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Title: Kindergarten
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1200351.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: January 2012
Date most recently updated: January 2012

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Title: Kindergarten
Author: Fred M White


*

Author of "The Corner House," "The Crimson Blind," "The Brand of
Silence," etc.

*

Published in The Windsor Magazine, November, 1912.

*

Despite the bitter blight of it, a little knot of curious passengers
stepped out into the corridor to see what was the matter. The biting
cold struck them like a blow, a flurry of snow lashed and stung.
Overhead the clouds were hurrying onwards, the white battalions came
streaming down the gale, the pine trees rocked and swayed before the
force of it. The autocratic guard, master of the train as absolutely as
a captain on board his own ship, waved the eager questions on one side.

"There's nothing the matter at all," he said, "and if you want something
in the way of a snow-up, I guess I can't give it you. Fact is, the
driver saw a man lying on the track, and he sorter pulled up. We've
taken him on board now, and a doctor is setting his leg. And that's
all!"

The passengers were glad enough to get back to the warmth and comfort of
the train, and Pete Morran himself was beginning to conclude that there
was something in life, after all. He lay there on a heap of cushions,
his teeth set and clenched, and a grey pallor under his tan, as the
doctor worked away at his injured limb.

"Calculate I'm all right now," he said presently, "but it was just a
chance. My horse died under me, and I slipped in crossing one of these
trestle bridges, and bust that darned old limb. Much as I could do to
get on the track, with the off-chance of holding up your express. But it
came off all right, and it looks as if luck was turning the glad eye on
me. Happen that Mrs. Bruce Evershed is on the train, and I guess the
glad eye is fairly winking at me."

"Oh, I'll go and see," the doctor said good-naturedly. "Yes, you can
have a pipe, if you like, but no whisky."

Pete accepted the situation with philosophy. He seemed particularly
anxious to see Mrs. Bruce Evershed without delay.

"I guess she's on the train," he said. "I had a letter from my little
girl to say that she and the missis were travelling West to-day on the
North-Eastern Express, and my intention was to board the car at Overton.
Then I got this bust, and I had to take all the chances that were lying
around."

Mrs. Bruce Evershed, small and dainty and alluring, and a perfect
picture of graceful beauty, looked up from her snug nest of furs as the
doctor addressed her. She seemed to be the last word in luxury and
extravagance. It would have been hard to picture her in any other
attitude besides that of the ballroom and the theatre. Yet with it all
there was just a suggestion of power in her eyes and the firm lines of
her mouth. Her beauty was slightly marred by her petulant expression,
which had in it some hint of pathos and unhappiness. She suggested a
woman who was trying to get away from herself, a woman bored and
satiated with the sweets of life, and hungry for a more healthy
atmosphere.

"What is the matter?" she asked.

"Well, I hardly like to trouble you," the doctor apologised, "but
there's a man in one of the brake vans who is asking for you. He was
lying on the track when we pulled up and took him on board. He has
sustained a nasty fracture of the right leg. I think his name is Pete
Morran."

The bored, discontented look was wiped from Mrs. Evershed's face as if a
sponge had been passed over it. Her brown eyes grew alert and eager. She
threw aside her costly furs and prepared to follow.

"This is very startling," she said. "The man you speak of is my maid's
father. What is he doing here? But perhaps I had better go and see."

Pete greeted the dainty figure, with the brown eyes and sunny hair, with
a broad smile of the friendliest description. Mrs. Evershed held out a
hand to him that looked like one of the snowflakes on the window as it
lay in his brown fist.

"I am glad to see you, Pete," she said. Her voice trembled suspiciously
as she spoke. "You are like a link with the past. But tell me, is there
anything wrong?"

"Guess we will come to that presently," Pete said. "If you are under the
impression that I'm out looking for you--well, you've guessed it first
time, because I am."

"Did--did he send for me?"

"Well, I can't go so far as to say that. But he wants you, and cruel
bad, too. You see, I heard from my little girl that you were on your way
to England on this train, and I concluded to chip in at Overton. Then I
threw up against this little trouble, and had to call a fresh deal. You
see, at Overton I expected not only to meet you, but to get help."

