Three horrible gunshots! Three muzzle sparks in the darkness behind him! The jarring tingle of kerosene lamps shattering, then the sound of a bullet ripping through flesh, the squeal of the child, a terrible sound that had stayed in his memory for more than a decade! Who had fired? Who had shot the poor child? For a moment Chris’ breathing was laboured inside that hot hotel room in Temple Town, and his fists were clenched tightly, bunching up the sheets on the bed and causing permanent damage to the fabric. The cool wind filtering in through the wide windows could not cool the heat sizzling in his soul, and thus sweat ran freely down his agonized face. And then, as he went through the breathing exercises he had forced himself to learn in prison, and relaxed groups of muscle in his body, the heat and the agony began to cool, leaving only the cold boiling fury, and he forced his mind to go back a final time, way back when he had been but a boy in Little Rock… O pain… welcome pain…
He remembered Little Rock, his home… Back then, at eighteen years old, Chris Bawa had already been his own man. He was a huge youth even then standing well above six feet, and he was fat. He would have been considered ungainly and even ugly, but his good facial looks, his sheer enigmatic presence and charisma made him a most fetching young man. Maybe it was due mainly to the reputation that followed him.
He was considered a killer even then, maybe justifiably so because he killed for the first time when he was seventeen years old…and his victims had been three deadly gunslingers. Of course killing those murderers had not been intentional or premeditated. It had just crept up on him, forced upon him more like, and for him there had been no turning back but to stare down death in the eyes and make a stand. The last of three sons of the hardest rancher on the range, growing up in Little Rock had not been easy.
Ted Bawa, Chris’ father, had two older sons, Jamie and Ato, two years separating them. There was an only daughter, Ruth, who came four years after Ato, and finally there had been Chris who came along much later, and was almost six years younger than Ruth. Ted Bawa had been the hardest father, and he had no soft spot in him; indeed, he had no soft spot for any of his children. He considered them as a natural progression, something that came after marriage and established the power and authority of a man. He had respected and tolerated his two older sons because they made themselves useful on the ranch. This attitude of Ted was neither cold nor unfeeling; it did not mark him as a beast. Indeed, as far as fatherhood went, he discharged his responsibilities with as much dedication as he did everything else he was passionate about.
Ted Bawa had grown up living on the edge, fighting for every little morsel of food, and saving most of the money he earned either through fair or foul means. When he came to Little Rock it was still no more than a wild country with no prospects. He had seen the land, fallen in love with it, and claimed much of it. It had not been easy taming it, but he had. Two hundred acres of good land had been his, and his spirit had fought with the cruel resistance of the land. Man had won in the long run, and by the time little Chris Bawa was born the Circle T ranch was one of the most prosperous in the region.
Little Rock had grown, and had attracted other moneyed ranchers, and soon huge stores and business ventures rolled in. Of course riff-raff troublemakers had drifted in, sometimes proving almost impossible to dislodge. Ted Bawa and some of the ranchers had come together, thrown money down, and invited the legendary Nick Grant and his two deputies to make their headquarters in Little Rock. That had been the only solution needed, for Nick and his Death Angels, as they were known, had a reputation as long and as colourful as a rainbow. They were painfully efficient and heartbreakingly merciless. Troublemakers had learnt in a hurry to avoid Little Rock like a plague. The town had flourished, and in time had become the place people sought refuge; the ordered lifestyle in Little Rock was thus legendary.
The Bawa ranch had known a level of order and discipline before little Chris came along. The cowboys on the ranch learnt in a hurry that big Ted Bawa was not a man to mess around with. He was fair but firm. His disputes were always settled quickly either with guns or fists, and he wasn’t shy of any. His immediate family had learnt this lesson well; all of them had experienced it on more than enough times the physical side of Mr. Ted Bawa.
His wife, Francine, bore the mark of it. Once a proud woman, her sombre face now reflected that of a tamed spirit. Many times she had experienced the hard edge of her husband’s hand. She had lived in fear of his every step, shivering whenever she saw his shadow. Their children had been treated the same way.
Ted Bawa was never one to spare the rod, which in this case were his hands and that long leather strobe he had personally designed. Ruth, of course, had suffered the most because her father had no time for a daughter. To him daughters were an inconvenience, and a daughter was worse than a curse, an unwanted piece of possession who would grow up, get married and move on, maybe with a chunk of his wealth. Constantly Ted Bawa had reprimanded his daughter, and rarely came to her rescue when she was abused by others. Everything in its proper place, that was Ted’s motto. He loved to see order and discipline, and revelled in it. It showed that he was in charge, and ensured that his life continued on an upward trend.
