[Chapter Twenty-Two can be found here.]
After a time, back on the road, the motorcycle bouncing over ditches, washboard, sand patches and dry puddles, pitch of Paul’s small two-cycle engine began to numb them. It rose and fell as he guided the bike on and off the crowded way to Tougan, the next real town south of Ouahigouya. Sometimes, now that they were further away from the action of the war, Paul would take them out of sight of the road completely and through the brush, going where the off-road bike dared and most of the rest of the traffic, even the foot traffic, did not. The road itself, really just a lane, had never handled the volume on it then or what were now the twin streams of people walking at its sides, bicycles and mopeds pushing pedestrians into the brush when a car or truck came slowly by, which was relatively often.
As he couldn’t stand on the pegs to gain slow-speed maneuverability, Paul often had to kick out with his feet to keep them upright and moving, a tiring and more dangerous practice, and one reason he was happy to have his boots on and why he had been willing to walk the bike for a time earlier. Now, he was getting a little anxious. He wanted to get them at least to Dedougou that day, preferably all the way to Boromo where he could drop off the moto and they could easily get on a bus or taxi on the Ouaga/Bobo road, so he pushed for as much speed as he dared, leaving behind the vehicles, including the white Dutch truck, they had paralleled. As much as he could, as the kilometers passed, he edged them further away from the road, to keep away from the traffic, and to avoid the delays that military and gendarme control stops would mean.
As time passed, they were discovering one other disadvantage to riding slowly: the heat. When they were moving quickly, they created a breeze. When slowed by traffic, by people, by sand, by ditches, of course, they created none. Both of them sweated, and they stopped frequently to take small drinks from their bottles of water. Sam wanted to take off his jean jacket but Paul wouldn’t let him. A little sweat was a worthwhile sacrifice compared with the loss of protection, should they fall.
Paul had found riding in or near the press of traffic exhausting for other reasons. The road was uneven, at best, and the bike, overloaded, was top-heavy. When he could go fast enough to counteract the weight, he would, sometimes when he really should not. Too often, he could not. His thighs and calves started to ache as he constantly pushed with his legs to keep them upright. He wondered at Sam, at how he could manage to sit on the back, so still, his gloved hands grasping the outside bars of the rack behind him, but he was grateful he could. Otherwise, he would have been forced frequently to stop and walk the bike again, having both of them get off until they got to a smoother patch.
Paul’s own hands, in fraying work gloves, grasped the handlebars as though ratcheted to them, two fingers from each hand stretched forward, the left pair over the clutch handle, the right two over the front brake handle. His right wrist moved slightly as he accelerated or slowed, the extended fingers working in concert with the tips of his boots, shifter, like clutch, on the left side, and the rear brake, like the front, on the right. When he had to brake quickly, he would also have to shift down through the gears to first then slip his legs from the pegs, ready to steady the bike if need be. This happened frequently.
The people they passed by, those walking along the road, now seemed less panicked than earlier, and moved along with a fortitude that Paul was used to seeing in West African, but which always surprised him. The children didn’t cry; the adults never complained, though the sun shone powerfully and dust enveloped them. Everyone moved as quickly as possible, all with solid determination.
Those lucky enough to ride on vehicles kept their eyes away from those on foot, as though they felt their luck unwarranted. The drivers never honked, but waited patiently for people to get out of the way. Because the road was so crowded, most of those with bicycles, and some with mopeds, now walked them. Most of the rest of the mopeds and the few motorcycles moved mainly in the wakes of slow cars and trucks, idling along slowly. As far as he could tell, Paul’s was the only bike built for off-road riding, giving him an advantage over all of the other vehicles.
Cars and trucks that had broken down were pushed from the road by their erstwhile passengers, assisted by those walking by and by passengers in vehicles that would otherwise be blocked. The ex-passengers, without complaint, then began to trek along the others they had before passed so easily. Three or four times, Paul and Sam noticed men who had chosen to stay with their cars, sitting inside them with all doors open to keep them a little cooler, feet hanging outside. Once or twice, they even passed abandoned cars that they recognized from the line at the BP station that morning.
Paul had told Sam, when they had first mounted the bike in Ouahigouya, to pretend he was a sack of potatoes, to keep his feet on the pegs and his hands loosely on Paul’s sides. Sam had been willing. Now, what he wanted most was to drop his hands and close his eyes, be still—and let it all go by and away. As long as they were making progress, as long as they were moving south, he didn’t care, didn’t need to pay attention. He struggled to find the strength to sit still, to have confidence that this would somehow end, to not worry how it would end, just to know that it would. Now, he had managed that. He was glad, though that he could not see much around Paul’s helmet. The views off to the side, too often, were scary enough for someone who knew nothing of this land.
Sam reminded himself again that he was no longer an actor in this drama, at least not one who could have an impact on the scene. He was now only a prop, baggage for what was really Paul’s story. All he could be was the best passenger, the best sack of potatoes, he could be. If he wanted to help them get out of this, at least, he had to simply tag along inobtrusively. He just had to keep faith in Paul. Were he on a 747 and it got into trouble, he told himself, he would have to maintain confidence in the captain. There would be nothing he could do to help; his panic would do nothing to save the plane. It would help no more, here. So, he sat as he had been told, and prayed for time to pass.
They kept going, Paul in front, fighting to keep the bike on course, sweat now seeping through the back of his jean jacket. A couple of times, Sam thought Paul was going to stop, to take a break, but he would suddenly accelerate again, forcing them through whatever ditch or sand patch they were struggling against. The only time they did stop, now, was when the going was easy, and then just for another quick sip or two of water, the men passing the bottle back and forth.
The bike, of course, wasn’t really meant for the weight of the two of them plus their packs and Paul’s tools on the rack. But Paul had been riding it daily for more than a year and understood what could be asked of it. He had paid attention to it, getting to know its limits and vagaries. Now, he knew how much he could push it, knew when to cut back, to let the strain off. Also, he had made sure the night before, there was a new piston as well as another spark-plug among his tools, so he could repair almost any damage he might do to the engine, if it did come to that—though he doubted it would and hoped it would not.
There were times, though, when Paul thought they would stall or fall, or both. Sam, to his relief, continued to remain still and silent on the back, especially when the ground was rough or the road crowded or difficult to negotiate.
So it was that they continued, and the trip continued, though sometimes it seemed that the only thing that was passing was time, for the people they passed seemed the same as the people they’d passed, the countryside they passed identical to that gone by. The road seemed monotonous to both of them, just more of the same after more of the same, he knew that trouble ahead could become trouble now, each kilometer they progressed. Paul wished that he could stop somewhere for a beer or two, but knew that was ridiculous. He didn’t want to go into any town if he didn’t have to, so he just pushed on, and on. Eventually, they passed most of the others fleeing Ouahigouya, finally coming to stretches of road where he could open up the throttle and move them with a little more ease and confidence.
Chapter Twenty-Four can be found here.