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Authors: Rosanne Bittner

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Eight

Randy awoke to dim morning light and the smell of peppermint. Something tapped her nose, and she opened her eyes to see a stick of red-and-white candy in front of her face. She turned to face Jake, and he licked one end of the peppermint.

“Remember the first time we did this?” he asked, putting the candy into his mouth and offering her the other end.

Randy grinned. “I believe you were forcing yourself on me.”

He took the peppermint from his mouth. “I don't recall you fighting me off.” He put the candy back into his mouth.

“You're just as much a devil now as you were then.” Randy put the other end into her mouth, and they both chewed on the stick of candy until their lips met.

Early-morning lovemaking was, for Randy, the best kind. Both of them were warm and relaxed. Already naked, Jake nuzzled her neck then as he pushed her gown up past her waist. “How about getting this gown out of the way?”

Randy frowned in mock irritation. “If you insist.” She raised her arms over her head and sat up so he could pull the flannel gown all the way off. He kissed her neck and breasts as she lay back down and admired his solid frame. When things were quiet and peaceful like this, Randy had no trouble relaxing to his touch as he explored and massaged all the right places.

Some of her women friends hinted that they seldom did this anymore…but they weren't married to Jake Harkner, and they didn't have to live with knowing that tomorrow their husband could be shot down. She did wonder, though, if any of those women allowed their husbands to go as far as Jake did now, making her wilt under his desire to taste her most secret places. She had once never thought she could be this intimate with a man, but intimacy meant everything to Jake, who liked to make love in every sensual way there was.

She closed her eyes and breathed deeply as he worked his magic with licking kisses to what he called her “sweetness,” and she knew she could never have allowed this with any other man. There was something about being together for years that made their lovemaking almost worshipful, an extension of a much deeper relationship that required a union of soul and spirit and not just bodies. She groaned as he circled his tongue magically until he brought her to a deep climax that made her need him inside her. He moved to her breasts, her neck, her mouth, her sweet juices still on his lips. She welcomed him between her legs to give him pleasure in return.

“Who do you belong to?” he asked softly as he licked behind her ear.

“Jake Harkner.”

The man knew damn well how to make a woman want him, and her desire had not waned with the years. The first time they'd done this satiated an almost violent desire for each other. Perhaps it was because back then, Randy knew deep down this man was forbidden, just as he knew he had no business bringing her into his life—yet neither of them could resist the other and had never been able to since then.

He moved inside of her with a deep groan, and she arched up to greet him. There was always a kind of desperation to their lovemaking, as though they needed to make sure this was still real and perhaps cling to the moment in case this never happened again. She thought Jake seemed more ardent and a bit more demanding than usual, ramming himself deep and hard in a faster than normal rhythm while holding her bottom in a tight grip.

She relished the masterful way he had of making a woman feel ravished and adored, but again came the pain. She said nothing because she knew with secret dread what his urgent lovemaking meant. There could be trouble today. She didn't want to think about it herself, but it was there between them…always. His life surged into her with more force than normal, and he relaxed on top of her then, keeping hold of her bottom. “I'd like to stay here all day,” he told her.

“Then stay,” she answered. She grasped him around the neck. “I love you so, Jake. Stay here today.”

I'm scared, but not just for you. I'm scared of this pain.

He sighed as he kissed her deeply before moving off of her and settling beside her. “If I stay, someone might come to the door, and you'd be embarrassed to be caught still in bed.”

Randy nestled against him. “I don't care.”

Jake frowned, leaning up to study her eyes. “What's wrong? You seem upset about more than me going out this morning. Is there something you aren't telling me?”

Randy looked away. “No,” she lied. “It's just that you've been back only two days, and already I can see there is going to be more trouble.”

“And you don't usually talk this way. You know I can take care of myself. What else is wrong?”

“Nothing.”

Jake leaned down and kissed her eyes. “You don't fool me, Randy Harkner. I know you too well. I have to leave now, but I want some answers when I get home later.” He kissed her again, a long, soft, delicious kiss of promise and devotion.

