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

IN THE POWER OF HIS PRISONER

“There was some high play that evening,” he went on presently, “and most of the money that was lost went into Tough Kelly’s pocket. Cheated? Well, yes, I suppose so. Anyway he vamoosed pretty quick when there was no more gambling going forward, and he hadn’t gone many minutes when Lean Bear slipped out, as he said, to give his mustang a feed and find a bed in the stables.

“That same night Corporal Pretty John completed his chain of evidence against Tough Kelly, and on the following morning he rode off to Tough’s lone cabin among the hills, to arrest him. But when he got there and went inside, it was to find Tough Kelly lying stone dead.

“Clearly it was an Indian who had killed him, for his scalp had been taken. But there was nothing to show who that Indian was-nothing excepting a little broken bead of crimson glass, which the trooper found on the mud floor.

“That bead was the only clue. But Pretty John didn’t need to ask himself many questions. He remembered the look of savage enmity that had flashed from the eyes of Lean Bear, and although he didn’t know anything of a motive, he just kind of guessed that the thing had been done by Lean Bear himself.

“So, leaving his subordinate in charge of the post at Rosetta’s Crossing, he fixed up his outfit for a long journey and started off on the criminal’s trail, or as much of a trail as he could find, which was precious little. Still, as you know, Dan, it’s a point of honour among the Mounted Police that, once you go off on the track of a criminal, you’ve got to capture him. You mustn’t slink back to barracks without your man.

“Pretty John was on that trail, not for days only, but for weeks. It led him far away into the snowy wilds of the Rocky Mountains, where there wasn’t a whole lot of food for man or beast. There was so little that it came to a matter of either giving up the hopeless chase or else giving up his life, and the better prospect seemed to be that of saving his own skin.

“Accordingly, he turned back. But he’d got within a couple of hundred miles of home when suddenly and unexpectedly he came upon the fugitive’s back trail. He followed it up, and with such good purpose that at last he located his man in a trapper’s dug-out on the Green River.

“Lean Bear didn’t show any alarm or surprise when the hungry, snow-blind, travel-weary representative of the white man’s law confronted him, but just greeted him with the Indian’s usual ‘How!’ and invited him into shelter.

“‘The Red Coat has been on a long and lonesome trail,’ he said. ’Lean Bear welcomes him as a friend. We will eat together. We will smoke the pipe of peace. It is well.’

“He had food in plenty, but Corporal Pretty John wouldn’t touch it before he had made the Indian clearly understand that he was arrested for the grave crime of taking the life of a white man, whereupon Lean Bear permitted himself to smile with satisfaction.

“‘Lean Bear has no need to be told,’ he declared. ’It is true that he has taken the scalp of his enemy. It is great medicine, and he is glad. His heart is light, it is not heavy with sorrow for the death of such a bad man. He has done what he has tried to do during four winters. He has done it, and he is happy. He will take his punishment. He is ready to die when his white friends will that he should no longer live.’

“So earnestly did he insist on his willingness to pay the full penalty for his crime that the Corporal began to suspect some cunning trick, some subtle Redskin treachery.

“You will agree that it wasn’t a comfortable situation for a trooper to be in. You see, it would have been so easy in that lonesome, desolate place for the Indian to overpower a man weakened by privation. Lean Bear was already a murderer, and one crime more wouldn’t have disturbed his conscience. He would never have been found out.

“You may be sure that Pretty John kept his revolver handy in case of necessity. But if Lean Bear intended violent mischief he was certainly very slow in bringing it off. He made no attempt to rebel against his arrest, and was only silent and thoughtful. He wore no handcuffs. They were not needed. He just rode beside the Corporal, never lagging, never trying to escape, although he might easily have done so as they crossed the open, wind-swept stretches of snowy prairie, or at night when his captor was asleep.

“On the second day that they were together, misfortune overtook them. They lost their way in a wild and merciless blizzard. There wasn’t a rock or a bank anywhere for miles around to afford them shelter; all about them was nothing but unbroken, trackless prairie, under its covering of frozen snow that the wind caught up and flung into their faces, cutting them like knives. The sky above was shut out by the fiercely swirling clouds of icy particles that fought with fiendish anger.

“‘Bad medicine!’ declared the Indian in a momentary lull, and as the storm grew worse, the closer he kept to the side of his morose and silent warder.

“It was as much as Pretty John could do to keep his saddle, the bridle reins hung loose from his numbed fingers. He could only sway to and fro under the cover of his blanket, now bracing himself to sit up straight, now falling sleepily forward over the neck of his jaded broncho; and it vexed him all the more to know that while he was getting gradually weaker and weaker, his prisoner was riding upright and unconcerned, never wavering, but only keeping closer to his side, knee to knee.

