August 1890, and in Cariboo country the cattlemen were calling it the driest, hottest summer in 50 years. Inside Foster’s General Store in Ashcroft, James Haddock fanned himself with the edge of his apron and tried not to think about the heat. He rearranged a stack of ladies’ handkerchiefs (“Newly arrived, trimmed with finest French lace”) inside one of the display cases, tidied some shoelaces, surveyed the dust which coated the counter, and sighed. It would be a long day.
The rumble of wheels was heard in the street, and he glanced up through the window. A stagecoach, painted in the bright red and yellow of the BX Express, trundled past, and James recognized Emile LaForst on the driver’s seat. James admired the BX stage drivers, although he wouldn’t have wanted to trade places with any of them, no matter how dull Foster’s Store might be. Not after what had happened a month or so earlier.
Bill Parker had been driving, headed south on what was set to be a fast run from 100 Mile House to Ashcroft. No passengers, and his only cargo was a treasure bag with a few sacks of gold dust, and the stage-safe, containing gold nuggets and bars, tucked in a compartment under the seat. Bill was one of the best drivers in Steve Tingley’s fleet, cool and level-headed; and he’d needed every ounce of that level-headedness at Four Mile Hill near Bridge Creek.
The six-horse team was sweating and straining in its traces as the stage made its way up the hill. Where the road widened Bill had stopped to give the horses a breather, setting the handbrake and taking a swig of water while he waited. The only sound was wind through the trees and the chirr of crickets, and Bill was starting to think about moving out when he heard the unmistakable sound of a rifle being cocked, and a low, gruff voice bark out “Put up your hands.”
Bill, who was unarmed, did as he was told, then turned slowly to get a look at the man who had stepped up close to the stage. He was a shortish man, as far as Bill could tell, and squat. He was wearing a plaid shirt, and a slouch hat pulled down low over his forehead. The rest of his face was covered by a red bandana into which eyeholes had been cut. The man gestured towards the seat.
“I know you’ve got a strongbox down there, and maybe a bag or two as well. Now toss them all down, and be quick about it.”
Bill reached for the treasure bag and dropped it over the side, where it landed with a dull thud in the dirt. It was securely fastened and knotted with a length of rope, which the man picked at for a moment before giving up. “What’s in it?” he asked, looking up at Bill.
The driver thought quickly. “Just papers,” he said. “Waybills, notes of lading, some company documents, a few letters. Nothing of any value. But if you’re found with them, you’ll be in a heap of trouble, and no mistake.”
The man gave the bag a kick. “All right,” he said, his voice grudging. “But that strongbox has more’n just waybills in it, I’ll wager. Pass that down.”
“Give me the bag back,” said Bill, keeping his voice steady. “Might as well hang on to that, if you’re not going to take it.”
The man stooped and passed the bag up to Bill, who prayed the bandit wouldn’t wonder why a bag containing only papers was so heavy. “Now get me that box, and be quick about it.”
Bill turned and tugged the safe from its compartment. It was more strongbox than safe, about 18 inches square, and purposely built with no handles, so it would be difficult for someone to steal. Bill noticed that the man had trouble handling it, after it was passed down, and that he had to drag it the short distance to the edge of the road.
“Now you move those horses, and keep them moving,” the bandit warned, and Bill whipped up his team without a second urging, He risked one backward glance, and saw the bandit disappearing into the bushes, the safe obviously making for an awkward load.
Bill had reported the robbery as soon as possible, and when word reached Joe Burr, who was in charge of the Provincial Police detachment in Ashcroft, he’d dispatched a posse in search of the bandit. By the time they reached Four Mile Hill, however, there were no traces – of the robber, the strongbox, or the gold – to be found. Popular wisdom held that the man would be found quickly, for it was thought impossible for anyone to make his way out of the rugged, isolated region without being noticed. In this instance, however, popular wisdom was wrong, for several weeks went by and there was no sign of him, and gradually the affair died down.
James shook his head, trying to think how he’d feel if he were confronted by an armed bandit. He was shaken out of his reverie by the sound of the bell, and looked up. A short, squat man James had never seen before stood blinking in the doorway. After a moment he approached the counter, and pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket.
“Here’s a list of things I need to buy,” he barked, his voice low and gruff. “I’ve got gold to pay with. Be quick about it.”