[Chapter Eighteen can be found here.]
Paul and Sam walked in the direction they had been pointed by the men with guns behind them. The ground was nearly bare and the growth too sparse to impede them, but each step was taking them further out of sight—out of sound—from the crowd. Each seemed more difficult than the last. The silence grew as they moved away from the road and all its traffic, and Paul was sure he could feel the barrels of the guns pointed at the back of his neck, though the gendarmes, he could tell by their sounds, were meters behind them. Sam, incredulous at the injustice of the situation, wondered for what seemed to be the millionth time how he had gotten into this mess, what had brought him to this absurd pass. He had faced death before: If this were the end, so be it, but it would be a ridiculous end. Yet there was nothing he could do now but hope it wasn’t to be so. To that end, all he could do was keep walking. Anything else, right now, would be as stupid as everything else he had done since meeting the incompetent man walking next to him.
Walking, imagining the sound and impact of the bullets from behind them. Realizing that they were probably over-reacting, that this would probably lead to nothing, that there was a rational explanation for leading them off into the bush at gunpoint during a war. Each imagined a dozen scenarios, and could almost feel it, wondering if they would know anything of it at all. Each did keep his feet moving, though lifting them was a greater and greater chore, heavier and heavier weights attached at every step. They walked more slowly and more slowly, prolonging the time until the bullets came. Every few steps of this, their captors roughly ordered them to move on more quickly. They would try to do as they were commanded for a bit, but always slowed again.
After ten minutes or so, their guards ordered them to bear to the left. They did so, looking around to see where they were headed, but they saw nothing but more of the scrub. Paul wondered if it wouldn’t be better to just stop, to refuse to go on, but the fact that it now appeared that they had a destination gave him a little hope. Maybe the gendarmes were simply trying to get them a certain distance away, so that the refugees wouldn’t be disturbed, before shooting them and ridding their commander of an irritation. But, if so, why not continue just straight on from the road?
That was ridiculous, he told himself, the idea that they would need to get far away to shoot. What would a few more shots mean? He kept walking, but questions wouldn’t go away.
What was going on? Where were they taking them, and why? He couldn’t answer but couldn’t banish them. There appeared to be nothing in front of them. Nothing but brush.
The day had heated up. In the distance, the air shimmered. Sam squinted, almost closing his eyes to order his thoughts, to narrow his concentration. He stumbled, but kept his footing, his eyes opening wide again. One of the gendarmes muttered something. Another laughed, though it sounded more like a bark. Sam looked at the ground and concentrated on his steps. He wanted to make the small things important, keeping the large and unanswerable at bay. This probably wasn’t anything nearly as bad as he was imagining. The problem was, he just didn’t know.
A few meters further on, the gendarmes ordered them to the right, onto a faint, wide piste, or track. Paul, irrationally, had started to worry about his motorcycle and their bags. The sight of the piste relieved him. It signaled for the first time that they could be going somewhere other than merely to execution. It probably led back to the paved road, the stop, and the moto. He could follow it, if ever set free by the men behind them.
Sam, too, had recognized the significance of the path. To him, though, it wasn’t a connection back, but a route forward, to something. As long as there was a direction, possibility, the future, wasn’t cut off. He now walked with a little more confidence, chiding himself for imagining only the worst that could happen.
Both of them picked up their pace. Both of them, though not yet in any position of safety, began to feel privately embarrassed by their overwrought imaginings of just a moment before.
After walking another five minutes, they discovered, as the piste twisted around one more stand of trees, that they were being escorted to a group of official-looking buildings set alone in the bush on the edges of a turnaround marked with whitewashed stones, a flagpole at its center, the red and green Burkina flag with its central yellow star drooping inert from it. A number of soldiers sat in the shade of the scattered trees. Almost all ignored them, napping or cleaning their weapons. One or two of them glanced up, uninterested, as they passed through the circle.
Their guards motioned for them to wait outside the largest of the buildings. One disappeared inside. The others leaned against the wall into a little bit of shade, leaving Paul and Sam standing in the sun. Their guns were now slung harmlessly over their shoulders. There was no possibility of danger, here, from these two befuddled foreigners. They chatted and laughted, much more relaxed than they had been back there by the roadside.
After a few minutes, the other one came back out, accompanied by a man in a military, not gendarme, uniform. The new man examined Paul and Sam for a moment, then dismissed their guards, who immediately headed back the way they had come.
The military officer told them to sit under a tree he pointed to by the building, and to wait; the person who had to clear them would arrive there soon. He walked away. No one else seemed to want to deal with them. The soldiers, still incurious, continued with whatever they had been doing, sleeping, talking low, or working on weaponry. Paul and Sam did what they had been told and sat under the tree, Sam with his back to the trunk, legs stretched out, Paul with his knees up, elbows resting on them as he looked around, trying to figure out just what the purpose of bringing them here had been.
He saw little and figured nothing out. Everyone ignored him. He turned and tried to talk to Sam, but Sam wasn’t interested. He lapsed into silence.
They had been sitting there for about fifteen minutes when firing started again. It was as heavy as it had back in town, and again there were black puffs in the sky and pops from anti-aircraft fire. They once more heard a plane in the sky and an explosion. And more anti-aircraft and small-arms fire. Most of the soldiers disappeared immediately, a couple running into one or another of the open doorways, the others into the bush. Paul and Sam just watched, unwilling to leave their assigned spot, as safe there, they thought, as they would be anywhere.
A strange rustling came once and came again through the leaves in the tree above them. After a few confused thoughts, Paul realized that bullets were causing the noise. From somewhere, Burkinabe soldiers, he guessed, were firing in their direction or at random. Sam was also looking up, with the same thoughts. They got up at once and scrambled away from the tree towards the most solid looking object they could see, the wall of the closest building. They dove against its bottom edge, lying like two logs against the angle where it met the ground. They stayed there, lying against the cinderblock wall, for the next twenty minutes, hardly daring to move.
As they lay there, they watched the one soldier they could still see. He fired bursts from his Chinese-made automatic rifle into the sky, looking around above him between each burst, though there was now nothing up there but a circling vulture or two. Tensing, crouching, then firing again, he could never have hit a MiG, not even by chance. But he was sweating, glistening enough for them to see it from twenty meters away, and serious and…. Intent, concentrating, he kept up his firing for as long as he heard gunfire elsewhere.
They stayed prone even after firing had ceased completely and the sky-killing soldier had disappeared. They only rose as the other soldiers began returning from the bush and noticed them lying there, pointing them out to each other, and laughing. Paul and Sam got up, feeling as though their dignity, whatever there was of it in the first place, was now in shreds. They dusted themselves off and returned to sit under the tree, as they had been told.
Soon, an officer appeared. It was not the same one who had spoken to them earlier. He motioned for them to follow him into the building. They did. He looked at their papers, asked them a few perfunctory questions, and then dismissed them with a wave.
They walked back to the road on the trail they had taken the last part of the walk to the base.
Even if they hadn’t known the way, they would have found it. A large column of dust was rising above it.
[Chapter Twenty can be found here.]
[Chapter Twenty can be found here.]