Uncle Chad watched silently as the boy used his wood pieces to pull the ants from the worm. He noticed that the boy was methodical, first placing a slice on the head of an ant to hold it steady and then gently pulling it away with the other slice held as an anchor against the body of the worm. The boy’s face was suffused with grim determination and concentration, his tongue poking out of his lips. His face screwed up, faint perspiration on his brow, the dried tears leaving white vertical lines on his face. Chad waited patiently until all the ants had been dragged from the tortured worm. The boy then pulled grass out of the ground until he had uncovered a soft patch of earth, and then he gently lifted the worm and placed it on the soft earth. The worm was weak from its harrowing experience, but it began to burrow into the earth, and shortly afterward only a small part of its tail was sticking out.
Little Chris Bawa then turned over on his back, laced his fingers beneath his head, and smiled warmly at Uncle Chad. Over the years they had grown very close, and they loved each other dearly, though the old man tried hard to keep most of his feelings bottled up, especially when the two of them were around other people.
“You feeling happy, lad?” Chris’ face clouded for an instant.
“Yep, a little,” he said after a while.
“I see you saved that little wormie,” Uncle Chad said, and his voice was not gentle. “Are you aware that in saving it, you denied the ants their food?”
“Perhaps,” the boy answered. “But they were kinda mean to that little worm. Just like Pop was mean to my Ma. It ain’t right. It ain’t right no way.” There was a long silence between them, and then the old man sighed.
“Life, laddie, is full of privileges and responsibilities, you know,” he said quietly. “Life is war. Well, that’s true enough, but what they don’t teach a fella is how to go fight that kinda war.” The boy frowned a little, and regarded the old man with those eyes which, even then at that very tender age, had the power of steel in them.
“I don’t understand, Uncle Chad,” Chris said finally. “Are you speaking straight, or you’re telling me one of those parable things?” Again the man sighed, broke off a blade of grass and stuck it between his teeth.
“I like you, Chris,” he said quietly, his eyes taking on a faraway look. He was quiet for a long time, and then his eyes swept over the land, the green stretch of virgin grass, the peaks of the fold mountains in the horizon. “Always had a dream, you know, about settling down and raising my own family. Well, I learnt early that life is no respecter of man, yes. The world is filled with mean people. People who wanna trod on you all the time, and drag you in the mud, and make sure that they disrespect you.
Life is unfair, laddie, and you better be prepared for it.” The boy sat up slowly, his eyes never leaving the lined face of his mentor. He said nothing. “I’m old, laddie,” Uncle Chad went on. “I’m just one of them old lonely men. I ain’t got no family, and no one will miss me much when I’m gone. I’ve seen the spirit in you, my boy. It is the untamed spirit of a true warrior.” Uncle Chad reached out and put a hand on young Chris Bawa’s shoulder. “The spirit in you can never be broken. I can teach you things, Chris. In life people will do mean things to you. They can come at you with guns, or knives or ropes, and they can even can tie you up and throw you in a river. They can blindfold you and come at you with clubs.”
The old man paused, and his eyes were steel lights that dug into the young boy, impaling him so that Chris’ concentration didn’t waver. “People can beat you up to pulp…but in all circumstances you got to be able to meet them, and make them respect you. If they shoot fast, you shoot faster. They hit hard, you hit harder. That’s the only language life understands, laddie, the only damn language out here.”
The boy looked into the horizon for a long time, and then he reached out and touched the hardened hand of the man. “I still don’t understand, Uncle Chad,” Chris said quietly. “I figure you want to teach me how to be a man with all that parable talking. Well, I’ll like that really bad, I guess. I don’t want to be yellow like Jamie and Ato.” Suddenly the man leaned forward, his hands shooting out to grip the upper arms of the boy tightly, causing Chris to moan with half pain and half surprise.
“Are you really ready, laddie?” Uncle Chad asked in a fierce whisper. “Privileges and responsibilities, you remember that, boy. I’m going to teach you how to kill your body so that it can withstand pain. I’m going to teach you how to shoot faster than any gunslinger. I’ll teach you how to fight with your bare hands, how to build all your power in your damn brain.”
