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

A PERILOUS MOMENT

When he returned to his comrades the teamsters had brought their wagons down the hill, the mounted men had formed up and were unsaddling. The wagons made a second line in their rear, and a rope was stretched from wheel to wheel, to which each trooper tied his horse before the teams were unharnessed.

Three of the men had chosen a spot by some bushes where an iron bar was set on a pair of uprights five feet apart, and before the sound of the axes had ceased in the bush three full kettles were swinging over a roaring fire.

A bell tent was pitched for the officer in command; the horses were watered, groomed, and fed, then at a merry call from the bugle there was a dash to the wagons for plates and cups, while knives were whipped from belt or bootleg ready for a general assault on fried bacon, hard biscuit, and scalding tea.

After the meal, when the men were beginning to cut up their plug tobacco and load their pipes, Sergeant Silk gathered some food into a blanket and filled a flagon with hot tea. His chums watched him, curious concerning his preparations.

“You going out on scout duty then, Sergeant?” one of them inquired.

“This grub isn’t for myself,” he explained, nodding in the direction of Maple Leaf’s camp beyond a projecting corner of the ravine. “I’m taking it to a girl bivouacking alone farther up the canyon.”

“Alone?” one of them exclaimed in surprise. “Must be an Indian. No white girl would camp out all alone in a place like this.”

“That’s so,” nodded Silk. “She’s just an Indian-the chore girl from Rattlesnake Ranch, daughter of The Moose That Walks. Guess you know her, most of you. She once saved me from being scalped and roasted. I owe her some special attention.”

“Say, Sergeant,” suggested a trooper from the far side of the fire, “mightn’t you have brought her into camp? We’d have fixed up a nice, homelike, comfortable room for her in one of the wagons. And I’d have mounted guard outside to keep away the mosquitoes. No mosquito’ll go near any one else while I’m around.”

Sergeant Silk had saddled his broncho and was about to mount when he turned sharply at the sound of hoofs.

“Here’s Denis Murphy coming in,” he announced. “I’ll wait and hear if he’s seen anything of those Redskins. Something has kept him.”

Murphy was descending from the heights by the tracks made by the wagon wheels. As he approached along the level ground the commanding officer strode out from his tent, smoking a cigar. Murphy came to a halt in front of him and saluted.

“I’ve struck the trail of those Indians, sir,” he reported. “Three miles beyond the far end of the canyon, west by south. I calculate there’s between thirty and forty of them-bucks, on the warpath.”

“How do you make out that they are bucks?” questioned the commandant. “You didn’t see them?”

“I didn’t see them, sir,” Murphy answered, “but I found no marks of any teepee poles, and I reckon they’re the lot we’re looking for.”

“No doubt,” nodded the officer, puffing at his cigar. He turned to Silk. “You had better persuade that girl to come into camp, Sergeant,” he said. “And then I shall want you to go out scouting, and discover where the Redskins have located themselves for the night. Take Stikeman along with you and send him back with the girl.”

“Yes, sir,” returned Silk.

He mounted, taking his carbine with him, and Trooper Stikeman followed, carrying the blanket of provisions.

They went down the ravine at an easy trot with their faces to the west, where the sun was setting in a glory of red and gold. When they came within sound of the waterfall, the sergeant looked about for Maple Leaf’s pony and the smoke from her camp fire, but he saw neither.

“Seems to me the girl has vamoosed,” he said uneasily. “I see no sign of her.”

He led the way to the trees and halted over the blackened ashes of the fire. In their midst was a large, round stone, with a smaller stone beside it. “Yes,” he ruminated, “she’s quitted and left that sign to let us know that she has made westward, out of the canyon. Say, Stikeman, you’d best turn back to camp and tell the major I’ve gone on the girl’s trail.”

He started off at once at a hand gallop, knowing that Maple Leaf could get out of the ravine only by one way, for the sides were too steep for any pony to climb.

