THEY CALLED HIM Slug. Maybe it is because he liked to punch people. Maybe because he looked fat and somewhat slimy. Or maybe because he made people bleed. Either way, when Slug strode into a bar people cleared out of his way or ran for the exits. Except at the Mine Shaft.
In the Shaft on Saturday, as on any night, he was welcomed like family – surely a dysfunctional family, probably like yours or mine, but as family nonetheless.
Shorty slid a beer and two shots of whiskey his way with a welcoming nod of the head. He did the same for Slug’s two bodyguards, one a step behind each of his shoulders. Guys named Slug seldom need bodyguards, but most other guys named Slug are not president of outlaw motorcycle gangs either. As such, Slug had lots of enemies – some of the law enforcement variety and some of the law-breaking variety. His bodyguards were there to see that those meetings were rare or at least discouraged.
“They here?” Slug asked in a growly mumble best understood by Tarzan King of the Jungle or by old bartenders named Shorty, who nodded toward the back table.
Slug took both shot glasses between his right thumb and forefinger, opened his mouth wide and splashed them down in one flick of the wrist before walking over with his beer in the other hand.
Reuben, Larry and Buster watched the glacier of black ice slide their way. Black was the color for every season for Slug – t-shirt, vest, jeans and leather beret pulled down to his bushy black eyebrows. He was 320 if he was an ounce. Scraggly black hair was pulled back in a loose pony tail that hung to the middle of his back. He hadn’t shaved since the invention of the electric razor. Slug was 6-foot-4 without his leather boots on – like that ever happened – and his tattooed neck showcased an affinity for knives.
The president of the Black Lords sat down. The wooden chair moaned. Larry even emitted a tiny squeak of his own.
Slug raised his chubby arm and dismissed his sidekicks with a flip of a pudgy wrist and they retreated to the bar warily. Slug eyeballed Larry a bit, ignored Buster and turned his gaze to Reuben. Slug smiled, a gold tooth glittering, and said: “How’s it going Reuben?”
“Always good to see you, Slug,” he replied.
Larry and Buster snapped their heads toward Reuben seated between them. “You know him?” Larry asked in amazement.
“My neighbor from across the street,” Reuben smirked a bit.
“Tell Rose thanks for sending over the casserole while I was laid up,” Slug said. “Mighty nice of her.”
“She’s a whiz with that tuna,” Reuben replied.
“Were you ill?” Larry asked.
“Bad leg,” Slug said.
“Gout?” Buster joined the conversation.
“Allergic reaction,” Slug said.
“I’m allergic to bullets too,” Reuben laughed.
“Water under the bridge,” Slug said.
“Well thanks for agreeing to meet with us,” Reuben said. “I’m sure you’re a busy man.”
“July is my slow month. Whatcha need?”
“We need someone to teach us how to ride a Harley,” Reuben explained.
“Must be a thousand guys in these Hills who could do that. Why me?”
“We need someone we can trust to be discreet, who won’t remember seeing us, who won’t rat us out if something newsworthy were to happen in the near future,” Reuben said.
“That about sums it up,” Reuben said.
“I think it can be arranged. When and where?”
“Sooner the better.”
“Tomorrow. Noon. At our ranch.”
“You have a ranch?” Buster said perplexed.
Slug paused and stared at him. Buster slunk down in his chair a couple inches. “If I say I have a ranch, I have a ranch.”
“We’ll be there,” Reuben said.
“Shorty can give you directions,” Slug said, getting up and pointing a thick finger at Buster. “And watch your mouth.”
Buster’s mouth hung agape as Slug and his posse vacated the building.
“What’d I say?” Buster said, holding his arms out. “What’d I say?”
“I don’t know,” Larry said, “but don’t say it again.”
“TURN LEFT HERE,” Larry told Reuben.
“That must be it up there,” Buster said from the back of the van. The quarter-mile gravel driveway led to an immense A-frame log cabin. From the front it appeared no bigger than your usual two-story A-frame but it extended back about four times farther than any other they had ever seen.
