EDITOR'S NOTE:  The following is an excerpt from Blood Covenant by Lisa Harris (Zondervan).

one

Monday, February 21, 8:55 a.m.

Vensi, Mponi region

Dr. Paige Ryan hesitated in the open doorway of the Cessna Caravan before stepping down onto the grassy runway. An early morning mist lingered along the edges of the clearing, but even the cloudy veil wasn’t enough to mask the handful of thatched huts smoldering on the far side of the landing strip.

The familiar feeling of helplessness pressed against her chest. The last time she’d gone out with the mobile medical unit, the pilot had been forced to do a low-level pass before landing to scatter the herds of goats and the children playing soccer with their homemade balls on the airstrip. Today, all that greeted them was an eerie silence coupled with the bitter smell of burning huts.

Simon Love, head of emergency relief, stepped up beside her and tugged on the bottom of his Volunteers of Hope T-shirt. “Apparently the government’s statements that the rebel’s threats are nothing to worry about were exaggerated. It looks as if most of the villagers have fled this area.”

Except those slaughtered by the rebels. A lump swelled in Paige’s throat. She hadn’t wanted to believe the rumors. Seventeen dead in Mkondi. Six in Latasha. Fifteen near the border town of Marani . . . But if Simon was right, those deaths could easily be the tip of the iceberg.

Their pilot, Nick Gilbert, grabbed Paige’s medical bag from the storage compartment and handed it to her, temporarily distracting her from the haunting scene. Given another place and time, she’d have given his boyish good looks a second glance, but today all she could see was the smoky destruction in the distance.

“I’ll wait here with the plane, but we need to be in the air by eleven if we’re going to have time to visit the other villages and still make it back to Kingani before dark.”

The pilot’s strong southern drawl sounded out of place in the middle of the African bush, but to Paige it helped soothe the recent renewed pangs of homesickness. Tennessee had never seemed so far away.

She slung the bag over her shoulder and shot him a smile. “Then I reckon we’d better get moving.”

Nick’s reply was cut off by the loud rumbling approach of a beat-up 4x4, replacing any feelings of familiarity with the reality of the situation. Fighting between government forces and renegade Ghost Soldiers had escalated in the past seventy-two hours, with the villagers scattered across the base of Mt. Maja caught in the crossfire of the conflict. And while the government insisted that President Tau’s army was maintaining control over the situation, the senseless killings being reported only reinforced her helplessness.

As soon as the boxes of hygiene kits and medical supplies were loaded into the back of the waiting vehicle, Simon wasted no time in making introductions to their ground contact. “Abraham, this is Dr. Paige Ryan and Michael French, my logistician.” Simon turned to address her. “Abraham used to work with Volunteers of Hope but now is the full-time director of the four clinics here in the Mponi region.”

“It’s nice to meet you.” Paige shook the man’s weathered hand.

Nodding good-bye to the pilot, she stepped over a trail of ants crossing the dark red earth, then jumped into the back of the vehicle with her colleagues. Abraham slipped the vehicle into gear. It sputtered and sped off down the runway.

“What can you tell us about the situation?” Simon shouted above the roar of the engine. “We’ve had a hard time contacting you until this morning.”

“Most of the cell-phone towers in the vicinity are down, and despite the government’s propaganda about what’s happening, in this village alone we buried forty-seven after the attacks. It is impossible to know how many are missing, because of the hundreds fleeing the area.” The jeep crashed through the thick brush edging the bumpy dirt road that was barely wide enough for one vehicle. “Those who remain fear the rebels will return, so most of them are staying inside the hospital compound. I’ll take you there first.”

Paige’s fingers tightened around the door handle as the hot breeze from the open window dried out her eyes. Any hopes that the number of deaths reported had been exaggerated faded like the morning mist. The International Criminal Court had sent out dozens of warrants for the rebels involved in the forced enslavement of hundreds of Dzambizans in the nearby mountains. The rebels’ response to the arrests of five of their commanders had been a vow to fight until the indictments were dropped and their demands for amnesty were met. A stance that meant until a resolution was negotiated, innocent people of the RD would continue to be slaughtered.

A minute later, the narrow bush path merged into the main road of town. A dozen cinder block buildings lined the street with colorfully painted walls advertising soft drinks, toothpaste, and cell-phone providers. But no one walked the dusty road through town today. Even the market, normally bustling with vendors and buyers, lay bare. Bensi had become nothing more than a ghost town.

Abraham parked inside the large compound of the hospital, where at least a hundred people waited beneath a thatched shelter sitting adjacent to the medical structure. At the sight of the aid workers their faces lit up with expectation. Paige undid her seatbelt and slid out of the vehicle. Three months in the country had taught her that a couple of hours were barely enough time to scratch the surface of everything that had to be accomplished. Today’s crowd had multiplied those odds against them.

