It was the beginning of December and the miners were getting restless. The temperatures were dipping below freezing and the sluice boxes were full of ice.
Bernard Rice entered Foster’s saloon and demanded a drink. Foster asked for money up front. Rice had too many unpaid drinks and wasn’t welcome.
Rice pulled out a gun and waved it around. Foster pulled out a gun from behind the counter and shot Rice dead.
Nobody was really concerned at first. Anywhere else, Foster could have claimed self-defence, but not here.
The next day, Whannell was back in Dixon’s barber chair gloating over his new decision.
“I’m closing all the saloons that haven’t been properly registered.”
Dixon paused with his scissors hovering above Whannell’s head. “You closed all of them?!”
“I have to show who is in charge in this town, Dixon. The Foster saloon was unlicensed as are the other twelve. Hicks has spent too long at the helm, profiting from all these illegal saloons. This is an opportunity which fell into my lap and I intend to take advantage of it.”
Dixon started cutting Whannell’s hair. He’d already heard about Foster’s escape to Hill’s Bar but he asked Whannell about it anyway.
“Foster wasn’t there when I went to make my arrest but to guarantee that he doesn’t stray too far I arrested his assistant.”
Dixon furrowed his brow, “what does Foster need him for? He probably left the bar with his money to Hill’s Bar. He’s a Law and Order man.”
Whannell clenched his hands into fists, “McGowan again! I’m going to see to it that both he and Foster are arrested!”
There was no use in telling Whannell that by closing all the saloons, there would be more trouble in a town where people were agitated and restless.
Even when Dixon went out to get some food for himself at the diner, he saw the glum faced people shuffling along, looking miserable.
The saloons were still closed on December 24, 1858 when the Christmas dance was held. Dixon went there wearing his best suit and a clean pair of boots. He arrived with some Nlaka’pamuth women he had met.
Dixon was having a good time, dancing with the ladies when he heard shouts in his direction. It seemed two ruffians were getting jealous and were determined that Dixon was not going to be a happy man.
Dixon told them to go elsewhere, “you’re in British Columbia and I’ve plead allegiance to Queen Victoria.”
The two men took that as a taunt and a scuffle ensued with Dixon being tossed outside and onto the frozen mud of the street. Dixon’s head hurt but he got to his feet and yelled at the closed door. He was angry and upset. How could those two jerks bully him like that?
The next morning he dropped by Whannell’s hut and found him standing by the fire.
Dixon took off his hat and pointed at his wrapped head.
“Sir, I want to file a complaint against two of McGowan’s ruffians.”
Whannell stepped forward, a look of concern on his face. “Who are they? I’ll have them arrested at once, especially if they’re friends of McGowan’s.”
“Farrell and Burns are their names. You’ll find them at Hill’s Bar.”
“Leave it with me Dixon. In the meantime, do you need the services of Dr. Fife?”
“No thank you, sir. I’ve got years of practice helping injured soldiers and the like.”
After Dixon left, Whannell sent for Constable Hickson.
“Hickson, go to Hill’s Bar and give this warrant to George Perrier. I’m ordering the arrest of Burns and Farrell for the assault of Isaac Dixon.”
Two hours later, Hickson presented the warrant to George Perrier who went in search of Ned McGowan.
“McGowan, what should I do?”
McGowan was sitting at the saloon playing cards. “I’ll go talk to Whannell.”
An hour later, McGowan knocked on Whannell’s door and entered. The furnishings were minimal he noted. There was only one small table and upon this McGowan dropped a small bag of gold dust.
“I’ve come to talk to you about Burns and Farrell,” McGowan began.
“And who are you to be barging in here? You’re not a constable!”
McGowan stood at his full height. “A reasonable man would be interested in bargaining. What’s to be gained by arresting these two men?”
“Take your gold dust and leave,” Whannell said through clenched teeth. “I won’t be bribed.”
McGowan returned to Hill’s Bar where Perrier and a few others were waiting for him on the other side of the river.
“Well? How did it go?” Perrier asked as he helped steady the canoe while McGowan disembarked.
McGowan shook his head, “stubborn and foolish. He has underestimated his opponent. Tell Constable Hickson to bring Dixon here if he wants to testify. We’ll hold the trial here at Hill’s Bar.”
Perrier nodded, “I’ll write up a summons right away.”
Hickson returned to Yale the next day – the last of the daylight was already ebbing away and he didn’t see the rush.
At nine o’clock the next day, Hickson rode in a canoe to Yale with the summons for Dixon.
He was halfway to the barber shop when he ran into Dixon on the main street and served him the paper. Dixon read the paper over a couple of times, hardly believing it. He hurried over to Whannell’s hut and banged on the door.
“Hello! You only have to knock once,” said Whannell from behind the door. He opened it a crack.
“Dixon? What now?”
Dixon held up the paper, “they want me to come to a trial in Hill’s Bar!”
“Come inside and we’ll talk.”
It was warmer inside but not by much and Dixon kept his coat on, with the collar almost covering his ears.
Whannell read the paper. “This is absolutely absurd! I cannot believe that Perrier would do such a thing! Where is that Constable Hickson? He failed to follow my orders!”
