Dak had been out to the National Forest to recover the equipment he used to apprehend the fugitive, Kerry. Or, at least he would have captured him if the guy hadn't committed suicide first. He was checking his voice mail when he heard the voice he was waiting for.
"This is Sheriff Brown, Dak. Stop by my office. I've got a $25,000 check for you."
His reward money had come. Dak sped to Mt. View to the Sheriff's office on Dr. Zuk, his dual purpose Suzuki motorcycle. As he walked into the Sheriff's office, Sheriff Brown was holding up the reward check. It was real, the $25,000 was his.
"Thanks Sheriff, I had my doubts as to whether I really would get all that money. Wow!"
"What are you gonna do with it," the sheriff asked.
"I'm going to buy a street bike and take a road trip." With that, Dak took the check and ran out the door straight to the bank.
Dak awakened early the next morning and following a quick breakfast, he got in his truck and headed to Searcy and the Suzuki dealer, where he was greeted by an eager salesman. "My name's Hal. How can I help you?"
"I'm here to buy a new motorcycle."
"You've come to the right place. Do you know what you're looking for?"
"I'm goin' on a road trip and I need something for the big ride."
"We'll, let me show you this Suzuki Boulevard C109RT. It comes with a windshield and bags. It's a big road bike and a good price at $15,000."
Dak looked the bike over. "It's a beauty," Dak said. "But, I think Harley kind of bikes are more suited for guys and gals with short legs or old men with pot bellies. I want something a little more on the performance side."
"Well, we could look at this Gixxer 750 for $10,600, but it's total performance. After a couple hours with those clip handle bars, your wrists will feel like they're ready to break. But she's a real crotch rocket! You can smoke anything with it."
"I'm sure it would be a great ride through the twisties back in the Ozarks. What do you have that's great on the mountain roads, but can still carry a load of camping gear and leave me feeling good after a 500 mile day?"
"Probably the best thing that fits that description is this Suzuki Bandit 1250. It'll out run a scalded panther, keep up with the Gixxer in the corners and leave you feeling fine at the end of a long day. All that for 8,300 bucks. For another $800 you can get a set of three hard cases to carry your gear. And, with that I'll throw in one of our Cortech magnetic tank bags free. That's a $170 value."
Dak threw a leg over the machine and sat on the seat. His legs comfortably touched the ground. He reached for the handle bars. Good fit. He tried his feet on the pegs. Comfortable position.
"Half crotch rocket, half touring bike. I think we've got a deal," Dak said.
Dak and Hal filled out the paperwork and Dak wrote a check for $9,850, which included tax. It would be three days before the bike would be ready for delivery so he left the store.
On his way out of town, Dak stopped by the Wal-Mart sporting goods department. He bought a nice Bowie knife and sheath and a .22 caliber pellet rifle, a couple thousand pellets and a hundred CO2 cartridges. He then went by a jewelers and had "thanks Adam and Ebony" engraved on the blade.
That night he rode Dr. Zuk out to the forest to the place he and Adam occasionally met. He
parked his bike, found a stump to sit on, yelled for Adam several times and sat down to wait, hoping he was somewhere near by.
He was in luck this time as Adam and Ebony came sneaking up out of the dark. "What brings you to paradise tonight?" Adam asked.
"Just wanted to thank you for your help. I got my man and the $25,000 reward because of you."
"Ya, I know. I kept an eye on ya the whole operation. Pretty clever I must say."
"Thank you, thank you. To show you how much I appreciate your help, I brought you a couple of gifts. Here's a Bowie knife." Dak slipped the knife out of its sheath and showed Adam the engraving.
Adam looked surprised. "That's some knife," was all he could say.
"I'm glad you like it. But, that's not all. I also bought you a .22 caliber pellet gun. It's good for hunting small game like squirrels, birds, and rabbits. It's quiet, simple to operate, and I brought enough supplies to last for years."
Dak showed Adam how to operate the rifle and then said his good-byes.
It was Saturday morning and Dak hitched a ride over to Searcy with his Uncle Jim to pick up his new bike. As he was getting on to ride away, the salesman said, "Just remember, you don't have to use the whole throttle." The statement kind of puzzled him until he got off the parking lot into the street and twisted the throttle. The front wheel jumped high in the air and he nearly dumped the bike before he got it back under control.
