“Sir, we’re good to go.”
“Excellent, everyone from Floppy there down go with Glynn here. You have thirty minutes in the water to get everything you need done, then the rest of us will come down and relieve you while you take cover in the trees. Go.”
And with that we watched half of the unit trot the mile to shore and disappear into the scrub. It felt great to have brought the boys to the lake. I was proud of them having made it this far. Knowing the unadulterated pleasure which they were about to indulge in made me happiest of us all, but it is always these moments when we are most vulnerable. And so, with trepidation, I allowed myself to hope.
Watching the water from the dune we all scoured the area for any signs of danger. I swear if a fucking ant had look sideways at my boys all hell would’ve come down on it we were so focused. But nothing came. The half hour passed and in short order the rest of us made our way to the water. As we approached the usual birdcall was made and the sound of relaxing grips on rifles chirped around us as we entered cover. Glynn met me first with an big stupid looking smile on his face.
“Jesus, Glynn. You look like a new man,” I whispered.
“I feel like one, Sir,” he whispered back.
“Good. I know how hard this march must be after that little jaunt you took back from HQ. Where’s Thumbs?”
“Just head for the water – there’s a small clearing and he’s on the far left of it.”
“Thumbs?” I hissed in as loud a whisper as I could manage.
“Here, Sir,” he whispered as he stepped from the scrub.
“Everyone been in and out?”
“All souls accounted for, Sir.”
“Perfect. And a perimeter set up?”
“We’ll head down and freshen up now. Once we’re back we’ll move a half mile west and then bed down for the night. Send two scouts ahead of us and tell the boys.”
And so, in threes, I let the second half of the unit get into the water. As they passed I told them to be silent and be quick and that we’d be bedding down nearby once we were all out of the water. Standing there so close to the water I was tempted to dive in headlong, as I’m sure we all were, but true to form each of my boys waded in with calm caution and didn’t hang around. I would have loved to let them all rush in and spend as long as they wanted wallowing in the cool refreshing water, but it wasn’t to be.
Once all but the last two men had scrubbed up and refilled their canteens myself, Longshot and Bint waded in. When at last the water swallowed my body and poured through my clothes and onto my skin it felt like I was leaving my body. The cold wetness seeped straight through me and reinvigorated every inch of me. All tiredness and pain, every aching muscle and creaking joint reanimated at once. The blast of cold on my tired and sore limbs and torso boosted my mind too – I went from enduring brute mental and physical exhaustion to wide awake and elated in a split second. Lifting my legs and opening my arms, I lay back and let the water take my weight. The surface reached up and brimmed my face while my scalp drank in the water it had longed for all the days it spent staring at the burning sun. Standing up I took a deep breath and held it then sat down and lifting my knees, plunging my whole body underwater.
There, for just a few seconds, in a cocoon of black and weightless silence, I let myself cease to exist. In that moment I felt nothing, no strain, no stress and no concerns. That small private moment let me dismantle and release all the individual woes I had carry from the checkpoint to the lake. Retaining only the necessary pieces of myself needed to complete our mission, I rose from the water. I stood. I removed my clothes. I washed them. Needless to say after two and a half weeks of sleeping in inhumane heat and marching in sand all night long, I was charged beyond myself with satisfaction.
“Tony, have we a location?”
“Yes, Sir. Low cover too and a clear field of view across the water. This way.”
Without a word we moved out and all the men fell in, the perimeter guards last to follow. It was about an hour from dawn so once we’d bedded down we had time enough to enjoy the sunrise together. Under the trees purples and reds of daybreak had a green hue. We had laid down on the ground in the bushes, in the ancient soil, and as the steam began to waft up from our clothes in the morning heat, with sunrise displaying it’s prowess for our enjoyment, for a few minutes we all felt human again.
The forest stretched along the north shore of Lake Balkhash for only about a mile and then drifted into marshlands for another mile. The rest of the way to the west shore of the lake would be open desert, bar the occasional village. What we needed was a boat, so that was my main objective. One or two small vessels with outboard motors had passed by in the early hours but after a search of the forest and the immediate surrounding area, we found nothing we could use. Then, out of nowhere, Longshot passed back word we had contact.
“Everyone down,” I ordered in a hush.
“Longshot, how far out?”
“Hundred yards and closing. Dinghy. Two men.”
“I’ll draw them in,” I announced with a hush as I crouched myself. “I want them alive.”
The first man all but stood on Tony while stepping onshore. He was middle aged, ragged looking and overweight. Black rubber boots came half way up his calves with blue shorts down to just past his knees. His partner, a young man, maybe seventeen, moored the dinghy and followed the older man into the trees. As they got about twenty yards from shore, I stood up, followed by all my boys in unison. We had surrounded them, rifles drawn, so they didn’t put up a fight.
The younger man was startled and looked panicky, but the older man mumbled something to him and he stood resigned to his situation. Stepping forward I pointed at them both and then pointed at the ground until they sat.
“Bint, Glynn, swap clothes with these two and meet me at the dinghy. Pretty Boy, watch our new friends here. Everyone else, get your rest.”
I walked over to Longshot and lay down in the dirt beside him. He didn’t even look up from Lenore’s sights.
“Sir, the best hunting seems to be east about two miles. I saw some lights there land night. Probably just a village. Nothing bigger.”
“You’re a fucking mind reader, Tony.”
Lying there for a moment while Bint and Glynn changed, I listened to the water’s gentle lapping of the shore in front of us. After weeks of arid trekking it was like music. Each wet flapping of liquid, bursting itself against small pebbles and mud was beautiful. It was so soothing. Then came the birdcall.
I crawled back a few yards and then stood into a crouch, turning to see Bint and Glynn knelt down.
“Jesus, the state of the pair of you! It’s like a night at the panto.”
“Very funny, Sir,” declared Bint.
“I want you both to take this dinghy and scout the coast. We need at least two more vessels the size of this one, but preferably one big enough to take us all.”
“Keep your distance. These clothes won’t daw attention, but if someone gets close or forces your hand, shoot to kill.”
And off they went. Longshot watched them as I turned back to our new friends, Pretty Boy standing over them. They weren’t afraid, in fact they didn’t seem bothered at all. They just sat there staring into space. Pretty Boy stepped back as I approached and raised his rifle a few degrees to let them know he was ready for them to try their chances. I hunkered down in front of the two of them but they avoided eye contact so I stood and walked back to where I had bedded down and started on my notes. Without a word Pretty Boy stepping forward again and lowered his rifle back to its original position.
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey