She did not follow this lead. "I've been to Denver once—went on one of these excursion tickets."
"How did you like it there?"
"Pretty good; but I got awful tired, and the grub at the hotel was the worst ever—it was a cheap place, of course. Didn't dare to look in the door of the big places."
"You can have a whole soot of rooms at the Royal Flush—if you will."
Again she turned away. "I can't imagine anybody rich enough to live at such hotels—• There's our ranch."
"Shy as a coyote, ain't it?" he commented, as he looked where she pointed. "I'd prefer the Eagle House to that."
"I love it out here," she said. "I helped plant the trees."
"Did you? Then I want the place. I want everything your pretty hands planted."
"Oh, rats!" was her reproving comment, and it made him laugh at his own sentimental speech.
The ranch house stood at the foot of the mesa near a creek that came out of a narrow gorge and struck out upon the flat valley. It was a little house—a shack merely, surrounded by a few out-buildings, all looking as temporary as an Indian encampment, but there were trees—thriftily green—and some stacks of grain to testify to the energy and good husbandry of the owner.
Mrs. Gilman was lying in a corner room, close to the stream which rippled through the little orchard, and its gentle murmur had been a comfort to her—it carried her back to her home in Oxford County (State of Maine), where her early girlhood had been spent. At times it seemed that she was in the little, old, gray house in the valley, and that her father's sharp voice might come at any moment to break her delicious drowse.
Her breakdown had been caused as much by her mental turmoil as by her overtaxing duties. She was confronted by a mighty temptation (through her daughter) at a time when she was too weak and too ill to carry forward her ordinary duties. To urge this marriage upon Bertha would be to bring it about. That she knew, for the girl had said, "I'll do it if you say so, mother."
"I don't want you to do it if you'd rather not," had been her weak answer.
Bertie entered quietly, in a singularly mature, almost manly way, and bending to her mother, asked cordially, "Well, how are you to-day?"
The sick woman took her daughter's hand and drew it to her tear-wet cheek. "Oh, my babyl I can't bear to leave you now."
"Don't talk that way, mother. You're not going to leave me. The doctor is coming out to see you, and everything is going all right at the house, so don't you worry. You set to work to get well. That's your little stunt. I'll look after the rest of it."
Bertie had never been one to bestow caresses, even on her parents, and her only sign of deep feeling now lay in the tremble of her voice. She drew her hand away, and putting her arm about her mother's neck patted her cheek. "Cassie's doing well," she said, abruptly, "and the girls are fine. They brace right up to the situation, and—and everybody's nice to us. I reckon a dozen of the church ladies called yesterday to ask how you were—and Captain Haney came down to-day on purpose to find out how things were going."
The sufferer's eyes opened wide. "Bert, he's with you!"
"Yes, he drove me out here," answered the girl, quietly. "He's come for an answer to his proposition. It's up to us to decide right now."
The mother broke into a whimper. "Oh, darling, I don't know what to think. I'm afraid to leave this to you—it's an awful temptation to a girl. I guess IVe decided against it. He ain't the kind of man you ought to marry."
She hushed her mother's wail. "Sh! He'll hear you," she said, solemnly. "There are lots o' worse men than Mart Haney."
"But he's so old—for you."
"He's no boy, that's true, but we went all over that. The new fact in the case is this: he's sold out up there—cleared out his saloon business—and all for me. Think o' that—and I hadn't given him a word of encouragement, either I Now that speaks well for him, don't you think?"
The mother nodded. "Yes, it surely does,but then—"
The girl went on: "Well, now, it ain't as though I hated him, for I don't—I like him, I've always liked him. He's the handsomest man I know, and he's treated me right from the very start. He didn't come down to hurry me or crowd me at all, so he says. Well, I told him I wouldn't answer yet awhile—time isn't really up till to-morrow. I can take another week if I want to."
The mother lay in silence for a few moments, and then with closed eyes, streaming with hot tears, she again prayed silently to God to guide her girl in the right path. When she opened her eyes the tall form of Marshall Haney towered over her, so handsome, so full of quiet power that he seemed capable of anything. His face was strangely sweet as he said: "You must not fret about anything another minute. You've but to lie quiet and get strong." He put his broad, soft, warm, and muscular hand down upon her two folded ones, and added: "Let me do fer ye as I would fer me own mother. 'Twill not commit ye to a thing." He seemed to understand her mood—perhaps he had overheard her plea. "I'm not asking a decision till you are well, but I wish you would trust me now—I could do so much more fer you and the girl. Here's the doctor, so put the whole thing by for the present. I ask nothing till you are well."
If this was policy on his part it was successful; for the poor tortured mother's heart was touched and her nerves soothed by his voice, as well as by the touch of his hand, and when they left the house she was in peaceful sleep, and the doctor's report was reassuring. "But she must have rest," he said, positively, "and freedom from care."
"She shall have it," said Haney, with equal decision.
This bluff kindness, joined to the allurement of his powerful form, profoundly affected the girl. Her heart went out towards him in admiration and trust, and as they were on the way home she turned suddenly to him, and said:
"You're good to me—and you were good to mother; you needn't wait till to-morrow for my answer. I'll do as you want me to—some time—not now—next spring, maybe."
He put his arm about her and kissed her, his eyes dim with a new and softening emotion.
"You've made Mart Haney over new—so you have! As sure as God lets me live, I'll make you happy. You shall live like a queen."