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Authors: Rosanne Bittner

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“It's all right,” she answered between kisses.

“I should have realized.”

“I'm all right now, Lloyd.” More kisses. “I understand.”

“I just thought…” He kissed her with a deep groan.

She grasped his face. “Lloyd, look at me.”

He hesitated, meeting her eyes.

“I understand.”

His eyes teared. “I ran off on Beth,” he told her, “never knowing she was carrying my son. And I ran off on my mother, my father, my sister…all at a time when they needed me most. I won't ever do that again—not to them—and definitely not to you.”

“I know you won't.”

He met her mouth again, then moved to kiss her ear, her neck. “Thank you for taking a chance with me, Katie.”

“You're a good man, a good father, and a devoted son. I know you'll be a good husband.”

He devoured her mouth once more, relishing the taste of her, the feel of her, fighting the lingering feeling that he was somehow cheating on Beth. She'd understand. She would want him to be happy, would want Stephen to have a mother. And he wanted to make Katie happy in return.

It was done now. He'd taken a wife and he'd do right by her. Maybe he didn't love her the same as Beth, but he cared for her, and he knew it could become more. He would learn to put the past behind him, and he needed to stop thinking about today's horror and tend to his new wife.

In moments his long johns and her nightgown were all the way off, and he was moving inside of her again, this time both of them wildly satisfying long-buried needs. This time was closer to purely physical, but he knew the rest would come…the union of hearts…the burning touch of souls.

They had time.

Twelve

Evie quietly entered the house and approached the bedroom. It was the evening of the third day since the shooting, and during all her other visits, Jake had been unconscious. The bedroom door was open and she walked in to find Randy carefully shaving Jake.

“Mother, Brian says Daddy finally woke up.”

“Oh, he woke up, all right. I'm trying to convince him he has to lie flat for a good two weeks. I'm almost done shaving him. I was scared to death he'd lapse into some kind of fit and I'd accidentally slit his throat.”

“You'd be better off,” Jake joked lazily.

“I probably would,” Randy answered. “You have no idea how tempted I was to let this razor slip. I swear, Jake, sometimes you're like a cur dog, friendly and eating out of someone's hand one minute and biting that hand off the next. I should put you on a leash.”

Jake sighed and shifted, grimacing with pain as he did so. “Just so you come to my doghouse…once in a while.”

Randy set the razor on a table next to a pan and a cup of shaving soap. She took a wet towel from where she'd hung it over the brass rail of the bed and washed his face.

Evie loved watching the intimate moments between her mother and father, the rare moments when no one would ever think Jake Harkner could harm anyone.

“Daddy, I've been here several times, but you were never awake.” She stepped closer. “I'm so sorry. This is all my fault for not keeping track of Little Jake. You could have died.”

Jake rubbed at his forehead. “Evie, none of it was your fault.” He reached out. “Come over here. I'm so damned sorry for yelling at you like I did. I was hardly aware of anything except protecting Little Jake.”

“I know.”

Randy got up and carried the pan of water and shaving supplies out to the kitchen, leaving Evie alone with her father. Evie cautiously sat down on the edge of the bed, fighting tears. “Does it hurt bad?”

Jake grasped her hand. “Not all that bad. Your husband probably cut deeper than he needed to just to get back at me for the way I yelled at you. I swear Brian has a secret desire to slug me or something, so he takes it out on how he treats my wounds. Feels like I have about a hundred stitches in my leg.”

“Daddy, you know Brian wouldn't do that.”

Jake managed a smile. “Well, I wouldn't…blame him if he did.”

Evie studied his hand, solid, strong. His right hand had been partially crippled for a while…from hitting the prison wall over and over after a visit from Lloyd. That was when Lloyd thought he hated his father and had said cruel things to him before running off. Desperate at the thought that his son would take the wrong path, Jake had hit Lloyd in an attempt to stop him. He was so upset with himself for striking his son that he'd pounded the prison wall in frustration and self-loathing until he broke several bones in his hand. He'd worked with the hand ever since, managed to get it back to almost full use—certainly enough to draw and fire those famous guns.

