The chopped hog came roaring over the hill like a black streak of motorized lightning. The grungy-looking rider’s tangles of blond hair streamed over his shoulders as he clung to the ape-hangers of the big 1200. Even as fierce winds clawed at him, threatening to pluck him from his seat, he laughed hysterically, cutting in and out of both lanes, hooting like a mad owl. A short distance ahead of him coming in the opposite lane a yellow school bus trundled along the highway running between the small towns of Crete and Sprague in lower Nebraska.
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All six kids riding the bus that Friday afternoon stared in terror at the crazed Harley rider speeding toward them. Thirteen-year-old Rain Nelson sprang up from his seat at the back of the bus, his black hair trailing to his shoulders. “Jack Holland!” he gasped, recognizing the oncoming biker. Beside Rain, his twelve-year-old brother attempted to stand up, as well, but Rain pushed him back into their seat. He then slid in beside him and said, “Grab onto the seat in front of us, Jessie!”
Jessie looked at him, dark bangs hanging down into his eyes. Rain said, “We’ll be okay.” And then out on the roadway, Jack Holland swerved directly in front of the bus on his black iron horse.
Ben Black Bull, the bus driver, cranked the wheel to the right to avoid running over the rider careening crazily toward them. Shooting past the bus, Jack skidded into a sideways slide before crashing into the ditch beside the road. Clawing at the wheel of the bus, Ben felt the back end fish-tailing as he braked hard to avoid the ditch on the left side of the road. The bus then came crashing down into Miller’s Pond in the pasture beyond the highway.
At the back of the bus, Rain did a face-plant on the seat in front of him. Dark clouds gathered at the edge of his mind. When his vision cleared, he saw his little brother writhing beside him in a great deal of pain. “Rain,” Jessie cried, “my arm’s broke! I heard it snap!”
Rain grimaced as he stared down at the white bone sticking out of Jessie’s left forearm. He reached for him to pull him out into the aisle, but a sick feeling swept up over him and he passed out.
A few moments later, Rain found himself being carried by Ben Black Bull. He had removed Jessie and several other injured kids from the bus, seating them on a berm overlooking the pond. As Ben placed him beside Jessie, the little blue-eyed kid looked up at the blood flowing down Ben’s forehead and into the long strands of his raven hair. Rain removed his shirt, leaving himself standing there in a black T-shirt, an orange Harley Davison emblem dominating the center of his chest. “Here, Ben,” he said, placing the shirt against his wound and flipping Ben’s long tail of braided hair over one shoulder.
“Did you see who was on the bike, Rain?” Jessie asked.
“No,” Rain lied. “It all happened too fast.”
Jessie narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “But I heard you say something just before the guy nearly hit us. What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Rain said, looking up at Ben as he placed one last kid on the ground beside him. Rain glanced over to the drunken biker staggering up out of the ditch, blood trickling into his golden beard.
Jack Holland squinted in pain. “Damn you!” he snarled. “Damn you, Chief! Should have let that dog die! You interfered in Den business!”
Jack placed his hands on his knees, then retched and threw up. He staggered across the road and down into the ditch, his eyes locked on Ben watching him approach. Jack lunged at him. The Lakota executed a palm strike that connected with Jack’s chest. The blow was so sudden, that the biker was catapulted off of his feet and went flying backward into the ditch beside the roadway.
Ben’s long braid of raven hair glistened in the afternoon sunlight as he cocked his head, hearing the sudden wail of a distant siren coming from the direction of Crete, seven miles away. Still standing in the pasture, Rain looked off to the west, hoping it was the sheriff coming. He doubted very much whether the ambulance techs had any experience subduing the enraged vice president of the Elder’s Den.
