"Oh no," replied Ben, "we don't want to do that. Are you tired?" He became anxious at once.
"No, no! Please go! Mrs. Haney wants to race—I can see that; and I'd really like to see her ride—she sits her horse so beautifully."
"Very well," Ben acquiesced, "we'll take a run ahead, and come back to you."
Thereupon they set off, Bertha leading in a rushing gallop up a fine road which wound along a ravine, towards the top of a broad mesa. Alice, with slack rein in her small hand, rode slowly on in the vivid sunlight, a chill shadow rolling in upon her soul. As young as her lover in years, she nevertheless seemed at the moment twice his age. Everything interested him. Nothing interested her. He was never tired mentally or physically, and his smooth, unwrinkled face still reflected the morning sunlight of the world. "He is still the boy, while I am old and wrinkled and nerveless," she bitterly confessed.
When they returned to her at the top of the mesa, flushed and laughing, her pain had deepened into despair. Up to that moment she had checked disease with a belief that some day she was to recover her health, that some day her wrinkles would be smoothed out and her cheeks resume their youthful charm; but now she knew herself as she was—a broken thing. The divine glow and grace of youth would never again come to her, while this vigorous and joyous girl would grow in womanly charm from month to month. "She is going to be very beautiful," she admitted; and even in the midst of her own discouragement she could not but admire Bertha's skill with the horse. She rode in the manner of a cowboy, holding her hands high and guiding her horse by pulling the reins across his neck. Ben was receiving lessons from her—absorbed and jocular.
At the top of the mesa they all halted to look away over the landscape—a gray-green, tumbled land, out of which fantastic red rocks rose, and over which, to the west, the snowy peaks loomed. Ben drew a deep breath of joy. It seemed that the world had never been so beautiful. "Isn't it magnificent!" he cried. "I like this country Alice, let's make our home here."
She smiled a little constrainedly. "Just as you say, dear."
"Why shouldn't we, when the climate is doing you so much good?" The horse that Bertha rode was prancing and foammg, eager for a renewal of the race, and Ben, seeing it, cried out: "Shall we go round by the hanging rock?"
"I'm willing!" answered Bertha, her eyes shining with excitement.
Alice shook her head. "I think I'll let you young things go your own gait, and I'll poke along back towards home."
Ben rode near her, searching her face anxiously. "You're not tired—are you, sweetness?"
"No, but I would be if I took that big circuit. But never mind me, I like to poke."
"Very well," he answered, quite relieved, "we'll meet you at the bridge." And off they dashed with furious clatter, leaving her to slowly retrace her lonely way, feeling very tired, very old, and very sad.
Bertha was perfectly, perilously happy. It was almost her first escape from the brooding care and weight of Haney's presence. She felt as she used to feel when speeding away on swift gallop to the ranch with some companion as care-free as herself. Since that fateful day when her mother fell ill and Marshall Haney asked her to marry him, she had not been permitted an hour's holiday. Even when absent from her husband her mind carried an inescapable picture of his loneliness and helplessness, and no complete relaxation had come with her temporary freedom. This day, this hour, she was suddenly free from care, from pain, from all uneasiness.
She considered this feeling due to the saddle and to the clear air of the morning. "I will ride every day," she declared to Ben, with shining face, as they drew their horses to a walk. "I don't know when I've enjoyed a ride so much. I can't see why I haven't been out before. I used to ride a good lot; lately I've dropped it."
"We'll call for you every morning," he replied. "As Alice gets stronger, we can go up into the canons and take long rides."
"I'll tell you what we'll do," she said; "we'll let her ride in the cart with the Captain, and take our dinner, and we'll all go up the North Canon some day, and eat picnic dinner there."
"Good idea," he said, accepting her disposition of Alice without even mental dissent. "That will be jolly fun."
They planned this and other excursions, with no sense of leaving any one behind or of cutting across conventional boundaries. Their native honesty and innocence of any ill intention prevented even a suspicion of danger, and by the time they joined Alice at the bridge they were on terms of intimacy and good-fellowship which seemed to rise from years of long acquaintance. Ben had promised to help her select a horse, and she had agreed to bring the Captain to call on Alice, who was staying with some friends not far away.
This change in Bertha's manner extended to Alice, who returned it in kind. The guilelessness which shone from the young wife's clear eyes was unmistakable. She was growing handsome, too. The flush of blood in her cheeks had submerged her freckles, and Alice began to realize how the poor child's devotion to Marshall Haney had reacted against her native good health. "She is but a child even now," she thought.
Haney was sitting on the porch where they had left him, the collie at his feet, but at sight of them returning he rose and hobbled slowly down the walk, his heart no filled with tenderness and admiration for his wife. He had never ridden with her, but he had once seen her mounted, and one of his expressed wishes had been that he might be able to sit a saddle once more and ride by her side.
"Come in and stay to dinner!" he called, hospitably, and Bertha eagerly seconded the invitation.
But Alice replied: "I'm pretty tired; I think I'll go home. You can stay if you like, Ben."
Ben, smitten with sudden contrition, quickly said: "Oh no; I will go with you. I'm afraid you've ridden too far."
She protested against this, for Bertha's relief. "Not at all. It's a good tiredness. It's been great fun."
And with promises of another expedition of the same sort they rode away, while Bertha and Haney remained at the gate to examine the new horse.
As little Mrs. Haney re-entered the house with her husband the day seemed to lose its magical brightness, and to decline to a humdrum, shadowless flare. The house became cold and gloomy and the day empty. For the first time since its purchase she mentally asked herself: "What will I do now?" It was as if some ruling motive had suddenly been withdrawn from her life.
This empty, aching spot remained with her all through the day, even when she took Haney for his drive down-town, and only disappeared for a few moments as they met young Fordyce on the street. It troubled her as she returned to the house, and she was glad that Williams came in to take supper with them, for his talk of the mine diverted her and deeply interested her husband.
Williams eyed his boss critically. "You're gaining Captain. You'll soon be able to make camp again."
"I hope so, but the doctor says my heart's affected and it wouldn't be safe for me to go any higher—for a while."
Williams smiled at Bertha. "Better send the missus, then. The men all have a great idea of her. They say she's a kind of mascot. McGonnigle asks me every time what she thinks of our new shaft. I've a kind of reverence for her judgment myself. They say women kind o' feel their way to a conclusion. Now, I'd like her to pass judgment on our work in The Diamond Ace.}
"I'd like to go up," said Bertha. But, in truth, she was no longer thinking of the mine: she was considering how she might make her table look as pretty as Mrs. Congdon's. Her first dissatisfaction with her own way of life filled her mind. "I must have some of those candles," she said to herself, while the men were still intent upon the mine. Her first step towards social conformity was at this moment taken.
She felt herself akin to these people, and this assertion, subconscious and unuttered, brought something between Marshall Haney and herself. It was not merely that she was younger and clearer of record, but she was perfectly certain that with education she could hold her own with the Congdons or any one else. "If my father had lived, I wouldn't be the ignoramus I am today." But she had no plan for acquiring the knowledge she needed other than by reading books. She resolved to read every day, though each hour so spent must be taken from her husband, now piteously dependent upon her.
He managed his morning paper very well, but when she read aloud to him he almost always went to sleep.