But when he came out upon the open plain he slowed down, riding to and fro, searching until he came upon the trail indicated by a faint line to be seen through the tall grasses. He followed the track quickly and unerringly, always looking for it forty or fifty yards ahead.

Once he drew rein and listened. From behind him came the notes of a bugle sounding First Post. As they ceased he heard the regular quick pad of hoofs in advance of him, borne to him by the evening breeze. The sound died away as the breeze fell, but it had told him the direction in which the girl had gone, and that she was not far away from him.

He urged his broncho forward, hardly needing to watch the trail, and at length, just for a moment, he caught sight of Maple Leaf as she crossed the crest of an old sand-drift and went over into the hollow beyond.

He expected to see her reappear on the next slope, but as he reached the top of the drift he discovered her still in the hollow, seated quietly on her horse in the midst of a colony of prairie dogs, amusing herself watching the lively little animals as they scampered about, barked, and peeped out at her from their burrows.

She seemed to be aware that he had been following her, for she turned without surprise and raised her hand in salute to the brim of her wide hat.

“How!” she called to him in Indian greeting.

Sergeant Silk rode up to her, carefully guiding his horse among the dog holes.

“You’ve given me a needless journey,” he said to her reprovingly. “Why did you strike camp? You were safe and comfortable back there in Emerald Canyon. Here you can be neither comfortable nor safe.”

She looked at him with a frown of annoyance.

“There’s no occasion for you to worry about me,” she objected. “I’m all right left alone. I’m no tenderfoot. You needn’t have come after me. Don’t just know why you did.”

“I’ve come to take you back to our outfit,” he explained. “The major sent me. You’re to come back right now.” He paused a moment, looking about him curiously, almost as if he were conscious of some impending danger. “Come,” he urged, “we must get into camp before dark. I’ve got to go out on a big scout.”

She glanced at him inquiringly.

“You going to be out on duty all night, then?” she questioned.

“Why, cert’nly,” he answered, “or until I have located those Indians.”

“I’ll come,” she decided promptly. “My pony is some tired; but he’ll put on a hustle. Say, what are you looking like that for?”

His eyes were roving searchingly to and fro across the prairie. He was gripping his reins tightly with one hand, while with the other he was fingering the stock of his carbine poised in front of him.

“Listen!” he said, sitting very still in his saddle.

Then suddenly he swung over, leapt from his horse, and threw the reins over the mare’s head, so that she would stand. Swiftly he went round to Maple Leaf’s side.

“Here, jump down!” he commanded. “Quick!”

The girl looked at him amazed, but obediently slipped to the ground.

Sergeant Silk caught at her broncho’s bridle, drew the bit down to within a span of the animal’s hoofs, and secured both fetlocks together with the double loop. In the same way he shackled the feet of his own mare. Leaving the two horses hobbled, he strode a dozen quick paces away, with his carbine across the crook of his left arm. Maple Leaf followed him. He looked round at her.

“Sit down!” he commanded. “Lie low!”

Again she obeyed him unquestioningly, sharing his alarm. She had heard what he had heard and knew its meaning.

She watched him go forward and saw him stand upright with his hand raised above his head, palm outward, as a peace sign. Then she followed the direction in which he was looking and gave a little start as she saw a figure on horseback-an Indian wearing the large feathered war-bonnet of a chief-outlined against a grassy slope hardly more than half-a-mile away.

Silk slowly lowered his hand and strode back to where Maple Leaf was sitting.

“He doesn’t answer my sign,” he said, drawing down the lever of his carbine. “He’s a Sioux. There’s a crowd of his braves behind the rise there. It’s the lot we’re looking for, and they know it. They won’t want me to go back. They’ll rush us. We’ve got to fight for it. Keep cool!”

“It’s all my fault,” Maple Leaf regretted. “What can I do? I’ve no gun!”

“You can do nothing but lie low,” Silk told her. “We can’t escape through this dog town, all full of holes. See! They’re coming!”

