It had been four years since the last rains. A normally verdant and temperate valley had become yellowed with drought and death, everything from grass to bushes to trees withering to a pale and lifeless straw. The hills of dead grass and huddled bunches of bare trees looked down upon the dried-out river, now a rocky and carcass-filled road, an underworldly shadow of the existing road that had previously followed the river.
A heavily armored truck rumbled down the road, its cargo a huge water tank, led and followed by police cars. Two men sat in the front seat of the truck; the driver a rough, wiry veteran of this valley passage after years of driving eighteen-wheel truckloads of medicine and essential resources to the city; the passenger a younger, barefaced and stocky security detail, a shotgun hugged to his chest and loaded with shells.
“I notice you sawed that off,” Marv said to the kid, trying to make casual conversation. It was the only way to make these trips bearable and keep the mind off of the dangers that awaited them in this valley.
“What? Oh, yeah.” The kid, Justin, said, startled from whatever thought he had been lost in. “Easier to fend them off.”
“I used to do the same when I first started this route,” Marv grinned, turning to briefly look at the kid before reaching down to the pocket in the driver-side door and producing an Uzi automatic, its small T-shape recognizable anywhere. “On this run, you may need more firepower.”
Justin returned the grin.
“What do you know about them?” Marv asked. Justin didn’t seem too worried, and Marv wondered if that was from ignorance or competent confidence.
“I know they’re relentless and ingenious. And they’ve had some success here.” Justin tapped his gun as he said that as if issuing a warning.
“But what a dumb fucking name,” Marv said, nodding his head. “Benny Bitter? Is he a cartoon character?”
Justin laughed, but his eyes were still focused on the road ahead. “He’s no joke, though.”
“Benny Bitter and the Cree Three,” Marv shook his head, “can’t make that up.”
“Have you had any run-ins with them?”
“A couple, yeah.” Marv’s mouth twitched then, a seriousness appearing. “Ken and I took care of ‘em. Betty even hit one.” He indicated with his head down toward the Uzi in the door, where Betty sat cocked and loaded. “They got Ken good, though, I’m sure you’ve heard. That’s why you’re here.”
Ken, the previous guard, took a round through the shoulder a couple months earlier in a bout with Benny Bitter and the Cree Three. The water transport was a relatively new undertaking in the drought after the city started to see shortages, the route normally reserved for other valuables. But authorities quickly—some in the city would say not quickly enough—realized the value they had not been attributing to water. Bitter and his crew appeared shortly after, having been tipped off on the water truck’s path and adjusting their highway robbery tactics toward society’s most valuable resource.
“They won’t get away with it again,” Marv said, his playfulness gone as he remembered that day, firing Betty recklessly with one hand and applying pressure to his old friend’s shoulder with the other. “Those Cree fuckers won’t last a second if they come back today.”
“Damn right,” Justin said, tapping his gun again. “Come and get us.”
# # # #
High on the hill, strategically arranged behind a row of large boulders situated between two dead trees, the four bandits loaded their weapons. Genny applied the muddled paste diagonally across Lub’s face, going over places where Lub’s sweat had already run the paint down his cheeks. Lub was a long-haired teen with a round babyface but surprisingly thick limbs for his size. He met Benny at the pub in their small, remote village where he mopped the floors. This was his first run with the crew, after Benny and the two others tried and failed to bring down a truck with only three and decidedly needed a fourth.
Genny hadn’t said much, her silence normally uncharacteristic but common for the past few months. Nel approached and put a hand on her shoulder, his huge hand sending a comforting jolt through her. Nel had lost his brother that day, barely escaping the trucker’s bullets and the police’s grasp, fleeing with the others in the dust and blood. Genny had lost a lover. She had considered coming clean before that horrible day, telling him about her and Nel and their tryst that was blossoming into so much more. Now she wouldn’t have to, whether that was lucky or not, since he was gone.
Benny was the only member of the crew still jovial and driven, peering around the tree to the road, awaiting the moment the truck approached. He sat on the high end of a wooden plank, seesawed on a fallen tree trunk and wedged underneath one of the smaller boulders.
