The hold-up of the BX stage near 100 Mile House on July 14, 1890, and the theft of the gold nuggets and bars in its strongbox, had been a nine days’ wonder; but when no trace of the robber was found it was assumed that he had managed to flee the area. So when the stranger walked into Foster’s General Store that August, James Haddock initially thought little of it. Strangers were a common sight in Ashcroft, passing through on their way to somewhere else.
The shopkeeper ran his eyes down the list of supplies the man had given him, surprised at how extensive it was. “You homesteading round here?” he asked. “Haven’t seen you before.”
The man hesitated. “No, not homesteading,” he said finally. He jerked his head in a northerly direction. “Staked a claim up the road a piece. Been working it a little while now, and decided to stay on.”
“Well, we’re glad to have your business, Mr. . . .”
“Rowland. Martin Van Buren Rowland.”
Haddock gazed at the man a bit more keenly. He’d heard about a stranger in town, who’d been on a spree the last couple of days; fellow with a fancy-sounding moniker. He could put back his liquor, everyone agreed on that, but he hadn’t been forthcoming, about himself or where he’d come by the gold that he paid with. He was slightly more forthcoming now, and Haddock kept his ears open and his mouth shut as he fetched and carried, weighed and counted.
“Was up in Barkerville for a time, but things are well nigh played out up there, so I’ve come south to try my luck. Heard there were some likely spots round here.”
“And you reckon you’ve found one?”
“Yup. Got myself a claim up Scottie Creek.”
“Scottie Creek?” Haddock couldn’t keep the disbelief out of his voice.
“Yeah. What of it?”
Haddock shook his head. “Scottie Creek’s played out, and it weren’t no great shakes to start with. You might have got hold of some misinformation, Mr. Rowland.”
“Misinformation?” The man pulled a small bag from one pocket. “Does this look like I was misinformed?”
He turned the bag upside down and shook a handful of gold nuggets on to the counter. Haddock’s eyes widened. If that gold was from Scottie Creek then someone definitely HAD been misinformed; and that person wasn’t Martin Van Buren Rowland.
“Got that from my claim after just a few days’ work. Strikes me someone gave up on it too soon, but that’s their loss. Now you see why I’m planning on staying for a time.” He picked up the gold. “But don’t anyone get to thinking about being too neighbourly. Everyone just keeps to themselves, we’ll get along fine.” He gestured at the supplies Haddock had piled on the counter. “I’ll take some of that along of me now, and send for the rest tomorrow.”
The account was settled – Rowland paying with some of the gold nuggets – the supplies loaded, and the stranger left, heading north on Railway. Haddock watched him for a few moments, shielding his eyes with one hand against the glare of the sun. Then, with a slight shake of his head, he returned to Foster’s General Store.
News of the stranger, and his claim at Scottie Creek, didn’t take long to travel round town, and when two Chinese men arrived at Foster’s, to collect the rest of Rowland’s supplies, they attracted a fair bit of attention. Over the next few days Martin Van Buren Rowland was the topic of a good deal of conversation, with opinion sharply divided about his prospects at Scottie Creek. Some held that the gold he had shown to Haddock was proof that Scottie Creek was far from played out, while others opined that a few nuggets of gold proved nothing in the short term. There had been waves of excited optimism about finds at Scottie Creek in the past, but everyone who had been drawn to the area had found only a little coarse gold and a good deal of disappointment.
Despite Rowland’s unwillingness to entertain visitors, more than one person made his way to Scottie Creek over the course of the next several weeks, prompted by curiosity. In every case Rowland – and the Winchester that the cantankerous prospector always kept close at hand – made it plain that he wanted no company, and no one was allowed near his claim.
Some weeks after his first visit to Ashcroft, Rowland was back, embarking on a second spree. He let it be known that he’d found rich ground at Scottie Creek, something attested to by the bag of nuggets he carried with him, and which he used to pay for his spree and another round of supplies. When he finally rode out of town, headed north, he left behind a number of people asking themselves how they could have been so blind as to miss the gold at Scottie Creek.
One person, however, had a very different question in mind. Steve Tingley, head of the BX Express, had never stopped wondering what had happened to the stolen BX gold. It was supposed that the bandit had made good his escape, taking the gold with him; but what if he hadn’t? What if the robber had stayed in the area, concocting a clever plan to make the gold, and his possession of it, look legitimate? It would certainly explain why Scottie Creek had suddenly – almost miraculously – become a rich source of gold: because the gold wasn’t from Scottie Creek at all.
The more Tingley thought about it, the more plausible his theory seemed. Now he only had to do one thing.