When the well blew, they lost four good men, and a fifth – guy named Ratchit – had an iron rod pierce his head but was somehow still up walking around.
“It’s fine!” Ratchit shouted because the iron rod had busted up his ear so all he heard was iiiiiiiiiiiiiiii pitched up real high. He limped to the left and hummed between shouts.
The ten men left, led by Colonel Hutter (not really a Colonel, not really a Hutter, neither), dragged the dead men over to their motorcycles and draped them over the seats, their MC jackets proclaiming them 1%ers, Devil Whippers, straight out of Grand Forks. Fifteen former roughnecks who’d ridden hard all over North Dakota setting up exploratory oil wells, now reduced to ten and half. They’d had wells blow before and not lose anyone. They’d had dry wells, a couple of spurters, and one gusher. This one had potential, but then it went and blew and killed Ferret, Dingo, Doctor Strange, and Elisha the Prophet, and done rendered Ratchit plum stupid.
And that wasn’t the worst of their problems.
Colonel Hutter had the men stand around the dead and their bikes to say a few words. Not so much a prayer as a Fuck you. “You goddamn bastards were friends and allies and hard workers, but you fucked up bad.”
The rest: “Amen.”
“Like real bad. And now we’ve got to leave your asses here on your sweet rides so the buzzards and coyotes can have you if the fire don’t get you first.”
They all grabbed their balls and spit on the ground while the flames licked higher and boiled out thick black smoke.
While they all mumbled and dispersed, the Colonel and his second-in-charge, Hot Spoon, checked out the horizon behind them, the big sky of the Dakotas revealing another cloud rising, but this one wispy and thin, growing larger and larger.
“They found us.”
The Colonel nodded. “I thought we had a few more days, but I guess this here explosion got their attention.”
Hot Spoon ran his fingers through his Fu Manchu, bushy and rough with dried insect wings meshed in. “We can make the border, slip on up to Alaska. We’ll have to leave the gear, though. Too bad they’ll ransack it.”
The Colonel grunted. Then again, louder. “I think we’ve got to fight them.”
Hot Spoon stepped in front of Hutter, noses touching. “Sir, need I remind you that we just lost four and a half motherfuckers, and they’ve got at least forty motherfuckers, and the last time we rumbled, you became leader because they totally killed Grand Randy.”
Hutter sighed. He wished Hot Spoon would lay off the buffalo jerky. “We run, they overtake us. We prepare now, maybe we take them by surprise and at least make a dent.”
Hot Spoon curled his lip, ground his teeth, and went to walk away. “Whatever you want, you sick sack of shit.”
Hutter had had enough. He spun on his heel, grabbed Hot Spoon by the collar, and jerked him back, switchblade in his other hand. He slashed a deep gouge from Spoon’s forehead all the way down to his chin. Spoon grabbed Hutter’s wrist before he could do more damage. Gave it a vicious twist, then a strike to his elbow, meant to dislodge the blade. Hutter took it like a stone wall. Headbutted Spoon, who went to jelly on his feet. Before he could solid up again, Hutter roundhoused a boot into the man’s face. Something snapped. Spoon dropped like a stone.
Hutter stood over the body, reached down and turned Spoon’s head so he could look into his eyes. Still blinking. He wasn’t dead, just paralyzed from the neck down. If someone didn’t come along and find him, Spoon would die of thirst. Hutter figured it gave the traitorous son of a whore more than a fair chance.
“Make that five men I lost.”
Spoon blinked manically, tried to squeal. Came out like a snore.
Hutter stood, pointed at Ratchit. “You!”
Ratchit pumped his fist. “Mommy! Pooh Bear made a puddle!”
“You’re my new Lieutenant.” To the rest: “Let’s ride, Whippers!”
The Score couldn’t believe his goddamned luck. Knew as soon as the black cloud mushroomed into the sky that he and his crew of Fire Breathers had caught up to the Devil Whippers faster than expected. Another well blown. A fine bunch of idiots Grand Randy had slapped together to go and fuck up as much as possible chasing oil. The Score wanted a slice of that action. He wanted to bring in his fellas, do it right.
A full battalion, it sounded like, all forty of them on their fine ass Japanese crotchrockets racing across the prairie towards the squid ink billowing from the horizon. The Score loved the sound of all them engines singing like “Thus Spake Zarathurstra” which he’s last heard his older brother playing trumpet in middle school band back when there was such a notion as school and bands. He’d recruited well, going from state to state picking up former NBA players who’d gotten their shot for a season or two before they were let go. Tall black men with tattoos, tall white guys with bad hair, all unprepared for life outside of sports. Easy pickings–Come with me and I’ll teach you kung fu and make you filthy rich oil barons. They were halfway there, with some land they pirated in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and now the Dakotas.
