Roy Sampson was an early riser. He had risen early for the past eleven years, the exception being those rare occasions when he was feeling a little under the weather or when the pain in his bones was so bad that even the slightest movement caused him bouts of agony. He needed to get up early because his movements weren’t the sure-footed litheness of the firm and able-bodied. His movements were retarded by the lumps of his legs which had been broken by Ted Bawa in a jealous rage, and which the drunken doctor at the time had not been able to set and bind properly. It had healed, eventually, but it had healed all wrong, and because of that Roy couldn’t move in the usual manner.
He was never able to get up to a standing position when he was lying or sitting. He had to hold onto something for leverage, and that was why he had the two iron crutches. The walking aids had protruding wool-wrapped handles for his hands and hollowed out upper braces that supported his upper arms. Roy’s legs were stiff and crooked, and although the pain wasn’t that bad anymore he still felt them constantly, and had resigned himself to the fact that he might probably die like that.
He was getting old now, and his strength was ebbing, and he sometimes wondered how much longer he could hold on. His job as a bookkeeper at Jeb Narh’s General Goods attracted a meagre wage, and there were a lot of things he had to do at the ranch. It had held such sweet promise, this ranch that he and young Chrissy had acquired. How sweet the land was, and how refreshing the Yumany River ran through it. But alas the stables and the barns and the corrals were all empty.
Occasionally, he paid some of the young drifters in town to trim and hose the place down, keep it clean at least, but those days were becoming fewer and fewer because he could hardly afford it. For sticking by Chris Bawa’s side and being a stalwart defender of the boy, the price he had to pay was the contempt and hatred of the townsfolk. Chris was now regarded as a bad nut, the man whose reputation drew dark scowls and blazing tongues. And for his allegiance to Chris, Roy could barely get anyone’s sympathy in town. The only friends he had were Mrs. Francine Bawa – the woman he loved with all his heart, and through whom he had lost the use of his legs – and Ruth Afful. Of course the Rev. Leo Brand also helped with food items and money every now and then, enabling Roy to avoid total starvation. But the pressure was mounting, yes. He could tell that it was going to be difficult holding on to the land. With all the mysterious things that had been happening deep in the forest, with all the missing people, the eerie drumming and screams, folks had been afraid of what they termed the ‘jinxed land of the thief’.
People had kept clear, believing that some evil forces were at play on Chris Bawa’s land, or some nonsense like that. And now that new rancher, the son-of-a-cow Frank Mensah, wanted to take over the land. Roy had heard tales about how ruthless Mensah was, and how his enemies mysteriously ended up dead or maimed. There were rumours that Frank Mensah was not only a first cousin of the Regional Judge, but had also managed to worm his way into the graces of the people that counted in Little Rock, and so he got away with his misdeeds. He had promised to pay a fair price for the land and the ranch, but Roy had refused to sell, and he would never sell out as long as he drew breath. He wanted the C Dot R Ranch to stand firm, and he wanted it to be there when Chrissie came back from prison.
Roy had managed to hold on for a decade, and another five years wouldn’t be that big a deal. He knew, though everybody else doubted it, that Chrissie would survive prison, and he would come waltzing back into town one day.
On that cold morning, Roy managed to get his two-horse buckboard ready and was standing contemplating the sturdy adobe building, deciding that some of the interstices needed more moss and mud calking, when the sound of hooves drew his attention, and he turned toward the main entrance. Three riders drew to a halt beside his buckboard and looked down at him with varying looks of animosity. Roy tilted his head back defiantly and held tightly unto his walking aids as he regarded Frank Mensah and two of his riders. The owner of the FM Ranch was sitting on a wonderful palomino. His dark suit, even at that early hour, was impeccable. The man himself was smallish, almost cherubic, with pinkish little soft hands that constantly fluttered as if they had a life of their own.
To give the impression of a tough face, and maybe to escape his soft features, Frank Mensah wore a short little beard and a trim moustache. His hat was a black designer affair, trimmed with gold and sapphire. It would’ve looked great on a bigger man, but on Mensah it somehow looked comical. His saddle was new and flamboyantly decorated with silver and gold.
The man on Mensah’s right was tall and lean with premature grey hair littering his otherwise shiny black hair, handsome in a swashbuckling sort of way. He was Peter Mensah, the only son of Frank who, fortunately, had inherited his mother’s physical characteristics.
The last man in the morning party was Jack Dean, Mensah ‘s foreman, and a man who filled Roy with dread. That Jack Dean was a killer, that was no secret. He was in his early forties, tall and sinewy. His movements were always fluid and sinuous, and he was an embodiment of efficiency. He had killed two people since coming to Little Rock, both of them in a fair duel. He was a man of few words, and once he had soundly whipped two of Dirk Boateng’s men in a brawl. A man who abhorred physical violence in any form, Roy Sampson felt a stab of fear as the three unsmiling faces looked down at him. Dean glanced at the buckboard, and then settled his steel-grey eyes on Roy.
