ELLIS WAS FRUSTRATED, impatient and angry. He was frustrated because he had been in the Five Lions Valley for seven days and still had not met Masud. He was impatient because it was a daily purgatory for him to see Jane and Jean-Pierre living together and working together and sharing the pleasure of their happy little baby girl. And he was angry because he and nobody else had got himself into this wretched situation.
They had said he would meet Masud today, but the great man had not shown up so far. Ellis had walked all day yesterday to get here. He was at the southwestern end of the Five Lions Valley, in Russian territory. He had left Banda accompanied by three guerrillas - Ali Ghanim, Matullah Khan and Yussuf Gul - but they had accumulated two or three more at each village, and now they were thirty altogether. They sat in a circle, underneath a fig tree near the top of a hill, eating figs and waiting.
At the foot of the hill on which they sat, a flattish plain began and stretched south - all the way to Kabul, in fact, although that was fifty miles away and they could not see it. In the same direction, but much closer, was the Bagram air base, just ten miles away: its buildings were not visible, but they could see the occasional jet rising into the air. The plain was a fertile mosaic of fields and orchards, criss-crossed with streams all feeding into the Five Lions River as it flowed, wider and deeper now but just as fast, toward the capital city. A rough road ran past the foot of the hill and went up the Valley as far as the town of Rokha, which was the northernmost limit of Russian territory here. There was not much traffic on the road: a few peasant carts and an occasional armored car. Where the road crossed the river there was a new Russian-built bridge.
Ellis was going to blow up the bridge.
The lessons in explosives, which he was giving in order to mask for as long as possible his real mission, were hugely popular, and he had been obliged to limit the numbers attending. This was despite his hesitant Dari. He remembered a little Farsi from Teheran, and he had picked up a lot of Dari on his way here with the convoy, so that he could talk about the landscape, food, horses and weapons, but he still could not say such things as The indentation in the explosive material has the effect of focusing the blast. Nevertheless the idea of blowing things up appealed so much to the Afghan machismo that he always had an attentive audience. He could not teach them the formulas for calculating the amount of TNT required for a job, or even show them how to use his idiot-proof U.S. Army computing tape, for none of them had done elementary-school arithmetic and most of them could not read. Nevertheless he was able to show them how to destroy things more decisively and at the same time use less materiel - which was very important to them, for all ordnance was in short supply. He had also tried to get them to adopt basic safety precautions, but in this he had failed: to them caution was cowardly.
Meanwhile he was tortured by Jane.
He was jealous when he saw her touch Jean-Pierre; he was envious when he saw the two of them in the cave clinic, working together so efficiently and harmoniously; and he was consumed by lust when he caught a glimpse of Jane's swollen breast as she fed her baby. He would lie awake at night, under his sleeping bag in the house of Ismael Gul, where he was staying, and he would turn constantly, sometimes sweating and sometimes shivering, unable to get comfortable on the floor of packed earth, trying not to hear the muffled sounds of Ismael and his wife making love a few yards away in the next room; and the palms of his hands seemed to itch to touch Jane.
He had nobody to blame but himself for all this. He had volunteered for the mission in the foolish hope that he might win Jane back. It was unprofessional, as well as immature. All he could do was get out of here as quickly as possible.
And he could do nothing until he met Masud.
He stood up and walked around restlessly, careful nonetheless to stay in the shade of the tree so that he would not be visible from the road. A few yards away there was a mass of twisted metal where a helicopter had crashed. He saw a thin piece of steel about the size and shape of a dinner plate, and that gave him an idea. He had been wondering how to demonstrate the effect of shaped charges and now he saw a way.
He took from his kitbag a small, flat piece of TNT and a pocketknife. The guerrillas clustered closer around him. Among them was Ali Ghanim, a small, misshapen man - twisted nose, deformed teeth, and a slightly hunched back - who was said to have fourteen children. Ellis carved the name Ali into the TNT in Persian script. He showed it to them. Ali recognized his name. "Ali," he said, grinning and showing his hideous teeth.
Ellis placed the explosive, carved side down, on the piece of steel. "I hope this works," he said with a smile, and they all smiled back, although none of them spoke English. He took a coil of blasting fuse from his capacious bag and cut off a four-foot length. He got out his cap box, took a blasting cap and inserted the end of the fuse into the cylindrical cap. He taped the cap to the TNT.
He looked down the hill to the road. He could see no traffic. He carried his little bomb across the hillside and put it down about fifty yards away. He lit the fuse with a match, then walked back to the fig tree.