“I never should have taken my eyes off Little Jake,” Evie told him. “He's such a little devil, always running off and always daring me to stop him from doing something he shouldn't, but he's so crazy about his ‘gampa.'”

“He's a Harkner. He can't help being naughty. And I
love
that he's crazy about me.” Jake squeezed her hand. “Evie…you're my sweet and beautiful daughter, and it breaks my heart to think of how I roared at you. That was just that dark, scared part of me that's always afraid I'll lose someone I love because of who I am. You'd all be better off without me around.”

“None of us would be better off without you, Daddy, and you know it. You are the strongest, bravest man I've ever known…not just physically, but in spirit. You must know how much we all need you.”

Jake smiled sadly. “And you are a daughter who is incapable of finding anything wrong with her father. You are a breath of fresh air, Evie. You stuck by me through the worst of it…and I'm sorry for all the lost years when I gave Lloyd so much attention as he grew up. My goal once he was born was to be a good father to a son. But I never loved him more than you. I just love him…different. Can you understand that?”

Evie nodded, a tear slipping down her cheek. Jake reached up and touched her face, wiping the tear away with his thumb. “You've always been so quiet and undemanding. I truly believe my mother lives inside of you, Evie, like an angel's spirit loving me unconditionally.”

She put a hand to his, surprised at the remark. “Do you really believe in angels?”

He closed his eyes. “You'd be surprised what I believe in. And don't be telling your mother. She'll be after me to go to church.”

“You
should
go to church, Daddy.”

“No. Don't you start on me too. Just know that I love you, Evie. In you I see Evita Ramona Consuella de Jimenez. Her eyes shine right through yours.” He moved an arm out and she laid across his chest and rested her head on his shoulder. Jake put an arm around her, stroking her thick, dark hair. “I will never raise my voice to you again,” he promised.

“I know.”

Jake held her tightly, and Evie grew concerned when she felt him tremble. She started to rise, but he held her fast. “He killed her,” he said in a near whisper. His grip seemed almost desperate. “He killed her and my brother right before my eyes.”

He shifted and groaned softly. Evie wasn't sure if it was from physical or emotional pain. “Mother told me all of it a long time ago, Daddy. You think Lloyd and I don't know, but we do. Please don't think about it. You'll get upset all over again.”

“I was eight years old,” he continued, as though not even hearing her. “The sonofabitch took me away with him, and he never talked about them again. Before we left, I stole my mother's rosary beads…and I never let him know it. He would have taken them away from me.”

“Daddy, I'm so sorry.” Evie wept.

Jake continued to hold her fast.

“God brought my mother back to life in you.”

“And he gave me the best father ever.”

Jake smiled, breathing in the scent of her hair—seeming to calm again. “That I would argue with. I will agree, though, that he gave you the best
husband
ever. I am so glad you have Brian. He's a good, kind, patient man. He's put up with so much.”

“He's good to me,” Evie reassured him. “He loves me very much.” She sighed deeply. “I'm so tired. I could just stay right here and fall asleep. When I was little, I always felt so safe when you held me.”

“And I didn't hold you enough.” He grimaced. “Baby girl, right now you'd better go home because I'm kind of…floating in and out of this world…and some other…darker world. I don't trust myself right now, Evie. Just know that I love you, but I'm…so…damn…tired…”

Evie sat up, wiping at tears. Her father looked as though he'd fallen asleep again. Randy walked into the room. “Mother, is he all right? He's just sleeping, isn't he?”

Randy came closer and put a hand on Jake's forehead. “There's no fever. His body is just exhausted from working so hard to build his blood back. I'm making sure he drinks as much water as possible. Brian said that will help. And he said your father could slip in and out for another day or so.” She looked at Evie, ached at the tears in her eyes. “Oh, Evie, he'll be fine, I'm sure.”

Evie nodded, wiping at more tears. “He said he believes his mother lives inside of me. That makes me so happy. He even told me her full name. I've never even known what it was. All you ever told me was her first name, because you gave it to me.”

