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Authors: Rosanne Bittner

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BOOK: Do Not Forsake Me
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“Well, no, not exactly.”

Jake grinned but lost his smile when Ben started to swoon. Jake grabbed him up before he could fall. The boy put his head on Jake's shoulder, and Jake carried him over to his horse. “Jeff, come hold him till I mount up—and get my guns.”

Jeff hurried over to help out and Jake mounted up. Jeff handed the boy up and Jake set him in front of him on the horse, hanging on to him with one arm. Jeff retrieved the guns and shoved them into Jake's holsters. He hung Jake's extra cartridge belt over Prince's neck.

Lloyd ordered Ben's father to sign the paper, then brought it over so he, Jake, and Jeff could all witness the signature.
Charles
Jacob
Perry
, it read.
Springfield, Missouri
. Jake handed back the paper. “Go ask him what the kid's birthday is and write it down.” He rode off with Ben. “I'll wait for you two farther ahead,” he called back. “I need to be alone.”

Lloyd winced at the aching sting on his right shoulder and arm. “Jesus,” he told Jeff. “The way this one welt hurts, I don't know how he lived through it. I'm glad we had some laudanum for Ben.” He sighed, walked back to Ben's father, and asked him Ben's birth date. He walked back to Jeff and wrote the date on the signed paper. He folded the paper and put it in his gear. He mounted up and rode closer to Ben's father. “If I ever see your face again, you're a dead man. That's a promise. It will be the same if my dad sees you.” He rode off, more than ever hating the grandfather he'd never known.

Jeff followed. They rode until almost dark, Jake keeping a passed-out Ben in front of him and saying nothing. He headed his horse into the woods and dismounted, asking Lloyd to spread out a blanket for Ben. Jake laid the boy down, then unloaded all his weapons and spread out his own bedroll, laying all weapons beside it.

Lloyd made a fire. “Pa, that cut on your face is really wicked and turning purple. You okay?”

“I'll live. I've got to change this bloody shirt, though.” He rummaged through his saddlebag and pulled out a clean, blue shirt. He removed the bloody shirt as Jeff was coming back with his own gear.

Jeff stopped, forcing back an urge to mutter
My
God
. For the first time, he saw the scars on Jake's back. There were a couple that looked like old gunshot wounds, but most of them were white stripes, like from a belt or a whip. Jeff looked away and pretended to have forgotten something, waiting until Jake changed shirts.

“Jeff, get your pencil and tablet,” Jake told him.

“I already have them,” Jeff answered, coming back with his blanket and a tablet.

“How bad is that welt on your shoulder hurting?” Jake asked Lloyd.

Lloyd lit some kindling under some bigger logs. “I think if you could handle something a lot worse at Ben's age, and now Ben himself is managing,
I
can handle one lash with a belt.”

Jeff sat down near Jake. Jake lit a cigarette and smoked quietly for a moment, his shirt still unbuttoned and untucked. He glanced at Jeff. “I'm only going to say this once, Jeff, and I'm doing it now because Ben is asleep and I don't want him hearing it.”

“Yes, sir…I mean, Jake.”

Jake tossed a twig into the fire. “My father's name was John William Harkner, and he was from Connecticut. You can give Peter that information if he needs it. He left home at a young age and somehow worked his way to Texas, where he got involved in some of the shit going on between Texas and Mexico. I'm not even sure what all he did before I came along. I only know he liked Mexican women, the younger the better, and he drank…a lot. He was big like me. I'm pretty sure he bought my mother off some drunken Mexican man, and I have no idea if he ever really married her. I only know she was very good to me, very loving. But my father… I remember him beating my mother often, and if my brother or I tried to stop him, we got it too…always with that goddamn belt, often with the buckle end of it.”

He drew on the cigarette. Lloyd tended the fire, listening quietly.

“When I was eight…he stabbed my mother to death right in front of me, and when my little brother started crying, he slammed a fireplace poker against his head. I kept trying to wake him up, but he was dead too.” Jake closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “His name was Tommy. Later my father made me help bury both of them. I had to stand there and throw dirt on their faces.”