A uniformed nurse met them at the door of the main ward, determination registering in her dark eyes. “I am Patience. We were afraid you were not coming.”

“We came as soon as we could. I’m Dr. Paige Ryan.”

By the time Paige entered the long, rectangular ward behind the nurse, several men had transferred the medical supplies to the floor by one of the pale-green cinder block walls. The nurse jutted her chin toward the other side of the room where two rows of metal beds lined the walls, each one holding a patient. “Most of our staff has left and our supplies are almost gone, including our generator that was stolen by the rebels. But I stay . . . hoping this will all be over soon.”

Paige caught the heavy note of desperation in the woman’s voice and stopped at the end of one of the rows. “They stole your generator?”

Obviously the hospital’s six-foot-high perimeter wall strung with razor wire had done little to deter the rebels’ rampage.

“And left three of my patients to die.”

Paige’s jaw tightened. Constant power outages made generators essential for surgeries and other critical life-saving operations. Without one, the death rate would automatically climb.

“I’m sorry. We had no idea things had gotten this bad.” Paige stopped at the end of one of the beds where an old woman lay sleeping beneath a tattered sheet. “The local media has reported outbreaks of fighting in the region, but always with assurances that the president’s army is in control of the situation.”

Patience shook her head. “I have yet to see one of President Tau’s soldiers come to our aid. The government only says what they want the world to hear. And they do not care if our women are raped and our children murdered in their beds as long as their pockets and bellies are full.”

Paige expelled a sharp breath. The past few months had taught her to think fast on her feet and find solutions to what often seemed to be impossible situations, but those scenarios hadn’t included rebels in the equation. Any solid answers to resolve the problems facing this woman and her people escaped her.

“We should get started.” Paige pushed aside the dismal reality that seemed all too prevalent in this country — ​and the lingering guilt. In four days she wouldn’t have to deal with any of this anymore. “Even though our time is limited on this initial visit, I want to do everything I can to help, especially by evaluating your specific needs for this clinic. But for now, if there are any patients you’d like me to see . . .”

“Where do I begin?” Patience pointed to one of the women. “Sari’s seven-and-a-half months pregnant. We managed to stop her contractions, but without the generator, if her child is born anytime soon, the chances of the infant surviving are small.” She nodded at the child in the next bed. “We diagnosed Tayla, who’s six, with pneumonia and have done what we can, but she is not responding. She’s so weak . . .” Patience’s words faded as she turned toward the mother.

Paige picked up her medical bag and crossed the cracked cement floor of the clinic, stopping at the metal-framed bed. A woman sat on the edge of the thin mattress next to her daughter, a vacant expression covering her ebony face.

Paige rubbed the little girl’s fuzzy, black hair and studied her lips and the tips of her fingers. Both were a dusky, unhealthy shade of gray.

“I cannot lose my daughter.” Tears filled the young mother’s eyes. “They killed my sons and husband in front of me. Tayla is all I have left.”

She’d heard stories of other countries where villagers were forced to hide in the forest at night in fear of the rebels who stole their children, raped their women, and murdered their families in front of them. But she’d never imagined being thrust into the center of a similar nightmare. She eyed the stack of hygiene kits they’d brought and felt the nausea return. Free hygiene kits, with their limited contents of toothbrushes, chlorine tablets, and mosquito nets, seemed useless compared to the needs of these people.

The clear tremor of fear lacing the mother’s words filled Paige with a renewed sense of determination. Back in Tennessee her niece had just celebrated her seventh birthday. Tayla deserved the same chance.

“I’ll do everything I can to help your daughter.” Paige touched the woman’s hand, wishing she had a better answer.

She turned Tayla onto her side to listen to her lungs with her stethoscope. The crackling sound confirmed the nurse’s diagnosis. Upper respiratory infections in young children and infants, especially those who didn’t have the chance for adequate nutrition, could quickly turn lethal. If she were back in Tennessee, she’d have sent the child to the ICU. Here, listening to the grunts of the small child as she fought to breathe, she didn’t have that luxury.

The handheld radio she’d brought with her buzzed inside her bag. “Hello, Echo Lima, this is November Gold, over.”

Nick?

She picked up the radio and pressed the Transmit button. “Roger . . . November Gold . . . Send, over.” One day of practice on the field radio wasn’t nearly enough.

“I’ve just received a radio communication with orders to fly you out immediately. Over.”

Paige dropped her stethoscope around her neck and moved toward the screened window overlooking the dozens of people who’d come seeking safety inside the hospital compound. If she and Michael and Simon left now, it could be days until another team was sent, which meant more lives lost. There was no way she was leaving.



ZONDERVAN
Blood Covenant
Copyright © 2011 by Lisa Harris
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