Authors: Rosanne Bittner
The wagon Jake had been keeping an eye on pulled up under a huge shade tree just a few yards from the church, and a young man on a big roan gelding rode beside it. Jake immediately dropped the conversation and rose to hurry toward them. Jeff stayed back and watched as the younger man dismounted and walked up to Jake. The two men embraced.
, Jeff thought. Other than the harder lines on Jake's face and the fact that the younger one was a bit meatier from younger muscle, they could have been twins.
“Good to see you back, Son,” Jake told him. “I was a little worried about the Bryants, seeing as how two of their relatives are sitting in jail.”
“I didn't see hide nor hair of any of them on the way in.”
“Jake, sure 'n' it's good to see you!” the hefty man driving the wagon shouted.
Jake walked up and shook the man's hand. “You too, Pat. You're a little late for church.”
“Ah, it's pretty hard to make it on time, comin' all the way from my farm.” Pat turned and helped his even heftier wife down from the wagon. “We're not really here for church this time anyway, Jake. We have some good news, but I'll let Lloyd tell you. I left my two sons at home to keep a watch. They both said to wish you well.”
“And I thank them for that.”
Jeff watched as Lloyd walked up to the wagon and lifted a very pretty, redheaded young woman down from the back of it. He leaned down and kissed her cheek, then told her to stay put for a minute. He took his father's arm and walked closer to the church. “We need to talk,” he told Jake.
Jake put his hands on his hips. “Something wrong? I thought you said you didn't run into any trouble.”
Lloyd grinned. “Noânothing like that.” The younger man glanced at the church. “Mom and Evie inside?”
“Well, as soon as the service is over, maybe we can have the preacher hang around.”
Jake grinned. “Hang around?”
“Yeah.” Lloyd glanced over at the redheaded young woman, then back at his father. “Katie and I have decided to get married, and the sooner the better. Soon as services are over, we want the preacher to stay and marry us.”
Jake's grin widened. “It's about time.” An eager handshake turned into another embrace. “I'm damn glad for you, Lloyd. You be good to that girl,” Jake told his son. “She's sweet through and through.”
“You don't have to tell me that.” Lloyd sobered.
Jeff looked away but kept his ears open.
“It's not like Beth, Pa.”
“Of course it isn't. But you're both far too young to go the rest of your lives without love and family, and that girl is crazy about you. Anybody can see that.”
“Yeah, well, there's also the job. She says she can handle it, but I'm not so sure.”
Jake glanced over at Katie to see her mother placing some flowers in her hair. “She's strong, Lloyd. It will be hard at first, but she'll manage.” He looked back at Lloyd. “Besides, this job won't last forever. And I've told you more than once that you don't need to do this. I'm the one who has no choice. Maybe now is the time for you toâ”
“No! You know how I feel about that. Do you really think I could let you ride off into backcountry alone, where most of the men you're after would love to put a hole in your back? It's not going to happen, and Katie knows that, so stop trying to make me quit.”
Jeff glanced sidelong at the two of them. Jake walked a few feet away for a moment, clearing his throat and lighting another cigarette. “Then I guess I'll have to do my best to make sure Katie doesn't end up a widow for a second time,” he told Lloyd.
Lloyd put his hands on his hips, and Jeff picked up on the distinct feeling that both men were trying to treat lightly much deeper feelings. “I guess you will,” Lloyd answered.
Jake came closer and shook his son's hand firmly again. “I hope you'll be as happy as your mother and I are. Living with a Harkner is hard on a woman, Lloyd, so you have to be
good to her when you're at home.”
“I know. I will be.”
Jake left him to go and greet his soon-to-be daughter-in-law. Lloyd just then caught Jeff watching and listening. “Who the hell are you?” he asked. Apparently the younger Harkner could be just as intimidating as his father.
“OhâJeff Trubridge, Mr. Harkner.” He rose and came down the steps, putting out his hand. “I've been making friends with your fatherâcame out here from Chicago to do a story on him.”