Then Chris came along. Ted had known his little son was different from the very first time he set eyes on him. Unlike his three siblings who bore the stamp of their father in every way, the only thing Chris Bawa took was his father’s bulk. Chris’ face was sculptured along the fine lines of his mother, and even before he was a year old everybody had known he was going to grow up into a most handsome man. Also, unlike his siblings who always strove to win the love of their father, Chris had evidenced quite early in life that it was his mother he preferred.
Then, when he was just about seven years old, his parents had one of their arguments. Of course, it had not been so much an argument since it was a one-sided verbal abuse of Francine by her hard husband. It had been around that time when the woman occasionally chipped in a word or two, not like the present times when she had learnt to become a deaf mute, taking her husband’s tirades with calm resignation.
Her little son, Chris, had been holding on to her skirts that day, and instead of a fearful and tearful expression, he had been pouting angrily at his father. When the woman could no longer take the humiliation – it had happened in front of about a dozen cowboys and her two older sons – she told her incensed husband that she felt it would have been better if he had waited until they were alone before insulting her so harshly. As usual Ted Bawa had taken her words as an attack on his thinking capabilities, and he had smashed her with a hard backhand which had settled her hard on the dusty ground.
Little Chris took a bad fall because he was still holding tightly to his mother’s skirts even as she was spiralling out of control, but with a little cry he got back on his feet, moved forward rapidly, and sank his sharp little teeth into a fleshy spot on his father’s left calf. For a moment the father was absolutely dazed, looking at his son with incomprehension. It was an affront on his authority, an unacceptable deviation that needed to be righted. His roughened palm had come down sharply and he had slapped Chris across his pale cheeks, the sound abrasive and explosive, and it left great welts on the tender skin of the boy instantly. The blow flung the boy down hard on his back, but he bounced back up almost immediately, and faced his bully of a father.
“Don’t ever do that again!” Ted Bawa grated down at his son in a terrible whisper, his eyes murderous. That was when the battle lines were drawn. The little boy watched his father with latent fury. Chris did not snivel or make a sound, although the tears dripped down his face. Ted looked down at that tiny face, taking particular notice of the tiny balled fists, noting the fire blazing out of the innocent steel-grey eyes, a look which would in later years strike sudden trepidation into the hearts of many a foe.
Ted looked at the lips of Chris, lips he had contemptuously discarded as too feminine when the boy was growing up, which were now bloodless, pressed together so tightly that they appeared to be a single white line, jawbones grinding against each other so terribly that he could actually hear the cracking effects in the boy’s jaws…and Ted Bawa knew then, by a sudden revelation that struck into his very core, that this was a beginning, that by some terrible fate this scene would be repeated, maybe not once, or twice, but as many times as it would take for one of them to give up, to fall. For one terrible moment he thought the boy was going to fly at him, and Ted stiffened his hands, ready to beat Chris savagely to instil a fear in the boy. Here was a rogue, a rebel, an untamed spirit that, if not curbed, would defy the very foundation of law and discipline Ted had painstakingly planted, nurtured and reaped.
“Chrissy, Chrissy!” the mother whispered with fear, getting up from the ground and trying to hold the boy. The tears stopped flowing down the kid’s face.
“You okay, Mama?” Little Chris asked.
“I’m fine, Chrissy, I’m very fine!” his mother whispered tremulously. The boy nodded once, and turned away from her embrace. He did not look at his father again as he walked away. Ted, a good judge of a man’s character, was inwardly shocked by the fact that the boy had wept silently, and that he had rejected the comforting arms of his mother; that spoke volumes, and hinted at the kind of cold spirit the little boy had. Ted felt strongly that such insubordination needed to be corrected, and he had had a strong compulsion to call the boy back and teach that vital lesson but, somehow, looking at the tensed shoulders of the boy, he knew that the raw spirit in that boy would not bow to his father’s wishes, and he probably would have to whip the hide off the boy’s back before a victory could be claimed.
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However, dishing out that kind of beating to a toddler would not be tolerated by decent folks, at least not in Little Rock; there was so much a man could be permitted to do, even a man like Ted Bawa, Little Rock’s founder. Later, boy, Ted thought grimly as he turned away, later you will learn the meaning of respect for authority, and believe you me, I’m gonna purge your soul of that vile spirit!
