They Walk Among Us, Chapter Thirteen: Spinning Back Kick

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[Spin…KICK! Spin…KICK! Spin…KICK!]

Amazing. Three straight opponents, three spinning back kicks launched toward each one, and done. I’d never seen anything so incredibly…stupid.

“How long,” I asked Curly Monroe without turning my head, “does he think he can get away with that?”

Shocked silence.

I glanced at the owner of Greased Lightning then, suddenly realizing I’d managed to give offense. Which was probably not a good thing, since Curly was a sales prospect worth a quarter million dollar Rodeo Iron contract.

Guess I’d better back up a mite, fill in a few gaps for y’all.

When Jack Hill and I had headed east out of Lincoln, land of tall trees and at one time the hideout base for the convicted Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, I’d wanted nothing more than to ask him (Jack, not Ted) a few more questions about the Union guard whose throat he’d slit at the Andersonville prison camp during the Civil War. Wanted nothing more, but somehow the words got stuck in my throat.

So we’d motored on over Rogers Pass in mutual silence, losing a little time after we got stuck behind a slow moving dump truck about halfway to the summit. Then, once we’d gotten back down off the mountain and into decent cell phone coverage, he’d given a buddy of his a quick call. The coop was closed. We had a clear shot to blast right on into Great Falls, offload more than a ton of steel fencing, and get ourselves all nice and legal.

Augusta and Browning would have to wait. It was my turn to do the phone thing. Augusta Western Supply was down to its last three fence panels plus one lonely gate assembly, but Ed Thatcher was understanding. He’d not only meet us at the store after dark, but he’d take care of booking us a motel room for the night.

Browning General Mercantile wasn’t so encouraging. Lawrence Two Good was going out of business. Turned out the local Blackfeet had found out he didn’t have a lick of Native American blood in him whatsoever, that his real name was Lawrence Tugudnovsky, and they were pretty much running him out of town. Not a race issue; they were ticked ’cause he was a fraudulent, lying imposter trying to act Indian.

Rodeo Iron wouldn’t miss his business, either. Tugudnovsky’s checks tended to bounce higher than the average pogo stick ridden by an ADHD kid hopped up on a sugar high.

Alll of this had put us into Greased Lightning at three minutes after 2:00 p.m. Monroe’s combo dojo, training camp, and kinda-sorta cafe was…interesting. Curly Monroe had been a welterweight MMA fighter for some years. Never ranked in the UFC Top Ten, but he’d fought a couple who were and banged up one of them badly enough to keep him out of the octagon for half a year.

The man could fight.

He could also hustle, and he’d rounded up venture capital for his latest brainstorm. You’d think there was some kind of glut on the training equipment market by now, but maybe not. The Greased Lightning Ground & Pound Workout Setâ„¢ was no lightweight–you wouldn’t be tucking one into your travel bag for a business jaunt–but it did have some redeeming qualities:

1. The lines were better than good. Beautiful, in fact. Appearance-wise, the blue steel wonder with the jagged yellow lightning bolts on the pipes was…if it had been a car, it would have been a Shelby Mustang.

2. Like the Shelby, Curly’s creation had muscle. I’d seen serious workout guys hammer a Crossbow (for example) so hard that over time they warped the main tower pipe, a 4-inch square beast–but nobody was likely to out-strength the Lightning. Monroe understood the mechanics of raw steel.

3. The infomercial they were waiting to release was awesome. Unlike most, it was watchable, believable, and downright irresistible.

With all that, who knew what the production limit might be? I wanted this account, both for the sheer dollar figure and for the right to affix that discreet yet obvious plate announcing,

Made in the USA

RODEO IRON

Ovando, Montana

Unfortunately, I hadn’t quite been able to close the deal. Not just yet. Curly had danced me around like I was his big black gay prom date without once committing signature to paper. In the end, he’d insisted we sit with him at one of the tables bordering the gym floor.

“You need a coffee break,” he’d insisted, “Maybe a cinnamon roll or a bratwurst on rye. Enjoy the show. I want you to see our Tad Collins in action. He’s going all the way.”

Which was how we’d ended up watching All-The-Way Tad doing his thing, his signature spinning back kick move. It was absolutely ridiculous, his performance. The man was more than sizeable, six-five or so, rangy and well built at the same time. Just 20 years of age, Curly told us, a veritable blond giant who would have made Adolph cream his jeans during the height of the Third Reich. A Nordic god if you will, Thor of the flying hammer.

The guys he was terrorizing didn’t look like wimps, but they were no match for Tall Tad and knew it. They also knew he was going to just start throwing those monster kicks at them, so naturally they started backing the Hell out of the way. But Tad was not only tall; he was also seriously quick for a guy his size and long of limb to boot. One ot the three men he’d just faced had managed to avoid being tagged with the Collins Axe–what the Lightning camp was calling his back kick, though it wasn’t an axe kick–but the other two had been unable to escape.

Tad had cut them off as they retreated, sent them flying back to slam into the cage fence.

It was stupid, what he was doing, for more reasons than I could count. But now…now I’d done gone and irritated the kicker’s coach, mentor, backer, and head cheerleader.

