After a few more quiet nights it all became routine. March, sleep, march, sleep. The boys were losing weight though and after making no contact since the lady in the tent we needed supplies. There isn’t much hunting out on the open desert, not that I would allow gunfire, which would give away our location, and we still had weeks of marching ahead of us. Adjusting our course south on the eighth night, I steered us towards Lake Balkhash. There we would have to fish by night but the water was drinkable and if we stayed to the far west shore we should have been able to avoid making contact with anyone. It was another two night’s march to reach the lake, and a further three night march around it to the western shore. If we could get a boat of any kind though we could cut days off the march while resting and still get time to fish. I had no choice but to try.
We moved into grasslands on the second night heading south. Sleeping in holes and gullies we further dug out by hand, my boys started to wane as rations began to run low. Even the camels started to look more ragged than usual. No one said a word, of course, but I could see it in their eyes. Once we crossed the road from Karkaraly to Ayagoz though there was a shift in their mood. They knew the following night would be their last without swimming in the lake and that gave them renewed strength. I felt it too. Night after night of nothing but sand and cold, then blistering heat as you tried to rest by day.
Before the start of the last leg of the march on the lake I addressed my boys. They didn’t need a final push, but I wanted them to have everything I could give them to arm them against the trial we were in the midst of. Gathering them all together before Al and Bit Tits moved out ahead of us, I began:
“Gentlemen, seldom if ever has a leader of men had the opportunity to bring his people through such adversity as I have been these last two weeks. Despite the hardship, and on some levels because of it, I have been given a deadly and awesome mission. As you all know I have been in The Service for a long time, and in that time I have seen and heard and done a lot. Right here, and right now, though, with you fine men I am present at the greatest moment of my life. By dawn we should be slipping into the waters of Lake Balkhash, catching fish and finally washing our clothes. I want you all to think about that as you march tonight. Think about wearing clean clothes on full stomachs. That is all. Scouts, move out.”
As we moved on, I took Longshot and Grubber aside and informed them that we would be trying to get our hands on a boat. I had filled my scouts in and told them to hold at one mile from the lake, looking for somewhere protected to bed down for the day. It was vital we didn’t get discovered, now more than ever we were at our weakest. And just to complicate things, the closer we got to water the more populated the area would be.
Moving through that night I was struck by the will of men to survive. I had been in worse situations but most of my boys had never borne such difficulties before. Yet, they never complained. They had absolute faith in me. It is a tremendous responsibility to lead any men, but in such a dire circumstance as we found ourselves, it had become an act of sheer will. Each step had become a refusal to let my boys be swallowed by fate.
We were making good time and spirits were high when the winds picked up. At first it was just a gentle breeze like so many others, but it grew dangerous in less than a minute, blowing in from the west until we were bracing ourselves against it and shielding the right side of our faces. We all knew what was coming. We’d seen them time and again. Being so close to the lake too it was a cruel blow to have to suffer, but such are the lives of men of arms. I halted the column and put the camels in a ring with my boys in the centre. We unfurled the silks we had lashed to the camels and heaved them up over our heads. As the air thickened into a wall Big Tits and Al appeared out of nowhere. They knew if they hadn’t turn back as soon as the storm had started then we would have lost all orientation.
Sand burns your skin when it hits you with such force. If you’ve ever poked your head out of a window on a moving train in the middle of a heavy rain you’ll know how if felt. It was a constant force, a massive barrage of nature itself trying to wipe you from the face of the Earth. While we all huddled in among the camels, under the silk, Longshot saved the day again. Over the raging bellow of the storm, almost inaudible by himself, I heard him singing the national anthem. I wasn’t sure I was hearing it at first, but when the rest of my boys joined in I began to sing too.
Sand gets everywhere during a storm. Despite the silk cover we had thrown up and the masks we’d made, it still got under our clothes. As we sang we abated the invasiveness of grit, though, at least in our minds. Longshot did the whole unit a great justice that night. So close to the lake, tired and hungry, not even half way to safety, it was a make or break moment and he had solidified our will with esprit de corp. As we finished the anthem I heard Baldy start up the chorus of another song. Then Shelley took a turn. And as the storm threw itself at us we bore it out with melody after melody. Even now when I hear one of the songs we sang that night I’m transported back to that moment, blind and endangered, but singing like I was on a stag night.
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey