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Authors: Rosanne Bittner

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BOOK: Do Not Forsake Me
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Jeff swallowed. “If you say so.”

“Just remember it's a hair trigger, so don't you touch that trigger at all until you're sure you're ready to fire it.”

Jeff took the gun that a few weeks ago he'd been so afraid of. He raised it, wondering how in hell Jake could draw and fire it so fast and so well when it weighed so much. He doubted he could even hold it out and aim it with one hand. Using both hands, he held it out, cocked it, and aimed at the shredded mess of a can, then fired. It boomed and kicked back at his hand, but he hit the can. “I did it!” he exclaimed. “And I barely touched the trigger! You were right about that. Wait till I tell my father about this.”

Jake just grinned and took the gun from him to reload it. “The way you keep talking about your father, he must be a pretty good man.”

“He is.”

An odd sadness moved through Jake's eyes. “Yeah, well, he raised a good kid.” He picked up his rifle and headed for his bedroll. “Reload your own weapon, Jeff.” He glanced at Lloyd then. “Fix a plate of beans for you and Jeff, and get yourselves a fresh biscuit from that sack Sadie gave us.”

“You're not eating?” Lloyd asked.

Jake walked over and uncorked the whiskey again. “No.”

“Pa, you know you have to eat. And please don't drink, especially not on an empty stomach. You know damn well that whiskey won't end the pain in your gut, and you know it would kill Mom to know you uncorked that shit.”

Jake took another swallow. “She doesn't need to know.”

“She damn well
will
know, because I'll tell her myself. She'll be worried and hurt. Is that what you want?”

“What I
want
is to get drunk.”

“You said earlier you
wouldn't
, and you know damn well why…but if that's what you want, go ahead. When you get like this, I don't give a rat's ass what you do. Go ahead and behave like your father.”

Lloyd instantly regretted the remark. Jake took one last swallow and then corked the bottle, giving Lloyd a look that told him he was lucky he was Jake's son and not a stranger.

“You don't know shit about my father.”

“Don't I? I know enough that I don't want you to be like him—
that's
what I know.” Lloyd moved to the fire and spooned some beans onto a plate, handing it to Jeff as Jeff walked back to his bedroll. Then Lloyd threw a gunnysack at Jeff. “Grab yourself a biscuit. We'll both eat while we watch my father drink till he turns into a complete asshole.”

Jake uncorked the whiskey and took one more swallow as he watched Lloyd spoon himself a plate of beans. Jeff handed back the bag of biscuits, glancing nervously at Jake. Lloyd took a biscuit from the bag and sat down. He glanced at Jake, and Jake saw the hurt and worry in his eyes.

Jake shoved the whiskey back into his saddlebag, then turned to gaze at the fire. “Damn it, Lloyd, if you're going to pout like a spoiled kid who didn't get what he wanted for Christmas, then go ahead and fix me a plate.”

Lloyd watched him closely for a moment, then prepared a plate of beans and handed that and a biscuit to Jake. “She'll be okay, Pa.”

Jake took the plate. “You didn't see how much pain she was in last night. In all our married life, I've never seen her in that kind of pain. To me that means cancer. I've seen it, Lloyd, on a personal level—a prostitute I was living with before I met your mother.”

“Cancer doesn't mean it can't be fixed, Pa. And Beth…I mean, when she had her time of the month, she used to be in almost that much pain. A lot of things can go on inside a woman to cause pain like that, so it might just be something else, just like Brian said. Now eat.”

Jake poked at the beans with his fork, wanting nothing more than to go back to Guthrie and scoop his wife into his arms and tell her everything was all right.
That's the one thing I miss the most when you're gone, Jake—these arms around me. I feel so safe when you're holding me.

They're around you, Randy, even when I'm not here
, he thought. His gut tightened and it was all he could do to eat even half the beans. “Eat up and get some rest, Jeff,” he said aloud. “Tomorrow we'll pay a visit to the Buckleys.”

Jeff set his plate down, glancing at Lloyd.

“You heard the man,” Lloyd told him.

Jeff tried to joke. “That's what I was afraid of.”

“You'll be all right,” Jake assured him. He ate a few more bites and forced himself to swallow the biscuit, then he set the plate aside. “I can't finish.”

Lloyd sighed. “I guess some is better than none. I'm glad you put that whiskey back. Jesus, Pa, sometimes
I
feel like the father.”

