Authors: Rosanne Bittner
Lloyd wasn't quite sure why he felt nervous. He'd been seeing Katie off and on for most of the winter and into spring. If nothing else, they'd become good friends. Still, this was different. This was total commitment. What he wanted to do meant truly moving on from memories of Beth, and those memories were still painful. He watched Katie approach the wooden bench where he sat waiting a few yards beyond the horse barn. He'd told Pat where he'd be and asked him to have Katie come out to talk.
God, she was pretty. Fact was, Katie Donavan Lamont had pretty much every quality any man could want in a wife. She'd changed into a pink dress, and the color made her red hair look even more beautiful. She reminded him of flowers, all pink and green and red and white and colorful. The dress fit her slender waist in a way that told him the body underneath would feel good next to a man at night, and he'd ached for that kind of companionship for a long time now. He'd been with a couple of the whores at Dixie's place a time or two, but that was different. That was just physical relief. He longed for the kind of love his parents sharedâ¦longed for the total satisfaction of taking a woman because he ached for the woman herself, not just the thrill of sexual pleasure. A man and wife ought to share hopes and dreams and souls.
Katie stopped a few feet away. “Father told me you were waiting here to talk.”
Lloyd rose and reached out his hand. “Come sit down by me.” He squeezed her hand gently as she sat beside him on the bench. “You look really pretty in pink.”
Katie smiled and looked away. “Thank you.”
Lloyd hesitated, keeping hold of her hand. “I guess you probably know what I want to talk about.”
Katie put her other hand over his. “Maybe. But I don't want to make a fool of myself, so you'd better tell me yourself.”
Lloyd couldn't help a smile. “Well, I thought a lot on this tripâ¦about how a man is better off with a good woman by his side.” He squeezed her hand. “I see a lot of strength and understanding in you, Katie, and we've already grown close, close enough that Iâ¦I'd like you to be my wife. I know our whole situation is a little different, both of us being widowedâ¦the danger of what I do. But this job won't last forever, Katie. And I have other skills. I'll always provide for you every way I can. I have quite a bit of money in the bank that I inherited from my wife's estate. Her father was a pretty rich man, butâ¦” He let go of hand. “Damn it,” he said in a near whisper. “Katie, that's not why I loved her. I don't want you to thinkâ”
“It's okay,” she interrupted. “I know what you're saying.”
Lloyd noticed her hands were clenched tightly in her lap. “I'll understand if you say no,” he told her. “God knows I'm like my father in a lot of ways, which means I won't be the easiest person to live with. But Pa is a real good husband, Katie, and a great father. And the grandkids are crazy about him. I can be that way too.”
She grasped his hand. “Lloyd, you don't need to sell yourself to me.” She faced him, tears in her eyes. “I do have concerns, but you've been nothing but sweet and attentive to me, and I never saw a more handsome man in my whole life, and I know what a good father you are to Stephen, and a loving brother to Evieâ¦and you're so devoted to your folks. I see the love in you, Lloyd, and I knowâ¦” She looked away again. “I know what losing Beth did to you. I just worry I could never truly replace her.”
He turned sideways, grasping her arms and making her look at him. “Katie, I'm not asking for a replacement, or promising mad, crazy love, at least at first. We're an awful lot alike, you know. We've both lost so much. I can't take the place of your first husband, just like you can't take Beth's place, because we're each different people than they were, so we just have to learn to love each other for just thatâ¦who we areâ¦right here and now. Trying to replace someone else can't work. And we can't move on together if we try to do that.”
Katie nodded, turning her gaze downward. “I miss my little baby girl so much that sometimes I cry into my pillow till there aren't any more tears. I want another baby, Lloyd. I need to
another baby. And Lord knows I can't have that till I marry again. I hope you want more children.”
“Hell, we can have all the babies you want. I'd like my Stephen to have sisters and brothersâ¦and he needs a mother. But he's no baby, Katie. You'd be walking into mothering a half-grown kid. Do you think you can love him like a mother should?”
She faced him again. “Of course I can. Stevie and I are already good friends. You've brought him out here, and he's come along with us other times. We've picnicked together and fished together andâ¦well, he's such a good boyâ¦easy to love. If I care about his father enough to marry him, I'll care about him too. I already do.”
