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Bicycle Shoe


The Case of the Bicycle Shoe:
A Rip Travers Mystery

Skagway, Alaska, January 1900. Fred Clayson is a week overdue from Dawson, so his brother Will goes to see U.S. Deputy Marshal Rip Travers. Fred is usually spot on time, no, usually earlier than he predicts. The trail is good, hard, well-travelled. Will wonders if Rip would go up the trail and take a look. Leaving John Snook in charge, Rip takes off for Dawson, freighting his horse Buck to Whitehorse, where he and Buck take the Dawson Trail.

It takes four months before Rip finds Fred’s body and those of his two traveling companions. When he does, it is obvious from the bullet holes that they did not simply fall through the ice, as Major D’Amour of the North West Mounted Police would have it. Rip’s prime suspect is in a Whitehorse jail, suspected of robbing scows. Can he convince the Canadian government to pay upwards of a hundred thousand dollars in witness fees to try and convict an Irish murderer for the deaths of an American and two Canadians? As the bodies slowly emerge from the melting ice, the evidence mounts, and the Mounties finally admit they have the biggest crime yet committed in the Far North.

Based on a true story.

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Christmas Day, 1899, Minto Roadhouse, Yukon Territory. “How’d you ever get fresh eggs way out here?” Fred Clayson demanded of his hostess, Mrs. Fussell. Why, we’re 170 miles by steamer from Dawson and 150 miles from Whitehorse, and as far as I know, neither place has an excess of eggs this time of year.”

    “Why, ‘tis Christmas. I kept a few just for the special day, don’t you know,” the short, plump woman dimpled, happy to have pleased her guests.

Fred dug into the pile of flapjacks, eggs and bacon on the plate in front of him, figuring this was a better meal than he’d have on the entire trip from Dawson to Skagway. And he’d need it. With the bicycle wheel broken, he hadn’t made as good time as he wanted, and it had been colder than he thought it would be.

    “What’s the temperature out there this morning, Captain?” Relfe, that was his name. Fred had run into him a few times in Dawson.  Didn’t know exactly what he did, but he showed up at all the big social events, so he had some money. Like everyone else, he must be dabbling in a little of everything. He’d seen the man on the trail at two or three of the roadhouses, going out at the same time Fred did. They seemed to be making about the same kind of time.

    “About the same. Fifty below this morning. It ought to warm up to, oh, thirty below or so. You sure you three don’t want to stay over here for Christmas?” Captain Fussell asked for about the fourth time.

    “Naw, I’m anxious to get out. Been hung up in Dawson too long this season,” Relfe shook his head over his breakfast.

    “Same here,” Fred agreed. “Tried to get out in October on one of the steamships, but it froze up before I could make it. I waited until the trail was frozen solid so I could ride my bike, but it got busted up above Selkirk, and I’ve been having trouble with it ever since.” He shook his head.

    “Those things weren’t meant to be used in the snow and ice,” the third man at the table piped up.

    Olson, that was his name. He’d come in late last night, bundled up to the eyes with wool and fur. Said he worked for the Canadian Dominion Telegraph Company as a lineman. The folks at the roadhouse seemed to know him pretty well. He walked in like he was part of the family.

    “Yeah, well, I got up here on it just fine. The cold isn’t too kind on the lubrication, though. I’ve been doing more pushing than riding on this trip out,” he admitted.

    Olson shook his head, obviously chalking Fred up as a Cheechako – a greenhorn – in the North Country, but Relfe cocked his head and looked interested. “Yeah?” he said. “When’d you ride it up?”

    “Last spring. The ground was hard, but the temperature warmer.” And Fred dived into tales of his adventures and misadventures riding his bicycle from Whitehorse to Dawson. Relfe, only a few years younger, and obviously just as fit, seemed fascinated by the idea of riding one of those new contraptions into the North Country.

    This fascinating conversation carried the two of them through their six eggs apiece, six pancakes, and half a dozen strips of bacon. They had a long trek ahead of them to get to Hootchikoo, the next roadhouse, by dinnertime. It was twelve miles up the trail, following the river, and the road was in good shape. No one carried provisions, except for a lunch.

    “I’m having dinner with the Mounties at Hootchikoo, this evening. They promised a roast turkey,” Olson, the lineman, announced as the three of them shouldered their packs. “They told me everyone who came by would be welcome to share.”

    Fred cheered at the thought. This morning’s breakfast being the exception, roadhouse food sometimes got monotonous.

    “Great, it will give us all something to look forward to,” Relfe contributed. He was out the door before the others, not having a bicycle or telegraph line gear to bother with.

    Each man left at his own time. They weren’t really traveling together. It made sense to stay within calling distance of other travelers on the Dawson Road in the middle of winter, but these men were chance acquaintances. Somewhere around eight o’clock in the morning, Captain Fussell waved the last of his overnight guests off and closed the door to his roadhouse.

    That was the last anyone saw of Fred Clayson, Lynn Relfe or Lawrence Olson … alive.





