Motorcycle Jack

Her name was Motorcycle Jack and I didn’t know whether I wanted to be her or to fuck her when we met.

“Motorcycles aren’t just machines. Motorcycles have a soul. They’re better than people.” That was her motto and I adopted it like the eleventh commandment the summer I worked the round-up, sitting beneath the stars on the dry plains listening to her wisdom. I was a hired hand, helping to bring in the car herds on an old paint they’d given me. That bike was a rust bucket, prone to problems no matter how I nursed the throttle. No faster than the cars we were bringing in, but I rode her with pride and a sore ass until we reached the plant.

2,000 hood of cars on their way to Detroit. Dumb beasts, on their way to be stripped for parts at the end of the line.

The days were long and the nights were short and uncomfortable. I would stare at the sky and wonder what the hell I was doing there. But there was money. There was the open road. And there was Jack.

We were deep into the trail when we spotted the Harley. Every head in the camp went up. Her engine thrummed as we strained for the sound of a road bell on her, but none came. A road bell meant she was lost and probably registered. Without one she was a wild Harley and she was beautiful.

Quick as a snake, I grabbed my rope and rushed my old jalopy to life. If I could rope myself a Harley I would be a true cowboy, destined for a life on the plains. Six other engines roared their full-throttled agreement beside me as everyone mounted up. The other hands weren’t riding borrowed rust buckets. Their engines didn’t backfire as they crested the hill. These were seasoned pros in pursuit.

Motorcycle Jack was in the lead, whooping and hollering as the wind picked up against us.

I was outclassed. As my tires slid in the muddy ruts the other bikes left behind, the Harley climbed the next hill like it was nothing but flat ground, unbothered by pedestrian worries like gravity and torque. She took the downhill like a river over a waterfall. She was grace incarnate. A creature born not to the plains, but placed here by some deity to show us all what freedom could be. In that moment, she was the only creature I loved more than Jack.

I pulled my bike up and watched Jack give chase. We cheered her on as each hand pulled up. It was clear she was the only one who had any chance of catching the Harley. I screamed until my throat was raw. I don’t even remember what the words were. My spirit soared with the Harley as Jack gave chase.

#

We got back to the herd to find two dozen of them had wandered off with no one to mind them and we were all properly chagrined for daring to think that we could tame freedom incarnate. The gods simply wouldn’t allow it and we mere mortals had been foolish to try.

I sat quiet by the fire that night – once we’d rounded up the last calf with its tire stuck in a gopher hole – while the others talked of lesser bikes they’d roped. Jack was the only other bit of stillness in the camp. She’d come back without the Harley despite an hour’s chase and all of our hopes and dreams came back with her. I took my tray and sat beside her. Maybe I was hoping she would fuck me. Maybe I was hoping that some of her glory would rub off on me. The soft noise of the road bells on our bikes cut through the engine noise and the occasional honk in the night.

“I’ve seen it before. That Harley haunts this part of Missouri,” Jack said.

“Like an apparition,” I whispered. The fire crackled its agreement.

Motorcycle Jack spat. “Naw. She’s metal and engine like the rest of them. She leaks oil from time to time. And I’ll be the one to rope her. You might just get to see it one day. You’re a funny one. When I first saw you, I thought there was no way you’d make it all the way to Detroit with us. I thought you’d quit by Tulsa. Maybe Springfield if you’ve got a stubborn streak in ya. But seeing the way you looked at that Harley, you’re one of us. You belong out here.”

It was the longest speech I’d ever heard her make. Jack clapped me on the shoulder hard enough that I almost dropped my beans and left to check on our mounts.

#

I watched the hill where we’d seen the Harley as we rolled out the next morning, hoping to catch one last glimpse of her handlebars. I thought I heard her engine over the grumbling cars. My heart soared when I looked, but I saw no sign of her.

I got lost in the monotony of the work. Riding at the back of the herd wasn’t glamorous. The road drowned out both the ability to hear one another and the impulse to talk. There was nothing to do but watch the herd and enjoy the open road.

We heard it before we saw it. The low rumble stirred the grass around us and purred up through our mounts. My head whipped around to see its lights appear in the distance. A row of yellow lights mounted atop a roll bar. The truck was a monster. Tires more than twice as tall as our cars. Garish teeth painted along its front grill.

The first car to spot it set off its alarm and the herd spooked. Horns wailed. Eight thousand tires spun, churning the ground to mud beneath them. Cars slipped and slid, running into each other trying to get out of the truck’s path. I was worried they’d start damaging more valuable parts than just a couple of dinged doors.

Some of the other new hands fired their weapons at the truck’s tires, but there was no stopping it. There’s not a lot that can stop a monster truck. Motorcycle Jack hoped to be one of those things.

