Rupert Henderson walked his horse gently and carefully down the path, careful to keep his hands in full view as he entered the yard of Jonathan Afful, owner of the Box J.A. ranch. He felt a great itch in his crotch and was sorely tempted to reach down and scratch, but he resisted it; hell, that fool Afful was apt to recognize that as a threat and blast away with his shotgun before asking questions later. Henderson wondered what the itch was all about. He had been feeling it for almost two weeks now, and only last night he had noticed that the skin around his balls had become kind of white and all flaky. It had started shortly after he had been with that new whore in town – now what was her name? Hell, sometimes he wondered where Mama Tina, the owner of Sighs and Moans, the local brothel – she preferred to call herself an Exotic Entrepreneur, what crap – got some of her girls from.
The girl in question, a sweet dark-eyed Indian, had been clean enough, and God knows sweet enough, though frightfully expensive. But there must have been something wrong with her, yeah, maybe even a terminal virus. He would have to see the doctor as soon as this little business he was planning was over.
Jonathan Afful was a mountain of a man who had arrived in Little Rock with a lot of money, bought a ranch, and eventually married Ruth Bawa, much against the wishes of the girl, but her father had been insistent as usual; it was obvious that he liked Afful as an ally. Rumour had it that Jonathan Afful controlled his little wife and did all sorts of crazy things to her. He was a man with a short temper, and no one in his right senses ever dared to cross him. Apart from being physically strong and unbelievably violent, he was also a decent shot, and so people tended to mind their own business when he was around.
Ruth Bawa had been pregnant once, a long time ago, but one night she had been rushed to the doctor’s place bleeding profusely. Her husband claimed she had fallen down, but the huge dark fingerprints on the right side of her face had told another story. She lost the baby, and had never gotten pregnant again. These days she moved like a ghost around her matrimonial home, and Henderson always found a dark little pleasure in seeing her.
Fact was, Henderson hated Ruth Bawa very much, and found none of the pity others felt for her. Once, when he was a rider for Ted Bawa, he had loved Ruth, and tried to get her to bed, but she had scorned him and his love. Now she had gotten exactly what she wanted.
“Stop right there, whoever you are, before I blast your head right off,” the lazy booming voice of Jonathan Afful came from the darkness, and Rupert Henderson wisely reigned in his horse. The gigantic figure of Jonathan Afful materialized from the darkness on the porch and came down the wooden stairs slowly, the shotgun held up and pointed straight at the rider’s head. He stopped five paces from the horse and slowly lowered his gun. “Henderson,” Afful said, and his voice wasn’t friendly at all. “What’s your crawlies this night? What are you doing sneaking around my place?” Rupert Henderson, slight of build, lean and agile, stared down at the huge man and smiled in the darkness.
“I’ve got news for you, Jonathan,” Rupert said easily and looked around him significantly. “But we can’t discuss it here.”
“Ain’t going nowhere with you, Henderson,” Afful said with a hard edge to his voice. “I’ve got things to do. If this ain’t private enough for whatever you want to say, then you better get your ass off my property.” Rupert looked at Afful for a moment, and then he smiled again.
“Just wanna save your ass, big man,” Rupert said softly. “Look this is for your benefit, okay? Whatever I have to say to you should be between the two of us. No one, especially your wife, needs to know this.” In the darkness Rupert saw Afful’s jaw jutting out menacingly just as he knew it would. The man was sure touchy about his missus. Before he could speak Rupert turned his horse and walked it a few meters toward the gate. He dismounted and waited, patting the horse’s head absent-mindedly.
Jonathan Afful walked toward him with the careful steps of one who suspected foul play. Afful looked like a mountain as he faced the little man. He noticed the fancy pants and the white shirt the man was wearing, and he shook his head with disgust. This little rat spent all his bread on clothing and women. A man like this Henderson never put down roots, and always left the world with little to show.
“What’s all this crap about, Henderson?” Rupert dropped it as it was.