He pushed Chris Bawa back so that the boy fell, and then he stood up and loomed over the boy, his face harsh and cruel.
“Me teaching you how to be a man is a privilege to you, son. Now, you must also reciprocate by your responsibility! Do you understand?”
“My responsibility?” the little boy asked, striving not to sound confused and scared, because this was an Uncle Chad he had never seen before. Certainly this cruel-looking man standing over him couldn’t be the kind-hearted gentleman who knew how to cook so well.
“Your responsibility is to make sure that no one, no living soul apart from me and you, know of what we do. Can you do that? Can you damn well do that, boy?” Uncle Chad spoke harshly. Chris did not flinch. He got to his feet and stared solidly at the old gentleman.
“I won’t tell no soul, Uncle Chad,” he whispered. “That is my responsibility!” They stared hard into each other’s eyes for a moment more, and then the man nodded and wiped his brow with an unsteady hand. Slowly, without another word, he turned and went back the way he had come. That was how it started. Each afternoon the old cook and the little boy would ride out together. They were seen all the time, chatting and laughing, going for a seemingly harmless ride. But deep inside the forest, hidden by calloused trees and unyielding rocks, the old man would take the boy through a series of devastating arts and acts. The boy learnt things he could never have learnt anywhere, and even if he could have found such a place he would never have had such a dedicated teacher.
Chris was taught how to break and assemble guns of all sorts, how to wear a holster and a gun, how to draw and fire, how to fight like an animal. Months passed, and years rolled by, and the boy grew…and above all else he continued to learn the deadliest forms of fighting and surviving from the mysterious Uncle Chad. Of course, the boy never told anyone what he was learning; even his mother did not know. Chris never wore a gun in public, just like Uncle Chad had warned him not to. He never helped much on the ranch. Many of the cowboys and his own siblings believed he was a sissy.
His father had nothing but utter contempt for ‘that oaf of a boy you spawned like a woman’, his favourite sentence whenever he was speaking to his wife about their last son, Chris Bawa. No one knew that the handsome, fleshy boy they all saw, who had a keen dislike for ranch work, was indeed a boy skilled in the most savage arts of unarmed combat. They didn’t know that he was equally proficient with fighting with a knife or a cudgel, and also with a variety of other weapons.
When it came to guns, unknown even to himself, he had developed into a terrible monster. No one even suspected it, not even his own mother. But Little Rock found out eventually. The town found out in a really terrible way the day three killers came to Little Rock and touched the eye of the huge boy.
Chris Bawa loved his countless trips to the forest with Uncle Chad. He never got tired of it. It did not matter whether the day’s schedule included a gruelling mountain-climbing drill, or following the trail of some Indians, or reading tracks like a book and setting deadly traps with just little materials littering the forest floor. It didn’t matter if it was a punishing moment of running, or doing energy-sapping exercises. Sometimes he was driven to the very end of his endurance; most times he had to engage in physical punishment when Uncle Chad attacked him with virtually any weapon he could lay hands on. Uncle Chad could take hefty branches, spiked branches or rough rocks to attack Chris Bawa as he took the boy through the drills of unarmed combat.
“Every part of your body is a weapon, laddie,” Uncle Chad would say grimly. “Your teeth, your fingers, your joints, and your knuckles. Also, your body is covered with so many frail places, weak areas you have to harden.” He would poke Chris in various areas of his body. “There are some areas you can’t harden, and thus you should learn how to protect them, make damn sure you never expose them to your enemies. You should also know how to immobilize a man completely and quickly.” He would suddenly strike Chris in a sensitive vein, causing the boy to double up on the floor of the forest with pain.
“Sensitive arteries, veins and pressure spots are exposed all over the human body. Sometimes you will meet that one guy who is faster, bigger and stronger than you. In such a situation you must know where to slash, hit or jab to reduce him to a helpless bundle of instant pain.” The little Bawa was an ardent student. He learnt everything at a rate that shocked his strange mentor, but Uncle Chad never let this show.
