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Authors: Rosanne Bittner

Do Not Forsake Me

BOOK: Do Not Forsake Me
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Copyright © 2015 by Rosanne Bittner

Cover and internal design © 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover art by Jon Paul Ferrara

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

(630) 961-3900

Fax: (630) 961-2168

www.sourcebooks.com

For my kind and patient husband, who puts up without my company for hours, days, and weeks at a time when I am working on a book. He knows how much this one meant to me. And for Sourcebooks and my editor, Mary Altman, who gave me this chance to finally write a story I've wanted to write for the last twenty years. We both fell in love with Jake Harkner.

One

Oklahoma, May 1892

With a reporter's eye, Jeff Trubridge studied Marshal Jake Harkner as the man rode into Guthrie with four prisoners in tow, three of them looking mean but defeated, their faces bruised and battered. The fourth man was obviously dead, his body draped over a horse and wrapped in a blanket tied tightly with rope.

Harkner put two fingers to his lips and gave out a loud whistle.

“What's that for?” Jeff asked a man standing next to him.

“The marshal always signals his wife when he's comin' in,” the man replied. “She always comes to greet him.”

Jake Harkner looked every bit like Jeff's vision of a notorious outlaw turned United States Marshal serving in the raw, new, and unorganized territory of Oklahoma. Oklahoma was ripe for men who preyed on Indians and settlers alike. It was a place where such men could hide in No Man's Land, the name given to the western half of the territory because the government still couldn't decide what to do with it. It was a place few men dared to tread…except for the likes of Jake Harkner, who was familiar with lawless country and lawless men.

Jeff savored the opportunity to observe Harkner without having to approach him directly…yet. He searched for the right words to describe the man who'd made a name for himself in all the wrong ways yet had become nothing short of a hero in the eyes of the common man. How did someone who was at one time so lawless and ruthless become so well liked?

Notorious
reputation
, he quickly scribbled on his ever-handy notepad.
The
way
he
carries
himself—still a tall, slim, solid, hard-edged man with a look about him.
What was that look?
Danger.
That was it.
Like
nitroglycerin—one wrong move and it explodes.

He liked that word.
Nitroglycerin.
Jeff carefully mingled into the crowd that followed the marshal toward the jailhouse. It was obvious some of them just wanted to be near Harkner so they could brag about knowing him. Fact was, Jeff wouldn't mind having bragging rights himself, except his would be that he was the only man who'd convinced Jake Harkner to let him write a book about him. So far the man had refused all other requests to write his story, but Jeff was determined. Still, now that he saw the man in the flesh, his resolve was weakening.

The man wore the signature duster of a U.S. Marshal. The spring morning was heating up, and as he rode in, he removed the coat, reaching around to lay it over his horse's rump. Now Jeff could see his weapons—the Colt .44 revolvers holstered on each hip, a Colt Lightning magazine rifle and a sawed-off ten-gauge shotgun resting in loops on either side of his saddle. An extra cartridge belt hung across the man's chest, and a third handgun rested in a holster behind the marshal's back.

Jeff knew what kind of guns Harkner wore because he'd already spoken to Guthrie's local sheriff, Herbert “Sparky” Sparks, and had interviewed several others in town. He'd arrived two days earlier to discover the marshal was not back yet from his latest manhunt. During his wait, he took advantage of various citizens' eagerness to share stories about the man. Aware that people tend to exaggerate such things, Jeff was not about to rely on hearsay. He wanted only facts, which was why he needed to hear the story straight from the marshal himself. Countless men had gone down under his guns, including—most shocking of all—Jake's own father.

Jeff desperately wanted to know why. He intended to get to know the man some had nicknamed the Handsome Outlaw, but it wasn't going to be easy. He needed to talk to Harkner's family too, but had so far stayed away. The fact that Harkner even
had
a family was amazing, considering the things Jeff knew about him. How did a man so notorious end up having anyone?

