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BATES, David Merrill With heavy hearts the family...

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Arts & CultureJohn Dunn's StoriesThe Celebrated Case of the Chalk River Local and the Charley Cow: A John Dunn story

The Celebrated Case of the Chalk River Local and the Charley Cow: A John Dunn story


Neither Dinny O’Brien nor Norman the Red had any expectation, not even the slightest, that good fortune would be awaiting them at the Snedden way station crossing over the railway on that morning in June, 1932.

When they left home on the twelfth line of Huntley to derive in to Almonte, they took the longer way, out to the Panmure highway, and along to Tommy Coady’s creek, in spite of the faction that the road meant a stiff climb for little Nellie, the black mare, up the slope of the ravine forming the creek wall. But once over that obstacle, the way was pretty level all the way across the rock plateau almost to the way station crossing. Level, but dull. Thin soil supported cedars that grew spindly and stunted, and junipers that crowded together for protection against the sweep of the west wind in winter, and in turn offered a haven in the storms to rabbits that travelled the place in pairs to share the slim pickings the land offered.

Even on the forced road that took them past the Currie place and the Arthurs place, Dinny and Norman sat like two crows on a dead limb. A bag of oats on the buggy seat cushioned the countrymen from road shock, but it also enabled them to listen to the tlot, tlot of the mare’s hooves and to hear the stones skittering away from the steel tires of the buggy wheels. From the top of a big elm tree a cicada whizzed, torturing the air with its scream, and a frustrated woodpecker vented its rage on the top of a telephone pole.

Everything was as it should be.

A half mile from the way station Dinny and Norman came to the small stone quarry on the rocky ridge before the road dipped down to the land of cultivated fields below the ridge. Bees loaded down with fresh nectar from a clover field on the right side of the road share the blossoms with a herd of black and white cattle that stood knee-deep in the alfalfa, mowing ahead steadily, and heads down, intent on breakfast.

Peace and tranquility hung over the scene like an umbrella.

Dinny and Norman let their gaze sweep contentedly far away to the ridge of the Blueberry Mountains of Pakenham, and even further to the slim line of the upper reaches of the Calabogie before they moved back to the cleft in the ground where the Mississippi River had caught this land in its grip centuries ago, and then through Jim Bingham’s fields and barns to a sight which, ordinary in its own way, captured the vision of the buggy-riders and magnetized their eyes to itself. The Chalk River local, locomotive, coal car, baggage and mail car, and two coaches, with the dew of the upper Ottawa Valley melting off its flanks after hop, step and jumping through Pembroke, Renfrew, Arnprior, and Pakenham, now headed for the Snedden way station. It moved, it breathed, it ran on rails, and it plowed steadily on.

Everything sat in its accustomed place and station.

“Whoa back,” Dinny broke silence to bring Nellie to a stop fifty yards from the crossing. Cattle near the fence bordering the right of way plowed ahead. The train kept on. A hundred yards from the crossing the train’s whistle blasted a warming. Twenty head of cattle fled in wild alarm. The one bull in the herd stamped toward the fence, crashed on through, and rushed the crossing.

“Look out, look out, charley cow,” Norman admonished.

Alas, alas, too late, too late. The cowcatcher caught the bull full in the flank, flung it in the air, and then deposited its carcass lifeless and broken alongside the tracks impeding its progress.

The impact proved it had been a monumental mismatch from the start. ‘Twas over almost before it started. Norman, shaken with the suddenness of the demise of the bull, began to feel sorry for the departed, particularly since the bull had been the underdog. Dinny, however, saw the accident in another light altogether.

“Norman, me lad,” he said, “We two are staring good fortune smack in the face.”

Heavenly days. Good fortune? Norman wondered if his ears had heard his father’s words correctly. Why, the last time he’d heard his father mention good fortune was in October, when they had finished clapping the stray heifer into the barn, and his father remarked that good fortune was like lightning: no one knows where it’s like to strike next. Puzzled, Norman sought enlightenment.

“Father, that there bull’s just bolted for the last time. How can that be good fortune? The bull’s dead. The train’s killed him dead.”

“Norman, me lad, we have just become eye-witnesses,” Dinny began patiently. “We’re the only witnesses at that, to an accident involving the great Canadian Pacific Railway Company as the part of the first part, and the owner of that there bull’s carcass as the party of the second part. That means an inquest, or a judicial enquiry of some sort, and that calls for witnesses and witness fees. That’s child’s work.”

“Does that mean we’ll have to go to court?”

“Ah well…..Yes.” Dinny had a time finding the affirmative, and it was a distinct ‘yes’ that came out in answer to Norman the Red’s simple query. Dinny, however, offered further words to illuminate the nature of a witness in a judicial enquiry. “It’s not quite the same as when a man’s a party to the litigation as they call it, for then he must spar with the evidence and with the lawyers to save his own skin. Any eyewitness has only to tell the truth. The facts for us have just unfolded before our eyes. Child’s work. An occasion for rejoicing.”

