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

THE MAN THAT THE WOLVES SPARED

“Won’t you tell us about it, Sergeant?” Percy urged.

Silk puffed for a few moments at his cigarette.

“There isn’t a great deal to tell,” he responded quietly. He leant forward, resting an elbow on his knees.

“Yes,” he began, “I was in charge of the case, and I failed to make an arrest. But, you see, I didn’t arrive on the scene until a longish while after the thing had happened, and the culprit had got off, leaving no clue that could be of the slightest value in following him up.

“I was at the depot at Soldier’s Knee, alone, as it happened, except for my chum, Dave Stoddart, who was asleep in his bunk. It was a bitterly cold winter’s night outside, with a wild wind blowing out of the north and whistling weirdly in the pine trees round about the old timber-built shack that served as a police station. But inside it was warm enough. I had kept a good fire burning in the stove, and I sat in front of it, reading by the light of the hanging lamp.

“There wasn’t any great need for me to keep awake, and, as I’d been out on a long patrol during the day and was weary, I began to nod over the book. You see, it wasn’t very interesting, and I’d read it before-knew it almost by heart. But, for all that, I didn’t want to fall asleep, and there was one thing that kept me awake, even if the book failed.

“On the previous night we’d been disturbed by the yapping of a pack of hungry wolves that were nosing around the end of the shanty, where we kept our store of cariboo hams and other grub, and on this particular night of which I’m telling you I was waiting and listening, expecting those wolves to pay us another visit. But they didn’t seem to be in any hurry.

“It was just about midnight when they came sniffing around. Through the little window I could see their dark shapes moving to and fro in the moonlight. One of them was bold enough to come up and look in at me with its staring, glistening green eyes, and I was about to open the loophole and fire a shot at him when from behind me there sounded the tinkling of the telephone bell.

“There was something of a command about the summons. It was unusual for us to be rung up at that time of night. I wondered what was up. I went to the instrument and took hold of the receiver.

“‘Yes,’ I called. ’Who’s there? I’m Sergeant Silk, at Soldier’s Knee. Who are you?’

The answer came in a strained, broken voice of agitation, beginning in an eager whisper that I could barely hear amid the soughing of the wind and the howling of the wolves, and ending on the last word in a positive scream of bodily distress and pain-

“’Coyote Landing-post office-quick! Send help! There’s a chap in here robbing the mail bags. Listen! Do you hear? Quick! Help! Oh, help!’”

Sergeant Silk paused to light a new cigarette. His listeners drew nearer to him-all of them but Eben Sharrow, who seemed to be having some trouble in cleaning out his pipe.

“That was all that he said,” Silk resumed-“all the words that I could hear. But I knew his voice. It was the voice of Will Bonner, the postal agent at Coyote Landing, and he had said enough to let me know that it wasn’t only the mails that were in danger. There was an awful, choking sound, followed by a piercing cry of agony. And then all was suddenly silent. Try how I would, I couldn’t get another word from that telephone.”

“Perhaps the instrument was broken,” interrupted Percy Rapson.

“Exactly,” Silk nodded. “The wires had been cut, as I found when I got there.”

“Then you went?” inquired Percy. “You went, although you knew it must be too late?”

“Why, cert’nly. I went right at once, leaving Dave Stoddart in charge, with his gun handy to keep off the wolves. But the wolves gave him no trouble, as it happened. They didn’t hang around trying to get at pickled cariboo hams when there was a chance of their downing a live horse and an equally live human.”

“Say, I guess those wolves follered on your trail,” interposed Bob Wilson, blowing audibly into his pot of hot tea.

“Guess they just did,” smiled Sergeant Silk. “Some of them followed me all the way, right over the mountain trail, a matter of twelve rough, lonesome miles. Others of them kind of broke off. They got lamed or maimed. There was a good many pistol bullets flying around, see? My bandolier was pretty well empty by the time I came in sight of the station at Coyote Landing.”