Also along for the ride, like the clan’s spiritual advisor, was Cho Luger, former kung fu actor out of Seoul until he was caught in a sex scandal–he had a weakness for teenage European girls, and it all came to light when he got three of them pregnant on the same night within fifteen minutes of each other. The Fire Breathers treated him like a god on account of one classic flick about a heroin addict in ancient Korea who became a master of “Dying Ape Flailing Style” kung fu when he was all hopped up on smack–thus, Junkie Master 2: Needle of Destiny. The first Junkie Master movie didn’t have the same kick, since the lead actor had been an actual junkie, but, man, the way Cho split heads in the sequel it made you forget there’d ever been an original.
Ready to kick more ass, they were. None of them ever getting a second chance in pro sports or showbiz, not even professional wrestling. So they hooked their wagons to the Fire Breathers and hoped to cash in on “Drill, Baby, Drill!”
Then The Score caught a glimpse of the unexpected. A second cloud rising beside the first. Thinner, lighter, almost like a dust devil. There would be no ambush after all. Those fucking Whippers were headed right for them.
The Score held his fist high and slowed his bike, brought the Fire Breathers to a halt en masse as Cho and the Sergeant-at-Arms eased their bikes on either side of their boss. The Sergeant-at-Arms was an Armenian with a name so complicated that everyone called him 29 – his jersey number from his half-season with the Nuggets. Bounced out when he carried a knife on court and threatened to slice Kobe (RIP) like a New York Strip.
Cho had probably already spied this through his ever present sunglasses, but for some reason of bullshit honor or deference, was unwilling to tell The Score. Assumed, most likely, the leader had already made his choice and didn’t need Cho’s advice unless asked for. Goddamn, Score wanted to shout, This ain’t fucking ancient Asia. Got to let me know these things.
On the other hand, 29 seemed to be a minute behind everyone else on the planet. He pointed at the black smoke in the distance and said, “We’ve having them now.”
The Score looked up at 29. One of the few men he had to crane his neck for. “Good, I appreciate the enthusiasm. But flick your eyes to the left, barely a degree, and look lower on the horizon. Tell me what you see.”
29 squinted. “Dust devil.”
They did. All three of them. Another half a minute before The Score said, “And?”
“It’s still there.”
“You know of many dust devils that persist like that? Especially in North Dakota?”
29 licked his finger and lifted it in the air. “Well, it’s a windy day.”
The Score nodded. “That, my friends, is the enemy approaching. Perhaps we have miscalculated. I was sure they would be so concerned with whatever blew up out there that we could catch them unawares. But it seems they are getting better at the art of deception and have fooled us once. But they will not fool us twice.”
29 let out a ferocious yelp and pulled his Samurai sword free of its sheath. He’d bought it at a mall head shop in Kansas City. The Score was pretty sure it couldn’t cut through warm ice cream. He put his hand on top of 29’s blade, eased it to the ground.
“No, son. Not with swords. We have disciplined our hands to fight, and fight they shall. Let’s do this the way Jackie Chan taught us–by using our natural surroundings.”
Cho sniffed and said, “Hack.”
The Score turned and spread his arms wide, shouted at his men, “If we’ve lost the element of surprise, then at least let us choose the battleground. To glory!”
They remounted and rode on.
The choreography of kung fu is largely a cinematic experience, or for exhibition amongst professionals. The best at it can anticipate the moves of their opponents and counter the strikes, thus making them appear to be mind readers. But the truth is closer to “muscle reading”, the same flinches and contraction as when you play the Slap Hands Game on a third date because you’ve run out of stuff to say and you want an excuse to touch her.
Training yourself to anticipate the twitches, that’s the key.
Don’t worry about pretty kung fu. For example, Israeli Krav Maga is an effective fucking weapon to have in your arsenal, but it ain’t pretty. Like two Ultimate Fighting douchebags if they weren’t on TV and were fighting over some pussy instead of cash. Just overwhelm your opponent when he strikes. Tie him in knots.
Prettiness is an illusion. Fighting is ugly. And ugly is only pretty if you’re fucked in the head, right?
Dying Ape Flailing Style is even more distracting and messy than Krav Maga, and it pretty much only works in slow motion, with special effects, and only when you’re hallucinating. It might have seemed like a real system of fighting to those who developed it, but only in the same way that Klingon is a “real” language.
Said all that to say this: Cho dies first.
