"Don't you worry," she replied, with a confident smile. "I can take care of myself. I grew up in Colorado. I'm no tenderfoot."
This boast, so childish, so full of pathetic self-assertion, was still on her lips when a couple of men came out of the dining-room and paused to buy some cigars at the counter. One of them was at first sight a very handsome man of pronounced Western sort. He wore a long, gray frock-coat without vest, and a dark-blue, stiffly starched shirt, over which a red necktie fluttered. His carriage was erect, his hands large of motion, and his profile very fine in its bold lines. His eyes were gray and in expression cold and penetrating, his nose was broad, and the corners of his mouth bitter. He could not be called young, and yet he was not even middle-aged. His voice was deep, and harsh in accent, but as he spoke to the girl a certain sweetness came into it.
"Well, Babe, here I am again. Couldn't get along without coming down to spend Sunday—seems like Williams must go to church on Sunday or lose his chance o' grace."
His companion, a short man with a black mustache that almost made a circle about his mouth, grinned in silence.
Bertha replied, "I think I'll take a forenoon off tomorrow, Captain Haney, and see that you both go to mass for once in your life."
The big man looked at her with sudden intensity. "If you'll take me—I'll go." There was something in his voice and eyes that startled the girl. She drew back a little, but smiled bravely, carrying out the jest.
"I'll call you on that. Unless you take water, you go to church to-morrow."
The big man shoved his companion away and, leaning across the counter, said, in a low and deeply significant tone:
"There ain't a thing in this world that you can't do with Mart Haney—not a thing. That's what I came down here to tell you—you can boss my ranch any day."
The girl was visibly alarmed, but as she still stood fascinated by his eyes and voice, struggling to recover her serenity, another group of diners came noisily past, and the big man, with a parting look, went out and took a seat on one of the chairs which stood in a row upon the walk. The hand which held the cigar visibly trembled, and his companion said:
"Be careful, Mart—"
Haney silenced him with a look. "You're on the outside here, partner."
"I didn't mean to butt in—"
"I understand, but this is a matter between that little girl and me," replied the big man in a tone that, while friendly, ended all further remark on the part of his companion, who rose, after a little pause, and walked away.
Haney remained seated, buried in thought, amazed at the fever which his encounter with the girl had put into his blood.
It was true that he had been coming down every Saturday for weeks—leaving his big saloon on the best evening in the week for a chance to see this child—this boyish school-girl. In a savage, selfish, and unrestrained way he loved her, and had determined to possess her —to buy her if necessary. He knew something of the toil through which the weary mother plodded, and he watched her bend and fade with a certainty that she would one day be on his side.
When at home and afar from her, he felt capable of seizing the girl—of carrying her back with him as the old-time savage won his bride; but when he looked into her clear, calm eyes his villany, his resolution fell away from him. He found himself not merely a man of the nearer time, but a Catholic—in training at least —and the words he had planned to utter fell dead on his lips. Libertine though he was, there were lines over which even his lawlessness could not break.
He was a desperate character—a man of violence— and none too delicate in his life among women; but away back in his boyhood his good Irish mother had taught him to fight fair and to protect the younger and weaker children, and this training led to the most curious and unexpected acts in his business as a gambler.
"I will not have boys at my lay-out," he once angrily said to Williams, his partner, "and I will not have women there. I've sins enough to answer for without these. Cut 'em out!" He was oddly generous now and then, and often returned to a greenhorn money enough to get home on. "Stay on the farm, me lad— 'tis better to milk a cow with a mosquito on the back of your neck than to fill a cell at Canon City."
In other ways he was inexorable, taking the hazards of the game with his visitors and raking in their money with cold eyes and a steady hand. He collected all notes remorselessly—and it was in this way that he had acquired his interests in "The Bottom Dollar" and "The Flora" mines—"prospects" at the time, but immensely valuable at the present. It was, indeed, this new and measurably respectable wealth which had determined him upon pressing his suit with Bertha. As he sat there he came to a most momentous conclusion. "Why not marry the girl and live honest?" he asked himself; and being moved by the memory of her sweetness and humor, he said, "I will," and the resolution filled his heart with a strange delight.
He presented the matter first to the mother, not with any intention of doing the right thing, but merely because she happened into the room before the girl returned, and because he was overflowing with his newfound grace.
Mrs. Gilman came in wiping her face on her apron— as his mother used to do—and this touched him almost like a caress. He rose and offered her a chair, which she accepted, highly flattered.
"It must seem warm to you down here, Captain?" she remarked, as she took a seat beside him.
"It does. I wouldn't need to suffer it if you were doing business in Cripple. I can't leave go your Johnny-cake and pie; 'tis the kind that mother didn't make—for she was Irish."
"I've thought of going up there," she replied, matter-of-factly, "but I can't stand the altitude, I'm afraid— and then down here we have my son's little ranch to furnish us eggs and vegetables."