“My boss’ll like a word with you,” he drawled out. It was on the tip of Roy’s mouth to tell them he was late and didn’t possibly have anything to say to them, but his fear was palpable now, and he remained silent. He could see that they sensed his fear, and were deeply amused by it, and as their eyes crinkled at him he felt his self-disgust rising.
“I won’t stay long, Mr. Sampson,” Frank Mensah said as he took out a slim golden cigarette case from his coat pocket, extracted a long, slim cigarette and put to his lips. His son leaned over and put a lighted match to the cigarette. Frank Mensah dragged on it long, and then he took it out and sat regarding it carefully as smoke seeped slowly between his teeth.
“My patience has about run out, Mr. Sampson.” Roy Sampson squared his shoulders as best as he could, and looked back at him.
“Sorry to hear that, Frank, but my answer is still no. I’m not selling the land, and that’s final.” The smile vanished from the little man’s face, and his eyes, as he regarded Roy, held a latent fury that made the other man finally understand how this rancher had made it so good in business.
“Well, that’s sad to hear, Mr. Sampson, so sad, because you see, you leave me no other choice than to hurt you,” he said softly and put his cigarette into the corner of his lips and looked thoughtfully into the sky. He then smiled down at Roy with a cold look in his eyes. “I’ve asked around, and found that what you told me about the rights of the ranch is true. Chris Bawa indeed had it duly registered and legalized. He also deposited a copy with the Friar Valley Municipal accordingly. I found out, too, that since your little friend is incarcerated for such a long time, if anything were to happen to you, say an accidental death, for instance, it would be natural for a man whose ranch is nearest to yours, to take over in the event that there was no next of kin.” He paused, and then he leaned down further and continued in a coldly murderous voice. “Fortunately for you, your friend Bawa listed you as a partner, with the next of kin being his mother. I had a little talk with Mr. Ted Bawa, and it came out that it would be really easy for him to convince his wife to sell out to me in the event of your unfortunate death. I hope you’re following my train of thoughts, Mr. Roy Sampson.” Roy felt his throat constricting with fear.
Suddenly, with a few chosen words, his life had been laid out in front of him. In effect what Frank Mensah was saying was that he would murder Roy, and then as the next of kin Francine Bawa would have no other choice than sell the land to Frank Mensah. Ted Bawa was ready to force Francine to do that! Who could Roy run to? Who would believe that this man had threatened him with death? No, not in this town where all who mattered were against him? Peter Mensah was smiling smugly, and Jack Dean still had that expressionless look on his face. Frank folded his arms across his chest and regarded Roy with his head turned to one side.
“I’m saddened by this whole affair, Mr. Sampson,” he said, with steel in his eyes. “Believe me, I sincerely wish we could’ve settled this amicably. I was prepared to consider your price, and to meet it if it was fair. I see a fine land going to waste and your stubbornness has frankly forced my hand. I’m going to have this ranch, and it is up to you to either benefit from that ownership, or lose your life in a vain attempt to hold on to it.” Roy’s hands gripped the handles of his aids so tightly that they showed white. The unfairness of it all and the man’s blatant greed tore at his insides, but suddenly he knew that things had come to a head. This man was not going to back off, and once he had the backing of Ted Bawa and Judge Russell Amponsah, he would get away with it all, even murder.
“I will think about it, Frank,” he finally forced out, just to buy a little bit more time, and his lips were pressed so tightly together that the words barely came out. Mensah took out his cigarette and regarded it for a long time, and when he looked at Roy his expression was quite nasty.
“And that’s one thing we need to work on, Mr. Sampson, your lack of respect for me. The way you call me Frank quite frankly irks me. It makes me extremely angry because I’ve never given you the right to be so chummy with me, Mr. Sampson. Sure, you’ll think about it, but I intend to make sure you really do think about it!”. He threw the cigarette to the ground, and Jack Dean jumped down fluidly from his horse. He stomped on the smouldering end of the cigarette. His dead eyes were fixed on the trembling form of the cripple, and as he walked forward he began to roll up the sleeves of his shirt, revealing his well-muscled hairy arm. Roy began to feel real panic. The ranch was on the outskirts of town, and people usually avoided it. There was no chance that there was anybody around that early in the morning, and his screams would not be heard. He gauged his distance to the buckboard, but that was useless because of his legs.
