Read CHAPTER IV of Sergeant Silk the Prairie Scout , free online book, by Robert Leighton, on ReadCentral.com.

THE FUGITIVE AND HIS PURSUER

Sergeant Silk had at least the satisfaction that he had now discovered the identity of the man who had taken the life of Henri Jolicoeur, and that same night, without resting, he hastened to the nearest police depot to telegraph his report to head-quarters at Regina. He waited for a reply, which came in the early morning, intimating that Pierre Roche must be captured, dead or alive. The whole Force would see to it that he was caught and brought to justice.

Roche had long been suspected as a persistent law breaker, but he had never yet been convicted. More than half an Indian, he had all the Redskin’s cunning in covering his traces and evading detection; but now the evidence against him was more than a mere suspicion.

A whole troop of the Mounted Police turned out in pursuit of him. They were posted to guard all passes through the Rocky Mountains, and a district of ninety square miles was combed over incessantly by strong patrols. His escape seemed almost impossible. The district, however, was one of foothills, bush, winding gorges, tracts of boulders, and, to the eastward, rolling prairie, where the fugitive’s friends, the Piegan and Blood tribes, were using every subtlety of Indian craft to hide him and outwit the police.

Day after day went by, and no positive trace of the criminal was found. The only hint of his whereabouts was given in the fact that Sergeant Silk, the most energetic of his pursuers, was constantly encountering unexpected dangers. This was particularly so whenever he rode alone unattended by scouts.

Artful traps were laid for him. He was misled by a hundred rumours that took him far astray into lonely places. False trails were set to lure him into hidden pitfalls and ambuscades.

Once, in the darkness, his horse bolted for a cause unknown until he found an Indian arrow sticking in her buttock. Once his saddle and bridle were stolen while he slept in the shelter of a friendly ranch house.

It did not take him long to realise that he was himself being dogged and shadowed by the very man he was pursuing and against whom he had given information. His every movement seemed to be known almost before it was made. A man less bravely watchful might have gone in fear of his life; but Silk only welcomed the signs which proved that he was still upon the fugitive’s trail.

At Lee’s Crossing one dark night he went out swinging his lantern, sniffing the warm air, bound for the stable, when he saw a sudden blaze revealing a dark face behind the horse trough, while a bullet ripped through his sleeve.

Silk ran back to the house, grabbed his gun, and returned, only to hear a horse galloping away in the night. The creature was his own favourite mare, and the man who had stolen her-the man whose face he had seen in the flash from the gun barrel-was Pierre Roche.

On a borrowed mustang, heavier and less swift of foot than his own stolen troop horse, Sergeant Silk went off in pursuit. He knew by the direction taken that Roche was making for the refuge of the Indian Reservation at Minnewanka, thirty odd miles away across the mountains.

There were two possible trails. He realised that the fugitive would take the shorter one over the steep shoulder of Minnewanka Peak, and that he would give the mare a rest before ascending. By taking the longer, though somewhat easier, trail through One Tree Canyon, it might be possible to head him off. This is what Silk did, and he urged his horse forward at almost reckless speed.

It was early dawn when he came out from the gloom of the gulch at the point where the trails crossed and examined the dewy grass for signs. There were no hoof marks to be seen, and, satisfied that he had gained his object, he waited under the shadow of a great boulder, watching and listening.

In less than an hour’s time he heard the familiar sound of his mare’s hoofs, carried towards him by the morning breeze, and soon afterwards his keenly searching eyes distinguished against the rosy glow of the sky the form of a horseman riding slowly over the ridge of one of the nearer hills.

The sound of pattering hoofs came clearer and clearer from the farther valley, and at length, when Pierre Roche came again into sight, hardly a hundred yards away, Silk moved out and halted in the middle of the trail, drawing his revolver.

“Stop, or I fire!” he cried aloud, confronting the fugitive.

His instructions were to shoot at sight, but he held his weapon in front of him, hesitating to fire, wanting, for the sake of a great tradition, to make the usual arrest, the taking of an outlaw alive and uninjured.

Roche’s rifle lay across the saddle, and he held the reins Indian fashion with the right hand; but when Silk, riding boldly up to him, grabbed him by the shoulder, he swerved, touching the trigger with his left.

