Eight-year-old Tommy Cumming sighed, and glanced up from his desk to the clock on the wall. Time was hanging heavy in the schoolhouse on Bancroft Street in Ashcroft, and the heat of a late June day in 1909 was not helping. Little in the way of breeze was coming through the open window, but Tommy imagined he could hear the Thompson River rushing its way southward. The thought of being on or near the river, instead of cooped up at school, made him sigh again, this time so loudly that Mr. McDonald, the schoolmaster, heard him and shot a warning look in his direction. Tommy dropped his eyes to the page of sums in front of him, but his mind was elsewhere.
At lunchtime he pulled Ernie Graham and Billy Munro to one side of the playground. “I’m going fishing after school,” he announced. “Do you want to come?”
Both boys nodded eagerly. “Sure do!” replied Ernie. “Gonna catch me the biggest fish ever.” Then his face clouded slightly. “Dunno if it’s a good idea, though” he added. “They still haven’t caught those train robbers, and they could be anywhere.”
“My dad said they’re getting more policemen in to town, just in case,” chipped in Billy.
“Do you think we’ll be safe?” asked Ernie, suddenly nervous. “Maybe we shouldn’t go.”
“Course we’ll be safe,” said Tommy. “Besides, we’ll stay this side of the bridge, in sight of the town. Nothing ever happens here, though,” he added. “Betcha we won’t see anything at all.”
At the same time that Tommy was reassuring his friends, Isaac Decker was a short distance away being sworn in as a Special Constable. He had traveled up from Spences Bridge that day, and District Chief of Police Joe Burr shook his former colleague by the hand.
“Good to have you back in the saddle, Ike,” he said. “It’s a real weight off my mind. I have to head into Kamloops right away, see Fred Hussey. Bandits on the loose are bad enough, but there are would-be bounty hunters coming in from all over, not to mention lawmen who think these thieves are responsible for crimes in their jurisdiction.” He shook his head. “It’s a powder keg waiting to explode, is what it is.”
“You go to Kamloops, Joe, and don’t worry about anything here,” said Decker. “It’s been a week since the robbery. Those men are miles from here by now, if they’ve got any sense.”
“I hope so, Ike,” replied Burr. “Someone in Kamloops reported that they had a boat stolen a few days back; small green one. If it was the bandits who stole it, they’re taking their time making their getaway. But keep an eye on the river, just in case.”
When Burr had departed, Decker strolled down Railway Avenue. More than one person stopped to talk with him, for he had spent several years as a policeman there before retiring to his ranch near Spences Bridge, and had been a popular man. It was clear that almost everyone in town was keeping their eyes and ears open for any sign of strangers. If the bandits decided to come through Ashcroft, Decker decided, they’d have a difficult time staying unnoticed.
He found himself at the north end of town, where the road turned to the left and crossed the bridge, joining up with the Cariboo Wagon Rod on the far side. Three boys were ahead of him, fishing rods over their shoulders.
“Where are you lads off to?” he called.
“Not far, sir,” said Tommy, pointing to the opposite bank. “Our parents know we’re here,” he added.
Decker nodded. “You know we still haven’t caught those train robbers. Stay close to town, and don’t go wandering off.”
“Yes sir,” they replied in unison, and Decker watched as they crossed the bridge. Once on the other side they turned to the left and scrambled down the bank, and within a short time their lines were dipping into the river. Decker thought of his own son, Archie, not so much older than these boys. He and Archie hadn’t been fishing together in a while. As soon as he got back to Spences Bridge he’d fix that.
Decker turned and made his way back into town. He spent some time in the police office, reading through circulars and notices, then went back outside, meaning to take another stroll round town while it was still full daylight. As he drew near the river he looked across to the other bank and saw that the boys were still there, although they seemed ready to pack up their things. He was about to call to them and ask if they’d had any luck when his attention was caught by the sound of hoofbeats to his right. He turned, and saw a woman on horseback riding straight towards him.
“You Isaac Decker, the Special Constable?” she asked breathlessly, and he nodded. He saw that her horse was panting and covered in lather, and his instincts were immediately on the alert. No one would ride her horse that hard and fast in this weather unless it was urgent.
“Teamster back there pointed you out, said you were in charge,” she continued, jerking her head in the direction of the bridge.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Decker asked tersely.
“I was out past the Butte Ranch checking on some cattle, two miles or so that way.” She pointed. “I was pretty close to the river, and saw a boat heading downstream. Don’t get too many boats in the river near here, and I thought of those men who robbed the train. They still haven’t caught them, have they?”
“No,” replied Decker. “What did the boat look like? And how many men were in it?”
“There were two men,” the girl replied promptly. “I saw them clear as clear. And the boat? It was a small one. Green, I think it was. And it’ll be here in less than half an hour.”
To be continued