“You’re dead, Uncle Chad,” the boy said, his anger gone, his huge face filled with a stunned look of pride and happiness and sheer bliss.
“Yes, I am, laddie,” he whispered. “Yes, I sure am, you little heap of cow dung!” Slowly a rumbling laugh of happiness blasted out of the boy’s throat, and Uncle Chad joined in, and then they shook hands. “You done fine, laddie, and I sure am proud of you.” And from that day, their contests ceased to be that one-sided. The mentor still continued to win most, but ever so slowly the tide began to turn, and as the months wore on Chris Bawa soon began to draw faster on Uncle Chad…until he was almost unbeatable.
The killers rode into Little Rock on a cold Thursday afternoon, during the celebration of Little Rock Day. They were about ten in number. They were hard, lean men, their dusty clothing and hard-ridden horses evidence that they had come a long way. Like deadly apparitions they moved down the main street slowly.
Five men were at the head of the group. Three of them bore a close resemblance to each other even at a distance. They were tall and broad across the shoulders. The one slightly ahead of the rest had a much more aged face, lined with rough ridges, but brutally handsome in a menacing sort of way. The two behind him could have been twins, and they were younger versions of the man in the lead. There was no doubt that the three of them were brothers. The few people who were not at the Rock Park for the celebrations gathered on the boardwalks to gawk at the strange men in town. They all knew that trouble had come to Little Rock in a big way.
The gunslingers stopped briefly at The Bliss, a huge saloon owned and operated by Matt Slade, the one-legged war veteran. Slade was a mean man, and the shotgun he kept under his bar had become quite legendary. However, as the killers trooped into his bar that day, he quailed inside. He knew for a certainty that his shotgun would not be making an appearance that day. He believed himself to be a good reader of men; indeed, he was well-known by the phrase ‘men are like books, and it takes an avid reader like me to sort them out.’
That day he read his new visitors well, oh yes! He could tell at a glance that these were not the usual riffraff that had taken one look at his shotgun and sobered up. These were cold men, death people. These were men who lived violently, and died violently; savage men who stared death in the face and spat disdainfully.
One of them was the biggest and ugliest man Slade had ever seen. He stood close to seven foot, and had shoulders as wide as the side of an elephant. He was wearing dirty corduroy trousers, and his boots spotted the cruelest-looking spurs Slade had ever seen. His black shirt was opened at the neck, and Slade could see a hirsute chest, bulging out with sheer strength. His beard was thick and matted. The most hideous part of him was his face. It was huge and covered with a web of deep scars. It looked as if somebody walked on his face with knife-soled shoes. The giant took off his hat and slapped it down on the bar. A puff of fine dust rose from the hat. Men who had been drinking at the bar quickly left the saloon. Indeed, Slade’s popular bar was emptying pretty fast as the strangers came in.Slade took all these in hurriedly as he looked at the scarred face of the giant in front of him.
“The name’s Tiny,” the giant said in a deep drawl. “Get us drinks, pardner. The very best in your stinking cellars. And make it quick, goat, before I turn your ugly face to pulp.” Normally anybody who dared to speak to the war veteran in that fashion would have stared down the twin barrels of Slade’s shotgun. Nothing of that sort happened that day. Slade got the drinks…and they were the best he had, and he was quick getting it. Most of the killers came into the bar, but a couple more stayed on the street, sauntering almost lazily to take up vantage points.
The five men who had led the killers into town rapidly downed their drinks, and then they mounted their horses again and continued up the street, their horses slowed to a walk. They looked neither right nor left. It was evident that they were going to kill. Big Doug Short was the sheriff of Little Rock at that time, and his deputy was Phil Mortimer. Doug Short was an immense man, known more for his great protruding belly than any personal achievements. He was a decent enough fellow, able to keep the law most times. Everybody knew, however, that the backbone of the team was Phil Mortimer.
Mortimer had drifted into Little Rock five years back. He had walked right into the middle of a nasty scene involving Sheriff Short and some three bad killers. He had helped the sheriff to kill the killers, and he had been offered the job of deputy sheriff, which he had eagerly accepted. Both the Sheriff and his deputy were at the Little Rock Park for the festivities, and so the five killers marched down the street of Little Rock without being stopped.