January 8, 1900, Skagway, Alaska. One of the last people Rip Travers expected blew through his door with a blast of wind and snow.

    “Will Clayson, what are you doing out on such a God-forsaken day?” Skagway’s U.S. Deputy Marshal demanded. He’d thought he had some time to catch up on paperwork when the storm settled in.

    “Looking for my brother, Fred,” Will snapped.

    “You won’t find him in here,” Rip grumbled. “One of the most upright citizens I know. ‘Sides, last I heard, he was in Dawson.” He chuckled at his own joke.

Clayson, part owner of F.H. Clayson & Co., one of the first general outfitters in Skagway, stood at the door of the U.S. Marshall’s Office and brushed off the snow that clung to his arms and shoulders.

    “Not funny, Marshal Travers. That’s the last I heard from him, too. He said he was leaving three weeks ago. He’s overdue by a week, now, and the trail’s been good. All the folks that saw him before LaBarge have come on in.”

    Rip sobered as he stroked his big, bushy mustache. It hadn’t occurred to him that the athletic, vigorous Fred Clayson could get lost between Dawson and Skagway on such a well-marked trail. Not with traffic so heavy this time of year.

    “He traveling with anyone?”

    “Not that I know of. But you know Will. He always takes up with someone, and never travels alone. He only rides that bike when no one else is around, and I’ve talked to several folks who saw him on the trail.”

    When Rip Travers scowled, like he did now, his bushy eyebrows had a tendency to come together into one, solid grey-black line across his forehead. The mussed, iron-gray hair on top of his head mirrored the rat’s nest across his brow. He scrubbed at it a second, knowing it did no good in terms of improving his looks.

    “You been over to the Mounties?” It was the logical step. The Northwest Mounted Police were in charge north of the Canadian border.

    “Yeah, I just came from there. Major D’Armour said he’d cable the constables along the river to be on the lookout for him.” Will scowled.

    Rip knew where that scowl came from. The major thought a little bit too much of his scarlet uniform and tall, shiny black boots. He had spent the past six months striding through Skagway’s streets in full Mountie dress, complete with riding crop and all decorations, a privilege most policemen usually discarded for more comfortable fatigues in the Far North. He had been more than a little contemptuous of the U.S. marshals and the occasional times Rip had needed to deputize his posses for what little crime occurred in the bustling seaport town. Until the U.S. Congress gave Skagway the authority to incorporate, it had no legitimate police force, and relied entirely on the federal authorities and volunteers for its law enforcement.

    “Want me to go have a chat with Major D’Amour?” Rip asked, suddenly realizing where this conversation was headed. He had no authority in Canada, where Fred Clayson was missing. Convincing the Mounties to launch a search party was obviously what Will had in mind.

    “I’d appreciate it,” Will answered, a mass of worry lines leaving his face. “I’m thinking of talking to John Troy, over at The Daily Alaskan, too. See if we can’t drum up some publicity. Put some pressure on the Canadian police to start looking for him.”

    “Why don’t you wait a day or so for that?” Rip suggested. “Let’s see if we can’t convince them to start looking on their own before they get pressure from the newspapers. In the meantime, get me a list of everyone you’ve talked to, and when and where they saw Fred last. It’ll give me some ammunition when I go talk to Gus.”


    Three hours later, Rip stomped into Major Gus P. D’Amour’s office at 306 State Street. He’d spoken to half a dozen travelers off the Dawson Trail, all of whom had seen Will Clayson. Hard to miss with that bicycle of his. Not many folks tried to ride a bicycle the four hundred and twenty three miles from Dawson to Cariboo Crossing on one of these new contraptions, plus Will was a garrulous fellow and would talk to anyone who asked him questions. The bike always prompted questions, especially from the lady folks, and the younger men, who were all for trying it themselves. Rip wondered that Will made any time at all what with the spectacle he made just toting that thing along.

    “Gus,” he nodded to the Major as he removed his fur hat and finished stomping the snow off his boots.

“Travers,” the Major acknowledged, tucking his ever-present riding crop under his left arm and reaching out to shake Rip’s hand. The fully caparisoned Mountie just stopped short of clicking his heels together when he rose.

Rip returned his hearty shake and took the seat Major D’Amour offered him.

    “You’re a coffee-drinking man, if I recall correctly,” the Major piped up, heading off towards his stove, and a pot of coffee that sat on it. Rip nodded, thankful that the policeman remembered. He disliked tea intensely, and knew these British favored it. He didn’t know how the police could keep such an effective force on such weak, bitter brew.

    “You’re here about Fred Clayson, I warrant,” the Major said, as he brought over a cup of aromatic coffee.

Rip nodded as he took the first sip. Good. Maybe the major was picking up some decent habits from his American counterparts.

    “Just following up. Clayson’s not one to get lost easily,” Rip volunteered.

