January 27, 1860 – Fort Yale, BC
The Chief Inspector of Police, Chartres Brew, had just finished writing a letter to Governor Douglas about the need for at least one hundred and fifty men for British Columbia’s new police force, when there was a knock on the door. The first murder of the year had already happened.
Brew opened the door and Constable Frances Barnard removed his hat as he stepped inside.
“There’s been a murder at Lillooet, sir,” Barnard said.
Brew listened to the story of events while Barnard kept standing. There was only one chair in the cabin and Brew was sitting on it.
Marcel LaPrairie’s body was discovered by Ah Ming, a Chinese gold miner, a few miles up the Fraser River from the town of Cayoosh.
“Who was Marcel LaPrairie?”
“A voyageur. He used to be at Fort Athabasca but he left about six months ago. The Hudson Bay Company had a record of him I’m sure.”
Brew stroked his chin. “That may not be necessary. What is your background, Barnard?”
“I recently came from Quebec.”
“But you’re an anglophone, aren’t you? Your middle name is Jones.”
“By birth, I am. But I also have learned French and Chinook.”
“Did you come to Fort Yale to become a constable or a gold miner?” Brew smiled.
Barnard looked at Brew squarely in the eyes. His own were puffy from a cold and lack of sleep.
“I came to Fort Yale with every intention of earning money for my family who I brought with me. I only had $5 after travelling here, not enough to pay for a mining licence right away.”
“Did you pay?”
“Of course, I paid. I paid all my creditors and as I promised my family, I would leave Fort Yale once I made a profit. Perhaps you want to know why I wanted to join your Constabulary? Well, I can tell you that I want to live in a peaceful community like everyone else and contribute in any way I can, including finding out who killed this voyageur.”
There was a silence between them for a minute and then Brew spoke.
“It has been my bias that most men who have the express interest of seeking gold are not likely to stay for long. However, on the other hand, your experience in these matters is essential in solving crimes such as these and for that we are grateful.”
“I am assigning Constable Cecil Owens to this case. He is formerly of the Royal Irish Constabulary and he has a lot of experience in these matters.”
Barnard put his hat on and made for the door. “I’ll see him at Lillooet, then.”
Brew stood up. “Perhaps it would be best for him to ride with you. He’s only been here for less than three weeks. It wouldn’t be fair to him to ride in this country on his own. There is an extra room I can find for you while he can get a horse ready.”
The ‘extra room’ it turned out was a bunk that was used by the gaoler.
Cecil Owens, it turned out, was a matter of fact man whose first question was to ask Barnard if he was armed.
“I have a knife, but I’ve never owned a gun, nor have I fired one.”
Owens brought out two pistols and gave one to Barnard. “I’ll show you how to fire it and then we’ll be on our way.”
It took them two days to ride from Fort Yale to Lillooet and Owens asked Barnard many questions along the way, most of which he didn’t mind answering except about his mining claim.
The first night in the bush, Owens seemed quite agitated as he went over the guns once again with Barnard. At first Barnard just assumed he must be cold, but then he realized Owens couldn’t bring himself to close his eyes for fear of the unknown.
“You don’t need to worry about using guns. I made it down by myself alright without any. The bears are in hibernation and everybody knows by now that you’re coming up to investigate Marcel’s murder.”
Owens was quiet for a bit, then just as Barnard was about ready to fall asleep, Owens asked, “did you know him?”
“Everyone knew Marcel from miles around.”
One evening as they were sitting around a campfire, eating some beans from a pot, the topic of mining claims came up.
“I’ve heard of some people salting their claims,” Owens remarked.
“You can always tell those ones.”
Barnard finished chewing before he replied. “There was a story once about a fellow they called ‘Popcorn Bill,’ and he said he had a claim along the Similkameen and how he lost his gold cache there. At first no one believed him, but he was really sincere about it and after a few mugs at the saloon, most were ready to believe anything. By the end of the evening, he had lots of offers to buy the claim. No one could ever find it of course.”
The next day, they arrived in Lillooet and Barnard showed the scene of the crime.
(to be continued)