11:40 p.m., November 14
Mae Hong Son Province, Northern Thailand
Scared. The word didn’t even begin to describe how I was feeling. Words like frightened, terrified, and sheer panic came closer. Yet, somehow, I tried to catch my breath and stay silent at the same time as my heart raced and every cell in my body told me to run. Beside me, my best friend, Mike, crouched next to the tree I was hiding behind, peering back into the darkness.
The black Thailand jungle pushed in on all sides. Earlier in the day, the jungle had looked exciting to me, full of promise, mystery, and things to explore. Now, at just a little after midnight, it had become a humid, terror-filled nightmare.
My two other rafting buddies, Hollis and Dave, were hiding ten feet away behind another tree. I could see only their vague shapes in the faint moonlight, and I couldn’t hear them at all over the pounding of my own heart.
Dear Lord, I don’t want to die. I repeated the thought, like a prayer. Dear Lord, please don’t let me die. Not now. Not here. The men who had been our guides, and who now wanted to kill us, crashed through the brush. It sounded to me like they were very close behind us. The noise they made seemed fantastically loud, like they were giant horror movie monsters.
My mouth was completely dry and I wanted to throw up what was left of the fish dinner I’d eaten a few hours ago, back when everything was still wonderful, still a happy adventure. But I knew that if I did, they’d hear me. They’d find me. They’d find my friends. And our lives would be over.
I took shallow breaths, trying to be as quiet as I could, working to calm myself, listening to every sound around me, no matter how small.
A mosquito buzzed at my ear. I stopped myself from brushing it away. Swearing echoed through the trees, followed by shouting in a Thai dialect I didn’t understand. Of course, I didn’t under- stand anything but the most basic Thai words and phrases, just what I’d picked up listening to a language tape for a few hours here and there over the last couple of months.
Two months ago, I hadn’t even planned on coming here.
“John, we have to move,” Mike whispered, but his voice sounded more like a shout in my ears.
The faint light of the half moon through the jungle canopy made everything seem surreal, almost dreamlike. I could tell the men who were after us were coming, somehow following us, crashing through the Mae Hong Son Province jungle like elephants on a stampede.
I wanted to hold my hand against my chest to silence my pounding heart for fear that the men with the guns could hear it.
“John,” Mike whispered again.
“If we move, they’ll hear us,” I mouthed back, my thread of a voice sounding to my ears like a shout telling everyone our location.
Calm down! The thought, a warning ringing inside my head, helped me.
Calm. Calm. Think.
“Doesn’t matter. They’ll find us here,” Mike said. “We have to keep moving. You ready?”
I glanced back in the direction of the men chasing us. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear them. There were at least ten of them.
We were supposed to be sleeping. They had planned to wait for us to go to sleep before they tried to kidnap us. But Mike had overheard two of our guides talking about it earlier in the minivan, thinking we didn’t understand them. Lucky for us, Mike knew just enough of the Thai language to get the gist of what they were saying. He’d traveled all over the world on his rafting expeditions, and had picked up bits and pieces of all kinds of languages along the way. He had kept quiet, watched them, warned us, and then gotten us all out of camp just in time.
Right now, I wasn’t sure what good that would do us. The men who were chasing us knew this jungle. I didn’t. Neither did Mike or Hollis or Dave. I was a city guy. My wilderness experience was limited to the Cascade Mountains back home in Oregon. And I’d spent time in a few elk-hunting areas my father had taken me to years ago. But I knew nothing about the mountains and jungles of northern Thailand.
Except for studying a few maps of the river area we planned on rafting, we had left all the rest up to our guides. The same guides who had turned on us and were searching for us now. I heard one of the guys I was with take a step.
Suddenly, it seemed like the world around me exploded.
Two of our would-be captors, or their friends, opened fire with their AK-47s, spraying the trees and brush like they were trying to mow down everything in front of them.
We were in front of them.
With a sickening thud, a bullet smacked into the tree right beside my head, sending bark and splinters into the side of my face before I even had time to react.
Hollis yelled, “Run!” and took off away from the gunfire. Dave followed him quickly.
So much for my plan of hiding. I stayed firmly planted behind the tree, and Mike crouched at my knees as another blast of gunfire from our former guides tore through the trees and underbrush.
“Now,” Mike said. “Follow Hollis.”
As a team, just as we had worked on so many other things over the years, Mike and I moved at the same time, sprinting through the brush following our two panicked rafting buddies. The brush ripped at my arms, branches jabbed at my legs, the rough ground beneath my feet threatened to trip me with every moment.
Somehow, both Mike and I managed to stay on our feet and running, the shapes of the looming trees of the jungle nothing but dark shadows to be passed under and around. Behind us, more gunfire cut through the trees. Another shot came frighteningly close. I saw it cut off a branch beside me.
It seemed the people who wanted to first kidnap us to gain appropriate international publicity, now just plain wanted us dead. They didn’t seem to care about their earlier plans. It seemed we had made them angry by escaping and messing with their agenda.
