"Don't she talk?" Cole asked eyeing Harmon skeptically.
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've never said a word about her."
"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. No, I didn't hire her. And there's a good reason you and no other cowpoke has heard about her." He scratched his chin as though trying to figure out a way to tell him. "She's my daughter." He finally blurted.
"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.
"Easy for you to say, with the spread you got. We just barely get by out here, Cole. She's got one dress, it'll do." When Cole frowned at him, he added. "Aw…I 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? And for goodness sakes, why hadn't he mentioned the fact that he had a daughter in all the years he'd known him?
Cole wouldn't be asking the questions that danced in his head right now. Still he couldn't quite get over that Harmon had a life no one knew anything about.
Shrugging the questions away, he turned to Harmon. "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? 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 Harmon?" 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….the one you won in the bet, 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, not realizing his voice took on a indifferent tone. "What are you trying to pull?"
Harmon came to the top of the steps and stared at him. "Look, I thought I'd win. I thought a lot of things. You see…this is something I've been thinking on for a while. I don't know how to take care of her no more. She's not a kid anymore. She's a woman. I don't even know how to take care of me, no more. And it's come to the point that I need some help. You know you are about the only real friend I got in this world."
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 could deal with losing a hand or two, but he was a bit put out about his old friend Harmon.
He came closer, trying to stare the old man in the eyes, but it was too dark for that. Harmon didn't lie, so what was he pulling here? "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.
Harmon watched the way he grabbed his reins in his hands. He knew he was upset with him.
"Don't you see, I had to keep her a secret Cole. If I hadn't some young pup would've been out here, messing with her. I couldn't allow that. She's my diamond in the rough, so to speak, Cole. She's the only thing I got that is worth living for."
Cole turned now to stare at Harmon. Now that, made sense!
"Well, maybe you are right about that, Harmon. I don't know. Maybe I'd have done the same…I'm not trying to lay blame. Look, I better get now, thanks for supper."
"You mean, you won't take her?" Harmon hollered after him his voice almost failed him.
"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?
That didn't make a lick of sense. First, he was protecting her from stray cowboys, now he was trying to barter her off….and to him no less?
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. He needed to control his anger, but damn Harmon was acting way out of character here. "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. If his eyes could shoot daggers, Harmon would be a dead man about now!
Cole grabbed the saddle horn and pulled himself up, "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. One being those men that came tonight. They'll be back, and I might not be around to handle it. Look, she'd work hard for you, 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 cleans up right good." Harmon told him. "You don't understand, that girl takes care of this place. Look around you Cole. She's got this place spit polished. She's the only one too. Done it for two years straight. But it ain't right. It's too much for her. She works from sun-up to sun-down. Not a complaint one. But those men will be back and they mean to have this place. After all her hard work, she'd die if she lost this place. It means that much to her. It ain't theirs but they'll take it. They’ll take it away from her, and then where will she be. I won't have her end up in some saloon. She's a good girl, Cole. I raised her right, despite how she might look. I guess I was wrong, I thought maybe you could see through that dirt and dust on her to the real lady she is."
Cole studied Harmon a moment. Then he glanced around at how well kept the ranch was. Was that why she looked so dirty? She'd been out taking care of the place all day, then come in to cook. "She's been taking care of this place? For two years?"
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. I gotta sickness. 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.
Something about the pain and struggle in Harmon's voice had Cole paying attention.
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. "I will do one thing for you, Harmon, I'll go to court with you to prove the man was cheating and has no claim here. I'll do that. I'll even help you find any witnesses that might be left. Neighbors help each other, and I promise you'll I'll do that."
"I guess, considering, that's very generous of you Cole. That's all well and good son, but, you don't understand?" Harmon struggled with his words, as though it choked him to talk, still holding the reins so he couldn't just ride off.
"Then spit it out plain Harmon because I just don't understand this." 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. "It's really simple. I'm dying, Cole…." Harmon told him, hanging his head now in resignation.
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. He steadied his horse. "What did you say?"
"I'm dying." Harmon stared up at him, then bowed his head. "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. "Been sick for some time. Been trying to get by, but I ain't got no more time to bide, Cole. I'm bad off, or I'd have never gone in to see the doc. And tonight, I made a bargain with the devil, for my daughter's sake. I ain't done right by her by a long shot. Oh, I raised her right. She's a good lady. But, I ain't provided for her right. I know that. But now that I know I don't have much time, I got to find a way for her to be taken care of. I can't leave her to work this place for the rest of life alone. It's hard work Cole, she'll be dead by the time she's thirty."
"I'm sorry Harmon, I didn't know." Cole couldn't move now. The old man's words paralyzed him, stunned him.
"Well…you see," a tear fell to his cheek now, "she doesn'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. And I don't want those cheats trying to take this place from her either. She deserves better. The way she works, she'll be dead by the time she's thirty, and you can see that for yourself. 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 hopin' 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. You're the only man I'd trust enough to offer her to."
"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.
Ever since his folks died, Cole thought of only two things, building up his ranch, and enjoying himself on Saturday nights.
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. For some reason, she loves me. And believe me, she's the most precious thing I got in the world." 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. I'm asking as a friend."
"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. How did he tell him, he wasn't the man for this job? 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. He'd made that plain enough to everyone else.
