Prologue: The Descent
The Desert Southeast of Tabuk, Saudi Arabia: 1988
Just before daybreak, Bob Cornuke decided they should leave the cave. The way he explained it to Larry Williams, if they headed down the mountain while it was still dark, at least they would have a couple of things working for them. First, they had a pair of nightvision binoculars to illuminate the narrow trail. And second, as best he could tell, things were still quiet in the concrete guardhouse at the base of the mountain; with a little luck the soldiers would not stir until after morning prayers. Cornuke tried to lay it all out in the same calm, reasonable voice his SWAT team lieutenant had used whenever he was sending them into something that had a large chance of going bad. And, another kindness, Cornuke decided there was no point in mentioning that even if down in the valley the soldiers were sleeping, that was no guarantee that night patrols were not combing the mountain. If there were soldiers out there, he figured, his friend would find out soon enough.
After only a moment's consideration, Williams agreed that the plan made sense, or at least as much sense as anything was making these days. A month ago his biggest worry was the dent his wife had put in the Rolls while backing into a tight space at Nordstrom's. Now he was about to crawl away from a musky cave to head down a treacherously steep mountain in the dark of night; and, one further complication, the mountain happened to be standing in the middle of a Saudi Arabian military base. "No problem," he assured Cornuke.
When they left, Williams led the way. He knew if he did not take that first step,he might never take onhat now seemed like another lifetime, had first moved him to come to the mountain.
They both got to their feet. When they didn't hear a round of automatic fire come blasting at them, they silently gave thanks and continued the short distance down the mountain to the valley.
A flat, rocky plain without even a tree for cover stood between the base of the mountain and the barbed wire fence. But there was no other way out, and so, on a count of three, they made a dash for it. There was no stealth, no pretense of quiet. All that mattered was getting to the fence and finding the spot by the dried up creek bed where they had earlier dug a crawl space in the spongy sand. Williams was a marathoner, but after just a hundred yards he was huffing mightily since he had never before run for his life. Cornuke had not gone full out since he had blown his knee on a fullback sweep more than a decade earlier. But even if he had been years younger with a packed stadium cheering him on, he could not have imagined himself ever running faster than he did that morning across the desert sand. They hit the fence in a dead heat.
With both hands, Cornuke held up the fence and Williams crawled under on his belly. When he was on the other side, it was Cornuke's turn. He got down on all fours, ready to go, but all at once there was a noise as loud as the crack of a rifle. It was an unsteady instant that seemed like an eternity before they realized the door to the guardhouse had swung open. A soldier had come out to pee. Cornuke waited until the sound of urine hissing into the sand had subsided, and then he, too, crawled easily under the fence to safety.
The sun was now high, and the desert was beginning to bake. It wa s a mile or so walk from the fence to the wadi where they had hidden their truck, and, hot and completely exhausted, they took their time. Still, they felt good. It looked as if they had made it. And when they saw the truck sitting just as they had left it, their supplies still loaded in the rear, for the first time they congratulated one another. They had pulled it off! Done the impossible!
It was only as they were walking the final ten yards toward their campsite that the two Bedouins stepped out from behind a large bush. Where they had been waiting all along.
One of the Bedouins, the taller man, leveled a 12-gauge shotgun at them. Williams saw the weapon and, instead of coming to a stop, moved in closer. He had grown up in Montana and knew a bit about guns. A 12-gauge was only a single-shot, so he quickly calculated that maybe only one of them would have to die. He took another step toward the gunman. That was the other thing about shotguns: They need distance to be effective; up close the shooter has no room to maneuver.
The Bedouin waved the gun threateningly, motioning for Williams to stand still. But he took another small step forward. He wanted to get close enough at least to make a grab for the weapon. After all Williams had gone through, he was prepared to risk his life.
He caught Cornuke's eye. His friend understood. Now it was Cornuke's turn to take a small step toward the gunman. Simultaneously the two men inched slowly forward. The gunman was shouting, but they pretended not to understand. All that mattered was that at least one of them survive. One of them had to make it out of the desert to tell the world what they had seen on the mountain known as Jabal al Lawz.
Copyright © 1998 by Howard Blum