“What do you mean?” Curly asked in a low and dangerous tone, and I mentally kissed all those potential profits goodbye. “He’s undefeated. In fact, not one fighter’s lasted through the third round with him yet.”

“Tough opponents?” I asked, trying to sound mild. Unsuccessfully. More like truculent.

“Seventeen and oh. Last week, heavyweight champ at the Nebraska Invitational. He’s blowing through fighters like a runaway freight train through rice paper.” I noticed he didn’t answer the part about how tough the opponents were.

Well, Hell. No use trying be all Fibber McGee nice about it now. How ’bout the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me Tad. “Curly,” I pointed out all reasonable-like, “he’s asking for it. I’m not an MMA fighter or anything like that, but I am a bit of a fan. There’s a few top guys use the spinning back kick, sure, especially those that came in from the kickboxing ranks–but they don’t march it out as their leadoff weapon. They wait until an opponent’s all beatup and groggy and slow to react, then they blow him off the map. He starts running with the big dogs, they’ll take him to school on that one.”

Now, there are certain people you just can’t go around insulting like I done right there. One is horse people. You’d be better off to rassle the Devil himself with wild ferrets in your shorts than go to disagreeing with most horsemen about their favorite equine critters.

Another is a certain breed of martial artists with attitude, Curly Monroe being sure enough and everlastingly one such. He didn’t just up and throw us out of his establishment, but he did practically snarl his rejoinder.

“What the Hell would you know about it, kid.”

Oops. If you know me, there ain’t that many men on God’s green Earth can get away with calling me kid. I didn’t care about him doubting my insight, but kid–

–and then Jack Hill stepped into the breach. The Protector hadn’t said a word through all this, but he did now.

“Curly,” he spoke softly, with the mildness I’d been shooting for and missed, “even I could counter that move.”

You coulda heard a pin drop.

See, I hadn’t noticed, but the sparring was done for the day. Big Tad Collins had ambled over to soak up more praise or something, and heard the old man’s comment. His face–wish I had a picture. Don’t believe he could make sense of what he’d just heard. Monroe was made of sterner stuff, though. The former MMA warrior took a long, slow look at the bald headed, toothless old cowboy sitting there with us at the table.

Then he took a deep breath, so deep you could hear him sucking air, and replied, “You only say that, Mr. Hill, because you know you won’t have to back it up.”

Oh sh*t.

Jack rubbed his chin thoughtfully, like he was thinking over how to answer that, but I already knew what he was gonna say.

“Who says I won’t back it up?”

Curly’s eyes went wide.

Tall Tad got red in the face, all indignant all of a sudden, then he spit it out. “Old man, you’re half my size and besides, you gotta be what, 70 at least?”

“At least,” Hill nodded.

“This is ridiculous.” The young fighter snorted in disgust, spun on his bare heel, and stormed off toward the locker rooms, the legs of his gi snapping crisply with every forceful stride. Until he got about halfway across the gym floor, that is, which was when the Protector’s taunting voice called out after him,

“Tad chickensh*t are we today…TAD?!”

Which was how I ended up acting as Jack Hill’s coach after he signed the release forms promising not to sue when he got smunched, a ridiculous situation if there ever was one. My sales instincts had reasserted themselves, though, and I’d gotten Curly Monroe to agree to a little wager. If the old man won against the young warrior to whom he was giving up something like six inches in height and a good eighty pounds or more, never mind the reach and the blazingly blatant age difference–well, then, the Greased Lightning owner would sign the Rodeo Iron contract forthwith.

If Jack lost, though, we’d be giving the buggers $25,000 worth of “free samples”, just to get things started. Which I knew would come out of my take for…oh, at least the next two years.

I was kind of motivated to see my friend not get his block knocked off.

Hill was barefoot, like Collins, but he’d passed on the offer of a gi. “This won’t take long,” he’d said. “My shirt and jeans will be good enough.”

Before the referee called the fighters to the center, all I could think of to tell my man was, “He’s really P.O.’d, Jack. He’s gonna be coming hard.”

“Counting on it. If he stops to punch a while, it’s gonna hurt some.”

Almost made me laugh out loud.

“Fight!”The referee yelled and dropped his hand. Big Tad Collins, fury in his face and to Hell with respect for your elders, rushed toward his foe, powered by the arrogance of youth and the turbocharger of pure rage. Sure enough, the kickaholic planted as soon as he was in range, half-ass faked a couple of punches…and went into his spin.

Now, you gotta try to picture this. All those other Greased Lightning fighters, and presumably most of the guys down at the Nebraska Invitational as well, had been petrified of this guy. To a man, and sensibly so, they’d backed up as fast as they could once they realized Collins was spinning and the Axe was coming. But Jack Hill didn’t do that.

He did the opposite.

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In fact, he trapped the big guy, anticipated the spin. Against a master, that can get you killed–but facing an obsessive one-trick pattern pony like tall Tad, it’s the way to go.

The problem with the spinning back kick–aside from the fact that I hate it ’cause I fall on my butt every time I try to master the stupid thing–is that for a split second (a) you have to turn your head away from your opponent and (b) your back is turned to the foe as well. In theory, a fast enough fighter could get your back in the middle of all that.

