Did you ever "holiday" through the valley lands of the Dry Belt? Ever spend days and days in a swinging, swaying coach, behind a four-in-hand, when "Curly" or "Nicola Ned" held the ribbons, and tooled his knowing little leaders and wheelers down those horrifying mountain-trails that wind like russet skeins of cobweb through the heights and depths of the Okanagan, the Nicola, and the Similkameen countries? If so, you have listened to the call of the Skookum Chuck, as the Chinook speakers call the rollicking, tumbling streams that sing their way through the canyons with a music so dulcet, so insistent, that for many moons the echo of it lingers in your listening ears, and you will, through all the years to come, hear the voices of those mountain-rivers calling you to return.
But the most haunting of all the melodies is the warbling laughter of the Tulameen; its delicate note is far more powerful, more far-reaching than the throaty thunders of Niagara. That is why the Indians of the Nicola country still cling to their old-time story that the Tulameen carries the spirit of a young girl enmeshed in the wonders of its winding course; a spirit that can never free itself from the canyons, to rise above the heights and follow its fellows to the Happy Hunting Grounds, but which is contented to entwine its laughter, its sobs, its lonely whispers, its still lonelier call for companionship, with the wild music of the waters that sing forever beneath the western stars.
As your horses plod up and up the almost perpendicular trail that leads out of the Nicola Valley to the summit, a paradise of beauty outspreads at your feet; the color is indescribable in words, the atmosphere thrills you. Youth and the pulse of rioting blood are yours again, until, as you near the heights, you become strangely calmed by the voiceless silence of it all—a silence so holy that it seems the whole world about you is swinging its censer before an altar in some dim remote cathedral! The choir-voices of the Tulameen are yet very far away across the summit, but the heights of the Nicola are the silent prayer that holds the human soul before the first great chords swell down from the organ-loft. In this first long climb up miles and miles of trail, even the staccato of the drivers' long black-snake whip is hushed. He lets his animals pick their own sure-footed way, but once across the summit he gathers the reins in his steely fingers, gives a low, quick whistle, the whiplash curls about the ears of the leaders and the plunge down the dip of the mountain begins. Every foot of the way is done at a gallop. The coach rocks and swings as it dashes through a trail rough-hewn from the heart of the forest; at times the angles are so abrupt that you cannot see the heads of the leaders as they swing around the grey crags that almost scrape the tires on the left, while within a foot of the rim of the trail the right wheels whirl along the edge of a yawning canyon. The rhythm of the hoof-beats, the recurrent low whistle and crack of the whiplash, the occasional rattle of pebbles showering down to the depths, loosened by rioting wheels, have broken the sacred silence. Yet, above all those nearby sounds, there seems to be an indistinct murmur, which grows sweeter, more musical, as you gain the base of the mountains, where it rises above all harsher notes. It is the voice of the restless Tulameen as it dances and laughs through the rocky throat of the canyon, three hundred feet below. Then, following the song, comes a glimpse of the river itself—white-garmented in the film of its countless rapids, its showers of waterfalls. It is as beautiful to look at as to listen to, and it is here, where the trail winds about and above it for leagues, that the Indians say it caught the spirit of the maiden that is still interlaced in its loveliness.
It was in one of the terrible battles that raged between the valley tribes before the white man's footprints were seen along these trails. None can now tell the cause of this warfare, but the supposition is that it was merely for tribal supremacy—that primeval instinct that assails the savage in both man and beast, that drives the hill-men to bloodshed and the leaders of buffalo herds to conflict. It is the greed to rule; the one barbarous instinct that civilization has never yet been able to eradicate from armed nations. This war of the tribes of the valley lands was of years in duration; men fought, and women mourned, and children wept, as all have done since time began. It seemed an unequal battle, for the old, experienced, war-tried chief and his two astute sons were pitted against a single young Tulameen brave. Both factors had their loyal followers, both were indomitable as to courage and bravery, both were determined and ambitious, both were skilled fighters.
But on the older man's side were experience and two other wary, strategic brains to help him, while on the younger was but the advantage of splendid youth and unconquerable persistence. But at every pitched battle, at every skirmish, at every single-handed conflict the younger man gained little by little, the older man lost step by step. The experience of age was gradually but inevitably giving way to the strength and enthusiasm of youth. Then, one day, they met face to face and alone—the old, war-scarred chief, the young battle-inspired brave. It was an unequal combat, and at the close of a brief but violent struggle the younger had brought the older to his knees. Standing over him with up-poised knife the Tulameen brave laughed sneeringly, and said:
"Would you, my enemy, have this victory as your own? If so, I give it to you; but in return for my submission I demand of you—your daughter."