Jake lay back against his saddle and lit another cigarette. “Maybe sometimes that's what I'm looking for. Trying to be a good father to you sometimes made me feel like it was happening the other way around, if that makes any sense. It felt…good. Like with your mother—she'd shake the knots out of me and keep my ass on the straight and narrow, and I let her because it felt good to have somebody care if I was doing things right.”

Lloyd took his plate. “Yeah, well, someday you're going to wake up and realize how many people
do
care.”

Jeff quickly dug out his writing pad and took some notes.
There
is
a
vulnerable
side
to
Jake
Harkner
nobody
knows
about. It's his wife and kids who bring it out.
He skipped a line to make a different note.
Tomorrow
we
will
visit
the
Buckley
family. I am scared to death.
He put down his tablet and picked up his plate of beans. “Jake?”

“What?”

“Thanks for not making fun of my ineptitude with guns.”

“Why would I make fun of it? There was a time when even
I
didn't know how to use guns.” He smoked quietly again for a moment. “I'll tell you something, Jeff. Later I'll tell you all of it, but for now suffice it to say that the first time I ever used a gun was…on my own father. That was the very first time. And in a way, every man I've shot since then was him. In my mind, I've killed him over and over…and over.”

Jeff looked at Lloyd, who put a finger to his lips, warning Jeff not to say a word. Jeff quietly finished his beans.

Twenty-four

Jeff was sure he'd feel a bullet in his back any moment. Leading the packhorse, he rode behind Lloyd, who in turn stayed behind Jake as the three of them followed a narrow road through an open field still full of dried, yellowed cornstalks from the year before. Jake had told him the Buckley farm wasn't all that big, and already Jeff could see a two-story house made of rough, unpainted wood, a poorly built and already-sagging porch running across the entire front of the building. The Buckleys and Bryants were part of the earlier settlers who'd moved into Oklahoma Indian country before it was even legal to do so. Jake wanted to kick them out, but a judge had ruled they had a right to stay because they were peacefully homesteading and hadn't bothered the Indians.

“Peaceful, my ass,” Jake had grumbled that morning. “I'm going to write that judge and tell him what I think about his ruling and why he's wrong. Jeff, I might need your help wording the letter properly.”

Right now a letter was the last thing on Jeff's mind. He thought he'd seen at least two men lurking in the woods that bordered the cornfield. He figured if he saw them, Jake and Lloyd had probably spotted them also. A barn and shed sat to the right of the house, and Jeff wondered if men were hiding inside, watching them, waiting to gun them down. All kinds of visions danced through his head as they drew closer to the house.

Someone stepped out the front door then, brandishing a rifle. It looked to Jeff like a woman, but her size and the way she was dressed made it difficult to tell. She was tall and skinny, wearing a man's pants and a plain, homemade cotton shirt that hung outside the pants. Her graying hair was once apparently twisted into a bun but now hung in uncombed strands that had worked their way out of the pins and ribbon that held the rest of it up.

“You stop right there, Jake Harkner,” the woman yelled, raising the rifle.

To Jeff's amazement, Jake didn't slow down, but he pushed his duster behind his right gun. Lloyd rode at a faster gait toward the outbuildings.

“Put that thing down, Jessie,” Jake called back. “You'd be hanged, woman or not.” He rode close to the front porch while Lloyd rode straight into the barn to Jeff's right. Jeff wasn't sure which Harkner to keep an eye on, Jake or Lloyd. He pulled his six-gun just in case he might need it.

“I can draw and shoot before you pull that trigger,” Jake was warning Jessie. “You haven't even cocked that rifle yet. Even if you manage to get a shot off, you'll be dead just the same, if not by my gun, then by Lloyd's.”

Jeff wondered if they would really shoot a woman. Jessie kept the rifle raised. “Maybe I don't care, Harkner. Maybe I will get the
both
of you, and even that four-eyed little kid behind you.”

“Shooting a United States Marshal is definitely a hanging offense, Jessie, and hanging is a terrible way to die.”

The woman lowered the rifle just slightly. “It's how
you
should have died years ago, you murderin' bastard! If they'd hanged you for all the crimes you committed, you wouldn't have been alive to kill my husband and my son! The only boy I have left is still in bad pain from what you done to him.”

To Jeff's relief, Lloyd rode back out of the barn. He headed to a shed next, staying on his horse as he kicked the door in, his gun drawn.

“Brad tried to challenge me to a gunfight,” Jake explained to Jessie. “Would you rather I'd shot him?”

The woman lowered the rifle even more. “I
hate
you, Jake Harkner, and so do the
Bryant
s
! They're gatherin' lots of men, and they're gonna come for you.”

