Past, Preset & Beyond – In the Line of Duty: Pt. 1 – Once a Policeman.

Barbara Roden begins a new multi-part tale about train robberies and retired policeman, Isaac Decker.

Isaac Decker re-read the telegram which had arrived earlier that day and frowned. His wife Lena, who had finished clearing the last of the supper things from the table, sat down across from him.

“This is about that train robbery near Ducks [now Monte Creek] a few days back, isn’t it,” she said. It was a statement, not a question, and Decker nodded.

“Been no sign of the bandits, but it’s not for lack of trying,” he replied. “Superintendent Hussey’s had police search parties, Native trackers, and bloodhounds out looking for them, but they’ve vanished. Joe says there are detectives on the way up from south of the border, too. They think the men responsible might’ve held up a train near Spokane back in May.”

“Joe” was District Chief of Provincial Police Joe Burr, headquartered in Ashcroft, 25 miles up the road from Decker’s ranch near Spences Bridge. Isaac’s former superior officer was involved in the search for the robbers who had held up a C.P.R. train a week earlier on June 21, 1909. No one had been killed, and the five men had got away with little by way of loot. They had held up train No. 97, probably by mistake; train No. 5, which had preceded it, had been carrying more than $40,000 in bullion.

Still, the C.P.R. was taking the matter seriously, offering a $4,000 reward for the capture of the bandits. Such a generous offer meant, as Decker well knew, that everyone who could muster any sort of weapon would be out searching, either officially or unofficially. It was the unofficial searchers he was worried about.

“Someone could get themselves killed,” he mused. “It’s one thing for men who know what they’re doing to be out there looking, but another for every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a rifle to be stopping folk at random. And if these men did pull off that hold-up in Spokane, they’re seasoned criminals. They’ll be dangerous.”

“Ducks,” said 12-year-old Archie, looking from his mother to his father. “That’s where Bill Miner held up a train, too.”

“That’s right, son,” said Decker with a grin. “You’ve been paying attention to my stories.”

“I like your stories,” replied Archie. “Especially the one about how you caught Frank Spencer. He was a dangerous man, wasn’t he?”

“Killed a man over a bottle of rye,” said his father. “Pete Foster, in the corral at Campbell’s Ranch near Kamloops back in 1887. But he had a record as long as your arm before that, in half-a-dozen states. Just missed being strung up for rustling horses in Montana, so he came up to Canada.”

Decker had been a policeman then, but hadn’t been directly involved in the case. Spencer had been tracked to the U.S. border, but there all traces of him went cold, and the hunt was called off. Spencer had presumably decided he’d made Canada too hot to hold him, and was headed back to more familiar territory.

Three years later, though, the fugitive – then working for a horse-breeder in Oregon – found himself in British Columbia once more, accompanying some horses his employer was shipping north.

“He’d hinted that he had reasons for not going north of the border, but I guess he figured that he’d be safe after three years, and with 200 miles between him and Kamloops,” said Decker.

“But he didn’t reckon on you, did he?” asked Archie, his eyes alight.

“No, he didn’t,” agreed his father. “There he was, second night out in New Westminster, walking into a bar on Columbia Street as bold as you please. I happened to be down there too, and soon as I saw him on the street I thought ‘I know that face somehow.’ Took me a minute to place it, but then I remembered the description of Spencer from the circular that went round after Foster’s murder. So I followed him into that bar, walked up behind him, laid a hand on his arm, and said . . .”

“ ‘I am Provincial Police Constable Isaac Decker, and I arrest you, Frank Spencer, for the murder of Pete Foster in Kamloops in June of 1887,’ ” said Archie, in his best imitation of his father’s Massachusetts accent. “I bet his face was a picture!”

“It certainly was,” agreed Decker. He glanced at his wife, who clearly wanted to say something. “You run along outside, finish up your chores now it’s cooler,” he said to Archie. Lena waited until their son was gone before she spoke.

“Are you going to go?” she asked simply, although the look in her face indicated she already knew the answer.

“I have to go,” said Decker gently. “Like I said, Joe’s going to need all the help – all the experienced help – he can get. Sounds like he’s going to be away from Ashcroft for a time. Wants to swear me in as a Special Constable, put me in charge while he’s gone.”

“But you’re retired!” she said. “You’re a rancher now, not a policeman.”

“Once a policeman, always a policeman,” said Decker. “I can’t say no to Joe in a situation like this.”

“Do you think there’s any danger?” asked Lena, and Decker shrugged.

“There’s always danger,” he replied. “But this is big country. They could as easily have gone east or south as come our way. While I’m in Ashcroft I’ll keep my eyes and ears open, and hold down the fort for Joe Burr.” He reached across the table and took Lena’s hand. “I’m more worried about you and Archie. Keep your own eyes and ears open while I’m gone. These men are on the run and desperate. No telling where they’ll turn up, or what they’ll do.”

To be continued

Barbara Roden