“I never told you because it hurts him too much to hear it, and he was afraid if you knew it, you'd ask more about her. It's very hard for him to talk about, because it means bringing up his father.”

Evie nodded. “He told me what happened. I never thought he'd tell me himself. He didn't know I already knew about it.” Evie took a handkerchief from a pocket in her skirt. “Mother, if he'd just open up about things, it would help people truly understand him better. Maybe having that reporter write a book about him will help. It will make him talk about things he normally never talks about. It seems like it's already making
all
of us talk about things we never did before.”

“I don't know if that's good or bad. Some things are so deeply hurtful, Evie, that the person hurting has to choose his own time and place to talk about them, if at all.” Randy grasped her hands as Evie got up, and they embraced. “You'd better go home now. Tomorrow things will be even better. You can bring Little Jake over so he can see his grandpa is just fine, and Jake in turn can see his imp of a grandson is still in one piece.”

Evie nodded. “Are you all right alone with Daddy? He said he didn't trust himself yet—something about floating between this world and a darker one.”

“I can handle Jake, Evie. Surely you know that by now.”

Evie leaned down and kissed her father's cheek. “I've never seen him like this.”

“After twenty-six years together, I've never seen him quite this bad either.”

Evie embraced her once more. “Are you sure you don't want me to send Brian over right now?”

“Yes. I'll be sure to come and get him if I think it's necessary. I think I'd like to be alone with Jake.”

“If you say so.” Evie left, rather reluctantly. Randy followed her to the door and bolted it. She walked into the kitchen and took down Jake's rifle from the rack, where someone had put it after Tobe took it off Jake's horse and brought it to the house. She checked to see that it was loaded, then carried it to the bedroom, worried about the fact that there were still Buckley and Bryant family members left who would not be happy about what had happened.

She laid the rifle on the floor on her side of the bed, then undressed and pulled on a flannel gown. She felt suddenly exhausted herself. She turned down the oil lamp near the bed and carefully crawled into bed, moving beside Jake and putting an arm over his chest to make sure he was still breathing.

He stirred and moved one hand up to grasp her arm.

“You're awake?” she asked softly.

“Where's Evie?” His voice sounded so weak, so unlike Jake Harkner.

“She went home, Jake. She feels much better after talking to you. Everyone is gone and you need to get more sleep.”

He lightly squeezed her arm and managed to open his eyes, turning his head slightly to look at her. He sighed. “If I'm dead, I must be in heaven, because I just saw you and Evie…but how in hell did I make it to heaven?”

“God put you here,” Randy answered. “It's his punishment, because in heaven you'll have to listen to my nagging for the rest of your eternal life.”

“Never thought of it that way. That…
would
be more like hell.” He stirred more. “What time is it?”

“For you, it doesn't matter. Go back to sleep. You must lie still, Jake.”

“…
mi
querida
…
esposa
,” he mumbled. “
Lo
siento. Favor perdóname
.”

Randy leaned closer and kissed his cheek. “What on earth do I need to forgive you for?”

“Everything…everything…for being…who I am.”

“I
love
you for who you are, Jake Harkner. Go to sleep.” Randy wiped at silent tears, still shaken at coming so close to losing him.
Please, God, not yet. Not yet. I need him so.

The nagging, intermittent pain deep in her belly was still there, though usually it was gone quicker than this. She was so intent on helping Jake that she'd decided to continue with her secret. Brian was worn-out. She hated burdening others. She thanked God Jake was still with her. He'd predicted once that he would never die of old-age ailments.
I'll go down with guns blazing, or from a bullet in the back. Be ready for it, Randy, because we will never know when it's coming.

She kissed the strong arm around her, and in his sleep he pulled her even closer.

Thirteen

Jeff made a note that it had been eight days since the shooting. He'd stayed away from the family, realizing they needed time alone. He knew the prison wagon would arrive today for Marty Bryant, and he wanted to witness the man's departure. The formidable-looking iron wagon sat in front of the jail as he hurried over to watch the proceedings. He noticed Katie Harkner sitting in the seat of a small supply wagon, which was tied across the street in front of the very hardware store where Jake had been shot down. She wore a lovely pink dress.

