While They Sleep

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Action and Adventure  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 15 (v.1) - Lonely At The Top

Submitted: March 21, 2016

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Submitted: March 21, 2016



When Zaya and two men came down the stairs, I knew it was time to go.  Zaya had a set of handcuffs, the others each held a police style baton. 

Zaya said, “You can cooperate, or you can force these men to carry your unconscious body up the stairs.  Which do you prefer?”

Even without the weapons and the chain on my ankle, a three on one fight is a sucker’s bet.  I let the man put the handcuffs on me.  Another morphine injection in the thigh.  By the time we made it out the door, I was already getting woozy. 

It was dark but the skies were clear.  The moon was out.  I could see the peak of Choybalsan Uul in the distance.  Through the haze of the medication, I forced myself to made mental notes about the small house across the gravel road.  The angle of the roof, the size and location of the windows.  The broken slats in the wooden fence.  If I managed to survive and get free, it would not take long to find this place.  

That was the last thought that went through my mind when I laid down in the back of the van.  They covered me with blankets and the drugs kicked in.

I lost track of time, fading in and out of consciousness.  When I started to wake up, I’d feel another jab in my thigh.  I vaguely remember men holding me up by each arm, guiding me into a building.  I slept off the drugs on the floor.

As I woke up, my grogginess was replaced with hunger.  I had not eaten in two days.  Zaya brought me coffee and a plate with mutton, dumplings, and cheese.  He said, “You can eat as much as you like.  You will need your strength.  We will walk the last 10 kilometers to China, through Altai Tavan pass.”

I knew where I was now.  It made sense.  The Tavan Bogd Mountains are on the western edge of the border between Mongolia and China.  The area is extremely inaccessible and sparsely populated.  A perfect place to cross the border unnoticed.

They drove as far up the trail as the vehicle could go.  The rest of the way would be a narrow foot trail.  My hands were cuffed together in front of me.  A rope secured around my waist was tied to a man walking behind me.  There were two men in front, two behind.

Except for occasional instructions from Zaya to the other men, we walked in silence.  The elevation increased as we got closer to the border.  The snow got deeper.  We came around an outcropping and I could see the trail curving across the mountain ahead of us.  Warning signs began flashing in my head.  I’d seen this scenario before.  I shouted, “Zaya!  Avalanche!” and pointed at the slope above the trail.

He stopped and looked for a moment.  He was a man of the mountain and had no doubt seen what happens when a thick sheet of snow breaks loose and starts sliding down an incline.

The five of us tromping over the thick snow ahead of us could easily trigger an avalanche, in my opinion.  We were well above the tree line.  A man caught in a river of snow will fall a long way and can easily be smashed into the many rock outcroppings he will encounter.  Then buried under several meters of freezing snow when he comes to a stop.

Zaya spoke in Mongolian to Idree, the most junior member of his crew.  I didn’t catch all the words but I noted the fear in the young man’s eyes.  He was to be a guinea pig and walk across the avalanche field first, by himself.  If he made it across, the rest would follow.

Idree walked very slowly, and stepped carefully.  He almost made it all the way.  He let out a scream when he heard the cracking sound.  A house sized chunk of snow just above him broke loose.  A tiny avalanche.  But plenty big enough to knock him off his feet and send him tumbling down the steep slope.  When he bounced hard off of a large rock, he stopped screaming.  We lost sight of him amid the fine, powdery snow swirling in the wind. 

More than likely, Idree did not survive his collision with the rock.  That would have been the most merciful outcome.  It would have been nearly impossible for any of us to climb down that slope and find him, much less haul him up to the trail and off to a hospital.

Now the threat was even greater.  Only a portion of the accumulated snow had broken free.  A meter-thick ledge was now unsupported where the chunk had pulled loose.  Just waiting for the next set of footsteps to hatch another avalanche.

When Zaya looked at me and spoke, I sensed a subtle change in his tone of voice.  No doubt he was in shock after seeing his man go down.  There was an undertone of respect in his voice when he asked me, “Would you go across the trail, or detour up to the ridge?” 

