Chapter Twenty-One: Retreating
[Chapter Twenty can be found here.]
The piste brought them into sight of the road perhaps half a kilometer down from the gendarme post where they had left the motorcycle. Rather than resting to the side of the flowing mass, the post was now near the middle of it, gendarmes valiantly trying to get the larger vehicles to pull to a stop in what little open space they were able to maintain. Paul glimpsed the yellow of one of their helmets, a relief. If they could make their way to it through the crowd, the bike should still be there, amazingly enough.
As they neared, they saw that almost all of the vehicles that had been there were still there. Apparently the Dutchmen hadn’t been allowed to leave, even though they had accepted a couple of extra riders, overloading their pick-up, leaf springs already bent straight. One of them was sitting in the cab while the other paced back and forth behind the bed of the truck, gesticulating as he tried to explain something or other to the officer who had sent them off into the to bush all those weeks—or was it minutes—ago.
Those fleeing were so intent on getting away from Ouahigouya that they simply went around Paul and Sam as they made their way to the post. Their faces, it seemed to Paul, were even more determined and focused than they had been earlier—and covered, now, almost always in the dust that feet and tires were stirring from the road and its sides, creating a cloud hanging over them all. Looking at them, Paul couldn’t imagine that things were worse now, back in Ouahigouya, than they had been earlier. Another bombing could have killed a few more, yes, but he doubted that Malian soldiers had appeared. Had they, those faces would wear expressions of panic and not simply determination and concern—and the gendarmes would not be still trying to maintain order.
The man who had sent them off into the bush glanced at them as they neared, but turned his attention back to the Dutchman who, having paused when he saw the officer look away, had dropped his arms in exasperation. Paul and Sam walked up to the bike without a word, each glancing to make sure his pack was still attached to the rack. They put on helmets, gloves and goggles. Paul straddled the motorcycle, inserted and turned the key and flipped out the kick-starter. His foot on it, he prepared to bear down and start the bike when he caught some of the words the officer and the Dutchman were exchanging.
“C’est impossible. It’s impossible. I can’t put more people on the truck, and I cannot leave these crates behind.”
“Pourquoi pas? Why not? What’s so important?”
The white man struggled to speak slowly and clearly, his Dutch-accented French nearly failing him. Clearly he had been through this before, but with no success. “That these trunks aren’t ours, and neither is this truck. Both belong to the doctor, the Dutch doctor at the hospital in Ouahigouya. In the trunks are his medical records, things that need to be kept safe for all the patients he has been seeing since arriving here more than two years ago. People’s lives can be lost if these records are lost.”
The officer was unimpressed. “I cannot let you leave unless you find a way of taking two more people.”
“But there is no room!”
“Then leave some of the crates.”
“What are they saying?” Sam, standing by the bike waiting for Paul to start it so that he could climb on behind, was wondering what could be delaying Paul. They needed to get going, to say the least.
“Guy won’t let them leave unless they dump off some of those metal boxes in back and take more people. They say the boxes contain critical medical records and can’t be abandoned. Interesting dilemma.”
“Maybe to you, but we’ve got to get out of here, don’t we?”
Paul looked at Sam. “Yeah, I suppose so.” He started the bike. The roar kept him from hearing what the arguers were saying now, but something seemed resolved. Sam climbed on back and Paul pushed down into first and prepared to ease out the hand clutch. The Dutchmen and two others were squeezing into the cab while two new passengers, young men, climbed onto the hood, one leaning against the passenger side of the windshield and the other sitting between his legs. As no one had descended from the over-packed back and there was absolutely no extra space there, the truck could now leave. Paul waited for it to start moving forward and then eased the clutch out slowly to follow in its wake.
As soon as he could, Paul eased the motorcycle to the side of the stream of refugees and onto the empty fields. He had to go slowly, for he could not stand on the pegs to maneuver, not with a passenger and bags on back. Instead, he moved over the remains of millet and sorghum using his feet to steady them, accelerating only when he had to, speeding up to keep them from falling. Sam, fortunately, continued to be a good passenger, his hands lightly on Paul’s hips.
They could have stayed on the road. Certainly, they weren’t moving much faster over the uneven fields. In fact, they could see the Dutchmen’s white pick-up, though its color was now closer to that of the road than its paint job. It rarely fell behind them, no matter how much Paul tried to pass the moving throng to their left. The only advantage they were finding from travel through the fields was that they were away from the center of the dust, so did not need to keep their bandanas over their mouths.
At one point, they stopped so that Paul could shake out his hands, stiff and a little sore from pressing against the grips. “Should we just walk the bike for a while?” Sam asked him. “I could use the break.”
“If there were a path, maybe. But pushing this over uneven fields is going to be difficult. We can try for a bit, but I think we’ll find it easier to ride.”
“OK. I just need something instead of sitting there, bouncing, wondering if we’re going to fall.”
Paul didn’t want to slow them down, but they weren’t moving too fast, anyhow. So push he did, on a small path that seemed to run approximately parallel to the road, now several hundred meters off.
After ten minutes or so, he decided he had had enough. “Let’s get back on. We’ve got to try to find a way of making a bit better time.” Sam nodded. Once Paul had re-started the motorcycle, he climbed on once again and they started across the field.
Off in the distance, amid the walkers, the bicyclists, the moped riders, the occasional motorcycles, the cars and the trucks, they could see that Dutch pick-up, now only a little ahead of where they were.
[Chapter Twenty-Two can be found here.]
[Chapter Twenty-Two can be found here.]