“Mrs. Harkner,” he greeted, tipping his hat. “You look very pretty this morning.”

She'd been staring at the jail and seemed startled when he greeted her. “Oh! Mr. Trubridge.” Katie glanced back at the jail. “Thank you. Lloyd is in the jail right now, signing some papers. The prison wagon is a few days late, and he has to officially put Marty Bryant on it.”

“I'm sure Lloyd will be all right,” Jeff told her. “I'll go see what's going on.”

“Thank you.”

Jeff walked across the street, wondering how the shooting had affected Lloyd's new wife. She'd surely never expected to see her husband in a shoot-out on the first day of their marriage.

As he neared the jail doorway, he heard Marty Bryant cussing a blue streak. “I'm still wounded from when you and that sonofabitch you call a father brung me in,” he growled. “I can't ride in that wagon.”

Jeff walked inside to see Marty's wrists and ankles were cuffed. He was the one originally brought in seven days ago with a wounded arm. He still wore the filthy clothes he'd had on then, as well as his eye patch. He needed a shave, and his hair hung in oily strands over bloodshot eyes.

“Dr. Stewart said you were good enough to travel,” Lloyd told him. He was bent over the sheriff's desk signing papers, and Sheriff Sparks stood holding a shotgun on Marty.

“'Course he'd say that. He's your goddamned brother-in-law!” Marty argued. “Don't put me in that wagon, you asshole!”

Brad Buckley groaned from the jail cell, where he still lay with a cracked breastbone.

“You'll pay for this, kid,” Marty threatened. “You and your pa both. You tell him that! My family will figure out a way.”

“Yeah, yeah. I've heard it all before, Marty.” Lloyd straightened. “Get your ass outside.”

Jeff stepped aside, observing quietly.

“How in hell am I supposed to walk with these things on my ankles?” Marty barked.

Lloyd stepped closer. “Let me help you.” He turned the man around and kicked him in the rear end, sending him sprawling out the front door and down the steps.

More
like
something
Jake
would
do
, Jeff noted. He cautiously walked to the doorway and watched Lloyd pick Marty up and give him a shove toward the wagon, where two other hapless-looking men sat inside. The wagon guard opened the barred door at the back of the wagon, and Lloyd literally threw Marty inside. The man landed facedown on the floor between the benches on either side of the wagon. He screamed another round of curses, yelling that his eye patch had come off.

Jeff dared to step closer as the wagon guard locked the wagon doors. He grimaced at the sight of Marty's eye. It bore an ugly scar that was stitched shut, and the socket was caved in, the eyeball completely missing.

“Someone will put it back on when you get where you're going,” Lloyd told him, seemingly unaffected by the man's misery. “This is what happens when you put your filthy hands on an innocent young girl, Bryant. You're goddamn lucky Jake didn't shoot your balls off. He doesn't care so much about following federal marshal rules, so be glad you're alive and your privates are still attached and not stuffed in your pockets.”

Jeff's eyes widened at the words.

“You just remember, you and your pa are gonna have to go after the Daltons again, boy,” Marty yelled. “That will leave your family all alone. I'll get out, Harkner. Somehow I'll escape, and I'll pay Jake back for putting my eye out! And I'll pay
you
back for treatin' me this way!”

“You're going to prison, Marty, probably headed for a hanging. Jake and I can handle the rest of your worthless family.”

“You're a
dead
man, Lloyd Harkner! So is your pa. Too bad he didn't bleed to death this time around. I hope it was
my
bullet that hit him!”

Lloyd stepped back and waved at the wagon driver, who nodded to him. “Afternoon, Lloyd. How's your pa?”

“Mean as ever,” Lloyd answered.

The driver laughed as the guard climbed up beside him.

“Watch for an ambush, Ken,” Lloyd warned. “You can't trust the Buckleys
or
the Bryants.”

“Marshal Dexter Lace will meet us in Edmond. We'll be okay.” The driver snapped the reins, and the four horses pulling the wagon made off. Lloyd lit a cigarette as he waited for it to disappear around a corner. He turned, just then noticing Jeff. He nodded. “Mr. Trubridge. You going to the house today?”

