For a time the burden of the conversation was his. Haney was in a reflective mood, and Bertha busied with the table service, which she was trying to raise to the level of her honored guests, was distracted. Alice, tired and a little dispirited, added nothing to the youthful spirit of the meal.
At last, just when the conversation seemed about to flag out, Haney, lifting his head, began in a new tone: "Mr. Fordyce, my little girl and I have decided we want you to take Crego's place as our lawyer. I hope you'll be able to do it."
Alice looked up in surprise. "But you don't mean to take it from Mr. Crego ?"
Haney's face grew hard. "I am under no obligation to Crego, and I prefer to have as me lawyer a man who can neighbor with me, and whose wife is not above nodding when me own wife passes by."
Alice hastened to defend the Cregos. "You mustn't be unjust to Mrs. Crego."
"I'm not," said Haney, "nor to Crego either. I've paid for his time, and paid well—as I'm willing to pay for yours." He turned to Ben. "I need advice, and I Want to feel free to go for it."
Ben replied: "I'd like to accept your business, Captain, but you see it would not be professional for me to profit at the expense of my friend, and, besides, I haven't really settled here yet."
Haney looked disappointed. "I thought ye had. Well, I am going to cut loose from Crego anyhow, and I shall tell him why."
Bertha cried out: "No, don't do that."
He acquiesced. "Very well, then I won't tell him why; but I'm going to quit him! So if you don't care to take on me business, I'll give it to Jim Beringer. It pays a good bit of money, and will pay more. I'll make it profitable to ye."
Alice looked at Ben. "Of course, if he is going to leave Mr. Crego anyway—"
" But that would mean making our permanent home here, and setting up an office."
"Well, why not ? I can't live in the East any more; that we have tested. I am willing to decide now. It would give you a start here, and, besides, I think you can be of use to the Captain."
Ben still hesitated. "It seems rather treacherous to Crego some way. But if you have definitely decided against him—"
"We have," said Bertha. "We talked it all over yesterday. We want you."
Haney's face was very grave now. "There is one thing more, Mr. Fordyce. Mart Haney's reputation must be taken into account. It won't do you anny good to be associated with him. I don't know that it will do you anny harm, but I'm dom sure it will do you no good to be associated with me."
Alice interposed, quickly. "A lawyer can't choose his clients—at least, a young lawyer can't."
Haney ignored the implications of her speech. "I'm not tryin' to cover up me tracks," said he. "I was a gambler for thirty years. Me whole life has been a game of chance. There are many who think gambling one of the high crimes an' misdemeanors, but I think a square game between men is defensible. I am a gambler by nature. Why shouldn't I be ? I grew up a fat squab of a boy rollin' about on the pavin'-stones of Troy. 'Twas all luck, bedad, whether I lived or died. I lived, it fell out, and when I had learned to read I read wild-West stories. Of course, that led me to go West and jine the Indians, and by stealin' rides and beggin' me bread I reached Dodge City. 'Twas all chance that I didn't die on the way. Me mother, poor soul, was worried and I knew it, and finally I put me fist to it and wrote her a letter to say I was all right. She wrote beggin' me to return, which I did a couple of years later; but Troy was too slow for me then, and again I pulled out. I was always takin' risks. Danger was me delight. I had no trade, but I had faith in me luck. I won—I almost always won. And so I came to be a gambler along with bein' sheriff and city marshal, and the like o' that, in one mountain town or another, but I always played fair. A man who plays a square game is a gambler. The man who deals underhand is a crook. I'm no crook. I love the game. To know that the cards are stacked against the other player takes all the fun out of the deck for me. I want the other felly to have an equal chance with me—else 'tis no game, but a hold-up. No man ever rightfully accused me of dealing against him. Yes, 'tis true, me world is a world of risk." He looked at Alice. "Sure, the Look-Out up above—if there is such—is there to see that we all have a show for our ace. If anything interferes with that the game is a crooked one."
Alice began to perceive something big and admirable in this man's spirit. She was not of his faith—quite the contrary. She was a fatalist. Nothing happened in her world. But she was imaginative enough to understand his point of view.
Haney went on. "I know all the tricks. I lairned them, not to use in the game, but to keep them out of the game. I had too much faith in me luck to ever weaken."
"Did you never lose?" asked Ben.
"Many the time, indeed, but only for a short streak. Take this mine, for instance. A man comes into me house full of confidence in himself, plays, and goes broke. The fury of the game bein'in him,he says: 'I'llput me prospect hole against five hundred dollars.' 'Roll the wheel,' says I, and I won his hole in the ground. 'Twas me luck. That prospect turned out a mine. 'Twas his luck to lose. He was a full-grown man; he knew the game and went into it with his eyes open. Truth was, he considered the mine a 'dead horse,' and was hopin' to take a fall out o' me. Me little girl here is disturbed about the way the mine came to us, but she needn't be. 'Twas all in the game. I'm sayin' 'twas in the game that another crazy fool should blow me to pieces—I don't complain. I take me chances. Now " —here he faced Ben, and his grave tone lightened—"as I understand it, you're not a rich man?"
Ben flushed a little. "No, I haven't earned much so far; but it's up to me to get busy."
"And ye expect to marry soon?"
This question sent a thrill to the heart of each of the three young people listening—a thrill of fear, of doubt. And Ben said, slowly, perceiving Haney's fatherly goodwill: "Yes, we expect to set up housekeeping, as the old-fashioned people say, as soon as Alice is a little stronger."
"Very well, then," Haney went on like one who has made his point, "here's your chance. Your fee with me will pay your coal bills annyway. We're likely to take a good dale of your time, but you'll lose nothing by that."
Bertha, with big yearning eyes fixed upon Ben's face, waited in a quiver of hope as he replied: "Of course, Captain Haney, I can't subscribe to your defense of gambling, and if you were still a gambler, in the strict sense of the word, I couldn't accept this position, for it is something more than legal. But as you have given up all connection with cards and liquor selling, I see no reason why I should not accept your offer—provided I can be of service in the manner you expect." He looked across the table at Bertha, and reading there the same entreaty which she had expressed in the garden, he added, firmly and definitely: "Yes, I will accept, and be very much obliged to you."
Haney extended his hand, and they silently clasped palms in the compact.
They parted in a glow of mutual confidence and liking, and Alice's voice quivered as she thanked their host. "I think it very fine of you, Captain Haney. This may be the means of establishing Mr. Fordyce in business here."
His eyes twinkled in reply. "I will do all I can to help him, for he takes me eye."
Ben's last glance and the pressure of his hand left in Bertha's brain a glow which remained with her all the rest of the day, and she carolled like a robin as she trod her swift way about the house.
The next morning, as they sat at breakfast, Mart briskly said: "Well, little woman, I've decided, now that I have a man I can trust with me business, to make the trip East. As soon as he has the mines in hand we'll start. Can you be ready to go Monday week?"
" Sure thing," she answered, quickly. But even as she spoke a nameless pang that was neither joy nor exultation shot through her heart. For the first time she realized that she had lost her keen desire to explore the glittering plain which lay below her feet. A fairer world, a perfectly satisfying world, was opening before her in the high country which was her home.