“Let’s hurry up,” Benny said, his back still turned to the group. “I think I can hear a faint rumble.”
Genny had just finished working on Lub’s face, the three of them now decorated in war paint and excessive, performative native garb. The idea had started as a joke, a play on Benny’s directive to ensure they were making the absolute most of their conquests, using every bit of resource they could squeeze from the trucks they had robbed and the people they had killed. But word had spread of their methods, and rather than fight the rumors, Benny had the other three dress as caricatures of the native tribe for intimidation. They were happy to oblige, even though he didn’t do the same, knowing Benny’s powerful identity and legacy.
Lub, Genny, and Nel stood and collected their weapons, now fully loaded, and laid them in the holsters on each of their motorbikes. Lub had to be shown his role, Genny guiding him explicitly on how the holster was set up on his bike, how to load, cock, and fire the shotgun, and where to aim. They had had a very precise procedure before, and Benny put a lot of pressure on Genny to seamlessly absorb Lub into it.
“Don’t look so scared,” Nel said to Lub. “We’ve done this a ton of times. You know what you’re doing right?”
“Yes sir,” Lub said, his voice high, surprising Nel each time he spoke. “Ride, aim, shoot at the tires.”
“And watch out for rogues,” Nel warned. “That’s how we failed last time. Priority number one is to make sure there aren’t any threats that we didn’t foresee, like additional cops or soldiers. The tires can wait until we’ve eliminated the others.”
“Eliminated?” Lub gulped like a parody of a nervous person.
“What did you think we were going to do with them? Buy ‘em dinner? Ask if they’d kindly give us our water back?”
“Take it easy, Nel,” Genny said. “He’ll do what he has to do.” She looked at Lub reassuringly. “Right?”
“Yes.” Lub hardened then, seemingly reminded of their purpose here. These people had stolen from them, leaving their people to die of thirst. He didn’t know what they were using this water for on the other side of the valley, and neither did Benny or the others, but it didn’t matter in the end. Quenching their commonfolk, hoarding for the rich, keeping their livestock and crops, no one knew and no one cared. This was for them.
Just then a soft, distant noise could be heard across the valley, and the group turned to see a small puff of dust above the road on the horizon.
“It’s time,” Benny shouted as he pulled his big black goggles down from his head over his eyes. He ran to his bike, his leather jacket shining in the sun as the others followed, and shouted over his shoulder, as much to the others as to himself. “This one’s gonna be fun.”
# # # #
The tanker barreled down the road at top speed, dust trailing it and the two police cars surrounding it. The road twisted here alongside the river before straightening out again, building distance between the two as the dry river banked against a massive rock protrusion and leftward.
As the convoy approached this split, one of the officers in the front car noticed something up ahead. Something round was rolling casually down the mountain, a rock from what he could see, and picking up speed as it went. It crashed into the protrusion with a dull, ear-splitting crack, and came to a rest in the middle of the street.
“Strange,” the officer said into the radio as the convoy slowed to a wary stop. “Keep your eyes up and your weapons ready, fellas. This can’t be a coincidence.”
He was sure this was Bitter, but couldn’t for the life of him understand what Bitter could be doing. Maybe he had hoped to hit one of them and rolled the rock down the hill too early. It didn’t add up.
He heard a low buzz then, like a huge bee approaching his ear, and turned in his seat to see a bike speeding down the hill directly at him, and what looked like an Indian from old American Westerns riding it. Another bike did the same toward the car behind the truck.
The officer, in panic and adrenaline, shoved the butt of his assault rifle through the window rather than rolling it down. He turned the safety off and leveled it on the windowsill, and as he was about to shoot, the bike zoomed just out of reach past the back side of the car. He tried to turn in his seat, urging his partner to do the same and shoot at the biker from his side. But he didn’t have time.
The car erupted, an explosion propelling it upward and igniting the gas tank, the car landing on its roof and engulfed in flame. Behind the truck, the second biker, a moment later than the first, pulled the pin on a hand grenade and rolled it under the second car before speeding away.
After watching the first car explode, the trucker had hit the gas and swerved up into the hill, leaning over and almost tipping before coming down on the other side of the explosion and returning to the road. He geared up, quickly reaching top speed again as the two bikers followed, leaving the second explosion behind them.