Lloyd turned away, resting his elbows on his knees. “I have to be honest. I think my being a deputy U.S. Marshal will be harder for you than anything else. It's asking a lot of a woman to put up with what I do. My mother has to, because she and Pa were already married when he became a marshal. Neither one of them wanted it, but it was the only way Pa could finish out his prison sentence. It's dangerous as hell, Katie. And the fact remains, I don't
to do this, but I promised myself I'd not let my pa handle this alone. I expect he probably could manage, but I vowed a long time ago to always have his back like he's had mine. But this kind of life is not something easy for a woman to put up with. You need to consider that.”
Katie toyed with an embroidered flower on the skirt of her dress. “Lloyd, I've already thought about that a lot, and I'm willing to try. I was talking with my mother earlier aboutâ¦about how I've already lost one husband, so I wasn't sure I could be with a man who could take a bullet in the back the day after we marry. But when I was changing my clothes just now, I thought how you must be so lonely, and how hard it must be to come home to an empty house, and how we shouldn't turn down a chance at happiness because of what
happen. I'd be proud to call you my husband, Lloyd.”
He stared at a butterfly that had landed on a nearby weed, thinking how delicate and colorful it wasâ¦like Katie. “There will be times when I'm gone and you won't know if I'm alive or dead, Katie. My mother said once it's the waiting that drives her crazy. She lives to hear my pa give that whistle that he's coming back.”
Katie rose and walked a few feet away, folding her arms. “Lloyd, the only thing that bothers me isâ¦wellâ¦it's kind of like you're serving Jake's sentence with him.”
A gentle breeze blew her hair away from her face as Lloyd met her gaze. “When my father went to prison, I abandoned him and my mother and sisterâ¦rode off and turned to the outlaw way myself out of spite. I never knew about Jake's past, and it hurt so bad to find out the way I did, because up to then, I worshipped the ground he walked on. By the time he got out of prison four years later, I'd got myself into a big mess with a bunch of outlaws who meant to kill me, but Pa, he came after me. He got into a big shoot-out to save me. After all my hatred and rebellion, my father never stopped loving me, Katie. I'll never forgive myself for judging him like I did, or for abandoning him and my mother and sister for so long. Pa's no angel, that's for sure, and he did do a lot of bad things when he was young, but things happened that led him to all that. He's a real good man down deep inside. He'd argue that one till he's blue in the face, but that man knows how to love better than most men do. Just don't ever tell him that.”
The remark brought a smile to Katie's lips. “He kind of scares me sometimes.”
Lloyd returned the grin. “Heck, haven't you noticed how my mother can put him in his place? He practically worships her. You don't have to be scared of Jake Harkner, Katie, especially not if you become family. Family is the most important thing on this earth to him. He thinks Evie has wings and my mother is the Madonna herself.” He rose, walking closer to her. “The fact remains, Katie, that I will never again abandon my father. He and I have had our bad times, but that man would die for me, and me for him. You have to understand that I won't quit this job until he's free of it himself.”
Their gazes held.
“Tell me what you're thinking, Katie,” Lloyd said. “Be honest. There's more you want to ask.”
“Your father has a temper, and you're just like him, Lloyd Harkner. I'm not blind to the fact that you can both be pretty ruthless. That means making a lot of enemiesâ¦let alone the fact that there are surely men out there who'd like to say they killed a Harkner.”
“Pa has lived with that his whole life, and he's still here, isn't he? You have to trust that we're pretty good at taking care of ourselves. That's what I meant earlier when I asked if you can live with that part of me, because it will be the hardest part.” He put his hands on her shoulders. “I've given this a lot of thought, Katie. And in you, I see strength and beauty and everything it takes to be a good wife and mother. I'm only twenty-five and you're four years younger, and look what all we've both already been through. We each need somebody strong at our side. And we're too young to be putting up with life alone.” He leaned close and kissed her forehead. “And Stephen thinks you're great. He even told me once I should marry you.” He brushed her cheek with his lips, and she turned her face upward, inviting his mouth to search her own in a gentle kiss. “Marry me, Katie,” he said softly before kissing her again. “Marry me.” Another kiss. He left her mouth, lifting her and pressing her tightly against him, her feet off the ground. “Marry me.” Another kissâ¦delicious, heated, hungry. He enjoyed the feel of her firm breasts against his chest. He wanted to touch them, taste them.
“Yes. I'll marry you,” she told him between hungry kisses. “But give me some time to get used to all this before we'reâ¦more physical?” More kisses. “Be patient with me, Lloyd. Our love has to grow.”
“I know that.” He set her on her feet and reached into his pocket. “Here. I got this in Cimmaron City. I didn't want to buy it here in Guthrie because of gossip. I figured somebody might tell you I'd bought a wedding ring. Do you like it?”