Tell
him
, a little voice nudged her.
Tell
him. He needs to know.

No!
came a reply.
Don't get him upset before he leaves. It will go away. At least wait until he gets home.


Yo
te
amo, mi querida
,” Jake said softly.

“Make love to me again,” she asked. She wished his gaze were not so discerning.

“Randy—”

“Just make love to me again. Something doesn't feel right about today. If you won't stay home, then make love to me again.”

Jake sighed, leaning down to kiss her near her ear. “Randy, tell me what's wrong.”

“Just that. I'm scared for you.”

He kissed her again, and in moments he moved inside of her again. For Randy, it was like a joining of the souls. Every thrust seemed to claim her, body and soul, reaching into her deepest places and branding her from the inside out. She returned his kisses desperately. How would she ever live without him? In spite of another pain gripping her belly, she pulled at him as she felt his release, then wrapped her arms tightly around his neck yet again and clung to him.

“Don't go, Jake. Don't go to the jail today.”

“It's all right.”

“Get Lloyd first. I don't trust the Bryants.”

“Randy, I've handled a lot worse. I'll be fine.”

“Hold me a little longer.”

He moved his arms under her back, staying on top of her. “I'll press the air out of you.”

“I'm okay. I love being this close, love your arms around me. I want to keep you right here today.”

He kissed her several times over. “I'll be back before you know it. I really have to go, baby. This damn job requires it.”

A tear slipped out of her eye. How could she tell him about this pain…or tell him how afraid she was of what it could be? He needed all his wits about him.

He put a hand to the side of her face. “I love you, Randy. I wonder sometimes if you truly know how much.”

“And I love you more than that.”

He kissed the tear. “I wish you'd tell me what's
really
wrong.”

“I guess I'm just used to Lloyd always being with you. Don't go out there alone.”

“Hey, I didn't have Lloyd for all those years that were the worst, before he was born and when he was just a kid. I think I can go sign some papers at the jail just fine on my own.”

“You know what I mean. And sometimes I get these awful, ominous feelings.”

He frowned. “Twenty-six years of living with me is wearing on you, that's all. Someday,
mi
querida
, I'll be done with this job, and all this worrying will be over.” He kissed her once more and climbed off the bed. He went to the washstand, and Randy studied the now-faded scars on his back.

“Will you please go get Lloyd first?”

“No. Let him and Katie enjoy their time alone. They need time to adjust. They are both still in mourning over lost loved ones, but I think they'll find real love and be really happy. At any rate, little Stevie will be wanting to go home this morning and spend some time with his father too. Lloyd should stay home with him. He can't go running off, wearing guns and worrying poor Katie, on their first full day of marriage.”

He poured water from a pitcher into the washbowl, then leaned down and splashed his face. “I expect all three of them will go out to the Donavans' soon to get some of Katie's things. If they do, they'll probably stay the night there.” He washed the rest of himself and pulled on knee-length long johns and denim pants, then a white shirt. “I'll shave later or tomorrow. I'm anxious to get out there and see what's going on.” He buttoned his shirt, leaving it open at the neck. “By the way, that reporter might want to talk to us later today. His name is Jeff Trubridge and he writes for the
Chicago
Evening
Journal.
Whether he writes a book about us is all up to you.”

Randy lay back down. “I don't trust anyone to do a decent job writing about you, Jake. And you have never before acted as though you would even consider such a thing.”

He tucked his shirt into his pants. “Something about this one is different. I kind of like the kid. I think he's more sincere than the others, and I suspect he's pretty talented. I told him the decision was yours, not mine.” He ran a wide belt through the loops of his pants, then reached for his gun belt, which hung on the bedpost, where he always kept his guns at night. He buckled the gun belt.

Randy's stomach tightened a little, watching him strap on the guns. She never quite got over the dread of what each new day could bring. It was bad enough that there were still men out there who would love to say they shot down Jake Harkner, but becoming a federal marshal had only added to his list of enemies.