“Chris Bawa is coming back to Little Rock, Jonathan,” he said. For the briefest of seconds Afful tensed, and then his jaw jutted out angrily as he reached out and bunched Henderson’s shirt in one hand and jerked him off his feet, lifting him high so that their faces were level.
“What’s this trash talk?” he growled. “Chris Bawa, I heard, is doing fifteen or twenty years, and he has barely cleared half! Half this town also believe he is already dead in prison!” Rupert was finding it hard to breathe, and it felt really undignified to be so effortlessly lifted. His anger was sharp and fierce, and for a moment his fingers caressed the butt of the Colt at his waist, but he forced himself to relax, and got out his words evenly.
“They let Chris Bawa out,” he grated out harshly. “He has a powerful friend in Temple Town, a government man named Mike Crankson, a chap who has a lot of clout, you know, and knows a lot of important people. I don’t know, but somehow he managed to get Chris Bawa freed. Saw them today with my own eyes.” Afful set Henderson down, and he rubbed his hands together rapidly as his eyes bored into the smaller man.
“And you thought this is news enough for me to hear?” his voice was a growl. Henderson, still bristling, straightened his shirt and tucked in carefully. He spoke without looking up at the giant.
“Have you heard how Chris Bawa, then only a young man, took on old Ted, his father, and whipped him soundly?” Afful snorted.
“Who hasn’t? That old cock story. What has that got to do with me?”
“That was no cock story, Jonathan,” Henderson said softly. “I was there, and I saw it. The boy was just eighteen or so, and fat with a drooping belly, but you should’ve seen him move that day. Cut up the man so bad. Now he’s ten years older, and there’s no flab on him. He is all muscled and fearful now, Jonathan. I recognized him in Temple Town, and I set Lee-Chan on him.” He hesitated, and much against his will Jonathan Afful was forced to voice out the question.
“What happened?” Henderson smiled coldly.
“Lee-Chan is dead,” he said quietly, and he nodded slowly. “You always believed you could’ve whipped that Chinese man, I know. Why, we used to lay bets on it, and it was a fight we wanted to see. Maybe you could’ve taken him, you know, without his sword. Maybe. But I’ll tell you this, with that man’s skill in that martial arts shit, I’ll bet my last dime that he would’ve ripped you apart with his bare hands. With his poisoned sword, forget it. You would’ve been dead in a second. But he went up against Chris with his sword, only needing to scratch Chris…but in less than a minute Lee-Chan was dead.”
Jonathan Afful didn’t say anything. He just looked at the little man and it was evident that his mind was elsewhere, and working fast.
“Now, everybody knows that the only persons Chris ever cared about are his mother and sister,” Henderson continued slowly. “Tongues wag in this town, Jonathan, and I bet you a day’s wage that Chris will hear about his sister’s marriage the first day he gets here, and he will hear how you’ve been beating his sister, and he would come for you.” Henderson stopped long enough to yawn, and then he spoke his next words slowly and carefully. “I’ll tell you here and now, Jonathan, at the expense of my health, that whether you face Chris Bawa with guns, or with fists, Chris Bawa will beat you in seconds. Maybe he has grown rusty-wise with the gunplay, with being in jail for ten years, but I wouldn’t take a chance on that if I were you. Believe me, you don’t want Chris Bawa after your hide.”
“I can take care of myself, Henderson,” Afful said dourly. “Ain’t no man alive that can give me shit. I don’t take water from anybody, and you know it.”
“See here, Jonathan, I’ll tell you as it is, and that’s because I believe you ought to know the truth. Folks here don’t like it particularly the way you treat that wife of yours. Moreover, folks know Ruth didn’t sashay to you in the first place. Now, way I see it, those are reasons enough for Chris to come for your hide.” Afful suddenly grinned. In the darkness that grin made Rupert shudder. It looked like an all-fangs thing in the face of the giant, but it was gone as suddenly as it appeared.
“Now I get it,” Afful said coldly. “You and that freak Chinese, Lee-Chan, went to Temple Town, and there you saw Bawa. Now, I know the way that chicken-shit mind of yours works. You go thinking like here’s your chance to make a nice name for yourself and impress your boss. Yeah, shut up, let me finish!” He raised the rifle higher, and Rupert sensibly shut up.