Katie looked down at a gold wedding band in his palm. She smiled. “It's lovely!”
“Try it on. You do it. I shouldn't put it on your finger till we actually marry. Just make sure it fits. I had a girl at the place where I bought it try it on her finger because her hands were pretty and slender like yours.”
Katie turned around. “Don't look.” A moment later, she turned back around. “It fits just fine.” She handed back the ring, and Lloyd put it back in his pocket.
“Wear the dress you're wearing now. I like you in pink. You look perfect just the way you are.” He ran his hands into her thick auburn tresses. “And I like your hair down like this. I want you to look just like this when we wed.”
Katie smiled lovingly. “All right. But you have to promise not to cut your hair. I like it long.”
Their gazes held again in excitement, anticipation, hope.
“Then I won't cut it.” He kissed her again. “I'll be good to you, Katie. I'll support you and love you the best I can. I know this seems kind of like a marriage of convenience right now, but I wouldn't take you for my own if I didn't think we'll grow deeper in love every day.” The pain of losing Beth stabbed at him again, but he truly did want to love again, wanted a woman in his bed and his heart. He fought feelings of guilt for knowing he didn't love this lovely woman the same as he'd loved Beth, but maybe that was natural. The fact remained that he couldn't stand the thought of any other man having her. A girl as pretty and kind as Katie Donavan Lamont wouldn't last long without other men trying to woo her and take her for a wife. He'd go crazy knowing some other man had her in his bed while he was still struggling to move on with his life.
He'd make this legal and make her his own, the sooner the better. The rest would surely come in time.
“Marry me tomorrow, Katie. We'll go into town. We can get there before church lets out. We'll corner the preacher and have him marry us.”
“Sure! I'm not taking the chance that you'll change your mind. Tell me you'll marry me tomorrow.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck, and they kissed again. “I will,” she answered when he finally left her lips. “I'll marry you tomorrow.”
Lloyd kissed her again, devouring her mouth eagerly. She was sweet and willing. Their love would surely grow.
The morning came alive clear and bright, and warmer than normal for May in Oklahoma. Birds sang, and Jeff Trubridge watched what seemed like half the town heading for church, some coming into town from outlying ranches and settlements. They came by horseback, in buggies and farm wagons, and some just walked from homes closer in. He saw Brian and Evie Stewart leading two little boys by the hand. He knew the younger boy, maybe three, was the doctor's son. The older boy, perhaps five or six, had to be Lloyd Harkner's kid.
Then he saw themâJake and Randy. Jake wore his guns. Surely he didn't intend to wear them into church! Probably not, because he also was not wearing a suit. He wore denim pants and a dark blue bib shirt with no vest and, from what Jeff could see, not even his badge. His hair looked shorter, cut to just above his shoulders. When the younger grandson with Evie and Brian turned and spotted his grandparents, he smiled and ran back to Jake.
“Gampa!” The kid reached up and Jake lifted him onto his shoulders.
“You're getting almost too big for this, Little Jake,” he told the boy. “Grandpa is getting too many aches and pains to lift such a big boy.”
Jeff found that hard to believe, but surely the man did have aches and pains. One of the questions he wanted to ask was how many times Harkner had been shot.
The older boy also noticed his grandparents and ran back to Jake, hugging him around the hips in spite of the guns he wore.
“Careful! Careful!” Jake told him, gently pulling him away and tousling his hair. He lifted the smaller boy from his shoulders and knelt in front of the older boy. “How's my youngest deputy?”
The boy hugged Jake around the neck. “Where's my dad, Grampa?” he asked.
Jake hugged him in return, patting his back. “He'll be along sometime today, I expect.”
“Is he hurt?”
“No, your daddy is just fine. I promise.”
Randy scolded Jake for messing up the boy's hair. “Honestly, Jake, Stevie's hair is unruly enough. Evie probably spent ten minutes just getting it to stay in one place.” She stopped and smoothed the boy's thick, dark hair as best she could.
“A kid his age shouldn't worry about his hair,” Jake answered. He rose and deliberately messed it up with a wicked grin. The boy giggled and ducked away from his grandmother when she tried to fix his hair again.
“Jake Harkner, just for that, you won't get any of my bread for dinner later.”
Jake grinned. “You've threatened to withhold more than that a time or two.”
His wife pushed at him. “Please. People can hear you, and we're on our way to church, for heaven's sake.”
on your way to church. I'm not.”
