If Interior residents had been vigilant following the hold-up of a CPR train near Kamloops on June 21 1909, and the escape of the men responsible, they were on high alert after the murder of Special Constable Isaac Decker in Ashcroft a week later. One of the bandits had been killed, but his partner escaped. Reinforcements were hurriedly drafted in, and there was no difficulty gathering together “men, horses, rifles, officials and sleuths of all kinds and colours,” as a contemporary account put it.
The countryside also teemed with amateur trackers intent, it seemed, on challenging any unidentified man they saw, with a close watch being kept on every road. On Wednesday, June 30, two days after Decker’s murder, a man named Armstrong who was on his way to work at “Doc” English’s ranch in Venables Valley reported that he was stopped by a stranger who, before robbing him, asked “Are you the man who shot my partner?” Armstrong assured him that he was not. As soon as the incident was reported the area was searched thoroughly, and a watch was maintained through the night, but no trace of the stranger was found except for a discarded shirt, which may or may not have been his.
That the stranger had to ask Armstrong about his involvement would seem to indicate that the stranger was not the man who had stepped from the boat and killed Isaac Decker. That man had got a good look at the policeman; certainly good enough to recognize him again. He may not have heard that Decker had died of his wounds, but he must have known that those wounds were severe, and that it was unlikely Decker would be up and about so soon. Reports of the train holdup had been contradictory and confused as to the number of men involved: some said there had been two robbers, some said three. There were numerous witnesses who could attest that only two men had been in the boat when it arrived in Ashcroft; but what if a third man had been dropped off somewhere else en route? It raised the horrifying prospect that there were now two bandits roaming the area.
Next day came a rumour stating that an armed man had been seen in the Bonaparte River valley near the old Harper’s mill north of Ashcroft. Searchers were dispatched to the area, but other than scaring an innocent man who was on his way to work at Hat Creek the party found nothing. Similar incidents were reported over the next few days, as jangled nerves and hot blood confronted unfamiliar faces. The situation was not helped by all the strangers who had been called in to help form the search parties: one of the posse members, who did not know the area or its inhabitants, encountered a local policeman and ordered him to throw up his hands and identify himself. Fred Bellanco, who was working out at 8 Mile Creek, came into Ashcroft on Thursday, July 1 and was stopped and challenged on three separate occasions, the last time by a Chinese worker armed with a hoe.
On Friday, July 2 the search moved down river from Ashcroft, towards Spatsum, after it was reported that a canoe had been stolen from the CPR (east) side of the river and abandoned on the opposite bank. Once again the rumour mill went into overdrive with tales of a stranger who had got his breakfast from the Chinese cook at the Cornwall’s ranch near Ashcroft, and who was suspected of being the fugitive; although why anyone would cross from the west to the east side of the river, only to steal a canoe and travel back again, was a question no one apparently thought to ask.
Throughout July 1909 the search continued, but the trail had gone cold. Near the end of the month the case flared to life once more when Doc English, during a visit to Ashcroft, reported that the murderer of Isaac Decker had – according to one of English’s hired hands – worked at Doc’s ranch. Shortly after the murder English had sent his son to Spences Bridge to find more help, as the ranch was short-handed. His son came back with a man who stayed for only three days; but during that time he seemed to feel the need to share his guilty secret, and apparently confided in Armstrong, the man who claimed to have been held up by the third bandit.
The stranger, declaring that he was the murderer of Isaac Decker, apparently took issue with the official account of what had happened, saying that they had not known the policeman was armed and that Decker had shot first. He also claimed that the first shot that hit Decker – the one to his lower body – had not been deliberate, but a result of the dead bandit’s revolver discharging by accident as he fell to the ground after being hit. After fleeing the area, the man said, he had traveled westward, and had arrived in the area of Spatsum by the following evening. He recounted to Armstrong a thrilling tale of evading Indian trackers for five days – at one point he waded along the Thompson River to throw his pursuers off the scent – before arriving at Spences Bridge, where he worked for a few days at odd jobs before going to English’s. He left Venables Valley after three days, and Armstrong – who made no attempt to report the stranger or his story until after the man left – disappeared himself a few days later.
The stranger was described as stockily built and of French Canadian extraction, and might have been heading on to the Northwest Territories. There was little for investigators to go on; but the search for the identities of the dead man and his cold-blooded accomplice was about to take a dramatic turn.
To be continued