The fuse was slow-burning. Ellis wondered, while he waited, whether Masud was having him watched and weighed up by the other guerrillas. Was the leader waiting for assurance that Ellis was a serious person whom the
guerrillas could respect? Protocol was always important in an army, even a revolutionary one. But Ellis could not pussyfoot around much longer. If Masud did not show today, Ellis would have to drop all this explosives nonsense, confess to being an envoy from the White House, and demand a meeting with the rebel leader immediately.
There was an unimpressive bang and a small cloud of dust. The guerrillas looked disappointed at such a feeble blast. Ellis retrieved the piece of metal, using his scarf to hold it in case it was hot. The name AH was cut through it in ragged-edge letters of Persian script. He showed it to the guerrillas, and they burst into excited chatter. Ellis was pleased: it was a vivid demonstration of the point that the explosive was more powerful where it was indented, contrary to what common sense would suggest.
The guerrillas suddenly went quiet. Ellis looked around and saw another group of seven or eight men approaching over the hill. Their rifles and round Chitrali caps marked them as guerrillas. As they came nearer, AH stiffened, almost as if he were about to salute. Ellis said: "Who is it?"
"Masud," Ali replied.
"Which one is he?"
"The one in the middle."
Ellis studied the central figure in the group. Masud looked just like the others at first: a thin man of average height, dressed in khaki clothes and Russian boots. Ellis scrutinized his face. He was light-skinned, with a sparse moustache and the wispy beard of a teenager. He had a long nose with a hooked point. His alert dark eyes were surrounded by heavy lines which made him look at least five years older than his reputed age of twenty-eight. It was not a handsome face, but there was in it an air of lively intelligence and calm authority that distinguished him from the men around him.
He came directly to Ellis with his hand outstretched. "I am Masud."
"Ellis Thaler." Ellis shook his hand.
"We're going to blow up this bridge," Masud said in French.
"You want to get started?"
Ellis packed his equipment into his kitbag while Masud went around the group of guerrillas, shaking hands with some, nodding to others, embracing one or two, speaking a few words to each.
When they were ready they went down the hill in a straggle, hoping - Ellis presumed - that if they were seen they would be taken for a group of peasants rather than a unit of the rebel army. When they reached the foot of the hill they were no longer visible from the road, although anyone overhead in a helicopter would have noticed them: Ellis presumed they would take cover if they heard a chopper. They headed for the river, following a footpath through the cultivated fields. They passed several small houses and were seen by the people working in the fields, some of whom ignored them studiously while others waved and called out greetings. The guerrillas reached the river and walked along its bank, gaining what cover they could from the boulders and sparse vegetation at the water's edge. When they were about three hundred yards from the bridge, a small convoy of army trucks began to cross it, and they all hid while the vehicles rumbled by, heading for Rokha. Ellis lay beneath a willow tree and found Masud beside him. "If we destroy the bridge," Masud said, "we will cut their supply line to Rokha."
After the trucks had gone they waited a few minutes, then walked the rest of the way to the bridge and clustered beneath, invisible from the road.
At its midpoint the bridge was twenty feet above the river, which seemed to be about ten feet deep here. Ellis saw that it was a simple stringer bridge - two long steel girders, or stringers, supporting a flat slab of concrete road and stretching from one bank to the other without intermediate support. The concrete was dead load - the girders took the strain. Break them and the bridge was ruined.
Ellis set about his preparations. His TNT was in one-
pound yellow blocks. He made a stack of ten blocks and taped them together. Then he made three more identical stacks, using all his explosive. He was using TNT because that was the substance most often found in bombs, shells, mines and hand grenades, and the guerrillas got most of their supplies from unexploded Russian ordnance. Plastic explosive would have been more suitable for their needs, for it could be stuffed into holes, wrapped around girders and generally molded into any shape required - but they had to work with the materials they could find and steal. They could occasionally get a little plastique from the Russian engineers by trading it for marijuana grown in the Valley, but the transaction - which involved intermediaries in the Afghan regular army - was risky and supplies were limited. All this Ellis had been told by the CIA's man in Peshawar, and it had turned out to be right.
The girders above him were I-beams spaced about eight feet apart. Ellis said in Dan: "Somebody find me a stick this long," indicating the space between the beams. One of the guerrillas walked along the riverbank and uprooted a young tree. "I need another one just the same," Ellis said.
He put a stack of TNT on the lower lip of one of the I-beams and asked a guerrilla to hold it in place. He put another stack on the other I-beam in a similar position; then he forced the young tree between the two stacks so that it kept them both where they were.