That was the question at hand.  Hiking up to the ridge, so the snowfield can be passed from above, was the safest way.  But it would be exhausting and take hours.  It will be near dark by the time we made it to the other side.

I said, “The only way is across the ridge.”  That was only partially true.  I believed I could make it across on the trail, by myself.  But not with these heavy footed men.  They hadn’t spent hundreds of hours tiptoeing around Eastwood’s living room.

That was when the balance of power shifted, just slightly.  I looked at Zaya, held up my handcuffed wrists, and said, “It will be impossible for me to climb the mountain tied up.”  He pulled the key out of his pocket and unlocked me.  He motioned for the other men to untie the rope around my waist.

I decided at that moment.  Before we made it back to the trail, I would either escape from them, kill them, or die trying.

Of the options, killing them was extremely unlikely.  I was outnumbered 3 to 1 on manpower and 3 to 0 on firearms.  Dying could occur for a variety of reasons, none of which appealed to me.  As we ascended the mountain, I thought about what it would take for me to escape.  Before they shoot me.  Not a trivial task given the circumstances. 

We were several hundred meters below the ridge line.  There was no trail.  Just snow, ice, and rock.  The footing was treacherous, and we did not have proper climbing equipment.  One wrong move and a man would probably not survive the fall.

Zaya was ahead of me, the other two men trailed behind.  I could hear their labored breathing.  For countless centuries, Mongolians have adapted to life in cold weather.  They tend to be shorter and have more body fat than European-Americans such as myself.  My tall, slender frame will not keep me as warm in these conditions as theirs does.  But these men are no match for me when it comes to speed or cardiac endurance.  I paced myself and focused on breathing as we approached the summit.

When Zaya reached the peak, he sat down.  He was breathing hard and not even looking at me as I approached. 

It had been more than a month since he and his men had captured me.  In that entire time, I had not made any attempt to escape or defy him.  For just a moment, he let his guard down.  It was my chance.

The other two men were still on the slope below us.  Zaya realized too late that he was seated, and I was on my feet, approaching him.  Just as he stood, and attempted to get his rifle off of his shoulder, I dove at him.

We were both going for the rifle.  My goal was to wrestle it away from him, then either shoot him or push him down the steep slope. 

He was winded and I caught him off guard.  But Zaya was stronger than me.  After a few seconds of wrestling, I realized I was not going to quickly separate him from the AK-47.  The other men heard him shout when I attacked, and would be at the peak in a few seconds.  I made one last desperation move.

We each had our hands on the rifle and were face to face, rolling around on the narrow peak.  I arched my back as hard as I could, and rolled to my right.  That pulled him on top of me.  I kept turning, then let go of the rifle and pushed him as hard as I could.  We were on the edge and he let out a shout as he began to slide down the slope. 

I couldn’t see him but I heard him yelling to the other men.  He hadn’t fallen to his death as I hoped.  I had moments to act before the other men reached the peak.  I stood and looked down the opposite slope.  There was a narrow ledge about twenty meters below me.  It was the moment of truth.  I willed myself to relax, then jumped and started sliding down the slope.  I hit hard when I reached the ledge, but came to a stop. 

Now my survival depended on angles.  Bullets travel in straight lines.  The mountain curved slightly inward to my right.  I shimmied in that direction, and flattened myself out of the slope.  I spread-eagled like I wanted to make a snow angel.

I looked up toward the peak.  I could hear the men shouting at each other.  But I couldn’t see them.Which meant they couldn’t see me.  Or shoot me.

The sound of Zaya’s voice confirmed that he had only slid a short distance when I pushed him off the peak.  Had I succeeded in killing or disabling him, I was certain the other men would not pursue me.  It had not taken me long to write them off as simple minded followers.  Not leaders, or men who walk alone.

But Zaya was still around and the game continued.

I made out the Mongolian word for “rope.”  I could hear Gerel breathing hard and talking to the others as he made his way down to the ledge.  I knew I had to keep moving.

