Authors: Ben Coes
Jessica stared for a moment longer, then shut her eyes. She fought to keep the emotion from taking over her thoughts. Sometimes she wished she had never met Dewey, because at times like this, for no reason, he would enter her thoughts and just not leave them, sometimes for days. How many times had she been set up on dates, the beautiful, single national security advisor; dates with diplomats and corporate heavyweights, congressmen, and even a recently divorced senator. Each date, every chauffeured limousine, every starlit evening as she sat miserably across from one of them at a restaurant, or next to them at the Kennedy Center, every time, all she could think about was him.
she asked herself. But she knew the answer.
Jessica felt her eyes becoming moist. She bit down on her lip. She wiped her eyes with her hands. She returned the frame to her desk drawer. Shutting her eyes, she steeled herself away from her feelings. She leaned forward and pressed the green button on her phone console.
“Yes, Jessica,” the voice of her assistant said over the speakerphone.
“Get me Indra Singh, India’s minister of defense. He’s at his beach house in Goa. Tell him it’s urgent.”
By midnight, the rains had thoroughly drenched Dewey, Deravelle, and the runaway mare. Dewey had lost all sense of where he was, with the stars hidden behind lightning-crossed clouds.
The rain had begun more than four hours before and, except for one brief ten-minute stretch, had not let up. He’d put on his long wax raincoat, but was, nevertheless, soaked from head to toe. The water poured down off the brim of his cowboy hat in an unremitting deluge. The one saving grace was the warm temperature, which remained in the eighties. A little cooler and he would have had to pull up somewhere beneath a rock outcrop and build a fire.
He had led Deravelle and the mare straight north to the long granite butte during the last light of dusk. As the first torrential rains began to pour down from the sky, Dewey moved around the butte to a wide-open valley to the north. There he’d searched in the square mile west of the canyon for any signs of life by moving in parallel lines, east to west, then back again, using the lightning strikes to illuminate the area in front of him. The rain had erased any vestiges of the mare’s tracks into the canyon and the ground was a wet, shapeless mess of wild grass and mud, rivulets of dirt forming into small streams.
The one fact Dewey recalled about Chasvur was that it was north of Sembler. It was a well-known station, an estate really, a gentleman’s ranch, beautiful stone with white pillars and a stunning green lawn that swept down to the ocean a few dozen miles above Cooktown. Dewey had seen photographs of it in Cooktown—framed and hanging at different restaurants and bars, showing off it and the other landmarks of Queensland. In the early hours, Dewey had focused his search toward the north. But after a time, he came up against the ineluctable fact that Mother Nature had outgunned him. Without the stars, he didn’t know which direction was actually north.
By midnight, he found himself capable of focusing on three things and three things only: calming Deravelle and the mare every time the lightning crossed the sky and sent panic through the horses; searching the two-foot arc visible in front of him; and, in the moments just after a lightning strike, doing a quick scan of the terrain, searching for something, for someone, for anything that might be out there.
In retrospect, perhaps he should have gone back to Sembler Station, called over to Chasvur and let them handle the whole affair. By the time the people at Chasvur realized their horse and rider had gone missing, it would have been too late to do anything. Maybe an earlier call from Dewey would have let them get a decent-sized search party out before all visibility was lost. Then again, maybe the fact that Dewey hadn’t encountered a search party meant the horse was alone and the rider was safe. That’s at least what he hoped for.
The odd thing was, the more overwhelming the odds of finding someone, the more convinced Dewey became that someone was out there.
He thought back to his training, first Ranger school, then the year and a half he spent training to be Delta. Survival, they taught you, was about perseverance, calm, and self-reliance. Outsiders always thought that being Delta had to do with what you were capable of doing with a weapon and a team. It was the opposite: being Delta was about what you did when you had nothing.
If you think you have nothing, then you do, and that’s when you’re defeated.
Day one at Fort Bragg: Dewey and twenty-nine other young, carefully selected GIs were assembled in a windowless conference room.