"Help? Pete, you frighten me! Don't tell me that there is anything wrong
with Bruce. If he died----"

"Oh, I guess it isn't so bad as that," Pete said cheerfully. "But he's
in danger. You see, him and me we were mining up the Sierras--same old
spot where you and him had that honeymoon of yours two years ago."

Mrs. Evershed sighed gently. She had good reason to remember her
solitary six months in a mining camp. It all rose vividly to her eyes
now. Put her on the right track, and she could have found her way to the
camp blindfold.

"Oh, do go on!" she said impatiently.

"Well, there was him and me alone together, and we'd struck it real
rich. We buried the stuff in the floor of the tent until we was fairly
rocked asleep on a gold mine. And some of those galoots down Red Creek
way found it out, and there were we all alone, on the chance of being
murdered in our beds. But, after all, there were two of us, and we were
armed, and there never was any real grit in that lot. They didn't come
out in the open and fight; they just waited for their chance, like a set
of cowardly vultures. Then your old man he gets down with an attack of
malaria, and I tell you I was hard put to it, what with the cooking and
the watching, and one thing and another. And old Bruce he says to me:
'Pete, lad, you've got to go out and get some reinforcements. You're
pretty tough, but you can't stand the strain much longer.' And I figured
it all out--I figured it as I could get up the reserves in about thirty
hours. And we laid a little trap for 'em. We made it look as if we'd
cleared out altogether. I fed Bruce up and kinder buried him under half
a ton of hay in the corner of the tent, and let the snow drift in so
that the place looked fair deserted. There wasn't any smoke, and there
didn't appear to be any food, and I guess I played it up on those chaps
properly. Then again perhaps I didn't. They might have smelt the trick,
and they might at this moment be giving your old man----But I don't
like to think of that."

"Oh, this is dreadful!" Mrs. Evershed cried. "You ought to have been
back there by this time. What am I to do? The idea of my husband lying
there at the mercy of those ruffians drives me mad, and you are useless
for the present. Tell me what I can do. I would go myself now--I'd ride
every inch of the way alone--if I thought that I could save him."

"I believe you would," Pete said admiringly. "Now, it's no use worrying
anybody here. I guess there's nobody on the train who's made of the
right stuff for our purpose. There's no help for it, Mrs. Bruce. But
here am I like a darned great log, more in the way than anything else.
Now, you get off the train at Overton and tell this little yarn to the
station hands. It's only twenty miles up the valley from here, and a
good horse will get you through before dark."

Mrs. Evershed set her little teeth together.

"I'll go," she said. "I'll find Elsie, and change my clothing at once.
Everything necessary is in my baggage. But you must stay on the train
and wait for us at the other end. When I start for England, I shall take
my husband with me."

"Bully for you!" Pete cried. "That's the best I've heard for many a day,
not but what I shall miss him, for a better pard no man could ever wish
for. But you've come first, and you always did. And he just aches for
you as much as ever. And if you haven't greatly changed yourself----"

"I shall never change, Pete," Mrs. Evershed said simply.

"Then you go to him, and this darned old broken leg of mine will be a
blessing in disguise. I'm a plain man and not much of a scholar, but
when you live all alone like I do, you learn to think. And he treated
you in the right way. And I bet a dollar that you'd be the first to
admit it."

Mrs. Evershed held out her hand without a reply. There was something
like a frown upon her forehead, and in her eyes a blend of laughter and
tears. All the listlessness and languor had left her now; indeed, it
might have been a different woman who stepped out on to the howling
platform dressed for a perilous journey through the snow. She had been
through all this kind of thing before, and her heart was full of courage
despite the cold and the stinging lash of the gale in her face. Just for
a moment she was conscious of a sense of desolation as the express
disappeared in the white, whirling mists.

There was cold comfort here, too. There had been trouble somewhere down
the line, and one solitary express man remained in the station. He
looked at Grace Evershed with a certain rugged pity in his eyes.

