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Authors: Rosanne Bittner

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BOOK: Do Not Forsake Me
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“Yes, you could—for
her
. She'd never want you to do something crazy and not be there for your family, who will need you more than ever, if it's the worst.”

“But she'd still be gone.”

Dixie didn't answer him. She just sat there beside him and waited. For several minutes he said nothing. Finally he leaned over, wrapping his arms around her middle and resting his head in her lap. He held her tight…and wept.

Twenty-seven

Jake tied his gear onto his horse. “Did Jeff stay the night with that cute little Rosie?”

Lloyd shoved his shotgun into its boot. “He sure did,” he answered with a grin. “And if you'd come to the room we were supposed to share last night, you would have known about it already. I don't want to think the worst, Pa, but I never saw you the rest of the night. And you were awful quiet at breakfast.”

Jake rubbed at his eyes. “Don't worry about it, Lloyd. You don't honestly think I'd do anything to hurt your mother, do you—especially now that she's sick? Dixie and I just talked. That's all. You ought to know me better than that.”

“I
do
know you, and sometimes you get kind of crazy when you're worried about Mom. I'm not stupid. I know you've done crazy things before when you thought you needed to prove you could live without her.”

Jake sighed. “Didn't you notice at breakfast this morning that Dixie was wearing the same damn dress she wore last night?”

“I never thought about that.”

“Well, that's because she never took it
off
. Nothing happened, all right? Dixie's a good woman. We talked…a lot. I fell asleep and she let me lay there because she knew I
needed
to sleep. That's all there was to it.” He mounted up and rode Prince around the house, calling for Jeff. “Time to go, Jeff, if you can tear yourself away from the cute little gal in your bed!” he shouted.

“Oh my gosh!” The words were heard through an open window of an upstairs bedroom. “Don't leave without me!”

Lloyd laughed and mounted his horse.

“You have no more than ten minutes, Jeff,” Jake shouted up to him. “You'd better be down here or we
will
leave without you. We need to make time getting to Hell's Nest!” He rode Prince a few yards from the house to calm the restless horse.

“I'm coming! I'm coming!” Jeff yelled from upstairs.

Dixie came out carrying a burlap bag. She handed it up to Lloyd. “Fresh-baked bread. You make sure your father eats plenty. He never ate last night and not enough this morning.”

“Thanks, Dixie. Go tie it onto the packhorse, will you?”

“Sure.”

“Dixie. Is he okay?”

“I'm not sure. He did a lot of crying last night, Lloyd, and don't you dare let him know I told you. He needed somebody to talk to, and he knows you're too close to it. So he came to me.” She walked over to the packhorse and began tying on the sack of bread.

Jeff came flying out of the house then, still buttoning his shirt and carrying his leather jacket and gun belt on his arm. Rosie came running after him with his hat. She plopped it on his head and leaned in to kiss him. “You come back, sweet boy,” she told him.

Jake returned and rode up beside them. “Can you ride, or are you too worn-out?” he teased.

Jeff pulled on his jacket and frowned as he strapped on his gun belt. “I can ride just fine,” he answered. He kissed Rosie once more and mounted up. “And if you and Lloyd are going to rub it in all the way till we make camp, I'd just as soon stay behind the two of you.”

Jake laughed. “Welcome to my world, Jeff Trubridge.” He turned his horse and rode off.

Lloyd rode up beside Jeff and handed him the reins to the packhorse. “You look like you still need some sleep, Jeff.” He grinned and followed after Jake.

Jeff looked down at Rosie. “Thank you. You were very…accommodating.”

She threw back her head and laughed. “Get going, Jeff. Jake isn't the kind of man who waits around for anybody. But I hope you come back some time.”

“I just might do that.” Jeff turned his horse and rode off, deciding Jake had been right about learning what to do with a woman. It was definitely enjoyable. In fact, he'd not done any of the writing he'd planned to do. The next time they made camp, he'd have to try to catch up a little with his notes. He kicked his horse into a faster gait to catch up with Lloyd, thinking how he was getting some aches and pains in all the wrong places from so much riding. He'd never in his life been on a horse more than a few hours a month, and this trip was going to last a good eight or ten days, maybe longer. He was determined, however, not to complain. For him, this was a dream come true—actually traveling with Jake Harkner, of all people, and winning his friendship. The man's friendship meant more to him than writing his story. If he never got to publish this book, it didn't matter. He could brag that he once rode with the famous outlaw turned lawman.

