On Steel Horses They Ride
By Don Kenton Henry
Bull has traded his leathers for Carhartts. Nowadays his steel horse rides among the Appalachians. He has an easy time keeping her up cause she sits astride two rails. She’s diesel powered and can pull 15,000 tons up an ascending grade. Her name is Chessie. After thirty years of sitting at the helm, he still likes the feel of power and the sense of being in control as he winds his way across bridges, trestles and through sleepy hollows. He know it’s fairly safe where he sits now. But sometimes, more often lately, he thinks of Lewis out there on his two wheeler riding the pavement with the wind blowing in his hair. He thinks of the sound of the pipes on his own bike that once took him to and then back home from California. He wasn’t pulling anything then because everything was just crazy memories he’d left behind. His only concern was his next meal and that would be waiting at mom and dad’s house back in Indiana. No one to worry about but himself. Kind of like Lewis even to this day. He tries to remember what that kind of freedom felt like. Then he thinks of Beth and his boys back home. And his grand-babies. How many is it now? “Baby Bulls” as Lewis calls ’em. Yeah . . . they’ll be waiting back home along with his old jeep and bulldog, Winston. Now the woods are his hood. He’s got his bows, his guns and his game. Plenty of time in the great outdoors where a man belongs. Just last weekend he got a wild turkey, a difficult enough feat with a rifle let alone a bow. “It’s all good,” he thinks and almost reflexively reaches and sounds a blast on the big engine’s air horn. A magnificent twelve point buck leaps from the brush behind a call box, clears the tracks and bounds his way down to the Lower Gauley River. Where is his bow when he needs it? It’s season now and he’s never made a shot from his engine. “Something to think about,” he says to himself and smiles. “Things ain’t so bad.” Still … he worries about Lewis. Will he keep that bike of his shiny side up? Will he find Jesus before God calls him? He’s going to send Lewis a message asking him as much when he gets to the station.
If he drops his load before the sun gets just above the tree line, he can still make it to the evening service at the Church of Christ. He pushes the throttle and has the engine barreling down the mountain with 15,000 tons bringing up the rear.
With his morning coffee in his hand, Lewis rubs the sleep from his eyes and reads the cautionary advice from his lifelong friend which just came in on his smart phone. And he contemplates the irony. Is this coming from his friend who epitomized the philosophical road Samurai from “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”? A friend who had been the leather clad Bronson incarnate from the “Then Came …….” tv series? This from a guy who dropped out of college after his freshman year when an injury ended his football career and scholarship and set out for Los Angeles with only what he could get on his motorcycle. Along the way, Bull won the 72 ounce steak eating challenge in Amarillo and landed in Orange County with no job and little cash in his pocket. While there, he traded his Triumph for a Harley and raced up and down Mulholland Drive like Steve McQueen. He tried to out run an LAPD motorcycle cop – and would have succeeded had he not turned down a dead end street. He got in fights with professional wrestlers and did everything but smoke pot with Timothy Leary and spar with Bruce Lee. Although he did a lot of that with everybody else. Then he rode back into small town Indiana two years later with long hair and an ear ring – at a time when straight guys in Indiana did not wear ear rings. He was accompanied by another biker, a native Californian, who went by the dubious moniker, “Gar”, which is the also the name of the ugliest, meanest fish to populate the rivers of North America.
Lewis puts down his coffee and slugs a bottle of fiber filled Beneful. A wry grin is on his face as he appreciates that someone out there still gives a damn and he vows to keep the top side up realizing Dylan had it right – “the times they really are a cha.. cha.. cha changing.” He packs his gear, rolls up his sleeping bag and straps both to the back of his sissy bar. He then pulls his vintage fringed jacket from the saddle bag of his bike and thinks about the ride from the rally back home. He thinks of how often he rides alone these days and wonders what happened to all the good women he has known through the years and why they aren’t riding with him now. Well, “memories are good for something” he thinks. “The good ones, anyway.” And where are his buddies? He thinks of Bull a lot – riding that big train engine through the mountains and hollows of the Ohio River Valley. And he wonders what that kind of freedom must feel like. And he pictures that house nestled in the hills Bull goes home to with that “one good woman” and all those dogs, guns, trucks and everything every guy loves. And those “Baby Bull” grand-kids of his. Maybe one day they’ll grow up and at least one of them will ride with Lewis.
Then he thinks some more about the women that have come and gone from his own life. Especially the one he really loved and the one that really loved him. And he wonders why they couldn’t have been one in the same. But he does have his beautiful daughter. His only child. A daughter he’d named after his maternal grandmother. Another good woman in his life who’s gone now. Thank goodness, for his daughter. One good thing he’d done right. Still . . . a couple more kids would have been a good thing also. Maybe a son or two the next time around. But then – only if he could raise them in his own home.
Just then, a tug on his sleeve gets brings him back to the moment. He turns to face a young woman in a tie-dyed tank top bearing the white dove on the guitar neck logo and the words, “Woodstock Came to Me”. She is attractive in that rough, biker sort of way. Her hair is braided in a pony-tail and bound in leather. At the moment it is thrown over her shoulder, bordering one of her ample breasts. A barbed wire tattoo wraps around her waist just above her very low cut jeans. “Hey, Boss – can you give me a lift back to Houston? I got a gig tonight and my old man’s passed out under a tree.”
“Not again,” he thinks. “I’m getting too old for this.”
“I’m not headed to Houston,” he tells her. “My place is about thirty miles north of the city.”
“Come on, sugar. I promise you won’t pay for anything all night long,” she says, her green eyes flashing and locked on his as she leans in pressing herself against him. He wonders if that includes a good night’s sleep at the La Quinta and poached eggs before he has to ride home and recover in time to sell insurance on Monday. He is a sucker for green eyes.
“What’s your name,” he asks.
“Header,” she replies.
“Header? You mean like these Hooker pipes,” he asks, tapping the ones that run along the side of his bike with the toe of his boot.
“Yeah. Something like that,” she grins slyly.
He gets on his bike. “Climb on, Header.”
She straddles it with a swing of her leg and gets a grip that lets Lewis know she appreciates the ride. She’s done this before he thinks . . . but so has Lewis.
“Where exactly are we headed, Header?”
“Bikers and Babes,” she answers. “In the shadow of the ‘Dome’. You know the place?”
“I do,” he says, as he kick-starts the Harley, hears the guttural “ka-chunk” of the cam and the growl of those Hookers and dumps the Fatboy into first. He pulls back on the throttle, gunning the engine and heads south toward the big city. The Header behind him digs her nails in. “Let this big pony run,” she shouts in his ear.
“Is this so bad?” Lewis thinks.
“It’ll do . . . It’ll do for now,” he answers himself.
If he drops Header at the front door of her establishment and doesn’t follow her inside he can still make it to the hotel in time to catch that UFC fight on pay-per-view he has been waiting months to see. He pulls up and she gives a long slow tug on the lobe of his ear as she slides off the bike.
“Are you sure you won’t come in, baby. I’m on in just a few.”
“No. I don’t believe so,” he answers looking toward the double doors of the bar. They swing open and some cowboy stumbles out squinting as he eyes adjust to last light of the day. Lewis sees the flash of the strobe light and feels the deep throb of the bass.
“They got any Wild Turkey in that place?” he says to her.