Expect your enemy to strike all the time; nothing is happenstance, and everything is enemy action. Look for the odd feature…always look for the odd feature. Shifty eyes, calculating eyes, avoided looks…a break in the pattern of clothing, why is the right shoulder slightly higher or tighter, why is there a faint protuberance at the hem of a shirt or dress? A concealed weapon maybe? Look for the pattern in the walking, the rhythm, especially when he passes you…is there a pause, a slight shuffle, a break in the sound? Overlook nothing, give nothing to chance…always be alert. Always!
These were the words of Uncle Chad, a mentor whose words were forever embedded in the psychic framework of a very extraordinary pupil, Chris Bawa. Chris had taken one look at the Oriental, and he had known something was wrong. The man was of average height, lithe like most Asians, his body well-muscled and compact. His walking-stick was in his right hand, an indication that he was limping from the right leg. A man with a walking-stick with a hurting right leg would normally put the walking-stick and the hurting leg first before the strong leg followed. But the Oriental was rather putting his left leg forward!
Secondly, to ease the discomfort as much as possible, a man with a limp would move in a coordinated manner. This Oriental put his left leg first as he limped, and there was an uneven rhythm as he drew near Bawa. Enemy action. As they passed each other Bawa saw the brief look of the Oriental, the calculating eyes, gauging distances, the sudden movement outward, adjusting his body position. And Chris knew that this man was a killing machine, an engine of death. The fact that he had chosen such an hour and place spoke volumes; it hinted at a confidence in his ability to strike quickly and efficiently and vanish just as quickly. It spoke of a man who knew his quarry was no match for him.
Bawa’s eyes roved down the length of the man’s body, searching for inconsistent bulges in the clothing that would hint at hidden guns. He saw none. That meant the Oriental had other weapons of the silent type, and he already knew that outwardly, Chris Bawa was not armed. Chris felt the blood quickening in his veins, and a tight smile crossed his lips. His conversation with Mike Crankson had re-opened old wounds and laid the sensitive nerves bare. He was as strung up as a coiled spring, and his body needed the release, the outer explosion of energy that would somehow cool it down a bit because, somehow, that was the only language he understood now.
As they passed each other Bawa took a fast step to his right, aligning himself almost in a straight line with the Chinese. He saw out of his side-vision that the Chinese had discarded the limp, and had pivoted with one fluid motion, his left hand grabbing the lower portion of his walking-stick and pulling it down, revealing a hidden sword. The scabbard clattered to the ground at the same time that Bawa heard Crankson screaming out his name. The Chinese had expected to see Bawa slightly to his left as he swivelled, and there was a split-second look of surprise in his dark eyes as he realized that his quarry was standing almost in front of him, making his first choice strike almost impossible. Like the true professional he was the Chinese killer did not move to re-adjust his position but sprang forward with the quickness of a striking cobra, aiming straight for Bawa’s heart. .
Chris spun to his right with lightning speed so that the length of the cruel sword passed harmlessly across his chest, and he continued moving in a full circle and forward so that he was just inches from the Chinese. Chris’ stiff left hand slashed inward with a terrible backhand. The force of the blow smashed across the Chinese man’s eyes, knocking him backward, his cane hat flying off his head. The man grunted, more with sudden shock and concern than with pain. Chris knew his blow had momentarily blinded the man, but he checked his movement forward just in time to jump back as the killer’s sword swung round in a savage arc and then sliced upward. Chris Bawa knew then that he was facing a master swordsman. If he had followed his advantage and stepped forward, the Chinese’s double swing would have spilled his intestines on the dusty street and laid his throat open vertically to his chin and face.
With the man’s sword hand briefly hung in the up-thrust, Chris spun in a semi-circle, his right leg coming off the ground, his heel smashing into his attacker’s ribs with brute force. The man squealed with excruciating pain and sagged at the knees, and Bawa knew some of his attacker’s ribs were broken.
Chris spun the other way as the man slashed downward and sideways desperately, his face contorted with sudden dread. Bawa’s next blow smashed fully into the man’s mouth with the force of Chris’s pure muscle and sinew behind it. The Chinese grunted with pain as the force of the blow hurled him hard to the street. The sword was still in his hand, but being held slackly now. His nose and mouth was a mashed pulp of blood and broken teeth.