He reached Lloyd. “Sorry I was late.”

Lloyd just grinned. “I understand.”

“Is Jake okay? I mean…I was kind of preoccupied last night, so I never saw him again after he walked out of the kitchen last night with Dixie.”

Lloyd didn't answer right away. “I never saw him again either. He told me he just had a good talk with her. I believe him. He slept in her bed, but he was just exhausted from worry. I think he had kind of a breakdown, but don't put anything like that in your book. And don't mention to him that I told you.”

“I won't.” Jeff adjusted his hat against the angle of the bright sun that was already warming the day. “I've come to really like him, Lloyd.”

“Yeah, well, Pa can
be
real likable as long as he senses you're genuine and not out to exploit his reputation or brag that you know him…and not out to kill him.”

Jeff grinned. “I have no intention of
that
. I happen to be in very good health and intend to stay that way.”

Both men laughed quietly.

“And I've been praying every day that your mother will be all right.”

Lloyd nodded. “I thank you for that. I've been doing the same.”

“Does Jake ever pray?”

Lloyd took a cigarette from his shirt pocket. “I don't know, Jeff. I honestly don't know. He wears his mother's crucifix, and I think he believes, but I don't know if he prays.”

“I talked to him just a little bit about faith on the church steps that Sunday you came back to announce you were marrying Katie. I got this feeling, Lloyd, that a little part of him kind of wanted to go inside. He got quiet a couple of times when he could hear the hymn singing. I'd love to know what was going through his head.”

Lloyd smiled. “Can you picture Jake Harkner standing at the pearly gates? God would ask him, ‘Jake Harkner, how many men have you killed?' ‘Lord, I've lost count.' ‘And how many whores have you slept with?' ‘Lord, I lost count on that too.' ‘Well then, how about cussing?' ‘Cussing? Hell, I cuss all the damn time, Lord.' ‘And has your heart ever been filled with hate and anger?' ‘Lord, my heart is full of hate and anger about twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.'”

Both men couldn't help laughing at the vision, but then Lloyd sobered. “Then God would ask if he's been a good husband and father. ‘I tried to be the best at both, Lord,' he'd have to say. And God would ask him if he ever loved anybody, and he'd have to answer that he loved my mother and his son and his daughter with every fiber of his being—and that he saved my mother's life when he took her from that awful trading post where he found her—and that he saved my life and risked his own doing it when he came for me up along the Outlaw Trail. He'd have to say that he loved his mother and his little brother. ‘But you killed your own father,' God might say. And my pa would have to tell him that all he did was try to get rid of Satan himself, because that was who his father was. And I think God would tell my pa that he did a good job of loving his family, and he'd see that my pa has a good heart, and he'd let him through those gates, even though he never stepped foot into a church.”

Jeff shook his head. “Maybe I should let you write this book, Lloyd. You have a way with words.”

Lloyd shrugged. “When we were growing up, my mother sometimes read poetry to us. I like learning how to express feelings with the right words…pretty words, Pa calls them. He has his own way of expressing himself, as you well know.”

They both laughed again. “And it's far from pretty most of the time,” Jeff answered. “He's a man who says exactly what he's thinking.”

“Maybe so. And he's real good at changing the subject when you start hitting the raw spots.”

After three more hours of riding, Lloyd noticed Jake slow his horse. He was watching what looked like a small camp ahead. Lloyd rode closer to take a look. He could see a covered wagon, a few horses and a campfire. Jeff rode up beside him. It was then that Lloyd heard it—a child screaming and crying. From where he and Jeff sat, it looked like a man was whaling on a young boy, with a belt.

Jake charged forward.

“Jesus God Almighty, he'll kill him with his bare hands!” Lloyd kicked his horse into a run, and Jeff hurried behind him.