What he observed now only confirmed that his quest for a story had been worth the trip. Harkner was back from No Man's Land—a place most men feared to tread. Those prisoners still alive were in a bad way. All rode with hands tied to saddle horns with rope that was then looped up under their horses and tied to their ankles under the horse's belly. One had a bloody bandage around his forehead, with dried blood on the side of his face. Another wore an eye patch and looked ready to fall off his horse. The third prisoner just hung his head but occasionally gave Harkner a dark look of hatred. The left sleeve of his shirt showed a huge bloodstain. All were filthy—hair matted, faces showing several-day-old beards as well as cuts and bruises. Had Jake Harkner put those there?

Jake's son, Lloyd, a deputy U.S. Marshal, was nowhere to be seen, and Jeff wondered why. He'd been told that Lloyd had ridden out with Jake to track down these criminals.

“Lloyd okay, Jake?” someone from the crowd called. Apparently Jeff wasn't the only one wondering. “Where is he?”

“He's fine,” Harkner answered. “He stopped off at the Donavan place.”

Jeff took more notes and wrote a brief description of Jake's clothing—denim pants, dusty boots, black bib shirt, black wide-brimmed hat from which his nearly black and slightly wavy hair hung just past his shoulders. From what Jeff could tell, there was just a touch of gray in it despite the man's age. He wore a brown leather vest with a six-point marshal's badge on it…and those threatening guns. Jake Harkner was still a very handsome man, but hard lines about his dark eyes spoke of a man who'd led a very rough life. Everything about him spelled toughness—a man with not a soft spot on him. He kept a cigarette between his lips now as he answered more questions. The scene reminded Jeff of the pied piper, as the crowd following Harkner kept growing. Suddenly, a stocky young man exited a saloon not far from the jailhouse and called out, “Jake, you bastard! I don't see my pa! Is he the dead one? Is that my pa's body draped over that horse?”

Jake didn't even look at the young man. “It is,” he answered casually.

“You murdering sonofabitch!” the young man screamed. “I should kill you!”

It looked to Jeff as though the young man meant exactly what he said. Harkner continued to ignore him as he stopped in front of the jail.

“How'd you do it, Jake?” the young man screamed. “Did you put your gun in his mouth and blow his fucking brains out? Ain't that the way you usually kill a man?”

“Mind your business, Brad!” someone in the street yelled. “Your pa was no good, and you know it!”

Two more young men came out of the saloon and flanked the one called Brad. All three just stood watching for the moment, but the air was tense and people backed away. Jeff suddenly felt too hot in his neatly tailored suit, and he unbuttoned the top button of his shirt, wondering if bullets were about to fly.

Then…there she was. He'd never met her, but the woman hurrying down the street from the other end of town had to be Miranda Harkner. She'd apparently heard her husband's whistle. The look of both relief and concern in her eyes said it all: even after many years together, the woman was still very much in love with Jake Harkner.

Jeff had expected a heftier, older-looking woman, but the woman hurrying down the street now had a lovely, slender shape and looked far younger than what Jeff figured she must be—somewhere around forty-five years old. She wore a well-fitted yellow checkered dress, and her ash-blond hair showed no hint of gray.

So
small!
he quickly wrote.
I
expected
a
stout
and
somber
woman; she was somehow bigger in my imagination. How does such a tiny woman handle a man like Jake Harkner?

The rugged, dangerous-looking Harkner finally halted his horse when he saw the woman coming. He dismounted and removed the extra belt slung over his shoulder, hanging it around his horse's neck. He threw down his cigarette and walked up to her. It struck Jeff then how tall Jake was, perhaps six feet and two or three inches. He towered over the woman, who looked past him at the men he'd brought in, then warily eyed the young men standing on the boardwalk near the jail. Jeff snuck closer, straining to hear.

“Where's Lloyd?” the woman asked with a worried look.

In a surprisingly gentle move, Jake put an arm around her shoulders and led her a few feet away. “He headed to the Donavans'. He'll stay there the night, I expect. He was anxious to see Katie again.”

The woman smiled and they said something more to each other. Jeff could hardly believe it when Harkner leaned down and kissed her cheek before grasping her arm and gently steering her aside. “Stay out of the way till I take care of Brad Buckley,” he warned. “I don't want you to get hurt.”

So
, Jeff observed,
the
man's wife can change him from a cougar to a kitten with one look
. It was becoming clear that this book also had to be a love story. How strange that a man like Jake could love anyone. Even more strange that someone could love Jake Harkner, especially someone as lovely and seemingly gracious as Miranda.