Dak figured that little wheelie episode would be his rush for the day, but it was just a warm up. He quickly realized he was riding a performance machine and she wanted to run, but he held it back as he got used to the way she handled. But, as he turned off Highway Nine onto Sylamore hill, it was time to let her go. He rolled back on the throttle, only this time he kept control. The speedometer hit a hundred before he reached the first curve. He rolled off the throttle and braked lightly as he entered the curve and rolled on it again as he passed the curve's apex. He shot out of the curve at 110 mph and barely had enough time to back off before he was into the next curve. His knee scraped the pavement as he leaned into the curve and he felt the foot peg scrape the road. There were a couple more knee scraping curves before he shot over the crest of the hill at 120 mph. He quickly backed off the throttle. No doubt this was a rocket!
It was a twisty road the rest of the way to Fifty-six, but he'd stirred up enough adrenaline for one day.
He pulled into his drive way and reluctantly got off the Bandit. He stood back to admire the beauty. As he looked at her shiny, dark blue finish and the cateye head lights, he thought of Ebony. He needed a name for the bike and thought The Panther would fit perfectly. Well, now he had the new bike and the money, where was he going to go? He felt the world was his, he just didn't know what part to see first.
The next morning he was sipping coffee in Hardee's while waiting for church time when a couple of biker's pulled into the parking lot and came in for breakfast.
"Where you guys from?" Dak asked.
"Jonesboro. We just thought it would be a great day for a ride in the Ozarks. You from around here?"
"Up at Fifty-six. I just bought a new Suzuki Bandit and I have some money and time for a trip, I'm just not sure where to go."
"With a Bandit, your first run ought to be the Dragon's Tail."
"The Dragon's Tail. Look it up on the internet."
When Dak got home from church, he went straight to his computer to search for Dragon's Tail. It took him a few minutes to find it as it was actually "Tail of the Dragon" or Deal's Gap on the Tennessee/North Carolina state line.
The more he read, the more he knew he had to see this road. Three hundred and eighteen curves in just eleven miles. Wow! What a ride that must be. And then he looked at the elevation map. It was up and down like a roller coaster. Imagine, all the turns, twists and hills of a roller coaster for eleven miles and you get to control the speed.
The web site declared it to be the world's best sports car and motorcycle road. The record speed for this stretch of road by an amateur was eleven minutes for 9.3 miles. That was back in the early 90's.
"This looks like a challenge, Dak thought. Then he saw the pictures of the tree of shame with motorcycle parts hanging from its branches and nailed to its trunk. It seems many others too thought it was a challenge and wrecked trying to match the record. Apparently it was a tradition to hang a part of your wrecked motorcycle from the tree if you crashed making the run, that was if you weren't in the hospital.
Back in the early 90's when the record was set, it was a lot easier to make a fast run. The traffic was sparse and the road was rarely patrolled by cops. Now the road averages 400 cars a day and all the motorcycles and sports cars attract the police like maggots to raw meat. A quiet voice deep in the recesses of his mind whispered that this was not a good idea, but the challenge lured him on.
He logged onto Mapquest and got a map to Robbinsville, the closest town to the Tail. It was 650 miles from Mountain View. He'd have to head over to Memphis and pick up I-40 across Tennessee. Nashville looked like the logical place to spend the night and ride on to the Tail the next day. He would do it, but first he would need to upgrade some of his gear. For one thing, he needed some new riding leathers. That pavement could wear through skin pretty fast if you laid your bike down in a corner.
He started browsing the internet for blogs where people posted notes about the Tail of the Dragon run. One in particular caught his attention. "You are not ready for a competitive run up the Tail until you have entirely erased the chicken strips from your tires. In case you don't know, the chicken strips are the unused strip of tread up the sides of your tire. The faster you corner and the more you have to lean, the thinner those strips get. When they're gone, you are ready for a try at a record run up the Tail."
"One trip to town and back on these mountain roads could erase my chicken strips," Dak thought. "But it could also lead to a wild low side crash. Maybe I'd better add some engine guards and sliders to my list of things to buy."