Lloyd rode around the back of the house, apparently to make sure no one was lurking back there.

“How many men, Jessie?” Jake asked her.

“Why would I tell
you
?”

“Because that way when I bring them all in, you'll get the credit and you won't go to jail right along with them for withholding evidence.” Jake took out a cigarette. “I have a couple of death certificates for you, Jessie. Proof your son and husband are dead and buried back in Guthrie. That's why I came here. You should know I made sure the undertaker placed a couple of crosses at their graves.”

“Well now, ain't that just real decent of you, puttin' crosses on their graves,” Jessie sneered.

Lloyd rode around from the other side of the house and up to Jake. “I didn't find anything, but I saw two men back there in the woods.”

“I saw them too,” Jake said quietly.

Jessie gritted her teeth. “How in hell can you sit there on that horse, Jake Harkner, and tell me so casually about my son and my man bein'
dead
—and you bein' the one who
killed
them!”

Jake lit the cigarette and waved out the match before dropping it. “I can sit here and tell you casually, because Lloyd and I saw what they did to an innocent fifteen-year-old girl, Jessie—an innocent young girl who'd never been touched by a man till they got through with her. So no—it didn't bother me at all to shoot them both down, and it doesn't bother me to talk about it.”

Jessie finally set the gun aside and folded her arms. “They was still my husband and my son. Ain't you got no feelin's about that?
You've
got a son.”

“And my son knows that if
he
ever did something like what we found, I'd damn well shoot him
myself
for it! Are you saying it's okay what they did? They not only raped that girl, but they robbed a bank and shot an innocent man who happened to be inside.”

Jessie looked away, blinking back tears. “I ain't sayin' that. But you have a lot of nerve ridin' in here like this. Get the hell off my property, Harkner.”

“Well, right now, you're still basically a squatter who's here only because a judge is allowing it, which means this part of Oklahoma belongs to the federal government until they open it up for settlement, so I have
every
right to be here, Jessie. And before you claim I have no feelings, I could easily have shot Brad last week, but I didn't. I thought about you losing Bo, so I took Brad down a different way so you'd have one son left.”

“Well, ain't that just fucking decent of you!” The words were shouted from near the doorway, and a moment later, Brad appeared, looking much thinner than he had the day Jeff watched Jake throw the kid off the boardwalk in Guthrie. He walked outside, bent over like an old man. “I still can't stand up straight, Harkner! I ain't never had so much pain in my life.”

“At least you're alive,” Lloyd told him. “Consider yourself lucky, seeing as how it was Jake Harkner who took you down.”

“Yeah, well, your old man took me by surprise, else I'd have beat the shit out of him,” Brad bragged.

“Well, when you're all healed up, you come on into town and I'll take you on myself,” Lloyd answered.

“There's other ways of getting revenge,” Brad told him with a sneer.

“Yeah? What's that?”

Brad grinned. “Just ways, that's all. Family is family, Lloyd.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“Ole Jake here has a family of his own, that's all. He ought to find out what it's like to lose a loved one.”

As though sensing its rider's fury, Lloyd's horse whinnied and jerked backward.

“You filthy sonofabitch!” Lloyd spat back. He reined his horse to a standstill and started to dismount.

“Stay on your horse, Lloyd!” Jake warned, eyeing Jessie.

“He threatened the family!” Lloyd growled.

“Killing him won't help!”

“Maybe not, but it would feel real good!” Lloyd glowered at Brad. “I'm real close to coming over there and breaking every rib in your body, you bastard! How does it feel having the shit kicked out of you by a fifty-six-year-old man? Kind of humiliating, isn't it? Next time it will be somebody your own age, and you'll spend a hell of a long time getting on your feet again, if ever!”

“You might not live long enough to try!”

Just then a movement came from Jake's right. In an instant, his gun was out and fired. Jeff's horse skittered sideways at the boom and Jeff hung on tight, also keeping hold of the packhorse as it jerked its head at the sound. A man at the far end of the porch fell with a hole in his chest.

The moment Jake fired the gun, Lloyd was off his horse, his gun drawn. He charged past Brad and into the house. Jeff's eyes darted in every direction, his heart pounding.

“Where in hell did that man come from?” Jake demanded.

“That's Luke Cummings,” Brad answered. “He was in the kitchen—must have snuck out the back door after Lloyd came around from behind the house. We didn't give him no orders to shoot. He's just a hired hand.”