Percy Rapson touched him on the knee and invited him to give fuller details of that exciting chase over the moonlit mountains. Percy was always curiously interested in stories of wolves. But Sergeant Silk shook his head and kept to the main thread of his story.

“The shack was in darkness when I rode up to it,” he went on. “But the door was wide open, and there was still a smoulder of fire in the stove. There was a smell of burnt paper. In the middle of the floor a bag of mails had been emptied, and some of the letters and news-sheets were charred, showing that the robber, whoever he was, had tried to set fire to the place, and so destroy the signs of what he had done.

“But he hadn’t waited to complete his work. I guess he was anxious to quit with the registered letters that he had taken from the safe. And then there was the other thing that he must sure have wanted to shut out from his sight. It wasn’t pretty. There were red stains everywhere, and beyond the pile of scattered papers lay poor little Will Bonner, with the broken telephone receiver still gripped in his lifeless fist, while his glassy, half-closed eyes seemed to be staring out at the moon.”

Sergeant Silk paused once more to puff at his cigarette.

“Do you mean he was dead?” questioned Percy Rapson, looking aside into the sergeant’s handsome face.

“Exactly,” resumed Silk. “You see, he was a weak little man, and he hadn’t been able to defend himself against a desperate thief, who didn’t care what he did so long as he got the particular registered letter that he was after. And Will was a peaceable, timid little chap at all times. He might have defended himself all right if he’d only remembered the loaded revolver that he kept for such occasions in his desk; but I guess he clean forgot it when the emergency came, and I question if he’d ever pulled a trigger in all his innocent life.”

“Ah!” broke in Bob Wilson. “And what about the chap as done it, Sergeant? He couldn’t have got so very far away by the time you came on the scene, and yet you never got on his trail, never found out who he was?”

Sergeant Silk shook his head.

“I have told you that he left no clue that was worth following up,” he answered. “The ground was frozen hard, and he made no track. In a lonesome place like that, where there was no one to see him come or go, it was easy for him to disappear.”

It was Percy Rapson who made the next remark.

“I should have thought he’d at least have left his finger marks on some of those papers,” he said, and he glanced in the direction of Eben Sharrow, who, having at last cleaned out his pipe, was slowly loading it with tobacco. “That was a case in which finger-prints might have been useful.”

Sergeant Silk’s eyebrows gathered for an instant in a frown of vexation at this reference to finger-prints.

“Quite so,” he said. “If one had had any suspicion against any particular person and could have examined his hand, it would have been a means of proving or disproving his connection with the crime.”

Percy Rapson’s eyes were still lingering curiously upon Eben Sharrow, who now bent forward to get a light from the fire. As he held the light to his pipe, Sharrow looked across at Sergeant Silk.

“Seems ter me,” he said, rising to his feet, “as I kinder recollect hearin’ as that skunk you’re talkin’ about-him as you never could find trace of-was eaten by a pack of timber wolves. ’Tain’t any wonder you couldn’t arrest him.”

Silk dropped his cigarette and crushed it under his foot.

“Exactly,” he nodded. “Such a rumour got abroad. But it was only a rumour, circulated by the express rider, who carried on what was saved of the mails. On the morning after the crime, as he rode out with me from Coyote Landing, he came upon a patch of blood-stained grass, torn about by the feet of many wolves. It certainly seemed as if the robber had, as you say, been eaten up by the hungry pack, for near by there were also found some fragments of the envelope of a registered letter. But it was curious that the wolves hadn’t left even a button or a boot or some shreds of clothing that would show that their victim had been human; whereas, as it happened, I had myself shot a wolf on that very same spot, and I needn’t remind you of the habit that hungry wolves have of devouring their own kind. As for the fragments of paper-the bits of torn envelope-there was sure evidence that they had been hidden where they were found a good two hours before the wolves came along at the heels of my mare.”

“So?” Sharrow coughed, as if the smoke of his pipe had gone the wrong way. He turned from the fire and strode down the slope of the river bank.