He stared up at Chris. There was no fear on his face, but there was reluctant respect. He was a proud warrior who knew how deadly he was, and to go up against an unarmed man and be soundly beaten without landing a single blow was something he had never expected. He spat out a thick blood-soaked gooey liquid that contained three of his adult teeth. The Chinese assasin grabbed his ribs and propelled himself to his feet in one swift motion. He stood like that, half-bent, gripping his ribs with one hand, supporting himself upright with his sword, head downcast, shoulders slumped…the picture of a broken man. An enemy is never dead until he’s dead! Your enemy is most strong at his most vulnerable…never trust him. If he’s dead, make sure by placing a bullet in his skull before bending over him! Uncle Chad’s voice, like always, droned on inside Chris’ head, and as he stepped toward the Chinese man he did so with all senses alert, although outwardly he appeared lax and unfocussed, the picture of the overconfident victor. Ten paces separated them, and then suddenly, with the agility of a striking cobra the Oriental was moving, dropping his subdued posture and leaping high, pointed sword aimed at Bawa’s neck. The big man was almost caught by surprise, and he spun away desperately from the point of the sword, his own right hand lashing out, fingers straight, the edge of the hand as deadly as a gun, smashing with brute force into the side of the attacker’s neck.
The Chinese man crashed down awkwardly, landing on his own sword which sliced thinly across his arm. Chris had not hit to kill, but to paralyze his enemy, and he expected the man to lie still. But the Chinese man didn’t stay still! He struggled to his knees, looking down with horror at the blood spreading on his arm, where his own sword had cut him, and soaking the material. His horror-stricken face puzzled Bawa for a moment because the sword had not cut him that deeply. However, Chris understood the man’s terror a moment later. The Chinese man began to jerk violently as if a million strings attached to him were being pulled simultaneously in different directions. Incoherent gaggling noises emitted from his throat, and his eyes danced wildly in his head. Foam and spittle flew from his mouth and drenched him. Slowly he fell on his face, twitched for a few seconds more, and then he became quite still. Quite a number of people had gathered on the sidewalks now, and they were chattering excitedly.
A moment later a panting Mike Crankson reached the scene and stared down at the Chinese with horrified eyes. His eyes went up to the corner of the building where he had seen a flash of white, but his view was blocked by the bodies of people hurrying to the scene.
“Lord,” he whispered hoarsely. “What happened to him? You killed him?”
“No. His sword had a poisoned edge,” Bawa said grimly. “All it needed was a tiny scratch, and I would’ve been dead by now.” Crankson was too stunned to speak.
A swarthy man with a freckled face pushed his way through the crowd. His beard was neatly-trimmed although his moustache was a bit on the huge side. His eyes looked bored as he stared at the corpse. The star of a sheriff was pinned on his shirt.
“Aye, knew his end would be no good, that one,” the sheriff said in a deep voice and belched loudly. “This Chinese man came into town two days ago from God knows where. Slimy bastard, he beat up two good men in the Red Crab bar last night when a fight broke out over cards. Knocked them clean and fair though, so I couldn’t arrest him. Well, I saw what happened from way yonder, fella. Friend of yours, Mr. Crankson?”
“Yes,” Crankson said, but deliberately he didn’t introduce Chris Bawa. “We just finished having breakfast, and this poor gent just showed up and attacked my friend.”
“Saw what happened. No need to fuss. My deputies will take care of the Chinese hombre.”
“Watch the sword,” Mike said sharply. “It is poisoned. One tiny scratch, and you’re gone.” The sheriff’s eyes narrowed.
“Then I better take and keep it safe,” he said and picked up the sword gingerly by the handle. Chris Bawa bent and picked up the scabbard which the sheriff took and slid the poisoned sword into it. “Move along folks, give way,” the sheriff shouted at the gathering crowd. Crankson nodded at Chris.
“I’ll be with you soon, son. Something I want to ask the sheriff.” Bawa nodded and turned away. The crowd parted for him, muttering with obvious admiration at his fighting skills. He crossed the street and walked briskly to the Paradise Hotel.