Cho lost control of his bike on the way to the tilled-up cornfield where the Fire Breathers would face the Devil Whippers for the final showdown. He hit a pothole and exploded the front tire. He banged his head real good and broke his arm. Blacked out for a few seconds, too. Serious concussion. But when he stood again, he was in ancient Korea. All around him were peasants riding mules. Tall fuckers – and noisy mules – but still in need of his fighting skills. The bikers coming from the opposite side of the field were skeletons from hell, resurrected to punish the weak. Only the Junkie Master could save them.
The first step was to charge them on foot. A suicidal task for anyone else, the Junkie Master had the element of surprise on his side. At the last moment, he would leap into the air, hover over the gang of demons, and rain down pain upon them.
He started across the field – slowly – before The Score or 29 could stop him. They were dismounting their steeds, lining them up on the edge of the field. Shouting at him to hold up. Not like they couldn’t catch him. Dude was in slow motion. What the hell was he thinking? But The Score had learned never to question Cho’s impulses.
A few feet away from the first bike, Cho leapt into the air, got about to handlebar height before the first biker slammed square into him. Knocked the rider off. Both of them were then struck by three, four, five bikes, a mass of twisting, burning chrome. Screams from the bottom of the pile. Cho’s face ended up on a tire that was still spinning, wide open, shearing off the Junkie Master’s nose and lips.
The surviving Whippers recovered, pulled their injured from the throttling pile, and stumbled around like wounded Confederates at Gettysburg.
The Score held his hands together the way he’d seen Cho do right before battle. 29 followed. Spread out behind them were the Fire Breathers, a “V” of extra tall motherfuckers ready for one more beatdown.
There was Hutter leading his pack. But no Hot Spoon? What the hell had happened to Hot Spoon? Maybe Hutter had sussed him out as the Fire Breathers’ inside man. Pretty much the only way The Score had been able to keep up for so long. Spoon had left messages behind at every truck stop, every bar, every whorehouse, every Hardee’s, usually scratched in grease on the bathroom walls. But Spoon was gone and now Hutter’s second in charge was a guy with an iron rod through his skull. Instead of leading his men in formation, many of the Whippers were holding their backs, trying to find a place to sit, or bent over gripping their knees, throwing up.
The Score spoke first. “There is no dishonor in handing over the deeds to the land, my friend. Self-knowledge is more powerful than the fist or even steel, and I would not begrudge you an amiable retreat.”
Hutter hitched an eyebrow. “The fuck you saying?”
“Give me the deeds and you can go.”
“Those deeds are about all I’ve got left. Look at these guys. Any of them seem oil baron material to you?”
He had a point. Most of the remaining Whippers reminded The Score of his drunken uncles at barbecues, talking about how they just got some pills to help keep it up. The Score cringed at the thought of those guys in their sandals and socks sticking it to his aunts, who were all too skinny with hair twenty years out of style.
“We’ve come so far.”
Hutter laughed. “That’s because you won’t leave us alone, punk.”
“But you came to us first this time. You wanted this.”
“Maybe.” It was soft, breathy. Hutter blinked into the sun, taking deep breaths. Could be, The Score thought, he was facing a man out of options. Not so much wanting to die, but knowing not to be so much a fool as to run off to Samarra when death would catch him here or there, didn’t matter.
29 cracked his knuckles. “We ready?”
Hutter held up his fist and shouted, “Whippers! Let’s get this over with.”
Each side formed a wall of bad motherfuckers. The foot soldiers on each side found targets on the opposing line.
Then someone blew a whistle.
The Score did not expect to be shot.
He expected to use his skills in a dazzling exposition of mind over body, larger than life, taking on three men at once with his complicated combos of kicks and punches. Chops to the throat. Holds that would render his opponent useless, gibbering like a baby. Kicks that would cause brain matter to leak from the ears.
But the first Whipper he approached shot him with a .44 magnum.
Surprised, certainly. They’d never used guns before. Always played by the rules. He spun, gasping for air from the sheer shock of the slug damn near taking his shoulder off. Spun to fall into the arms of another Whipper, this one with a tiny old .22 pistol that he used like a staple gun across The Score’s chest–ping ping ping ping ping ping.
The Score was on his knees. Mouth wide open. “Why? What did I miss?”
The one with the .22 shrugged. “We didn’t have Cho Luger.”
Aimed, held his tongue right, and Ping, right in the eye. Could almost follow the bouncing bullet just by watching how the Score’s head weaved.
The gunman was so busy nodding at his handiwork that he missed the Fire Breather behind him, already high in the air bringing a high-top sneakered foot to crush his spine.
And lo, it did.
