Temple Town came awake slowly. It was one of those towns where night activity was the life, drawing every citizen into its fold like the embrace of a dear one. They slept late, and woke late. The night fog was still hanging over the town, thick and dreary so that the first rays of the sun barely penetrated it. Mike Crankson drew his trilby down lower on his head as he mounted the stairs of the Paradise Hotel. Joel Rodd, the portly porter, was polishing his tiny glasses, red lips slightly pouted with concentration, and when he heard the footsteps he looked up and his red face was instantly transformed when he saw the old man approaching the desk. Even in the early light he could see that Mike Crankson was dressed well, his grooming excellent. He was as thin as a willow, his face long and gaunt. His three-piece grey suit fitted him well, even if he looked a bit overdressed for an early visit.
Mike Crankson was a respected man not only in Temple Town but also across the borders. He had been the first president of the Temple Bank, and his astute banking prowess had earned him a special place in government. He was retired now, living comfortably but still commanding recognition and stature.
Rodd couldn’t recollect the last time he had seen the distinguished gentleman in the hotel, but it didn’t really matter. He was pleased to see the old man, because it finally confirmed to him that the scarred man who had taken residence the previous night was indeed the notorious Chris Bawa of Little Rock. It had been no secret, even during the trial of the jailbird, that Mike Crankson had supported him.
Joel Rodd perched his glasses precariously on his broad nose, and extended a hand to the newcomer.
“Hello, Mr. Crankson!” he said, his smile stretching even further. “How pleased I am to see you.”
“Pleased to meet you again too, Rodd,” Crankson said with a little smile of his own as he shook hands, and then he went straight to business, reluctant to exchange any more talk with the man. “I believe a Mr. Bawa slept here last night. I want to see him.”
“Oh, yes, quite right sir,” Rodd said, nodding his head enthusiastically. “He’s still here, in Room Seven. Should I have someone summon him down for you?”
“No, thank you, that’s quite alright. I’ll go up myself.” Joel Rodd watched the old man go up the stairs and his little eyes gleamed with greed. It was Chris Bawa alright. Rodd was confused, because he was quite sure Chris Bawa had received close to twenty years imprisonment. There had also been rumors that the man died in prison several years ago. Why was he out now after just ten years or so? It really did not matter to Rodd, but he knew Ted Bawa would pay good money for information like that if he didn’t know already, and Rodd wanted to reap that money. He was just waiting for his assistant to report to work and relieve him, and then he would head straight to the telegraph office to sell his information.
As Mike Crankson paused in front of his friend’s hotel door he heard a distant gunshot, and involuntarily he shuddered. Down the hall one of the doors opened a crack, and the red face of an obese man poked out, surveyed, and hurriedly withdrew when he saw Crankson. The old man smiled wanly as he raised a hand and rapped gently on the door, thinking of how silly some men were.
The door opened, and the huge frame of Chris Bawa filled the doorway. His scarred face was expressionless. He had bathed early, obviously, and was wearing a white shirt and a pair of crisp black pants. His feet were encased in new black boots. He was hatless, and as he stepped aside for Crankson to enter, the older man could not help but nod his head appreciatively. The boy indeed looked indescribably handsome.
Mike Crankson had been a regular visitor to the Fort James prison where the young boy had been held captive for the first couple of years. He had seen the fat and obesity melting away and replaced by sheer muscle and tone, before Commander Ayeh later banned visitations, and thus he wasn’t overly shocked to see the new Chris Bawa.
“Hope you had a good sleep,” Crankson said as he dropped into one of the hard-backed chairs.
“Had had worse,” was the deep reply.
“You didn’t make it to dinner last night,” Crankson said with a wan smile. “Didn’t expect you to anyway. Waited a while then I went to bed. Didn’t sleep too well myself.” Crankson knew his young friend had not had a good sleep. There was a restlessness about him, a sizzling energy that fought to be released, and the old man’s heart sank. He prayed earnestly inside for some miracle, knowing that the next few minutes were going to be very crucial, and would determine the destiny awaiting this young jailbird.
“There’s a place across the street, just opposite the hotel. Mama Trish’s Delights, they call it. Serves some nice breakfast. Let’s go over and get something into our bellies, and then we shall talk.” For a moment the jailbird hesitated. He went to the window and stood gazing out for a long time, and then he turned and nodded. Again Crankson said a silent prayer as he got to his feet. Although it was quite early, Mama Trish’s Delights was almost filled, mostly by male patrons.
A nicely-dressed waitress led them to a table that overlooked the main street, took their orders and moved away briskly. Chris looked relaxed, but his eyes roved the restaurant quickly, taking in the position of every person, those that were armed and those that weren’t, noting who was dangerous and who presented no threats. Crankson noticed all that, but he said nothing. He knew the harrowing times the young man had gone through in prison, a hellish life that would forever keep the jailbird on his toes, suspicious of everyone, tensed like a caged tiger, always ready to spring. He also knew how difficult it was going to be for the man to adjust to life outside prison.
