Sneak Peak at the next Brides of the West Series book:
Cole stared steely-eyed at ole Harmon Weeks who folded his lips over his toothless mouth and snickered as though he knew something no one else did.
"I bet twenty, are you gonna call or what?" Cole asked amused that the old man was feeling the winning hand before he ever called Cole. Strangely for his sake, Cole hoped he did have the winning hand. Poor ole Harman never won a game as long as Cole knew him. But he played every Saturday like clockwork.
He reared back in his chair, on its hind legs, his thin old body wiry now. "Tell you what I'll do, I'll bet my little filly. She's worth every bit of the twenty you bet. How's that?"
"A filly huh?" Cole glanced at his hand again, he only had two pair, but he figured Harmon must have had something or he'd never throw a horse into the pot. "Never could turn down a horse. Okay Harmon, Kings and fours," he announced spreading his cards on the table and waiting for the old man to grandstand him.
Suddenly Harmon stood up and threw his hat on the pile of money on the table. "Dadburn it Cole. I just knew I had you this time. I had Jacks and threes."
Cole glanced at the old man, feeling almost sorry for him for losing a horse in the bet. If it was one thing Cole knew, it was horses. Knowing Harmon was not a rich man, he hated taking it, but then not taking it would disgrace him in front of his friends, and he'd never do that.
Everyone else was laughing. Cole didn't.
Harmon squared his shoulders and stared down at Cole.
"Look Harmon, keep the filly. I don't need her."
"Keep her? No, no a bet's a bet. I just can't believe I lost though. You come on out to my place and pick her up." He told him, shaking his head in disgust.
"Maybe you shouldn't play poker, Harmon," Cole suggested. "I mean," he saw the old man eye him and wait for some kind of cut down. "Maybe you should just sit and tell stories, we all get a kick out of your stories."
Most of the men at the table nodded, "That's for sure."
Harmon shot him a blue-eyed glance, "Not play, it's the only enjoyment I got."
Seeing the dismay in Harmon's glance, Cole nodded. "Okay, so, how old is this filly of yours?"
"She ain't no spring chicken but she'll work good, of that I'm sure."
"Alright," Cole started to get up but Polly came over and sat in his lap. She was a voluptuous woman, with ample breasts and hips and waiting lips. He enjoyed feeling around on her and her kisses were always free. Cole loved women, but settling down just wasn't in the cards for him. That's why he preferred dance hall girls to a serious relationship. It was much safer.
"You aren't leavin' this early, are you, Cole?" she purred softly in his ear.
He grinned, "'Fraid so honey, I got to get back to the place. I'll see you in a few days. Hold those kisses until I come back, will ya?" he encouraged.
"You know I will," she smiled flashing her green eyes at him as he got up from the poker table and followed Harmon out the door.
"Want me to wait until tomorrow to pick up the filly, Harmon?" Cole asked him as he stretched himself in the evening sunset and thought about going back to visit Polly for a while.
"I'd rather you take her on now."
Cole could just imagine what a nag this filly of his was and he was sure he didn't need her. But the old man would be insulted if he didn't take her, so he followed him out to his place. It was dark by the time they arrived and Harmon went inside the barn. He lit a lantern and stabled his horse.
"I don't see a filly in here!" Cole glanced about the barn for signs of the filly he was to pick up.
Harmon shrugged, "Come on in the house, we'll get to it." He told him.
Cole made a face, he really needed to get home before dark, but he indulged the old man. After all he hadn't been out here since the spring round-up, and then only to the corral and back. It would have been inhospitable not to stay long enough to see this filly he was talking about. Besides, he was the least bit curious about ole Harmon. Cole had passed by the place many times and often waved to ole Harmon, but he never stayed long enough to look around.
The house was an old log home with a sod roof and had seen it's better days. He could see where the porch had been patched several times even in the dark.
When they went inside there was someone standing at the stove, cooking, coffee wafted the air, it smelled so fresh he almost licked his lips, and Cole seemed to perk up a bit. He eyed the creature at the stove, Cole curiosity peaked for a moment. Did Harmon have a partner that worked the ranch, because this person looked too dirty to be a cook. His clothes still held the dust of the day from working outside, his boots were scuffed and dried mud was caked on the sides of them. Whoever this was, they must have worked hard outside all day, as they were carrying a load of dirt.
