The Weeks family offered roadhouse services to travellers in the Jordan Meadows area, where this tale is set. (T.W. Paterson collection)

T.W. Paterson column: A Cowichan Christmas Eve like no other

“I let go with both barrels loaded with buckshot.”

“I let go with both barrels loaded with buckshot. Boys, they didn’t notice it as much as a puff of wind.”—Pop Walker.

We have Cobble Hill’s George A. Cheeke to thank for this spine-tingler that could have served as a script for the late Rod Serling’s classic television series, The Twilight Zone.

It was published as a Cowichan Chronicle a dozen years ago but will be new to many Citizen readers today.

George and Edith Cheeke arrived from England around 1900 and built a home on the Shawnigan Lake-Cobble Hill Road. George became active in community affairs — “he was always chairman or president of some group,” according to the late Cobble Hill historian Adelaide Ellis — and Mrs. Cheeke served as first president of the local Women’s Institute. Although we don’t know anything about George’s past life in the Old Country, it’s obvious that he had a way with words. In 1912 he won a short story contest that was described by the judges as “a cleverly written tale of great interest”.

Indeed it is! Cheeke uses real places, if not real names, and places his story in the winter of 1892, give or take, about the time of copper mining activity in the Shawnigan area, when it was hoped that mines such as the King Solomon would duplicate the boom on Mount Sicker. His reference to the Silvermine Trail also ties in with William Robertson’s ill-fated silver mine in that area. Is his story fiction? Or is it, like his locales and historical setting, based on fact?

You’ll have to judge for yourself. Here, then, in the words of George Cheeke’s character, Pop Walker, is his eerie Christmas Tale of the Koksilah…

“Any of you young fellers round here in the big freeze-up of 92?” asked old Pop Walker, taking his pipe from his mouth, and looking, as was his habit, not at his listeners, but straight in front of him. Getting no answer, he went on reflectively:

“Say, boys, that was a freeze. The lake here froze seven inches, and we hauled all the logs across easy. Easy till the snow come, that was, and the snow come, and, by gosh, you’d a thought it was never going to let up, and then comes a big freeze again, and the logging outfit shuts down.

“Well, this hasn’t much to do with the yarn I’m going to tell you, but, say, boys, I’ve been listening to you fellers, and something one of you said put me in mind of the night Oireland and me spent at Laverock’s, just 20 years ago. Many a time I’ve thought of the thing that happened there that night, but I don’t seem to get wiser to it nohow.

“It was this way. When the logging camp shut down, me and Patsy Hennessy, or Oireland, as we called him, took our guns, and some flour and some tea, and started up the old Silvermine Trail, to get some deer for the camp. Nothing in that, mind you, we’d often done it before, and knew the country well, bin right out to the Jordan Meadows in fact.

“Well, boys, we walked on top of that snow, right out to the old Koksilah Bridge, and when we got there, why, I guess neither of us was an artist, but we just had to stand and look at the old river. You knows, boys, as well as I do, the rush of water past what we now call the Burnt Bridge. How it has cut a rugged channel for itself in the solid rock, a stubborn spike of the limestone standing here and there in the middle with the water breaking round it. That’s its work-a-day dress, but [that] day it had its party clothes on, as one might say. In the cold December sun the banks glistened white with ice and snow, and the steel-blue water just rushed solid in between. The river wasn’t in flood, you understand, the thaw hadn’t come yet, but there was enough water to bury all obstructions, and the only word I can find for the whole scene is — Majestical.

“Well, as I said, we tramped from the camp to the bridge, and never a son-of-a-gun deer trail did we see. I was for hiking back, but Oireland says: ‘Come on a bit up along the bank; we’ll likely find one in a swamp’; and sure enough, about a mile further up, he shot a fine young buck. A dead shot with the rifle was Oireland, as I’ll have you remember presently; and I had a bird gun.

“I don’t know if I told you that this was the day before Christmas, when daylight’s none too plentiful, and by the time we’d cleaned up the deer, it was starting to get dark.

“’Come on,’ says Oireland, ‘let’s camp at Laverock’s. It’s only about a mile, and we’ll be fresh to go back at sun-up.’

“So we started in to pack the deer to Laverock’s cabin. Any of you boys know Laverock’s? No? Say, he must have been a queer fellow that one. He built his cabin right in the track of the prospectors, and they used it as a sort of half-way house; but the queer thing was he’d built the shack right across a little creek, just a trickle it was, that ran through the middle of the floor. The shack’s there still, but I wouldn’t take as many planks as all you boys have got teeth to sleep another Christmas Eve in it.

“When we got to the shack, we found it, as I tell you, a little stream, running in a ditch across the middle of the floor, or rather it wasn’t running when we got there, being quite froze up. There was only one room, about 20 by 15, with a door and window in front, and a small window and rough stone fireplace at the back; and that’s all there was to it, as the bunks and table had been chopped up long before.

“We was glad to see the last feller had left plenty of wood and bark, and Oireland and me soon had a good fire going, the kettle on for tea, some biscuits cooking, and deer meat sizzling on the end of green sticks.