She roared out to the front of the herd, waving her arms and whopping to get the truck’s attention. Shots pockmarked off it as the behemoth turned. I had already kicked my bike into gear alongside the herd, trying to force them to turn. They would race hood first over a cliff now if we let them and I had no intention of losing my payoff. If we could circle them around on each other, we could force them to run in a loop while Jack handled the monster truck. But they were fast and dumb and that could be a lethal combination. A car could put on better than 80 miles an hour when spooked.

I lost Jack to my work and concentrated on holding my place alongside the herd. I was on the short side, riding back behind the hands on the other side of the herd to try and force them in my direction. The cars on my side saw me dropping back and turned to match. It was working. I leaned into the turn to keep from driving into the herd – which would surely be a disaster.

I slipped away just before the mill closed up. The cars would chase each other until they calmed down or ran out of fuel. I nodded to the others and scanned the horizon for Jack. I could just make out the lights of the truck on the other side of the hill and I raced to help her.

My old rust wagon hadn’t put on speed to catch the Harley, but I pushed its pistons until they sang, now. As I neared, I could see Jack in a gorge below – and old riverbed with high sides — trying to draw the truck away from us. Her steed roared and mine whinnied in return. My bike found a second wind beneath me as we shot down the hill. Brambles and dry grass tore at my leathers. We dropped into Jack’s gorge half driving and half falling. One leg was caked in mud as I righted myself. I prayed that Jack had a plan.

The rocks in the gorge shifted beneath us with every foot. The truck paced us on the hill above, refusing to risk the steep slope down into the gorge. If we drove much longer, it might get bored and turn back to the herd.

The gorge widened up ahead, the steep walls dropping off until the old riverbed and the prairie met again. That was our spot. Right there where they truck could get at us again. And the truck knew it, too. It put on speed to cut us off.

Jack’s bike was already starting to slow and mine was burning speed she didn’t have at this point. Jack dropped back even with me.

“You draw it off. I’m going to jump on board and shut ‘er down,” she said.

It was a ridiculous plan, but I nodded my agreement. Jack’s word was the word of God.

She spoke to her bike for a moment, a private word between the two of them, and I pulled ahead to get the truck’s attention. The hair on the back of my neck stood up as the truck turned its attention to me.

I kept my own eyes laser-focused on the terrain ahead. The sound of the truck’s motor bearing down on me cut off the rest of the world. It was just the three of us: me, Jack, and the truck. And if I let my mind wander I might think about what we were all about to do. That’s why I saw it. That beautiful Harley watching us from a distance.

She sat beneath a pine tree up ahead, and might have been enjoying the view for all she seemed to care about the monster truck behind us. Maybe she was laughing at the absurdity of our plan.

I know Jack saw her too. I know because the very next thing I saw was Jack speeding off after her.

Was it part of her plan? Did she mean for me to follow? The monster truck and I were doomed to collide in about two miles unless one of us changed course and my bike was already well past her second or third wind.

I angled her toward the truck.

“Ride on, girl. Ride on,” I whispered to my bike. Whether she heard me over the truck or not didn’t matter.

From far, away I’d thought the truck was a monster. Up close she was an ugly bitch. Not one inch of grace about her. I was never much of a Christian woman, but I prayed before I made that leap. Maybe someone heard me, too, because my boots landed on ugly metal floor plates. Her surfaces were greasy and slick and she tried to throw me off with a sharp turn. My knuckles screamed as I locked my fingers around her roll bar.

She was fire and fury and she wanted me off of her. Her turns were tight and wicked and she put on speed like a cannon ball with a vendetta. She had no grace, but she had brute force. I held tight and didn’t look down.

The truck’s door was rotten with rust and I had to kick it in. I wedged myself inside, pulling myself toward the gearshift while the truck tried to spit me back out. The door’s edge dug into my abdomen and I wasn’t sure whether it would leave a wicked bruise or leave me dead in the morning, but I crawled into that damn cockpit. My fingers dug gorges into the chair’s upholstery. I slammed my hand against the gearshift until I forced the damn thing into neutral.

She didn’t idle pretty, but she wasn’t a threat anymore.

From up here, I couldn’t see Jack or the Harley anymore. I’d conquered the devil and there was no one left to see.

#

I found the herd again late after dark. I was bone tired and smelled of engine grease. My boots were scuffed. My leathers were torn. And Motorcycle Jack sat by the fire on her new Harley while the hired hands looked her over.

She tipped her hat to me as I entered the firelight. I nodded back, cordial but cold. It was just as well. I’d need a steed to get me the rest of the way to Springfield. My own hadn’t made it back. Maybe she would find a nice herd and grow into a decent beast. Maybe she was dead already. The prairies were her business now. They weren’t mine any longer.

She visits me every night. Sometimes in my dreams. Sometimes my nightmares.

Dianne Williams lives in Lawrence, Kansas. She grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries and classic science fiction. She once dreamed of being an astronaut. Or maybe a lawyer. Or an artist. She settled for being as many of them as she could all at once through fiction writing.

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