“Your fingers and your brains are your greatest assets, laddie,” Uncle Chad always said. “You should be able to outthink your enemy, and sometimes you must think like him. Your fingers should always be supple and fluid, able to claw out your gun with the fluidity of a romantic river, and able to bunch up and punch like a castrated mad bull. Protect your fingers, laddie, and you will live long.” Perhaps the young boy’s greatest excitement came from the gun-play sessions. Uncle Chad taught him how to keep his holster low, like a professional gunman. They worked first on accuracy. That had not been overly difficult because, like all other disciplines, the boy seemed to be a natural with drawing and aiming. Soon he was hitting stationary objects over various distances dead centre.
The strange old man then took Chris through hitting moving objects whilst he was stationary. When the boy became unbelievably capable, his mentor took him deeper into the woods one afternoon, his face sombre.
“Now we come to the most important aspect of gunplay, my boy,” he had said quietly. “That has to do with your ability to draw and aim your gun like a damn spirit, laddie.” His eyes took on a brooding gaze all of a sudden, as if he were remembering something unpleasant. He sighed and turned to the young Chris.
“A lot of things count in gun play, and you must seize all the advantages you get, whilst minimizing your vulnerability as much as possible. For example, standing with the sun at your back is always preferable, since a ray of sunlight hitting your eyes wrong in a split second can send you to your grave.” He held Chris by the shoulders gently. “You must always be as sharp as possible. That is when rest becomes a weapon. If you’re going to engage an enemy in gunplay get plenty of rest beforehand if you can.”
“Sleep?” Chris asked with raised eyebrows. “Why sleep?”
“Not sleep, you oaf, REST!” the man said. “A tired body means a sluggish mind, which can count for a second of indecision, which can make all the difference between life and death. When you’re tired, rest before a gunfight, if you can. Rest is a weapon. Right laddie, now go back ten paces, and draw that gun, you big bag of lazy bones!” The very first time the boy felt a strange exhilaration as he faced his mentor, his fingers poised over his gun butt.
“We draw on the count of three, laddie,” Uncle Chad said. “One, two, three…draw, you tortoise!” The boy’s hand flashed down and he drew the gun from its holster and pointed, but he found himself looking into the hole of Uncle Chad’s gun, which was pointing dead centre at Chris’ heart.
“Bang, boy, you’re dead!” the old man said grimly. The boy just stood there, staring agog at the gun pointing at him.
“I’d be doggoned, Uncle Chad, who are you?” he whispered in awed tones. “No one can be that fast!”
“Your lessons in gunplay shall be deemed complete the day you beat me to the draw, boy!” Beating Uncle Chad to the draw had taken an extremely long time. The boy practiced countless times, but each time his gun came up, he found himself facing the levelled end of Uncle Chad’s gun. “You can do it!” Uncle Chad thundered. “Concentrate, damn you! Concentrate!” It was futile. The days crawled to months, and then a year came, and still the boy had not been able to beat Uncle Chad’s draw even once.
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And then, one day, when the boy was just nearing his seventeenth birthday, it happened. Chris Bawa, once again, came home and found his sister’s face swollen; she had been physically assaulted by their father that afternoon…again! Ted Bawa had beaten up Ruth so mercilessly that her eyes were just mere slits, and her lips were broken and swollen so badly that Chris could barely recognize his sister. Impotent tears came to Chris’ eyes! How could a man do this to his only daughter? His young heart boiled with absolute wrath as he fled from the house and saddled up his horse. Chris Bawa rode to the rendezvous with Uncle Chad in a rage. Uncle Chad knew his student was uncontrollably upset, but he said nothing. He watched as the boy paced the forest floor angrily, his hands clenched so tightly that his knuckles showed a bloodless white.
“Boiling roiling anger has been the downfall of many a foolish warrior,” Uncle Chad said softly as he sliced a piece of fresh apple into his mouth. The boy stopped pacing and fixed his icy stare on his mentor.