“Say, boys, you bet your life we were ready for it just as soon as it was ready for tea. Then a few more logs on the fire, and pipes and baccy…

“It would be about 10 o’clock when we figured it was time to hit the hay, and then we noticed the heat of the room had started that little drain to running. Naturally, it wasn’t running out as fast as it was running in, but that didn’t worry us any. We both had a mug of water out of it, and very good, clear water it was, which is another point I’ll get you boys to remember. Then we went to have a look at the night, and found it bright and clear, with the moon near full, and perishing cold.

“Suddenly, Oireland turns to me. ‘Whisht,’ says he, ‘listen to that now.’ And, sure enough, faint in the far distance, I heard a long-drawn howl, and then a chorus of howls.

‘Holy Moses!’ gasps Oireland, ‘t’is the banshee, me son. Holy saints protect us,’ and he fled back to the cabin. But I knew better. I had learnt a good deal from those hard, old prospectors who had come back over the trail. I went into the cabin and found Oireland on his knees. I shook him roughly.

“’Get up, you crazy loon!’

“I cried, ‘T’is no banshee you heard, but the wolves hunting on Jordan Meadows. Now see here, Oireland,’ I went on, seeing that what I said simply made him enlarge the form of his prayers to include wolves also, ‘they are a good 15 miles from here, and get plenty of food in their own country. They won’ bother us.’

“At last I got him quiet, and we went to sleep. It would then be about 11 o’clock. Now, mind you, boys, we had been hunting all day, and Oireland and me had made a fine supper, so we ought to have slept like logs; but sleep, that could be called sleep, didn’t come to either of us. The trickle of the water, for one thing, annoyed me; and then again, whether it was fancy or not I didn’t know, but I thought I heard those cussed coyotes howling nearer and nearer. Oireland, after laying tossing and muttering, half asleep and half awake, at last sunk into a sort of doze; and after I heard him snore I don’t remember anything more myself.

“I was awoke by a perfect crash of yells, and, from the place where I lay, I saw Oireland jump from the ground, and rush to the window at the back of the room.

“’For the love of God, mate!’ said he, with a sort of sob in his voice, ‘come here quick!’

“I was over the floor in a twinkling, and beside him at the window; and there, in the full glare of the moonlight, I saw — Well, boys, it makes me shiver now when I think of it. I saw the figure of a man, labouring and plunging across the snow towards the shack, and a pack of about 20 timber wolves so close behind as to make it certain that he would never reach it alive.

“’God in heaven!’ gasped Oireland, ‘t’is a praste,” and sure enough, I noticed the shaved patch on his head as he came nearer. He had evidently thrown his hat to the brutes in the hope of gaining a little time.

“’Hold up, yer Riverence!’ yells Oireland; ‘I’ll pepper the devils for ye,’ and he rested his rifle on the window sill and emptied the magazine into the pack.

“They came on, however, as bold as before, and well they might, for Oireland had never touched a wolf. And a dead shot with the rifle was Oireland.

“He had no time to reload; the priest was now but 30 yards away, and the wolves almost upon him. The risk of hitting the man was great, but I was bound to take it. I let go with both barrels loaded with buckshot. Boys, they didn’t notice it as much as a puff of wind.

“Then, like a flash, they were on him, and rolled him over on the snow, not more than 15 yards from the back of the shack; and the snapping and snarling was dreadful to hear. Oireland was like one crazy. He clubbed his rifle and rushed out of the door.

“’Come on, damn you!’ he yelled to me, ‘and send these devils back to hell!’

“After him I went, and round to the back of the house, and up the little rise, to where the poor priest had met his end. Boys, the snow was hard and unbroken, without track or stain. We searched without a word, not daring to question each other. At last Oireland said, with a break in his voice: ‘By gum, it’s a rum go!”

“’Sure,’ said I, ‘it’s a rum go.’

“Without a word we went back to the shack, and there Oireland collapsed. I had no whisky, so I took a little mug of water from the little stream on the floor, and held it to his lips.

“’My God!’ he shrieked, ‘look at the water!’

“Boys, it was as red as blood.

“I don’t know how we got back to the camp. Ran most of the way, I think. The whole thing shook me up pretty bad, and Oireland was never the same man again. Lost his nerve, and fell off a trestle bridge some time after, I heard…

There was a long silence as Pop’s audience waited with bated breath for him to continue.

“’Well?’”said someone at last.

“Well, as I was telling you, Oireland was a different man from that night. Never a word would he say about it, but I have talked it over with quite a few, trying if I could get wise to it, you understand, and, one day, over in Seattle, sitting with some feller in the hotel, I told him the yarn as I’ve told it to you.

“An old man sitting next to us butted in. ‘Say, I was prospecting up the Silvermine (Trail) in ‘87, and there was a tale of a missionary chap starting back the year before along that trail from holding a service at the prospectors’ camp.

‘Bout Christmas, it was.’

“’Well?’ we asked. ‘Well,’ says he, ‘he never come out at the other end; that’s all. Say, stranger,’ says he, ‘that’s the curiosest thing that I heard in all my life. Seems to sorter nick in, boys, don’t it?’”

FOOTNOTE: Cheeke’s locale and historical setting are factual. It’s interesting to note that the Weeks family offered roadhouse services to travellers in the Jordan Meadows area, not far from the locale of Cheeke’s story.

Whether any of his dramatic telling, worthy of a television script, is for real we’ll never know. But it’s a tale about a Cowichan Christmas Eve like no other!

www.twpaterson.com

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