It was mid-October and Dak had all of the stuff he needed for his ride to Deals Gap. Much of it he had ordered over the internet and so had to wait for it. While waiting, he had taken the Panther on rides throughout the Ozarks, sharpening his riding skills with each corner. His chicken strips had long since disappeared and he was convinced motorcycle crashes happened because the rider had no idea how far he could lean the bike without losing control and how to control the bike with the back tire in a skid. By now he knew just how far he could push the Panther. She ran these Ozark roads as smoothly and as fast as her name promised.
Dak loaded up his camping gear and set out for Nashville, his stop for the night. He set up camp late afternoon in an RV park off I-40.
He got on the road early the next morning and Pulled into Robbinsville, North Carolina, late afternoon. He asked around town about a camp site and was given directions to Horse Cove, a forest service campground a few miles northeast of town.
It was a small campground with only a half dozen tent sights and maybe a dozen RV sites. He was glad to see he wasn't the only biker there, as he noticed a shiny Honda Shadow 750 parked next to a tent. He picked the site next to it and begin to unpack his gear.
"Welcome to Horse Cove," he heard a female voice behind him. "It's nice to see another biker in camp." Dak turned around to see a slender gal of about twenty sauntering towards him with her hand extended. "My name is Molly."
"I'm Dak. Pleased to meet you," he said as they shook hands. "Where ya from?"
"Memphis. Where you from?"
"Fifty-six, Arkansas. I came over to ride the Tail of the Dragon."
"That's why most bikers come. From the looks of your ride, I'd say you intend to do it fast."
Dak kind of grinned. "There's an argument going on in my head, and I haven't made up my mind yet. I'll have to get a look at it first. Have you had dinner yet?"
"Not yet, but it's getting that time."
"Let me get set up and I'll cook something up for us."
"Hey, sounds good. I'll bring over the stuff I was going to fix and well do a pot luck."
Dak watched as she walked away. "Nice looking," he thought as he finished unpacking and set up his tent.
After supper, Dak started a camp fire and they continued talking. "What do you do in Memphis?" Dak asked.
"I go to the University of Memphis. And you?"
"I just got out of high school, and I'm not sure how to answer the question. I don't really do anything."
"Then how do you afford such a nice bike?"
"Reward money. I was given $25,000 for catching a mass murderer who was hiding out in the Ozark National Forest."
"Cool! I read about that in the paper. I've never met a hero before."
Dak grinned. "Ya want an autograph."
"I'll pass. How'd you happen to find him?"
"It's a longer story than you want to hear. I'll just say the forest is my second home. I'd rather be there than any where else. So, tell me, what brings you out here?"
"Trout fishing. I was raised by my grandpa and he introduced me to my two loves, motorcycling and fly fishing, when I was real young. He gave me a Honda Rebel 250 for my fifteenth birthday. We lived out in the country and he let me drive it to school."
"Sounds like a good grandpa."
"He is, but being a biker chick was a problem in high school. The boys didn't know how to relate to a biker chick who spent her weekends fishing and neither did the girls, so mostly I was a loner. Enough about me, what's the big deal about racing the Tail."
"I don't know. Maybe it's the adrenaline rush. I don't do drugs. Instead I get my highs in more natural ways: tracking a deer or treeing a coon. I like to compete against nature or in the case of the Tail, against the clock. I can win, but if I don't, at least nobody loses."
"If a Tennessee Highway Patrolman gets behind you, you might be going against more than the clock."
"Ya, I think about that. I guess I'll have to take that chance. I don't know whether I'd make a run for it or not. It would certainly add to the excitement."
"Ya, and to the cost if you crashed or if he caught you."
"Now you're sounding like that little voice deep in my head."
"It was just a thought. I'd better get to bed; I'm going fishing early in the morning. See ya tomorrow."
Molly walked over to her tent and Dak put out the embers from the fire and climbed into his own tent for the night.
When Dak woke up the sun was already warming the cold morning air. As he crawled out of his tent, he heard Molly holler, "How would you like some freshly caught trout for breakfast."
"That's the only kind I want," Dak hollered back. "I'll be right over as soon as I wash the sleep out of my face."