He spoke matter-of-factly, chain-smoking while doing so. Jeff suspected he was trying to hurry before breaking down. “I tried to run away then, but he caught me and taught me to never try that again. Life was hell for the next seven years—his drinking binges, running with the worst kind of men imaginable, whoring around, and always the beatings. Whores became my mothers and sometimes… When you're twelve or thirteen years old, it's easy for an older woman to entice you, so I learned about women at an age when I should have been playing pretend shoot-outs with other boys my age. Whores were just a part of my life, Jeff.”

He tossed the stub of his cigarette into the fire and lit yet another one.

“Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew there had to be something better. Every place we went, I saw husbands and wives with their kids, saw normal homes, farms, people living a normal life. Part of me wanted that. When I was fifteen, I befriended a twelve-year-old Mexican girl named…”

Finally he hesitated, the memories getting more difficult. He cleared his throat.

“Santana.” He swallowed before continuing. “She looked more like fifteen or sixteen, and she was beautiful. I started getting the idea that maybe when she was a little older, I could get away from my pa and marry her and live like people were supposed to live. We started meeting secretly, but I never touched her, because to me she was special…and too young. And then one day I came home to find my father drunk and…raping Santana.”

He cleared his throat again.

“She was…crying and trying to get him off of her…and I tried too. But even though I was already pretty big at fifteen, I still wasn't as strong as he was. He climbed off her and laid into me with that belt until he beat me right to the floor. Then he turned around and put his filthy body on top of Santana again.”

Again he smoked for several minutes, saying nothing. Jeff knew he didn't dare say a word.

Jake breathed deeply before finally speaking again. “I spotted my father's handgun hanging on the wall nearby, and I was desperate to stop him from hurting Santana…so I took the gun and put it to his neck…and I pulled the trigger. I didn't even stop to think it could kill him. I just wanted to get him off of Santana. He slumped down and I dragged him off of her…only to see that the bullet had gone through his neck and into Santana's throat.”

Jake closed his eyes then and ran a hand through his hair. “She just lay there wide-eyed and scared. I told her I loved her and I'd stop the bleeding…but before I could even grab something to press on the wound…she was gone. I was scared and confused and…I wanted to scream. I'd killed Santana. I figured they might hang me for murder, thinking I killed her and my pa both because I was jealous or something, maybe even accuse
me
of being the one who raped her. I was young and didn't think things through. I just picked up that gun and saddled a horse and headed north…and thus began the outlaw career of a man who'd killed his own father…and a young girl. I lived like a crazy man for the next ten or twelve years, always running from the law, robbing and killing for money, convinced I was the most worthless sonofabitch who ever lived, because my father made sure to tell me that every day. But always there was that little desire to live like a normal person.”

Jeff scribbled notes as fast as he could, because Jake was apparently determined to get the story over with and definitely would not want to repeat it.

Jake angrily wiped at his eyes, staring at the fire the whole time he talked. “Then one day I had a shoot-out in a supply store in Kansas City, and a young woman with honey-blond hair and gray-green eyes witnessed it. She looked at me, scared shitless, and she pulled a little pistol from her handbag and shot me. And that, young Jeff, changed my life. You already know what happened then. That crazy woman has stuck by me through things that would horrify other women and send them running…but not Randy…” He wiped at his eyes again. “Not Randy.”

He abruptly changed the subject. “We'll haul ass up to Hell's Nest tomorrow and get there by the day after.” The change of subject was so immediate that it took Jeff a moment to realize he was done talking about his father. “If we can't find out anything there, we'll head home. I'm sure Lloyd would like to be with Katie, and we need to do something with young Ben, so let's hope nothing else happens to slow us down.”

Jake looked over at Ben and put a blanket over him. He lit yet another cigarette and walked off by himself.

Lloyd looked at Jeff. “Now you know all of it. It's not a pretty picture.”

