Christmas is right around the corner. We’re busy. We need more time. More energy. More peace. I like to post a short story every December. My gift to you.
I wrote this little story a few years back. Some of you may have read it. Some of you haven’t. Our family has camped many times in the Qu’Appelle Valley, which is basically our backyard. We have many fond memories. This story touches on how the valley got it’s name.
WAITING FOR MASON by Karyn Good
In the waning light Willa Harris surveyed her version of the prettiest spot on earth. With its shelter of wolf willows and cottonwoods, the tranquil calm of the lake, it soothed her battered heart. She struck a red-tipped match. Held the tiny flame to the bits of dry grass and twig she’d arranged in the middle of an irregular circle of stones. It whiffed out in a puff of wind.
The second match survived the odds and sparked at the broken bits of branch. She held her breath, delighted when it caught. She needed the heat. Tonight the many miles between the rustic Qu’Appelle Valley and her native Toronto were adding up to doubts. She tossed on a couple of smaller branches. Not about setting down roots here. Or Mason. The dry wood caught and she leaned in closer to catch the flare of heat. She reached for her backpack, the motion jarring her swollen ankle. Could she convince Mason she belonged here, too?
Okay, maybe she could use a crash course in backwoods smarts, on how to survive on ants and tree bark tea, that kind of thing. Hiking without falling victim to a sprained ankle. But she was trying. Hadn’t she’d trekked in alone to their special spot? Set things up? Okay, half set things up, but still it proved she was crazy about Mason Shaw, protector of the wild things. Didn’t it?
The darker the night sky and the brighter the moon, the more she felt like maybe Mason wasn’t coming. What if he hadn’t found her note? What if he didn’t show? What then? It’d be her and the howling coyotes. No. Mason would come looking for her. He was like that, straight up honourable in an old fashioned Camelot style that stretched way beyond appealing. She could count on Mason to do the right thing even when he’d rather not.
Willa massaged her throbbing ankle. In the distance the prairie wolves began their nightly serenade of howls and yips, in front of her the yellow-red flames fluttered and weaved. In back of her a breeze whispered through the fresh-leafed aspens. It wasn’t so bad being out here all alone. To disconnect. Take some time to think.
She never heard a sound, not a footstep, snapping twig, or rustle of clothing. Nothing until he appeared on the other side of the fire blocking her view. She froze at the sight of the bent old man who stared back at her. He lifted a hand in greeting a second before he squatted down across from her and set his rifle on the ground beside him.
She braced her hands on the hard packed earth. On instinct she budged backwards and remembered why she wouldn’t get very far. She stared at the old man who was an attention getter. Pain shot up her leg as she reached for one of the dead branches she’d dragged close to the fire. It was the best she could do for a weapon.
“Easy,” he murmured. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
Yeah, right. That’s what all the serial killers said, right before they sacrificed you to gain favor with Satan.
He held up his hands. “Just an old man looking for some warmth from your fire.”
She tried to level out her breathing as she studied him. He looked like some long ago actor from an old western, with his buckskin jacket and beaded belt. Very strange. His First Nations heritage showing on a proud and weathered face. His long salt and pepper hair was neatly braided, his lined face was creased in concentration. She eyed the rifle.
There was never a good time for a lone woman to be surprised by an armed stranger, even an elderly one.
“Mind if I share your fire?” He held out his aged hands to attract the warmth of the blaze then rubbed them together. She didn’t imagine the quiet shutter his withered body threw off.
What could she say? Yes, as a matter of fact, I do? “No. Go ahead.”
“You out here alone?”
“My boyfriend will be here any minute. Mason Shaw? He’s a conservation officer here at the park.” She laid the branch across her lap.
“Never heard of him.” His gaze flicked from her ankle to the small tent behind her. “Nice nest.”
“I guess.” She put her hand over a nearby large rock, an extra from their previous campfire visits, shifted it closer. There was nothing she could do to stop the wince of pain.
“Something wrong? You hurt?” His eyes narrowed as he leaned in.
“No. I’m fine.” He didn’t look dangerous. The rifle made her plenty nervous though and she stared at it a couple of seconds before meeting his eyes. She tried to keep him talking and distracted. “Are you from around here?”
“Sometimes.” His narrow shoulders shrugged under his leather fringed jacket.
Great. Just want she needed. Ambiguity. That didn’t raise any red flags at all.
“Don’t worry, not loaded.” He patted the rifle like an old friend. “I could help you. With that ankle. Take down the swelling.”
“It’s fine. I’m fine. Like I said my boyfriend will be here any minute.”
A look a thousand years old met her gaze across the fire. She winced again, a combination of discomfort and anxiety. Why was she lying? He’d know soon enough Mason wasn’t showing up. But if she sent him away from her fire, what then? Better she keep him close by then wonder if he was lurking around in the bush.
“See that thick thatch of grass over there?” He pointed to his right and, reluctant but determined to keep him happy, she risked a quick squint into the darkness.
“Yeah, barely.” She hesitated. He tilted his head, expectant and patient. She tacked on a “but very interesting” for good measure.
“Here at the valley’s edge protected from the plough by slope or bush, the original native grasses still grow. That sturdy plant fed buffalo who in turn fed the plains grizzly bear and wolf, all disappeared now. Many plants and birds, too.”
Okay. Now he was starting to sound like Mason and as the darkness closed in around them she felt herself start to relax a bit for no good reason until he reached a hand into his jacket. She flinched. He chortled, pulling out a pipe.
“Easy,” he murmured again, like he was used to calming wild things with that voice. Next he pulled out some matches, a package of tobacco, and showed them to her. Then he set them down, came and squatted beside her. He held out his hands. “Easy.”