Their breakfast came. There was a large pitcher of hot coffee. The sugar and cream were in polished ceramic wares. The toast bread smelled fresh and looked appetizing. Crankson poured coffee, added a little sugar and a lot of cream. Chris drank his coffee black, but he seemed to enjoy the toasted bread, and ate them quietly. Crankson noticed that Chris did not wolf down the food, and once again his heart sank. This was a man whose diet in prison had consisted mainly of moth-eaten bread and stale porridge. The rice had had little insects in them, and the soups had been nothing more than a form of poison. The food in front of him now must have looked like a banquet for kings, and one would have expected the jailbird to concentrate on his first decent meal in ten years.
Crankson knew that the life of the man in front of him had been a nightmare in prison, a daily dose of great torture, hunger, humiliation and unimaginable violence. He knew Bawa had been in the hands of a prison commander who had been an animal, whose definition of sublime joy was to see a fellow human being reduced to the state of a grovelling insane idiot.
Commander Roger Ayeh and his mad cohorts had taken prison life to a different level. They had toyed with the lives of inmates, pitching them against each other in brutal duels to the death, with high-stakes gambling. Rich men had been hosted by the sick prison keeper, combining gambling with their thirst for blood. Prisoners had been reduced to vicious animals fighting to stay alive and to survive. The man in front of him had taken that abuse for almost a decade…and miraculously survived.
Bawa ate as if he had just graduated from a school for perfect gentlemen. His cutlery barely rattled, and his actions were all controlled, even right down to the way he chewed. His cold eyes, however, did not miss a thing. They continually scanned the eatery, his senses sharp and honed, gathering and storing information. Crankson knew what that mind was capable of doing and, even more dangerously, what that body could do. He took a long pull from his coffee cup, set it down gently and heaved a huge sigh. He leaned back in his chair, pursed his lips and brought his laced fingertips to his chin. Twice he tried to speak, and twice he was lost for want of words. Finally, he crossed his arms across his chest and spoke in a rush.
“Chris, first I want to tell you that I have managed your gold deposits well. I have all the documents at my place, and I can assure you that you are quite a rich man, maybe the richest this side of the world had seen. That means you don’t need money, my son. You can start a fresh life, if you want. Secondly, I’ve been in touch with events at Little Rock for quite some time, and I’m afraid it is a place you don’t want to go to right now.”
Chris Bawa carefully leaned forward and put his cup down. His eyes, as he looked at the older man, were suddenly cold, and that was the only emotion he displayed. He took a deep breath, and when he spoke the words came out softly, but they were clipped, bursting out almost violently.
“I’m listening.” The older man’s attention was drawn to a man sitting about three tables away on the blind side of Chris Bawa. The man was almost directly behind Chris Bawa. He was wearing a neat white shirt, and appeared to be perfectly groomed. He was sitting with two other men, and he was staring at the back of Chris Bawa’s head with a slight frown on his face, his head cocked slightly to one side in a display of curiosity. Mike Crankson did not say anything about this to Chris though.
“Your mother has always been more than a friend to me, Chris,” Crankson said softly. “You saved my life once when I was attacked by those Apache bastards many years ago. You came looking for me, on your Ma’s request, and you saved my life. I’ve always been grateful, because if you and your gang hadn’t appeared on the scene, I no doubt wouldn’t be here now. I love you, more than the son I never had.” Crankson broke off when he saw that the man in the white shirt had pushed back from his table, and had sauntered diagonally toward them, giving them a wide berth but going forward in such a way that he would have a clearer view of Chris’s profile. “People still talk about your fight with the Spencer Brothers,” Crankson continued, picking up his cup and sipping his coffee to cover his growing agitation at the scrutiny of the man in white. “They talk less, however, about your fight with your father. In fact, only one man spoke about that fight to me. A chap called Roy Sampson who, rather regrettably, almost lost the use of both legs because of what happened that day. He now walks with great difficulty because your father attacked him with a club that night. But I suppose that is no news to you.”
“I bought a ranch after my father threw me out,” Chris said softly. “After Roy left the doctor’s place I took him on as foreman on my ranch.” Mike Crankson set his cup down, and much against his will his eyes were drawn once again to the man in white whose neck was craned now, all his attention concentrated on Chris’s face. One instant there was only confused curiosity on the man’s face, and in the next his face suddenly exploded with absolute shock. Mike could almost hear his violent gasp, and he witnessed the way the man’s body shook, as if he had been hit by an invisible hand.