Jeff stared at his notes. “No. It sure isn't.”

Twenty-nine

He
talks
to
little
Ben
almost
like
he'd talk to his
own grandchildren,
Jeff wrote on their fifth morning of travel. He had to hurry to finish his notes. Today they would reach Hell's Nest.

This
is
not
the
heartless
man
some
have
made
him
out
to
be. On the outside, he is tough as nails. I would never want to be on the bad side of Jake Harkner. But on the inside, he is almost like a little boy wanting to be loved and wanting to love in return. I always thought that with human nature, black was black and white was white, but I am changing my mind. There is much more gray in this life than people realize.

Jake left young Ben at a rancher's house three hours behind them. To Jeff's dismay, the rancher was an old ex-outlaw married to a former prostitute, people only someone like Jake would actually trust with a little boy he cared about. Jeff had just about given up understanding the man and how he knew which people he could depend on. He'd promised Ben he would be back for him, and the boy had looked at Jake like a kid would look at his own father. He'd hugged Jake around the neck and cried.

“Look at me, Ben,” Jake told him, crouching down so they would be face-to-face.

The boy had reached out and touched Jake's face lovingly.

“I will come back for you,” Jake promised him. “Believe that and don't be scared. These are nice people, and I'll only be gone for a few hours—maybe one night—and then I'll be back for you. Do you believe me?”

Ben nodded and Jake hugged him, being careful not to embrace him too tightly because of his still-painful welts. He left instructions with the rancher to take Ben to Guthrie and the Donavans if he didn't return from Hell's Nest.

Now they approached the lawless settlement, and the man riding into town was a far cry from one who'd hugged a crying eight-year-old boy. He was all lawman and probably a lot outlaw, because this place was full of them.

“Do you expect much trouble here, Jake?”

“Can't be sure. It depends on whether any of those men Marty Bryant has been running with are here. Just keep your eyes open and your gun ready. This place is nothing but the worst riffraff who have come to Oklahoma to hide out from the law. The whores are filthy women who will do things for money not even Dixie and her girls would consider. They're the kind of women even
I
would never touch. If Marty Bryant is gathering men, I have a feeling that somebody here will know something about it.”

They reached the main street, where Jeff noticed two men lying passed out on the boardwalk. Piano music and laughter seemed to pour out of every saloon, and saloons made up about two-thirds of the buildings and tents in town.

“Hey, it's Marshal Jake Harkner!” The words were shouted by a half-naked prostitute standing on the balcony of the only two-story building in town. “Hey, Jake, are you or that damn good-looking son of yours needing a good lay?”

“I'd be doing
you
a favor, Ida,” Jake yelled back, “so I shouldn't need to pay for it.”

The woman shrieked with laughter. “Come and do me that favor, honey. I'm still waiting to be able to say I've been had by Jake Harkner.”

“Let's go on up to the Land Rush Saloon,” Jake told Lloyd. “Jeff, just go along with whatever I do and don't question it.”

“I don't see anything particularly out of place, Pa,” Lloyd told him. “Same drunks—same lewd women—same smells of urine in the streets.”

“Check the horses' rear ends for the Bryant brand. If they're hiring men, they'll be riding Bryant horses, or maybe Buckley horses. One just says Buck—the other is a large
B
with a small
t
. Jeff, you do the same.”

“Yes, sir.”


Jake.

“Sorry. I guess I respect you too much to call you Jake.”

“Jesus,” Jake muttered. “You feeling more confident about using that six-gun?” he said louder.

“A little.” Jeff breathed deeply against jangled nerves. They drew their horses up in front of the Land Rush Saloon and tied them. Jeff noticed that Jake shoved his duster behind one gun as he went inside the one-story building. The saloon was small, but several men were inside at the bar, more playing cards at two different tables. Gaudily dressed women hung on some of them. The bartender nodded at Jake. “What'll it be, Marshal?”

“One shot,” Jake answered, looking around. “Same for Lloyd here and this other young man with me.”

