Still she breathed heavily, alarmingly so. He motioned for her to rest a moment, then climbed up the rocky embankment until he could get his bearings. He looked back toward the west, saw the little escarpment he had made out earlier, reckoned it was about a kilometers back and at least a two kilometers west of the road. The riverbed would shield them from view some of the way. He slid back down the bank and looked at her. She was crying, breathing hard, apparently very scared.
"We're going to be alright," he told her. "Just gotta keep our heads down and put some distance between us and them."
She nodded, fought to understand why this was happening, then she felt his hand take hers once again and she welcomed the feel of his strength as much as she despised herself for needing it. He pulled her along and they trotted in the hard sunlight until they came to a stunted tree. He made for the shadow to rest, but drew up short...
... an old man, African, black as coal, and apparently sound asleep, lay huddled in the shadow...
... not a soldier, the old man was barefoot, wearing old khaki shorts and a tattered brown t-shirt, his brow glistened with sweat...
... he did not appear to be a threat...
They slid into the shade and crouched beside the old man's tree; their arrival startled the old man and he pulled inward. He looked alarmed when he first saw them, then relaxed. He understood.
The old man said something and Pattison recognized practiced French; he cursed himself once again for studying Spanish in high school while he listened to the exchange. Catherine was breathing heavily yet she nodded understanding while she fought to get down as much air as possible; even so she managed to eek out a few words.
The old man laughed. Pattison heard the word Janjaweed more than once and understood he'd just become a part of Darfur's civil war, in a very up close and personal way.
"What's he saying?" he said when Catherine paused once for breath.
"He saw the convoy drive by, saw the guerillas setting up their ambush. Nothing he could do."
"Is he sick?"
"What do you mean?" she said indignantly. "What would you have done?"
"No, no. Not that. I mean, is he ill. He looks sick as shit!"
She turned and looked at the old man, asked him a couple of questions.
The old man lifted his arms, raised his t-shirt and uncovered his abdomen. There was a grapefruit sized mass protruding from under his rib-cage.
Catherine asked him another question and she nodded at his reply, then turned to Pattison. "A tumor. He's very ill."
"Gee, maybe I shoulda gone to med school..."
"Perhaps you will."
"Ask him about those caves. Does he think we can get to them now or should we wait for dark?"
She turned to the old man and began to speak.
"Not very safe place," the old man interrupted in halting English. "Many animals, same idea."
"Fuck," Pattson said.
"Indeed yes," the old man said. "Fuck."
The three of them laughed. The old man winced in pain.
"Janjaweed come soon here," the old man said as his pain subsided.
"Well, I'm open to any and all suggestions," Pattison said.
"Hope you choose empty cave," the old man laughed.
"Me too." Pattison said while Catherine wiped more dirt from her eyes. "What's your name?"
"Nimiri. You name?"
"Ah. 'And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.'"
"Luke. To make ready the people. This your cause. Why you here."
"What are you talking about?"
The old man seemed confused. "The word of God. You understand?"
"Oh. You mean the Bible?"
"You will choose good cave. I think so now, yes."
They turned as one to the sound of another explosion, saw fresh smoke rising from the convoy, then more gunfire.
"We'd better get going," Pattison said. He turned to Catherine. "We made about half a click that last sprint... think you can make another?"
She shook her head. "I don't know... maybe..."
Pattison stood, Nimiri too; they helped Catherine up and Pattison took her hand and crouched then ran down the riverbed once again -- the physician in tow, the old man a few paces behind. Pattison ran a few hundred yards then pulled up under the shade of another tree, waited for Nimiri to catch up. The old man wasn't breathing hard but was obviously in a good deal of pain. Catherine was gasping for breath, sweating profusely.
He waited for her to regain herself, then pulled her out into the riverbed again. He ran a few steps then stumbled to a halt. A long snake, probably a cobra, undulated across the sand perhaps twenty meters ahead and disappeared into the brush.
"Fuck!" Pattison said under his breath.
"What?" the physician said. "Did you see someone?"
He turned and looked at her, saw she was bent over, looking at the ground. Nimiri, however, had seen the snake. He pointed to the opposite side of the riverbed, then said: "Follow me..."