Across the street, under the awning of a fashion store which had not opened yet, a huge bearded man was standing and watching. He had seen all that happened with a keen eye. He watched Chris Bawa for a while, his eyes showing reluctant admiration, and then he casually stepped off the landing and cut across the road toward the stagecoach station. His name was Wachipa Sey. And he was a Federal Security Corps agent for Mike Kpodo. He had been assigned to make sure Chris Bawa did what was expected of him. He also had orders to kill Chris Bawa…if he deemed it necessary.
Almost one hour later Mike Crankson found Bawa in his hotel room, standing by the window again and looking at the activities on the street. Mike closed the door gently and sat down on one of the chairs. He poured a glass of water from a pitcher on the bedside table and drank it all down. He wiped his mouth with a clean handkerchief and carefully tucked it into his pocket. Crankson sat back, crossed his legs and laced his fingers together. Bawa did not turn round as he spoke quietly.
“I leave for Little Rock this afternoon.” Crankson sighed, pursed his lips and blew out air through bloated cheeks. “You almost got killed, Chris,” he said, and his voice was firm. “You said it yourself; just a tiny scratch from that killer’s sword and you would’ve copped it. I blame myself, though. I should’ve warned you about the man in white.” Bawa turned his head briefly and looked at him.
“Tell me.” Mike narrated what he had seen at the eatery, and later catching sight of a white material visible around a corner of the hotel.
“That was what I wanted to talk to Sheriff Craft about,” he continued. “I think that man in white was working with the Chinese fella that attacked you, although the sheriff doubts it. He tells me the man in the white shirt is called Rupert Henderson, and he rides for the M Slash B ranch in Little Rock.” Bawa stiffened suddenly, and his jaw tightened.
“M Slash W,” he said softly. “As in Mike Braimah?”
“Yes, your old pal now owns one of the finest ranches in the New Territories,” Crankson said tightly, his voice desperate now. “Rupert Henderson was shocked to see you. I don’t think this attack was planned by Braimah, though. I think Henderson recognized you, and had heard tales from his boss about you. Obviously, he thought your death would be a great gain to his master, and he planned that little fiasco. Evidently, he wanted to ingratiate himself with Braimah. He bungled it because he underestimated your prowess. Chris, this proves they’re waiting for you in Little Rock.”
The jailbird was quiet for a while, and then he turned and pulled out one of the chairs. He sat down sideways from the window and looked at his old friend.
“That’s just how I like it, Mike. That’s exactly how I like it.” Crankson poured another glass of water, not because he was thirsty, but to occupy himself with an activity as he marshalled his thoughts. He took a sip and then began to twirl the glass slowly in both hands.
“Alright, Chris, have it your way,” he said at last. “I wanted you to stay here with me. As I pointed out, you’ve got enough money to last you a lifetime and beyond. I used some of your money to buy a parcel of land west of mine, and I have already built a nice ranch house for you. We can go there this afternoon so you can take a look; it is next to paradise, I assure you, and quite the envy of all who see it.” He waited for a response, got none, and continued restlessly. “Your land is good, green and fertile, suitable for farming or ranching. You can bring your mother and sister here if you wish, maybe marry a fine good woman and settle down. I’m trying to tell you that you can walk away from all that poison in Little Rock, Chris. You can walk away from this thing. I know you don’t only want to clear your name. You and I know you just want to get even.”
“You’re figuring wrong, old man,” Chris said softly. “If I walk away now I can’t look into a mirror again. This thing will eat through me until its poison drags me down. This has to be done, Mike. I have to find out who framed and took ten years of my life.”
“Even if you die trying to get to the bottom of what happened?”
“Yes, even if I die,” Chris said softly. “Death is eventual, old man.”
Crankson set the glass down gently and licked his dry lips. Already the weather was beginning to get warm, and soon it would be too hot to stay inside.
The town was fully awake now, perhaps because of the little drama that had taken place on its main street. His old face was now filled with a worry and fear he did not try to hide.