For an instant the old chief looked in wonderment at his conqueror; he thought of his daughter only as a child who played about the forest-trails or sat obediently beside her mother in the lodge, stitching her little moccasins or weaving her little baskets.
"My daughter!" he answered sternly. "My daughter—who is barely out of her own cradle-basket—give her to you, whose hands are blood-dyed with the killing of a score of my tribe? You ask for this thing?"
"I do not ask it," replied the young brave. "I demand it; I have seen the girl and I shall have her."
The old chief sprang to his feet and spat out his refusal. "Keep your victory, and I keep my girl-child," though he knew he was not only defying his enemy, but defying death as well.
The Tulameen laughed lightly, easily. "I shall not kill the sire of my wife," he taunted. "One more battle must we have, but your girl-child will come to me."
Then he took his victorious way up the trail, while the old chief walked with slow and springless step down into the canyon.
The next morning the chief's daughter was loitering along the heights, listening to the singing river, and sometimes leaning over the precipice to watch its curling eddies and dancing waterfalls. Suddenly she heard a slight rustle, as though some passing bird's wing had clipt the air. Then at her feet there fell a slender, delicately shaped arrow. It fell with spent force, and her Indian woodcraft told her it had been shot to her, not at her. She started like a wild animal. Then her quick eye caught the outline of a handsome, erect figure that stood on the heights across the river. She did not know him as her father's enemy. She only saw him to be young, stalwart, and of extraordinary manly beauty. The spirit of youth and of a certain savage coquetry awoke within her. Quickly she fitted one of her own dainty arrows to the bow-string and sent it winging across the narrow canyon; it fell, spent, at his feet, and he knew she had shot it to him, not at him.
Next morning, woman-like, she crept noiselessly to the brink of the heights. Would she see him again—that handsome brave? Would he speed another arrow to her? She had not yet emerged from the tangle of forest before it fell, its faint-winged flight heralding its coming. Near the feathered end was tied a tassel of beautiful ermine-tails. She took from her wrist a string of shell beads, fastened it to one of her little arrows, and winged it across the canyon, as yesterday.
The following morning, before leaving the lodge, she fastened the tassel of ermine-tails in her straight black hair. Would he see them? But no arrow fell at her feet that day, but a dearer message was there on the brink of the precipice. He himself awaited her coming—he who had never left her thoughts since that first arrow came to her from his bow-string. His eyes burned with warm fires, as she approached, but his lips said simply: "I have crossed the Tulameen River." Together they stood, side by side, and looked down at the depths before them, watching in silence the little torrent rollicking and roystering over its boulders and crags.
"That is my country," he said, looking across the river. "This is the country of your father, and of your brothers; they are my enemies. I return to my own shore to-night. Will you come with me?"
She looked up into his handsome young face. So this was her father's foe—the dreaded Tulameen!
"Will you come?" he repeated.
"I will come," she whispered.
It was in the dark of the moon and through the kindly night he led her far up the rocky shores to the narrow belt of quiet waters, where they crossed in silence into his own country. A week, a month, a long golden summer, slipped by, but the insulted old chief and his enraged sons failed to find her.
Then, one morning, as the lovers walked together on the heights above the far upper reaches of the river, even the ever-watchful eyes of the Tulameen failed to detect the lurking enemy. Across the narrow canyon crouched and crept the two outwitted brothers of the girl-wife at his side; their arrows were on their bow-strings, their hearts on fire with hatred and vengeance. Like two evil-winged birds of prey those arrows sped across the laughing river, but before they found their mark in the breast of the victorious Tulameen the girl had unconsciously stepped before him. With a little sigh, she slipped into his arms, her brothers' arrows buried into her soft, brown flesh.
It was many a moon before his avenging hand succeeded in slaying the old chief and those two hated sons of his. But when this was finally done the handsome young Tulameen left his people, his tribe, his country, and went into the far north. "For," he said, as he sang his farewell war-song, "my heart lies dead in the Tulameen River."
* * * * *
But the spirit of his girl-wife still sings through the canyon, its song blending with the music of that sweetest-voiced river in all the great valleys of the Dry Belt. That is why this laughter, the sobbing murmur of the beautiful Tulameen, will haunt for evermore the ear that has once listened to its song.