Authors: Rosanne Bittner
“I wouldn't think of doing otherwise.”
Their eyes held in mutual understanding. Jake shook his hand, then turned back to embrace Katie with his other arm before lifting Little Jake onto his horse. He climbed into the saddle and started riding the black gelding up and down the street, giving his rambunctious grandson the horseback ride he'd promised him. Stephen followed, wanting to ride his dad's horse for a few minutes before Lloyd had to leave. Little Jake wiggled up and down, and Jake kicked Prince into a faster gait to satisfy his grandson's excitement.
Peter watched a crowd gather, as always happened when Jake Harkner was getting ready to ride out again. The man was a magnet for excitement. Peter figured he would never quite get over how someone as gentle and poised and graceful as Randy Harkner lived with the man.
Lloyd came outside then, giving Katie a long embrace and a kiss, then reaching up and lifting Stephen down and into his arms for a hug. Jake handed Little Jake down to Brian. “Take good care of my kid here,” he told Brian.
“Bye, Grampa,” Stephen called to him. “Don't cheat at cards.”
“I don't cheat, Stephen. I
!” Jake laughed, forcing himself not to think too hard about leaving Randy lying in pain, or about how hard a trip to Oklahoma City would be for her, or about the fact that the only person she would have to turn to was Peter Brown. He had to think the best. He had to, or go crazy. He rode closer to Lloyd as he mounted up. “You ready?”
“As I'll ever be. All we need is some food from Sadie's.”
It had become Tobe Baker's job to keep Jake's horse and nonperishable supplies ready at all times, so there hadn't been that much packing to do. Most of their fresh food supplies came from Sadie's place, where Sadie kept a tab on what the federal government owed her. Tobe had prepared a packhorse with small tools, horse liniment, brushes for the horses, a supply of tobacco, matches, towels, canned goods, and extra tack.
Lloyd grabbed the reins to the packhorse. “You okay, Pa?”
“No.” Jake headed down the street while Little Jake jumped up and down, yelling, “Gampa's guns! Gampa's guns!” He strained to run after Jake, but Brian kept a tight grip on him.
“You didn't fool Mom either,” Lloyd told Jake when he caught up to him. “She wants me to keep an eye on you, which I fully intend to do.”
Jake cast his son a sly look of warning mixed with humor. “What other orders did my warden give you?”
Lloyd pushed back his hat. “She said to make sure you eat some breakfast when we pick up our supplies at Sadie's, but that you're not supposed to let Mary Ann pour your coffee.”
That brought a sudden burst of laughter from Jake, greatly relieving some of Lloyd's worries. He thought what a great laugh his father had and wished he could hear it more often. “I don't think I need to ask what that's supposed to mean,” he told Jake.
“Yeah, well, it's a private joke between us.” Jake laughed again. He kept grinning as he lit yet another cigarette. “Do me a favor when we get back and tell her I insisted Mary Ann wait on us, and that I enjoyed every damn minute of it.”
Lloyd smiled. He'd been “waited on” by Mary Ann himselfâeven took her up on her offer once, before Katie came along. “Whatever you say. You're the one who has to answer to Mom. I wouldn't want to.”
“I can handle Randy Harkner.”
“Yeah, well, she says the same thing about you.”
“I just let her
she's in charge,” Jake called back as his horse trotted ahead of Lloyd's again. “Keeps her happy.”
“Shit, Pa, everybody knows she's got you lassoed and hog-tied. She corralled you twenty-six years ago, and you still haven't found a way through the fence.” He rode faster to catch up again.
Jake didn't answer the remark. “Let's get our supplies and go pick up Jeff. I hope he got himself a decent horse and proper clothing.”
So, you're done talking about Mom.
He knew his father was torn to shreds on the inside. This was going to be the trip from hell.
“Not a bad view this morning,” Lloyd commented.