Jack pulled a knife from his boot top and clambered out of the ditch. Rain blinked in surprise as he watched Ben deflect each thrust with his raised arms and the backs of his hands. He moved gracefully, calculating where the knife was aimed, and managed to keep Jack at bay as he defended against his mad attack. Seeing that Ben was in trouble, Rain searched through the debris left scattered behind the bus as it had sailed off the road and crashed in the pond. Snatching up a Coleman thermos bottle, he focused on Jack’s face and let fly. The bottle struck Jack in the center of his forehead. The enraged biker staggered back, the knife falling from his grasp. The sirens wailed, the red light of the state trooper’s cruiser flashed half a mile down the highway. Jack reached inside his leather jacket and pulled out a pint-sized bottle of whiskey, pouring the contents of the bottle all over Ben. Grinning wickedly, he said, “Explain that to the cops.”
With one last glance at the oncoming cruiser, he vanished into the rows of a cornfield. Rain spotted the silver cigar tube that landed at Jack’s feet as he’d pulled out the bottle. As Ben turned to check on the injured kids, Rain walked over and picked up the metal tube, sliding it into the top of his left boot.
Seated there, grimacing in pain, Jessie asked, “What was that?”
Rain shrugged and said, “Nothing.”
Sheriff Clyde Baxster brought his cruiser screeching to a halt on the highway beside the pasture. He killed his siren, yet left his rotating lights on to signal to oncoming traffic that they were approaching the scene of an accident. Clyde was a big man, whose beer-gut stretched his brown uniform shirt to the max. He sported a buzz cut and had a craggy face. Most folks in Sprague claimed Clyde was always in a rage because he was a bully with a badge. As he heaved his bulk out of his cruiser, Rain could see that Baxster was in his usual dark funk.
He surveyed the mangled Harley in the ditch, glanced back toward the bus submerged in Miller’s Pond, then glared heatedly at Ben standing there badly shaken from the wild ride off the highway and into the pond. “What in hell happened here, Bull?” Baxster snarled. “Have you been drinking? You smell like a damned brewery!”
Ben said, “I will explain that after you help me get some of these kids up on the road so that they can be treated properly, Sheriff.”
Sirens wailed, piercing the country air as the ambulance raced toward them. Ben kneeled beside Bobby Morris, being careful not to touch his broken leg. “We best not move this one,” he said. “Best wait for the techs to move him on a stretcher. This is a bad break.”
“Shut up, Bull!” snapped Baxster. He then carried the injured boy up onto the highway, setting him on the trunk of his car. Rain helped Jessie to climb up and out of the ditch, being careful not to touch his broken arm. “What happened here? Baxster asked
Gesturing at Jack Holland’s mangled hog laying crumpled in the ditch, Jessie said, “A maniac on that bike swerved in front of us.”
“Who,” Baxster asked, “was the maniac on this hog?”
Rain said, “Don’t know.”
Baxster nailed Rain with a stern look. Jessie grimaced and said, “We are telling it true, Sheriff. Ben had to swerve out of the path of that biker. He fish-tailed off the highway. It wasn’t Ben’s fault.”
“I’ll be the judge of that!” snapped Baxster, watching Ben lead two injured kids across the pasture and toward the road. Baxter turned his heated glare on the two brothers. “Biker? Any idea what gang he belonged to? Did you see his colors?”
“Colors?” Rain said, trying to play dumb.
Baxster moved so fast that Rain had no chance to dodge his meaty hands as they closed tightly on his upper arms. The big cop swung the scrawny kid around and planted his slender frame against the side of his car. Rain shook back the long strands of his dark hair and glared back at the enraged Sheriff. “Whoa,” said Ben, “let’s turn this down a notch. We’ve got injured kids who need treatment, Sheriff Baxster.”
The ambulance skidded to a stop behind the patrol car. The driver switched off his siren and a paramedic climbed out of the vehicle. As he assessed the injuries, thunderous rumbling came from Sprague as a Harley came roaring toward the place of the accident. “Chase,” Baxster said.“He’ll know who was riding this bike, won’t he, Rain?”