He waded through the river and did exactly the same at the other end of the bridge.
He described everything he was doing in a mixture of Dari, French and English, letting them pick up what they could - the most important thing was for them to see what he was doing, and its results. He fused the charges with Primacord, the high-explosive detonating cord that burned at 21,000 feet per second, and he connected the four stacks so that they would explode simultaneously. He then made a ring main by looping the Primacord back on itself. The effect, he explained to Masud in French, would be that the cord burned down to the TNT from both ends, so that if somehow the cable was severed in one place the bomb
would still go off. He recommended this as a routine precaution.
He felt oddly happy as he worked. There was something soothing about mechanical tasks and the dispassionate calculation of poundage of explosive. And now that Masud had shown up at last, he could get on with his mission.
He trailed the Primacord through the water so that it was less visible - it would burn perfectly well underwater - and brought it out onto the riverbank. He attached a blasting cap to the end of the Primacord, then added a four-minute length of ordinary, slow-burning blasting fuse.
"Ready?" he said to Masud.
Masud said: "Yes."
Ellis lit the fuse.
They all walked away briskly, heading upstream along the riverbank. Ellis felt a certain secret boyish glee about the enormous bang he was about to create. The others seemed excited, too, and he wondered whether he was as bad at concealing his enthusiasm as they were. It was while he was looking at them in this way that their expressions altered dramatically, and they all became alert suddenly, like birds listening for worms in the ground; and then Ellis heard it - the distant rumble of tank tracks.
The road was not visible from where they were, but one of the guerrillas quickly shinned up a tree. "Two," he reported.
Masud took Ellis's arm. "Can you destroy the bridge while the tanks are on it?" he said.
Oh, shit, thought Ellis; this is a test. "Yes," he said rashly.
Masud nodded, smiling faintly. "Good."
Ellis scrambled up the tree alongside the guerrilla and looked across the fields. There were two black tanks trundling heavily along the narrow stony road from Kabul. He felt very tense: this was his first sight of the enemy. With their armor plating and their enormous guns they looked invulnerable, especially by contrast with the ragged guerrillas and their rifles; and yet the Valley was littered with
the remains of tanks the guerrillas had destroyed with homemade mines, well-placed grenades and stolen rockets.
There were no other vehicles with the tanks. It was not a patrol, then, or a raiding party; the tanks were probably being delivered to Rokha after being repaired at Bagram, or perhaps they had just arrived from the Soviet Union.
He began calculating.
The tanks were going at about ten miles per hour, so they would reach the bridge in a minute and a half. The fuse had been burning for less than a minute: it had at least three minutes to go. At present the tanks would be across the bridge and a safe distance away before the explosion. He had to shorten the fuse.
He dropped from the tree and started to run, thinking: How the hell many years is it since the last time I was in a combat zone?
He heard footsteps behind him and glanced back. Ali was running right behind him, grinning horribly, and two more men were close on his heels. The others were taking cover along the riverbank.
A moment later he reached the bridge and dropped to one knee beside his slow-burning fuse, slipping the kitbag off his shoulder as he did so. He continued to calculate while he fumbled the bag open and rooted around for his pocketknife. The tanks were now a minute away, he thought. Blasting fuse burned at the rate of a foot every thirty to forty-five seconds. Was this particular reel slow, average or fast? He seemed to recall that it was fast. Say a foot, then, for a thirty-second delay. In thirty seconds he could run about a hundred and fifty yards - enough for safety, just barely.
He opened the pocketknife and handed it to Ali, who had knelt down beside him. Ellis grabbed the fuse wire at a point a foot from where it was joined to the blasting cap, and held it with both hands for Ali to cut. He held the severed end in his left hand and the burning fuse in his right. He was not sure whether it was time yet to relight the severed end. He had to see how far away the tanks were.
He scrambled up the embankment, still holding both pieces of fuse wire. Behind him, the Primacord trailed in the river. He poked his head up over the parapet of the bridge. The great black tanks rolled steadily closer. How soon? He was guessing wildly. He counted seconds, measuring their progress; and then, not calculating but hoping for the best, he put the burning end of the disconnected blasting fuse to the cut end that was still connected with the bombs.
He put the burning fuse down carefully on the ground and started to run.
Ali and the other two guerrillas followed him.
At first they were hidden from the tanks by the river bank, but as the tanks came closer the four running men were clearly visible. Ellis was counting slow seconds as the rumble of the tanks turned into a roar.