“If it's okay with you. Brian told me Jake is awake and asked to see me.”

“Climb in the back of our wagon. Katie and I are headed for her folks' place, but I can drop you off at Pa's on the way.”

Jeff climbed into the back of the wagon, where Stephen sat playing with a wooden gun. “Is Jake still in bed?” Jeff called to Lloyd as Lloyd climbed into the seat beside Katie.

“Yes, but he's already turning into a damn grump about not being able to get up. We're having a hell of a time keeping him there. He'll listen to Brian, though, and Brian has told him that if he gets up and around too soon, he'll just end up back in that bed, for even longer next time. So far, he's staying there.”

Jeff grinned, glad to hear Jake was being obstinate. That meant he was definitely better. He hung on to the side of the wagon as it bounced over holes and ruts in the dirt street. “Do you expect trouble from the Buckleys or the Bryants?” Jeff asked.

Lloyd glanced at his wife, who grasped his arm. “I doubt it,” he answered, casting a slight scowl at Jeff.

Jeff realized he shouldn't have asked the question in front of Lloyd's new wife. The day of the shooting must have been quite an awakening for her. He looked away, feeling like an ass.

“Men like that talk big, Jeff,” Lloyd added. “Marty will be completely out of commission for quite a few years now, and young Brad is still in a bad way. He might be moved to a doctor's office or a boardinghouse, but he's in too much pain to stand a wagon ride all the way home. The ones we took down were the worst of the bunch, so I don't think there will be any more trouble.”

The
hell
you
don't.
“I hope you're right.” Jeff suspected what happened at the shoot-out would only make things worse with what was left of the two families. “What happened to Marty Bryant's eye?” he asked.

“Marty got in a bar fight a few months back, and Pa broke it up. Marty went after Pa with a knife, and Pa smashed a beer mug in his face. It shattered and cut into Marty's eye. A doctor had to remove the eye. It wasn't Brian, though. There are quite a few other doctors in town.”

Jeff shook his head. “Marty Bryant has more than one reason to want Jake dead, then.”

“Well, like I said, men like him are more mouth than action.” Lloyd pulled up in front of Jake's house but stayed with Katie on the wagon seat. “Jake will be glad to see you, Jeff.”

“Thanks for the ride.”

“Sure. Katie and I have already seen Jake this morning, so we're going on out to the Donavans'.”

Jeff jumped down and nodded to Stephen. “Have fun, Stephen.”

The boy grinned. “I will.” He waved at Jeff as Lloyd drove off. Jeff went to the front door and it opened before he even reached it. Randy stood there in a lovely green dress that made her eyes look green too.

“I heard the wagon outside,” she told Jeff. “Please, come in. Jake is in the bedroom, and he's been giving me a hard time all morning. I'm glad for the company.”

Jeff removed his hat. “Thank you, ma'am.”

“You can call me Randy.”

“Well, actually, I'm not quite ready to call you by your first name yet. Seems kind of disrespectful.”

“Well, it isn't at all, but you do whatever feels right.” Randy led Jeff to the bedroom. Jeff felt a bit uncomfortable going into a man and woman's private bedroom, but Jake had to stay in bed, so that was it. To Jeff's surprise, Jake was sitting up, shirtless and smoking a cigarette. On top of that, he was fidgeting with one of his guns.

“Come on in, Jeff,” Jake told him. “Pull up a chair.”

Jeff had a feeling it didn't bother Jake one bit to be sitting shirtless in his own bed, welcoming someone who was still mostly a stranger. Jake held up the six-gun and seemed to be aiming it at something.

“I wish I could go out and shoot this thing to make sure the barrel is straight after all that gunplay. All that heat sometimes warps a gun.”

“Yes, sir. In fact, when I picked one of them up by the barrel the day of the shooting, I burned my hand. I had no idea they got that hot.”

Jake set the gun aside. “They get hot, all right,” he said rather absently.

Jeff opened his briefcase to take out a tablet. “How are you doing, Jake?”