“There’re some things you’ve got to know, son,” he said finally. “First of all, your four friends were expected to do four years each in Great Hopes Prison, right? Well, from what I was able to gather, Mike Braimah and Steve Hollison were released after doing two years each. Good conduct and real portrayal of remorse on their parts were cited in their release documents. Their appeals were heard because people blamed you anyway for dragging them into your bad life. Irvin Agorkoli and Leo Brand served three years each.” Bawa’s face hardened fractionally, but he said nothing. “Braimah and Hollison returned to Little Rock after their release, and supposedly took up honest lifestyles. They were soon forgiven, and both are wealthy ranchers now. Steve Hollison owns the Double S brand, and apart from your father, they are probably the wealthiest men in town. Leo Brand went back to Little Rock a changed man. He claimed to have found Christ whilst in prison, and was converted and baptized. He is now a preacher man, and wanted to settle in Little Rock just to win souls for Christ. Nobody believed him at first, you know, on account of the fact that he rode for you.”
“Leo is a preacher man?” Chris asked, his voice sounding neither shocked nor disbelieving. He was just asking for clarification, a bare enquiry that somehow made the older man really scared. He had expected the huge man to be surprised, at least, but this blatant lack of interest was something sinister, even bizarre.
“Yes. He tried to be accepted, but people gave him a bad time. He was found one morning almost dead on the outskirts of town. Obviously, he had received a bad beating. No one knew who meted out such punishment to him, but the story around town was that it was done by Sheriff Grant and his two deputies. Actually Grant is not one of your regular sheriffs. He swore no oath and was not appointed by any authority.” Crankson was quiet for a while, lost in thought. He spoke again in a troubled voice. “I learnt your father and a few influential ranchers approached him and his pals and made them lawmen of Little Rock. They’ve earned the nickname The Death Angels. If you go back to Little Rock, you will have a pretty hard time dealing with them. I don’t think they’ll treat you like Leo Brand because after all you’re still your father’s son, but I don’t think that will hold them back from giving you hell in that town.”
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“Depends on how you define hell, Mike,” Bawa said quietly. “I can handle their hell.”
“Well, Leo Brand went right back to town, face all puffy and covered with dried blood. He stood right in front of the sheriff’s office and began to preach, a much-used Bible clutched in his bloodied hands. He claims he received it from the man that baptized him in prison. Well, there’s already a Reverend Josh Owusu in Little Rock, but the rumour is that he is quite amorous, hitting on the womenfolk in his congregation. Only a rumour, mind you, but it got folks thinking that maybe Leo Brand is God sent. Leo Brand ended up establishing the Church of Faith or something like that. Commands a sizeable congregation, though. It is surprising that Sheriff Grant and his pals left him alone when he returned, but it dawned on people after a while that he’s a genuine article, and he’s been accepted.” Chris Bawa moved his head slowly left to right, then up and down, trying to release tensed-up muscles.
“What about Irvin Agorkoli?” Chris asked. “Living in Little Rock too?”
“No. According to Leo Brand, Agorkoli decided to ride away from Little Rock after his release because he did not want anything to do with the town again. They parted ways after they were released, and no one knows where Agorkoli could be now. I didn’t try to follow up because I thought you might not be interested. Chris, suppose Agorkoli was the shooter that night, and suppose he fled because he was scared you would find out? It makes sense, doesn’t it?” Bawa leaned forward slightly and began to massage his temples gently, absent-mindedly.
Irving Agorkoli, the smallest among them … and the oldest. Always angry and aggressive, always dissatisfied with something, always looking for trouble. Dark, moody, always striving to lead, taking offense whenever Bawa said no to one of his hairy ideas. Always manipulating, always scheming, always capable of double-crossing. Bawa admitted to himself that yes, he had always thought Agorkoli to be capable of deceit, and through the years as he languished in prison Agorkoli’s face had come over and over to mind until he had almost been certain that he had his man. Agorkoli, the man who always complained when Chris insisted no one should carry live bullets in his gun. Always asking why Chris should be the only one with bullets in his gun. Agorkoli, never satisfied, always bearing one grudge or another!
Now the man was gone, lost somewhere in the great world. A sudden bitterness rose in Bawa’s chest, and he looked almost helplessly at the floor. He had not counted on that. He had always assumed that they would all end up in Little Rock, making his goal easier. That meant he had to adjust to the situation. First he would deal with the other three, and if he was convinced that Agorkoli was the bad fruit, the one who had fired a live bullet that night and wounded the little girl, making Chris the fall guy, Chris would go after him. It would not matter where Agorkoli hid…Chris Bawa would find him.
