Chapter Twenty-Four can be found here.
They made it past Tougon without problem. Paul took them off the road again as they neared the town, slipping around so they could continue on to Dedougou without braving any stops… CDR, gendarmes, military. Paul had had enough of them, and he was sure that Sam, too, could do without guns in his face.
At Gassan, they stopped. Paul needed a break, and there was a bar that would have cooled beer—and he was needing gas. Almost under the lone Marlboro umbrella, Paul shifted to neutral, put down his feet, switched off the motor, and waited for Sam to dismount behind him. He pulled his goggles up onto his helmet, undid the strap and freed his head, draping the helmet atop one of his mirrors. Still straddling the bike, he pulled off his gloves and laid them over the gas tank. Then, pulling up the bandana that hung loose around his neck, he tried to wipe some of the dust from his face.
Sam, too, standing by the bike, was ridding himself of helmet and gloves, and trying to clear away the worst of the dust. Paul took the helmet from him and put it over the other mirror before kicking down the stand and swinging his leg over to dismount. He flexed his fingers; they felt fixed into grip position around the handles, two fingers stretched out for clutch and brake. Only with difficulty did he get all four on each hand to move in concert. Undoing the bandana, he slipped it into a jacket pocket as he shrugged that off and lay it across the moto’s seat. Sam tossed his jacket atop it and followed Paul to a seat under the umbrella.
A barman came out and Paul ordered a beer for himself and, after a quick question and a surprising answer, another for Sam. He asked if any food were available and was told there was half a chicken and some green beans. Again after consultation with Sam, he ordered servings for both of them.
“When we’re done,” he told Sam, “we’ll ask the barman to find us some gas, liter bottles of it, probably, for I doubt there’s a pump around.”
“Are we clear now? Are we safe?”
“Dunno. At least things seem somewhat normal around here.”
“No one seems particularly scared. No more people fleeing.”
“Yeah. There’s that, at least.” The barman, having brought their bottles of beer, was now sitting on a bench, his back to a post, eyes closed. Across the street, a young man in a bright white shirt was standing in the door of a small shop. A woman was walking in front of him, on the other side of the narrow open sewer, a full bucket on her head. Further along, two children were playing in the dirt with toys crafted from tin cans. It was quiet, now, a different world from the one they had left so recently.
No cars or trucks went by while they ate, just a couple of bicycles and a Mobylette. As Paul was filling his tank from bottles brought by a couple of kids, that Dutch pick-up they had seen back near Ouahigouya came by, now with only three people on back—the others, apparently, having decided they were far enough from the fighting as they entered town or even back in Tougan, had jumped off. The two Dutchmen, looking exhausted, gave short waves as they went by. Paul and Sam returned them.
Neither, as they donned jackets, bandannas, gloves, and helmets once more, felt much like getting back on the bike. Reluctantly, Paul shifted it slightly forward, allowing the kickstand to fly up. He got on, checked that the bike was in neutral, pulled in the clutch anyway, turned out the kick-starter, and stomped down, turning the gas handle as the engine started to catch. It roared, and he signaled for Sam to climb on behind him. Quickly, they were back on the road.
The first stop at Dedougou was upon them before Paul was aware of how close they were to the town. It was a CDR stop, and the Dutch truck was already there, only the two men with it any longer, along with their cargo of metal chests, all of which now rested on the ground behind the pick-up’s lowered rear gate. A few were open, young cadres rummaging through while an older man argued with the Dutchmen.
Paul had slowed, cursing, when he’d seen the armed youth standing in the middle of the road, motioning him to the side by the truck. Sam, knowing why, didn’t say anything. Paul killed the engine and, as soon as Sam hopped off, slapped down the kickstand, and pocketed the key. With Sam behind him, he walked over to the table where the most important looking member of the group sat, an inkpad and stamp before him. Not wanting to get involved with whatever problem the Dutchmen were having, Paul walked by without acknowledging them, but watched as he handed his and Sam’s passports to the seated man.
The Dutchmen were arguing with a couple of young CDR cadres about two of the trunks, both locked.
“These contain medical records. The doctor in Ouahigouya entrusted them to us. They will be needed after the war.”
“We can’t. They are locked. And we don’t want to damage them.”
“Break the locks.”
“Why? The doctor is saving Burkinabe lives, even now. Please respect his work.”
“Break the locks.”
“We can’t. We don’t have anything to break them with.”
The younger of the armed boys placed the end of his barrel against the lock and said, “I’ll just shoot it.”
“No.” The older one put his hand on his shoulder. “Don’t.” He turned to the Dutchmen. “Give me your tire iron.”
One of the Dutchmen, realizing this was a battle he wasn’t going to win, pulled a toolkit out of the cab and rummaged around for the tire iron. “He handed it to the Burkinabe, who inserted it between the hasp and the trunk and pulled, quickly and hard. The hasp snapped off. He stepped over to the second trunk and did the same.
“Now open them for us.”
The Dutchmen shrugged and threw open the lids.
Inside, instead of medical files, were layer after layer of home-recorded videocassettes. The two Burkinabe immediately raised their guns, pointing them at the Dutchmen, who were staring at the tapes, confounded.
“Medical files?” Even in the middle of nowhere, VCR tapes were recognized for what they were. Plus, the names of the movies were written on them in marker—and the older of the Burkinabe could clearly read.
“We… we… “ the Dutchman stuttered, clearly confused and frightened. “We were told they were medical records.”
The man at the table pushed the passports back at Paul and laughed. “Let them go.” He raised his voice so that the two gunmen could hear him.
As Paul and Sam roared away towards the town of Dedougou, the two Dutchmen, glum faced, where hoisting the trunks back onto the bed of the pick-up.
Chapter Twenty-Six can be found here.