"Mean to say you're going alone?" he asked.

"If I have to," Grace said between her teeth.

"Well, I calculate it will have to be just that way. So far as I know,
I'm the only thing that walks on two legs within ten miles of this
location. I'd come if I could, but that means the wreck of a train or
two. I can find you a horse and a saddle and a bridle. You can have a
couple of guns, too, but I guess they won't be much use to you."

"Well, I guess they would," Mrs. Evershed snapped. "I calculate that I'm
pretty useful with a revolver."

She set out presently, armed for the fray. She was beginning to realise
the peril and danger that lay before her. And yet only an hour or two
ago she had lain snug and warm in her furs, with no drear prospect like
this before her. As she rode along, with the white flurry raging around
her, her mind was busy with the past. She remembered the time when she
had first met Bruce; she recalled to mind his peculiar views on the
subject of women and their duty to the world. Until she and Bruce had
first come together, she had lived a frivolous, selfish life--the only
child of a doting father, who had left her more money than was good for
any single girl to possess.

She had never meant to marry Evershed, though she admired his courage
and his manliness and that strong, resolute face of his. She was never
going to call any man master. And then, somehow, it came about that she
did marry him, and from that moment the trouble began. Not that he ever
upbraided her--there were no 'scenes' in the vulgar sense of the
word--but his brow grew darker, and he became more silent as the days
went on, until the project for a long trip to the Sierras came up. Grace
was jaded and tired with the brilliant social whirl, and she clutched
eagerly at the notion. She would have started out with a retinue of
servants and all the pampered luxury of her clan, but Evershed had put
his foot on that. She found herself roughing it as a daughter of the
soil would have done. She found herself rising at dawn, washing and
cooking and doing all the menial work of the household. She found
herself clad entirely in homespuns, cut off, as it seemed, ten thousand
miles from civilisation, with a taskmaster of a husband who worked her
like a slave. She had not as yet learnt to face the solitude of the
woods. She had all the town-bred girl's horror of the wild solitude and
Nature unconfined. She would have turned her back upon it had she dared.
But Evershed had refused to accompany her; he refused to turn his face
towards civilisation, and if she wanted to go back to the other
butterflies, she must find her way there unaided.

It was a somewhat grim and cruel plot which Evershed had evolved as a
means of working out his wife's salvation. He made no disguise of what
he had done; there was no pretence about it whatever. And, if Grace did
not like it, she could go. There were days and weeks together when
husband and wife hardly spoke, and when Pete Morran was like a godsend
to both of them. And despite her wild rebellion against Fate, Grace
Evershed was gradually falling under the fascination of snow and pine
and glorious air, and all that goes to the making of a perfect country.
She had lost all her lassitude and boredom. There was elasticity in her
limbs, and joy in the knowledge of her strength. And there came a time
when she could hunt and shoot and fish with the best of them--a time
when she could have saddled her own pony and ridden off home by way of
Overton without a qualm. But if Evershed had his pride, so also had she
found her own. She had promised to come for a year, and she would see it
out to the bitter end. Her husband should never brand her as a coward.
And gradually, too, she began to see that Evershed was right. There came
a time when she could no longer disguise from herself that she owed a
debt of gratitude to Bruce for teaching her how to live. And there came
a time, too, when she was glad, not perhaps that she had married him,
but glad that he belonged to her, and that no other woman in the world
could possess him.

But, all the same, at the end of the year she rode away without a word
of farewell or even the intimation that she was going. Her year was over
and the lesson was finished. Probably she would never look upon Bruce
Evershed again. She tried to persuade herself that it did not in the
least matter. But that attitude had been abandoned long ago. She stood
face to face with herself and argued the matter out calmly. She loved
Evershed, and she knew now that she had given him her heart from the
first. She had good health and good looks and unlimited means, but she
would have cheerfully bartered these to feel Evershed's arms about her
and his lips on hers. If she could only find a way, if she could only
provide herself with some bright and shining weapon wherewith to break
down the barriers of pride, the day was won. And Pete had been quite
right--she loved Bruce, and Bruce loved her, and the rest of the world
mattered nothing.

