We had entered Arizona. An empty landscape covered by a high, cloudless sky, no movement visible, no birds or other animals. Derelict cars stood parked on the road, but in lower numbers than back east. My thoughts wandered off. I recalled how I had once traveled through this dessert before the epidemic.
I had attended a Keystone Conference on molecular biology in Taos, New Mexico. My plane had landed in San Francisco, where I had visited my friend Kenn Z. for a very rainy week. I had stayed in his apartment in Castro, most of his neighbors gays and lesbians. At night we could hear them having sex, and Kenn, embarrassed, kept on turning up the volume of his Rolling Stones records. One night we had watched the movie “A Kiss Before Dying”, and we smoked so much pot that the simple storyline turned into a weird and complex tale, causing endless interpretations. At the end of the week, Karel, a colleague from Czechoslovakia, picked me up and together we drove through Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico to Taos. It was early spring, and the weather had been cold and marvelous. We visited the Organ Pipe Cactus- and Saguaro-National Monuments, as well as a place where nuclear ballistic rockets had been based—which had tremendously intrigued Karel, who had been raised behind the Iron Curtain.
Memories flooded by, as I passed through the desert. It was a long and hot day, the air vibrating over the tarmac. My eyes kept falling shut. I was considering having another break, to stretch my legs and get my blood going again, when suddenly a load roar broke the silence. I ducked my head, expecting a blow. The dogs jumped up and barked loudly. Initially, I thought a plane had passed by. Then, as the sky remained empty, that my engine had exploded. I cursed in anticipation. However, the sound increased and changed into a high-pitched growl, as if a rocket was overtaking me.
The sound came from two motorbikes that passed by on my left side. They were squat and heavy, with roaring engines. The drivers were dressed almost identically, in black jeans, boots and heavy leather jackets with insignia on the backs. Due to their black helmets, I couldn’t see their faces.
I cursed again, looking in the mirrors and the surrounding landscape for an escape route. They swung their machines in front of my truck and one raised his hand, a signal for me to stop. They slowed down and I was forced to hit the brakes. Slowly we came to a halt. They looked at me through their mirrors and then they both climbed of their bikes. They stood in front of the truck, staring at me. I stared back at them.
After some hesitation, I switched off the engine, opened the door and got out. They didn’t carry any visible weapons and I decided to leave my own guns in the cab. This wasn’t a time for a shoot-out on a highway, which in any case I was bound to lose. Still, I left the door open. I cleared my throat. “How are you?” The question sounded inane, but I had to start the conversation somehow. The one on the left took off his helmet and walked up to me. “Fine. Thanks.”
He didn’t look fine, though. He was a young man, perhaps 25, tall and thin. His blond hair was long and straggly. He looked pale and distraught. The other man also took off his helmet. He had dirty black hair and a full beard. He too looked anxious and sweaty. The cooling engines pinged in the afternoon air, all sound slowly dying down. Before we could deepen our conversation, more vehicles came up from behind. I cursed softly and considered getting my guns. Looking back down the road, three more motorcycles appeared, followed by a pick-up. They moved up quickly and stopped next to the truck. The cyclists dismounted, and the door of the door of the truck opened.
Six men stood on the road and stared at me. One of them, an unusually big man, stepped forward. “Are you a doctor?”
The question got me by surprise. “Uh… no, I’m not.”
“Have any medical experience?”
“Well—no, very little.”
He fell silent and stared at me. Then he looked up and down the road, as if he was waiting for someone to arrive, or something to happen. After a few seconds, it seemed as if he made up his mind. “Get into the pick-up.”
It was an order, not a question. I considered getting back into my truck, start the engine and drive off. Why should I be ordered about? Nevertheless, his first question intrigued me. Highwaymen hardly ever ask you for your profession. “What do you guys want from me?”
The big man grimaced at me, as if I had hurt him. He had a flat, almost expressionless face, fat, sweaty and hairless. “There’s no time. We’re losing time. Come with us.”
I stared into his eyes. Fear moved in them, like a shark moving in the deep blue sea. I walked to the pickup, the big man following. He climbed behind the wheel, and I into the passenger seat, my two dogs at my feet. The other men got on their motorbikes.
The vehicles turned, leaving my truck parked on the side of the highway, and we thundered back, perhaps five or ten miles. We came to an intersection of sorts, a dusty trail leading north into the desert. We turned onto it and bounced along for several miles. I tried to start a conversation with the big man, but he signaled me to be quiet. Sweat covered his face, neck and arms.
We arrived at hills and the road dipped into a slight valley—out of sight and a good hiding place. Shortly, the valley turned into a gulch, only a few feet deep. We came to a flat area. Several motorbikes stood parked in a disorderly fashion. The big man stopped the car and we got out. The bikers also dismounted. The big man, obviously in a hurry, pushed me in the direction of a large square tent, the cloth dirty and soiled. They hustled me inside. I wasn’t prepared for what met me.
The tent was almost free of furniture, about ten by ten feet and eight feet high. Inside it was tremendously hot. Dark liquid had spilled on the desert sand and the imprints of many shoes were visible. People had been at work here.
There were two men in the tent. One of them was standing, a short black beard and seemingly intelligent eyes behind simple wire-framed spectacles. He was much shorter and younger than I was. His face was sweaty and his mouth stood ajar. At regular intervals, his tongue would sneak out and he would wet his chapped lips.
The other man was lying on his back on a simple wooden table, the only piece of furniture. He was asleep or unconscious. His face was red and surrounded by straggly hair: a full beard and long locks on his forehead. A white sheet, smeared with blood and dirt covered his body. The big man pushed by me from behind. He moved to the other side of the table and looked in my eyes. I stared back at him. He pulled away the sheet.
I cursed as I turned away. Some of the other men winced as well and two actually turned and walked out again. One of them started to throw up somewhere outside. I stared back at the big man. “What the fuck is this?”
The big man threw the sheet back. “An accident. He had an accident.”
I moved forward and lifted the sheet up again. I stared at the left leg of the man. Somebody had cut away his trousers, way up above the knee. They hadn’t removed his shoes and socks though.
Obviously, his lower leg had broken. More than that; it looked as if it had been smashed by a heavy object, a sledge-hammer or something. I could see pieces of bone sticking out of the red flesh. I recalled my days as an anatomy teacher and recognized the Os tibia and the Os fibula, and both were goners. The leg was at a weird angle because of it. The bleeding had stopped, but there was enough raw meat and bodily fluid to turn my stomach.
The big man cleared his throat. “Tom hit a rock in the desert and his motorbike landed on top of his leg. Question: can you fix it? None of us have any medical experience.”
I almost broke out laughing. I swallowed hard, trying to get some liquid in my mouth. “Fix it? This is a complex fracture. I can see three or four bone fragments sticking out. This can’t be set. When did it happen?”
“Two hours ago.”
“He’s been unconscious since then? How’s his blood pressure and heartbeat?”
“We didn’t check.”
“What have you been doing then?”
The big man looked at the ground, as if ashamed. “We went looking for help.”
I turned and left the tent and walked a few feet into the desert. Some of the men followed me. I turned to them. “Better if we talk here. Sometimes patients seem to sleep, but they hear every word you say.”
Some hope lighted up in the big man’s eyes. “You’re a doctor after all?”
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Originally posted 2015-02-19 09:45:11.