“Fortune favours the most deserving,” Dinny observed with philosophical splendour as he and Norman stepped down from the buggy to walk along the road to view the taurine remains on the tracks.

At the same time, two other men in blue and white striped coveralls of all railroaders, and with caps of the same material and red checked bandanas around their throats, stepped down the ladder of the locomotive to the cinders. A third figure in a blue serge suit with brass buttons descended from the first passenger car, and was busy trying to set his Marshal Foch hat properly as he hurried to the front end of the train.

The total confraternity of mourners arrived at the same moment, an all nodded to each other as they turned to view the remains, leaning on the cowcatcher for a few moments of quiet contemplation on the end of all living things.

All then removed their caps, the day being warm, and the need to move the remains a little to the north to clear the tracks giving the members of the mourning band the chancy thought that the task before them was apt to cause a man to sweat.

Contemplation ended, the time for observing the obsequies cam to hand. The conductor placed the biretta with his title on it on his head and began the requiem for a dead bull. He intoned the opening antiphon with fitting decorum:

“You two gents seen the hit?” he enquired of Dinny and Norman.

“I declare we did,” Dinny began. “Yes, you could say we saw the hit. I’d swear to that.”

Hold on; hold on, just a minute, the official thought quietly. This here old hayseed’s pretty fast of the mark with that there swearin’ part. Watch out. Choose your words carefully before you find yourself and the Canadian Pacific in the deep mire.

“You sound like a man that’s had a nodding acquaintance with the law,” he remarked easily to Dinny.

Dinny shook his head as if in pain, reminded of the time that Magistrate Kirkland had labelled Dinny’s evidence in a case concerning a stray heifer as “muddied facts.”

“You’ll understand,” the conductor began again, proceeding with caution, “there’ll have to be a hearing. You two are witnesses, the only witnesses to the accident.”

Dinny nodded approval of this official recognition of status attaching to him and to Norman in the eyes of the law as well as in the eyes of the church. Then, turning and looking up at the one big glass eye in the forehead of the monstrously hissing locomotive, he said,

“‘Twas a solid thump the baste took from yon engine.”

“Whomped the baste a dandy he did,” Norman added.

“Took him hair in the flank,” Dinny remembered it all now.

“Now then,” said the conductor, “if we can all bend a hand for a moment to move the carcass a little to the north, we can get back aboard the train and let these gents go on about their business until the day of the inquest.”

A fortnight passed before the invitation went out from Caesar Augustus to Dinny and Norman O’Brien, residing in the Vale of Huntley. The invitation had the formality and power of the law and the air of majesty about it. It requested the honour of the presence of Messrs Dinny and Norman to an enquiry to be held in the council chamber in Almonte at ten o’clock in the forenoon on Saturday next. Sharp. On pain of fine of imprisonment, or both.

Once more Nellie the black mare set out on the longer route to town on the Panmure road. Once more the buggy passed over Tommy Coady’s creek, and once more the mare climbed the slope of the ravine to the rocky plateau above. Again Dinny and Norman sat in silence as they crossed the waste land left over from the time of the Great Fire of years before, and once more they came unto the scene of the accident at the Snedden way station crossing, to rekindle the ashes of the event of the fortnight previous, and to permit the details of the accident to become fixed in the minds of the itinerant witnesses. Only then did they proceed along the tenth line of Ramsay to Almonte.

On the way down the hill to the front bridge Dinny noticed signs of unease creeping over Norman the Red. He, however, showing the need to keep the flag flying, remained unphlegmatic as usual.

“Only the facts. Only the truth, Norman. Child’s play,” he commented freely. “No imagination at all. Child’s play.”

Chairs scraped, and all stood up as the presiding officer entered. He banged a gavel on the table in front of him and called out in a loud voice: “God Save the King.”

“Amen,” muttered Norman the Red with head bowed down.

“The purpose of this enquiry,” the presiding officer intoned, “is to determine the facts concerning an accident two weeks ago when the CPR’s passenger train from Chalk River collided with a bull at the Snedden way station crossing. Fortunately, two eye-witnesses were present and will give evidence. Mr. Dinny O’Brien and Mr. Norman O’Brien.”

“Dennis O’Brien, stand up, please.”

“Norman O’Brien, stand up, please.”

His honour looked directly at the bearded patriarch and the shrinking lad, and then undertook to instruct them in the true and rightful manner of giving testimony at a judicial enquiry.

“Remember, gentlemen,” he intoned, “the facts only. Only the facts. You are not asked for opinion and certainly not for judgement. Just the facts. The facts as you saw them.”

He opened a large book, dipped a pen into a bottle of ink in front of the book, and prepared to take notes from the testimony of the two eye witnesses.

“Mr. O’Brien, when did you first come in sight of the crossing on that June morning?”

“I’d say when Nellie started to trot down the little hill forinst the stone quarry.”

“And what did you see, Mr. O’Brien?”

“A country like that which Moses saw when he came down off Mount Horeb,” Dinny replied.

“What’s that?” His Honour queried sharply.

