Authors: Terry Irving
Rick turned off his headlight as they approached the bridge. He shifted all the way down into first, the engine screaming in protest, but he didn't want to use the brakes and have the rear light broadcast their location. Finally, he put the Ducati in neutral and dragged his feet until it stopped just before the bridge.
"Time to get off," he said.
With a muffled groan, Eve swung off the back of the saddle seat and promptly fell to the ground. She waved her hand and said, "Keep going. My legs are asleep."
He could hear the pain in her voice as he killed the engine, got off on the other side, pushed the bulky machine off the road, and into the thick fresh grass that spread around the water. As soon as he had the bike below the road, he rested it against the concrete of the bridge and headed back to Eve.
He tried to run, but the best he could do was an aching shamble. Eve was standing by the time he reached her, and he threw her arm over his shoulder and almost dragged her off the road. The sound of engines was coming fast, but the white cones of headlights still flickered high on the trees next to the riverbank so they weren’t in sight yet.
With a last effort, Rick put his arm around Eve's waist and dove into the grass. Then he rolled them both until they stopped, his dark jacket and chaps on top of her white and blue leather racing suit. They were close against the bridge, and he could feel the intense heat of the Ducati's exhaust pipes on his neck.
The engine sounds hit a crescendo as their pursuers passed, and he heard eight sets of wheels banging off the expansion joints on the bridge. As he waited for the sounds to die, he counted off the pickups he'd seen so far—two at the bend near Oglala and one coming head-on just a few miles back. Now there were four, all going faster than even the liberal standards of South Dakota's highways could allow.
These guys were being reinforced.
Eve reached up and knocked on his helmet. "Hello? Earth to Agent Putnam."
He grinned and rolled away from the bike. "Thanks."
She started undoing her helmet. "Ravishing me on the riverbank was a nice thought, but I'm afraid sex is simply going to have to wait until I'm sure I still have the proper equipment."
"Probably shouldn't admit it but I can't feel anything at all down there."
"I knew there was a downside to all this running around on motorcycles." She made a little sound—a moan bitten off by willpower. "OK, this is a rotten time for the feeling to come back in my leg."
Rick inspected her right leg as well as he could by the flickering light of the Zippo. The leather had absorbed most of the damage, but the barbed wire had torn a shallow gash in her calf, and several inches of the white leather were dark with blood. He got a small bag of supplies from the web of bungee cords that held the gas can on the backrest of the bike. Rummaging, he pulled out a small brown bottle.
"Hydrogen Peroxide. Brace yourself."
He flicked the Zippo on his leg and held it in his left hand while he poured the clear liquid on the cut with his right. Eve hissed. He wrapped a roll of gauze bandage over the leather pants and taped it down.
"Had a tetanus shot lately?"
She laughed, rolling into a seated position. "I thought you met my father. I've been vaccinated against every bug known to man. I'm just worried that it will scar my million-dollar legs. I don't suppose you have any White Oak Bark in that bag?"
He pretended to look. "Don't think so." "How about Mugwort?"
"Scullcap? Knitbone? Gravel Root?"
"Nothing but aspirin."
"That'll do just fine. I'm not all that sure that any of the other crap works anyway."
He pulled a canteen from the back of the bike and handed it to her with the aspirin. Then he climbed up and scanned the road. He saw some headlights in both directions, but nothing moving fast enough to be active pursuit. He ducked back down.
"We'd better get moving," he said, snapping the Zippo to check his watch. "We're supposed to reach our first fuel drop in ten minutes. Hate to keep him waiting."
"God forbid." She stood and started to undo the braid wrapped in a bun at the back of her head. "Just let me get this hair out from under the helmet. It's been giving me a headache that's even worse than the one from your off-road driving."
Eve loosened her thick braid and tucked it into the back of the leather jacket.
"I'll try to keep that to a minimum from now on," he said as he yanked the bike upright and—holding by the grips—began to pull it backward. The bike’s weight and the awkward position he was forced into made it slow work.
Eve came around the front of the bike and started to reach down to the front forks to help push.
"Whoa!" he warned. "One slip, and you're holding on to a red-hot engine. Push from the center of the handlebars."
They moved a bit faster with her help. "I did that once on my old BMW. I was so cold that I put my hands directly on the exhaust pipes."
She grunted with effort and said, "How did that work out for you?"
"I totaled my winter driving gloves, but it was worth it. My hands were warm for at least five seconds."
"It's going to be damn cold when we go over the mountains."