“Welcome to Delta,” a man in plainclothes he never saw again said. “Put everything you have in your locker and be at the tarmac in five minutes.”
An hour flight in the back of a Hercules to south Florida, dropped into the Everglades, separated from the others by miles of gator and snake-filled swamp, armed with a knife and nothing else.
Twelve of the thirty recruits in Dewey’s class had to be rescued. One got bit by a cottonmouth snake. Another broke his femur trying to get away from an alligator. One of his classmates drowned. Of the ten who made it through, four more dropped out the day they got back to Fort Bragg.
Dewey spent the week in the crotch of an eucalyptus tree, staring at alligators. During the day, he speared the occasional fish with a harpoon he’d carved out of a branch. By day four, he was so hungry and tired that he would eat sunfish, mullets, and shiners raw. At night, he’d tie his wrist to a branch with one of his shoelaces and try to sleep; the lace acted like an alarm clock, waking him up if he started to fall off the tree branch into the dark, alligator-infested water below.
Then, as now, it wasn’t about stratagem. It was about buying time and hunkering down.
A huge lightning strike exploded in the sky, turning the black air into white light. To the left of him, he saw the edge of a giant slab of gray, black, and white rock.
Was it the north side of the butte that he’d passed so many hours ago?
He pushed Deravelle forward as blackness returned.
The lightning exploded again. He looked at the ground. For a moment, he saw the same empty plot of land, the lifeless plain of mud dotted with small green shrubs as far as the light allowed him to see. Then, it all changed. As if in a dream, a small, white ghostlike apparition arose in a hillock just a few feet in front of Dewey and the horses. What he saw caused him to jerk backwards in his saddle. There in front of him, less than ten feet away, was a body lying on the muddy ground.
Dewey climbed down from the saddle. He stepped toward the body, then got down on his hands and knees. He crawled, sweeping his hands along the ground as the rain poured down on top of his back. He felt the heel of a boot, then a small, thin leg beneath wet denim, bare skin above the waist, a thin T-shirt, then the back of a head. It was a young girl, long hair, facedown in the mud. Dewey turned her over and brushed the mud from her face. She was cold to the touch.
She had to be dead, yet despite that he spoke again.
“It’s gonna be okay.”
Lightning hit again, a distant strike. In the light he saw the face of the young girl. She had a long, pretty nose. A deep gash cut across her forehead, down to bone.
He felt her neck for a pulse. There was nothing there. He moved his ear to her chest; then he heard it: the faint rhythm of a heartbeat.
He unzipped his coat, reached down, picked up the girl, and pulled her against his chest. For several minutes, Dewey remained on his knees, clutching the cold body against his chest, trying to warm her.
He had to think. She needed help. She needed the kind of help Dewey couldn’t provide out here. She needed a hospital and a surgeon. Yet Dewey didn’t even know where he was or what direction was home. He knew he needed to go east, to the coast. But if he guessed wrong and went west, any chance of saving her would be lost.
The rain fell in horizontal sheets. He glanced at his watch. One
He was more than five hours away from the first light of day.
He held the child’s damaged head against his heart, her wispy torso pressed against his big chest, trying to warm the young girl’s body, trying to think.
For the next twenty minutes, Dewey cradled the young girl in his arms, covering her in the folds of the wax coat. She now had a faint pulse and was breathing, but she was in deep shock. Her body felt lifeless and cold.
The rain continued to pour down. With each lightning strike, Dewey searched for a landmark in the distance, but saw nothing to guide him. In every direction, the quick snapshot the lightning allowed was shrub-covered flatland and the tall butte looming over them.
He knew staying there wasn’t an option, not if the little girl was going to survive.
“Think, goddamn it, think,” he whispered to himself.
The lightning struck again. This time Dewey looked behind him, searching for something, anything, to help guide him. Instead of looking at the valley this time, Dewey found himself studying the tall stone butte. He stared at it as the lightning faded. He realized what he needed to do to save the girl.