“He don't even look old enough to drink.”

“Since when does that matter in this sorry excuse for a town?” Jake bantered with the man.

The bartender grinned as he poured the drinks. “What brings you back to Hellhole?”

“Is that what you're calling it now?”

“Oh, this place has a lot of names. What do you call it, Jake?”

“Hell's Nest, so we aren't too far apart on our opinion of the place.”

The bartender laughed. “Somethin' you're needin' besides whiskey? The best whore in town is standing right over there. Her name is Belinda.”

Jake lit a cigarette. “I'm only interested in information. Any new men hanging around here? Any talk of a man named Marty Bryant—or Hash Bryant? Maybe talk of taking down Jake Harkner?”

“Oh, hell, lots of men talk about taking you down, Jake, but I haven't seen or heard anything out of the ordinary. Just talk. You ought to ask Belinda. She's reasonably honest.” He called out to her. “Get on over here, Belinda.”

The blond, blue-eyed woman sauntered their way, her breasts nearly spilling out of a bright red dress. She reeked of cheap perfume, and her thickly powdered face was an obvious attempt to hide a bad complexion. “You men in need?” she asked, eyeing Lloyd especially. “It's not often somebody as good-looking as you comes to a place like this. Lloyd, isn't it?”

“How would you know?”

“Everybody knows the Harkner men.” She eyed Jake. “You two come to town and seconds later everybody knows it, and they all start shaking in their boots. And now you stand there just filling up this place. Either one of you can fill
me
up if you want.”

“I just want to know if Marty Bryant has been through here,” Jake told her. He took his cigarette from his lips and drank down the shot of whiskey.

The woman walked closer, moving her arms around Jake. “What's it worth?”

“How much are you asking?”

“Five bucks…or you in my bed.”

Jake reached into his pocket and handed her five dollars. “No time for the other, Belinda, and you'd better have something good for me.”

She ran her hands over his chest. “Put that money right here,” she told him, pointing to her generous cleavage.

Jeff's eyes widened when Jake obliged her, shoving the money deep between her breasts. “Make it worth it, Belinda.”

“I thought just getting a feel might be worth five bucks to you.”

“Tell me something I want to hear, or I'll reach back in there and take my five dollars back.”

“Well now, that might be worth
not
telling you.”

“Could be, but when I take that money back, my cigarette will be between my fingers when I reach down there. I don't think you want that now, do you?”

She stiffened. “You wouldn't do that.”

“Try me. I'm not a patient man, Belinda.”

She pouted and stepped back. “All I know is that a whore named Trudy Griffith up the street at the Dusty Hollow said something to me about a man named Marty bragging about taking down Jake Harkner for killing half his relatives and sending him to prison.”

Jake took another five dollars from his pocket and shoved that between her breasts also. “That's for your promise to keep your mouth shut about this.”

She shrugged. “Sure. What else can I promise just to feel Jake Harkner's hands between my breasts?”

“That's all I need, Belinda.”

She looked at Lloyd. “How about you?”

Lloyd grinned, leaning down and kissing her cheek. “I just wanted a drink.”

All three of them walked out.

“Do you think she's telling the truth, Pa?”

“We'll find out.” Jake untied his horse and led it farther up the street to a large tent with a sign out front that read The Dusty Hollow, Lloyd and Jeff following close behind. “I don't want to be too obvious,” Jake said as they retied their horses. “Do you play poker, Jeff?”

“Yes.”

“Then we're going to sit down to a game and not even mention Marty Bryant, understand? If this Trudy woman knows something, I have a feeling she'll come to us when she realizes who we are. Sometimes if you ask flat out, they get too scared to offer any information. Belinda didn't hesitate, because she didn't really know anything, but this woman might have a lot more information. Let her give it to us on her own.”

“Pa, be careful. Some of the men in there might be part of the gang Marty hired.”

“I am well aware of that.” Jake started inside.

“Wait!” Lloyd told him. “Look here.” He stood beside the horse that was next to his own. “Look at the brand.”