“And you thought it best not to tell us he was in there?” Jake answered, putting his gun back in its holster.

Jeff stared at the dead body—another man shot as casually as lighting a cigarette.

“Maybe he didn't even mean to shoot you,” Brad objected. “How do you know he wasn't just comin' to see what was goin' on?”

Jake sighed as he too dismounted. “Any man who sneaks up on me gets shot, Brad. I can't afford to wait and see what a sneak thief wants. And I didn't miss that he had a gun lifted to fire.”

“You got eyes in the sides and the back of your head?”

Jake rummaged in his saddlebag, the cigarette still at the corner of his mouth. “A man like me learns to see everything if he wants to stay healthy.”

Jeff could hear Lloyd charging around inside the house, searching for anyone else who might be there. Finally he called down from an upstairs window. “There's nobody else in here, Pa.”

Jake brought some papers to the porch and handed them to Jessie. “The death certificates.”

The woman wouldn't meet his eyes. She just yanked the papers from his hand. “Get out of my sight.”

“Not until you or Brad tells us what's going on at the Bryant place. How many men are they rounding up, and why? Is Marty there?”

“Wouldn't you like to know?” Brad mocked.

Jake turned his attention to Brad. “Yeah, I would. And you can either tell me or wish you had.”

“I'm half-crippled. You ain't gonna do nothin', and I don't have to tell you a damn thing. I know my rights.”

In an instant, Jake had the young man by the throat. He slammed him against the doorjamb, and Brad screamed with pain. “And I have
my
rights! You just never learn,
do
you?” Jake growled. “I don't have time for your fucking games, Brad!”

Jessie started to reach for her rifle.

“Don't do it, ma'am,” Lloyd told her, coming around the side of the house, his six-gun trained in her direction. “Woman or not, I'll pull this trigger.”

“I'm not sure how many,” Brad choked out, trying with both hands to pry Jake's away from his throat—to no avail. “I just know Hash Bryant said he was gonna”—his face turned redder—“get some men together and figure out a way…to get you…for killin' Ted and…Gordy…and my pa and my…brother…and sendin' Marty…to prison.”

“Justice was rightfully served,” Jake sneered. “And if you don't want me to punch you right in that breastbone again, you'll tell me how many men Marty has!” he roared. “Have you seen him, or anyone he's riding with?”

“Eight or ten, somethin' around that many,” Jessie answered for Brad. “And no, we ain't seen Marty Bryant, but we heard he was the one makin' all the plans. Now leave my son alone.”

Jake let go of Brad and grabbed Jessie's rifle out of her hands. “What are they planning?”

“I don't think they even know. It's just all talk.” She finally looked up at Jake, glaring at him through eyes narrowed from hatred. “I'm thinkin' Marty might have gone to that no-name town north of here to look for help.”

“Hell's Nest?”

“Maybe. I didn't think it had a name at all, but that's a good enough one.”

“Who's back there in the woods?” Jake asked her.

“Just an old black man who's been helpin' me out, and my brother, who came to live with us a few weeks back. They ain't no danger. They was just out there gatherin' wood.”

“They had rifles.”


Everybody
carries rifles out here when they go into the woods. There's always a need for meat, and you never know when you'll see a deer or a rabbit. They ain't gonna go up against the likes of the great and mighty Jake Harkner!”

Jake walked off the porch. He mounted Prince, and Lloyd remounted his own horse beside Jake.

“Those two extra men can help you bury Luke Cummings,” Jake told Jessie. “I'll leave your rifle a few yards out as we leave. I don't trust you any more than I trusted your husband, Jessie. I don't intend to get shot in the back.”

He turned his horse and rode past Jeff. “Put that six-gun away,” he told him without looking at him. “You don't need it.” He rode on down the entrance road that led to the woods.

Reluctantly, Jeff put his gun back in its holster as Lloyd rode up beside him. “Let's go.”

They left, with Luke Cummings lying dead with a hole in his chest.

Jake stayed ahead of them until they came across the two men working in the woods. The men stood still as Jake approached.

“Hand those rifles to the men behind me,” Jake told them.

Eyeing the marshal's badge and intimidated by all of Jake's weapons, they handed the rifles to Jeff and Lloyd as they rode closer.

“Wha'd we do?” the black man asked.

“Nothing—except that you work for Jessie Buckley. You ask
her
why I took your guns. Your rifles and Jessie's rifle here will be found several yards ahead, and I don't want to be able to see either one of you going for them until we're completely out of sight, understand?”

BOOK: Do Not Forsake Me
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