"Yeah. Just keep your hands in my jacket pockets, or, if you're really cold, you can put them inside my jeans."
He could see the flash of her teeth as she smiled. "Wouldn't that be distracting?"
"Trust me. If it's that cold, it won't matter."
There were no cars in sight when they reached the highway. Even so, he didn't turn on the lights until he was a mile from the bridge.
They pulled into a long-closed gas station just outside Hot Springs. A beat-up sedan parked next to the restrooms flashed its lights. If it hadn't, Rick thought he would have definitely passed it as just another abandoned wreck that littered this part of the country.
He took a cautious circle around the station, checking for anything suspicious. Then he came up beside the driver's window and cut his lights. A passing semi howled toward them and in the light of its high beams, he could see a young man with a weathered face and a large burn scar on his left cheek. The man looked at him and asked, "Seventh Cav?"
"PFC. Putnam. Charlie Company," Rick answered.
"Corporal Leon Bent Horn. Black Knights. Third of the Fifth." He reached over the seat and passed a gas can through the window. "Careful with that. Hot engine is how I got this." He pointed to the scar on his cheek. "
Valley on the Laotian Border. All those damn gooks trying to kill me, and I spill gas on my own damn jeep."
He laughed, coughed, and lit a cigarette.
Rick carefully opened the tank and filled it from the can.
Eve asked, "Seen anyone strange tonight?"
"Stranger than a Cheyenne girl out riding with a white boy?"
Eve stiffened but didn't say anything.
Bent Horn looked at her closely. "Nothing that weird, but there were a bunch of cowboy Cadillacs with guys standing up in the beds." Rick closed the gas can and handed it back through the window. "Most were carrying long guns." He looked up at Rick. "Don't suppose you'd know anything about that, would you?"
"Hell, no." Rick slapped the tank closed and said, "I'm just taking a quiet ride in the mountains. Appreciate the top-up."
"Don't slow down to see the sights on your way through Hot Springs. If I were you, I'd stay frosty." Bent Horn tried to start the old beater, but it failed with a chorus of bangs and a cloud of blue smoke.
Rick banged on the car roof for a 'thank you.' As they pulled away, Eve turned around and gave the driver the finger. Then she smiled sweetly and waved goodbye.
They could hear Bent Horn laughing and coughing even over the sound of their engine.
Hot Springs had seen better days. Tattered billboards advertised the health advantages of a plunge in the warm springs and a restful night at the Hide A Way Cabins. The buildings looked authentically Western and authentically aged.
Despite Bent Horn’s advice, Rick figured that a high-speed run through town would only result in a police chase. His spare driver's license would take care of a ticket, but a radio call and a spike strip somewhere ahead could mean a significant delay. They cruised at the speed limit through the dark town looking at the neon of the honky-tonk bars, and the hookers smoking under the streetlights.
"Some of those girls could qualify as an Old West attraction all by themselves," Eve said over his shoulder.
"Just adds to the authentic feel."
"Authentic feel? That's one way of putting it."
Rick laughed. "Well, you have to have entertainment for the lonely traveler." He stopped at the corner a block away from the intersection with Main Street. Several sets of headlights blocked their route. "However, I'm not at all sure we're lonely."
He backed the heavy motorcycle carefully until there was enough room to make a slow turn into an alley behind the stores and bars on Main. They cruised slowly, the Ducati held to a low rumble. After several blocks, they pulled back onto Main Street and looked to the left.
"Damn." Rick muttered. "Looks like they've picked up some bikes. Should have figured they would after I blew past those guys near Oglala."
"Can they ride as well as you?" Eve asked with a mock innocence. "If you are indeed the best motorcycle driver in the world, I can't see a problem."
"Well, then, it's time for the world's best motorcycle rider and her driver to make tracks." Rick headed out of town, waiting until he was a mile past the last streetlight before opening the throttle and returning to the dance.
Headlights appeared in his mirrors only a couple miles out of town. For a while, he could pretend they were just innocent travelers or one of the infrequent big trucks taking the shortcut to Belle Fourche.
Then more lights appeared, and he could pick out the motorcycles pulling out ahead and the big lights mounted on the roll bars of the pickups. With the part of his mind that wasn't dealing with wrestling a big bike at top speed, he wondered who the hell these people were and where they were getting the money.
They came up behind a semi struggling up the long hill through the grasslands, flashed their lights, and swept past in the empty left lane. As he pulled back in ahead of the truck, the Ducati engine suddenly changed its song and began to labor, slowing by the second.