Molly had a couple of trout sizzling in a fry pan when Dak joined her. "Did your grandpa teach you camping cooking too."
"Yep. Everything I need to know, I learned from Gramps," she laughed.
"Since we're eating trout, the fishing must've been good this morning."
"It was good, but just being there was even better."
"How about goin' for a ride up the Tail of the Dragon with me this morning. I hafta see what I'm in for if I'm going to give it a run."
"Sounds good. Give me some time to clean up this mess and get my riding stuff on."
Dak went to the bathhouse for his morning hygiene and then got his riding gear on. By then Molly was on her bike and they headed up Highway 129 for Deals Gap.
Dak and Molly did a leisurely ride up the Tail to Tabcat bridge and back to Tapoco Lodge for some coffee and a cinnamon roll.
"Well, what'd ya think?" Molly asked.
"I think the clock could win," Dak replied. That's a beautiful ride, but a wicked race course."
"Now that you've seen it, are you going to try it?"
"I think I have to," Dak replied, "but I'll need your help."
"How can I help?"
"Well, I think I'll make the run early tomorrow morning, say maybe six o'clock. It's a Wednesday so the weekend crowd won't be here, not that there are that many this time of the year. Any cops up that early in the morning will be in the donut shot and there should be little to no traffic. What I need you to do is make a trip up the road and call me if it is all clear. Also, I need you to time me. My phone is hands off and is in my helmet. You can give me the to go signal and keep me posted on time. Will you do it?"
"Let me get this straight. You want me on the cell phone with you giving you the times so I can actually hear you when you crash, shall we say, on Shade Tree corner?"
"That's about it, except for the crash part."
"I don't know what it is with guys and racing. Against my better judgement, I guess I'll do it, providing you have a stop watch."
"Thanks Molly, I was hoping you would. I'm going to ride it a few more times to plan my race. I'll see you back at the campground."
Dak figured there were at least a half dozen curves where he would have to slow to at least 20 mph and there were no straight stretches where time could be made up. There were maybe three or four more places where series of curves were mild enough they could could be taken nearly straight. He could see why the top amateur racer only average a piddly 50.7 mph. He now also understood why there were many accidents but few deaths among the racers: high speeds were nearly impossible, but a rider didn't need much speed to wipe out on some of these curves. Hair pin would hardly describe them.
Dak awoke early and fixed some breakfast for him and Molly. By the time they were done, it was daylight. They got their bikes and headed for Crossroads of Time, his starting point. The Panther purred softly as they road along. "She's running great," Dak noted.
"I've got bluetooth on my phone with a receiver so I can talk to you as I ride,"Dak said. "What I'd like for you to do is ride up to Tail of the Dragon Overlook. On your way, look for cops and for any traffic I need to be aware of and call me with a report. Then, when you give me the go, I'll start. I'll ask for time at The Wall, The Dips, and Shaw Gap."
"Sounds good. Are you sure you want to do this? You could mess up yourself as well as your new bike."
"Ya, I'm gonna do it. It's too big a challenge to leave alone."
"Okay, I'll call you when I get to the Overlook." With that, Molly headed out for the finish line. Dak spent the next fifteen minutes studying the map and mentally reviewing his run. He was ready when his phone rang.
"This is Molly. Everything's clear. I didn't meet any cars or see any parked along the way, so it looks like a go."
"Sounds good! Tell me when."
"I'll give you a count down, starting from five. Ya ready?"
"Five, four, three, two, one, go."
Dak released the clutch as he twisted the throttle. Panther shot forward as Dak fought to keep the front wheel on the ground. He approached 90 mph as he shot up Wheelie Hill. He quickly backed off for the first serious curve. Panther leaned nearly sideways as Dak held steady on the throttle through the curve.
Dak regained his speed coming out of the curve and was doing near 90 mph again as he shot across the state line at Deals Gap. Crud Corner, a true, tight hair-pin forced him to scrub off speed until he was barely crawling at 20 mph. He came out of the corner under full throttle with the front wheel rising off the ground. He held steady on the throttle, bringing the front wheel back down.
He was too focused on the road to look at the scenery, but had he looked all he would have seen was a blur as Panther hit 100 mph going down Cooper Straight.
