Golden Country Presents: Death on the Range, Pt. 3 – a tragic discovery

Barbara Roden continues her tale of greed and murder in the wild frontier.

Albert “Chubby” Clinger, who claimed to have been robbed of several hundred dollars by his partner, Thomas Burton Smith, seemed in no hurry to return to their pre-emption at Springhouse Prairie. District Chief of Police Frank Aiken, to whom Clinger had told his story, knew that whatever the truth of the matter was, the place to start looking was at Springhouse. He also had a feeling that the truth might be considerably stranger than the story Clinger had already told; so he contacted Constable Jack Bourne at 150 Mile House and told him to report to Clinton.

After briefing the other man on the details of the case, the pair started out over the 45 miles of rangeland trail ahead of them.

The cabin that Smith and Clinger shared at Springhouse was deserted. According to Clinger, Smith had robbed his partner and disappeared on Feb. 4, 1915, with Clinger waiting until the 9th to contact the police. It was now Feb. 11 – a week since Smith had vanished into the BC interior – but the man had clearly not been back to his cabin. After a brief examination of the homestead, Aiken and Bourne mounted their horses and set out to see what sort of trail they could find, and what it would tell them.

It did not take them long to find evidence that two men had set out from the cabin on horseback, and about a week earlier, judging by the weather since then and the condition of the tracks.

The two policemen followed the riders’ path, which led in the direction of the homestead of their nearest neighbour, Napoleon Pigeon, who lived about 25 miles from the pre-emptors’ cabin. Eventually, near Dog Creek, they found the spot where Clinger said the two men had camped for the night while en route to Ashcroft for supplies. Two sets of tracks led away from the spot, deeper into the bush.

Everything they had seen so far tallied perfectly with Clinger’s story. The pre-emptor had said that he’d followed Smith’s trail from the camp, after waking up and realizing he’d been robbed, but had lost it when it entered a hay meadow that had since been trampled down by cattle. Frank Aiken, however, was considered to be one of the best trackers in the area. If Smith had left a trail – which he must have done, if Clinger’s story was true – then Aiken was the man to find it.

Once more he and Bourne set out. They followed the two sets of tracks for several miles, until both seemed to come to an end near a small, bush-screened draw. The policemen dismounted and began casting about, looking for any sign that the nearby area had been disturbed. It did not take them long to find what Albert Clinger had apparently missed; for in the nearby draw, obscured by bushes, lay the body of a man, slumped face forward in the snow. Aiken must immediately have recognized the man as Thomas Burton Smith; and while the body was frozen solid, hypothermia was not the cause of death. A bullet hole through Smith’s head indicated what had killed him.

The short February day was drawing to a close when Aiken and Bourne made their discovery. They were in the middle of the bush, miles from the nearest human habitation, with two choices: spend the night where they were and ride out next morning in daylight, or head into the darkness with their terrible cargo. If they considered this latter option at all, it was soon discarded, for the policemen made camp not far from where they had found Smith’s body. How peaceful a night they spent has not been recorded.

Next morning they made a thorough search of the area, but found nothing. There was no sign of any struggle, and Smith’s horse had vanished: it had either been taken by his murderer, or had wandered off on its own. Of the bullet which had killed Smith there was no sign. The remains of a fire were near where the body had been found, so it was possible that the man had been crouched or standing near it, and had never seen his assailant creep up behind him. Aiken also searched the dead man’s person, mindful of Clinger’s story about his friend having rolled him and taken a considerable sum of money. But there was nothing of value in Smith’s pockets. If he had indeed stolen money from his erstwhile partner, it was no longer in his possession.

Aiken and Bourne loaded the body of Thomas Burton Smith on to the back of their packhorse and set out for Clinton. It must have been a grim ride for the pair, and doubtless Frank Aiken spent much of the time considering various explanations for the chain of events that had unfolded. Whatever had happened, there was a dead man at one end of the chain; and his partner, who had started the investigation rolling, was at the other end. Chief Constable Aiken had no idea if Chubby Clinger was telling the truth, or part of the truth, or a pack of lies, but one thing was clear: he would need to answer a lot more questions.

On Monday Feb. 15, 1915 an autopsy was held on the body of Thomas Burton Smith. An inquest was to have taken place the same day, but it was held over pending “further developments”, according to a report in the Ashcroft “Journal”. We do not know precisely what those further developments were; but sometime between the day of the inquest and the day of the report in the “Journal” – Saturday, Feb. 20 – Albert Lester Clinger was arrested at 150 Mile House, in connection with the death of Thomas Burton Smith.

To be continued

Barbara Roden