And lo and behold, here was the weapon in her hand! Every step of the
way was taking her nearer and nearer to her happiness. But would she be
in time? That was the question which was racking her. Even under the
mantle of snow she could recognise the outline of familiar landmarks.
She drew a long, deep breath as the little camp came in sight.

Pete had told her to expect nothing but solitude and desolation. But
here were fresh footprints in the snow; a thin wreath of smoke whirled
and drifted in the tempest--there was a fire in the tent, beyond a
doubt. In the pines behind the tent Grace could see three horses
tethered. Assuredly the vultures were getting closer. Had they been bold
enough to attack their prey? she wondered. A ribald laugh came to her
ears down the gale. She dismounted and tethered her own horse, then
crept round to the back of the tent and unhobbled the other three. The
half-broken ponies broke into a gallop and disappeared behind the white,
whirling curtain of snow.

There were three men in the tent, no doubt, for Grace could hear them
talking eagerly. She gave a little gasp of thankfulness as she
recognised the voice of her husband. It seemed a little weak and tired,
but there was no note of surrender in it.

"I tell you no," Evershed was saying. "You can kill me if you like, but
you'll benefit nothing by that. You'd never get from me where the stuff
might be hidden. Besides, you don't know for a fact that it is hidden.
Do you suppose that Pete went away and left me here without taking
something along with him?"

"Oh, that's all very well," one of the other men exclaimed, "but you
don't kid us with a story like that. Now, see here, Mister Evershed.
We've got you properly whacked. Pete may come back to-morrow, and, on
the other hand, he mayn't come back at all. If this storm makes good,
it'll be days before the trail's open again. And you've got no food, and
you ain't likely to get any unless it comes from us. We don't want to
let you starve, but, seeing as you've got the rocks, you must pay for
the tucker."

"And pay handsomely, too," the second man growled.

"You're a fine, soft-hearted lot," a third voice broke in. "What's the
good of throwing away chances like this? Our game is to get the stuff
and clear out before the storm begins in earnest. If he won't speak,
perish me if I wouldn't make him. Take him up and roast him. Tie him up
before the fire till his clothes scorch on his back. He'll open his
mouth wide enough then, I'll promise you. Anybody'd think you were a lot
of women!"

The other men growled ominously. It was plain enough that their
comrade's suggestion was finding a certain amount of favour in their
eyes.

"D'you hear that, Mister Evershed?" the leader asked. "D'you tumble to
what Jim was saying? Because I'm game if Red Head here likes to join up.
Here, Jim, go out and get some more firewood. There's a pile of dry
stuff outside."

"You'll get nothing out of me, you cowardly blackguards!" Evershed
cried. "Torture me if you like, but you shall never make me speak. And
if you think----"

Evershed broke off abruptly, for the two men were upon him, and he
wanted all his strength for the struggle. Weak and spent as he was, he
made a fair fight of it, but he was bound at length and dragged to the
centre of the tent. It seemed to Grace listening outside that she had
come just in the nick of time. There was no fear in her heart, no wild
prayer for assistance escaped her lips; she was not even conscious of
the cold which was piercing her through and through. But she would have
to proceed warily, or her aid and the revolver in her hand might prove
useless. There was a second revolver in her pocket, and she had twelve
shots in all. If her hand had not lost its cunning, she would know how
to use them. It was long odds, too, that these ruffians were not armed.
They had come down in this cowardly fashion, feeling sure that Evershed
was too weak and ill to put up any sort of a fight. By this time their
weapons were, no doubt, far down the valley in the holsters of the
stampeded horses.