“Aha, as I was saying, we all know Mike Braimah and Steve Hollison are old pals of Bawa who cut themselves out of prison terms, and of course they shit their pants each time they hear about Bawa. So you set that Chink on Bawa, thinking your boss will be mighty grateful to you, but you messed it up ‘cause the Chink got killed, and Bawa is on his way here. Now your boss’ll burn you for making that pitch at Bawa and failing, and of course, Bawa’ll find out you set the Chink on him, so now you want to save your nice little neck by coming to me.” Henderson didn’t bat an eye.
“That about sums it up, Jonathan,” he said quietly. “Braimah and Hollison would’ve been glad if I had succeeded in killing Bawa, but now they would be as dangerous as a mother rattlesnake. So, way I figure it, you got as much to lose as me. You have a nice reputation for getting whatever you want, and that no man can take you on one-on-one. What do you think will happen if Bawa gets here and puts you down for all to see? Why, you’ll lose all credibility, and your humiliation would be legendary. So here’s the plan: we go and wait for Bawa and then we kill him quick and fast before he sets foot in Little Rock.”
“When do we do it?” Afful asked, and Rupert sighed with relief.
“I believe Chris would get off the train at Friar Valley day after tomorrow, buy a horse, and ride in through New Mount. I got it all figured out. Way I see it, we get him at New Mount and give him a ride on the waterfall.” The other man was quiet for a long time, and Rupert knew the giant was stunned.
“The Mezac Falls?” Jonathan finally asked with shock. “Jesus, man, that’s sick!” Rupert shrugged in the darkness.
“Now that’s the only way to do it, way I see it,” he said quietly. “Folks would soon hear that Chris Bawa got out of prison. His pal, Mike Crankson, has money and is famous, and it seems he sees that oaf as a son now. If anything happens to Bawa, like murder, say, that old goat would descend on Little Rock with all the noise he can muster.” He paused for a moment to spit, and then he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Remember too that he’s old man Ted’s son, and if he’s found murdered, why, even though they hate each other’s guts he would be forced to react. The only way out is to make his death seem natural, like for instance he was taking a swim in the river, and the currents carried him over the Falls. No bullets, no foul play, only his smashed and cut up body on the rocks would tell the grim tale. I think, between the three of us, we could just make it work?” The huge man frowned darkly, and his lips pulled back from his teeth in a half-snarl.
“Three? Thought you said the two of us’ll take care of him.”
“Three’s better, and I know of a third man who’ll just love to be in this caper. I’ll see him tomorrow. He’s someone you can trust. So be prepared, Jonathan. Cook up a story for your missus ‘cause we leave tomorrow evening, separately, so as not to draw suspicion. We’ll shack up at the old mining town and wait for him. And then we will kill him.”
After he had left the giant dallied a little outside, enjoying the biting cold and turning over everything that had happened in his mind. When he finally went inside he was grinning and rubbing his loins. He felt really exhilarated once he got over the shock of the horrible death Rupert had planned for the brother-in-law he had heard so much about and never met. It had the touch of a genius, and grudgingly he admitted that Rupert, despicable as he was, indeed had some brains. Jonathan had often heard his wife and mother-in-law discussing Chris Bawa in almost revered tones, and the snatches of conversations he sometimes overheard indicated that if that black sheep had been around their fortunes would’ve been different.
Once, in the heat of anger, Ruth had even dared to spill it out bluntly that someday her brother would come home and teach him, her husband, the ills of striking his sister. Her words had infuriated him because he believed he had no equal in sheer brawn, and he had beaten the hell out of her. That fight had resulted in her losing her baby. It had been regrettable because he had been expecting that baby so much. Despite all his coarse manner and terrible character, he did adore babies, especially little girls, and secretly he had been praying for a girl. Of course, he knew his wife had no love for him, but over the years he had bent her to his wills, and she was now cowed – well, not completely yet, but enough. It was not as if he really loved her that much, but married to a Bawa had its own sort of class in Little Rock, and of course she was a handy piece of woman who kept the house well.