He staggered back and came up against one of the unoccupied tables, almost knocking it back. He reached out with a trembling hand and straightened a chair, and then he turned and clumsily left the restaurant. Crankson watched as the man in white crossed the street, drawing out a white handkerchief and dabbing desperately at his face. Whatever had happened, Crankson knew it bode evil for his young friend, and he knew that he had to do everything within his power to prevent Chris Bawa from going back to Little Rock. It seemed someone else had recognized Chris Bawa, and this was not good.
“The ranch you bought, I learnt, belonged to a man called Tom Wicker. Learnt he was heartbroken when his young wife ran away with a faro dealer. A nice spread on the outskirts of town, I saw. Good land, rich grass, even had the river running right through. Named it the C Dot R, Chris and Roy, I was told, to reflect the partnership between you and Sampson. He still lives there, but there’s nothing much going on there. He just uses it as a home, and doesn’t want to leave it. Roy now works as a bookkeeper for a store owner called Jeb Narh, a cantankerous and mean sort who is stingy and does not pay Sampson well.”
“I wrote a letter to you,” Chris said softly, “I wanted you to make monthly payments to Roy, my Ma and Ruth.”
“Roger Ayeh never allowed any of your letters to reach anybody, son,” Crankson said, and he notices how Chris Bawa’s lips set dangerously in a sudden flash of anger. Crankson rubbed his temples gingerly. He had been getting some unpleasant headaches lately. He had been struggling with hypertension recently, and it seemed he would lose out to the condition before long.
“I tried to piece your life together, Chris. I mean, I was way out there in the Capital, and I never got your mother’s letter early when you were arrested. When I came back you had been sentenced, and you know just how much I wanted to hear your story and help you out, but you never confided in me, which was understandable considering the circumstances,” Mike stated. He paused and briefly tweaked the little hairs under his lower lip. “But what really happened to you that night, Chris? After the night you beat your father in a fight, what happened? I know shortly afterward you formed your gang, made up of Mike Braimah, Steve Hollison, Leo Brand and Irvin Agorkoli, all of whom were, incidentally, older than you were. You organized several attacks on coaches, trains and ranches. What I don’t understand is why? You were already a very rich man because of the gold you found! So why did you mess up your life with those thieves?” Mike Crankson paused. He saw how tight the man’s face was, and how it was suddenly very cold. Chris’ eyes were steel orbs of repressed fury as he looked at the old man, but Mike Crankson knew it was not directed at him; it was directed at history, of a sordid past of crime.
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“The amazing thing was that far from being hailed as villains, people saw you as heroes. You only attacked rich people who were perceived as being cruel and unjust. Sometimes where an extremely crude deed had been committed by a rich rancher or businessman, especially where an innocent fella had lost money, you and your gang struck to remedy the situation.” Again Chris said nothing. “It was a known fact that most of the money you got was given to the poor, or the people who had been wronged. You and your gang were righting the wrongs the law couldn’t address,” Crankson continued. “You were punishing the evil men that the law couldn’t reach. This endeared you to a lot of grateful hearts. Of course, the law hated you, and many lawmen laid traps for you. Perhaps you were more known for your uncanny ability to walk out of traps than the actual crimes you committed. You were a chivalrous, kind and charismatic figure. But then, it all came to an end when your gang attacked Phillip Aggrey…and shot up his six-year old niece, Brandy. She took a bullet and became confined to a wheelchair, an act that earned you fifteen years in jail. Why, Chris, why? That’s what I need to understand. Why?”
Chris Bawa had been raising a glass of water to his lips, but he set it down hard, almost savagely. He leaned forward and rubbed his temples gently. Crankson reached out a hand quickly and grabbed the younger man’s hands. Bawa flinched, and for a moment his eyes, as he looked hard at Crankson, reflected no recognition. For one terrible moment Crankson saw deep hatred in those steely eyes, and he feared that the younger man was going to hit out at him. He breathed a little easier when he realized that Bawa was not looking at him, but through him, his mind wandering far away, obviously haunted by ghosts from the past, forced to re-live a horror that had been a part of him for a decade.
Crankson felt terrible doing that to him, but he knew it was necessary. Bawa was at the crossroads, and Crankson knew that the most dangerous path led to Little Rock, and to a possible death. This was the time to lay the cards on the table before it was too late; this was the time to make the young man face his ghosts, confront them and move on. He hated the role of the executioner, but he knew it was a sword he had to bear, and use, if necessary.
“Phillip Aggrey, a man not much loved by anyone,” Crankson continued. “A most unpleasant man, I gather, who was hard on poor ranchers, preferring to buy them out, mostly paying peanuts for their lands, or hiring thugs to either kill or drive them out if they resisted, although he was shrewd enough not to leave evidences. He took ownership of the Triple S ranch after his older brother, Jack, mysteriously got drunk and fell off his horse, breaking his neck. People still believe Phillip killed his brother to take over the ranch, and also marry his pretty sister-in-law Helen. Some still say Jack’s death was a planned murder between Phillip and Helen. Sadly, I fear the truth may never come out.” He noticed that Bawa’s face looked a little composed now, but his hands still shook as he rubbed his temples gently.