“Jeff is the one who warned me about the three men in town.” He tied the holster straps around his thighs. “So I feel I owe him. I told him he could come to the house later today. I'll look him up when I go into town.” He straightened and faced her. “What do you think?”

She pushed her hair back from her face. “I trust your judgment. You read a man pretty good.”

He walked over to the dressing table and picked up a comb and ran it through his hair. “I was just thinking—if it was handled right—a book could mean extra money for the grandkids. If my sorry-ass life leads to a book that means they can go to college and make better lives for themselves than I ever did, then it might be worth it. I'd put anything we make from it into a trust fund for you and the grandkids. We'd have to sign some kind of contract that says we have the right to approve of the thing before it gets published—something like that—make sure it's not just a bunch of dime-novel bullshit.” He pulled on his leather vest, his badge already pinned to it.

Randy sighed and got up, pulling on a robe. “I can already see a dark mood setting in, Jake.”

“I don't like having to look at Marty Bryant. I want to kill him and I can't. Maybe I'll get lucky and he'll give me an excuse.” He opened the bedroom door and started out.

“Jake, don't you want breakfast?”

“No. I'll just grab a hunk of bread on the way out and get a cup of coffee down at the jail.” He walked over to the wash pan and picked it up. “I'll go dump this. There's a clean wash pan below the shelf. I'll rinse this one and scrub my teeth at the pump in the kitchen.”

“Wait.” Randy walked closer and stood on her tiptoes to kiss him. “I'm telling you, I don't have a good feeling about this. Lloyd would understand if you went to get him.”

“No. Sparky will be at the jail.”

Their gazes held.

“Jake, don't lie to me.”

He turned away. “Just stay in the house today, will you? At least until I say it's okay to go out. I'll come back and let you know if Trubridge is coming over later. If we do this, I'll let you answer most of his questions. I have no doubt he'll ask about things I'd rather not talk about.” He opened the bedroom door and left.

Randy poured some fresh water into the second washbowl and began washing. She heard Jake pumping some water in the kitchen, knew he was scrubbing his teeth with baking powder. He still had nice teeth, still had that handsome smile that unnerved her. She found it amazing that in all his father's beatings, he'd managed to keep from getting some of his teeth knocked out. Then again, he could have lost baby teeth that way, since he was beaten as far back as a child can remember.

She shivered at the unwanted vision.

“Randy,” he called from the kitchen.

She went to the bedroom door and looked across the dining room to where he stood in the kitchen doorway. “What is it?”

“You promise me one thing, and I damn well mean it.”

Her heart fell even farther. Something was up. “What?”

“I said to stay right in this house. That means even if you hear shooting. Don't you dare go running out into the street, you hear me? If you're needed, someone will come and get you.”

“Jake—”

“Promise me!”

She felt the tears wanting to come. “I promise.”

Shotgun in one hand and rifle under his arm, he gave her a grim smile. “Don't worry. I know they're around. That makes all the difference.” He walked out.

“Jake—” she said softly. She hurried to the door, pulling aside the lace curtain at the oval window there. She watched Jake emerge from the pathway beside the house and walk through the front gate and into the street. The pain came again, this time so bad that she doubled over. She knew she should ask Brian about it, but Brian would tell Evie, and eventually it would get to Jake, and she just couldn't bring herself to tell him. She grimaced from the pain and closed her eyes, praying the same prayer she prayed every single morning. “God, be with him.”

Nine

Jake walked into town, thinking how Guthrie had mushroomed over just the year and a half since he moved the family here. Born out of the land rush, the town was a grand mixture of clapboard, stone, brick, and frame homes and buildings, and already boasted several banks, barbers, supply stores, feed stores, pharmacies, a lumber company, restaurants, doctors, lawyers, and of course, saloons.