Sergeant Silk, watching the direction in which he went, stood up, and touched young Rapson on the shoulder.

“If you’re hankering to see the firing of that charge of dynamite they were fixing, Percy,” he said casually, “we may as well get along as soon as we’ve been to the stables to give our mounts a feed. It’ll be a sight worth seeing when that jam pulls, I can promise you, and it’s likely to pull at any time.”

Percy accompanied him to the water’s edge, and they took up their position among the eager crowd of watchers.

The jam appeared to be upon the point of breaking without the further help of dynamite, and a new crew of drivers were at work clamping their peavies to the stubborn timbers and moving them one by one in the endeavour to get at the key logs, which had at last been found.

Already certain ominous groanings and grumblings were coming from the heart of the vast, tangled pile, and the great tree trunks were beginning to move of themselves before the pressure of the mass from behind.

Soon, when the obstructing key logs should yield, the whole bulk would plunge forward, to be swept along by the current like a wild stampede of giant animals suddenly let loose, tumbling over one another and fighting desperately for room in the onward rush.

Warning shouts from the onlookers told the lumber-jacks of their peril, and the men hastened to the banks, holding their peavies in front of them as balancing poles, and stepping smartly from log to log, keeping a secure foothold by means of the long spikes in the soles of their boots.

“See!” cried Percy Rapson excitedly, as the pile began to collapse. “The whole thing’s moving now!”

It seemed, indeed, that the entire jam had started, but the watchers presently realised that it was only a section that had broken off. This section drifted downward for a distance of a hundred feet or so, and then came to a sudden stop, plugged just as tightly as it had been before, and leaving an open space of water, in which several loose tree trunks floated, just opposite to where Sergeant Silk and Percy Rapson stood with the watching crowd.

Suddenly Silk ran forward to the water’s edge. He had seen that one of the lumber-men had fallen into the stream, and was clinging to one of the floating logs, struggling desperately to get a leg across it.

“Hey!” cried the sergeant at the top of his voice. “Make for the bank! Swim ashore, quick! That back section’s moving!”

Even as he shouted there was an ominously loud crunching, rumbling sound of grinding timbers, and the back section of the jam began to break away.

Every one near saw and understood the man’s terrible peril. He was caught between the two sections, and one of them was moving steadily towards him to crush him out of life.

“Who is it?” questioned Bob Wilson. “How’d he git thar’?”

“Fell in,” answered Andy O’Reilly. “It’s Eben Sharrow, and, say, he can’t swim a stroke. Guess he’s sure done for.”

“Sure,” nodded Wilson. “Ain’t got a ghost of a chance. Best not look. Come away!”

He caught at Percy Rapson’s sleeve to draw him from the sight. But Percy stood firm with his eyes staring wildly at Sergeant Silk.

“Silk! Silk! Come back!” the boy shouted. “You can’t do it!”

Whether he heard or not, Silk did not heed the cry. He had thrown off his hat and belt and had plunged into the narrowing stretch of water. With a swift, strong side stroke he was swimming out to the man’s rescue.

Narrower and narrower grew the stretch of broken water between the closing walls of giant logs; but quicker still did the space lessen between the swimming red-coated policeman and the man he sought to rescue from a certain terrible death.

When he reached him at last the voices of the river men broke into a cheer.

But Percy Rapson was too agitated to open his lips. With his body bent forward and his eyes staring wide, he watched and watched.

He saw Sergeant Silk catch hold of the man’s right leg and raise it upward out of the water, flinging it over the thick, floating log, then push him bodily upward until he lay flat along the spar. Leaving him so, Silk then worked his way hand over hand to the log’s far end, and hoisted himself upon it as he might have mounted his horse.

Already the oncoming stack of timber, driving the waves in front of it, was forcing the log forward, and the gap was hardly more than a score of feet in width.

The watchers held their breath, anticipating the moment of contact when the colliding walls should topple over and the two men be caught and crushed out of existence.