Eve leaned on his shoulder. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know," he said. "It could be a lot of things, but I think it's the gods giving me a smack on the head for a bad case of over-confidence."
"You really have to watch that. No one likes to be taken for granted."
"I'll light a cigarette for them as soon as I can stop without getting killed," he promised. "But there isn't anywhere for about 20 miles to pull off. This prairie of yours gives 'flat' a bad name."
He could feel her twist to the left to look back past the semi. "It looks like a fair number of vehicles coming up fast. I don't think they're tourists."
She snugged herself back against him—out of the wind. "I do hope you have a plan."
"It's more of an insane idea."
"Oh, goodie. I've loved every one of those so far." She tightened her grip. "I'm ready when you are, trooper."
Rick kept the bike struggling as fast as it could go, but it felt like one of the cylinders had just stopped working. As the semi they'd passed began to creep closer to their rear wheel, he turned off the lights.
"Really, why do you even have lights on your bikes?" His jacket muffled her voice. "I mean all you ever do is turn them off."
"Right now, that truck is providing plenty of light. It's going to get interesting when the first of those guys behind us catch up." He studied his mirrors for a moment. "And here they come."
He backed off the throttle and their speed dropped quickly as the crippled engine stopped straining. Behind them, the trucker flashed his high beams and blew his air horn. Rick raised his left hand with a thumb pointing to the right, hoping the trucker would realize that he was pulling over and not slow down.
Ahead, he saw the light beams as the first of the motorcycles pulled into the passing lane. Carefully, he pulled over onto the shoulder, bumping in the loose gravel, and slowed just enough to let the truck catch up and hide them.
Giving the straining engine a bit more gas, he nearly matched the truck's speed, falling back slowly. The Ducati was handling the bumpy gravel well. He strained to spot "gators," long strips of rubber that had fallen off truck tires, before they knocked his bike off the road.
When he came to the back of the trailer, he goosed the throttle and moved back into the travel lane. They were only a few feet from the rear of the truck, the road illuminated by the truck's taillights. The windblast dropped, and the engine sound dropped.
Eve raised her head. "Wow. Where'd the wind go?"
"We're drafting the truck," Rick said. "Without wind resistance, I can lay off the engine and let the truck pull us."
He checked the mirrors. "And without lights, I'm hoping that the idiots in the pickups won't see us. No one really looks at the back of a truck. You just eyeball the distance and relative speed. The way these guys are moving, I'm betting that they cowboy into the left lane way back and blow right by us."
"Interesting bet. What happens if the truck hits the brakes?"
"Well, you see that bar hanging down on the back?"
"Well, that's called an ICC bar. It's solid so cars don't go under a truck if it's stopped or something—some people call it a 'Jayne Mansfield’ bar."
"Because that's how she died. She was driving way too fast in a convertible and hit the back of a parked truck. You could say she lost her head in a dangerous situation."
Her fist struck his side. "That's disgusting!"
"Yeah, well try and avoid it."
They stayed in the cone of quiet air behind the truck as the pickups came up. As soon as Rick could pick out their headlight beams on the truck door in front of him, he pulled right as far as he could and turned the lights back on. He was betting that his taillight matched the trucks and his headlight would wash out the shadow of his bike thrown by the headlights behind them.
His attention was on the foot or foot and a half between his front tire and that steel bar under the truck's rear. He knew there wouldn't be time to react if the trucker hit his brakes. He would try and go by to the right, but he didn’t think they’d make it. As he heard the pickups getting closer—their engines roaring flat-out—he pulled the bike up closer, inches away. He could see the truck’s rear door bouncing up and banging down against the non-slip ridges of the top step. He risked a glance at his left mirror and saw he had been right. The pickups were already in the passing lane, and they pounded past without a pause.
He slowed, letting the bike fall back, but stayed in the cone of calm air.
"That was fun," Eve said.
"I'm glad you enjoyed it. My hands are sweating inside my gloves." Rick took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "Hopefully we've appeased the gods of luck. I think I'll just take it easy back here until we reach the next turnoff. We're going to take the slower road. We need to fix whatever is wrong before our friends realize they've missed us."
It turned out to be as simple as a loose sparkplug wire. Rick jammed the wire down tight, restarted the bike, and heard the reassuring rumbling hum of the highly tuned engine. He turned off the bike, pulled out a cigarette and his lighter. Then he looked at the sky, said, "OK, this one’s for you," and hit the lighter with the usual down-up flick on his jeans. Lighting the Winston, he said, "Well, I hope that satisfies the Fates and Furies."