A timber deck wrapped around as far as they could see. A couple hammocks hung from beams and an immense bar bulged out from the west side. It was attached to another deck with three six-person hot tubs sunk inside it. A half dozen shiny Harleys were parked out front, but what caught Buster’s eagle eye were the four topless ladies dangling their feet in one of the tubs.
The boys parked next to the Harleys and briefly sat in the van absorbing the sights.
“Wow, I bet the Sierra Club really hates these guys,” Larry said, admiring the yards and yards of dead trees needed to build the fort.
“Leave it to you to be admiring the logs when there are four Playboy bunnies tanning their tatas right in front of us,” Buster said.
“Well I won’t get the crap kicked out of me for drooling over their trees,” Larry said.
“Yes, mind your manners,” Reuben said. “Where is your wifey anyway?”
“She went into Rapid City to get her nipples pierced. Should keep her busy for a couple hours.”
“Ouch,” Larry muttered. “What are they gonna use – a power drill?”
Reuben chuckled and added. “It’ll give her another place to hang her fish hooks.”
“Very funny,” Buster tisked.
“At least we’ll know where to contact her when you’re taken to the morgue,” Larry said.
Just then two men who looked like they could’ve been from ZZ Top exited the house and waved them up.
“Best not to keep them waiting,” Reuben said, sliding the van door open and leading the troops onward.
The bearded duo met them at the steps. “You the dumb asses who don’t know how to ride?” asked the shirtless one in black sunglasses and blue jeans.
“We be them,” Reuben said introducing his partners.
“I’m Zeke,” the tall shirtless one said. “This is Snake.” Snake was shorter, about 6-foot, and wore a black Poison concert shirt and jeans. Both had a body mass index that indicated they preferred more red meat and potatoes and less tofu and greens.
“Your bikes are around back,” Zeke said, waving them to follow. They did as told and walked past the hot tubs and ladies, who waved politely. Reuben and Larry offered acknowledging tips of the head like four naked ladies was nothing new to them. Buster though stopped to shake hands with each of them. A scowl from Snake hurried him along.
“Is Slug around?” Reuben asked, walking alongside Zeke.
“No. Had some last-minute business in Denver. Told us to help you out.”
“Appreciate it,” Reuben said.
When they finally made it around to the back of the house, they saw three motorcycles leaning on their kickstands with several miles of barren prairie stretching beyond. They were about six miles east of Sturgis, well removed from the forest visible off in the distance to the west. The motorcycles were not at all like the pristine, immaculately detailed ones out front. These were stripped down pieces of metal with just the basics – two wheels, handle bars, an engine and a seat.
“Doesn’t look like we can hurt them too much,” Buster blurted.
Zeke cranked his head around and said to him: “Slug gave us two orders. Teach ‘em to ride and don’t let ‘em run over any of the bitches.”
“Did he say ‘ditches’?” Buster whispered in Larry’s ear beside him.
“No. He said ‘bitches.’ In the best meaning of the word I’m sure.”
“Don’t reckon I could get by with calling Candy that, no matter how nicely I said it.”
“It would be fun to watch you try though,” Larry added.
They gathered around the cycles and Zeke began giving them the lecture on Harley Etiquette 101. While his delivery was surprisingly eloquent, Zeke’s words were obscured by the distraction of his gesticulations with his arms. He was one of those people who spoke with grand waves of the arms punctuated by punches with his fists where periods and exclamation points should be.
Every time he made one of his grandiose gestures it caused the tattoos on his chest to move. Zeke had two giant lizards inked in red, one on each pec. The tails began somewhere below his belt line and stretched upward along the sides of his stomach. The lizard necks curled around each nipple and the heads met a couple inches apart just below his collar bone. When he waved an arm it looked like a lizard was taking a bite at the other. When he waved both arms it looked like an old Japanese movie. It was quite the sight to behold. As such, the distraction caused the teachers to absorb only about half of his instruction. The most important of which was: Before learning to go, know how to stop.