“Hey, Jake, I bet the Buckley and the Bryant boys wish they hadn't gone up against the likes of you,
señor
, huh?” The words were spoken by an older Mexican man named Juan López.

Jake waved him off as he tied his horse in front of the jail, removing both his shotgun and rifle from the saddle. “Juan, you talk too much,” he told the man. “Take care of the horses once I unload these men, will you?”


Sí, amigo.


Estoy
ansioso
para
poner
en
orden
este
asunto
y
regresar
a
mi
esposa.

The old man grinned more. “Ah,
señor,
lo
comprendo.

The conversation answered one of Jeff's questions: Jake Harkner did sometimes speak in Spanish. Jeff didn't understand what was said, except that he knew
esposa
meant wife. Supposedly Harkner's mother had been Mexican, and one rumor was that Harkner's father had killed the woman. No one knew any details, and all had advised Jeff never to ask Harkner about it…or if he'd really killed his own father. The subject was apparently closed for the man, and Jeff swallowed at the thought of trying to bring it up. He watched Harkner hand his shotgun to his wife.

“Get farther back,” he warned her. “I'll be finished here in a few minutes, and I'm tired as hell. You should go back to the house. I'll be along.”

“I'm not going anywhere until that young man across the street goes back inside. I don't like the looks of this, Jake.”

Jake sighed. “You just be careful with that shotgun. It's still loaded.”

Sparky came out of the jail then to greet Jake. “Damn it, Jake, you have to quit rounding up so many of these no-goods. You're crowding my jail.”

Jeff caught a quick grin on Harkner's face.
The
man
actually
smiles!

“Sorry about that, Sparky. Want me to shoot a couple of them to give you more room?”

Sparky guffawed at what Jeff hoped was a joke, but he wasn't so sure Harkner didn't mean it.

“Send a wire to Edmond and have them send a wagon up here for this bunch,” Jake told the sheriff then. He handed over a bank bag obviously stuffed with money. “This has to be returned to the bank in Edmond. And when you send that wire, tell Sheriff Kennedy there that they'll need extra men to take this bunch back to Edmond. A marshal from Oklahoma City can take them from there. They'll likely be hanged or sent to the federal pen in Michigan. I'll come around Monday to sign papers.”

The marshal took another cigarette from a pocket inside his vest as Jeff dared to step even closer. He rolled up his shirtsleeves against the warming temperatures, and Jeff noticed that although Harkner was in his midfifties, his forearms showed hard muscle.
Handsome
Outlaw
is
very
fitting
, he noted. He watched the man light his cigarette. As he did so, the marshal glanced at Jeff, and the look in his dark eyes was stunningly suspicious and threatening. Jeff stepped back a little and nodded to the man. Harkner's eyes said it all: he didn't like strangers watching him. His eyes showed a combination of curiosity, distrust, and a warning to stay out of his way as he looked Jeff over, summing him up. Obviously not impressed and sensing no danger, he gave him a brief nod and turned away.

“Stay back like I told you,” he told his wife. “Go around behind that wagon.” He nodded to a freight wagon parked just a few feet away.

Rather reluctantly, Miranda walked closer to the wagon, still holding Jake's shotgun. Jeff scooted a bit closer to her as Jake walked back to the men he'd brought in. The young man on the boardwalk let out a blistering tirade of threats and insults as Jake untied the dead body and yanked it from the horse, letting the body fall to the street. It landed stiff and still bent.

“Somebody take care of this one,” he ordered. “Take him over to the undertaker.”


Murderer!
That's what you are, Harkner! A murderer with a badge!” Brad continued screaming. “Everybody knows you're nothing more than an outlaw with permission to kill!”

Jake walked back to the other three men, Guthrie's Sheriff Sparks walking with him, holding his shotgun ready as Jake untied each man and jerked him off his horse, in spite of their injuries. He seemed to be ignoring the young man on the boardwalk, but Jeff suspected he was very much aware.

“Someone go get my son-in-law to take a look at these men,” Jake spoke up. A young boy ran off.

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