Jake walked over to see a capital
B
beside a small
t
. He glanced at Lloyd. “Jackpot.” He headed inside again. “Remember what I told you, Jeff.”

Jake walked up to a makeshift bar consisting of boards on sawhorses and ordered two bottles of whiskey. Everything got quiet as he turned and set a bottle on one of the tables. “My son, this other deputy, and I are wanting to play some poker,” he told the men at both tables. Without asking if he was welcome, he sat down to one of the tables and handed the second bottle of whiskey to Lloyd. “Join the men at that other table,” he told him. “Bartender, bring us some shot glasses.”

Lloyd took the second bottle and took a chair at the other table, nodding toward one other empty chair. “Have a seat, Jeff.”

Trying to hide the fact that he was scared to death, Jeff sat down. The bartender brought over the shot glasses and Lloyd filled two, one for him and one for Jeff. Jake filled his own and downed the whiskey. Lloyd eyed him, a little worried Jake might have to consume a bit too much firewater before he got what he came here for. Whiskey and anger were a poor mix for Jake Harkner.

The entire room grew tense.

“Come on, boys. We're just here to relax a bit before we head on out to some of the settlements,” Jake told them.

One of the players at Jake's table dealt a hand. “Marshal, you're after somethin'.”

“Just a game of cards,” Jake answered. “I've been on the trail awhile and need to rest. I'm tired of all the bullshit of this job. Had to come through Hell's Nest on my way to my next stop, so I figured we'd get in a little card game.”

“Is that your name for this place?” another asked.

“Can you think of a better one?”

“Guess not. It's just as good as any.” He looked Jake over. “What happened to your face?”

Jake lit a cigarette. “A little run-in with a shovel.”

“Did you fight back?”

“Beat it near to death,” Jake joked.

“More like whoever
owned
the shovel, I expect.”

“Something like that.”

Jake drew on the cigarette as he studied the heavyset man across the table from him who'd been asking all the questions.

“You fixin' to give us some of your money?” the man asked.

“Could be,” Jake answered. “Last time I played cards it was with my grandson, so I'm a little out of practice with men who know what they're doing.”

“You have a
grandson
?” one of them asked.

“Sure. Two of them, in fact, and another on the way.” He glanced at Lloyd and grinned. “Maybe
two
more on the way.”

“Pretty big family for somebody with a job like yours.”

Jake threw down two cards and took two more. “The family came first, the job second. I didn't take it willingly. A judge forced it on me.”

“Back when you wasn't no better than the rest of us?”

Jake eyed the fat man again as he poured himself another shot and drank it down. “I'm
still
not any better than the rest of you.” He noticed Lloyd also eyed the man closely. His teeth were brown from chewing tobacco and his eyes a very pale blue. His thinning hair was sticking out in all directions, and his checkered shirt showed sweat stains.

“What's with the kid over there?” the man asked Jake after passing his hand. “He looks twelve years old compared to you and that big, tall son of yours.”

“He's old enough to drink, play cards, sleep with whores, and use a gun,” Jake answered. “That's good enough for me. Besides that, he's writing a book about me.”

“A
book
? About
you
?” The man guffawed. “From everything I've heard about Jake Harkner, that ought to be one hell of a read!”

They all laughed.

“You gonna write about all them whores and all the killin's?” another man asked Jeff.

“That's for you to find out when you read the book,” Jeff answered.

Jake laid his cards down. A pair of tens. The fat man had a pair of jacks.

“Thanks for your money, Harkner,” he told Jake. “You need to play cards with somebody who knows what he's doin', not a kid.”

Jake watched the man pull all the cards together. He handed them to the man sitting next to him. “Your deal.” He seemed nervous. They played cards for close to an hour, and Jake tried to make each shot of whiskey last, not wanting to drink so much that his aim might be off or his judgment impaired—yet just enough keep the men around him relaxed and amiable.

BOOK: Do Not Forsake Me
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