Whannell gathered up his sword and put on his hat. Half an hour later, Constable Hickson was spotted talking to Yates, the HBC clerk.
“Hickson! You are to come to my court at once!”
Hickson followed Whannell at a distance and arrived at the “court” – a sparse room with only a bench for Whannell to sit at and no heat.
Cold air seemed to blow in from every corner of the room and Hickson stood there hunched as he waited for Whannell to enter.
“You must remove your hat when I enter the court, Constable!” Whannell almost shouted.
Hickson did as he was told and exposed his pink ears.
“You’re under arrest Mr. Hickson because you failed to carry out your orders as directed by an officer of this Crown colony.”
“But sir, Justice Perrier instructed me to summon Dixon! Those were his orders.”
“Am I not your superior?!”
Hickson gave this some thought and then he answered. “No.”
Whannell nearly blew up. His shouts brought the attention of the jailer who came running into the court.
“Put Hickson into the jail at once!”
Hickson protested loudly as the jailer pulled him from the room.
Whannell stood and drew out his sword, slashing the air in front of him. How could people be so turned against him? It was a plot to overthrow British rule! He was sure of it. But what proof did he have? If he penned a letter to Governor James Douglas, he would just reply back that he could handle the situation himself.
What the Governor didn’t understand was that Yale was no longer a small HBC Fort – it had become a quagmire of American politics that overwhelmed the Crown colony. Its situation was a tenuous as its physical location was precarious; clinging to the side of the deep Fraser Canyon.
McGowan and nine others from Hill’s Bar disembarked from two canoes and strode along the main street. Several people along the way observed the men, each of them carrying guns and knives in plain sight. No one challenged them or asked them where they were headed.
Whannell was standing in his hut with his back to the stove, talking to a few miners who had a few complaints when the door opened with a bang and McGowan and his entourage entered.
“You’re under arrest, Mr. Whannell. I, Ned McGowan and the nine others with me, have been given the title of special constables and are here to carry out the orders of Justice Perrier.”
Whannell stared at them open-mouthed. “On what grounds do you arrest me?”
“You’ve insulted her majesty and you’ve unlawfully detained Constable Hickson, who we are now going to release.”
Whannell, knowing he was outnumbered, had no choice but to step aside while McGowan and his men stormed the jail, ordering the jailer to open the door. Alarmed at the sight of these men with their guns all aimed in his direction, the jailer complied and unlocked door behind which was a crowd of men including Constable Hickson.
“All of these men are freed!” McGowan shouted.
Whannell tried to leave the room but McGowan’s men prevented him from doing so, instead they roped his wrists together and led him outside and down the street with one of them pointing his own sword at his back.
There were shouts of encouragement from some of the passersby but there were mostly insults hurled at Whannell by miners still missing their saloons. By the time they arrived at the place where the canoes lay waiting, the captors were full of self praise.
Breathless from running, Dr. Fife shouted, “McGowan! If Mr. Whannell is to get a fair trial then I have to attend as a witness.”
McGowan relented and let the Vigilante member climb on board and take a seat beside Whannell who sat with his military hat askew. The others snickered at his appearance.
Using this opportunity to lecture to his prisoner, McGowan said words which caused Whannell’s heart to race.
Thinking that Whannell was worried about the outcome of the trial, Fife reassured Whannell that he would pay for any fine. “McGowan likes money more than anything; something that’ll buy a pint all around.”
Whannell said nothing. He was too angry to speak. He sat there grinding his jaw. That afternoon was a blur. He proceeded like a prisoner in front of Perrier who read out the charges with occasional hints from McGowan himself.
“Perrier!” Whannell shouted. “This is a complete fraud!”
“Mr. Whannell, you are in my court.” Perrier didn’t look at Whannell as he read out the charges.
Whannell’s complexion turned a deep crimson and then pale with anger as McGowan gave a ten minute lecture on Whannell’s failings. He was almost shaking with rage as Perrier read out the fine of fifty dollars.
Fife paid the fine as promised and luckily had enough money to pay some paddlers to get them both safely back to Yale. Fife said a few words about the closure of the saloons, but Whannell scarcely heard them.
Just as soon as Whannell reached his hut, he rushed to find paper and ink and set about writing letters to the forts downriver.
In each of the letters he transcribed word for word which he remembered McGowan utter during that canoe ride to Hill’s Bar:
“all there is in this so-called Colony of yours are forts. We’ll take Fort Yale and then go downriver and capture Fort Hope and retreat with our plunder into Washington Territory.”
With those words written, Whannell appealed for military intervention. “Fort Yale is under American control, the entire Colony is in peril!” he wrote.
There wasn’t enough time or space to talk about his ordeal but he did write that “George Perrier was colluding with Ned McGowan and the Hill’s Bar mob.”
Finishing his signature with a flourish, Whannell tied string around the paper in the fading candlelight and opened the door into the cold night to find someone to deliver the messages.
In less than ten days, troops from the Royal Engineers would arrive in Yale along with Colonal Moody and Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie. McGowan’s war had begun.
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