“I ain’t in no particular mood for none of your oratories today, Uncle Chad,” he said evenly, his voice bristling with animosity and wrath.
“Indeed you’re a fool!” the old man went on, undaunted. “You listen to me good, laddie. Anger, and all its ugly siblings, is good, but it is bad to show your enemy that side of your nature.” He pointed his knife at Chris. “It is best to hold your anger inside, and use it as a weapon, to unleash it in a way your foe isn’t prepared for. If you let it rattle you, then it will inhibit your brain, make you mistake-prone, take your concentration away for a split second…and, believe me, a split second is more than enough time for a man to die!”
“Oh, yeah?” the boy asked in a dangerously soft drawl, taking a step forward. “You feeling like you can prove that?” They stared at each other. The older man carefully put his knife and apple down and got slowly to his feet.
“Sure thing, laddie,” he said coldly. “Make your play!” With a roar of anger young Chris Bawa charged at his mentor. His movements were stunningly fast, unbelievably brutal. The dry leaves on the forest floor crackled and flew as the two engaged in a battle so deadly that it would have stunned anyone who knew them. The boy twisted, thrust, pounced, clawed…. He was a deadly machine let loose, his whole body singing a fine rhythm of cohesive harmony!
The years he had been taught by Uncle Chad now rolled into one, and Chris Bawa moved with the finesse of a matador, with fists flying and legs kicking, exhibiting an exhilarating pattern of combat that secretly impressed the old Uncle Chad to no end! However, as swift as Chris was, as awesome as he was, he could not get to the old man, whose movements were as sinuous and as fluid as a mountain cat.
Uncle Chad parried, side-stepped, turned inward, pushed and simply avoided each attacking move. And then he stepped inside a slashing strike from Chris, and sent his open right hand surging toward the boy’s throat, fingers rigid and splayed, so that the space between thumb and forefinger smashed into the windpipe of Chris Bawa.
Chris emitted a strangled sob, and his whole body seemed to sag. He grabbed his throat, making terrible choking noises. The sandwiches he had taken earlier that day came spewing out of his mouth in an arcing vomit. He coughed, painful tears springing to his eyes as he fell down, curled up in the foetal position, his body trembling from the terrible pain that racked his body. Uncle Chad then sat down. His body was drenched in sweat, and he was panting. The boy was young and strong, and keeping him at bay had sapped all the strength out of Uncle Chad’s body.
He picked up his knife and apple again, and proceeded to cut little chunks of the fruit and put them in his mouth. “When you attack in anger, you aim to hurt and to punish, and by doing that you lay yourself wide open to your enemy’s counter reactions,” Uncle Chad said at length when the boy stopped thrashing. He chewed a piece of apple thoughtfully.
“I just showed you how dangerous it is to fight without controlling your fury, laddie.” He stood up and looked down at the gasping Chris Bawa. “You need to control your anger, laddie. Hide it right deep down in you, channelling its energy into your brain, and then attack. Your enemy might goad you, trying to make you angry enough to react foolishly. You might feel that anger, but you learn to hide it, to keep it sizzling in you, waiting for the right moment to unleash it.” The boy listened wordlessly, but his eyes still burned. Slowly he got to his feet, wiped his mouth dry, and began buckling on his gun-belt.
Uncle Chad watched him, noting that the boy’s hands were steady, his actions calm and deliberate. Uncle Chad nodded to himself, and got to his feet again. He also picked up his gun-belt and buckled it on, and then he faced the boy, his feet slightly apart, and his hand hovering near the butt of his Colt. The boy moved back a few steps, and stood still, head cocked slightly to one side, left hand dangling beside him, right thumb hooked into his belt.
“Make your move,” he said, his eyes boring into those of his teacher. Uncle Chad mentally counted to three, and then his hand swept down. He knew he was beaten even before he felt the weight of his gun butt in his hand. His gun flashed up, but Chris’ gun was already staring him in the face. Chris had just beaten his mentor to the draw!
“Holy Bejesus!” the old man muttered in awed tones, unable to hide his shock and admiration.
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