Silk knocked the gun upward, and the bullet, meant for his body, tore through the rim of his hat, grazing his ear.

“Hands up!” he commanded, keeping a watchful eye upon the now desperate half-breed. “Drop that gun!”

Roche stared into the threatening muzzle of the shining weapon that was levelled at his forehead. He knew that it was futile to resist one of the resolute Riders of the Plains. For an instant he glanced around to see if the sergeant were alone, fearing, perhaps, that he had companions waiting in ambush. His fingers were twitching at the lock of his repeating rifle, but he saw that it was no use, and he sullenly obeyed, letting his weapon fall heavily to the ground as he slowly raised his empty hands above his head.

Sergeant Silk brought the two horses closer together, took possession of his prisoner’s knife and pistol, and leisurely drew out a pair of handcuffs, which shone like burnished silver in the sunlight.

At sight of them Pierre Roche swayed in his saddle, then began to struggle in an attempt to break away, but the cold ring of a revolver muzzle was pressed against his neck, his right arms was seized by a hand stronger than his own, and the handcuffs were smartly clasped upon his wrists.

“Now you will go with me,” said Sergeant Silk.

He dismounted to pick up the gun and his hat and to examine his mare to assure himself that she had suffered no harm at the hands of her strange rider.

“You tek me to de prison for steal your cayuse?” Roche panted agitatedly.

Silk nodded.

“For stealing my mare, yes,” he answered, bringing his hat into its proper shape, “and for an offence yet more serious than your old game of horse stealing. And you may consider yourself lucky that I did not shoot you at sight just now.”

“It is probable you tek me to Bankhead?” questioned the half-breed. “It is de nearest depot of de police.”

“It is the nearest, sure,” returned the sergeant. “But as the way to it lies across the neighbourhood of your Indian friends, who would no doubt attempt to rescue you, I take you to a stronger lock-up, see? I take you to Fort Canmore.”

“But dat was a two-day journey,” exclaimed Roche, “across de prairie!”

“If it were twenty days it would be all the same to me, now that I have you,” Silk retorted.

He tied the mare’s bridle over her neck, fastened a rope to the bit ring, and led her behind the heavy bay mustang, which he continued to ride.

As the sun rose above the hills the air became oppressively hot, and Pierre Roche appealed many times to have his hands liberated, if only that he might wipe the perspiration from his forehead and fend off the midges and mosquitoes; but all that the police sergeant would do for his comfort was to give him a drink of water whenever they came to a creek, and, at midday, to let him dismount for a rest and to feed him with a share of the remaining contents of his haversack.

By the afternoon they had left the foothills behind in the blue distance, and were ambling slowly, wearily, over the parched prairie, miles and miles away from any human habitation.

So fatigued were they and their ponies that even before sundown Sergeant Silk resolved to halt and make camp for the night beside a water hole in the hollow of a coulee, where a few dwarf elder trees afforded a meagre shelter.

On dismounting Roche flung himself down in the long grass, apparently to sleep, while Silk attended to the horses. He had taken off his tunic, and laid it neatly folded with his belt and the firearms on a tiny knoll. Once he glanced round at his prisoner, and saw that he was lying exhausted, with his face downwards, across his manacled hands.

Having no fear of him, Silk went on with his work of driving stakes in the dry ground, by which to tether the horses by trail ropes. His back was turned to the half-breed, but in a pause of his hammering he heard a slight movement behind him.

He wheeled sharply round, and, to his amazement, saw that Pierre Roche had crawled forward, caught up one of the loaded revolvers, and was holding it with both hands, aiming at him point-blank.

With quick instinct Silk gripped his hammer to fling at the man, but even as he raised his arm there was a flash. The bullet went wide of its intended mark, but struck the shoulder of the bay mustang, which reared, kicked and whinnied with pain.

“Say, my boy, you’ve done yourself no good by that silly trick,” cried the sergeant. “How d’you suppose you could have mounted and ridden away with the handcuffs on if you’d killed me? You’d sure have died here of hunger and thirst, and that wouldn’t have been anyways nice.”

Tiens! Is dat so?” returned Roche in surprise.