From all around, silent as shadows, warriors on horseback appeared, each with a rifle across his naked arm. The sunlight shone upon their greasy bodies and painted faces, and the white eagle feathers of their head-dresses. They collected in a group. Some of them seemed to be speaking, to be planning how they should kill or capture the red-coated scout who had found their trail. Then one by one in turn they moved away, forming in single file, and making a wide circle round the centre occupied by Sergeant Silk and his girl companion.

Silk glanced back at the two hobbled horses. No, it was too late to think of escape.

At first the Indians rode at a quick walking pace, far apart from each other; but before the wide ring was complete they had increased their speed to a wild, racing gallop. Each warrior threw himself along the off side of his steed, and as they wheeled round and round, keeping always the same distance away, they yelled their shrill war cry, firing no shot as yet.

Sergeant Silk’s eyes were steadily watching them. He was lying at full length, supported on an elbow. His face had taken on a look of grim determination.

“They’re not risking to come closer-not yet,” he said calmly. “The dog holes are as bad for them as for us. We’re safe for a bit. You see, Indians are never good marksmen with firearms. They never clean their rifles, never get hold of decent ammunition; and it isn’t just easy, anyhow, to take aim from a galloping horse. You’ve no need to be afraid,” he added reassuringly.

“I’m not anyways afraid while you’re here, Sergeant,” Maple Leaf responded. “Why don’t they get doing something? Why don’t they shoot?”

Suddenly, as if he had heard her and understood, one of the warriors flung himself forward under his pony’s neck and fired into the ring. The bullet kicked up a spurt of dust many yards away, but it was the signal for the beginning of the fight.

Yelling shrilly, the savages opened fire, never pausing to take aim. Their shots, indeed, were more dangerous to themselves than to their intended victims. One of their own horses stumbled and rolled over on its rider, struck by a stray bullet.

“They’re having a nice picnic, so far,” said Silk, talking for the mere sake of encouraging his companion. “If they keep this up long enough, the racket’ll be heard in Emerald Canyon. Wind’s from the right quarter. But they’re only bluffing now-playing with us. Soon, they’ll rush us. It’s their way. There!”

The Indian chief had suddenly wheeled within the galloping circle, throwing his pony back with a jerk on its haunches. The warriors came up to him one by one, halting all together in a compact company, with their ponies’ heads towards the two figures crouching in the hollow of the dog town.

Sergeant Silk had turned to confront them, raising himself to command a fuller view of them. He understood their manoeuvre. Instead of closing in around him from all sides in broken order, they were going to make a combined frontal charge.

“Fools!” he muttered contemptuously. “They never learn how to fight. They’re going to rush us in a bunch!”

Keeping his eyes fixed upon the lingering Indians, he moved backward a foot or two nearer to Maple Leaf, and slowly drew from his holster a heavy revolver, which he placed on the grass between them.

“Listen!” he said in a sharp whisper, glancing for an instant into her dark, fearless eyes. “They’re going to rush us in a bunch. We’ve only a few minutes. Maybe I can break them. I don’t know. I shall try. It’s a bare chance. But in this pistol”-he touched the weapon-“I shall always save two shots-for the last. One for you. One for me. Understand?”

Maple Leaf nodded.

“Yes,” she answered. “You will shoot me first; then yourself. It is best. I understand.”

“And if they kill me first,” he added impressively, yet quite calmly. “If they kill me first, you must seize that pistol and shoot yourself. Else, they will slow torture you to death. Shoot yourself-in the head-just here.”

He pushed back his hat and pressed the white part of his forehead with a finger that was as steady as if he had been merely telling of a moment of past peril instead of acting in one that was terribly immediate.

Maple Leaf’s hand was hardly less steady than his own as she moved the shining weapon to a position more exactly between them.

“Good-bye, then, Sergeant-Sergeant Silk,” she murmured. “It will be good-I shall be proud-to die in company with a brave man.”