“Mary Ann was thrilled to death that Randy wasn't with me,” Jake answered. “Remind me to tell you some time what Randy said to her the last time we were in Sadie's together.” He turned to look back at Jeff, who followed behind on an Appaloosa mare. “Get up beside us, Jeff. You're swallowing dust.”
Jeff rode closer. He'd bought all the right clothes, but Jake couldn't help thinking he still looked a bit comical, mainly because of his spectacles and the fact that he sat stiff as a board on the horse. “You sure you're an experienced rider?” Jake asked him.
“I said I knew
to ride. But I've never ridden for days at a time, and on top of that, I'm not sure what you expect of me, Jake.”
“Just observe, Jeff, that's all.”
“What if we find Marty Bryant?”
find him, and when we do, you stay out of the way. I'll take care of that sonofabitch.”
Jake glanced at the six-gun Jeff wore on his hip. “Looks like a Colt .22.”
“You can tell that just by the handle?”
“I believe I know a little bit about guns, Jeff.”
“Yes, sir. Stupid question.”
“Have you tried using that thing yet?”
“No, sir. I got this one because it's a bit smaller and lighter than a .44 and doesn't kick. Takes more strength than I have to pull and shoot what you're wearing.”
“We'll stop up ahead in a gully and let you do some shooting where your bullets can't go far,” Jake told him. “That way nobody gets hurt.”
Jake drew his horse to a halt and swung around to face him. “Jeff, you should know that if I get really ornery with you, I don't want you to take it personally. It will be because I have a lot on my mind.” He lit yet another cigarette. “And the reason I'm practically chain-smoking is that I'm trying to keep myself from
. Randy is leaving tomorrow for Oklahoma City with Peter Brown, of all people. There is a specialist there who is supposed to be extra good at the kind of operation she needs. Peter has to go there anyway to see another attorney about pleading my case, so Randy is going with him.”
Jeff raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I didn't know any of this, Jake.”
“Yeah, well, it was decided over just the last couple of days, and right now I'd like to drink myself into oblivion, but then God knows what that would do to me, the state I'm in. I just want you to know why I might not be exactly amiable the next few days. I don't know where Marty Bryant is or how many men he has, I don't know if that judge will reduce my sentence, my wife could be dying and I can't be with her, and the man who is taking her to Oklahoma City is in love with her. My mind is flying in ten different directions right now.”
Jeff frowned. “I'm sorry, Jake.”
“Not as sorry as I am, for a
of things.” Jake turned his horse back around and rode ahead of Jeff and Lloyd.
Jeff turned to Lloyd. “Your mother is really headed to Oklahoma City with Peter Brown?”
“She is,” Lloyd answered, lighting his own cigarette. “This won't be an easy trip, Jeff. My father is going to go through so many different moods, we won't be able to keep up. I just hope that if the worst happens, my mother doesn't die down there from the surgery or something. If she dies without my dad being with her, it's going to be really, really bad, Jeff. I'm praying she's home when we get back, and by some miracle she's okay.”
“Well, I sure hope for the same.” Jeff watched Jake riding on ahead alone. “Lloyd, when I asked your father what your mother meant to him, his reply was that she was the center of his universeâ¦the very air he breathed. I thought those were beautiful words, coming from a man like Jake.”
“Doesn't surprise me. Pa is going to be one angry, ornery sonofabitch on this trip, so beware. If I were you, I wouldn't ask him a lot of questions. Let him open up to you when he feels like it. Otherwise, leave him alone. He'll put on a good show of being okay. He'll even joke around with you. But right now, he's that nitroglycerin we talked about.” He reached into a pocket on his duster and took out a deputy marshal badge. “Here. Pa said to give you one of these.”
Jeff's eyebrows raised in surprise. “A
? Hell, I still don't even know how to use a gun!”
“Pa says if you wear this, people will be less likely to mess with youâor shoot you.”