Randy gave him a disappointed look, and Jake seemed to regret the remark. He reached out and put an arm around her. “Okay, I won't mess his hair up again.”
Randy moved an arm around her husband's back and they stayed that way until they reached the church.
Jeff took notes.
yesterday. The man brings in four killers and rapists, then beats on a young man half his age and throws him into the street, and today he's playing with his grandsons and walking to church. He looks so relaxed today.
He looked up then, watched Miranda say something to Jake when they reached the church steps. She told both boys to go inside with Evie and Brian, but first Evie walked up to her father.
“Daddy, please come inside.”
Jeff had trouble picturing Jake Harkner being called Daddy.
“Baby girl, it's just not going to happen. Church is for angels like you and your mother.”
an angel tooâmaybe an
angel, but you have every right to go inside.”
Jake leaned down and kissed her cheek. “You know how I feel. Go on now. They are already starting a hymn.”
Evie glanced at her mother, who put an arm around her and cast Jake a pleading look before going inside. Latecomers greeted Jake on their way in, and one older, heavyset man jovially invited him to join them.
“I'll wait out here like I always do,” Jake told the man.
The older man kept hold of his hand a moment longer.
“Jake, you know you're always welcome.”
Jake nodded. “Maybe soâmaybe not.”
The older man patted his arm in what Jeff thought was an amazingly kind gesture that Jake actually didn't seem to mind. The man turned and went inside the church. Jake waited until the front door closed, then went to the steps and sat down. Moments later, everyone inside began singing the hymn “Rock of Ages.”
Jeff waited a moment, studying Jake, thinking how lonely he suddenly looked sitting there on the church steps.
Did he think he wasn't good enough to go inside?
blood, from thy wounded side which flowedâ¦
Jeff took a deep breath for courage and approached him. He couldn't resist this chance to talk to the man, even though he'd been warned to talk to his wife first. After all, Harkner seemed in a better mood today, and he was rested up from his encounter with the outlaws he'd brought in. Jake caught sight of him right away and watched him closely as Jeff pointed to the steps. “May I?”
Jake removed his hat and ran a hand through his hair, then put his hat back on. “I don't own the steps, Trubridge. Go ahead and sit.”
Jeff sat down, leaning against the wooden railing. “You're not going inside?”
Jake took a cigarette from a shirt pocket. “No.” He lit the cigarette.
“May I ask why? Your whole family is in there.”
Jake rested his elbows on his knees. “I'm beyond salvation, Trubridge, and my final destination sure as hell isn't heaven. I don't think the good Lord needs someone like me defiling his place of worship.”
“Your wife doesn't believe that, does she?”
Jake smoked quietly for a moment.
“I was wondering when you'd show up again. Brian told me you were snooping around the jail last night and asking him a lot of questions. I told you to wait and talk to my wife first.”
So, you intend to change the subject.
“Oh, I will do just that. The reason I went to the jail was to see what those men had to say about what happened. Your son-in-law just happened to be there.”
Jake took a drag on the cigarette and took it from his mouth as he exhaled. “And I'm sure the men I brought back had some glowing things to say about me.”
Jeff grinned. “Oh, they are very fond of you.”
Jake actually laughed lightly. Jeff was struck by how different he looked when he smiled. A damn handsome grin it was, and it seemed to change the whole nature of the man. “Yes,” he answered. “They said you're the most wonderful man they've ever known, and they're glad you made them see the wrong in what they did.”
Jake laughed again. “Trubridge, I don't want to like you, but I kind of do.” He looked Jeff over. “I'm a pretty good judge of men, and something about you says I can trust you.”
Jeff nodded eagerly. “Oh, you can!” He removed his wire-rimmed glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief. “I'm sincere in wanting to do this right, Jake. I put in my notes last night what an enigma you are.”
“Enigma?” Jake shook his head. “Well, number oneâI never had any schooling, so I wouldn't know what that word meant if it weren't for my wife. She schooled our kids most of their lives because we usually lived where there
any schools. I guess while she was teaching them, I was learning more myself. And number twoâI guess you're right. I can't figure my own self out, let alone somebody else understanding me, so
is a pretty fitting word.”
Another hymn. “Amazing Grace.”
â¦that saved a wretch like meâ¦
Jake quieted for a moment and seemed to be listening to the words. Jeff waited.
“I guess my wife understands me better than anyone.” He smoked quietly for a moment, then cleared his throat. “So, what did those men really say about me? As if I can't guess.”