Brian was in the process of urging the other doctors in town to help with fundraisers and petitions to create a property tax that could be used toward building a hospital. It pleased Jake greatly to know what a good man Evie had married. They were perfect for each other, two people who saw the good in others and were both interested in healing pain and saving lives. Jake still wondered how he could have had a hand in creating such a gift to the world as Evie was.

He headed for the stables where he kept three horses. Every day he had the owner, Tobe Baker, saddle one of them so it would be ready in case he had to ride out of town quickly.

“Mornin', Jake!” Tobe greeted him. The old man stood barely over five feet tall and had to tilt his head back to look up at Jake. “I hear your son married the Donavans' daughter yesterday.”

“Sure did.” Jake leaned against the doorjamb, watching the street. “Saddle Prince for me, will you?”

“Sure thing.”

Jake studied his surroundings. It was early and things were quiet…maybe a bit too quiet. He glanced to his left, where at the far end of the main street he could see his house as well as Brian and Evie's place. Brian had built an addition to the house that he used as an office. He kept three cots there for patients who might need to stay overnight. Lloyd's house was across the street from his own, and Jake was glad he'd left his son out of this. Lloyd deserved some time with Katie.

He lit a cigarette, taking a careful scan of every rooftop, every alley. A farmer from outside of town drove a wagon down the street, nodding to Jake.

“You're up early, Fenton!” Jake called to him.

“Left before the sun was even up,” the man called back. “Hope Ruben's feed store is open.”

Jake waited, thinking about Randy and how soft and willing she always was early in the morning. He wanted to go home and crawl back into bed with her, but he needed to settle his mind on why Bo Buckley and Gordy Bryant were in town…and who the third man was.

Tobe brought out a huge black gelding, saddled and ready to go. Jake always wondered how the little man managed to handle such big horses, let alone get a saddle on one. “Thanks, Tobe.”

The old man grinned a toothless smile. “You take care of yourself, now.”

Jake nodded, keeping his cigarette at the corner of his lips. “Did Bo Buckley and his bunch leave some horses with you last night?”

Tobe nodded toward a couple of stalls at the back of the shed. “Yes, sir. Right over there. Got a third one penned up out back.”

So, they were still in town.

“I know Gordy Bryant was with Bo. Any idea who the third man was?”

“No, sir. Never seen him before, but he was a younger man, wore a gun in a way that looked like he knew how to use it, if you know what I mean. Kind of low, like the way you wear yours.”

So he
was
a hired gun. How could Buckley have hired someone so fast? Had he hired the man even before Jake brought in his father and the others? “Thanks for the information, Tobe.”

Jake shoved his rifle and shotgun into the saddle loops that held them, then mounted Prince. He ducked his head as he rode out of the stable and to the right toward the jailhouse. A little voice told him to go and get Lloyd, but he'd be damned if he'd bother his newlywed son this morning. Besides, he'd sure as hell gone up against more than three men on his own, and he was counting on the fact that they were probably sleeping off a drunk from last night. Bo Buckley was a heavy drinker.

He continued to check rooftops and alleys as he approached the jail, figuring that if things were okay there, he'd check out the saloons in town, see if he could find out where Buckley and the other two men had spent the night.

He passed a saloon, which was still closed, but there sat Jeff Trubridge on a bench in front of it. Jake drew his horse to a halt. “Well, well, I might have known you'd already be up, snooping around.”

Jeff jumped up and greeted him. “Morning, Marshal. I figured you'd come by early. I asked around and a couple of people told me you always make really early rounds. I wanted to observe. It's a fine, peaceful morning, isn't it?” He walked up and put out his hand. Jake leaned down to shake it and Jeff lowered his voice.

“Jake, there's a man on the roof of the hardware store across from the jail. And one of those men I saw yesterday—he's inside. I saw him go in earlier and heard a scuffle, but no gunshots. I think they're waiting for you.”

Jake kept hold of his hand, squeezing it lightly. “Well then, I'm glad you're an early riser.” He let go and casually dismounted, tying his horse. “Don't look around,” he told Jeff. “Just go sit back down on that bench. What about the third man you saw yesterday?”

