My great-granduncle Dan MacLeod (whose real name was Donald Ignecious MacLeod) was born around 1892 in Upper Southwest Mabou, in the part of Cape Breton known as River Denys Mountain but also often referred to by my grandfather as Glencoe. In the summer of 1937, my grandfather Duncan MacLeod and his younger brother Hughie were staying with Dan and his wife Maggie in their small house not far from where Dan’s parents and siblings lived. While they were staying up there, Duncan and Hughie had many experiences that would later become great stories. But some of the stories my grandfather passed on to me didn’t begin as experiences, but as stories themselves, told to the boys by their elders.
One such story that was told to my grandfather by his uncle Dan was about a young man who suddenly showed up at the MacLeod residence one morning. That was a fairly normal occurrence, except that in this particular case there had been a terrible blizzard the night before. Yet this young man didn’t look as if he had just spent the night battling the elements. The man didn’t speak Gaelic, so Dan spoke to him in English. “How did you survive that storm?” he asked the man.
“I was travelling through the area,” the young man said, “and that storm came up something wicked. Soon it was getting dark and I knew I’d have to find shelter. Thank God I came upon a house soon after that!”
“Oh,” said Dan, “that’s good then. You wouldn’t have lasted very long out in that storm. Whose house did you spend the night in?”
The man shook his head. “I don’t even know what their names were,” he said. “In fact, they said very little the whole time I was there. But they were fine people. They gave me something warm to eat and a cot to sleep on in the kitchen. When I woke up this morning I saw blue sky and knew I could continue on my way. I wanted to thank the old couple for their hospitality, but they were nowhere to be found. They must have gone out to do some work. So I left a five-dollar bill on the table and off I went.”
Dan was silent for a moment. Five dollars was a lot of money back then. But that wasn’t what was troubling him. He pointed at a window. “You came from that direction? Down that road over there?”
“That’s right,” said the man. “The house is down there. What are their names?”
“And you say they were an old couple?”
“Yes, quite old.”
Dan stared at the young man. After a long silence he asked, “Can you show me the house?”
“Of course,” said the young man.
So Dan MacLeod and his young visitor set out and slowly made their way down the road, taking exaggerated steps to get through the knee-deep snow. They had just settled into a decent pace when suddenly the young man came to a halt, a cloud of smoky breath partially masking his stunned expression.
“Oh my God!” he yelled. “Look what’s happened to it!” The house before them looked like it had been hit by a hurricane. Its old its roof had partially collapsed and had taken at least two walls with it. The young man hurled himself forward and began crawling, practically swimming, through the deep, untouched snow that threatened to swallow the house. He stopped in his tracks when he reached what was left of the wooden structure, and remained motionless for a long time, his back to Dan.
Dan had also been still for several moments, but then made his way towards the house as well. When he reached the young man he put a hand on his shoulder. The young man jerked, yelped and almost toppled over into the snow.
“I…I don’t understand,” he said. “I stayed here last night. This house was…there were people here. I ate their food. I slept here! But…but look…it’s…”
“Abandoned,” said Dan. “This house has been abandoned for a few years now. There was an old couple living here, but they died a few years back.”
“No,” the young man said softly, shaking his head. “No, no, no. This can’t be right. This has to be a mistake!”
Dan was about to say something like “Let’s go” or “I’m sure you’re right,” but something in the ruined house caught his eye and clamped his mouth shut. He stumbled over a snow drift and ducked under the fallen roof, then walked in a half-crouch to what had once been the kitchen. There, atop the old table, was the thing he had seen waving in the light breeze: a crisp five-dollar bill.
Needless to say, the young man left the area as quickly as he could, and never came back.
Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod is a series of posts on my MacLeod ancestors, based on a combination of research and stories told to me by my grandfather, Duncan MacLeod. To read other posts in the series, click here.