"Gabby, this is Cole Martin." Harmon went up to the person standing at the stove. The name threw Cole for a moment, it was a female? Cole waited for this Gabby to turn around.
As Gabby turned around to face Cole, he was shocked to see that under the flop hat, and dirty clothes, it appeared to be— a woman. A young and dirty woman.
Her face was marred with dirt and sand as though she'd been working hard all day.
She nodded at Cole, but didn't say a word.
He couldn't help but stare, she looked like some homeless waif of a woman. She needed a good scrubbing. He tried not to frown, but she was disgustingly dirty. He liked his women perfumed and wearing a dress. Poor Harmon, had he taken her in, or hired her to cook. She certainly could use a good scrubbing herself.
Her eyes never met his.
"Stay for supper, Cole?" Harmon asked.
"Well I…. sure, I guess I could…" Cole firmed his lips and wondered who this Gabby was. His curiosity had him excepting the invitation. Could she at least cook? He'd never seen her before. What startled him was that she was young, had old Harmon taken to her himself? It seemed almost indecent to think it. He had to find out more about this. It was shocking. This was one story no one would believe.
When the woman dished up the stew and cornbread, she poured his coffee and he got a whiff of her and it was all he could do not to hold his nose. She smelled like horse dung. But her hands were clean, and the food looked as good as Cole's mother had cooked years before. He stared at her in an off-handed fashion, not wanting to embarrass her or Harmon.
She flopped in the chair beside Harmon and after Harmon said a quick grace, they ate. She still hadn't spoken.
Cole did his best not to stare or ask any questions. Maybe Harmon had taken her to wife or something. He wouldn't be asking. It would be rude, but Cole could hardly contain his curiosity of this—woman. All the years he'd known the old man, he'd never even mentioned having a woman.
Surprisingly though, the food was wonderful. He'd never eaten stew any better and her cornbread was beautiful and sweet to his taste as he buttered it generously. Maybe he'd been too quick to judge. The woman could certainly cook. He couldn't fault her on that.
But who the hell was she and what was she doing here? He'd give a month's wages to hear the story.
As they finished the meal, the woman hadn't said a word.
"Well, I'll collect that filly now and be on my way, Harmon. Thank you for the meal, ma'am." Cole told the woman.
She didn't respond.
"Can't she talk?" Cole asked as he started for the door with Harmon right behind him.
Harmon didn't answer.
They stood on the porch and Cole waited for an explanation about the woman, but Harmon was very quiet now. Cole could see he didn't want to talk about it, but something was on his mind.
Harmon rubbed his chin, thoughtfully now and shot Cole a sideways glance.
"She talks, talks a lot when she gets going. But she's not used to strangers much. Guess you are wondering who she is, aren't you?"
Cole raised an arrogant brow. "It crossed my mind to ask, I'll admit. I mean she's quite a surprise Never expected a woman out here."
"You ain't never been out here, have you?" Harmon twisted his head.
"Well," Cole scratched his chin. "No, I guess I haven't visited. But I never seen her here. You just hire her to cook for your or something?"
"No. She's my daughter."
"Your daughter?" Cole turned to stare at him. "I had no idea you had a daughter. I've never seen her in town."
"No, she won't go. Says if I can't buy her dresses like I should, she won't go." Harmon shrugged.
"Why don't you buy her some dresses then?" Cole frowned.
"She's got one, it'll do. Cain't, don't know nothing about women's things. She's been making do with her mother's things for the past few years."
Cole didn't understand Harmon, nor the woman. But it wasn't his business, he kept telling himself. A daughter, that meant he had to have had a wife at one time too. Harmon was just full of surprises. Cole thought it almost funny, but then it wasn't. Why hadn't he ever seen her?
"Well, let's get that filly…" Cole suggested trying to change the subject although he'd give anything to hear the story. Apparently, Harmon kept a lot of things secret.
"About that…" Harmon paused as Cole was about to go down the porch steps.
Cole turned, there was no filly? Cole wondered, Harmon had never reneged on a bet in his life. And he lost most of the time he played. So, what was he up to now?
"Got something you want to tell me Harman?" Cole asked staring at him through the moonlight. He could see the old man was doing his best to figure a way to tell him.
"A confession I guess you'd say." Harmon nodded.