Twenty-eight

Jake ducked out of his extra ammunition belt, ripping it off his shoulder and throwing it down as he drew closer. Before Prince even came to a halt, he pulled both guns from their holsters and tossed them, then jumped off the horse and slammed into the man who'd been wielding a belt. They landed hard, and Jake hit the left side of his face on the sharp edge of a shovel tied to the wagon bed.

The injury didn't seem to faze him. Jeff and Lloyd watched in shock as Jake wrested the belt from a man almost the same size as he and began whaling on the man with it.

“Jesus!” Lloyd cursed, quickly dismounting. “Go pick up his guns,” he ordered Jeff. He hurried over to the young boy, who stood shaking and sobbing as he stared at Jake viciously whacking what Lloyd guessed must be the boy's father.

“Come on, son, get out of the way.”

The boy jerked with pain as Lloyd picked him up and moved him back. The child was no older than Lloyd's own son Stephen, and Lloyd ached at seeing a huge white welt on the side of his face. He imagined the rest of the kid's body was a mess. How could any man do this to his own son?

The man lay curled up and screaming as Jake continued wielding the leather belt. Lloyd ran up to him, knowing that when Jake Harkner was raging mad, he had a strength that belied his age—and he was definitely raging mad.

Lloyd dove at Jake's back, trying to grab him around his arms. “Pa, you're killing him!”

Jake shook him off as though he were a bug.

Lloyd bent low and grabbed him about the waist from behind, using all his strength to pull Jake away. “Pa, you'll go back to prison! Stop it! This isn't part of your job!”

Jake whirled, accidentally slamming the belt across Lloyd's shoulder. Lloyd cried out and let go of him.

The minute Jake realized what he'd done, he hesitated, standing there panting and staring at Lloyd. “Shit,” he muttered, dropping the belt. “Lloyd, I'm sorry!” He groaned. The man he'd beaten lay writhing with pain, still curled up in defense. Jake stumbled over to Lloyd. “I'm sorry!” he repeated.

Lloyd straightened, rubbing his shoulder. “Now I know how it feels,” he commented. He met Jake's gaze, seeing the hatred and terror in the man's eyes. Blood poured down his face and shirt from where he shovel had cut him, and the area around the wound was growing purple.

“Pa, you're hurt.”

Jake shook his head. “Doesn't matter. We have to help the boy first.” He walked over to where the boy stood, still sobbing. He backed away from Jake. Jake knelt down. “I'm not going to use that belt on you, kid. Let me help you. We can pour water on those welts. That helps. And I have something with me that might help the pain.”

The boy continued staring, his tears creating white lines through the dirt on his cheeks. “Did you…kill him?” he asked Jake. “He's…my pa…but I hate him. I hope you killed him.” He was trying to stop crying, but his body continued to jerk in silent sobs.

Jake closed his eyes and collapsed to a sitting position. “Come here and take your shirt off.”

The boy moved closer and started unbuttoning his shirt. “It hurts…to move my arms.”

“I damn well know it hurts.” Jake yelled for Jeff to bring over a canteen. He got to his knees and unbuttoned the boy's shirt, gently removing it for him. The sight of the welts on his body brought literal pain to Jake's chest. “What's your name?”

“Ben.”

“How old are you?”

“Eight.”

Jake struggled against ugly memories as Jeff arrived with the canteen. “Pour water over those welts—gently,” Jake ordered Jeff. “Let it trickle over so you don't use up the whole canteen all at once.”

Jeff obeyed. Ben jerked and started crying again when the water touched the stinging welts.

“Lloyd, get some laudanum,” Jake ordered. He looked at Ben. “I'm a United States Marshal, Ben. There is no law that says I have a right to take you away from that man over there, or that even gives me permission to stop him from beating you. I need to know—do you want to stay with him? If not, I'll take you with me, even if it means losing my job.”

The boy closed his eyes against the stinging pain. “He'll…come after me.”

“I know he will. When I was about your age, I tried running away from my father too, Ben. But I didn't have a United States Marshal helping me. I'm telling you that if you want to come with us, you can, and I'll make sure that sonofabitch over there never touches you again. You can trust me on that.”