"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 reign 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. But something about his awkward movements now told Cole that Harmon really was desperate. And the fact that he trusted Cole that much, made a permanent impression.
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. He thought he was seeing things for a moment, it was like a soft red cloud, of the most beautiful shiny hair he'd ever seen. 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 quite take his eyes from her.
He couldn't for the life of him put her together. She was dirty but so damned beautiful it took his breath away. How could he have not seen it?
"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 talked softly to him and encouraged him to wake up.
"Get me a plug of whiskey girl, I got the pain."
"Be right back, dad." She said obediently.
When she came back, she pulled the cork and let him sip some.
She worked the rag over his entire face gently patting him, while speaking soothing words to him, like a momma would to a child. Cole stared, mesmerized by her gentle ways and her soft voice. For a moment, he thought she was some angel, come to fetch Harmon home.
"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?
Harmon's eyes opened and he looked around the room. "You ain't left yet Cole?"
Cole made a guffaw sound and smiled, "No, not yet."
"Will ya do it, Cole?" He asked weakly now.
Cole stared at the old man.
How the hell could he refuse a dying man?
Then the woman looked at him. "What's he talking about?"
Cole shook his head and knowing he couldn't refuse a dying man's wish he frowned and nodded. "Alright Harmon, you win. I'll do it!"
"You mean it?"
"I mean it." Cole looked at the floor, his expression serious. He could think of a million reasons not to, but the look on the old man's face when he agreed sent some silent message to Cole's heart. The gravity of the moment hit Cole in the heart. Cole hadn't felt anything for anyone in so long, it was like a block of ice began to melt inside him. He cared about Harmon, more than he wanted to admit. Funny how he had gotten used to Harmon being around so much, to think he wouldn't be, numbed him. His emotions shocked him.
"Thank you, Cole." He said and closed his eyes.
"Are you gonna be alright for a while, Harmon?" He asked him.
The old man didn't open his eyes but he spoke, "For a while, Cole."
"Okay, we'll talk later when you are feeling better then." Cole told him.
But as Cole was about to leave the woman followed him, "Excuse me, but what did my father ask you to do?" She stood there, with her hands on her hips, glaring at him.
It wasn't the question, so much as how she demanded to know that had his head turning in her direction.
Cole turned his hat around in his hand and then stared into her dark blue eyes and smiled. "He wants us to marry."
"Marry!" She nearly shouted, then grabbed her mouth.
He almost laughed, she was as shocked as he had been. "Yeah, that's what I said, at first."
She took his hand in hers and guided him onto the porch for privacy.
"Well, that's absurd, I can't marry you." She told him shaking her head and turning away from him. "I can't believe he'd try to barter me off like that."
Cole came toward her, "It's his last wish. Besides, I think he was making good sense. He's only thinking of your welfare, and rightfully so."
"It doesn't matter, I can't marry a stranger." She protested. "Do you think me daft too!"
He glanced at her once more. "Too?"
"I saw how disgusted you were when you saw me, and when you brought him in."
"Well I…. was just shocked! That's all!"
"That's not all. You thought me dirty and disgusting. You have a very easy to read face, mister. It was disgust. Not that I blame you entirely. In yours shoes I might have thought the same." She looked down at herself now and wrinkled her nose. "I am very dirty right now. But there's a good reason. You see I work this ranch, every day. And unlike a lot of ladies, I don't have the time to wash and wear pretty clothes. There's too much to do and only me to do it."
"Maybe, at first I thought that." Studying on it, knowing she wasn't for this anymore than he was made him feel a bit relieved. "Look, I don't want this anymore than you do, but, under the circumstances, we could have a ceremony performed in front of him. To make him feel better. Doesn't mean we'd have to carry through with it."
She turned to look at him. "You mean…kind of go through the motions and not live together or anything."
"Yeah. It would make him die happy. He's really worried about leaving you to fend for yourself. I can understand why, he never let on he even had a daughter."
Her expression changed to one of thoughtfulness as her eyes drifted back to the cabin. "I'll think on it." She told him. "But…wouldn't you rather find someone you could live with? I mean, once we are married, what if you found someone else?"
"Look, you might as well know now, I'm not the marrying kind. But I'd do it for him…" He motioned to the bed where Harmon lay. "I guess until tonight I didn't realize how much that old man means to me. So, let me know what you decide and if he gets any worse." Cole sighed and walked to the edge of the porch.
"Alright, I guess— I guess I should thank you for wanting to make his last moments happy." She told him. "He must think a lot of you. He's never brought anyone home with him."
"We've been friends a while…" He smiled.
She nodded, "Well, for the gesture, thanks. Goodnight…"
"Goodnight," He stared for a minute wondering what she'd look like cleaned up. Then he left, feeling as though he had made a huge mistake but not knowing how to deal with it any other way. The old man did mean a lot to Cole and he wasn't sure why. But he knew if he died, he'd miss him in his life.
Funny how people came to mean something to you! But there was more to worry about here than the pretty girl. Those men meant business and were sneaky enough to cause real problems. Harmon had a real concern there. And he would be left to deal with them. Because he made a promise to ole Harmon, he'd see to the girl, somehow!
The Filly & the Gambler will be available at smashwords.com by the end of July.