"I'm listening." Cole told him rubbing the toe of his boot through the small pile of rocks at his feet.
"You see, the filly I was talking about…. well, I don't know how to tell you this, but…. Gabby is the filly!" He finally spit it out.
Cole let that sink in. Gabby was the woman…. wasn't she? The woman was his daughter, and the filly? Good grief, what kind of double cross was Harmon pulling on him?
Cole's brows knitted, "Harmon! What are you saying?" he demanded.
Harmon came to the top of the steps and stared down at him. "Look, I thought I'd win. I thought a lot of things. You see…I don't know how to take care of her no more."
Cole didn't know what to say to him. He'd never in all his life come across such a situation as this. He hung his head, well, he'd lost that hand, no matter how he looked at it.
He came closer, trying to stare the old man in the eyes, but it was too dark for that. "Okay, let's just forget the filly thing. Just quit playing poker Harmon, you can't afford it." Cole started to walk off and get his horse before Harmon got any more bright ideas.
"You mean, you won't take her?" Harmon hollered after him his voice almost failing.
"Take her?" Cole whirled about on his boot heels. He was shocked and his voice reflected it. Harmon wanted him to take his daughter? Was he out of his mind?
He was shaking his head adamantly, "No Harmon, you keep her. I couldn't do such a thing."
"Why not?" He asked almost helplessly.
"Why not?" Cole nearly shouted, turning on his boot heels to face Harmon once more. "She's not a horse, for one thing."
"I never said she was!" Harmon protested.
"You said you had a filly." Cole reminded him.
"Well, she is a girl."
"That's about the only thing you got right about her." He yelled.
Cole started walking away, as quick as he could, "I'm sorry, Harmon…but this isn't my problem. I don't know what you have in mind, but I'm not playing this game."
"You're right of course. But, I have my reasons for this. She'd work hard, she's a good cook, and maybe you'd come to like her a bit…"
"Like her?" Cole wanted to laugh. She was so dirty he didn't want to even think about such a thing.
"Well she'd clean up right good." Harmon told him. "You don't understand, that girl takes care of this place. She's the only one too. Done it for two years straight."
Cole studied Harmon a moment. Then he glanced around at how well kept the ranch was. "What do you mean?"
Harmon firmed his lips, took off his hat and dusted it on the side of his leg. "I mean, I ain't able to take care of this place no more. So, she does it. All the time. That's why's she's dirty. She cleans up well. She's right pretty when she does, too. Of course, she didn't get that from me."
"I'm sure you are right. And I didn't know that, but no! Not interested. And you owe me twenty dollars." Cole insisted.
He mounted his horse and Harmon grabbed the reins.
"You won't take her?" He asked with a plea in his voice.
Wanting to mollify Harmon's petulant mood, Cole stared down at him
"Your offer is too generous, Harmon. But no…" Cole stared down at him and thought he saw real tears in the old man's eyes. There was no derision in Cole's voice now, but more empathy.
"Then will you promise me something?" Harmon asked holding the reins so he couldn't just ride off.
"Depends on what it is." Cole was too disgusted with the old man to haggle about anything else.
Harmon scratched his head, and searched through the fading darkness at Cole. He flung his words carelessly now in a low graveled voice. "I'm dying, Cole…." Harmon told him, hanging his head now in resignation.
"What?" Cole stopped everything now to look at the old man. But there was something about the slump in the old man's shoulders, something about the way he said that, that had Cole staring at him in shock. "What did you say?"
"I'm dying. It's true, you can check with the doc in town. I went to see the him today. I'm dyin'. Got about three months left, the doc said…It's a tumor." Harmon insisted.
"I'm sorry Harmon, I didn't know." Cole couldn't move now. The old man's words stopped him, stunned him.
"Well…you see, she don't know either. I can't tell her somethin' like this. Her mother died so long ago, and she ain't got no kin. Once I'm gone, she'll be alone, and I'm worried for her. I'm worried sick. Oh, she can keep the place up alright, but I don't want her to wither away out here, alone with no man to see after her. She deserves better. The way she works, she'll be dead by the time she's thirty. And as you can see, no husband. I got to find her a place, so when I'm gone, she'll be alright. Despite how she looks tonight, she cleans up well. She can be right pretty, when she's a mind. That's why I did this. I was hopin' you'd take her. I was hoping you'd see the quality within her. I respect you Cole, and I don't say that lightly. I figured you'd see the quality in her, right off."