The Whippers got the upper hand on the Fire Breathers because of the guns. Got the numbers down right about even. But when they ran out of ammo and turned the guns around in their hands to use as a club, the Fire Breathers were back in their element. Guns went flying out of fists. Broken fingers everywhere. Old timers’ last moments, thinking of Waylon tunes while ex-pro ballers kicked the shit out of them.
29 was having a ball. With The Score gone, he’d pulled out his sword and started whooshing around with it, Luke Skywalker-like, scaring the hell out of Whippers. But whenever he landed a few blows, no limbs went flying. No heads tumbling off necks. No bodies sliding half-and-half. Just big, reverberating whacks. Damned sword wasn’t killing anyone. Just bruising them.
Didn’t matter. Pretty soon, he’d found Hutter, spitting out teeth and trying to crawl away with twisted legs. The Head Whipper turned onto his back as 29 lingered above, a foot on each side of the man’s head.
“Well? This is the part where you let me go again? Let me lead you to the next blown well and the next empty cornfield? Again?” Laughing through it like it was a good joke.
29 sneered, aimed his sword for Hutter’s mouth, double-handed it, and drove it down. If it had gone right, the blade would’ve punctured right through to the ground. But this blade was less blade and more yardstick. It shoved Hutter’s tongue to the back of his throat. 29 kept stabbing, feeling flesh give way a little at a time while Hutter gargled the blood spurting from his tongue. He finally choked on it, and 29 pulled the blade away, slung the spit and mucus off, and shouted victory, last man standing.
Except that he wasn’t. There was one more, a Whipper, answering 29’s shout with a louder one.
Looked over his shoulder. So it had come to this. 29 face to face with the guy who had an iron rod through his head.
They circled each other cautiously, stepping over and on top of their fallen brothers. Ever closer. 29 worked his blade in loops and swirls like bad guys from Indiana Jones movies. Smiling all toothy.
Ratchit lifted his hand to his head, grabbed one end of the iron bar, and yanked on it until it started to slide from his head, the sound like gravel pouring. Blood leaked out of the entry hole. Ratchit shook his head, blinked, and lifted that iron bar like a sword.
29 charged. Swung.
Rathcit blocked it with the bar. Strong fucking bar. It held the blade in mid-air. No one was going anywhere unless the other backed off.
29 leapt back first, taking his time, looking for a second swing. Ratchit’s ear was so fucked, and one if his eyes red like it was filled with blood. Maybe that side. Maybe he was deaf and blind on that side.
29 came in with a low swing, arching upward, trying take off Ratchit’s right arm. But Ratchit caught the blade, held it in his armpit, clutched tight to his side. Gave it a pull and the sword came free of 29’s hand like it was made of Jell-o.
Ratchit dropped the iron rod and took the sword. Admired it. Posed with it, doing Conan the Barbarian moves. Nodded. “I like this.”
“It’s yours. Take it. Let me go, and you can have it, I swear.”
Ratchit ran his fingers over the edge of the blade. “Dull as dogshit, though. You didn’t sharpen it?”
29 shook his head. “Never used it before.”
Ratchit dropped the sword, picked up the iron rod, and walked over to 29, inches from his face. At first, 29 thought Ratchit was taller than he looked far off, but then he realized the crazy bastard was standing on the back of a dead Fire Breather.
29 wasn’t going to beg for his life. He remembered what Cho had taught him, about what to do when standing so close to an opponent: Balls. You go for the balls. You grab them in your claw and yank them like they are fresh plums on a tree.
So 29 curled his fingers like an Eagle’s talon and struck the man’s crotch. Only to find nothing there to grab onto. He patted around, thinking maybe they were dangling real low or something. Maybe up tight. Maybe Ratchit was wearing a fucking cup.
Ratchit smiled. “Lost my junk to a shark in the Gulf of Mexico.”
With that, Ratchit punctured the soft part under 29’s chin with the iron rod, right up through the roof of his mouth, into his sinuses, and that was enough. Ratchit then rammed the heel of his hand into 29’s nose, shattered it all sorts of ways, and shoved it right through to his cerebrum. His eyes rolled up and he fell backwards like a mighty oak.
No one else left to kill.
Ratchit pulled the rod from 29’s head, looked it over, and gave it a lick. Then he fit it back into the entry hole, pushed it back into place through his skull, and felt immediate peace, love, and understanding for all animalkind.
He headed off towards the line of Fire Breather motorbikes, picking out the one that was painted to look the fastest, and went looking for some prairie dogs to kill for supper.
Bio: Anthony Neil Smith is the author of the Billy Lafitte series, All the Young Warriors, Slow Bear, and many more. He is a professor of English at Southwest Minnesota State University. He’s a fan of cheap red wine and Mexican food. He has a dog named Herman, who is a very good boy.