“I don't know. I only saw two.”

Jake rubbed at the back of his neck. “Well, when the shooting starts, you get yourself into that alley and behind some cover.”

“Yes, sir.” Jeff swallowed. “Don't you want me to go get your son?”

Jake tossed his cigarette to the ground and stepped it out. Jeff couldn't imagine how he could act so casual knowing several men with guns were waiting for him.

“No,” Jake told him. “It's too late, and I don't want to risk my son getting shot on the first day of his marriage. You just do like I said. And if all goes well today, you've got your story. I'll owe you—plenty.”

Jeff nodded. “Thank you, sir.” They both stood at the side of Jake's horse opposite the jail so they would be hard to see. “Can I help?” Jeff asked. “I could get your rifle or shotgun off your horse.”

Jake actually grinned in spite of the situation he was in. “Jeff, have you ever held or shot a gun in your life?”

Jeff smiled sheepishly. “No, sir.”

“Which means you'd be more danger than good, but thanks for the offer.”

“Aren't you afraid they'll all just start shooting?”

“No.” Jake leaned against a post as though just having a normal, friendly conversation. “They want me to face them down so they can say they shot me in a real gunfight. If they back-shoot me, they can't take credit for being the brave bastards who killed Jake Harkner.”

“Hell, Jake, my legs feel like rubber. I'm not even sure I can run into that alley. Maybe I'll die today.”

Jake grinned again. “Don't worry. They don't give a shit about you. It's me they want. You just head for that alley casual-like. I'm going over to the jail.”

Jeff took a deep breath. “Yes, sir.”
Casual?
Jeff wanted to duck and run. He watched in terror as Jake headed for the jail, crossing the alley and stepping up onto the boardwalk. He stopped before he reached the one small front window of the jail and leaned against the brick wall.

“You in there, Sparky?” he called out.

No reply.

Someone crouched over moved along the rooftop across the street. Whoever it was carefully peeked over the fake front at the top. In almost the same instant, Jake's gun boomed.

Jeff jumped up and ran into the alley, pulling Jake's horse with him. He was amazed at how fast it happened. A second later, a body rolled off the side of the hardware store, then crashed into the alley next to it, his rifle tumbling down and landing near him. A passerby who'd been approaching the store ran inside and slammed the door.

Everything fell silent for a moment except for someone shouting down the street. “Someone's shooting down there!”

“Stay away! Stay away!” another yelled.

“Jake Harkner, you bastard!” someone inside the jail yelled. “How did you know we were in here? Was it that four-eyed shrimp of a reporter who told you?”

Jake recognized Bo Buckley's voice. “No one needed to tell me,” Jake yelled back. “I saw your man on that rooftop and figured you might be stupid enough to wait inside for me. You've trapped yourselves, Buckley, so come on out and give up your guns!”

“Fuck you, Harkner! Come in and get us!”

“If I have to come in there, you'll die, Bo. That's a promise. If I go down, you'll go down with me. Is that what you want?”

Someone threw open the jail door, but no one stepped out. “Come on in, Jake! Me and the boys don't mind sharin' a cup of coffee before we blow you to pieces!”

“What have you done with Sparky, Bo?”

“He's okay—just locked up. It ain't Sparky we want to kill!”

“I'll give you one more chance, Bo. You know me. You know I'll get at least two of you before you have a chance to fire your guns. Stop this now and all it means is a little jail time. At least you'll be alive.”

“You won't get off one shot before we blow your ass into the street, Harkner.”

“You willing to bet on that?”

“Gordy, Ted, Marty, and Stu are with me—all armed.”

“Dell didn't come along?”

“My little brother? He's too young to blow a man's head off, but we'll teach him right and proper.”

“Who was on the roof?”

“A guy we hired last night in a saloon—said he'd throw his gun in with us. Hell, I don't even remember his name.”

“Well then, at least I shot a stranger and not a kid. I don't like having to shoot men as young as Dell. That's why I just smashed Brad's chest in, rather than blow his brains out.”