Rain ignored him as his little brother was led away by a tech to the ambulance parked on the road. Chase Nelson, father of Rain and Jessie, pulled his bike up behind the cruiser. At thirty, Chase was tall and lean, with long dark hair that fell in wild tangles past the collar of his black leather jacket. He sported a neatly-trimmed beard and his blue eyes missed nothing as he inspected the mangled hog in the ditch.
“Do you know who that Harley belongs to?” the big Sheriff asked. Chase said, “No, I don’t have a clue.”
As president of the Outlaws, Chase knew who rode that mangled Harley. He shot Rain a piercing look. “Do you, son?”
“No,” Rain said, lowering his gaze. He gestured toward the ambulance pulling away from the scene of the accident. “Jessie got a busted arm. There was a bone sticking out—”
“They’ll take him to the Crete clinic,” Chase said. “We’ll drive to Crete to give Jessie a ride home in the old wagon.”
The sound of more thunder filled the air. Chase looked off down the highway, where a large bike flew past the ambulance on its way back to Crete. “Not good,” he said.
Daws Holland rode his Harley up behind Baxster’s cruiser, placing Sheriff Baxster between him and Chase Nelson. Daws, older brother of Jack and president of the Elder’s Den, was a large man in his early thirties. He had long, blond hair and was built like a tank, broad shoulders, thick chest, and muscular arms. Daws and Chase had once fought before, and Rain had been there to watch. It had been brutal, each of them trading blows like well-swung hammers, battering away at each other. Rain cringed through the first ten minutes of their bloody brawl, determining he did not ever want to be at the receiving end of either of the two bikers. They went toe-to-toe, both of them giving as good as they got. In the end, Chase had dislocated Daws’s jaw, and yet after delivering such a brutal blow, Chase cradled his mangled hand against his chest.
The President of the Outlaws, let loose with a string of curses at the five bikers who had ridden there with Daws. He challenged anyone of them to stand in the gap for their fallen leader. Instead, they had picked up Daws from where he had fallen. The big biker, dazed and in pain, had climbed on his hog, trying his best to look mean and pissed off. But Rain could clearly see that Daws barely managed to kick his bike over and wove his way out of Sprague unsteadily. It was Rain’s first lesson he learned about brutal fist fights: Not all of them ended well for either fighter.
Daws killed his bike. He said, “Got a call from my brother, Sheriff. Fortunately, he survived this wreck and managed to get to a farm house over this hill here to call in for help. Another ambulance is on its way here. Jack was even thoughtful enough to call Grady’s tow service. He’ll be along shortly to haul that bus out of Miller’s Pond for you, Sheriff.”
He slipped his kick stand down and added, “Jack claims the Indian was swerving all over the road. Sounds like he’d been drinking.”
“Oh, hell, too!” burst from Rain’s lips.
“Rain?” came from Chase. “Close your mouth. Now! This isn’t any of our business, Rain. So shut your mouth. Got it?”
Rain glared at his dad. “Yeah,” he said, gritting his teeth.
Daws focused his attention on Ben leaning against the patrol car. “Should be ashamed of yourself, Chief. Not a lot of folks around here take to kindly to a drunken Indian putting their kids at such risk. I’d say you’ve got a lot to answer for. And you smell like a tavern.”
Rain badly wanted to speak up in Ben’s defense, but already he was regretting the fact that he had so boldly defied Chase. He had no doubt that Chase would deal with him later. And so, he kept his mouth shut, while Baxster arrested Ben for driving while intoxicated.
Rain had known Ben Black Bull ever since he’s started school in Crete back in first grade. He knew him as the first friendly Indian he had ever met. Of course, he had never met an Indian before that, but Ben had such a way about him that he put him at ease with his soft-spoken words. When the Lakota was not driving the bus for the Crete district, he worked as a dog handler for Red Ellis, who owned a dog ranch west of the small town of Sprague. The past two summers, Rain and Jessie had been hired by Red and they’d seen the magic of Ben Black Bull in action.
