lover's heart froze icily as he leapt ashore.

“Where is she? Where is she?” he demanded, but Fox-Foot, with bowed head stood before him—alone.

“Last night, before she died, she called your name three times,” the old man said simply.

The Saskatchewan old-timer loves the legend, and always concludes it with:

“Since then, this valley has been known as the ‘Qu'Appelle.’”