Pattison fell in behind the old man. They moved more slowly now, smoothly down the riverbed until the escarpment was only a few hundred meters away -- but across open ground. Nimiri let up his relentless pace, waited for Catherine to catch her breath, then looked at Pattison. "Bigger cave, bigger animal call it home. Choose carefully. When you have, I will bring your woman."
"My what? Oh, right." Pattison shrugged, took off in a low run; he moved steadily between clumps of scrub-brush toward the cliff. In many places the wall appeared to be twenty, perhaps even thirty meters tall, but most of the broken ridge was much less than that. Hundreds of caves of all size dotted the cliff, some screamed mortal peril while others looked merely dangerous; it was like some long dormant part of his brain was hard at work interpreting signs he was completely unconscious of...
One cave, however, seemed a good bet. He couldn't say why but he trusted this impulse and made his way through the jumbled rock at the base of the cliff then scrambled upwards until he gained the entrance. It appeared to be about a meter and a half high near the entrance and disappeared into complete darkness beyond a tight turn several meters in. He picked up a rock and tossed it in, listened as it bounced off the walls.
Nothing. No movement at all.
He tossed another rock and waited.
Nothing. Only stillness within the shadows.
He walked inside, saw people had once made a campfire inside but whether that was five days ago or five years ago... he simply couldn't tell. He sat deep inside the shadow and listened; when he was sure the cave was unoccupied he made his way back to the entrance and looked across the brush toward Nimiri and Catherine. He could just see them and he waved until he saw Nimiri return the gesture, then he slipped back into shadow and watched their progress through the grass.
He heard an occasional gunshot now, but not many and far away. It was as if the troops were mopping up the scene, dispatching the wounded and collecting all the loot, or perhaps the incriminating evidence. He could still see thick black smoke rising from behind a low hillock and he guessed they were about three kilometers away -- just less than two miles. Would that be enough?
Soon Nimiri and Catherine were at the base of the wall; Luke clambered down and helped her up and over the rocks and within minutes they were settled within their little sanctuary. She leaned back, wiped grimy sweat from her face, watched Luke open his bag and pull out a couple bottles of water and some candy bars, as well as a little yellow GPS unit. She thought of her own bag and reached for it, opened it up and dug around for the Sat-phone, then felt around for the little vacuum-bagged packages of smoked salmon she had stashed in the bottom. She left the food there, buried under a small pile of medical supplies, but she pulled out the phone and turned it on.
"Does your GPS work?" she asked. Luke set about giving the antenna a clear shot at the southern sky, then he pushed the power button, placed the unit on a rock near the entrance so it could pick-up valid signals. "Looks like North twelve degrees, fifty six point two-two and twenty four East, zero two point four zero." She scribbled the coordinates down on a notepad and dialed the phone.
"Paul, listen to me. The convoy has been... ambushed... Paul... please, shut up and listen, write this down..."
Luke looked at the GPS; the batteries were fully charged, would last another 48 hours if left on continuously, but he doubted they'd move again anytime soon so he powered the unit off and listened as Catherine read off their position, then repeated the numbers for good measure. She listened for a good minute then cut the connection.
"Well?" Pattison said.
"He'll call the UN, maybe the AU..."
"Ah, crap, not the AU! Those idiots! They probably helped stage this goddamn ambush!"
Nimiri frowned, spoke harshly. "Not AU. Good people in AU. Janjaweed did this. Not AU."
"Okay, okay. Doc, you have any food in there?"
She shook her head. "Can you see anything from there?"
"Just some smoke. Fuck, did they figure that location well, or what! Between two fucking bridges! No retreat and no fucking place to run. And did you notice all the fucking black grass?"
"Yeah? What of it?"
"Fuck, man, they've been burning the locals right back into that town..."
"Fuck, man, you sure zonked-out back there. Big village, maybe five, ten clicks back. Lots of orchards and shit, too, then bingo -- less than a mile and it's like we're on the dark side of the moon! Black fields, burned-out village, a couple of bodies in the ditch off the side of the road. Medieval shit, Doc."
But the physician had had enough: "Mister Pattison, it is not medieval! It is Africa. Now. Today." She was visibly fuming, clearly perturbed. "We are so sorry that offends your prim American worldview! But that is why we're here. Why we came. To help. Not to pad our resume!"