The killers came to the end of the main street, and promptly took the track that led to Little Rock Park. People who were on their way to the park and people who were returning from the festivities made way for them, and stared after them with various expressions of fear, curiosity and trepidation. There was something about them that clearly said they were bad men. Their hard eyes missed nothing, and the expressions on their faces sent chills down the hearts of all who beheld them.
Rock Park was a huge expanse of flat land. It had formerly been overgrown with wild grass, but had been cleared and stamped down to provide a wide space for games and picnics. The sparkling Yumany River ran through one end of the park, providing an atmosphere for many a romantic tryst. Little Rock Day was celebrated annually. It was a day for making friends and for sharing gifts. Each ranch brought food and drinks. There was music, and friendly competitions between various ranches. Also, there were shooting, arm-wrestling and horse-riding competitions. There was even a cooking competition to determine which ranch had the best cook.
By the time the five killers got to the celebration grounds, most of the competitions were over. The center of attraction, at that moment, was the cooking competition. There were cheering and hooting as the six judges moved from table to table, sampling various dishes of sweet-tasting food. And where there was sweet food, there definitely would be Uncle Chad. As usual he was in charge of the Circle T table, and had whipped up an array of mouth-watering dishes within an incredibly short time. Of course everybody knew that he would be adjudged the best. Uncle Chad’s wizardry with cooking had already won him the trophy three times in a row.
He was dressed in his proverbial grey corduroy trousers and grey flannel shirt, with a white apron tied loosely around his waist and neck. His old face bore an expression of innocent delight as the judges swooped on his dishes and proceeded to gulp down mouthfuls.
“Now look here, folks!” he said with a good-natured chuckle. “You are supposed to taste the food, see, and not gulp it down your parched throats like famished desert rats!” This brought hurrahs and applause from the crowd. Among the judges, of course, was the pot-bellied Sheriff Short. He had taken a small plate and forked out long slices of tender beef from a huge pan containing hot soup. He proceeded to pick up three slices of cheese cakes and attacked his food, smacking his full lips with obvious relish. The sheriff had joined up as a judge simply because he wanted to have a great meal at Uncle Chad’s table. The old man was a devil when it came to cooking, and many a time the Sheriff’s ‘official’ rounds had taken him to the Circle T ranch around mealtimes just to gulp down some of Uncle Chad’s food.
That day the sheriff was munching contently on his beef, cleaning the last traces of soup on the plate with a cheese cake, when he noticed that the atmosphere around him had become quite tense. At first he had been enjoying the sensation on his palate, lost in the sweetness in his mouth, and thus he had not been aware of the gradual decline of the sounds around him. It was only when the silence had become somewhat oppressive and loud enough, that he did look up slowly from his plate, and that was when he saw Uncle Chad’s face holding an expression he had never seen before. The man’s usual jovial face was now quite still, and in the depths of his eyes was a steely glint no one in Little Rock had ever witnessed.
His hands were hanging beside him, and being the nearest to him, the Sheriff saw that the man’s fingers were curled like claws, hidden from the view of the other people. Sheriff Short carefully put the plate down, and with equal care he turned around, and saw the five gunslingers for the first time. They had dismounted and tied their horses to the hitching rails at the entrance to the park. Sheriff Short noticed that they had fanned out, standing almost lazily, eyes almost hidden by the crowns of their hats.
The tallest amongst them moved forward a couple of steps. Already the crowd had withdrawn itself to a safe distance. Hurriedly the other judges made way, all of them except the sheriff vanishing into the crowds. Sheriff Short could feel the familiar cold lump in his guts. Already he was wondering if this would be the dreaded day, the day that death had chosen to say hello to him. His throat felt dry, and the beef in his mouth now tasted like dry leather soaked in vinegar. He swallowed quickly, trying hard not to wipe the sweat off his forehead. Desperately his eyes scanned the crowd, and his relieved sigh was almost like a gunshot when he noticed Phil Mortimer pushing his way through the throng of bodies and walking briskly toward the visitors.
The tall visitor, obviously the leader of the group, did not even glance at the sheriff. His eyes were fixed on Uncle Chad. He reached into his breast pocket, took out a rectangular object and flung it on the table. It hit one of the pans with a dull thud, and ricocheted onto the table. It was a golden cigarette case. Uncle Chad glanced at it, and then a terrible expression of shock and sudden pain crossed his face.