“Good-bye!” he responded lightly, turning from her and seating himself on a dog mound with his carbine across his knees.

The band of Indians still held off at a distance of fully a thousand yards. Silk could see them slowly and very deliberately forming behind their chief, only waiting for the signal to dash off in their headlong race.

Then suddenly there was a wild barbaric shriek as they broke away with a confused turmoil of whoops and yells and the quick patter of horses’ hoofs that made the ground throb and sent up a swirl of dust.

On and on they came in their swooping charge, their shrill cries rending the air, their feathers fluttering, their trappings flying, their weapons held aloft as their ponies plunged forward at full racing stretch.

It seemed as if nothing could stop or divert their onward rush. It was like a resistless hurricane sweeping down straight for the dog town where the quiet man in the red coat was waiting with the girl crouched beside him.

Sergeant Silk cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and went down on one knee. He did not yet raise his gun, although many of the warriors had opened a random fire and little spurts of dust and grass were beginning to show where the bullets were falling. He waited very calmly, knowing the habits of the Indians-knowing that although they fight hard and fiercely for their lives when cornered they shrink from riding full tilt into the fire of a well-aimed rifle.

In the long, forward race there were many moments of suspense-moments in which each galloping savage had time to reflect that when that waiting rifle should be raised to spit forth its deadly succession of bullets, he himself might be one of the first to fall.

As they dashed on, one of the foremost of their ponies stumbled and went down with its leg in a dog hole. Then two others fell kicking, while more coming behind stumbled over them in confusion. The Redskins yelled more wildly than ever, firing over their ponies’ ears, always too high.

When they were within fifty yards of him, Silk cocked his rifle. Instantly, at sight of the levelled weapon, every Indian flung himself over the side of his pony, showing no more than an arm and a leg. Instantly, also, the band divided itself into two sections to right and left and sped onward in separate lines, firing wildly as they rushed past like a raging whirlwind.

As the last of them flashed by, firing backward at him, Silk turned to take up a new position, knowing that they would double and renew their attack. But as he moved, the hollow dog mound on which he knelt gave way beneath his weight; he lost his balance and rolled over.

Maple Leaf saw him fall, and, believing that a bullet had struck him, she caught up the revolver, pressed the cold ring of its muzzle against her forehead, and closed her eyes. She heard the Indians galloping back, bullets were dropping around her. She was sure now that the end had come.

“One-two-three!” she counted and pressed the trigger.

But Sergeant Silk had already leapt to his feet.

“Stop!” he cried, flinging out his hand. He was in time to thrust the girl’s elbow aside, but the trigger had been pressed, the weapon had been fired, and Maple Leaf fell backward.

He glanced at her hurriedly and saw a splash of red across her face. Then he raised his rifle and with steady, deliberate aim, fired four shots in succession.

As the warriors passed abreast of him, now at a greater distance, four of their horses ran riderless. Again they had swerved, curving off into a circle and riding round and round as before. He watched them and saw their circle suddenly break. Their yells of defiance were turned into shouts of alarm, and as they scattered there came to him the shrill notes of a bugle.

“Thank Heaven!” he exclaimed as half-a-dozen of his comrades of the Mounted Police galloped into sight over the rising ground. “The boys have followed on our trail! We shall be all right now.”

He turned to Maple Leaf. She was on her knees, supported by her outstretched hands, staring at him while the crimson trickle from her face and hair and chin dripped upon the sand.

“I thought they’d got you,” she said feebly. “I’d have done it sure if you hadn’t stopped me.”

He looked at the ugly score that the bullet had made across her temple.

“It’s just a flesh wound,” he told her. “We can soon patch it up when we get back into camp.”

“It will leave a mark,” she said, overcoming her faintness.

“Why, cert’nly,” he smiled, returning the pistol to its holster. “But your hair will ’most hide it-if you want it to be hidden.”

“But I don’t,” she faltered weakly, closing her eyes. “I shall be proud of it-as long as I live.”