The boy glanced at his father again. The man still lay curled up. He looked back at Jake. “Where…would you take me?”

Lloyd walked closer, bringing laudanum for the boy and whiskey to cleanse Jake's wound.

“I'd take you to Guthrie, and I'd find a good family to raise you, Ben. And I am promising you right now that if I can't find decent people for you to live with, I'll damn well raise you myself. I just need to know if you want to leave that man over there. I know he's your father, and I know part of you loves him, but if you stay with him, he'll come close to killing you with that belt. You don't owe him a damn thing, Ben. Where's your mother?”

The boy sniffed and wiped at a runny nose with the back of his hand. “She died havin' a baby. Pa buried her farther back. He said…he shouldn't have to raise me…by himself.” The boy's thick, blond hair stuck out every which way, and his blue eyes showed cautious fear when he glanced at his father again. “He gets mad real easy and…gets mean…when he drinks. I think I…want to go with you.”

“Then you will.”

Ben's eyes widened then, and he stepped back when his father managed to get to a sitting position. The man glowered at Ben and Jake.

“Get the hell away from my son!” he told Jake.

Jake turned his gaze to the man, and Jeff noticed Ben's father's threatening countenance change. The look in Jake's eyes told him he'd better tread lightly. The man grimaced as he tried to get up. “Who the hell…are you?” he asked Jake, and he fell back down.

Lloyd stepped closer to the man, standing over him defensively. “That's Jake Harkner, federal marshal. I'm Deputy Marshal Lloyd Harkner. And you are going to pack up and leave, mister—
now
! You have no idea how lucky you are to be alive.”

The man bent over in pain. “Ain't no law…against a man…disciplinin' his son.”

“Maybe not. But that was way more than discipline, mister, and there
is
a law against attempted murder. That's what we could arrest you for, and for the most part, a marshal's words are sacred out here. Something tells me you'd rather give up your son than go to prison. That's the choice we're giving you, mister.”

“But…you can't—”

“We can. Out here in Oklahoma Territory we're the law—
perio
d
!”

“He's my kid! I've got first rights! How would you feel if somebody came to take your kid from you?”

“I
have
a kid close to the same age as yours, and I don't beat him near to death with a fucking belt! Right now I'm tempted to pick up where my father left off and finish you off, you sonofabitch!” Lloyd walked over to pick up the belt.

“Wait!” the man objected. “You can have him!”

Lloyd turned to the man, and for the first time Jeff saw a dark look very close to what he'd sometimes seen in Jake…this time in Lloyd's eyes.

“What's that?”

“You can have the worthless little bastard!”

Ben covered his face and started crying. Jake got to a kneeling position and put a hand to the side of Ben's face. “Don't listen to him, Ben.” He pulled Ben's hands away from his face. “Don't ever listen if somebody calls you worthless, understand?”

“But he's…my pa. He's…s'posed to love me.”

“Being a blood father doesn't always mean being the
right
father, Ben. You see this young man standing near us?”

Ben looked up at Jeff. “Yeah.”

“And that young man over there?” He nodded toward Lloyd.

“Yeah.”

“None of us is your pa, but all three of us already love you. And nobody will ever lay a hand on you again. Do you believe that?”

“You don't even…know me.”

Jeff watched in complete wonder and surprise as Jake leaned closer and kissed Ben's forehead. “I know you all too well, Ben. I know every single thing you're feeling. Every single thing.”

Lloyd walked up to Jeff, still seething. “Do you have a regular-size pad of paper with you?”

“Sure I do.”

“You get it out and you write something up for that man over there to sign—something we can all witness so he can't come back later and try to take his kid.”

“Sure. I can do that.” Jeff hurried away to search through his supplies, his mind racing with yet another chapter for his book.
Lloyd
Harkner
is
way
closer
to
his
dad's temperament than he thinks.

Lloyd knelt down beside Jake. “We have to take care of that cut on your face, Pa.”

Jake shivered, sitting back down and closing his eyes while clinging to Ben's hand. “Jesus, Lloyd, I feel like…I don't know…like I have finally rid myself of that bastard father of mine. I was using that belt on
him
, not that man over there. But I'm damn sorry about hitting you.”