He grinned again as he felt a hardening of his loins. It was going to be a hot long night because the anticipation of putting Chris Bawa down had suddenly made him as horny as the gates of hell. He just couldn’t wait for that day to dawn. But first, a little bed-coasting!
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Steve Hollison couldn’t sleep. The blood in his veins was running restless again. He had eaten lightly – slices of fruit in diluted milk – and he had taken the tonic the doctor had said would work like magic. He had ended his preparations with a wonderful massage from Effe, and still sleep eluded him. Steve sat up slowly and swung his legs off his huge bed. The room was almost dark, the only light coming from a little lantern fixed on the adobe walls, but the wick was turned way down. The cold seeped into the room although he had taken great pains to pad the walls, even inviting experts from St. Tomas to do it right. Maybe his nights didn’t need fruits and milk and erotic massages from exotic women. Maybe all that he needed was the constant warmth provided by a wife. He had money, more than he could ever spend.
At thirty-six his Double S ranch was only second to Ted Bawa’s Circle T. He had acquired good acreage of land through which the Yumany River flowed gloriously. His men were good and dedicated. The building he had made home was one of the finest in Little Rock. It was built low, with the best of materials money could buy. Its design had been elaborate, and it had come from the imagination of a real architect from way down in Chaston. He had furnished it with the elaborate care a man would give a cherished lover. A house of comfort, a mansion, if one really thought of it, and all it needed was the presence of a good woman, and a son.
Steve Hollison never really cherished women. To him they were a necessity, a means of slaking a thirst which otherwise a man could not do properly. However, a son was important, very important. A son who would call him father, and take over all that he had built. That was what was important, and that was what he craved. He knew he would have married long before now and maybe he would have had a couple of sons by now if he hadn’t met Effe.
He sighed audibly as he got out of bed and pulled his white woolen gown tighter around himself. Steve Hollison was a squat man with a powerful frame and close-cropped sandy hair prematurely turning to grey at the temples. The tiny hairs that decorated his chest and arms were already grey, and he knew that he would be completely grey before he hit forty. It was in the blood, a family kind of thing.
His waistline was beginning to show a layer of fat, and his belly – once so tight and taut like the side of a mangy lion – was beginning to protrude just a bit. Still his body retained the brute force it had once shown when he was a young man riding with Chris Bawa.
Aw, damn it, there it was again! Why had he been thinking so much of that boy lately? He pushed the name and the figure it symbolized forcibly out of his mind, and strode out of his bedroom and walked purposely down a long carpeted corridor with doors opening on both sides. He moved toward a door at the end of the corridor which had a little wedge of light seeping underneath.
Ah, Effe! That sweet, marvellous beauty, a woman whose splendour he had never beheld anywhere else. He had often wondered how so many beautiful things could be crammed into one body. Anybody that ever doubted that God sometimes was biased only needed to set eyes on Effe to be convinced. She was twenty years now. The first time Hollison had set eyes on her she had been eighteen, and like all other men he had been blown off his feet by her sheer combination of beauty, allure and strength. He had first heard about her at St. Tomas. He had overheard some men of the Judiciary talking about the flaming beauty of the daughter of a French eminence visiting the state. It had been at a time when the foundations of the laws that would govern the New Territories were being put in place.
Hollison had been in St. Tomas first for business and secondly for pleasure. The next dawn a group of marauding rebels had attacked the famous Hotel Excel housing the prominent persons. They had looted and plundered, making away with money and jewellery. Finally, they had set the hotel ablaze to cover their escape. By accident Hollison had been leaving the town at the same time, and since his accommodation was quite near the hotel he had naturally been drawn to the place by the screams and the blazing fire. That had been his lucky break because he had seen a dirty slice of man dragging the young screaming beauty to his horse. One look at her face and Hollison’s gun had jumped to his hand and a bullet had put the rebel down. He had kept her in his room, tied and gagged. Later he had heard that her father had perished in the blaze, and he had thanked his lucky stars. He had risked everything – his life, his reputation, his wealth, everything – just to get her from St. Tomas to Little Rock.