Dewey climbed back on top of Deravelle, holding the girl tightly against his chest with his left hand. He pressed his boots into Deravelle’s side. They moved forward until, a few minutes later, in the ambient light, Deravelle stopped just inches from the edge of the butte. Looking up, Dewey saw a wall of craggy rock in the dim light.
He climbed down from the stallion. Holding the girl against his chest, he knelt down and searched along the base of the butte for a place to put the girl. He found an overhang, big enough to keep water from falling onto her. He took off his coat, wrapped her inside it, then placed her on the ground. It was raining more heavily than it had all night.
A furious smash of lightning tore across the sky and Dewey’s eyes shot up. He surveyed the side of the rock; gray and black, craggy, reaching up into the black sky. Then darkness came again, followed by a low, loud thunderclap a few miles away.
Dewey placed his right hand out in front of him and felt the rock face. He found a short seam in the granite a couple of feet above his head. He put the fingers from both hands into the seam, and with his right boot felt for a hard edge. He found one waist-high, a couple of feet to the right. He stepped onto the edge while he lifted himself up with his fingers. He stood on the small edge, all his weight on his right foot, holding the seam of rock with both hands. He removed his left hand and searched for a higher crack in the rock to grab on to. He found one a foot and a half directly above the first seam. Then he felt with his left boot for another hard edge. He found a small cut-in and put his left toe on it. He took another step up the rock face as water poured down. Standing for a moment on his left foot, holding himself aloft with his left hand, he searched with his right hand. He found a sharp piece of rock jutting out like a dull knife. He tested the rock to make sure it would hold. He lifted himself up the rock face yet again.
He didn’t think about the butte. He didn’t think about how tall it was, how much farther he had to climb, how long it would take to climb, or how he would get back down. He didn’t even think about the little girl, dying a slow death inside his Filson wax coat. He thought only about the next step, the next hard edge, the next foot and a half up the rock face.
Methodically, Dewey ascended the jagged wall of rock. His arms and legs burned. His fingers became raw. But he ignored the pain and moved up the rock face, knowing that one slip and he would fall to his death, knowing that a little girl’s life depended on him.
Foot by foot, he moved higher until he could hear, somewhere above him, a different noise; it was the pattern of rain splashing on rock. The lightning struck and he looked down. He was at least a hundred and fifty feet up the cliff face. He had a surprising moment then, not of fear, but rather pride at the accomplishment.
He glimpsed Deravelle and the mare, the small dark bundle, then it went dark. At some point, as he went to reach and lift himself higher, the rock wasn’t there. He found only empty air. He’d reached the top of the butte. Dewey pulled himself up. He crawled several feet, then collapsed on the ground. Every inch of his arms and legs burned. He was breathing as fast as if he’d just gone for a ten-mile run. After a minute, he sat up. Other than the flat area within a foot of where he sat, Dewey couldn’t see a thing. But he waited. The first minute turned into a second minute, then a third, then a fifth, until eventually he lost track of time, waiting.
“Come on,” he whispered into the driving rain.
Finally, the lightning struck. In the brief seconds he had, Dewey searched the horizon in every direction. In the distance, he saw a landmark: the coast. He made out the bulbous outline of treetops and a cluster of lights. That was all. But it was enough. It had to be enough. He memorized the location and charted the direction from the butte in his mind.
The light faded and a thunderclap detonated somewhere to the west. Dewey crawled back toward the edge of the butte, feeling his way with raw fingertips through the darkness.
By sunset, the villagers of Yagulung had cleared the bodies from the café.
The dead villager, a man named Artun, was carried to his small wood home, where his wife prepared him for burial.
A debate had ensued as to what to do with the corpses of the soldiers. Should they be buried? Cremated? Should they carry the bodies to the far side of the mountain and throw them into a crevice? But calmer heads prevailed. It was decided they would hand the dead soldiers over to the Pakistani Army. But they would not do anything until the Northern Command arrived.
The entire village, about one hundred people in all, was gathered in the dirt road in front of the café. A sense of shock, and fear, reverberated through the denizens of the small village.
As the bodies were being cleaned, Aquil-eh saddled up the village’s only horse to ride south toward Pullu.