Grace Evershed crept a few yards away, and crouched down behind a mass
of undergrowth covered in snow. From here she could watch the movements
of the three desperadoes actually inside the tent. She saw the man who
had been addressed as Jim come out, presumably with the object of
collecting firewood. He stood there for a moment clear-cut as a cameo
against a bank of snow. Grace raised the revolver and fired. She saw the
man throw up his hands, she heard the yell of execration that rose from
his lips as he collapsed in the snow. She had not killed him--she had
not the slightest intention of doing so. She had aimed carefully just
below the thigh, and she knew that she had broken the ruffian's leg as
surely as if a doctor had told her so.

"I'm shot! I'm shot!" the ruffian screamed. "Get a move on you, boys, or
we're done for! Where are the guns?"

"With the ponies," a hoarse voice came from inside the tent. "What's up
there? You, Jim, what's wrong?"

[Kindergarten01.jpg] "GRACE FIRED TWICE IN RAPID SUCCESSION."

But Jim answered never a word. He lay there groaning in the snow,
absolutely incapable of further mischief. As the other two men rushed to
the door of the tent, Grace fired twice in rapid succession. But she was
not firing to kill now; she had thought the whole thing out calmly and
collectedly. It might be days before relief came to their aid from
Overton; the snow might lie deep and the trail be wiped out. If she
wounded any more of these rascals, she would have to tend them, and have
them on her hands, and, for aught she knew, the tent was none too well
provisioned.

There was no occasion for further strategy. The trio were only too
anxious to get away out of the zone of the deadly fire. With oaths loud
and deep, it dawned upon them that the ponies were gone.

"It's an ambush!" the leader groaned. "It's all over with us, boys.
Better put up your hands."

They stood there with hands uplifted, looking dejectedly miserable in
the falling snow. But no answering voice bade them surrender, no further
shots broke the silence. The stillness and the uncertainty of it all was
perhaps more terrible than a volley of shots would have been.

Gradually their hands dropped, and presently, from her hiding-place,
Grace could see two of the ruffians moving slowly away, carrying their
wounded comrade with them. She had no fear that they would return; they
would never risk the unseen danger again. Her heart was beating fast as
she hurried to the tent and let down the flap behind her. Evershed lay
bound upon the floor, his back towards her. She drew her hunting knife
from its sheath and cut the raw-hide thongs. Evershed scrambled
painfully to his feet.

"That was a close call," he gasped. "Those shots came just in time. I'm
infinitely obliged to you. Why, it's a woman!"

"And one you have met before, Bruce."

"Grace!" he cried. "Now, I wonder what guardian angel sent you here just
in the nick of time? Do you mean to say you came----"

His voice trailed away to a whisper. He was ill and weak, but the smile
on his face and the look in his eyes was enough for Grace. He was glad,
frankly and undisguisedly glad, to see her. On the impulse of the moment
he stretched out his hands, and she snatched at them before he had time
to withdraw them.

"Speak to me like that," she said. "Look at me as you are looking now,
and I shall have courage to proceed. I don't want my pride to get the
best of me now. Because Pete was right, Bruce. He said that you loved me
and I loved you, and that we ought never to have parted. Because it's
all beautifully true. I tried to make myself believe that it wasn't, but
I was deceiving myself all the time. It has all turned out like some
delightful romance. Pete broke his leg, and he managed to stop the train
that I was on. Then he told me everything. He told me the danger you
were in here, and, because there was no one to help me, I came alone.
And in my heart of hearts I was glad that I was alone. And I feel proud
of what I have done. It is the best way I can find of showing you how
sorry I am. And I'm not going to ask you to forgive me, because you love
me still, and it is not necessary."

"Oh, I shall wake up presently!" Evershed cried. "It's like some
beautiful dream that comes to one during an illness. And do you really
mean to say that you've come back here to stay?"

She reached her arms about his neck and laid her cheek lovingly against
his.

"I've been longing for the chance ever since we parted," she confessed.
"I'm quite cured, Bruce. I want nothing better than to be a good wife.
That will be happiness enough for me. And now let me make you
comfortable. Let me cook your food and make your coffee as I used to.
Are there plenty of provisions? Splendid! So that we shall be quite
right till help comes. And, do you know, I feel as if I was just
beginning life to-day?"


THE END



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