“The Red River Valley”

Have you ever heard that old song? It’s as old as the hills, they say. It’s just one of many such songs; the kind of music that has woven America into the rich tapestry of history she is today. But who wrote those words? Who first hummed that tune? There is always a story behind the song—legend or life. We might never know the names of the real cowboys, pioneers, slaves and sailors who gave us our folksongs, spirituals, and shanties. But with respect to these unsung heroes of our country’s past, I will write their story.

 

“Watertown? South Dakota? Oh, Polly, no!” Ma lamented. “Why so far away?”

“Sweetheart, I’m sure you could find just as good a job in Cottonwood Springs,” said Pa.

I stood my ground. “Sure, I could make a dollar a week serving tables at the hotel. No, Pa. A woman has a place in the city. I’ve written the chief law offices in Denver, and I’ve found an opening as a secretary.”

“But you’re so young!” protested my mother. “You’re place is here on the claim.”

“I’m almost nineteen, Ma,” I reminded her. “I can take care of myself. I’m not a little girl anymore; I can’t live my life milking cows and washing dishes.” To clinch the argument, I drew my train ticket from my pocket. “See? It’s all settled.”

Pa leaned forward earnestly. “But what will Quincy say?”

Before he could finish the sentence I whirled up the stairs, muttering through clenched teeth, “He’ll just have to court some other girl.”

 

Dust-devils spun back and forth across the dirt streets and my skirts whipped in the force of the wind. I stood by the train station. It took me a moment to realize that Quincy was behind me.

“When will I see you again?” he asked in his low drawl.

“A year or two, perhaps.” The train’s whistle howled in the distance.

“That’s a long time, Polly.”

I finally turned to look at him and was struck by the sad gaze in Quincy’s normally stoic face. We stood looking at each other as the train hissed and squealed to a stop, puffing oven-hot air over my face. His horse, a sturdy cowpony, stood behind him, staunch in the racket of the iron monster. As the conductor called for passengers, I stretched out my hand to Quincy. With his calloused fingers he clasped mine tenderly.

“Goodbye, Quincy,” I said.

Then I turned and boarded the train. In my seat I watched him grow smaller and smaller as the train picked up speed. Long after Quincy, his horse, the station, and Cottonwood Springs disappeared, I still stared out the window.

 

My fingers ached from the typewriter keys from what seemed like hours of copying documents. After the grueling train trip the previous night, it had taken all evening to find a boarding house in the big city of Watertown. That morning I had overslept and barely made it to the office on time. My tired mind wandered; it was hard to concentrate on the stiff, strange keys and boring words.

Every time I typed the letter q I thought of the man I had left behind. That frustrated me. Long ago I had decided that I would never marry a poor cowhand who spent more time with cattle and horses than me. But his handsome face was haunting.

I bit back a groan as I misspelled a word. “Any more of that,” I thought, “and I’ll be done for.” Over the course of the day I received callers, wrote letters dictated by Mr. Stanley and Mr. Sherman, and kept track of appointments and bills. By the time I fell into the bed in my tiny apartment I was thoroughly exhausted. I hadn’t eaten much and my head ached, but fell into a fitful sleep.

The next day was much like the first. At the end of my work as I stepped outside, the sun hit me. I thought of Quincy and my father too, both laboring out in the blistering heat while I sat in the cool law office. As a respite I walked through the small city park and found an empty bench. Not far away two girls not much younger than I were playing with a kitten in the grass, laughing and chattering. Troubled, I made my way to the boarding house.

“Was that how Quincy saw me?” I said to myself. “As a cheerful, carefree girl?”

There I was, a woman with a job in the city, dressed in sharp clothes and wearing a stylish hat. Around me bicycles, automobiles and trolleys banged and honked and clattered through the streets. Wind blew trash, exhaust and dust all around me and dirty gray buildings pierced the sky. Crowds of people surged this way and that without a glance at me.

All at once the blindfold fell from my face and I panicked. What was I thinking? Why had I come alone to such an ugly, unforgiving place? My parents had been right. What a foolish, naïve child I had been. I marched resolutely right back to the office and without blinking an eye quit the job. In my room I felt like singing as I threw my clothes into my bags. I slept well that night.

Stars were still out when I boarded the earliest train next morning. While the few passengers around me dozed, I was wide-awake and indefatigable. I smiled when the train crossed the border into North Dakota. As the day sped on, towns grew farther apart and the farm fields and vast prairie blurred together. I had returned to the valley I called home. At last, the train stopped. I stepped off the train and took a deep breath of country air. I could see sky! Real, blue, untainted sky. Around me folks called out “Hello, Polly!” “Glad to see you back!” I caught a ride on a farmer’s hay wagon and rode blissfully in the golden straw for several miles. Then I gripped my bags and headed towards the setting sun.

On the way, cresting a hill, I passed a glen of trees. Then I stopped, recognizing a colorful roan coat in the shrubs. It was Quincy’s mare. Softly I crept through the trees and behind Quincy, who was stretched out on the grass with his guitar. I saw him as if with new eyes; he was no longer a poor cowboy to me. He was a hardworking, faithful man; an everyday hero in boots and jeans. Then I perked up my ears and listened—he was singing in that low, familiar drawl.

“From this valley they say you are goin’

We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile

For they say you are takin’ the sunshine

That has brightened our pathway a while…

“So come sit by my side, if you love me

Do not hasten to bid me adieu

Just remember the Red River Valley

And the cowboy that loved you so true.”

 

 

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