Lloyd's eyes narrowed. He didn't shake his hand. “A story? What kind of story? My pa doesn't like people snooping around his personal life, and he sure as hell doesn't âmake friends' with just anybody. I highly doubt you can call him friend yet.”
“Oh, I'mâI'm well aware of that. I'm just waiting for the chance to talk to your motherâall of you, in factâso I can make it clear what I want to do. I'm told your mother is the decision maker in the family.”
Lloyd just scowled at him. “My mother is the decision maker on a
of things. Does she know about this?”
“Iâ¦I'm not sure.”
Jake came walking back then with his arm around the lovely young redhead who'd come in on the wagon. Jeff realized she must be Lloyd's wife-to-be. She looked at bit taken aback by Jake's embrace and was blushing profusely.
“Lloyd, thanks for bringing another beautiful woman into the family,” Jake joked. He looked down at Katie. “You will soon be my son's wife, Katie, so you will be loved like a daughter. And Randy is going to be thrilled about this. Church will let out soon. I can't wait to tell her.” He leaned down and kissed her cheek, then shook Pat Donavan's hand when the man joined them.
Lloyd reached out and put an arm around Katie, then nodded toward Jeff. “Is that kid okay?” he asked Jake. “He said he's writing a book about you. You've never allowed that before.”
“I haven't decided for sure yet. It's all up to your mother. And I have a few questions for this kid before I answer any more of his, but yes, I think he's okay.” He turned his attention back to Lloyd and Katie. “Good Lord, you two make one hell of a handsome couple,” he commented. He pushed back his hat. “Let me tell Randy about this myself as soon as church lets out. Let's walk over to that shade tree by the wagon while we wait.”
Jeff waited impatiently, wishing he could hear everything being said. He watched Jake's interaction with the Donavans and his soon-to-be daughter-in-lawâ¦his relaxed attitude around his son. He noted how happy Lloyd looked, but more interesting was Jake's demeanor. Seeing him merely as a family man, anyone who didn't know him would have trouble believing the kind of past the man had led, or how ruthless he could be. Jeff still couldn't quite get over that.
Finally the church doors opened, and Jake left the others to hurry up the church steps. He leaned against the railing, still smiling. Jeff rose and stepped aside as people began pouring out of church, many of them again greeting Jake on their way out, some warmly, some looking away nervously, a few women actually casting him fetching glances.
Jake's smile faded then when his wife finally exitedâ¦on the arm of a well-dressed, graying, but well-preserved man who made ready to help her down the steps.
As soon as the man saw Jake standing there, he let go of Randy Harkner's arm and put on a smile, holding his hand out to Jake. “Jake!” he said jovially. “You should have come inside.”
Jake grasped his hand in what Jeff could tell was an unnecessarily firm handshake, keeping hold of the man's hand a little longer than necessary. “Good to see you, Peter.”
The man he'd addressed looked a little nervous. “Preacher Zilke gave a very good sermon.”
Jake finally let go, and Jeff noticed Peter flex his hand a little, as though it hurt.
“I heard the sermon from out here,” Jake answered. “And last I knew, my wife was a pretty able womanâ¦able enough to get down the steps without your help.”
“Jake Harkner, don't be rude,” Randy told him as more people exited the church.
“It's all right,” Peter answered. “I'm sure your husband is still feeling the strain of the last three weeks.” He held Jake's eyes the whole time he spoke. “I saw you ride in yesterday, Jake. I'm glad you made it back in one piece.”
Jake took Randy's arm. “Are you, now?”
Peter nodded. “I most certainly am. I wouldn't want to see the look on your good wife's face if you
make it back, and that's the God's truth.” Peter didn't back away, and Jeff suspected Jake respected that. It meant Peter was likely being genuine and wanted Jake to know it.
Jake held his eyes a moment longer. “And a good wife she is.”
It was one word, spoken by Miranda. The look she gave Jake said it all. She was warning him to be polite.
Jeff smiled at the simple, quiet command. The woman could stand right up to Jake Harkner. Jake immediately softened and actually smiled. He met Randy's eyes then. “Maybe your good friend here would like to stay and watch your son marry Katie,” he told her.