“Any questions?” Zeke asked.
While there should have been many, there was only one. Buster asked, “Do you have helmets for us?”
Zeke and Snake howled, slapped backs, punched shoulders and laughed some more. “Helmets are for women!” Zeke said.
“You a woman?” Snake asked.
“No,” Buster assured them.
“Then who’s first?” Zeke asked.
Larry exuberantly poked his hand in the air. Reuben half expected him to ask permission to use the restroom, but he didn’t. “I’ll go,” Larry said, swinging a leg over a hog and grabbing the handlebars. “Where should I go?”
“Out to the wooden fence and back for starters,” Snake said. “Slowly.”
Larry kick started it on the first try and was proud of the fact. He looked over his shoulder at Reuben and Buster and gave them a thumbs up. Buster smiled back and flipped him off.
It’s a scientific fact that once aboard a Harley Davidson a man’s testosterone level triples, his gonads enlarge and his nose hairs immediately grow an extra half inch. For Larry, the effects were no different. He revved the cycle a few times, enjoying the vibration between his thighs a bit too much, let it roar back down to a slow rumble for a few seconds and then gave it another jolt of gas. He let loose of the clutch, his head jerked back, the front tire popped off the ground, and despite a couple swerves left and right and a near wipe-out, Larry held firm and was off.
With both tires back on the ground, Larry didn’t let up on the gas, somehow managed a couple shifts of the clutch and headed straight for the wooden fence a couple hundred yards to the left. Still upright, it was soon obvious though that Larry wasn’t driving the bike, he was simply holding on for dear life.
The small gang of expert and novice on-lookers knew trouble when they saw it and trouble was shooting away from them at 50-miles per. They started jogging behind as Larry quickly covered the ground between where he’d started and the fence.
“Slow down!” Snake hollered.
“Hit the brake!” Zeke added.
Larry hit the brake, but it was the wrong one – the front brake. Fifteen feet before the fence, the front tire dug into the virgin prairie. The back tire began to rise off the ground. Larry’s butt started to leave the seat. The bike slid to a stop inches from the 2x6 planks. Larry cleared them by about five feet, ass over tea-kettle.
Larry rolled. Remained motionless for a good half minute, while the rest of the gang neared the fence. Larry pulled himself to his knees and was stretching his neck, presumably to see if it was still attached to his shoulders. Then it got interesting.
The fence was basically a corral extending from a wooden lean-to. The lean-to erupted into a chorus of cackles as a dozen six-foot tall brown birds with black heads and sharp-looking beaks burst from their haven. They spotted the red-headed intruder and were none to happy about their nap being interrupted. What man or bird ever is? The flock of emus broke into a sprint. It’s said those Australian ostrich-wanna-bes can hit thirty miles per hour. The emus were proving that theory correct as they closed in on Larry.
On one crank of his neck, Larry’s vision corrected enough for him to see the feathery dust bowl approaching. He wasn’t sure what it was but was sure it wasn’t good. He screamed to his feet and kick-started his skinny butt toward the fence from which he’d just over-flown.
Emus were on his tail, pecking and flapping and pecking some more. Larry screamed while his friends howled in glee. He caught some pecks on the shoulder and a nasty one on the back of his head before he reached the fence. It was six-foot high. Larry managed a head-first dive five feet, eleven inches high, scraping his belly on the way over the top board. The emus skidded to a stop. Larry landed eyeball to eyeball with Zeke’s steel-toed boots on the other side.
The emus flapped and cackled on their side. Reuben and Buster were embracing each other, trying to hold each other up in a fit of laughter. Zeke and Snake were stoic. Larry looked up at them.
“What the hell are those?” he stammered, with a beet-red face and hair filled with grass.
“Our emus,” Zeke said. “You scared them.”
“YOU scared THEM!” Buster shouted. “You should’ve seen your face! You give new meaning to the word chicken-shit.”
Larry rose to his feet, embarrassed, but undaunted. “Did I pass?”
Even Zeke and Snake had to laugh at that one.