In theory only. You’d have to be Jumping Jack Flash to come up with that kind of speed.

Which Jack Hill was not…but he did lunge forward, his right leg stretching out low behind him. His body dived down low, too, his head tucking down over his leading left knee. His left arm, though, hooked out and up, while the fingertips of his right hand brushed the canvas.

Tad Collins was, of course, a headhunter. His right leg came swinging around high with all of that roundhouse back kick Collins Axe power and wound-up speed–clearing Hill’s head and body by a good six inches.

When the big man’s leg (just above the knee, Jack had closed that much distance) hit the Protector’s upraised forearm, the results were impressive. I’d never seen anything like it…unless you counted that day in Hartford, the first time I ever laid eyes on the man, when I watched him put six gangbangers on the ground in about that many seconds.

It took a bunch of replays in my eidetic memory to figure out the details of this move. Tad’s own power yanked Jack up from his stretched-out position, aided and abetted by the old cowboy’s suddenly forward-driving legs. Hil’s right arm snaked around his opponent’s left leg–the only pin holding the taller man up at the moment–and just that fast, all 260 pounds of Young Gun Tad Collins were flying through the air, victims of what I could only think of as some bastardized sort of double leg wrestling takedown.

The landing was spectacular, Collins crashing down on his back, Hill letting go of that big left leg and spiraling his right shoulder into All-The-Way Tad’s bread basket .

Lemme tall ya, my friend’s 180 pounds might not sound like much, but let him slam that shoulder into your solar plexus at the end of a hard dive–I do believe you’d come to understand what I’m getting at.

Not having been born yesterday–nor even remotely close to yesterday–Jack got his butt the heck outa there then, rolled clear and got to his feet before the stunned Nordic god of thunder could get his wind back. Strolled on out of the octagon and started putting on his socks and boots like he’d just rolled out of bed and needed to get ready for another day’s work.

He wasn’t even breathing hard, though he told me later he was just really good at faking that part.

When we left seven minutes later, Collins was finally making it to his feet. I had the freshly inked contract signed by Curly Monroe and tucked securely in my briefcase. Time to go; it was still a fair hike to Augusta.

We were at the doorway when the humiliated kickaholic called out, his voice full of hate.

“Old man! Next time I see you, I’m gonna kill you, you toothless sumbitch!”

Bucking for the Good Sportsmanship trophy, obviously.

Jack raised his voice just enough to carry, though it still sounded mild and above all, calm. “Be sure you get it right, son. If I make it out of the hospital, I will come looking for you.”

As we exited the parking lot, about the time the Ford hit third gear, I finally had to chuckle a tad. So to speak. “That’s a lot better comeback than most of mine, cowboy.”

“Yeah?” He grinned, though I noticed he was massaging his left elbow with his right hand.

“Yeah. I’ve said dumb stuff like, you know, you and what army, or make sure I don’t see you first.”

“Hey. Whatever works.”

“You get dinged a little?”

“I did,” he admitted. “Pulled the Hell out of the tendons in the left elbow. That’s always been one of my weak spots, stronger muscles than elbow tendons. They go first every time.”

We were halfway to Fairfield, admiring the thunderheads building above the bench, before it occurred to me to ask, “Jack?”

“Hm?” I hadn’t realized he’d dozed off.

“That counter move you did.”

“Yeah?”

“It was beautiful. Gotta say, it was absolutely beautiful. How many times you done that move before?”

“Solo practice with an imaginary opponent? Or strictly in my imagination? Or just actual guys?”

“Um…any. All. Whatever.”

He thought for a moment. “In my imagination…thousands. Not sure how many, but more than two. Moving through the steps but without a sparring partner…let me…five, six hundred maybe. At a guess.”

“And against a physical opponent?” I punctuated the question by tipping up a bottle of Coke and taking a long swallow. A real glass bottle, the old school stuff bottled in Mexico with real sugar instead of that corn syrup crap.

“That would be…” he paused for effect. “None.”

I spewed my soda. The spray splattered my left hand and the steering wheel, got some on the dash, even a bit on the windshield. “NONE!?!”

“Well…one now.”

“Damn.” Jack handed me a roll of paper towels from the back seat so I could clean up the mess without stopping, but the sudden mess in my head couldn’t be squared away that easily. My uncle B.J.’s admonition came to mind, his warning that long-lived Jack Hill didn’t necessarily have an easy time of it and that I couldn’t possibly have any idea of what it would take to join that exclusive club ahead of time.

Clearly, he’d been right. I’d just staked a serious chunk of my future on a 250-something-year-old man’s ability to conquer a dangerous opponent in the octagon using a move he’d never tried before against another human being. Did you have to be crazy to live long and prosper?

“How often do you–.” I stopped, realizing my friend had dropped soundly to sleep this time. His mouth was hanging open a bit, his head lolled over to one side, and he looked for all the world like somebody’s antique honky grampa just snoring out his last days.

For one very specific reason, that made me feel much, much better.

“Well, old man,” I murmered under my breath, “it’s good to see you do have your limits. For a while there, you dang sure had me wondering.”

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