“The blizzard grew worse. There was no bearing up against its overwhelming anger. Death was in that biting, lashing wind, and in the swirling blasts of blinding snow, tearing and shrieking from every direction at once.

“Even the horses tottered and staggered, and often stood rigidly stubborn with their forelegs stretched out to support them and keep them from falling; and at last Corporal Pretty John’s muddled brain told him that Lean Bear had slipped to the ground and was walking beside him with a hand gripping him tightly.

“And through the hissing and screeching of the ice-laden wind he fancied that he could hear some one calling to him from afar. The voice was like the voice of a weird, unearthly spirit mocking him, jeering at him from away back of the wind.

“‘Pretty John! Pretty John!’ it wailed faintly. ’Keep awake, you! Keep awake! You sleep, then die! That is it! You die! Keep awake! Keep awake! How!

“Vaguely and in a dazed, dreamy sort of way, Pretty John then realised that it wasn’t the voice of any phantom spirit, but of Lean Bear, the captured criminal, yelling into his ear, and that the Indian was roughly shaking him and pummelling him, while he dragged him forcibly from his saddle.

“Pretty John fell in a helpless heap of fur coat and stiffly frozen blanket, utterly exhausted. He couldn’t move; he couldn’t think. He didn’t want to move or to think. All that he wanted was just to lie there and sleep and forget-forget everything.

“‘Leave me alone!’ he pleaded. ’Why don’t you escape? You’ve got your chance. Let me sleep-sleep!’

“But Lean Bear wouldn’t leave him alone. He struck him and shook him, then flung his arms about him, and wrestled to hoist him first to his knees and then to his feet. Then, with his arms clasped around the senseless trooper’s waist, he pushed him along, forced him to move.

“‘Walk!’ he shouted. ’You hear? Yes, now you walk. Walk! Walk-so! Yes, yes. Ah, you white man!’ And again he began to strike and thump with one hand, while with the other he supported the corporal’s tottering body.”

Sergeant Silk paused and pulled once or twice at his unlighted pipe.

“That was the only way to keep him awake,” interposed Dan Medlicott. “He’d have been dead, sure, if he’d fallen asleep.”

Sergeant Silk nodded.

“Why, cert’nly,” he agreed. “That Indian knew what to do. But it seemed to Pretty John that all the torture he was enduring-the stinging lash of the icy snow, the choking up of his mouth and nostrils, the numbness of his limbs, and the blows that were showered upon him-were all the malicious work of the criminal savage he had tracked and was taking to prison. He hadn’t the sense to realise that Lean Bear was only battling with him to keep him awake-alive.

“How long that battle in the blizzard lasted only the Indian could tell. Corporal Pretty John didn’t know. He knew nothing-nothing until he was aware that a thousand needle stabs were stinging his body, and that the slow tingling blood was struggling to circulate in his numbed and frozen limbs.

“There was a burning sensation across his tongue and throat. He opened his snow-blinded eyes. All around him was dark. But snow-blind men can see in the darkness, and he discovered that he was lying on his back in a room where a fire was flickering.

“There was a crowd of men around him-white men. One of them knelt at his side, supporting his head in the crook of an arm that had a red sleeve bearing a sergeant’s triple chevron. He was forcing the neck of a flask between the Corporal’s teeth.

“‘Yes, yes, Lean Bear,’ he was saying. ’We know that you’re a heathen murderer. You shall be brought to justice, never fear-white man’s justice. You shall get your deserts. But there’s a little account on the credit side, too, and-say, don’t stand there shivering like that! Make yourself comfortable by the fire. Eat, smoke, drink. Do what you jolly well please, you plucky son of a noble savage. And when I’ve done what I’m doing, blame me if I don’t shake you by the hand.’

“‘Wough!’ grunted Lean Bear, shuffling towards the stove, where he stood for a while warming himself. Then he turned and saw Corporal Pretty John’s heavy, bleared eyes fixed upon him. ‘How!’ he said in greeting as if they hadn’t seen each other for months. ’Yes, it is so. Now you sleep-sleep long, sleep well. In the blizzard to sleep is to die. Here, to sleep is to live. It is good. Yes. And Lean Bear is not sorry.’”

Dan Medlicott watched Sergeant Silk striking a match and shielding it with his hand as he held it to his pipe and puffed the ragged smoke into the wintry air.

“Say, Sergeant,” he said, “you were sure right when you said that any other trooper would have let Lean Bear escape last week. Any one would, knowing what he’d done for you that time.”

Sergeant Silk’s pipe glowed very bright.

“For me?” he smiled, looking up.

“Why, yes,” returned Dan, standing in front of him. “There never was any Corporal Pretty John in the Force. You just gave yourself that fancy name to put me off the scent, and the yarn has been about yourself all the time.”