Jake scowled. “As well as can be expected for a man who has to depend on his wife to feed him like a kid. It's downright humiliating, and I intend to be out of this bed tomorrow.”

“You're a man who says exactly what he's thinking, aren't you?”

“You bet. And I'm thinking you pretty much saved my life, Jeff.”

Jeff met his eyes, and Jake was smiling a little.

“I owe you. So you've got your book.”

Jeff couldn't help a huge grin. “Thank you, but if we could do it over, I wouldn't want to earn that right the way I did. I'd rather you were up and walking around and that this never happened.”

“Thank you.” Jake smoked quietly. “Why me, Jeff? What's in it for you? You must have some kind of angle. Lord knows there are other outlaws still alive you could write about.”

“But I'm not writing about an outlaw. I'm writing about a
man
—complicated and notorious and outspoken and intimidating most of the time, but a man who loves his family. That's not something you can usually say about someone with your kind of reputation.”

Jake nodded. “Good answer.”

“Besides that, you're a dying breed, Jake. There are few men left with your reputation, few who ever live to tell about it. The world out there is changing, full of laws and courts and jails and advanced machinery and inventions. It's nothing like the world you rode in as an outlaw. That fascinates me. I'm only doing this out of my own personal curiosity and my desire to understand men like you.”

“Yeah, well, dying breed was almost a literal description after the other day.” Jake drew on the cigarette. “And don't kid yourself, Jeff. Don't make me out to be more than I am. I'm just a man who had about as messed up a childhood as any man could have—one who took the wrong path and committed pretty much every rotten crime imaginable and isn't proud of it. I robbed trains and banks and ran illegal guns during the war. Then I just got lucky and found a woman who changed it all for me.” He sighed. “At any rate, I like your choice of words, and I think you're sincere in telling the truth. Just don't
ever
use the word
hero
any place in that book, or I won't let you publish it. I'm no goddamn hero. And don't have me shooting ten men when I only shot five—or whatever.”

Only
five?

“And don't turn it into one of those ridiculous dime novels.”

“I would never do that. I'm not that kind of writer.”

Jake reached over and put out his cigarette. He winced as he shifted in bed. “Damn,” he muttered. “Feels like somebody stuck a bowie knife in my leg and never took it back out.”

“I'm sorry you still have a lot of pain.”

“Well, pain means you're still alive, so I guess it's a good thing.”

Jeff nodded.

“I don't want to go into much detail today, Jeff. I still get tired when I talk too much. I just want you to know that I want some kind of contract giving me and Randy final say in whether that book gets published, plus we need a trust drawn up, and all that bullshit. Peter Brown can take care of it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Meantime, I'd like to know a little more about you,” Jake continued. He shifted, and Jeff couldn't help but notice the scars—one at Jake's shoulder, another farther down on his chest, a deep white scar on one arm, another one farther down on his belly.

Jake caught him studying his scars. He pointed to the scar at his shoulder. “Bullet wound—” His chest. “Bullet wound—” His arm. “Knife wound from a bar fight. All from the old days, Jeff. I have a scar down low on my right hip from the bullet I took at the Kennedy shoot-out back in California. I have scars on my back too, but I don't talk about those.”

The
father?

“This one—” He pointed to the scar low on his belly. “That's where Randy shot me the first day we met.”

“So—she really
did
shoot you?”

“She sure did. First time I ever laid eyes on her, I got in a shoot-out in a supply store. She was there. It scared the shit out of her, and she pulled a little gun from her purse and shot me. I couldn't believe it. I just ran out and rode off. Took shelter in what I thought was an abandoned house—figured I'd die there. Next thing I knew, I woke up naked and with the bullet dug out of me, and there stood Miranda Hayes. It was her house. She felt sorry for shooting me, so she turned around and took out the bullet—and hid my guns.” He laughed lightly. “I was so mad at her for hiding those guns I could hardly see straight, but I was too weak to do anything about it. She fed me and nursed me and I was mean as hell to her the whole time…mostly because I felt myself falling in love with her, and God knows I had no right loving something like that. And nothing I did or said made her back down.”

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