Ben had spent all of his life around dogs back on the reservation where he was born. He had learned the secret on how to work with some of the most challenging dogs, taught to him by his grandfather, a holy man of the Lakota at Pine Ridge. Ben was a dog whisperer, and Rain and Jessie had been fascinated with his ability to correct and tame each dog who passed through Red’s ranch. That the Lakota man took the time to share his secrets with the two brothers was considered an honor to them. To sit there and listen while Daws convinced Baxster that the bus crash had been due to the fact that Ben had been drinking, was causing Rain much distress. He groaned inwardly when Daws crossed the ditch and picked up the empty whiskey bottle. “It got here somehow now, didn’t it?” he said over one shoulder.
Rain’s stomach churned as Daws held the bottle up for Baxster to see. Daws said, “Ben, you shouldn’t drink and drive. Now we gotta fish your bus out of Miller’s Pond all because you’ve been drinking in Whiskey River!”
Chase pulled up beside the Sprague general store and Rain leaped off of his dad’s bike and strode over to the dusty porch. While the thunder of the Harley slowly faded, Rain planted his butt on the rickety wooden bench situated there. He looked squarely at his dad.
Chase slipped his kick stand down, dismounted his Harley, and walked over to Rain. Rain shook back his raven hair and stuck out his chin in a show of obstinance. “You gonna hit me for not backing down from Daws?”
“No,” Chase said. “I am gonna hit you for not shutting your mouth when I told you to.”
Reluctantly rising from the bench, Rain snapped, “Go for it, then!”
Without hesitating, Chase let loose with a swift round house, his fist slamming into Rain’s startled face. Staggered by the blow, his boots slid out from under him and Rain landed hard on his butt. Slapping him upside his head, Chase doubled up his fist to deliver a solid punch to his face.
“Chase,” a voice came from beside the store. “Rain got the point. Back off. Or how am I going to explain his bruises to Pops?”
Chase froze, holding Rain up by his chin. “You’re a wise ass, Beef Tory! This is club business!”
Fifteen-year-old Beef flicked his long, blond bangs out of his eyes. “Yeah, but Rain doesn’t even belong to the Outlaws yet. Pummeling him, would not sit well with Pops. He sees bruises left behind by you, his badge will force him to take issue with you, Chase. He’s warned you about this before. You’re done with Rain.”
Chase flung Rain away, sending him stumbling, his palms creating furrows in the gravel-covered street as he attempted to break his fall. Rain pulled himself to his feet, staring at his dad in disbelief. Chase was president, and not one of the sixty members of the Outlaws ever defied him, but he was clearly out of line, but now Rain was more curious than hurt by the assault, for clearly Chase was drawing a line in the sand for some odd reason. Rain knew there were reasons his dad kept his cool with Beef stepping into club business. One, Chase and Mike Tory had grown up together and their friendship meant something to them. And number two, Big Mike was a deputy of Gage county and he didn’t like domestic abuse one bit.
“You’re just pissed,” Beef said, “over the dog, ain’t you, Chase? Now that Daws threatened to make the phone call, he’s got all the clubs on edge. Outlaws. Elder’s Den. Gladiators. Screaming Eagles. Celtic Hawks. Association.”
Chase looked over to the female Pitbull waddling up beside Beef. She was a brute, with her stocky chest, thick muscular legs, and her Brindle markings covering her bulky head. Beef said, “Just giving Molly a break. Her puppies have been gnawing on her all day.”
Chase patted his leg and the dog sidled up to the Outlaw president. “Beef, you’re taking a chance by letting her be seen. Best way to keep her safe is to keep her hidden in the barn. Word gets to the Den that we’ve got Molly here in Sprague, her and her pups our dead.”