Eve pulled the cigarette from his lips and inhaled hungrily. "It would be even better if you did it twice."
He smiled and lit another. For a few moments, they just smoked and looked at the Milky Way stretching over their heads.
Then Rick started to refasten his helmet strap. "We need to make tracks. I get the feeling that they’re not all that bright, but these guys won't go the wrong way forever; and we've still got a lot of tough road to cover before morning. We’re going to have to go over the Needles Highway."
"Great. I was disappointed we missed it coming south. I’ve always heard it was quite pretty. All those sharp turns and exciting drop-offs."
"Should be even more fun in the dark."
The drive past the Custer Battlefield was quick and uneventful. As the road wound upward, there were more trees, pines and scrub mostly, and more turns. Rick was pushing the bike hard but far from its limits or his. They were doing about 90 on the straightaways and only slowing enough to hit the apex on the turns, using both lanes and then pushing the speed right back up.
The next fuel drop was at a cluster of abandoned tourist cabins on the banks of Legion Lake. Rick pulled the bike in slowly, stopped at the beginning of the weed-filled driveway, and swung the front wheel slowly, raking the headlight across the peeling paint, broken glass, and trash. A single headlight flashed twice from next to one of the beat-up cabins.
Rick returned the signal, cut off his lights, and rolled slowly forward. Slouched against an old Harley Electra Glide was a young man with long, straight, black hair and a bandanna tied biker-style over his head.
Rick stopped and, for a moment, no one spoke.
"Well, is one of you going to break down and say something or do you intend to just stare at each other?" Eve swung her leg off the bike saddle and bent to touch her toes. Straightening, she said, "Apparently you are. Why don't I just leave you to it? I need some privacy."
Walking carefully between two of the cabins, she called, "With any luck, you'll have said 'Hello' to each other by the time I get back."
The young man's face broke into a smile as he watched her disappear. "Man, it can't be easy living with that chick."
"Nope, not easy. Definitely worth it, however." Rick stuck out his hand. "Nice to meet you."
"No names? That's cool. I'm Johnny." The younger rider shook Rick's hand, then produced a rubber hose, gave it to Rick, and stuck the other end in his gas tank. "You can take everything in the main tank. I can make it home on the reserve."
Rick sucked on the tube and shoved it into his tank when it began to siphon. Then he spat out the inevitable mouthful of gas. "One of these days, I'll get this to work without having to drink all this damn gas."
"Yeah, that's why I let you suck on it. You headed up over the Needles Highway?"
"OK, I don't need to know.
, it's colder than hell up there so watch out for ice."
"The Park hasn't salted it? They own that road, right?"
The younger man spat. "Own it, shit. The Lakota took it from the Cheyenne in a fair fight back there on Battle Mountain. The government even said it was ours in the Fort Laramie treaty—until they found gold."
"Any gold left?" Rick bent the tube over and pinched it so the gas stopped flowing and handed it back carefully. "I'm just wondering, you understand."
That got him a sharp look and then Johnny laughed. "You're OK, white boy."
"He's better than that." Eve came back from behind the cabin, buckling her helmet. "And I think we Cheyenne have a pretty good claim on these hills ourselves, so back your Lakota ass off."
"Huh." Johnny slung a leg over the Electra Glide, "You got a
"She isn't mine." Rick closed the tank and restarted the engine. "She very definitely belongs to herself."
"OK, don't freak out." Johnny leaned over and whispered to Rick, "But, if the road don't kill you, she probably will."
Eve got on, and they pulled out.
When they were far enough away not to be heard, Rick asked, "So what is a
, I've already figured out."
"It's hard to translate but 'tough chick' is pretty close."
"Well, that's accurate."
"Damn right." She tucked into his back. "Now, put some spurs to this thing, trooper. We're burning starlight."
The Needles Highway at night wasn't the beautiful drive it was in the day. Driving was like cutting through dark cold water. Outside the cone of the headlight was pure black. Rick was forced to keep the big bike below 40 to make the tight turns and blind corners.
Twice, he slammed on the brakes as deer eyes flashed yellow in the headlights. They just watched the bike come at them as he locked up the rear wheels and cursed. When the Ducati had finally stopped, they turned and ambled off the road. Once, red eyes flickered on the edge of the road—the sign of a predator—but they saw nothing as they sped by.