Jeff met the young man's eyes and Lloyd winked. “Just pulling your leg, Jeffâbut that badge really will make people think twice. And don't worry about the Buckley place. You're with Jake Harkner, remember? And he's in a real shitty mood. You don't take down my dad when he's in a mood like that.” He trotted his horse forward, still leading the packhorse. “Put the badge on, Jeff,” he called back.
Jeff stared at the six-point badge for a moment, then reluctantly pinned it to his shirt. He straightened, grinning. He couldn't wait to write home about this.
family, I rode with Jake Harkner this week as a deputy U.S. Marshalâbadge and all. And Jake Harkner himself gave me shooting lessons.
He kicked the sides of his horse to catch up again.
* * *
There was a good hour of light left when Jake made camp in the gully he'd spoken about. They unloaded the horses and let them graze while they spread out bedrolls. Jake built a fire and dumped a can of beans into a black fry pan, then set it right on top of the flames. While waiting for the beans to heat up, he walked several feet away and set the empty can on a log. “Load up that .22, Jeff. Let's see how straight it shoots.”
Jeff jumped up from the stump he'd been sitting on and pulled his gun from its holster. The gunsmith from whom he'd bought it had shown him how to open and load it, but he'd left it empty until he learned how to shoot. Now he was nervous and dropped two bullets as he tried to put them into the gun. “Shit,” he muttered.
“Don't worry about it,” Jake told him, bending down to pick up the bullets. “Jeffâ”
Jeff looked up at him. Being with the tall, intimidating father-and-son team made him feel like a ten-year-old. “Sir?”
Jake rolled his eyes at being called sir again. “Are you ever going to stop being nervous around me?”
Jeff shrugged. “I don't think so. I'm okay when it comes to talking about the book, but when it comes to gunsâ¦”
Jake grinned and put a hand on his shoulder. “You know, Jeff, if you asked me right now to sit down over there and write a couple of pages about me or Randy or guns or whatever,
be the nervous wreck, because I'm no writer. I even need Randy to help me with all the damn paperwork that comes with this job. I know
and not much else.
are the writer. So don't be embarrassed that you don't know much about guns.
be embarrassed for you to see how lousy I am at writing, so we're even. Got that? And
call me sir.”
Jeff's respect for the man grew every time he was around him. “All right.”
“Now load that gun and give it to me for a minute. I want to see whether or not you got cheated when you bought it. It's easy to sell a piece of shit to someone unawares.”
Jeff finished loading it, then handed it to Jake. “Jake, I, uh, I really, really hope your wife will be okay.”
Jake studied the gun. “Yeah,” was his only reply. Jeff jumped then when Jake suddenly fired five shots at the can in rapid succession, hitting it every time. He studied the gun then. “Not bad. Not bad at all. I think Red St. James gave you a good dealâprobably because he knew I'd be the one testing this thing out and I'd have his hide if he sold you a piece of junk. Reload it.”
Jake walked out and picked up the can, which now was more or less in shreds but still useful enough for a target. He set it back on the log and walked back to Jeff. “Give it a try. I didn't need to aim, but you will. For a first-time shooter, you're better off using both hands and arms. Don't try it one-handed just yet. You feel the kick more and are less likely to hit anything. Just steady the sight on that can. She shoots true, so if you can keep the gun still, you should hit it. And once you cock that thing, you only need to lightly pull on the trigger. Let the trigger do the shooting, not your finger. The less hard you pull that trigger, the less the gun itself will pull and jump and miss the target. And see this?” Jake noticed that Jeff's left thumb and forefinger were near the firing chamber. “You leave those fingers there and the gasses from shooting will burn them. Wrap your fingers all the way around the butt of the gun and lift your left thumb only for cocking it, then wrap it back over the top of your hand. Keep your trigger finger pressed straight against the side of the gun, right above the trigger guard until you're ready to shoot. Don't ever rest it on the trigger itself. I'll be walking back out there to reset the can. I don't want to get shot in the back by a trigger-happy kid.”
