Past, Present & Beyond – In the Line of Duty, pt. 4

Barbara Roden's tale of train robbers and Special Constable Isaac Decker.

By 6 on a Monday evening Ashcroft is a quiet place, and that was as true in 1909 as it is today. On the night of Monday, June 28, 1909, however, a number of people – either there by chance, or attracted by reports that something was happening – had gathered by the river at the north end of town, close to where the bridge crossed the Thompson and joined up with the Cariboo Road. They kept a respectful – some might even have said fearful – distance from the spot where Isaac Decker stood amidst some boulders on the riverbank, watching as a small green boat with two men aboard it made for the shore a few yards above him.

Decker had good reason to question the men in the boat, for everyone in the area was on the lookout for the bandits who had robbed a CPR train near Kamloops a week earlier. If the former policeman – who had been sworn in as a Special Constable earlier that day – was aware of the onlookers he gave no sign of it, fixing his attention squarely on the boat and its occupants as it neared the shore. The single shot .22 rifle he had borrowed from a passing boy was cradled in his right arm.

The policeman had already ordered the boat ashore and asked the men to identify themselves. They had obeyed the first order but not the second, and as the vessel came aground Decker called to them to raise their hands and step on to the bank.

“What do you want us for?” replied one of the men. He scrambled awkwardly from the boat, hampered somewhat by a coat draped over his left arm. The other remained seated, coolly observing the unfolding scene.

“You’re wanted for train robbery,” said Decker tersely. “You better come along with me.”

The pair eyed him for a moment. Then, as if reaching a decision, the man who had remained seated spoke.

“All right. Wait until I get my coat, though. It’s in the boat.”

Decker gave a curt nod. The first man had moved a few steps closer to Decker, and for a moment the two faced each other over a distance of some 60 or so feet. Then, with a muttered “Now take me if you can,” the stranger reached under the coat hanging from his arm and produced something from beneath it.

It was a gun.

Whether it was training, instinct, or luck, Isaac Decker seemed prepared. No sooner had the man raised his revolver to fire than Decker leveled the .22. Two shots rang out almost simultaneously, and the horrified onlookers saw both men stagger backward. The man from the boat, who had been struck full in the face, dropped to the ground and lay completely still. Decker appeared to have been shot low down on the right side; a serious wound, for he stumbled and reeled, but not a fatal one, for the policeman remained on his feet, the now unloaded .22 still in his hands.

The man in the boat had remained motionless while this drama unfolded on the riverbank. Now he reached down into the vessel, as if to get the coat of which he had spoken. When his hands returned to view, however, they held a shotgun, which was aimed squarely at Isaac Decker. A moment’s silence hung in the air between the two, broken only by the sound of the water rushing past, and the wind as it tugged at the grass and sagebrush and lifted small eddies of dirt. The onlookers, frozen, made neither movement nor sound.

Then the still evening was shattered once more, this time by the blast of the shotgun. When the echoes had stopped, Isaac Decker lay stretched upon the ground, unmoving. The rifle was still clutched in his hand, but he would have no further use for it.

There were gasps and cries from those watching, but while one or two made tentative steps in the direction of where Decker lay they went no further, torn between a desire to run to his assistance – however fruitless such an action would be – and their fear of the man who had so coolly fired on the lawman, and who still held the shotgun. He had stepped from the boat and approached the body of his fallen comrade, moving without any sign of concern or hurry, as casually as if he were out for a stroll, and now bent down over the other man, as if to try to help. Nothing so humane motivated his actions, however, for he proceeded – still with that same terrible calm – to go through the other’s pockets and remove what looked like a number of papers. He also took the revolver and, stuffing the items into his own pockets, turned and made for the road.

In doing so he passed within 20 feet of eight-year-old Tommy Cumming, who had seen the entire tragedy unfold. He ignored the boy, who saw that the man was smeared with blood along his right shoulder and arm. Without a backward glance the bandit crossed the road and made his way towards the CPR tracks, crossing those in turn and ascending the hill above them. Moments later he had disappeared from sight.

Tommy was the first person to move. The sight of the murderer, so close to him, and the blood which stained his clothing had seemed to break some terrible spell, and the boy at last gained the power of his legs. He dashed to the road and turned right, heading back into town, running as fast as he could. He ran blindly, heedlessly, instinctively down Railway, crying out as loudly as he could between ragged breaths, “He’s been shot! He’s been shot! Isaac Decker has been shot!”

To be continued

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