Crankson waited a while, but it soon became evident that Bawa was not going to comment. He sighed deeply again, and for the umpteenth time he licked his lips.
“Your mother is a frail subdued woman now, Chris,” he said gently. “Your arrest, trial and imprisonment broke her heart. She still lives with your father, but she barely comes out of the house. I heard rumours that your father rarely speaks to her, and that he has a lady friend who would soon become the new mistress of the ranch. Your sister, Ruth, has a stormy marriage with a brute of a man called Jonathan Afful.” Bawa frowned.
“Never heard of him.” Crankson nodded.
“Yes, huge brute of a man, bigger than you, I think. Abusive and unbelievably gross and callous. One of the new ranchers. He has money, but has no respect for women, and definitely no brains either. Your sister is virtually a prisoner in his home, and I hear he beats her a lot. Your father and brothers seem to be friends with him, though, and are obviously reluctant to barge in and help your sister.” Chris Bawa stopped rubbing his temples and sat quietly. There was no expression on his face, but Crankson knew him well enough to know that the young man’s first point of call would probably be at the Jonathan Afful ranch.
“Your mother needs peace, young man,” Crankson continued gently. “She can’t survive any bad news about you, Chris. For her sake, if not for anything, stay here with me, in the beautiful home I’ve built for you, please. You can bring your mother and sister here, and just let this pursuit of getting even rest! Give your Ma some peace!” Chris looked at him impassively.
“She’ll not have peace as long as I don’t have peace, Mike,” Chris said softly. Mike Crankson licked his lips again, closed his eyes for a moment, and then he looked at Bawa fully in the eyes.
“Elaine Boateng, the girl everybody says you loved, is married now,” Mike Crankson said levelly. That one got to Chris Bawa. His eyes squinted with instant shafts of pain. He gripped the arms of his chair hard, and tendons stood out starkly on the back of his hands.
“Elaine?” he grated out hoarsely, painfully, shattered.
“Yes, your Elaine. She married your own brother, Ato Bawa,” Crankson said. Bawa closed his eyes. His rugged face, however, bore the depths of his pain. Suddenly he did not look so tough; there was now an aura of vulnerability about him, and his whole appearance, for that brief period, was an epitome of a soul in need of comfort, a strong man suddenly needing a shoulder to lean on. But he was Chris Bawa, and the moment passed quickly, leaving his face looking even harsher and crueller.
“No one really blamed her much, myself included,” Crankson continued. “You were going to prison for fifteen years, humiliated and totally despised by all the citizens of Little Rock. I learnt Dirk Boateng tried to keep his daughter away from you for all sorts of reasons, but she stuck with you…until you let her down. She became a pariah of sorts, and sunk into deep depression. Ato came along and married her, I guess to save her from further misery.” Chris looked at him, and when he spoke the words came out softly, but the bitterness was wrapped around them like a cloak. Bitterness and excruciating pain. Chris Bawa was suddenly hurting terribly over Elaine’s betrayal.
“There’s no reason, no reason at all, for a man to take his brother’s love!” Crankson did not press it. He stood up and walked up to the hurt man. His face was filled with worry and deep love as he gazed at the younger man.
“Chris, you’re like the son I never had, and I keep telling you I love you just as much. At this particular moment, I love you more than anyone in the world. Secondly, Little Rock means sorrow and heartache to you, son. Maybe, even death. You have a choice to bring your mother and any other member of your family you love, and your friends, to this beautiful place I built for you, with your own money, and let this thing lie! Please think about it.” Bawa stood up and walked to the window. He stood looking outside for a long time without speaking, and Crankson thought he had finally gotten through to him.
“Little Rock owes me, Mike,” he said softly, almost gently. “I couldn’t turn back even if I wanted to.” Crankson’s shoulders sagged as he nodded once.
“It is settled then,” he said, his tone almost an inquisition.
“It is,” Bawa said. “I leave for Little Rock this afternoon. They will pay.”