Golden Country Presents: Death on the Range – Pt. 2: A strange story

Barbara Roden continues on with her tale of two partners and the greed that came between them.

The story that Albert “Chubby” Clinger had to tell, that day in February 1915, was an all-too-familiar one: deception, robbery, then one man fleeing into the snowy wastes of the Interior and the other, sadder but wiser, recounting events to the police. Frank Aiken, the 35-year-old District Chief of the B.C. Provincial Police stationed in Clinton, had doubtless heard a variation of it many times before, and he sat and listened as Clinger provided the details.

Five days earlier, on Thursday Feb. 4, 1915, the 31-year-old Clinger and his 53-year-old partner, Thomas Burton Smith, had left their pre-emption at Springhouse Prairie northwest of Clinton to head to Ashcroft for supplies. The men, both Americans, had been in the Interior since 1912, running cattle and doing some ranching at Springhouse. Both men were well-respected in and around Clinton, although everyone agreed that Clinger was the more sociable and talkative of the pair.

Clinger told Aiken – some reports say by phone, others that the conversation took place face to face – that the men had left their log cabin at Springhouse and headed along the Dog Creek road, where they made a camp that first night. When Clinger woke the next morning, he was surprised to find that Smith and his horse had vanished; then dismayed to find that several hundred dollars of his own money had also disappeared, presumably in his erstwhile partner’s pocket.

Smith was apparently a “jack-roller” – someone who robs a drunk or sleeping person – and Clinger had been “rolled”. He had tried to follow Smith’s tracks, but lost them after several miles when they entered a hay meadow, where the snow was so beaten down by cattle that Smith’s trail was impossible to pick up again. Aiken asked if Clinger had had any inkling his partner might do such a thing, and received a surprising answer.

It turned out that Smith – a widower who had left seven living children behind him in Pennsylvania – had spoken of one of his older sons, who was working in Romania for the Standard Oil Company. Over the past month or so he had mentioned, more than once, his wish to travel to Romania to visit his son; but Clinger said there were hints that something darker lay at the root of Smith’s wish to leave Canada and head for Europe. His partner had apparently let slip that members of his family were searching for him in connection with some “misdemeanor” he had committed, and that they had succeeded in locating him, prompting Smith to come to the decision to leave the country.

That he had decided to leave with several hundred dollars of another man’s money in his pocket did not appear to be bothering Clinger very much. If he had been angry when he discovered the theft, he had had time to cool down, and was now viewing the matter quite calmly. He didn’t care if he never saw Smith again, he told the policeman, and wasn’t particularly bothered about trying to get his money back. “Good riddance to bad rubbish” just about summed up Albert Clinger’s attitude to the entire business, along with, it seems, “live and learn”.

As I said, Frank Aiken had probably heard similar stories over the years. The men who were attracted to the BC wilderness were often restless, always in search of something more or better, so a sudden disappearance was hardly surprising, although stealing a partner’s bankroll was less common. And it wasn’t unknown for some of these men to have things in their past that they were running from. Albert Clinger’s story was all too plausible.

And yet . . . and yet . . . there was something that didn’t quite sit right with Aiken. He was young, at only 35, to be a District Chief of Police, which indicates that he had talent, ability, a quick mind and a keen eye. The more he thought about the pre-emptor’s story, the more things didn’t add up. He knew Smith, and perhaps he thought that the quiet rancher who also ran a small freight business didn’t seem like the type to roll his partner and then vanish. Perhaps, too, he didn’t quite believe that Clinger could be so seemingly nonchalant about the loss of his money. Most of the men Aiken knew would be furious if they’d been robbed of that much, and would have been demanding that the police do something about it. Clinger, on the other hand, had waited five days to report the theft, and then in an almost off-hand way, with no request that the police investigate.

Why had no one reported seeing Smith in those five days? There were few roads through the area, and anyone traveling them would be noticed, right down to the clothes they wore and the horse they were on. It would be next to impossible for someone to make it past Ashcroft without being seen, and news would have spread.

And what about this Romanian story? Smith might well have a son living there, but Europe was being torn apart by war. For a civilian in 1915, just getting to England would be difficult, and risky, never mind continuing on through the very heart of the battlefield. No; Clinger’s story just didn’t hang together.

There was only one thing to do. Frank Aiken put in a call to Constable Jack Bourne at 150 Mile House, summoning him to Clinton immediately. The trail, such as it was, was now five days old, but it needed to be followed. And Aiken wanted a good man at his side when he set out to follow it. There was no telling what would be waiting at the end of it.

To be continued

Barbara Roden

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