A little later that morning, however, the man in black came in, making no fuss and heading over to his usual table. Both the waitress and the old man at the bar managed to hold back for several seconds before they headed over.
The man in black nodded at both Jenny and Hillpaw as they settled into the other two chairs at the table. He showed no surprise at their curiosity, but merely waited for them to settle into their seats.
“Now, where was I,” he said, once both Jenny and Old Hillpaw were listening.
Old Hillpaw held his tongue for a moment, remembering how the story had been about to get worse, but Jenny immediately spoke up. “You were heading up towards the Dakota territories,” she volunteered.
The man in black nodded again. “Ah, yes,” he agreed, shuffling through his papers. “We were almost to the Iron Range of Minnesota, and we were starting to think that we had lost the Organization’s agents behind us…”
We were still traveling slowly, Danni and I, but with each day that we headed north, our confidence grew. It had now been over a week since someone had last attempted to kill or capture us.
I had to admire Danni’s courage and resolution. Over half a dozen crackling campfires, she shared her story, explaining how she grew up with nothing, how she set her sights on obtaining more than she knew she’d receive in her life.
I mostly felt impressed as I listened to her story, but a small part of me, my beaten-down and half-extinguished morality, recoiled in horror. This was what we pushed for in our society? This is the status quo that the Organization fought to preserve? We kept an entire class forced down, denigrated to second-class citizens at best, forced to toil in poverty for the entirety of their short, sad lives?
With each night we spent talking, my respect for Danni grew stronger, and my anger against the Organization and its ilk grew hotter and more furious.
Yet whenever I felt myself withdrawing, growing cold with anger against the wider world, Danni somehow sensed my innermost thoughts. “Jasper, it’s going to be all right,” she soothed me, one of her hands straying gently along the length of my arm.
I shook my head. “You broke out, but you haven’t seen what I have,” I responded, not meeting her gaze. “Trust me, you don’t know how bad things can get.”
“So what, you’re going to solve all those problems at the end of your gun?” Danni responded, rolling her eyes – but not taking away her hand from where it rested against me. “I’m sure that will fix everything.”
If she had been anyone else, I would have snapped back at her. But with Danni, I held my tongue, and after a moment, she moved closer to me so that she could lean up against my side. I lifted my arm to rest it around her shoulders, and we sat and watched the fire burn down to glowing embers.
The next morning, as we walked along the North Dakota road, I caught a rumbling in the distance. The road we trudged along was little more than a dirt trail, but I could see a pillar of dust rising up from the approaching newcomer.
Our coats, heavier to protect against the chill of the fall air, were bulky and made it difficult to maneuver. Still, I drew my revolver as we stepped off to the side of the road, Danni sliding back behind me.
The rumbling noise resolved itself into a man, most of his face covered with a huge, bushy beard, sitting on top of a wooden horse-pulled cart. He eased off on the reins as he approached, and the cart slowed as his horse dropped to a walk.
“Well, howdy!” he greeted us with a smile, pretending not to notice the gun in my hand. “Yew folks look like yew could use a ride!”
My eyes ran over him. Stout, probably in his fifties, apparently unarmed. Deep wrinkles in his face turned up when he smiled, as he did now. “We sure could,” I agreed, making a decision. “Mind carrying us on a bit?”
The man’s smile deepened. “Well, sure, but I could offer yew more than that, if you’re interested,” he said, as we hopped up into the back of the open cart behind him. “I’m headed back towards my house, down this road a ways. If yew need a warm, comfy place to spend the night, I’m always up for some company!”
I hesitated. The man looked friendly enough, but a lifetime of instincts screamed not to trust anyone.
I glanced over at Danni, however, and my heart softened. She could use a night someplace warm, someplace indoors instead of out in a bedroll at a makeshift campsite.
“We’d be thrilled,” I answered the man.
For the next few hours, as the cart trundled on, I chatted with the man, although I knew enough to let him do most of the talking. He prattled on about the cold winters, how hard it was to survive up here, how he always “kept his nose pressed to the ground” for opportunities. I nodded but said little.
A glance behind me revealed that Danni was sprawled out in the back, her head resting on her pack, her mouth open slightly as she slowly breathed in and out. I couldn’t help smiling at her innocent slumber.
With the sun halfway down in its descent from the top of the sky, we arrived at the man’s house, a small but sturdy looking cabin. The horse eased the cart to a stop, and I hopped back to wake up Danni and help her down. “C’mon in when yew two are ready,” the man commented, and ducked inside.
Once awake, Danni waved away my offer of help climbing down from the cart. “Here, I’ll go inside,” she said, grabbing the two packs. “I can see that you need to stretch, after sitting up on that cart all day. Take your time!”
I protested, but she wouldn’t hear it. “Go on, walk around, make sure we’re safe,” she insisted, pushing me away before heading for the house.
I thought about ignoring her command, not wanting her out of my sight. But she was right; I had been sitting on the cart for far too long, and my cramped muscles cried out for a stretch. I strolled down the road a little ways, gazing out across the empty fields as I let my sore legs recover.
A hundred feet out, I suddenly paused.
Wait a minute. Why were the fields empty?
I turned around again, looking back at the little cabin. I now noticed that there were no other outbuildings around. Where would the man’s horse stay? There was no barn for it.
An alarm began wailing in my head, and I started back towards the house at a trot. Something was wrong.
Three steps closer, my ears caught the faint sound of a scream, coming from the throat of a terrified young woman, and my trot turned into a flat-out sprint. My muscles screamed, but I ignored them, fumbling at my hip for my gun.
And then, fifty feet from the front door, I saw the house flash with red and orange, and a giant’s fist slammed into my chest and threw me backwards.