For a terrible moment he debated rushing into the house, but he would need to unlock the door. He would be no match for Dean in a rush to the door. Tears of anguish at his own impotence assailed him and fell down his cheeks. Roy shut his eyes tightly and decided to take the beating like a man, and not scream or cry. He only prayed that no bones would be broken this time. Roy hoped he could be able to make it to town for treatment afterwards. Jack Dean’s backhand blow landed savagely on Roy’s right cheek. It sent Roy down hard on his buttocks, and opened a cut on his lower lip. Dazed, he stared in utter fear as Dean kicked the crutches out of reach. Dean reached down, grabbed Roy’s hair and pulled him to his feet. Again Roy closed his eyes tightly as Dean drew back his right fist to smash his face. And that was when the lazy voice chipped in.
“Hit him again, and I’ll kill you.” The voice, though low and drawled, was filled with such utter fury that Roy’s assailants looked behind them with almost the same expressions of foreboding. Jesus, that voice, oh sweet Jesus, it can’t be…no, no, way! Roy’s eyes flew open, and he gasped, shut his eyes and opened them again. But he was not going mad, and he was not dreaming! The huge man sitting in a powerful black stallion just behind Frank Mensah and his son really did not look like the fat boy he had once been, but dear Lord, the voice was the same, and so was the fire in his grey eyes. Chris Bawa!
“Chrissie!” Roy Sampson whispered tremulously, and the sudden fresh tears that spurted out of his eyes and screwed up his face with emotion, had nothing to do with the physical pain he was going through, but was as a result of his body transforming itself from an instant of pure distress to one of unbridled happiness within the space of a few seconds. Jack Dean let go of Roy’s hair. He barely noticed it when the cripple landed rather ungainly on his buttocks again. His eyes were locked with that of the huge man who had emerged on the scene like a ghost.
For the first time in his life Jack Dean felt a stab of fear of another human being. The look he saw on Chris’ face was nothing human. Indeed, when the man slipped smoothly from the saddle of the horse and closed the gap between them Jack felt a flash of panic. Chris Bawa didn’t know it, but the look on his face was filled with smouldering fury, unbridled hatred and the purest form of malice. One could feel the sheer menace emanating from him in waves.
Roy, the only one who could watch all the faces around him, saw how Frank Mensah blanched almost pure white with fear. Peter looked absolutely stupid and seemed for a moment that he just might wet himself. Chris looked neither right nor left as he walked past father and son. But his eyes pinned Jack Dean to the spot. Dean’s right hand caressed the butt of his gun. He noticed that Bawa was armed too but that the man barely looked at Dean’s hand. Dean was a killer, and the fact that his sudden move for his gun drew no apparent response from the giant told him two things: One, this huge man didn’t give a damn whether Jack went for his gun or not. And secondly Chris Bawa was a killer too. A survivor, Dean knew deep down that if his gun so much as moved an inch from its holster, he would be faced with Bawa’s own draw. It could be a bluff, but the fact that Bawa really didn’t pause showed that the man had faith in his own ability.
Dean was tempted to draw, but then his heart was thudding with fear. It dawned on him that maybe this giant of a man with the scar on his face could be faster. One moment he was trapped in a web of indecision, and Chris Bawa was still seven or eight paces away. And then, before Jack could blink he found the huge man on top of him. And he saw nothing of the hard fist that Chris smashed into his jaw. He was aware of a sudden sharp pain in his jaw, and then he was thrown with such brute force by the impact of the blow that he virtually flew off the ground and smashed against the side of Roy’s buckboard. He didn’t know it then, but he was unconscious before his body landed… And that his jaw was cleanly broken by the blow… And that he lost a total of six teeth on the left side of his mouth, four up and two down.
Frank Mensah almost fainted with the depth of his terror at that moment. He looked at the crumpled form of his foreman folded around the buckboard like a broken doll with horror. Blood was covering almost the whole of Dean’s face. In all his life Frank Mensah had never seen anybody moving that fast… Or a blow thrown with such venom… Or a single blow having such a devastating effect. He was aware that his son was moaning with terror.
Frank tried to turn around but the huge scarred man was now facing him. And Frank Mensah noticed that there was still fury and hatred in those eyes. And panic assailed him when Chris Bawa began to walk toward him. Frank Mensah suddenly held out his little pink hands, and shook his head vigorously.
“No, please, no!” he jabbered with terror. “Oh, please don’t hurt me, please!” He knew without a doubt that if help didn’t come this man would maim him in an instant.
“Chrissie, Chrissie, help me up,” Roy Sampson called, holding up his right hand. Chris hesitated, his fury still not sated. But he could not stand the sight of his old friend crumpled on the floor. A nasty bruise already forming on Roy’s mouth where Jack Dean had hit him.