BERTIE looked older and graver when Haney entered the Eagle Hotel, and his heart expanded with a tenderness that was partly paternal. She seemed so young and looked so pale and troubled.
She greeted him unsmilingly and calmly handed him the pen with which to register.
"How are you all?" he asked, with genuine concern. "Pretty bum. Mother gave out this week. It's the heat, I guess. Hottest weather we've had since I came to town."
"Why didn't you let me know?" She avoided his question. "We're too low here at Junction. Mother ought to go a couple of thousand feet higher. She needs rest and a change. I've sent her out to the ranch."
"You're not running the house alone?" "Why, cert!—that is, except my brother's wife is taking mother's place in the kitchen. I'm runnin' the rest of it just as I've been doin' for three years."
He looked his admiration before he uttered it. "You're a wonder!"
"Don't you think it! How does it happen you're down to-day? You said Saturday."
"I've sold out—signed the deeds to-day. I'm out of the liquor trade forever."
She nodded gravely. "I'm glad of that. I don't like the business—not a little bit."
He took this as an encouragement. "I knew you didn't. Well, I'm neither saloon-keeper nor gambler from this day. I'm a miner and a capitalist—and all I have is yours," he added, in a lover's voice, bending a keen glance upon her.
The girl was standing very straight behind her desk, and her face did not change, but her eyes shifted before his gaze. "You'd better go in to supper while the biscuit are hot," she advised, coolly.
He had tact enough to take his dismissal without another word or glance, and after he had gone she still stood there in the same rigid pose, but her face was softer and clouded with serious meditation. It was wonderful to think of this rich and powerful man changing his whole life for her.
Winchell, the young barber, came in hurriedly, his face full of accusation and alarm. "Was that Haney who just came in?" he asked, truculently.
"Yes, he's at supper—want to see him?"
"See him? No! And I don't want you to see him! He's too free with you, Bert; I don't like it."
She smiled a little, curious smile. "Don't mix it up with him, Ed—I'd hate to see your remains afterwards."
"Bert, see here! You've been funny with me lately." (By funny he meant unaccountable.) "And your mother has been hinting things at me—and now here is Haney leaving his business to come down the middle of the week. What's the meaning of it?"
"It isn't the middle of the week. It's Friday," she corrected him.
He went on: "I know what he keeps coming to see you for, but for God's sake don't you think of marrying an old tout and gambler like him."
"He isn't old, and he isn't a gambler any more," she significantly retorted.
"What do you mean?"
"He's sold out—clean as a whistle."
"Don't you believe it! It's a trick to get you to think better of him. Bert, don't you dare to go back on me," he cried out, warningly—"don't you dare!"
The girl suddenly ceased smiling, and asserted herself. "See here, Ed, you'd better not try to boss me. I won't stand for it. What license have you got to pop in here every few minutes and tell me what's what? You 'tend to your business and you'll get ahead faster."
He stammered with rage and pain. "If you throw me down—fer that—old tout, I'll kill you both."
The girl looked at him in silence for a long time, and into her brain came a new, swift, and revealing concept of his essential littleness and weakness. His beauty lost its charm, and a kind of disgust rose in her throat as she slowly said, with cutting scorn:
"If you really meant that!—but you don't, you're only talking to hear yourself talk. Now you shut up and run away. This is no place for chewing the rag, anyway—this is my busy day."
For a moment the man's face expressed the rage of a wild-cat and his hands clinched. "Don't you do it—that's all!" he finally snarled. "You'll wish you hadn't."
"Run away, little boy," she said, irritably. "You make me tired. I don't feel like being badgered by anybody, and, besides, I'm not mortgaged to anybody just yet."
His mood changed. "Bertie, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be fresh. But don't talk to me that way, it uses me all up."
"Well, then, stop puffing and blowing. I've troubles of my own, with mother sick and a new cook in the kitchen."
"Excuse me, Bert; I'll never do it again." "That's all right."
"But it riled me like the devil to think—" he began again.
"Don't think," she curtly interrupted; "cut hair."
Perceiving that she was in evil mood for his plea, he turned away so sadly that the girl relented a little and called out:
"Say, Ed!" He turned and came back. I' See here! I didn't intend to hurt your feelings, but this is one of my touchy days, and you got on the wrong side of me. I'm sorry. Here's my hand — now shake, and run."
His face lightened, and he smiled, displaying his fine, white teeth. "You're a world-beater, sure thing, and I'm going to get you yet!"
"Cut it out!" she slangily retorted, sharply, withdrawing her hand.
"You'll see!" he shouted, laughing back at her, full of hope again.
She was equally curt with two or three others who brazenly tried to buy a smile with their cigars. "Do business, boys; this is my day to sell goods," she said, and they took the hint.
When Haney came out from his supper, he stepped quietly in behind the counter and said: "I'll take your place. Get your grub. Then put on your hat and we'll drive out to see how the mother is."
The girl acknowledged a sense of relief as she left him in charge and went to her seat in the far corner of the dining-room—a relief and a dangerous relaxation. It was, after all, a pleasure to feel that a strong, sure hand was out-stretched in sympathy—and she was tired. Even as she sat waiting for her tea the collapse came, and bowing her head to her hands she shook with silent sobs.