The mother looked helplessly at her little son, and allowed him to walk away. She too felt that it was not the time to show affection. She knew, by some strange intuition, that Chris would have rejected any form of sympathy at that particular time. Francine also knew that for as long as she lived that son of hers would be the sweetest and most cherished treasure hidden deep in her bosom…because no one had ever dared stand up for her all through the years of abuse from her husband, except that little soul, Chris Bawa. She knew that a day would come when that boy would make her dry her tears for the last time. With a little sigh she also headed for the house. The other men remained, their faces reflecting the horror and shock at what the little boy had done. On the faces of the cowboys were clear signs of shocked admiration.
“Hell shades, you ever seen anything like that, Roy?” one cowboy asked with a sheepish chuckle.
“That little hellfire faced that old tiger true and square,” another said, shaking his head in awe.
“I tell you this, boys, that younger has the balls of iron. You mark my words, the devil himself will flee from the face of Chris Bawa one day.”
The two older brothers, Jamie and Ato, exchanged hard looks. They had seen the looks of the cowboys, and they had heard the admiration in their voices. Over the years they had wanted so much to offer a token of resistance to their father. However, they had all been shut down. They had been totally trampled upon by a father who felt he had no equal. And they had accepted it with a resigned air.
The sight of their father either verbally or physically abusing their mother had become a part of a normal way of living…until their little brother stood up, and reacted in a way outside the norm by biting their father’s calf. They had seen the shock and incomprehension on their father’s face, and his fleeting look of dismay. Worst, they had seen the look of raw love on their mother’s face as she looked at their young brother.
Jealousy flared suddenly and unbidden, burning through their hearts like an unrestrained prairie fire…and with that brief exchange of looks they also shared something which they knew no one present saw: deep hatred for their little brother Chris who, with just a single act of defiance, had suddenly stolen all the respect they had tried to wrest from the other cowboys. They knew the story would make the rounds around the town. It made them hate their little brother to the core of their hearts!
As the little crowd dispersed, one man stayed in the background and took everything in with narrowed and thoughtful eyes. He was an elderly man called Uncle Chad who had drifted into Little Rock a couple of years previously. He was almost sixty-four, but still as straight as a reef, and as skinny as a desert rat. His hair was long and grey, his eyebrows and eyelashes a similar overgrowth. His huge saddle-bar moustache almost hid his thin lips.
The horse he was riding had collapsed with fatigue when he first rode into the house of Ted Bawa. And he himself had passed out, and remained out for almost a day, due to total fatigue. He had been admitted into the Circle T ranch to recuperate. When he gained strength he had one day found his way into the kitchen. By the time Mrs. Bawa came from town to cook, the whole air had been filled with the mouth-watering aroma of the dinner Uncle Chad had conjured up. It had tasted as delicious as it smelled.
Ted Bawa, who had been on the lookout for a cook, had employed Uncle Chad immediately. Uncle Chad’s fame had spread. The Circle T food was known to be the best on the range. It also helped, remotely, to give the cowboys of the Circle T ranch a sort of status. No one had pried into Uncle Chad’s past when he was employed. Frankly, no one wanted to know. He was just another drifter who had found a place to lay his hat. He never wore a gun. In fact, he seemed to have a particular dislike for guns.
He had been known countless times to walk away from fights. Even though he was much liked and respected both on the ranch and in the town of Little Rock, he was considered a coward of sorts.
That afternoon he was among the spectators who witnessed the showdown between big father Ted and little son Chris. He was also the only one who had seen the intense hatred in the eyes of the two older brothers. For two years he had watched the mistress of the house being manhandled like a piece of imperfect furniture. But no one had ever seen the steel look in Uncle Chad’s eyes each time he had witnessed Ted Bawa assaulting his wife. He had felt so sorry for Mrs. Francine Bawa for a long time, but he had not wanted to interfere in the domestic affairs of his employer. No one had ever dared interrupt, really, except that seven-year-old firebrand of a son called Chris Bawa!
That afternoon Uncle Chad run the thumb and middle finger of his left hand thoughtfully down the outline of his saddle-bar moustache, his eyes on the retreating back of the little boy. No one saw him sauntering casually down the yard after little Chris Bawa. He found the boy lying on his side on the soft grass behind the house. Uncle Chad began to speak, but then he checked himself when he saw what the boy was doing; Chris had two little wood pieces in his hands. Near him was a column of red ants. Obviously, the ants had captured a juicy earth worm and were dragging it to their underground tunnel. The little boy had lifted the worm from the column of ants with his little splices of wood.. Of course a few strong ants were still clinging tenaciously to the squirming worm. The were obviously furious at the intervention of Chris Bawa no doubt!