The gunners in the tanks hesitated only momentarily: Afghans running away could be presumed to be guerrillas, and therefore suitable for target practice. There was a double boom and two shells flew over Ellis's head. He changed direction, running off to the side, away from the river, thinking: The gunner adjusts his range . . . now he swings the barrel toward me ... he aims . . . now. He dodged again, veering back toward the river, and a second later heard another boom. The shell landed close enough to spatter him with earth and stones. The next one will hit me, he thought, unless the damn bomb goes off first. Shit. Why did I have to show Masud how fucking macho I am? Then he heard a machine gun open up. It's hard to aim straight from a moving tank, he thought; but perhaps they will stop. He visualized the spray of machine-gun bullets waving toward him, and he began to bob and weave. He realized all of a sudden that he could guess exactly what the Russians would do: they would stop the tanks where they got the clearest view of the fleeing guerrillas, and that would be on the bridge. But would the bomb go off before the machine gunners hit their targets? He ran harder, his heart pounding and his breath coming in great gulps. I don't want to die, even if she loves him, he thought. He
saw bullets chip a boulder almost in his path. He swerved suddenly, but the stream of fire followed him. It seemed hopeless: he was an easy target. He heard one of the guerrillas behind him cry out, then he was hit, twice in succession he felt a burning pain across his hip, then an impact, like a heavy blow, in his right buttock. The second slug paralyzed his leg momentarily, and he stumbled and fell, bruising his chest, then rolled over onto his back. He sat up, ignoring the pain, and tried to move. The two tanks had stopped on the bridge. Ali, who had been right behind him, now put his hands under Ellis's armpits and tried to lift him. The pair of them were sitting ducks: the gunners in the tanks could not miss.
Then the bomb went off.
It was beautiful.
The four simultaneous explosions sheared the bridge at both ends, leaving the midsection - with two tanks on it - totally unsupported. At first it fell slowly, its broken ends grinding; then it came free and dropped, spectacularly, into the rushing river, landing flat with a monster splash. The waters parted majestically, leaving the river bed visible for a moment, then came together again with a sound like a thunderclap.
When the noise died away, Ellis heard the guerrillas cheering.
Some of them emerged from cover and ran toward the half-submerged tanks. Ali lifted Ellis to his feet. The feeling returned to his legs in a rush, and he realized that he was hurting. "I'm not sure I can walk," he said to Ali in Dari. He took a step, and would have fallen if Ali had not been holding him. "Oh, shit," Ellis said in English. "I think I've got a bullet in my ass."
He heard shots. Looking up, he saw the surviving Russians trying to escape from the tanks, and the guerrillas picking them off as they emerged. They were cold-blooded bastards, these Afghans. Looking down, he saw that the right leg of his trousers was soaked with blood. That would be from the surface wound, he surmised: he felt that the bullet was still plugging the other wound.
Masud came up to him, smiling broadly. "That was well done, the bridge," he said in his heavily accented French. "Magnificent!"
"Thanks," said Ellis. "But I didn't come here to blow up bridges." He felt weak and a little dizzy, but now was the time to state his business. "I came to make a deal."
Masud looked at him curiously. "Where are you from?"
"Washington. The White House. I represent the President of the United States."
Masud nodded, unsurprised. "Good. I'm glad."
It was at that moment that Ellis fainted.
He made his pitch to Masud that night.
The guerrillas rigged up a stretcher and carried him up the Valley to Astana, where they stopped at dusk. Masud had already sent a runner on to Banda to fetch Jean-Pierre, who would arrive sometime tomorrow to take the bullet out of Ellis's backside. Meanwhile they all settled down in the courtyard of a farmhouse. Ellis's pain had dulled, but the journey had made him weaker. The guerrillas had put primitive dressings on his wounds.
An hour or so after arrival he was given hot, sweet green tea, which revived him somewhat, and a little later they all had mulberries and yogurt for supper. It was usually like mat with the guerrillas, Ellis had observed while traveling with the convoy from Pakistan to the Valley: an hour or two after they arrived somewhere, food would appear. Ellis did not know whether they bought it, commandeered it, or received it as a gift, but he guessed that it was given to them free, sometimes willingly and sometimes reluctantly.
When they had eaten, Masud sat near Ellis, and in the next few minutes most of the other guerrillas casually moved off, leaving Masud and two of his lieutenants alone with Ellis. Ellis knew he had to talk to Masud now, for there might not be another chance for a week. Yet he felt too feeble and exhausted for this subtle and difficult task.