She looked into his chocolate brown eyes and found herself nodding without knowing what she was agreeing to. He pointed to her foot shod in the flimsy pair of canvas sneakers she’d worn instead of the man boots Mason had bought her. Again she nodded. He slipped the shoe off and then her sock. Willa held her breath. His hands gentle as he handled her foot, probing a bit before setting it back down. He dug a bandana out of another pocket and hobbled to the water’s edge, dipped it in and rung it out.
Back at her side he wrapped her ankle in the frigid blue square of cloth cold from the early June lake water. He propped her foot up and away from the fire, all without saying a word. Back at his side of the fire he picked up his pipe, packed it, lit it and started to talk.
“Many years ago, these shores of what’s called the Fishing Lakes were home to the Cree and Saulteaux Nations. Do you know how this valley got its name?” He took a smidge of tobacco and sprinkled it over the fire.
She shook her head. Whatever else he was he had the voice of a storyteller. Strong without being loud. She had no trouble hearing him even though he spoke softly and the fire crackled between them. Hypnotic, really. Coaxing.
His hand swept out toward the water. “Long, long ago a young warrior brave paddled up the Fishing Lakes in search of a Cree maiden rumoured to be beautiful and very skilled. A treasure. One gifted with the right to choose her own mate.”
He paused to puff on his pipe and she waited. She inched forward, closer to the fire, and he sent her a conspiratorial wink before continuing.
“The maiden liked the look of his strong body but it was his eyes that decided her and she gave him her heart on the spot. The warrior, full of love but bound by duty, had to leave her to battle their enemy, the Blackfoot. Before he left he asked her to wait for him. She agreed. She kept watch for him as the warm months passed, stores were replenished, babies born, milestones celebrated. She marked the passing of every day with a slash on a piece of oak wood. After the first frost, an Indian summer warmed the Valley and she dared to watch and hope for his return.”
Willa knew what was coming. These love stories never ended well. Be it Cree, Shakespearian or any other. Her heart was already breaking in anticipation. “He didn’t come back, did he? He died in battle. And she died of a broken heart. Right?”
“Patience, young one. Patience.” He took another puff of his pipe, nodded at her knapsack. “Maybe you have something to feed an old man in those packs?”
“Sure, I guess.” She snagged the pack, dug out an energy bar and tossed it to him. He unwrapped it, hands slow he bit into it and closed his eyes. Guilt prompted her to offer him a small bag of trail mix, followed by a banana and a brownie. All of which he enjoyed without saying a word. Refusing a second brownie he sat back and with a careful hand brushed away any leftover crumbs. Once again his picked up his pipe and puffed it to life.
“Under a hunter’s moon, having defeated the enemy, the young warrior paddled his canoe back over the quiet waters.” The old man pointed up to the full moon. “Like this one, only at that time of year when the leaves fall and the deer are fat. Victorious but battle weary, the warrior guided his canoe past miles of shadowed empty shores eager to make his way to his woman. Late one night during the last leg of his journey he thought he heard his name whispered over the water. He paid no attention, blaming the tired workings of his mind. The second time he stilled his paddle and listened. He searched the shoreline and saw nothing. Suspicious he raised his voice, ‘Kahtapwao? Who’s calling?’
The fire sparked as her storyteller laid more wood on it. Willa looked out over the calm waters of Echo Lake and imagined a handsome young man in a canoe with a strong steady stroke gliding over the water.
“Receiving no answer he switched to the language used by the French fur traders. ‘Qu’Appelle?’ Again. ‘Who’s calling?’ But his voice was the only one to echo back. Keeping close watch he continued on his journey arriving at the other camp as dawn broke. To his dismay mourning cries greeted him, as did the sight of ceremonial fires. Her father stood on the shore.
“‘Where is she?’ the young warrior demanded. The old chief shook his head. They say the young warrior’s cry carried as far as the next camp. His woman’s father placed a hand on the young man’s arm. ‘Her last thoughts were of you,’ he said. ‘When the Land of Souls called her she fought to remain, but in the end she had no choice. Before she was called away, she whispered your name three times.’ Grief stricken the old chief and the young warrior turned away from each other. One to do his duty and the other to mourn a loss from which he’d never recover.”
“That’s so sad.” Why did legends always have to be so tragic? She rubbed her arms to warm them and then dug out the thermos of hot chocolate she’d brought.
“In the decades that followed my people claimed to hear her death whispers calling his name across the water of the Fishing Lakes. Now they want to rename them the Calling Lakes. Better for tourism.” He gaze settled on the moonlit water. “And that’s why they call this the Qu’Appelle Valley.”
“It’s a beautiful story.” She poured him a cup and offered it. “I wished they could have been together. Loved each other. Raised a family.”
“Ah.” He toasted her, a smile on his wrinkled face. “A romantic.”
“After the story you just told, I’d say we share that fate.”
He shrugged and put his borrowed travel cup down. Tucked away his pipe and matches.
“Wait, where are you going?” She panicked when he stood up. It was dark, even under the light of a full moon, and she didn’t want him to go and leave her here all alone.
“Listen.” And he pointed.
She turned, focused on the direction he was indicating and heard the sounds of someone breaking trail. Mason called her name and she smiled. Thank goodness. She turned back to explain the situation to the old man. She frowned as she searched for him. The fire casting a few feet of light over empty space.
Mason called her name again, a little closer this time.
“I’m here,” she called out.
“Yes. It’s me. I’m fine.” Careful of her foot, she stood up and waited for Mason to walk out of the bush. The glow from his flashlight announcing his arrival.
“Thank God. Willa.” The relief in his voice warmed her. Then he rushed towards her big, strong and everything she wanted.
She smiled and held out her arms. “Hey. There you are. I’ve been waiting for you.”