Dak grabbed his brakes again for the next curve, a mild hair-pin, and twisted the throttle as he shot through the Dips like an out of control roller coaster. As he passed the Wall, he asked Molly for a time check.
"Two minutes and forty-three seconds," she responded.
"That puts me two seconds to the good," Dak replied.
Dak backed off the throttle again for the next two square corners and another hair-pin. He felt the bike give a jerk as his foot peg scraped the ground, and he nearly lost control at only 30 mph. He also felt his left knee dragging the pavement.
He raced out of the corner and pretty much stayed on the throttle through Gravity Cavity, when Molly came on the line: "Watch out," she warned. "An eighteen wheeler with a trailer just went by going your way. He obviously doesn't know this road or he wouldn't be here. Prepare for the road to be blocked on one of the sharper curves."
"Thanks! I'm at the Dalton Esses. What's my time?"
"Five minutes and twenty-five seconds."
"That puts me five seconds ahead."
Dak scrubbed off speed as fast as he could going into Parson's Curve, another real hairpin. He
was down to 25 mph when he hit the apex of the curve. He spotted the sand on the road too late. He felt his rear tire lose traction and put him in a low side skid.
Dak slid along the pavement and with flick of his right thumb he hit the bike's kill switch. The bike left him, spinning in a complete circle and coming to a rest in the middle of the road. Dak slid toward the shoulder, coming to a stop just off the shoulder of the highway.
"Are you alright?" he heard Molly ask.
"I think so," Dak said as he limped toward the bike. "Looks like a slightly sprained ankle."
Dak struggled to get the bike back up. He threw his leg over the saddle, flicked the kill switch off and hit the starter button. Panther jumped back to life and Dak was back in the race but he was having a struggle managing the fear he was feeling. The accident had cost him precious seconds. He fought back the fear and stayed on the throttle, always waiting until the last split second to scrub off speed and then twisting the throttle again. The bike flung him from side to as he twisted his way through the curves, first his right knee dragging and then his left. He was glad for his new leathers.
As he headed out of Copperhead Corner, Dak again asked Molly for his time. "Eight minutes and thirty seconds," she replied.
"That puts me five seconds behind," Dak replied, "with the run three fourths done. The worse curves are behind me. I sure wish I knew where that truck is."
"Hopefully he's wiggled his way through Triple Apex Corner before you meet him," Molly said.
Dak focused on keeping his speed up while still staying out of trouble on the corners. As he came around Hog Pen Bend, he spotted the truck coming at him, taking up both lanes. It was too late to scrub off speed. Dak held a steady throttle and maneuvered the bike to the far right edge of the pavement. There was a narrow gap between the edge of the trailer and the edge of the pavement. He shot through it and felt the edge of the trailer scrape his helmet as he passed by but he made it without losing any precious seconds.
Now that he was clear of the rig, he wildly twisted the throttle, hurling towards Triple Apex Corner. He waited until the last possible second before braking back to enter the curve. At thirty mph he still scraped his knee, foot peg, and boot. He flew out of the curve heavy on the throttle. The front wheel again lifted off the road and he fought to keep it down without giving up much acceleration.
As Dak screamed by Tail of the Dragon Overlook, he heard Molly screaming in his cell phone: "You did it. Eleven minutes exactly."
Dak had accomplished his goal, but he hung around Horse Cove for a couple of day so Molly could teach him the art of fly fishing. But, it came time to tell his new friend goodbye.
It took Dak a couple of days to make it back to Fifty Six where a stack of mail awaited him. As he sorted through the pile, a rather official looking envelope with a Tennessee return address caught his attention. As he opened it, a picture of his motorcycle license plate fell out. Not only did it feature his plate, but also a date and record of his speed at ninety mph.
The rather formal letter informed him "Your motorcycle was photographed by our camera traffic control system exceeding the speed limit on Tail of the Dragon by fifty-five mph. You may appear in court in Marysville the third Thursday of this month or pay a fine of $1,200. Failure to do one or the other will lead to a warrant being issued for your arrest."
Dak could hear his father's voice whispering in the back of his mind: "Be sure your sin will find you out."