Jeff adjusted his spectacles. “They pretty much called you every name in the book. Some were so bad, I can't even bring myself to repeat them.”
Jake grinned again. “Well, sticks and stones may break my bonesâ¦”
“Yeah, I guess you've heard it all.”
“And a lot of those names apply, which is why I'm not in that church.”
“Aren't you a little worried about revenge?” he asked. “Those men said if they ever get loose, they'll come after youâ¦and I'm afraid they also threatened your family, your daughter in particular. That really roused your son-in-law.”
Jake cast him a dark look. “That true?”
“Yes, sir. The one called Marty made the threat.”
The look in Jake's eyes made Jeff wish he hadn't said anything about it.
Jake looked away again and smoked silently. Jeff waited until the man spoke again on his own.
“Jeff, my daughter is an absolute contrast to me. She's as close to an angel as anyone. Marty Bryant is welcome to come after me anytime. If he does, he has half a chance of living through it, because I'm supposed to behave like a lawman.” He stared at his cigarette as he rolled it between his fingers. “But if he goes after one member of my family, especially my daughter”âhe watched a wagon go byâ“the badge comes off,” he finished. “I've done some rotten things in my life, but none of it would compare to what I'd do to that man if he ever touches Randy or Evie. Hurting a woman is unforgivable in my book.”
“I've been a target most of my life, Trubridge,” Jake added. He seemed to be weighing his words then. “I'll tell you something about revenge. I've enacted revenge of my own, and I've been the brunt of it. Either way usually ends bad, and revenge doesn't take away the hurt, or the ugly memories. Sometimes it creates even more ugly memories. But a man can't help going after it anyway.”
Jeff wanted to ask specifics but decided it was way too soon to press the man for more details.
“Tell me what keeps you and your wife together,” he dared to ask instead, hoping to lighten the mood. “Twenty years or more, I'm told.”
“From what I've observed, the two of you couldn't be moreâ¦wellâ¦different.”
Jake finally grinned again. “Different is an understatement,” he told Jeff. He thought a moment and Jeff waited, deciding he'd get farther by keeping his mouth shut than by opening it at the wrong time. One wrong question and the man would probably throw him off the church steps.
“I actually tried once or twice to get rid of herâfor her own good, not because I didn't love her. I expect maybe I love her
much. The damn woman won't leave me. She's stuck by me through things that would make most women scream and run away, but not Randy. She's everything a man hopes to find in a wife, and why in hell she picked me, I'll never understandâ¦never.”
Jeff scribbled some notes. “Maybe she saw the good in you.”
Jake didn't answer right away. He took one last draw on his cigarette, then stepped it out while inside the preacher carried on about sin and salvation. “Some people see things through a rosy glow, I guess,” Jake finally answered.
“And some see very clearly, Marshal.”
you, Jake Harkner. There's a part of you that wants to go into that church.
Jake glanced sidelong at him, and Jeff knew it was a warning. He decided to move on to something else.
“Tell me something, Marshal. How in heck do you know when to draw on somebodyâ¦or I guess I should ask when you know he's going to draw on you. Do you watch his gun hand?”
Jake shook his head. “Never.” He looked straight at Jeff then with an unnerving glare. “You watch his eyes. Only his eyes, Mr. Trubridge. His eyes will give him away every time. And I've never drawn first on a man in my life. I don't need to.”
“How do you think you've managed to stay alive this long?”
Jake watched another wagon rattle closer into town. “Haven't you ever heard the term
“Well, they say the Earp brothers were too mean to die, and they were federal marshals too. Did you know them?”
“That was in '81, and I was still a wanted man living under an assumed name in Colorado. No, I didn't know them. A lot of lawless men are a product of the Civil War and its tragedies. My reasons were far different. I did meet Jesse James and Cole Younger a time or two on the Outlaw Trail in Wyoming, back during a bad time when I had to leave Randy for a couple of years.” He lit yet another cigarette. “That's a period in our marriage I don't like to talk about. That woman has been through a lot of bad times because of me.” He sighed. “At any rate, Lloyd and I and several other U.S. Marshals have taken part in tracking some of the Dalton gang here in Oklahoma Territory, but they've been pretty elusive.”
“No other famous outlaws ever challenged you?”
Jake shook his head. “There's a kind of code among us, I guess. No love lost, but most men like that don't go around drawing on each other. It's the filthy worms who don't really know what they're doing, like the Bryants and Buckleys, who are stupid enough to go challenging someone with a reputation. They want to make their own name famous, and they usually die trying.”