“Well now, ain't that kind of you?”

“I thought it was.”

The men inside laughed.

“Jake Harkner, kind and thoughtful toward kids, and a ruthless, murderin' sonofabitch toward everybody else.”

“Something like that,” Jake answered. “You try anything, or hurt Sparky, and you'll see the ruthless, murdering-sonofabitch side of me.”

Five
men
against
one.
Jeff wondered how he would manage to find his next breath.

“What about the hired gun, Bo?” Jake yelled. “Who is he?”

“Pierce Henry. He's out in the street somewhere, waiting to shoot your ass if we can't do it. One way or another, you'll die today for killin' Jack, and for what you done to Brad. The kid is hurtin' real bad, Jake. He might not live.”

“He made his choice,” Jake yelled back. “Now come on out of there, unless you're ready to die! Give it some thought.”

It was then that everything changed. A little boy came running down the street on short little legs. “Gampa! Gampa!”

Jeff froze in terror.
My
God, it's Jake's grandson!

“Jesus Christ!” Jake swore.

After that, all hell broke loose. Jeff's eyes widened at the sight of Little Jake Harkner, still in his pajamas, running toward his grandfather. Jake charged off the boardwalk and literally leaped over a hitching post. He ducked and rolled his way toward his grandson while guns blazed from inside the jail. Jake grabbed Little Jake and rolled the both of them toward a large crate sitting on the boardwalk in front of the hardware store. He kept the boy in one arm while firing his six-gun with his other hand.

Someone inside the jail cried out. Jake stood long enough to literally throw Little Jake into the crate. When he did so, a bullet hit his thigh and Jake went down.

“Oh my God!” Jeff muttered.

Little Jake began screaming and kept trying to climb back out of the crate. “You stay in that crate, Little Jake!” Jake roared at him. He was on the ground but had both guns blazing. Two more men ran out of the jail. Jake fired twice more and that's all it took. Both men went down.

“Stop! Stop!” someone called from inside the jail.

By then, Jeff saw Lloyd Harkner running from up the street toward his father, wearing only denim pants—no shirt and no shoes, his hair hanging long and loose instead of tied back the way he usually wore it. He was carrying one six-gun, and another was stuffed into the waist of his pants.

“Pa!” he yelled, noticing Jake on the ground.

“Stay the hell back!” Jake yelled.

Someone threw guns out onto the boardwalk from inside the jail. “We're comin' out, Jake!” someone shouted.

Jake managed to get to his feet while Little Jake continued screaming with tearful, pitiful sobs that Jeff suspected must be tearing at his grandfather's heart.

“Little Jake!” a woman screamed. It was Jake's daughter, Evie.

“Stay the hell back!” Jake yelled. “He's okay!”

Jeff saw Evie's husband, Brian, running up behind her. He grabbed her arm and held her back.

Everything quieted for a moment while the last two men inside the jail slowly stepped out, one wounded, the other still fine. The wounded one had a bleeding arm and wore an eye patch.

Marty
Bryant
, Jeff noted. He figured the other man to be Stu Forbes.

“Kick those guns off the boardwalk into the street!” Jake ordered, stumbling slightly.

Lloyd moved slowly closer, his other gun drawn and both guns aimed at the two men who'd stepped out of the jail.

“One wrong move, and you'll join the others,” Lloyd told them.

“Pierce Henry!” Jake roared, quickly adding bullets to his guns. Blood poured down the side of his denim pants.

Lloyd looked over at his father. “Pa, let me handle the rest of this.”

“No!” Jake barked. “There's one more! He's a hired gun, so you let me take care of it!” He put one six-gun back into its holster but kept the other one drawn as he looked around.

“Damn it, Pa, you're wounded!”

Jake paid no attention. “Come on out, Henry!” he roared. “You're supposed to finish me off! Come on out and take care of business like a man! You either shoot me down the cowardly way—from cover—or come out and face me!”

BOOK: Do Not Forsake Me
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