"Just because they didn't show you cartoons of this 'fucking shit' at the country club doesn't mean it hasn't been going on right under your snotty little nose for the past thirty years! Understand?"
He looked at the woman, then at Nimiri. He shrugged: "You say so."
"You're goddamn right I say so. I've been here in this medieval shithole for fifteen years, back when your mother was driving you around in her Cadillac to buy you hundred dollar video games! So just sit back and watch, like a good American, and enjoy the show!"
"Look, I think you're being..."
"And try not to think, either. I wouldn't want you to hurt your ass!"
"You're welcome," Pattison said sarcastically.
"What?" Catherine answered as crossly.
"I said, you're welcome. You know, for pulling your fat ass out of the truck, saving your life, that kind of shit. Hey, next time..."
"There won't be a next time, Mister Pattison. Count on that, would you? We'll be lucky to get out of this medieval shithole alive. Do you understand what that means? You're finally going to make it onto CNN!"
"Right. I get the picture."
"Do you. Really?"
She looked at him, at the stuff around him: "Is that all the water you have? What, three liters?"
"Yep. Sorry, I couldn't reach more. Machine gun fire and all. Why don't you go back and get some more? I'll watch this time."
She snorted, leaned back against the smooth rock wall, then began to cry. Pattison looked at Nimiri. The old man was looking him directly in the eye, then he too turned and looked away. Pattison opened one of the candy bars and ate it defiantly.
Old Soviet-era Mi-8 helicopters make a distinctive wump-wump-wump as they draw near. Their inefficient airfoils don't slip through the air, they beat it up; there is no mistaking when they're anywhere near because the earth rumbles for miles around. On this day, a single white UN helicopter approached from the northeast, flying low over the scorched earth, still well to the east of three people huddled in a shallow cave. The helicopter flew as fast as it could, purposefully just north of the smoldering ambush site; the pilot ignored the burning carnage between the bridges and made a beeline for a low escarpment to the west.
The Janjaweed Commander on the scene had hidden his force long ago, long before, in fact, he'd first heard the helicopter. Government air traffic controllers had been notified of the UN rescue flight and had dutifully passed this information on to the military; the military immediately notified the Janjaweed Commander on the ground and he prepared by spreading his forces east and west of the ambush site.
The Commander watched the helicopter, wondered why it was flying past the burning convoy towards a line of low cliffs a few miles away, then the helicopter banked to the south and began to fly toward his position.
"Take it out!" he shouted to his men hidden in the brush all around.
Two shoulder mounted surface-to-air missiles roared into the sky: the first missed completely; the second slammed into the underside of the main body of the aircraft. Flames and black smoke boiled from the cabin and the commander watched as the struggling pilot auto-rotated and flared too soon. The aircraft hit hard, bounced once and came down again. Before anyone inside could move the aircraft was slammed by heavy machine gun fire.
"Jesus Fucking Christ!" Pattison shouted; per protocol, Catherine readied her phone again and called MSF Headquarters in Lyon, France. She explained the situation to the duty officer and waited for instructions. She gave their location again and repeated it, was told to limit use of the phone in case someone was trying to home in on them, and given a contact schedule. She broke contact and put the phone away.
Pattison felt the change that had come over the physician: "Was your friend on-board?"
"What?" she said, her voice lifeless, almost flat.
"Your friend, Paul? Was he... in there?" Luke pointed toward the burning wreckage.
She shrugged, her face a blank mask: "I don't know," she said softly.
Nimiri made his way to the entrance, carefully watched as the Janjaweed surrounded the downed helicopter and extracted two people from inside.
"Two yet live," he said, and Catherine darted to the entrance, pulled out a pair of binoculars from her case and looked at the scene below.
She watched, unaware that Pattison too was now by her side, as Paul was led away from the wreckage.
"I -- don't know... maybe... don't...uh... think so."
"What are they doing?"
"I don't... oh my God no!" She stood, prepared to run from the cave but Pattison grabbed her by the waist, pulled her down just as the sound of rifle fire reached the cave. He took the binoculars from her as she crumpled to the ground, settled on the rock and watched as the Janjaweed fired again into the bodies on the ground before them. He turned, dropped the binoculars to the rocky floor, slid back into the cave, his eyes blinking rapidly as he tried to make sense of the darkness that lay ahead.