Another 30 meters to the right was a slight vertical ridge.  If I was beyond that, Gerel would not be able to see me when he got down to the ledge.  That was as far as he would be able to go with the rope.  After that he would be on the same treacherous footing as I was. 

Years ago, Eastwood taught me his version of the bear crawl technique.  A way to move quickly, on uneven terrain or a steep incline, and remain close to the ground.  Once I had mastered that, I was able to stay below his relentless paintball shots and crawl to safety. 

By the time Gerel made it to the ledge, I was on the other side of the ridge.  He could see my tracks, but not me.  I couldn’t make out the conversation between him and Zaya.  But it was obvious, he didn’t want to come after me.  Zaya’s tone of voice made it clear there would be trouble if he did not continue.

Despite my disadvantage regarding weapons, I felt I already had won the psychological part of the battle.  My opponent wanted to quit.  I was just getting started good.  But one should never bring empty hands to a gunfight.  I needed an edge.

While Gerel crawled, very slowly, towards me, I began making a snowball.  I packed a fist sized ball of snow as tight as I could.  Then I placed it in my armpit.  I squeezed my arm against my chest.  My body heat began melting the snow.  I took it out and packed it tighter.  The layer that had partially melted refroze when I applied pressure to it.  I had a much denser, harder snowball.  I packed more snow around the ball and repeated the process.

I now had a rock hard ball of ice that fit in my fist perfectly.  I flattened out on the slope, just beyond the bulge.  I could hear Gerel breathing as he neared me.  When I heard him pause, I knew he was about to raise up to his knees and get his rifle into shooting position.  It was go time.

I sprang up and lunged toward him.  The rifle was off his shoulder and he was trying to point it at me.  I swung my arm.  The iceball shattered against his cheek.  He went face first into the snow.  I fell on top of him and we both slid a few meters down the slope.  I pulled the rifle out from under him and dove back across the ridge. 

During the brief melee, I was exposed to the men standing on the peak.  As I jumped, a hail of bullets went over my head.  I flattened out, below their line of fire.

We were now at a standstill.  The man closest to me was unconscious.  The two men on the ridge could not see me unless I raised up.  I could hear Zaya arguing with his companion.  Khulan was refusing to climb down after me.  Gerel was moaning and coming to.  I heard the snow crunch as he put his weight on his hands and sat up.  I decided to act before he remembered where he was.

I popped up, put two bullets in his chest, and flattened out again.  As before, the bullets from above were too late and sailed above me.  Gerel wasn’t moving or making any noises.  I also didn’t hear any more talk from above.

Under the circumstances, the 30 meters that separated Zaya from myself might as well have been 30 kilometers.  If either of the remaining men attempted to climb down, I would hear them and they would be an easy target. 

It was less than an hour to sunset.  Anyone caught in the open, above the tree line, would not survive the night.  Zaya and Khulan could keep me pinned down, but only if they stayed on the ridge.  Then we would all freeze to death together. 

They could set up a tent and survive the cold.  From inside a tent they would not see me when I climb down the mountain. 

If he had learned anything about me, Zaya should know I would freeze to death before I would let him put his hands on me again.  I was hoping he realized he had been defeated.

I laid there and listened for half an hour.  No human sounds from above.  I took off my hat, draped it over the end of the rifle, and slowly raised it up, enough to be seen if there was anyone still around to look.  Nothing.  I popped up in a kneeling position and swept the rifle sights across the ridge line.  Nothing.

I carefully crawled to the dead man, doing my best to keep the rifle pointed at the ridge.  With one hand, I pulled off his backpack and slung it over my shoulder.  I would need any help I could get to survive the coming night.

As I made my way down the slope, the terrain gradually flattened out enough for me to walk upright.  It was dark and bitterly cold by the time I reached the tree line.  There were matches and a hand axe in the backpack.  I gathered wood for a fire.  I made a quick shelter underneath the branches of a tree that had fallen over.  I put on all the clothes that were in the pack, curled up on the ground in front of the flames, and slept.

© Copyright 2018 Serge Wlodarski. All rights reserved.


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