“You were a hero to some people, until you hit the Aggrey ranch, and you were caught. Fifteen years for you, four years each to your friends. Apart from the fact that you felt you were doing something right by your own style of justice, what was your motivation to live a life of crime, Chris?”
Chris Bawa looked up so slowly that it seemed like his neck muscles were being controlled by a remote host that had gone suddenly lazy. His face was cold, and he looked really tensed up. Every vestige of control was gone, and every humane disguise had been stripped off. The face that Crankson saw was a terrible one, filled with a deep inner wrath, contorted with hatred and everything bestial. Chris’ lips were slightly open, and sweat dropped off the tip of his nose unto the bottom of the coffee cup. His hands were flat on the table, but they trembled, not with fear and unease, but with the urge to grab and tear, to destroy and plunder. Crankson’s intake of breath was filled with despair, and his involuntary movement backward was a gesture of acute agitation.
“You got it all perfectly summed up, old man!” Chris Bawa grated out, his voice low, but almost like a growl. “I guess I did want to help others. Remember, I knew how my father operated, and he sickened me. I thought I might balance the equation a little. I never wanted to hit the Aggrey ranch, though. My four friends, as you call them, came to me with the idea in the first place.” He leaned back, and his eyes remained totally deadly for a spell. “It took almost a week for them to convince me, and they only succeeded because they told me about Jack’s death, and the betrayal of his wife! They never told me about that little girl, and my mistake was my failure to find out everything I could about that family. I didn’t fire the shot that hurt the little girl, and I was blamed for it. One of those four bastards with me did it. It was a setup from the word go, and I’m going to find out why I was set up, and who was behind it!”
“Chris!” Crankson said through parched lips, reaching out desperately to touch the hand nearest to him. “You don’t have to prove yourself to me, or your mother and sister! We’ve always believed your innocence!” Chris drew back his chair and stood up. His face was a little bit more composed now, and he was not shaking so much. Still, when he spoke his voice was filled with menace.
“Somebody was out to get me, and that somebody took ten years of my life,” Bawa said softly. “And I’m gonna find that bastard.”
“And that direction, my dear son, could mean death for you, you know.” A little smile lifted the corner of Chris Bawa’s mouth; it wasn’t a very nice smile.
“Hell ain’t got any surprises for me no more,” he said softly. He turned and strode out of the eatery. Mike Crankson quickly put two notes of money on the table and hurried out after Chris. He knew he had lost, and it saddened his heart. However, there were still a few things Chris Bawa had to know…before he gave himself up to the lions waiting to tear him apart in Little Rock.
A deadly Chinese man attacked Chris Bawa as soon as he began to cross the street. The street was virtually empty, but there were a few people on the sidewalks. Some were walking briskly, obviously on their way to open stores and businesses. Far up on the street a man lurched drunkenly out of a doorway, trying to shield his head from the flailing fists of a half-dressed prostitute who was raining expletives on him. A woman nearby tried to cover the ears of her young daughter as they hastily crossed the street and disappeared down an alley.
A huge black cat darted onto the street from the corner of Mama Trish’s Delights. Clamped in its mouth were the entrails of some animal of a sort. Behind the cat was a lean, mangy, flea-infested dog which tried to snatch the delicacy. The cat hunched its back, made a hissing sound around the meat, and then jumped for a pillar supporting the awning of the eatery. In a flash it clambered out of sight across the roof.
The Oriental was dressed in drab cream trousers and matching long-sleeved top. A conical cane hat was on his head, and because his head was bent, it hid almost the whole of his face. He was holding a walking-stick in his right hand, and he limped with obvious pain. He cut a diagonal line across the street toward the huge man.
Mike Crankson emerged from the eatery, and his eyes roved up and down the street. He saw a flash of white, like a sleeve, pressed against a corner of the Maple Home grocery store briefly. He squinted, thinking suddenly of the white-shirted man who had acted so strangely when he saw Chris inside the eatery. Crankson looked hard, but there was nothing there now. He wondered briefly if his sight was now so bad that it had begun to play tricks on him. He turned and saw Chris walking briskly ahead, obviously agitated.
The Oriental limped past Chris, and then suddenly he pivoted, and a long, narrow sword materialized in his hands, his shoulders thrust sideways, dropping into a slashing stance to attack Chris Bawa on his blind side. Fear leapt like a living predator into Crankson’s heart. “Chris!” he screamed, his fear causing blood to rush into his head, making his legs wobble as the ground spun crazily around him.
“Dear sweet Lord, he’s dead! Chris is going to die!”