“We can’t just go around buying up everything and showing our faces,” I explained as I rubbed stable dirt into the creases on my face, checking my reflection in the silvered glass piece in the hotel room. “We have to assume that the Organization knows that I’m with you, and they’ll be watching for either of us – or, even worse, both of us together.”
The hotel that we had chosen was slightly nicer than the average, and I’d circled carefully through the town streets before I decided that it was acceptable. The building was tall but didn’t stand next to any comparable adjacent structures, preventing infiltration. The manager and staff were paid well enough to ensure the privacy of their visitors, but not so well that they wouldn’t accept a bribe to make sure they kept their mouths shut.
Against the Priests, however, I didn’t know how much good that bribe would do. When a man’s got a gun to his head and he can feel the last few seconds of his life trickling away, money tends to not matter too much to him any longer.
Even as I explained our first steps, however, Danni didn’t seem thrilled. She was even less enthused when I told her what she’d have to change about her appearance.
“I can’t do it!” she cried, both of her hands flying up to try and protect her gorgeous locks of burning red-orange hair. “It’s who I am!”
“Be reasonable, Danni,” I commanded, still holding the knife in one hand. “Either you cut it, or you dye it. Preferably both. It can always grow back out and return to its normal color.”
Finally, the young woman let me trim and dye her precious locks. “I would almost rather just have a shootout and put an end to all of this,” she complained as she watched the little strands of hair fall down the floor around her chair. “At least then I’d get to plug a few of these bastards before I go.”
“No offense,” she added a moment later, turning to glance back up at me.
“None taken,” I replied, smiling back a little at her earnestness and concern about offending me. I couldn’t remember the last time that someone had worried about hurting my feelings – at least, not out of anything but fear or self-preservation.
A few minutes later, and my rough haircut was done. Experimentally, Danni reached up and felt her new, shorter hair. “At least it will be easier to keep out of the way,” she remarked, although I knew she was trying to make herself feel better.
I put the knife away and sat down on the hotel room’s single bed. “I have something that might cheer you up,” I suggested.
She glanced over at me. “Yeah? I kind of doubt it, but give it a shot.”
So I laid out the rest of my half-formed plan.
By the time that I finished, Danni was no longer frowning. Instead, a slow, deliberate grin had spread across her face and her eyes sparkled with anticipation. “Wow,” she breathed out. “That’s even more bloodthirsty than anything I’d imagined, Priest.”
“Not any longer,” I replied to her. “It’s just Jasper, now. I think I’m done with the Priests for good.”
“That’s good – I approve,” Danni commented, standing up and stepping over to stand beside the bed. She leaned forward on top of me, letting her hips push back a little and accentuating her figure. “I’m not sure the long black coat suits you.”
“Really? I kind of liked it.”
Danni shook her head. “I think it’s time for you to try something new,” she murmured to me. “Why don’t you try taking it off?”
A few minutes later, she made several soft sounds of approval as the coat settled into a crumpled pile on the floor.
And soon after that, the coat was covered up by other garments, falling softly to the floor as we discarded them.
The next morning, as the sun climbed higher in the sky, we were headed out of town, our new horses now loaded up with fresh supplies.
“Our first destination is up north,” I had told Danni the night before, as her fingers traced soft circles across my bare chest.
She sat up a little as she gazed down at me, propping herself up on her elbows. Even darkened and cut short, her hair still hung around her pretty face like a halo, making her seem alive and full of motion. “What, up near Minnesota and the Dakota territories? Why would we want to go up there?”
“I know a man up there,” I replied, my finger slowly sliding down the curve of her spine. “Runs a mining company, working on the Iron Range. He’s going to have some of the supplies that we need – and he’s the only option I can imagine for what we’re considering.”
Danni nodded, turning and leaning back so that she could gaze up at the wooden ceiling over us. Her head nestled into the crook of my arm, fitting comfortably. I liked the feel of her warm body pressed up against mine. “God, this plan is crazy, isn’t it?” she said after a minute.
“It is,” I agreed. “But, honestly, I don’t see much of another option.”
For a long time, Danni was silent. I was starting to think that she might have fallen asleep, when suddenly she nodded. “Well, no looking back,” she said, the words barely above a whisper. “Let’s do it.”
Our next couple of weeks were largely uneventful, although they definitely took all the energy we had. We’d be up each morning with the sun, pushing the horses as much as we dared as we headed north. We did our best to stick to smaller roads and trails, trying to avoid the main thoroughfares as much as possible. There was no way of knowing where the Organization would position its spies, but we did our best to be as invisible as we could.
We still had to stop every now and then for supplies, and we’d often take the chance to trade in the horses. No point in getting stuck out in the middle of nowhere if a horse threw a shoe. When we dared to venture into larger towns, I put out a few feelers to see whether the Priests were after us.
After the third attempted ambush, I started to realize just how deep in the mud hole we’d sunk.
“They mean to make an example out of you two,” one of my contacts told me in hushed tones over a beer at the back of the little town’s saloon. His gnarled hands trembled a little as he lifted his drink. “They’ve started to hear more murmurs of dissent, and Management is cracking down hard. They’re throwing everything up against you two, now.”
My contact pointed at me. “‘Specially you,” he reiterated. “Deserting the Priests? Jasper, no one leaves the Priests. Not with their heart still beating, at least.”
“Well, I did,” I replied, tossing a few coins onto the table for the beer. “Thanks, Doc. I’ll be seeing you.”
“I hope so,” the man murmured as Danni and I left.
After that conversation, Danni and I began moving a little slower as we tried to take even more precautions.
Still, even with our slowed pace, we made progress. We decided to swing around, cut through the Dakota territories instead of risking going straight north through St. Paul. The Minnesota capital was on the Mississippi’s head, a prime location for outsiders to hop on and off the barges that traversed the wide river. We’d attract less attention, we figured, if we headed north through the Badlands and then cut east.
The man in black sighed, leaning back from the table and shrugging his shoulders to stretch out the sore muscles. “I think that’s a good place to take a break,” he commented to his audience.
Jenny, perched on the edge of her seat, blinked with surprise. “What? But we’re getting to the good part! I want to know what your plan was!” she cried out in dismay.
Old Hillpaw held his tongue. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he caught the slightest hint of a quiver in the man in black’s voice. Something was coming, he sensed.
The man in black shook his head. “Sorry, hon, but we’re not getting to the good part,” he said to Jenny with surprising gentleness. “In fact, I’d say we’re getting to the bad part.”
The young waitress just stared back at the man in black, her mouth hanging open in a little O. “The bad part?” she repeated.
“This story doesn’t have a happy ending, I’m guessing,” Old Hillpaw commented.
The man in black glanced at him. “It has an ending,” he said. “How you feel about that ending, though, I’ve no way of knowing.”
He stood up, reaching up into the air and stretching. “But it’s getting late,” he pointed out, glancing out at the setting sun through the bar’s grimy windows. “I think the rest of this story will have to wait for tomorrow, if you’re still willing to hear the rest.”
Jenny nodded immediately, jumping up to her feet. “I’ll be here,” she promised.
The man in black glanced at Hillpaw, and the old man was astonished to see a little hint of hope in those dark eyes. “I’ll be here too,” he gruffly gave in. “Not like i’ve got much else, anyway.”
That little glint of hope, of concern that Hillpaw might say no, was gone as fast as it had appeared, but the older man knew what he had seen. “Until tomorrow,” the man in black concluded, gathering up his typewritten pages.
“Until tomorrow,” Hillpaw and Jenny echoed after him.