“Your fat friend squealed like a gutted bull when I put a bullet in his guts,” the tall man said, his face contorted with raw hatred. “I watched him die. Of course he refused to tell me where you were, but when I put a gun to his son’s head he readily sang a new song. He told me what I wanted to know. So, here I am. Today, we settle this once and for all.” Uncle Chad’s eyes were fixed on the cigarette case. His frail body shook, and when he looked up the evil on his face was palpable.
“I sent that case to him on his sixty-fifth birthday, two years ago. You killed a defenseless old man, you son-of-a-bitch! Did you kill his wife and son too?” Uncle Chad asked softly. The tall visitor smiled; it wasn’t a very nice smile.
“We’re not murderers like you, Chadwick,” the stranger said. “They’re alive. Our beef is with you and your deputy. I told you I’ll come back for you, didn’t I? Well he’s dead, and today you’ll join him.” Ted Bawa and his older son and a few of his riders had been eating in the roughly erected tent, but now they came out just as Phil Mortimer planted himself squarely in front of the five men.
“What’s going on here, Chad?” Ted Bawa asked, his voice filled with the power of the rich – authoritative, confident and final. Uncle Chad barely acknowledged his employer; he spoke without turning his head.
“Stay out of this, Mr. Bawa,” he said, and his voice was filled with such raw fury that it caught many present unawares. It made Ted Bawa flinch with shock. Uncle Chad, the nicest old man they all knew, had always been so soft-spoken, gentle and meek. A man who had always intrigued the town with his complete lack of guile and violence; a man who, seemingly, did not have any traits of anger in his make-up. He was transformed now; the fury and violence were coming off him in waves, tangible enough to touch. This was a new Uncle Chad no one had seen before! His cold gaze shifted slightly and rested on Mortimer’s back.
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“The same goes for you, Phil. Stay out of this!” Phil Mortimer gave a short bark of a laugh. His face was flushed, as usual, as he felt the familiar rush of adrenaline coursing through him. This had always been the life he wanted.
“Well, Uncle Chad, this thing here sure is my business, if you ask me,” Phil Mortimer said with a little chuckle. “Now look here, strangers. This town is a peaceful place, and we sure don’t want trouble. Way I see it, you’re not welcome here. Now, be good and turn yourselves out of here and beat a nice retreat back to whatever hole you crawled out of before it is too late.” There was a low murmur of approval from the crowd. It dawned then on Sheriff Short that he was in the process of earning himself the title of a coward just at that moment if he failed to act. With a little shiver he moved forward and stood beside his deputy. His face was ashen though he tried hard to appear as brave as Mortimer. The tall man in the middle fixed his eyes on them.
“Do your worst, lawmen,” he drawled, his lips curled up with a scornful leer. To Phil Mortimer, it was like being a child all over again, being chased by bullies straight into an alley, being stamped and kicked, being spat on and humiliated. His eyes narrowed, and his hand flashed downward for his gun.
“Phil, no!” Uncle Chad screamed, pushing the low table away from him, sending dishes of food plummeting to the ground. He was shades too late. Phil Mortimer clawed out his gun, laughing inwardly as he brought it up, aimed…and found the gun of his enemy already aimed at his heart. He experienced a fleeting moment of sheer panic and horror. He barely heard the sound of the gun as the tall killer in the lead fired, but he did feel the bullet blasting out his heart, and he fell down. His legs twitched, and his fingers tried to tighten on the trigger of his gun. Blood bubbled out of the corners of his lips, and a terrible sound like a sigh gurgled out of his throat, and then he became still.
A peaceful, almost serene look slowly filled his face. Phil Mortimer had found peace in death! Sheriff Short’s gun was halfway out of its holster, and his dulled eyes looked down at the lifeless body of his deputy. He was stricken, shocked into immobility by his own great fear. He could hear a litany in his ears ‘No one can be that fast, no one can be that fast, no one can be that fast!’ Sheriff Short looked up at the gun still in the killer’s hand.
“You killed him,” he whispered. “You bastard!”