Eben Sharrow rose to his feet, and, aided by his spiked boots, walked along the unsteady baulk of timber and seized hold of Silk’s uplifted hand, raising him cautiously until they stood side by side. The lumber-man was then seen to be pointing here and there to the face of the jam that they were approaching.

“That’s right; that’s right,” muttered Bob Wilson. “They c’n do it just thar’, I reckon. Eben knows. They’re sure safe now, if they jump quick.”

For many moments of thrilling suspense the two men were hidden from sight between the dark brown walls of groaning, splintering logs. But presently Sergeant Silk’s red tunic appeared like a flash of vivid light as he leapt from point to point, scaling the perilous face of the writhing pile of logs, followed by the man he had saved.

Silk’s face was grim and pale, and he was breathing deeply when he strode along the bank in his dripping clothes, and he only nodded when Percy Rapson ran up to him with his hat and belt.

Half-an-hour later he was seated on a log in front of the fire, wrapped in his blanket and overcoat and sipping from a bowl of hot pemmican soup, while he watched Percy holding his steaming tunic to the warmth. On his knees lay his watch, his tobacco pouch, his pocket-book, and other possessions which he had taken from the pouches of his saturated clothes.

“Yes,” he was saying. “That’s the worst of getting into the water. It makes you so wet, and turns everything so messy. My ’bacca’s all spoilt. Watch is stopped, too. First time it has stopped ticking for a couple of years.”

“It would have been heaps worse if you yourself had stopped,” declared Percy, without looking round. “You ran a frightful risk. And all for the sake of a worthless lumber-jack.”

“No man’s life is worthless, Percy,” Silk said reprovingly, putting aside the soup bowl and taking up his pocket-book and opening it. “Snakes!” he exclaimed. “The people who sold me this pocket-book swore it was waterproof, and it’s nothing of the kind! The papers are all wet.”

“I hope that sketch of the canoe isn’t spoilt,” said Percy. “I should like you to give it me as a memento. May I have it?”

He glanced round now, and saw that Silk had spread out the drawing upon his knee, together with a fragment of white paper, which looked like the corner torn from an envelope, upon which there was a dull red stain.

“May you have it?” Silk smiled, folding the sketch and handing it to him. “Why, cert’nly. You’re welcome to it. It has served its purpose.”

Percy looked at him sharply. There was an expression of curious satisfaction in the Sergeant’s clear blue eyes.

“Do you mean-?” he began, but checked himself.

He had not known, had not noticed, that the man Eben Sharrow had crept into the warmth of the fire; but he saw him now, kneeling near and holding his trembling hands to the flames.

“Say, my man, there’s a mouthful of soup in that bowl,” said Silk. “You may as well take it.”

Sharrow shook his head.

“I’ve had some,” he responded, his teeth chattering. “Thank you all the same.”

He said no word of what Sergeant Silk had done for him, but lapsed into sullen silence, the while he crouched shivering beside the fire. But presently he roused himself and moved half round, facing his rescuer.

“Sergeant?” he said.

“Well?” returned Silk.

Sharrow hesitated awkwardly, then spoke.

“You was plumb right when you guessed as that skunk wasn’t took by the wolves,” he said; “plumb right, you was. Wolves never was near him. He vamoosed. He escaped. He’s alive even now. Did you know?”

Silk slowly gathered the things from his knees.

“Yes, I knew,” he answered quietly. “I know now-to-day-that he is here in this camp.”

“An’ you just saved his life,” added Sharrow. “Saved it at the risk of your own?”

“It was risky,” Silk nodded; “decidedly risky.”

“It was brave,” declared Sharrow. “Real gold brave. And now,” he added, “I just reckon you’re figgerin’ ter do your duty right away, an’ hale that thar’ low-down, good-fer-nothin’ skunk off ter prison-an’ wuss?”

Sergeant Silk looked at the man very steadily.

“Why, cert’nly,” he answered. “Duty is duty.”