"Hoping I would take her?" Cole repeated with a gasp. He sat there on the horse, feeling bad for the old man, and wondering what Harmon thought he could do with the woman. But he couldn't get involved. And yet, despite his better judgement, he realized the old man was trying to take care of his responsibility to his daughter. That's what this was all about. Now it made sense.
He stared at the old man who was often unkempt, and mud-stained, his heart was made of gold and Cole knew it for fact. Now he understood him. He had to admire him for that. He was afraid for his daughter, afraid that if he died, no one would help her. But how could they, no one knew she existed.
And since no one knew about her, they probably wouldn't.
He was doing the right thing, but he picked the wrong man for the job. He couldn't take on a woman like that, could he? Although Cole was sometimes known to be too soft-hearted he couldn't stand in Harmon's shoes.
No, he had to forget about this whole thing. It was unfortunate but Harmon would have to find someone else.
"Cole," Harmon pleaded now, more desperate than ever. His voice quivering as he spoke. "You're one of the most decent men I know."
Cole almost laughed at that, oh yeah, he was decent. He gambled, he loved the women, and typically raised hell like most men every Saturday night. But decent? He wasn't sure he could call himself that.
Cole shook his head, he didn't have the words right now.
"I don't mind dyin' Cole. But leaving her…like this…with nothing. It ain't right. She's worked her fingers to the bone. And I couldn't stop her if I wanted to." Harmon wailed. The moonlight shone on his face now and Cole saw the real tears running down his old wrinkled cheeks. "I ain't done right by her, but by golly I will before I die! Please, Cole, won't you reconsider. Won't you take her?"
"Harmon, what would I do with a woman?" He asked as though there were no answers. "Not just her, but any woman."
"Why…marry her of course." He told him.
"Marry her!" Cole's voice raised to a shout now. The old man was daft! How had it gone from taking her to marrying her in one sentence. He stared for a moment out onto the prairie. He searched for answers he didn't have. He searched for words he didn't have. Naturally, he'd expect marriage, he wouldn't just throw his daughter out to a stranger? But Harmon should know by now that Cole wasn't the marrying kind.
"Why shore…. I gotta know she's gonna be cared for." Harmon told him. "I'd never ask another thing of you, and you could have this place, what there is of it…. There is water on the place, it's worth a little."
"I don't want your place Harmon, and I don't want a wife!" Cole argued.
Cole started to whip his horse into action but the old man threw his hands in the air and fell to the ground, "Then what am I gonna do….?" His hands dug in the dirt, his voice was near hysterics. The sincerity of that helpless plea went right to Cole's heart. Cole didn't want to admit it, but he was a sucker for sad stories, and worse still, Harmon knew it. He didn't know if Harmon was playing him, or if this was all for real.
Harmon laid there in the dirt, crying like a baby.
Cole moved his horse a few feet, then sighed heavily, knowing he couldn't just walk off and leave the man crying in the dirt. He sighed heavily, then he got off his horse and walked over to the old man, but Harmon was in worse shape than Cole expected. He couldn't get him up. He had collapsed.
He looked up in the sky. "Now what am I going to do?"
Looking at Harmon, lying in a heap at his feet, he made a loud sigh and picked him up, threw him over his shoulder, and took him back to the house.
He opened the door, kicking it wide with the toe of his boot.
As the woman whirled around her hat flew off her head and long tresses of red hair shone in the glow of the lamp. Cole stared with an open mouth. The dirt on her face formed a rim on her forehead, but her hair was gorgeous and hung to her waist. Not many women had hair like that.
He couldn't for the life of him put her together. She was dirty but so damned beautiful it took his breath away.
"He's sick," Cole finally found his voice.
She ran to pull the covers back on her father's bed. Then she went to get a pan of water and rag and cleaned him up a bit as she sat by the bed.
She worked the rag over his entire face, and spoke soothing words to him, like a momma would to a child. Cole stared, mesmerized by her gentle ways and her soft voice.
"He's real sick," Cole told her.
"I know…." She murmured quietly. "He's dying."
Those words echoed in Cole's head. That and the way she said it. She knew?