“What? For God's sake, Jakeâ”
“I'm fooling with you, unless you want to be known as the man who shot Jake Harkner.”
“Quit it! I'm already a nervous wreck.”
Jake grinned. “Shit, just relax and remember what I told you. Now take a shot at that can.”
Jeff took a deep breath and raised the gun, keeping his hands wrapped around the butt of the gun the way Jake had taught him. He pulled back the hammer, closed one eye, and aimed.
“Wait a minute.” Jake walked behind him and grasped his wrists, pulling his arms out straighter. “Keep your arms straight. You'll hold the gun a lot steadier if you keep your arms stiff and tighten your muscles. You won't hit a damn thing with them half-bent like that, especially when you start shooting with just one hand. You watch me the next time I shoot. My arm is always straight, even if it looks like I'm casually shooting without even aiming.”
“Like the guy in the alley across from the jail?”
Jake didn't answer right away, and Jeff feared he shouldn't have brought that up.
“Yeah, something like that,” Jake finally told him. “Now keep your arms straight.”
Jeff took aim again, and after taking a deep breath, he fired. The can went flying. “Oh my God! I hit it!”
“Sure you did.” Jake took a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it as he walked out to pick up the can again. “Like I said, keep your arms straight, keep the sight right where you want it, and don't jerk on the trigger.”
“I can't believe I hit it!” Jeff repeated. “This is fun! A man could get used to this.”
Jake set up the can again. “Yeah, he can get
used to it. But it's just a can, Jeffânot a man. Shooting a man is a whole different thing. And it's not fun.” Jake walked back to Jeff, who was a bit surprised at the remark. Did shooting men actually bother Jake? He did it so casually.
“Most men I've shot deserved it,” Jake told him, as though reading his mind, “and I sometimes even take great satisfaction in taking certain men out of society. But it's never fun, Jeff, and in the early years I shot men who
deserve it. They just happened to be in my way. That's not a fun thing to live with.”
“Well, I just meantâ”
“I know what you meant. I just want you to be ready for the day you actually shoot a human being. It won't feel good, believe me. Try it again, and keep your arm straight.”
Jeff took aim again. He missed.
“You got excited and jerked the trigger, and the gun came up on you. Remember to squeeze it. Don't jerk it. Let the trigger do its own thing. And keep your muscles tight. Use up the rest of the bullets. I'm going to get my repeater. Overall, I think you'll be better off using a rifle if we get in trouble, but I still want you to practice with your own pistol every day.”
He walked to his bedroll to get his carbine while Jeff kept shooting. Jake reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a fifth of whiskey, uncorking it and taking a swallow.
Lloyd lay with his head against his own saddle. He glanced sidelong at his father and watched him take a drink. “Pa, what the hell are you doing?”
“Leave me alone.” Jake corked the whiskey and picked up his carbine, which was fully loaded. He took it over to Jeff and began showing him how to use it. “Your aim will be a lot truer with a rifle, but we'll keep practicing with both guns.” He had Jeff fire the rifle several times, which meant practicing how to quickly cock it again before each shot.
“What I like about a rifle is you can put a man down before he gets close enough to use his six-gun, but too often your six-gun is your only choice.”
Jeff became a bit concerned at the smell of whiskey on Jake's breath.
“That's why you need to remember to keep your arm straight,” Jake continued. “There's no time to let a shot go wild and miss its target.”
In a flash, Jake's own six-gun was drawn and fired four timesâso quickly that Jeff hardly realized what was happening until it was over with. The can flew all four times until it lay at a distance, finally too shredded to be used for a target. Jake handed him his gun. “My arm was straight the whole time. There are two bullets left in this thing. Do you want to try it?”
“I don't know. It's bigger and heavier than my .22, and I swear it's louder than a rifle. My ears hurt.”
“You might as well get a feel of it. You never know what will happen out here, Jeff. I might have to toss you one of these to use to help me out. At least get an idea how it feels and how it shoots.”