    “So I hear. I asked around myself. Had to admit I was put off by someone who’d ride a bicycle over ice and snow in the winter, but everyone I’ve talked to have said he knew what he was doing,” the policeman admitted.

    “Fred Clayson came up here in August, ninety seven, with the rush. He and his brother have been supplying outfits for stampeders for over two years. Fred’s gone up and down that trail more than a dozen times and in some of the roughest weather. Haven’t seen a more fit man do it,” Rip volunteered. “If he’s a day overdue, I’d be worried. A week, something bad has happened.”

    “I’ve sent notice to Selkirk, Minto, LaBarge and Whitehorse,” D’Amour said.

    “Good,” Travers nodded. “Travelers coming out saw him last at Selkirk on Christmas Even. The next roadhouse was Minto. Find out if he stayed there and then at LaBarge.”

    “I’ve already sent word to Minto to check at Hootchikoo, the roadhouse above Minto,” the Mountie inserted. “Most folks can’t make the thirty miles between Minto and LaBarge, so stop over at the roadhouse at that cutoff before the Indian Village. Even if they went on, someone would have noticed the bicycle.”

    “Great,” Rip agreed. “That’s a swift stretch of river, and the trail goes right along the south bank. Maybe he tried going out on the ice and fell through.”

    “It’s possible. It’s been awfully cold up there, forty, fifty below, but I heard there are some weak spots in the river. Most folks know to stay on the trail.”  The major shook his head.

    “Just a thought. With it that cold, wouldn’t be snowing. Should be tracks,” Rip noted.

    The major nodded. The two men sat drinking their hot drinks, musing on the possibilities. If the policeman was like Rip Travers, he would be wanting to be out on that trail doing some looking, not just imaging what he would find out there. Rip shook his head, sorry it was none of his businesses, and that even if it was, it would take so long to get out there.

    “Whose your man up at Selkirk?” Rip asked, on a whim.

    “Sergeant Watson. He’s got three or four men working for him. Constable Pennikwick at Minto, thirty-two miles up the trail, has two more, and there are three men at Hootchikoo, with Constable Harris. Another five at LaBarge. They’ll find your man.”

    Rip shook his head. Fifteen policemen along a sixty-mile stretch of river. It must be great to work for such a generous government. Here in Skagway, it was just him, Rip Travers, and John Snook working for the U.S. Marshal’s office. They were the law enforcement for all of Southeast Alaska down to Berner’s Bay, thirty miles north of Juneau, where Marshal Shoup’s territory kicked in. Sure, Rip could deputize a posse when he needed to, but that was for emergencies only.  Most of the time, Rip took care of problems himself.

    So he didn’t have time to be taking care of the Mounties’ problems. Even if it did concern a Skagway citizen. They had plenty of people and expertise to be doing this themselves. And it sounded like Major D’Amour had contacted all of the right people. Wasn’t much more that he could do himself.

    “You talked to Mrs. Prather?” Rip asked, remembering he had a couple more questions.

    “Lady who saw Clayson on Christmas Eve at Selkirk?”

    Rip nodded.

    “I was planning to go up to the Golden North Hotel in a little while.”

    “Be prepared for quite a talk,” Rip chuckled. “She loves the attention.”

Major D’Amour rolled his eyes. “Splendid. You wouldn’t mind distilling the pertinent facts for me?”

    “Only two others left that morning for Minto, a Mr. Rolph or Ralph, and a Mr. Olson. Olson is a lineman for the telegraph company, and Rolph appeared to be a young fellow about Clayson’s age. She had a lot of other stories about a nervous man who joined the pack on the twenty-seven or so, kept getting lost, acting strange and all that. I couldn’t make out everything she said. She’s convinced this nervous stranger did away with all three of them and has something to hide.”

    The major sighed. “So you think I ought to talk to her?”

    “Entirely up to you. I would ask about Olson and Rolph, though,” Rip suggested as he found his feet.

    The major tapped his head with his riding crop in acknowledgement of the obviously sound idea while Rip clambered into his wool coat. “A gossip, you say? Maybe I should send Gleeson. He’s good with the ladies.”

    “Nope. Go yourself. She’ll love the uniform.” Travers knew he was right on that score. Customs officer Zinkan Gleeson was indeed patient with the ladies, but Major D’Amour’s glitz would pull all of the detail from Mrs. Prather. She’d be so impressed with the braid and glitter that she would remember far more for him than she would any mousy clerk.

Rip knew that was precisely why the major went to all the trouble, and the praise obviously worked. He strutted an inch taller, if it was possible, and snapped his riding crop against his tall boot. 
    “Well, then. I say, will have to do it myself, won’t I?”

    “Good luck,” Rip wished him as he backed out the door, confident the Mountie would come up with additional information that would make some sense, something about the nervous man that Mr. and Mrs. Prathers encountered two days after Christmas on the trail below LaBarge.

    In the meantime, Rip, checked his watch. Yep, he had to hurry for that hearing in Commissioner Sehlbrede’s court.

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