Beef sidestepped smoothly to stay clear of the fierce biker. Chase Nelson was a bear of a man, standing six-foot-five and weighing 285 pounds. As it was, Beef had to look up into his piercing blue eyes as he stood there staring down at him. Rain could feel the burn from his dad’s seething glare from where he stood five feet away. Chase folded his muscular arms before his thick chest. “You two take Molly back to the barn. I’ll pick up the wagon to pick up Jessie from the ER.”
Rain waited until Chase kicked over his bike before wiping blood from his bottom lip. He didn’t want to give his dad the satisfaction that he’d hurt him. He spit a stream of blood onto the dusty floor-boards of the general store. He forced a grin at Beef with his split lip.
Beef said. “Your dad has no right to split your lip just to control your mouth! If Pops sees it, he’s gonna come unglued.”
Later that night as darkness fell, Beef shared the porch of the general store with Rain and Jessie. Sheltered by the overhanging roof with its ancient shingles, and lulled by the falling rain, Beef and Rain smoked cigarettes and watched the puddles swell in the streets on either side of the old store. A cast on his left arm, Jessie groggily leaned against Rain, then slumped forward, snuggling his tousled-haired head into his lap and fell asleep, the pain medication kicking in.
Beef said, “Ah, the rug rat’s fallen asleep.”
“Yes,” Rain said, “if Dad seen this he would say, ‘How gay.’”
“Right,” Beef had said. “Chase is hard that way. Me? I’ve always been proud of the fact that you never pick on Jessie, unlike Chase who always picks on you.”
Rain said, “Dad once told me it was only to make me tough. Jessie ain’t built like that. He cries if Dad even looks at him wrong. Besides, I think Dad likes it when he sees me being cool to Jessie. Just probably not like this. If he’d see this, he would definitely make a fag comment.”
For long moments, the two of them sat there listening to the patter of the rain on the shingles above them. Rain looked over at his friend, his face illuminated by his cigarette as the cherry glowed bright red. Rain said, “Hound dog eyes is what my dad has. He got hurt before he even got his first Harley. And it wasn’t just due to the fact that his first and second wives ran off. Teresa, my mom, took the Nelson name, and yet Jessie’s mother, Krystal Dalton, never made their marriage official. That’s why we are always explaining that we are brothers with different last names. Losing both wives might be why he has hound dog eyes, but my dad’s carried another pain for a long, long time.”
Beef finished his cigarette, letting time creep slowly by as he flicked away the butt so that it flitted through the air like a firefly, dying with a quiet hiss as rain drops extinguished its fire. Holding his gaze for long moments, Rain said, “My dad’s little brother was gay. In an attempt to change him, Dad made Josh’s life a living hell. He even beat him up one night. Two nights later, Josh took their dad’s gun out into a field behind their house and put a bullet in his head.”
Beef sat there, his wide eyes fixed on Rain’s face.
Rain said, “Now you know what sorrow plagues Chase Nelson, and makes him the man he is today.”
Fighting back tears, he changed the subject. He leaned forward, withdrawing the cigar tube from the top of his boot. “Nothing I can do to change that about my dad. But check this out. Jack Holland lost it today when he caused our bus to crash.”
Beef took the metal tube, removing the cork topper sealing it at the top. Carefully, he removed a badly yellowed page that had been rolled tightly to make it fit into the tube. He placed it down on the weathered boards of the porch between them.“It’s a map,” he said, running his index finger across the lines crisscrossing the page. “Looks like something valuable is buried at Quarry Oaks, outside of Lincoln.”
Rain narrowed his own eyes as he studied the map. “Those words are badly faded, but it looks like they say Indian artifacts”
“To a relic collector,” Beef said, “ancient artifacts are worth millions. You say Jack dropped this? What in hell would the VP of the Elder’s Den be doing searching for Indian relics?”
Taking one last look at the map, Rain rolled it back up and slid it back into the cigar tube, grinning as he said, “Don’t know, but finders keepers, losers weepers. As far as I am concerned.”
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