"Fuck... fuck..." he whispered as the scene registered again and again.
Nimiri, clutching Catherine by his side, guided her back into the darkness. "Do you know, Luke, for an educated man, you say very little."
Nimiri could see the young man had come almost completely unhinged by what he'd seen; Luke had drawn his knees up to his chin, was staring wide-eyed off into space. And yet Catherine too understood what he had seen; despite the pain she felt some deeper maternal instinct kicked in: she went to the young man's side and knelt before him.
He said nothing. No response at all.
"Luke? Tell me, what did you see?"
Luke's eyes welled up, he gasped for breath: "They're going to kill us... all of us..."
"Luke! Tell me what you saw?"
"I don't want to die like this..."
"How, Luke? Like how? What did you see?"
'With a black sack over my head, a gun pressed-up against the back of my head,' he wanted to say -- but the words just wouldn't come. To utter the words was to acknowledge their truth, the cold reality behind them, and he chose to turn away, run to the comfort of other, more comfortable delusions.
"I didn't see much," he said at last. "They're gone. I hope your friend wasn't out there."
"Paul? He was, Luke. He was the man in the red shirt."
"What did they say on the phone?"
"They will do what they can. They know where we are."
"What they can?" Luke said shrilly. "What the fuck does that mean?!"
"Luke, drink some water," Nimiri said. "You must think with clearness now."
"Clearness..." he said, his voice a faint whisper. "When I was a kid, my dad was killed. He was a pilot, in the reserves. Navy. Was called up for Desert Storm. Shot down the first day."
"Luke?" Catherine whispered. "Violent death never makes sense. It always shocks our sense of proportion, our sense of ourselves, to be reminded so powerfully how fragile life is. And how susceptible we are to the hate that always seems to be out there."
Luke still looked unfocused, unbalanced.
"What did your father fly Luke? You said the navy?"
"F/A-18. He was attacking airfields..."
"Do you think he believed in what he was doing?"
"What?" Luke said haltingly. "Yes, of course."
"Do you think he might have seen purpose in his own death?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
Nimiri spoke now: "Luke, do you see purpose in your life?"
The young man's face lurched, his eyes flinched: "I don't know," he whispered after some time.
The old man nodded, sat down on his haunches; Catherine eased down beside Luke and laid his head on her shoulder, ran her fingers through his hair. They sat quietly for a long while, until a brief outburst of gunfire startled them back into the present.
Catherine pushed herself up, went back to the entrance, stopped to pick up the binoculars as she crawled along the rocks. She peered over the edge, brought the glasses to her eyes and swept the landscape. She saw Janjaweed running down a shallow slope toward the convoy, some of the men still firing into the wreckage. She focused her attention on one truck: there were people in the back, armed people! As the Janjaweed closed the relief workers in the truck opened up, shot several of the guerillas.
"What!" she cried out. "Why are they armed? That is against the rules!" This was, Catherine thought furiously, a breach of the most basic protocol: MSF workers, indeed no relief workers anywhere, went into a conflict zone as an armed force. The UN or some other military force always carried out protective functions. But now someone had violated that most basic rule and the likely outcome was too grim to think about.
"You've got to be kidding me?" Luke said. "They broke a rule?"
"Yes! If people break the rules only more violence will follow!"
"Lady, have you ever considered that there are some people who never follow the rules?"
"Of course! Don't be naïve!"
She turned to face down Luke but saw him standing, a rock in his right hand, winding up for a throw. Before she knew it the rock left his hand and whizzed by her head -- she heard the air ripping as it soared past -- then Nimiri reached for her and pulled her forcibly back into the darkness.
"What the..." But Luke was readying another rock; when the second was arcing away she turned, saw the cobra coiled up not a meter from where she had been just seconds before. Luke's second pitch was perfect; the snake boiled and hissed and disappeared down into the scree below.
"Oh my God, oh my God," she said as she fell into the safety of the old man's arms.
"Shit! Fuck-a-duck!" Luke screamed. "Holy fucking crap! Did you see the size of that fucking mother-fucker!"