After what felt like an eternity of slashing our way through the brush, bullets flying after us, we caught up with John and Hollis. Hollis, overweight and out of shape, had stopped and was fighting to catch his breath. Even though he owned a sporting goods store in Hood River, right at the base of Mount Hood, and snow skied all winter, he still was in bad condition. Mike and I had worried about him a great deal through the years on our tougher rafting trips. In this heat, running on this terrain, he wasn’t going to make it very far.
The faint light from the half moon seemed far brighter than it should. Full-blown panic throttled all of us. I knew panic never got a person anything but killed, no matter what the situation was. And that’s exactly what panic would do to us now. We had to calm down and think carefully, as clearly as was possible under the circumstances. Otherwise, we were going to be listed as missing tourists in the remote northern regions of Thailand, and no one but our families and friends would care.
I was sweating like I had just finished a hard workout at the gym. I took two long, deep breaths, making sure to exhale completely. My mouth tasted like paper. Which brought up another point. We were going to need water, and soon, at this rate. Mike had rousted us out of the camp so quickly and silently that I hadn’t thought to bring anything except what was in my waterproof fanny pack. No water.
Of course, if we hadn’t moved as fast as we had, we would be kidnapped by now. Or dead.
I glanced at the other three. Mike had only his emergency fanny pack as well, strapped to the small of his back. Dave had a small daypack, and Hollis had nothing.
“You all right?” Mike whispered to Hollis. Hollis only nodded, his breathing sounding like he might keel over at any moment. I stood up straight and forced myself to think and continue to breathe deeply. We had to figure out where we were, and then outsmart the men following us.
I glimpsed the slice of moon shining through the trees.
“The river’s to our right,” I whispered to Mike. “We’re headed upstream and toward it slightly. We’re going to be too easy to follow at this rate.”
Mike stood from where he had been kneeling beside Hollis and looked around. “You’re right. The way we’re crashing through the jungle, a blind man could follow us without a cane.”
“We can’t keep this up,” I whispered, glancing at Hollis. It was clear he wasn’t going to be running that much farther.
“They’ll expect us to keep going the way we’re going,” Mike whispered back. “Or to head for the river to try to follow it back into town.”
“Agreed,” I said.
“We go left then,” Mike said. “As slowly and as quietly as we can. Let them go by us.”
More gunfire sprayed the jungle, not as close as it had been but still sounding far louder than I wanted to think about. We had to do something, and do it soon.
“The road’s to the left,” Dave said. “Won’t they expect us to go back there to try to get out?”
“We go under the road,” Mike said. “And keep going. There’s a bridge over a stream about a half mile above the camp. Remember? We get into the water and go up that stream and find a place to hide in the mountain area. They won’t look for us up there.”
I nodded, remembering the large bridge and running water I had seen just after we made camp this afternoon. The bridge was a good thirty feet over the streambed, and the stream itself had looked shallow enough to wade in. “It might work. Let’s do it.”
Mike put his hand on Hollis’s shoulder. “Can you move?”
“I’m fine,” Hollis said, brushing off Mike’s hand.
I knew that Hollis and Mike were having trouble dealing with each other, especially after what happened in Bangkok the previous night. Their relationship had been sorely strained. They might not ever work it out fully. But we had to get out of here alive, so they had to deal with each other now, like it or not. Actually, after last night, I was still uncomfortable around Hollis. I knew it wasn’t very Christian of me, but there were times I found it easier to just walk away than face up to things. I knew that I was in the wrong, but I was finding the concept of forgiveness and grace a bit difficult under the circumstances. After Hollis confessed his sins to us, I hoped time would heal the wounds. After all, we had been rafting companions since college fifteen years before. I wanted to get over my anger and lingering sense of betrayal.
Maybe that was optimistic. After all, we might not have much time left.
“We go as slowly and silently as we can,” Mike said. “Try not to break any branches, leave any trail.”
“Yeah, right,” Dave said.
I agreed with Dave. Four men from Portland, Oregon, sneaking around in Thailand’s jungles not leaving a trail. Not possible.
“I’ll lead,” Mike said. “Hollis, stay close to me. Dave and John, bring up the rear.”
Without waiting for an argument from Hollis, Mike started off to the left, headed at an angle away from the men following us and back toward the Mae Hong Son Loop. That road was the only way in and out of the hundreds of miles of northern Thailand’s mountains and jungles. It connected the town of Mai Hong Son and the capital of the province, Chiang Mai. We had flown in from Bangkok to Chiang Mai early this morning. That now seemed like an eternity, a lifetime ago.
Behind us to the left, more machine gun fire cut into the jungle, more shouting in a language I didn’t understand. What were four adult men from the Pacific Northwest doing here? How had it come to this?
A stray bullet smashed through the brush between Dave and me, thudding into the ground and sending up a spray of dirt. It froze me for a moment. I could have been standing there. Really, it would only have taken an extra step, just a second of difference one way or another.
I might have died right in that spot.
But I didn’t have time to think about that now.
Dave disappeared ahead of me and I forced myself to keep moving, stepping quickly past the place the shot had hit.
Dear God, please help us.
In the dark jungle of northern Thailand, with men chasing us with machine guns, it felt to me like God had forgotten us. I sure hoped I was wrong.