THAT LEFT TWO. Reuben and Buster were up next for their two-wheeled auditions. Reuben hopped aboard. It took a few kicks, but he finally revved his monster to life. “Tender like a rose petal,” he said to himself as he slowly let out the clutch. He killed the rose. Reuben started and stopped three more times before he was on his way.
It was antagonizingly slow for Zeke and Snake to watch but Reuben putzed his machine out to the corral like on a Sunday drive, did a U-turn like an expert and putzed back to the standing foursome. Dismounting, he tipped his noggin toward Larry and said: “Nothing to it.”
“You won’t win many races but you didn’t kill anybody either,” Zeke said.
“Mission accomplished,” Snake added.
“Your turn big boy,” Larry said to Buster.
“Nothing to it,” Buster echoed Reuben’s line and cockily sauntered to his cycle. He kicked his animal to life and gave two loud bursts of the throttle and popped loose the clutch. The front wheel rose, the cycle flipped over and Buster crashed onto his back in the same spot he’d started.
“Maybe we should get him a helmet,” Zeke said, as Larry and Reuben helped Buster to his feet and dusted off his denim jacket. Snake set the bike right-side up again and Buster was back on the bull.
Buster was a slow learner and did pretty much everything the same as the first time but let loose of the gas just before tipping over this time. He was on his way.
He took to the prairie like a man who liked his speed. He made it to the corral in no time flat and rather than slow down took a wider turn before heading back.
Throttle wide open, Buster was flying along toward the gang, getting closer and closer and not letting up at all. “Slow down!” Snake screamed at the twenty-yards-and-closing mark. “Brakes!” Zeke screamed at the ten-yard mark as the Harley bore down on him.
All four saw the blank panicked expression as Buster neared them. It was obvious to all he had forgotten how to brake. Buster then did what men are apt to do when trapped in a burning building. He jumped. It wasn’t a graceful dismount. It was a legs kicking, arms twirling in the air jump that hit Zeke smack dab in the middle of his lizards.
The motorcycle spun and sputtered to death several yards away. Buster got to his knees, wiped his forehead with his arm and let out a “Whew!”
Zeke laid on his back, mouth wide open, arms reaching for the sky, gasping for air. “Arghhhhh. Arghhhhh.” Snake scrambled to his side. “Breathe man! Breathe!”
“Aarghhhh!” Zeke continued, his face purple and beaded with sweat. “Arghhhhh!”
“Breathe!” they all implored at once.
Zeke hacked and rolled over on his side. He gulped two huge breaths of air. His eyes were fixed on Buster. While Zeke’s lungs might have been saying “breathe,” his eyes were saying “I’m going to kill you.”
Buster had seen that look before in Candy’s eyes once when he tried putting a dollar bill in a stripper’s garter. But this look was even more intense and spoke bad intentions. So he did what any smart man does when on the receiving end of that look from a Black Lord. He ran.
Buster took off for the ranch house. Zeke found his air and pushed Snake away from him. He had a fast recovery time and took off after the fleeing hit-and-runner.
“Don’t kill him!” Reuben hollered. “We might need him.”
“But then again, maybe not,” Larry shrugged to himself.
Buster made it to the deck, stood at the foot of the hot tub, panting. The naked ladies viewed him only a little curiously – they’d seen stranger things. He eyed the van in the distance. He glanced at the door to the house. Conflicted, scared and confused, Buster’s survival instincts kicked in and he jumped in with the women.
Zeke arrived seconds later but panting much heavier. Hands on his knees, he saw Buster’s head sticking out from the middle of the tub. He walked over and tried to reach him with an arm while trying not to get wet. Zeke walked to the other side and tried the same thing, but Buster was just out of reach and wide eyed.
Zeke growled. Buster counted the seconds he had left to live. But Zeke had had enough. He waved a disgusted arm at the wet farm boy and stomped inside as the rest of the boys stepped onto the deck.
“You were right, Reuben!” Buster smiled. “Nothing to it!”