Chapter 9: The Final Straw
Wenchao cried out, his face buried in the snow. He got to his feet awkwardly and turned and charged at Wenchang. He knew who it was because he figured from the force of that throw only Wenchang could have done it.
A fist slammed into Wenchang's left jaw. Another exploded on his right jaw. Those two blows were sound, rocking Wenchang back three steps and nearly knocking him over.
Wenchao wasn't finished. He advanced and followed with three more blows to Wenchang's midsection, knocking him down.
The snowball fight stopped as cries and shouts rose.
Wenchang knew he was outnumbered and at a disadvantage, so he didn't hit back. A wise man knows not to fight when the odds are against him. But those three shots to the belly had not only felled him but also made him nauseous. It was hard to bear, felt like his stomach had been punched up into his throat. His viscera contracted, and the initial two blows to the jaw had him seeing stars, disorienting him. This outrage was more than he could take.
Wenchao was already eighteen and big and tall. He had taken a wife the last month of the previous year. In fact he was already an adult, yet he didn't appear to appreciate the seriousness of the situation and fought as if it was to the death.
Wenchang had reached his limit. He struggled to his feet, ready to strike back.
Wenchao didn't wait for him to get up before he advanced and with a chain of hooks his hands shot out, his right fist connecting with Wenchang's lower jaw, his left belting him in the chest. They were solid punches that knocked Wenchang down again before he was able to get up. Blood trickled out of his mouth.
"Beat the shit out of him," someone yelled.
"Fight back, Little Tiger!" another said in encouragement.
Wenchao charged and shot his foot out.
Wenchang was boiling with rage as he rolled to the left, then sprang to his feet and rushed him like a crazed tiger, fists flying. He snatched Wenchao's right fist with his left and flicked it away, then blasted his right fist into Wenchao's ribs.
"Ah…" Wenchao cried, doubling over as he retreated five steps.
Wenchang pressed him with a succession of blows, each one landing, nailing him in the jaw, pounding him in the belly, never giving him a chance to block.
"Ah… Ah… Ow!" Wenchao cried desperately. He couldn't withstand these punches and tumbled flat on his back, unable to get up.
Two middle-aged men suddenly came out from a house on the corner, running toward them in shock while shouting, "Little Tiger, you've got a lot of nerve, you…"
Wenchang was about to walk away when he saw one of them was Fourth Uncle, the one who most hated him out of all the villagers. Alarmed, he hightailed it out of there.
He had not yet made it through the village gates when two old men in fur-lined coats barged in from outside, hugging themselves against the cold. They looked up and saw Wenchang fleeing toward them. One of them snorted. "Little Tiger, are you out of your mind?"
Shit, it was the worst two granduncles in the village. The one who called to him was Fifth Grandpa, one of the ten attendants of the ancestral temple. His words carried a lot of weight and he loved to stir up trouble.
Wenchang was thinking of running off to the side when Fourth Uncle called out from behind, "Fifth Grandpa, nab that little bastard. He beat up nephew Chao."
There was nowhere to run with those two old bastards blocking the gates. "You think you can run, Little Tiger? Cause trouble, then scurry off? Go on back."
He had been controlled for so long, not daring to oppose anyone. He stopped obediently and defended himself coldly. "Brother Chao started it, you can't blame me."
His cold demeanor was most reproachable. No one liked a stern face, especially not elders. They wanted the younger generations to fawn over and flatter them in soft tones. How could they put up with being contradicted? These old men were already unhappy with the disobedient Wenchang, and prejudices die hard. The clearest reason can yet be muddled.
"Bah! Bastard! You think you're in the right?" Fifth Grandpa was furious.
Whether he was in the right or not didn't much matter now for Wenchang. And he was in no mood to hash it out with these unreasonable old men. He stood there in a huff.
His angry face provoked Fifth Grandpa's malice and fury even further. Without explanation he walked up and slapped him in the face four times, side to side. "Get the hell on back! I'll get your uncle to discipline you. You're an incorrigible bad apple. You won't behave for even one day, instead delighting in causing trouble and beating your brothers. It's ridiculous. Go on!"
Wenchang was seeing stars again. He turned and headed back resentfully, his chest heaving. He'd put up with it for so long already. He could put up with it a bit longer.
Some of the kids helped Wenchao up. He looked like a kicked dog, weeping and sniffling. "Ow, I'm dying, I'm dying…" he cried pitifully.
Fourth Uncle didn't interrogate him. Instead he smacked Wenchang, who was just turning to face him, knocking him back a step. "Bastard! Now you venomously slander others saying they started it? I saw you hit him with my own eyes! Outrageous!"
Once again blood oozed out of the corner of Wenchang's mouth. He clenched his teeth. "Fourth Uncle only saw me hit him but didn't see the five times he hit me before that, and he knocked me down twice…"
Fourth Uncle slapped him again. "You're still talking back? You…"
"Fourth Uncle, you can ask…"
Fourth Uncle was even more incensed. His two palms shot out.