The truck gained some space momentarily, but the bikes were too fast and agile. A biker rode on each side, unsheathing shotguns and aiming them over the handlebars. One shot clean into the back tires, one of the four in that row popping. The other biker did the same, hitting a tire on the other side. The rims began to shriek in the dirt as the weight bared down on the two remaining tires, and the bikers shot again.
One hit a third tire, and the other missed. The truck swerved slightly but kept moving. The driver of the truck leaned out of his window. Silent puffs escaped his hand as the bullets rained, first into the ground in front of the bike and then up, hitting first the front wheel of the bike and then the biker’s chest, sending both violently into the dirt.
The passenger had held the wheel as the driver leaned out, but now it was his turn to attack. He leaned out with his gun but was met by a spray of buckshot, quickly pulling himself back in before he was hit. He leaned out the window again, but the second biker was nowhere in sight. The passenger urged the driver to check his side, but as he said this he noticed a second boulder rolling down the hill up ahead. He yelled and warned the driver, who swerved again out of the way, once again riding up the hill at a precarious angle, before swerving back. But as he straightened out, he noticed a bike parked shortly up ahead in the middle of the road, and a massive man dressed in black leather with big, round goggles on like some sort of giant, bearded bug.
The driver and passenger had the same thought: run him down. But ending another person’s life is simpler said than done, and easier to do from afar or while under the threat of gunfire. To run down a man whose big black eyes watched you do it, daring you to be the psychopath you knew you weren’t, was not as easy, and the driver knew it.
He cut the wheel at the last moment, and the uneven momentum from coming down the hill tipped the truck on its side, scraping metal on the rocky bed of the dry river and screeching to a halt.
The passenger felt the truck finally stop, and turned toward the driver to see he had flown through the windshield and out onto the ground, his body mangled in the river thirty feet ahead alongside the carcasses of fish long shown the same fate by the drought. He had hit the airbag hard, his head pounding and his ribs likely broken, but climbed up in the upturned truck and out of the broken window above him. He held his shotgun out ahead of him, swaying on his feet, ready for a fight.
Three of the four bikers were there, all stopping in a line and dismounting their bikes. They approached the truck, the one in black inspecting the tank with adhesive gunk in his hand to check for any leakages to plug up. The other two, one much larger and more muscular while the other was smaller with long hair. One of the bikers approached the passenger with wide eyes as he stared at his twin in disbelief.
“Justin?” Nel said, his voice hoarse and lost.
“Hello, Nelson.” He said, his head swimming but that anger still prevailing. The stink of fire and fish and melted metal assaulted his nose, both nauseating him and jolting him awake.
“What—” Nel caught himself. “I thought you were dead!”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Justin said, and spit blood into the dirt. “I know what you’ve been up to with Gen. Fuck you and your phony cause and your dumb outfits. You didn’t even look back to find me that day. And neither did Gen. Fuck you both.”
Benny returned now after securing the water tank, calm as ever, and approached Justin. “Put it down, my friend. Let’s talk it through.”
Even after all he had been through, the bullet wounds, the abandonment, the capture and torture, and the uncovered truth about Benny Bitter and his lost cause, there was still a soft spot for the charismatic leader. Part of him wanted to give in and return to his old life, but another part knew that wasn’t possible. He turned then to look at the third biker, now seeing he was a chubby young kid with long hair and not Genny.
“Where is she?” He asked, feeling something inside pulling at him, weighing him down.
A tear rolled down Nel’s face as he turned back, looking at the crumpled wreck of the bike on the road. The two of them met eyes, and something shifted in Justin. He needed time to take in what had happened, the love of his life was gone in more ways than one, and his relationship with his brother changed forever. He needed to be away from here. He put his gun down and approached the unknown kid, who warily avoided him, and climbed onto the kid’s bike. Wordlessly, and without resistance, Justin revved the bike and drove down the road, out of sight.
“A problem for another time,” Benny said, calm and businesslike, bringing Lub to attention and snapping Nel out of his emotional trance, the faithful follower returning. “Let’s get this water back home.”