Masud said: "Many years ago, a foreign country asked the King of Afghanistan for five hundred warriors to help
in a war. The Afghan king sent five men from our Valley, with a message saying that it is better to have five lions than five hundred foxes. This is how our Valley came to be called the Valley of the Five Lions." He smiled. "You were a lion today."
Ellis said. "I heard a legend saying there used to be five great warriors, known as the Five Lions, each of whom guarded one of the five ways into the Valley. And I heard that this is why they call you the Sixth Lion."
"Enough of legends," Masud said with a smile. "What do you have to tell me?"
Ellis had rehearsed this conversation, and in his script it did not begin so abruptly. Clearly, Oriental indirection was not Masud's style. Ellis said: "I have first to ask you for your assessment of the war.''
Masud nodded, thought for a few seconds and said: ''The Russians have twelve thousand troops in the town of Rokha, the gateway to the Valley. Their dispositions are as always: first minefields, then Afghan troops, then Russian troops to stop the Afghans running away. They are expecting another twelve hundred men as reinforcements. They plan to launch a major offensive up the Valley within two weeks. Their aim is to destroy our forces."
Ellis wondered how Masud got such precise intelligence, but he was not so tactless as to ask. Instead he said: "And will the offensive succeed?"
"No," said Masud with quiet confidence. "When they attack, we melt into the hills, so there is no one here for them to fight. When they stop, we harass them from the high ground and cut their lines of communication. Gradually we wear them down. They find themselves spending vast resources to hold territory which gives them no military advantage. Finally they retreat. It is always so."
It was a textbook account of guerrilla war, Ellis reflected. There was no question that Masud could teach the other tribal leaders a lot. "How long do you think the Russians can go on making such futile attacks?"
Masud shrugged. "It is in God's hands."
"Will you ever be able to drive them out of your country?"
"The Vietnamese drove the Americans out," Masud said with a smile.
"I know - I was there," said Ellis. "Do you know how they did it?"
"One important factor, in my opinion, is that the Vietnamese were receiving from the Russians supplies of the most modern weapons, especially portable surface-to-air missiles. This is the only way guerrilla forces can fight back against aircraft and helicopters."
"I agree," said Ellis. "More important, the United States government agrees. We would like to help you get hold of better weapons. But we would need to see you make real progress against your enemy with those weapons. The American people like to see what they're getting for their money. How soon do you think the Afghan resistance will be able to launch unified, countrywide assaults on the Russians, the way the Vietnamese did toward the end of the war?"
Masud shook his head dubiously. "The unification of the Resistance is at a very early stage."
"What are the main obstacles?" Ellis held his breath, praying that Masud would give the expected answer.
"Mistrust between different fighting groups is the main obstacle."
Ellis breathed a clandestine sigh of relief.
Masud went on: "We are different tribes, different nations, and we have different commanders. Other guerrilla groups ambush my convoys and steal my supplies."
"Mistrust," Ellis repeated. "What else?"
"Communications. We need a regular network of messengers. Eventually we must have radio contact, but that is far in the future."
"Mistrust, and inadequate communications." This was what Ellis had hoped to hear. "Let's talk about something else." He felt terribly tired: he had lost quite a lot of blood. He fought off a powerful desire to close his eyes. "You here in the Valley have developed the art of guer-
rilla warfare more successfully than they have anywhere else in Afghanistan. Other leaders still waste their resources defending lowland territory and attacking strong positions. We would like you to train men from other parts of the country in modern guerrilla tactics. Would you consider that?"
"Yes - and I think I see where you're heading," said Masud. "After a year or so there would be in each zone of the Resistance a small cadre of men who had been trained in the Five Lions Valley. They could form a communications net. They would understand one another, they would trust me. ..." His voice tailed off, but Ellis could see from his face that he was still unwinding the implications in his head.
"All right," said Ellis. He had run out of energy, but he was almost done. "Here's the deal. If you can get the agreement of other commanders and set up that training program, the U.S. will supply you with RPG-7 rocket launchers, ground-to-air missiles and radio equipment. But there are two other commanders in particular who must be part of the agreement. They are Jahan Kamil, in the Pich Valley, and Amal Azizi, the commander of Faizabad."
Masud grinned ruefully. "You picked the toughest."
"I know," said Ellis. "Can you do it?"
"Let me think about it," said Masud.
"All right." Exhausted, Ellis lay back on the cold ground and shut his eyes. A moment later he was asleep.