Wenchang had really had enough. He raise his hand and knocked the palms away.
Now he was really in for it, raising his hand to block an elder. Wasn't it appalling? This was simply the worst offense.
"You defy me, you bastard…" Fourth Uncle was blue in the face with anger. He roared, unable to get any words out as he stamped his feet.
Now that he'd gone this far he had to see it through. Wenchang steeled himself. "If you won't listen to reason, then why talk?" he said coldly. "Fourth Uncle, you don't need to hit me. You should save that for your son. Hitting someone else's son is ruthless, you hit too hard. Am I, Little Tiger, not a person?"
The two old men arrived, along with the neighbors. Wenchao's third uncle also hurried up and the village elders surrounded them.
Wenchang had spoken out of grief and indignation, but his words had angered many. A single family village was not like a city; every elder could raise his hand to discipline a junior. Of course, there were those who were opposed to this. Some of the womenfolk put up a big fuss. They didn't care if it was an elder or not, if you hit their child they would curse you up and down for days. Making oblique accusations and impertinent remarks was nothing unheard of. They didn't want others managing their children. Kids like Wenchao, Wenhua, or Wenkui, not even one of the few grand elders dared touch a hair on their heads. They would only scold them a bit and tell their parents.
Too bad Wenchang didn't have any parents, no one to back him up. He was destined to be out of luck. Just like that saying about an honest man being bullied. Once Third Uncle saw his beloved son, he hollered to the heavens. He was already distressed for his son, but then hearing Wenchang's backtalk, he flew into a rage, grabbed a nearby wooden stick and struck with it. "Bastard! You…"
The stick hit the left side of Wenchang's neck with a muffled thud and he grunted and flopped over unconscious.
"Damn!" someone cried.
Village Head Cai pushed his way through the crowd. "Third junior brother, how could you hit him with a stick?"
Fifth Grandpa sneered. "The bastard is disgraceful, might as well beat him to death."
Suddenly a child pushed through the crowd, dragging the jacket Wenchang had left behind and crying. "It was Brother Chao's fault. He hit Little Tiger with a snowball first, then knocked him over twice. Little Tiger didn't fight back…"
"What are you going on about?" Fourth Uncle raged.
The kid wasn't intimidated. He screamed, "I want to say it, I have to say it. Little Tiger was passing through here on his way out of the village gates when Brother Chao rushed out and hit him. The second time he knocked him down with a kick, then Little Tiger fought back. It's not fair, I had to say it."
Village Head Cai turned to Wenhua. "Hua'er, what happened?"
Wenhua and Wenchang had been like fire and water since they were little and were bitter enemies. Yet after all he did have some sense of justice. He hmphed and turned to leave. "You can only blame Little Tiger for not having any parents." Then he walked off.
Everyone looked at each other.
The imposing Wenkui pushed through the crowd and cried out in alarm and knelt down and rubbed down Wenchang's face with a handful of snow. "Brother Chang, Brother Chang, Brother…"
The bits of snow slowly revived him. He struggled to his feet and shot everyone a murderous glare. He stood tall and clenched his teeth. "There's no place in Cai Family Village for Cai Wenchang. I will return in three years. No one is allowed to till my fields. I will burn my house to the ground. You all are heartless. Don't blame me for being wicked. See you in three years."
That said, he strode toward the village gates.
Fifth Grandpa was right in his way. "Little Tiger," he said sternly, "you have a lot of nerve, no respect for your forebears…"
"Out of the way!" Wenchang roared.
"Wenchang, what are you doing?" Village Head Cai said, aghast. Wenchang's defiance was unprecedented, no wonder he was shocked.
Wenchang turned and said coldly, "Uncle, please remember what I just said. Otherwise, something bad might happen to Cai Family Village. Little Tiger's had enough. Wait and see."
Fourth Uncle had felt embarrassed, but now he had something on him. He stepped forward. "Grab that miscreant and haul him to the ancestral temple for public judgment…"
His hand had barely touched his shirtfront when Wenchang's iron fist pounded hard into his belly twice.
"Ah…" he cried, doubling over, holding his stomach.
Another fist slammed into his jaw, knocking out four teeth and putting him on his back.
Wenchang suddenly pulled out the dagger the old freak had given him amidst the shouts and screams of the crowd. It gleamed and dazzled.
"I'm leaving. Three years from now we'll settle things. Come on, whoever's not afraid to die. Little Tiger acknowledges you all as elders, but this dagger has no eyes."
He turned and brandished the dagger. Fifth Grandpa yelped and scampered off with his hands covering his head, but the dagger was nowhere near him.
Sharp dagger in hand, everyone pulled back in fear. Wenchang uttered a long, loud cry and rushed through the crowd like a violent squall and blew out of Cai Family Village.