His wife's face lit up and Jake nodded toward the Donavans' wagon in the distance. Randy turned to see Lloyd standing with his arm around Katie. “Lloyd!” She hurried down the steps and out to greet all of them, embracing her son and then Katie.
Jake kept his eyes on Peter a moment longer. “Thanks for giving her something to do when I'm gone. She needs that. Just make sure it's only work you offer her.”
Brown shook his head. “Jake, get the chip off your shoulder. That woman is so devoted to you it's ridiculous. And you know I highly respect her. I most certainly would like to stay and see Lloyd get married, if you really mean that. All Randy talked about while you were gone was getting those two together.”
Evie and Brian walked out of the church, and young Stephen made a beeline for his father.
Lloyd swept the boy into his arms, and Jake watched as Evie and Brian also walked out to greet the Donavans. “Some family, aren't they?” He looked back at Peter.
“I never had children, Jake,” Peter answered rather wistfully. “You're a lucky man.”
Jake studied him. “Well, I'm sure you are more deserving of a family than I am.” Jake put his hat back on and walked down the steps toward his family.
Jeff decided to step back from things for a while. This seemed like something too personalâJake's son getting married and all. It was Sunday, a family day. He turned his attention to Peter. The look of love in the man's eyes was startlingly evident.
This was interesting. Peter apparently felt a strong affection for Mrs. Jake Harkner. Jeff turned away and started back for the Guthrie Inn. Within a block of the church, he noticed three well-armed men on horses, eyeing Jake and his family. None of them looked friendly.
“Hey, kid,” one of them called out to Jeff. “You thereâfour-eyes, in the fancy hat!”
Jeff knew he'd better stop. He looked up at them. “What?”
“You a friend of Jake's?”
“I'm just a reporter from Chicago.”
“What are you doin' in Guthrie?”
Jeff swallowed. “Just business.”
“What's all the commotion over there?”
Jeff shrugged. “I guess Jake Harkner's son is getting married today.”
The man who'd asked the questions guffawed. “Well now, ain't that just sweet, Gordy? Lloyd's gettin' married. Ole Jake's family is growing. Can you beat that? Jake Harkner, the family man.”
The one called Gordy grinned. “Warms the heart. Once Harkner is dead, there'll be one more pretty woman added to his family for us to pick from.”
“You'd better take out the son too,” the third man spoke up. His eyes were a cold, faded blueâ¦emotionless. “I hear he's just one step down from his pa when it comes to using a gun.”
“It's Jake's daughter I'd like to get my hands on,” the one called Gordy commented. “I'd just as soon be able to keep Harkner alive and let him watch. That would be worse to him than a bullet in the gut.” He stuck out a booted foot and gave Jeff a shove, just hard enough to make him fall on his butt. “You tell Jake that Gordy says hello,” he said.
The three men turned their horses and headed closer into town. Jeff turned to see Lloyd and Katie hurrying up the steps into the church, probably to catch the preacher before he left. The whole family and Peter also went inside. They left one of the double doors open, and Jake leaned against the doorjamb to watch. He didn't move one foot past the threshold.
Jeff didn't want to be a bother hanging around during a family marriage, but he thought he should at least tell Jake about the three men. He edged closer, hating to interrupt.
“Marshal,” he spoke up quietly.
Frowning, Jake turned. “Not now, Trubridge.”
Jeff waved him over.
A rather disgruntled Jake came down the steps. “What do you want? Give us a couple more days and you can come and talk to my wife when things calm down.”
“It's not that.” Jeff looked back toward town. “Marshal, when I headed back to town, some men stopped me. They were watching you, and theyâ¦made threats. One even said to tell you that Gordy says hello.”
Jeff watched Jake Harkner the family man fade as Jake looked past him toward town. In one quick moment, he'd become the man Jeff saw ride into Guthrie just yesterday.
“How many?” Jake asked.
“Three. Do you know who they are?”
“You bet your ass I know them.” He looked back at Jeff. “Trubridge, you're starting to come in handy.” He gave Jeff a sly grin. “Thanks.” He brushed at dirt on the front of Jeff's suit jacket. “What happened to you?”