“I brought twelve men with me, Sheriff,” the man said levelly. “All I want is Chad, and then we’ll be on our way out of here. However, if you want this town of yours to be turned into a hell zone, why, we shall oblige you kindly!” Uncle Chad was kneeling over the body of Phil Mortimer. He checked for a pulse, found none, and then he stood up slowly.
“What do you want with Chad, for crissakes?” Ted Bawa exploded. “He’s just an old, harmless cook! There’s no violence in him. For crissakes, he has never hurt a fly his whole life!” The tall man turned dead eyes on Ted Bawa. He jammed his gun back into its holster with a savage motion, his face suddenly suffused with bitter emotion, and when he spoke he ejected each word violently, causing spittle to burst out. Thick tendons stood out on his neck, and fire almost leapt out of his eyes.
“That man you call Uncle Chad killed our father!” he spat out, one rigid finger jabbing in Chad’s direction. “He let our Pa die on the rotten sands of San Lorado! This man and a cheap-shot deputy bushwhacked my Pa, and left his body for the vultures to pick! This man you know as Uncle Chad is Richard Chadwick! Ever heard that name, you bastard?” There was a collective gasp and a swift intake of breath from everyone.
Richard Chadwick was a legendary name! He was unarguably one of the greatest lawmen in the New Territories. Stories about his exploits were told to little children as bedtime stories! He was the great sheriff and judge who had captured and brought to justice the vilest criminals and misfits in the New Territories. Richard Chadwick, the man whose exploits sounded more fictional than real. To think that such a man had been living with them all these years as a common cook was more than their minds could grasp.
“Your father was a skunk!” Uncle Chad grated out in a voice so laced with fury that it silenced the crowd. It was different from the usual gentle tones of the old man, a man who had never been moved to fury. “He broke jail and attacked a poor widow at San Lorado. He raped her quite brutally! We gave him a chance to surrender and give himself up, but he drew his gun on us!”
“That’s a lie!” cried one of the younger men who bore such a remarkable resemblance to their speaker. “He was a decent man! He would never rape anybody!”
“Like I said, he was the dirtiest of all skunks,” Uncle Chad said as he turned toward Sheriff Short. “He not only raped that widow, but he cleaned her out of her life’s savings although he had earlier robbed the San Lorado bank and made away with thousands of cedis. He was not fit to be called a father!”
“Shut up your trap, you liar!” cried the same young man, his hand hovering quite near the butt of his gun.
“You will soon find out what happens to skunks like you who call me a liar!” Uncle Chad said. In his right hand was the gun-belt of Phil Mortimer. Uncle Chad pulled savagely at his apron with his left hand, and it came free. He moved round the stunned Sheriff Short to face the five gunmen, and with a flick of his hand he began to buckle on Phil Mortimer’s gun-belt. His whole demeanour spoke of confidence, of a lithe grace that many had never seen before, especially Ted Bawa. They all stared at this gentle man who had lived among them as humble as a castrated sheep, now swinging into action with all the calculated movements of a gunslinger. Slowly men retreated from the line of fire.
“Uncle Chad,” Sheriff Short began, taking a step toward the old man. “C’mon, man, you’re not a gunman. Please -”
“Step aside, Sheriff,” the old man said, barely glancing at the lawman. His voice was sharp and carried a power that could not be argued with. Torn between standing as a lawman, and indeed as a real man, and facing a possible ugly label the rest of his life as a coward, the big lawman turned and walked away from the imminent shootout. It would have seemed a comical sight to many an observer – a scrawny old hawk facing down five huge predators.
However, the look in the eyes of the old man was enough to convince them that indeed they might have missed some details about Uncle Chad! It was the look of a god, of one who was used to dealing with dirt, of meting out the greatest level of punishment to the misfits of the world, and always coming up tops.
“Your father was scum,” he grated out viciously, his eyes exploding with such venom that the five men facing him slowly began to realize that it was not going to be a simple shooting down of a tired and retired old lawman as they had anticipated. “He deserved what came to him. He should have been a good father, and taught you boys the right ways. But you came in here and killed a good man. Take this from me, Billy Spencer, you’re going to die. You and your two brothers and those stinking buzzards with you. Make your play, scum!”
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