“A land flowing with milk and honey,” Dinny explained patiently.

Norman’s mouth fell open in astonishment at his father’s versatility, and his supreme confidence in this den of thieves.

His Honour on the other hand looked up from his notes wondering if this witness’s utterances were pious sentiment or demented wanderings.

For the sake of decorum, he reined in on his temper, and enquired mildly, “More precisely, what did you see?”

“A field of alfalfa on the right side of the road, and next the right of way of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, a herd of twenty bastes, knee deep in clover.”

“Bastes? You mean ‘beasts’?” His Honour enquired.

“Bastes. That’s right. About twenty, your honour,” Norman helped out.

“What kind of ‘bastes’?” the presiding officer asked.

“Farm bastes,” Dinny added patiently.

“Yes, yes,” His Honour went on, “but what kind of bastes? What description of farm bastes?”

“A herd of kine,” Dinny explained, “Twenty of so, black and white.”

A moment went by with silence as His Honour fixed the details in his notebook. He returned for more explicit facts from the witnesses.

“Mr. O’Brien, did you see a bull in the herd?”

Dinny recoiled from the question. He flinched visibly as if struck by an unseen hand. When he revived, he looked furtively around the council chamber, then accusingly at His Honour, as if to remind the latter that even a public meeting in Almonte could find ladies present, and that the language of the official proceedings might indeed have to be that of the barnyard, but that delicacy prompted an honest witness like Dennis O’Brien to modify his oracular usage to the requirements of decency and decorum expected of all gentleman in the presence of ladies.

“Your Honour,” he said, “we did see the Charley Cow.”

“The what?”

“Charley Cow,” Norman the corroborator threw in.

“I see,” His Honour added the words a trifle dubiously, before adding, “Did you see the train?”

“We did.”

“Tell this hearing exactly what you saw and heard. What happened?”

“We saw twenty bastes grazing forinst the right of way. The Charley Cow was near the end of the alfalfa.”

“And then?”

“We heard the train blow for the crossing. We saw the Charley Cow leaving the end of the alfalfa and heading for the tracks. We saw the engine kill the Charley Cow.”

“Stop, stop, Mr. O’Brien. Do not reach conclusions. A witnesses must confine himself to the facts without opinion or judgement. It is not for the witness to state that the train killed the animal, the ‘charley cow’ in the language of the witness. The animal could have had a heart attack which made it fall down in front of the locomotive. This enquiry wants only the facts according to the testimony of the two eye-witnesses. Mr. O’Brien, kindly confine yourself to facts. Now, you saw the ‘charley cow’ break through the fence, charge the crossing and you saw it then struck by the locomotive.”

“A flank attack, Your Honour,” Dinny remembered it all.

“Smack in the withers,” added Norman, driving his right fist into the palm of his left hand with a resounding snap. “Killed him dead,” he too remembered.

“A most unequal contest too. Sure Your Honour should realize the engine outweighed the challenger with the cloven hoof by a hundred to one,” Dinny observed.

The head of Norman the Red bobbed up and down, approving both the concern of the parent and the injunction of the bench.

“Nevertheless,” His Honour replied, “you must stick to facts, things heard and seen. Please continue.”

Dinny looked around for a handhold on the ladder of facts. His head went down, and, at the same time, the first two fingers of his right hand went up to his forehead as he puzzled to form the image from the facts in his recollection.

“Well, Mr. O’Brien,” His Honour urge, “you saw the charley cow leaving the end of the alfalfa. What next?”

Norman fidgeted and squirmed, bounding up and down with anxiety in his seat. He looked up at His Honour as if to signal that worthy that if the need arose, Norman the Red could supply the same image from recollection as Dinny was wrestling with, but filial piety forbade Norman from pre-empting his parent’s words. In his agitation, Norman’s gaze returned to Dinny just at the moment the two long fingers began their descent from the forehead. The digits traced a path through the lines of the gaunt face, came through the chin-whiskers, grey and black, and then as the fingers dropped from the last hair of the chin-whiskers, Dinny’s head came back up.

“He’s got it now. I know he’s got it!” Norman said to himself.

“Well, Your Honour, the facts are easy: first we saw the Charley Cow leaving the end of the alfalfa. And then we saw the alfalfa leaving the end of the Charley Cow.”

Norman leapt to his feet like a goat.

“That’s right, Your Honour. That’s just the way it was.”

His Honour flung down his pen, blotted his page savagely, and with a crack like the sound of a .22 rifle shot, he snapped his record book shut.

“That,” he announced, “will conclude the testimony of two eyewitnesses in this celebrated case of the Chalk River local and the Charley C..”

He spluttered and coughed, as if suddenly overtaken with a mouthful of barley ands.

“Charley Cow, Your Honour,” said Norman to assist the presiding officer over the last hurdle.

“…ow!” His Honour moaned.

“He’s got it now, faither, he’s got it for keeps,” Norman rejoiced.

“Dinny’s chin rose and fell.

“Child’s work,” he remarked.

His Honour wilted, visibly.




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