“Why, cert’nly, you brainless cariboo. Don’t you understand that you’re helpless without me to look after you?”

As a precaution against the repetition of any such attempt upon his life, Silk now took one of the ropes and tied it tightly about his prisoner’s legs and body, leaving him lying there unable to stir hand or foot. Then he went to examine the wounded bay.

The wound was much more serious than he had supposed, and he was occupied for a long time in trying to extract the bullet and staunch the flow of blood from the animal’s chest. Darkness came over the prairie before he had finished, and he had no lantern. All that he could do was to plug the wound with his handkerchief and wait for daylight, snatching a few hours’ rest meanwhile.

Before lying down he saw that his mare was secure. There was no need for him to concern himself further with Pierre Roche, who could do no harm. So he wound his watch, took a drink of water, glanced at his prisoner, spread his blanket, and curled himself up to sleep.

The difficulties and anxieties of his situation, isolated here on the desolate prairie in charge of a desperate criminal and a wounded horse, without food or the immediate hope of getting any, did not prevent him from sleeping soundly. He had had no rest on the previous night, and had been in the saddle for a score of hours, and he yielded to his fatigue.

He awoke with a start. There was a dry, choking sensation in his throat, which made him cough. His mare was snorting impatiently and tugging violently at her halter.

A strange, weird moaning filled the air, like the sound of distant waves breaking against a rocky coast.

Silk sat up, staring about him wonderingly. All was dark around, excepting in the east, where there was a rosy flickering glow in the sky. He could see Pierre Roche lying near him, still sleeping soundly.

He leapt to his feet and strode up to the wounded horse. It lay motionless on its side, and, as he bent over it and touched it, he found that it was dead.

He turned away from it and stood staring upward at the sky, sniffing curiously, agitatedly, at the warm air. It was heavily charged with nipping, pungent mist. Flocks of prairie birds were in flight-sage hens, sand owls, linnets-all winging their way westward.

Silk knew the awful meaning of these signs. He ran up the sloping side of the hollow coulee, and when he reached its rim his worst fears were realised. The prairie was on fire!

Far back the whole wide expanse was wrapped in a vast rolling cloud of grey-brown smoke. The rising sun shone dimly through it, red as the flames beneath, that curled and leapt and twisted like a long ocean wave, sending up a spray of sparks into the overhanging gloom.

He heard the fierce crackling of the burning grass as the fiery tide swept towards him, devouring all in its way. He saw the wild creatures of the prairie bunched together in a moving mass-elks and antelopes first, then a host of the smaller fry-all bounding along, friend and foe alike, in a frantic stampede.

He was cool, as he always was, in the face of danger; but he knew the value of every moment now, and he ran back to his prisoner.

“Quick! Quick!” he cried, awakening him with a rough shake as he began to untie the rope with which the half-breed was bound. “The prairie’s on fire! Look at the smoke! Quick; get to your feet. We’ve no time to lose. There’s only one horse-my mare. The other’s done for, see? You killed it-as you meant to kill me.”

“Holy!” exclaimed Pierre Roche. His bronzed face had become suddenly livid. His dark eyes showed the abject terror that had come over him. “Only one horse? Yours? Den you will abandon me? You will tek your revenge so?”

A ghost of a smile played about the lips of Sergeant Silk. He turned away without answering, and the crackle of the advancing flames grew louder, the hot breath of the burning prairie grew hotter and hotter, the smoke more dense and choking. He went up to his mare, caressed her as he loosened her halter from the bit ring.

“All right, my beauty,” he said very tenderly. “Be brave, keep cool. It all depends upon you. But you can do it, eh? At least you’ll try.”

He flung the saddle over her back and fastened the cinches. Then he led her to where Pierre Roche stood, with a foot across the two revolvers, while he frantically tried to squeeze his wrists from the handcuffs.

“Steady there! Steady!” cried Silk. “What’s your game?” He gave him a shove backward, took up his own revolver, slipped it into his holster, and then flung the other away.

“So?” objected Roche. “You refuse me even de satisfaction for shoot myself? You leave me here, handcuffed, for de flames?” He made a step forward. “Pardon,” he said, “but will you not do me de favour for shoot me yourself? It is more queek, less ’orrible. And for your revenge it is all de same. I die anyway. What?”