She had been a bunch of struggling, screaming and writhing mass, and on several occasions he had had to tie her up or gag her on the journey. In the long run he had put her in a huge wooden crate with holes for air, tied and gagged, and then he had taken a train head with two cabins from San Dorando to Temple Town, thence by coach to Little Rock. It had been more than a kidnapping, and he knew he would have been sent straight to the lynching tree if he had been caught.
Once his men had safely deposited the crate in his barn he had rushed her inside his house, sat her down and made his position known to her. harbouring thoughts that she might be falling in love with him.
“Fire,” she whispered. “Fire!” And then she had gone in and slammed her door. He would’ve dismissed her, but somehow he had stayed. The stage coach that left Little Rock, the one he would have taken, was attacked by rebels before reaching Temple town, and the crazy thieves set fire to it…and nobody had survived. When he heard it he had rushed home to her, and found her at the window, shivering lightly.
“How did you know?” he had whispered it, because his confusion and fear had been that great.
“I know,” she had said. That had been the beginning of an understanding between them. From then, unknown to anybody, he always consulted her on any decision he made, and she had never failed him. His wealth had grown simply because he listened to her. It was uncanny, and it was downright frightening, but after a while it filled him with exhilaration. It even extended to his card playing. He was a gambling man, and he always asked her if he should gamble. On the nights she okayed his gambling, he won big at the tables. On a couple of occasions, he had gambled against her advice, just to test it, and he had lost heavily. His good fortunes and always being a step ahead of his competitors had baffled folks, but he kept his secret. In exchange he stopped his amorous advances toward her, content in the knowledge that she was not interested in any man, and he was sure that in time, when she trusted him enough, she would give her body to him. For the moment he was more than content with her, and on a few occasions she gave him gentle massages.
Steve had fallen in love with her so completely that she had absolute power over him, and although he sensed that she knew it she had never tried to use it as leverage. He bought her the best of clothes and jewels. He liked her to be with him wherever he went, and he had revelled in the plain envy and jealousy he saw on the faces of men. Steve loved their covetousness and the look of sheer desire on their faces. He loved the animalistic envy on the faces of the women who set eyes on Effe, and more often than not he had managed to get a woman into bed simply because they wanted to prove that they had what it took to charm him too. One day she would be his, but presently he was all hers.
Oh, Effe! How he loved her. As he neared her door now his breath quickened, as usual, and he knew she would be sitting up in bed, waiting. Her door opened when he was five paces from it, and she stood looking at him. Her lantern was on behind her, and he could see her silhouette, but not her face.
“You can’t sleep,” she whispered. He stopped and looked at her. It wasn’t a question, of course. She knew, as usual.
“I’m troubled,” he said softly, “I shouldn’t, I know, but tonight I feel stressed.”
“A man is coming,” she whispered, her voice almost quavering. “A huge man with a scar on his face. He bodes evil for you! He comes with fury, seeking to harm you!” Steve Hollison felt a shiver ran through him. His breathing came a little quicker, but it wasn’t with desire now. He frowned in the darkness.
“Who’s he?” he asked, trying to keep his voice steady. “Do I know him?” She was quiet for so long that he thought she hadn’t heard him, and then she spoke finally.
“You know him,” she whispered. “Once a friend, but now a foe. You must be prepared for him. He’s near. He’s very near. Go back, please, and let me be. I’ll have more for you in the morning!” With that she went inside, and the door closed.
Steve Hollison stood in the darkness, and he shivered. A man. A large man. Once a friend, now a foe. A scarred man. He didn’t know any scarred man who used to be his friend, unless… His mind shied away from the horror, but it just wouldn’t go away. Unless Chris Bawa had picked up a scar in prison… Chris? It couldn’t be. He should still be in prison. There had even been rumors that he was transferred to a desert prison and he died there. But whatever it was he had to contact Mike Braimah tomorrow. They needed to know!