“You don't need to be.” He sighed. “Stay there and I'll clean up that cut. God knows you lost enough blood back in Guthrie. You don't need to be losing more.” He reached for the whiskey he'd brought over earlier.

“Lloyd, do you think the Donavans might take Ben?” Jake asked him.

Lloyd finally smiled. “Are you kidding? Clara Donavan will gush all over that kid when she finds out why we brought him back with us.”

Jake nodded. “I was hoping you'd say that.”

Lloyd doused a rag with whiskey and pressed it to the cut on his father's face. Jake winced and jerked away.

“This is one ugly cut, Pa. Mom is going to have a fit when she sees this. She'll probably be mad as hell that somebody dared to mess up her handsome husband's face.”

Jake smiled sadly. “Yeah, but I get a lot more attention when I come back wounded.”

Both men grinned, trying to ignore the seriousness of the situation. Through the whole thing, Jake kept hold of Ben's hand. “Give this kid one sip of laudanum,” he told Lloyd. “There isn't a whole lot you can do for this cut. And give me a swallow of that whiskey. Right now it will do me a lot more good inside than outside.”

Lloyd gave him a warning look. “One swallow.”

Jake jerked the bottle from his hand. “Don't worry.” He glanced over at Ben's father as he took a swallow. The man was still having trouble getting to his feet. “I'd rather pick up that belt and beat him unconscious,” he told Lloyd.

“I know. You just remember you're trying to get your sentence reduced. You'd have been in trouble if you'd killed that man. We have to turn in some kind of report on this. That's why I had Jeff write something up.” He uncorked the laudanum. “Hey, Ben, this stuff tastes something awful, but it will help your pain. You're just a kid, so you take just a little swallow, okay?”

Still sniffling, Ben took the laudanum and swallowed some, his whole face wrinkling up over the bad taste. Lloyd grinned and took the bottle from him.

“Tell you what, Ben. I'll put one of Jeff's shirts on you,” Lloyd told him. “We'll have to roll up the sleeves, but otherwise it will hang nice and big on you and hardly touch those welts. We have to keep the sun off them. That okay with you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you have extra clothes in the wagon?”

Ben nodded. “In a crate behind the seat.”

Lloyd glanced at Jake. “I'll get his clothes.” He called over to Jeff, who was still writing. “Bring one of your extra shirts over for Ben,” he told him. “He needs something that hangs loose, because of these welts.”

Jeff nodded and kept writing. Lloyd walked to the wagon and climbed inside, finding Ben's clothes. There weren't many. He gathered them out of the crate and carried them over to an empty gunnysack on the packhorse, stuffing them inside. Jeff handed him a write-up verifying that Ben's father agreed to give up his son to them. “I left a blank spot for his name,” he told Lloyd. “We don't even know what it is.”

Lloyd took the paper and carried it over to Ben's father. Jeff took a shirt to Ben and put it on him. It hung past the boy's knees, and Jeff rolled up the sleeves.

“I've felt like a kid myself this whole trip, Ben,” Jeff tried joking with him, wanting to get rid of the boy's tears. “I've been traveling between these two big men for a while. Now there is finally somebody smaller than me along, so I feel a little bigger. My name is Jeff Trubridge. What's your last name?”

“Perry.” The boy's eyes were already drooping.

Jake got to his feet and brushed the dust from his clothes. “Get his birth date, Jeff. That's important to a man. Write it on that paper.”

Jeff remembered the encounter in Peter's office, when Jake had to guess at his birth date. “Sure, Jake.”

“Where are my guns?”

“In my gear. You threw them down when you rode up to attack that man,” Jeff told him.

“I don't even remember throwing them down. I guess I knew I'd rather beat the hell out of him with that belt than shoot him.”

“You tossed your extra gun belt too. I've never seen a man so enraged. It was pretty scary. Lloyd had a hell of a time getting you off that man. Between your age and not being totally healed, I don't know how you can still be so strong.”

Jake ran a hand through his hair. “Being mad as hell gives a man a lot of extra strength. And what do you mean by my age? Are you writing me off as an old man?”

BOOK: Do Not Forsake Me
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