Silk was not listening to him. He glanced round apprehensively as a shower of black dust and smouldering grass blades fell from the midst of the heavy pall of rolling smoke. Then he stretched out his hands and caught hold of his prisoner in his strong arms, lifted him bodily, and flung him across the mare’s back, holding him there while he seized the reins, raised a foot to the stirrup, and leapt up behind him.

“Go!” he cried, when his seat was secure. “Go, my beauty!”

With a snort and a shake of her mane the mare went forward, dashed up the slope, gained the level, and plunged off with a long, racing stride to mingle with the panic-stricken crowd of bellowing, screeching creatures of the prairie in the mad stampede for escape.

Mile after mile she galloped with her double burden, making never a pause or a break, while the fire, with its terrible crackle and moaning, came closer and closer, and the blinding, choking reek swept by in a thickening cloud.

Silk had no need to use spur or reins. He let her go her own instinctive way, and only strove to keep his awkward seat in the saddle and to hold grimly, desperately to the man lying helpless across his knees. Once only he tightened the reins to check the mare’s headlong flight as they came to the brink of a creek. Then, with coaxing, affectionate words, he bade her go warily, guiding her through the shallows, where a struggling crowd of coyotes, rabbits, and prairie dogs wallowed or swam or sank exhausted.

At the farther side of the sluggish stream Silk dismounted, trusting that the fire would not yet leap the water.

“Reckon we can take breath for a while,” he said to his moaning prisoner. “Say, I’ll just fix you in a more comfortable position and give you a drink. Guess you’re needing it. I’d take the handcuffs off you, only I’m afraid you can hardly be trusted, even now. What do you say?”

As he brought a hatful of water and held it up, the half-breed dipped his face in it, and then looked down at him appealingly.

“Sergeant,” he pleaded, leaning over and holding out his swollen hands and exhibiting the bruised wrists, “you tek dem off. You ’ave pity, eh?”

Silk shook his head and emptied his hat upon the mare’s face.

“Do you think you deserve so much pity?” he asked. “If I took them off you’d only try to escape.”

Pierre Roche drew back his hands and awkwardly moved his body as if he meant to slip to the ground.

Silk stopped him.

“Stay where you are,” he ordered sternly. “What are you up to?”

“I go no more,” returned the half-breed. “I was coward. I no deserve any pity. It ees true. Listen, Sergeant. You was de mos’ brave man I ever know. It ees not good you reesk you good life for me any longer. You leave me. You go on alone. I remain. I die. I gif myself to de flame. It ees bes’ you go alone, see?”

Sergeant Silk recognised that the man was sincere in his curious entreaty to be left to his fate.

But he shook his head gravely.

“No,” he responded. “I must do my duty. I cannot go without my prisoner, and, though you were the worst sinner that ever breathed, I could not bring myself to abandon you to that!”

He nodded in the direction of the fiercely advancing flames. A spark nipped his cheek. Round about him he saw tiny jets of smoke rising from among the dry herbage.

“It’s coming,” he said. “The water won’t stop it. Quick!” he cried. “Your wrists!” He seized the handcuffs and adroitly whipped them free. “There!” he nodded, “I trust you, see? You could dash off without me now.”

Pierre Roche drew a deep breath of relief. He looked down into the sergeant’s eyes.

“Dat is true,” he acknowledged. “But I give you my parole. I go wid you. I am you prisoner. I no try for mek my escape. No. I go to my punishment. Quick! Quick!”

He held out his blue and swollen hands to help the soldier policeman to mount.

The mare sped on again, panting hoarsely, snorting, swaying sometimes, but never faltering, never slackening her onward rush, until, at last, she reached safety on a wide stretch of blackened earth, where a previous fire had stripped the prairie.

And late on the following morning Sergeant Silk rode into Canmore and delivered up his prisoner at the barracks.

“Ah!” declared the commandant with satisfaction. “I am glad it was you who arrested the rascal, Sergeant. And single-handed, too. You look some jaded. I hope you have had no difficulties?”

“No, sir,” returned Silk, “nothing to speak of.”