"That's an advantage," he admitted; "but on the peak no one expects vegetables—it's still a matter of ham and eggs."
"Is that so?" she asked, concernedly.
"Tis indeed. I live at the Palace Hotel, and I know. However, 'tis not of that I intended to speak, Mrs. Gilman. I'm distressed to see you working so hard this warm weather. You need a rest—a vacation, I'm thinkin'."
"You're mighty neighborly, Captain, to say so, but I don't see any way of taking it."
"Furthermore, your daughter is too fine to be clerk-in' here day by day. She should be in a home of her own."
"She ought to be in school," sighed the mother, "but I don't see my way to hiring anybody to fill her place— it would take a man to do her work."
"It would so. She's a rare little business woman. Let me see, how old is she?"
"Eighteen next November."
"She seems like a woman of twenty."
"I couldn't run for a week without her," answered the mother, rolling down her sleeves in acknowledgment that they had entered upon a real conversation.
"She's a little queen," declared Haney.
It was very hot and the flies were buzzing about, but the big gambler had no mind to these discomforts, so intent was he upon bringing his proposal before the mother. Straightened in his chair and fixing a keen glance upon her face, he began his attack. " 'Tis folly to allow annything to trouble you, my dear woman—if anny debt presses, let me know, and I'll lift it for ye."
The weary mother felt the sincerity of his offer, and replied, with much feeling: "You're mighty good, Captain Haney, but we're more than holding our own, and another year will see the ranch clear. I'm just as much obliged to you, though; you're a true friend."
"But I don't like to think of you here for another year—and Bertie should not stand here another day with every Tom, Dick, and Harry passin' their blarney with her. She's fitter to be mistress of a big house of her own, an' 'tis that I've the mind to give her; and I can, for I'm no longer on the ragged edge. I own two of the best mines on the hill, and I want her to share me good-fortune with me."
Mrs. Gilman, worn out as she was, was still quick where her daughter's welfare was concerned, and she looked at the big man with wonder and inquiry, and a certain accusation in her glance.
"What do you mean, Captain?"
The big gambler was at last face to face with his decision, and with but a moment's hesitation replied, "As my wife, I mean, of course."
She sank back in her chair and looked at him with eyes of consternation. "Why, Captain Haney! Do you really mean that?"
"I do!" He had a feeling at the moment that he had always been honorable in his intentions.
"But—but—you're so old—I mean so much older—"
"I know I am, and I'm rough. I don't deny that. I'm forty, but then I'm what they call well preserved," he smiled, winningly, "and I'll soon have an income of wan hundred thousand dollars a year."
This turned the current of her emotion—she gasped. "One hundred thousand dollars!"
He held up a warning hand. "Sh! now that's between us. There are those younger than I, 'tis true, but there is a kind of saving grace in money. I can take you all out of this daily tile like winkin'—all you need to do is to say the wan word and we'll have a house in Colorado Springs or Denver—or even in New York. For what did you think I left me business on the busiest day of every week? It was to see your sweet daughter, and I came this time to ask her to go back with me."
"What did she say?"
" She has not said. We had no time to talk. What I propose now is that we take a drive out to the ranch and talk it over. Williams will fill her place here. In fact, the house is mine. I bought it this morning."
The poor woman sat like one in a stupor, comprehending little of what he said. The room seemed to be revolving. The earth had given way beneath her feet and the heavens were opening. Her first sensation was one of terror. She feared a man of such power—a man who could in a single moment, by a wave of his hand, upset her entire world. His enormous wealth dazzled her even while she doubted it. How could it be true while he sat there talking to her—and she in her apron and her hair in disorder ? She rose hurriedly with instinct to make herself presentable enough to carry on this conversation. As she stood weakly, she apologized incoherently.
"Captain, I appreciate your kindness—you've always been a good customer—one I liked to do for— but I'm all upset—I can't get my wits—"
"No hurry, madam," he said, with a generous intent. "To-morrow is coming. Don't hurry at all—at all."
She hurried out, leaving him alone—with the clock, the cat, and the hostler, who was spraying the sidewalk under the cotton-wood-trees. Quivering with fear of the girl's refusal, the gambler rose and went out into the sunsmit streets to commune with this new-found self.
Life was no longer simple for Mrs. Gilman. It was, indeed, filled with a wind of terror. Haney's promise of relief from want was very sweet, yet disturbingly empty, like the joy of dreams, and yet his words took her breath—clouded her judgment, befogged her insight.
She went back to the dining-room, where her daughter sat eating dinner, with a numbness in her limbs and a sense of dizziness in her brain, and dropping into a chair at the table gasped out:
"Do you know—what Captain Haney just said to me?"
"Not being a mind-reader, I don't," replied the girl, ii calmly, though she was moved by her mother's white, awed face.
"He wants you!"
Bertha flushed and braced both hands against the table as she replied, "Well, he can't have me!"
With the opposition in her daughter's tone, Mrs. Gilman was suddenly moved to argue.
"Think what it means, Bertie! He's rich. Did you know that? He owns two mines."
"I know he is a gambler and runs two saloons. You see, the boys keep me posted, and I'm not marrying a gambler—not this summer," she ended, decisively.