Over the next two hours, one by one, I allowed my boys to take a quick dip to cool off and as midday began its torture routine Bint and Glynn chugged back to us. Glynn, of course, was a healthy shade of pink.
“Sir, there’s a small settlement about a mile and a half east. We counted five stone buildings and two wooden huts. There are two jetties with a total of seven vessels moored up, but none bigger than a dinghy. Resistance appears minimal. I estimate two dozen men and boys.”
“Thank you, Gentlemen. Both of you take a dip, but be quick about it. Swap clothes with Floppy and Big Tits first then send them up to me.”
After a few minutes Floppy and Big Tits walked up to me and took a knee. I reiterated our need for fish, then pointed out there was gear in the boat we had requisitioned, so they had at it without hesitation. Floppy was proper handy like that and he had Big Tits throwing the net like a pro in minutes. I had told them to come back in an hour regardless of how much they did or didn’t catch and like clockwork they returned on the hour with seven decent sized, but ugly looking, carp.
Carrying their catch onshore Big Tits looked the picture of pride. We had all been famished for the last two days and now there was some chow everyone was chomping at the bit. Alas, we had to hold off until dusk before lighting cooking fires, but the wait would prove tantalising. There’s an abundance of flora around Balkhash Lake and as soon as the fish came ashore I had volunteers looking to forage seasonings, whom I duly sent in out pairs. Once the first search party went out I sent others to gather firewood dig fire pits and others still to drag the dinghy under the trees and out of sight. In no time everyone was busy with one thing or another.
Dusk took forever to come that day, or course. And even I felt a twinge of impatience. We’d managed some Typha for seasoning but not much else so once I gave the order to light the cooking fires it was all hands. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bolt boil so fast in my whole life. The fish had been prepared and seasoned with the utmost of dedication and when they were slipped into their allotted pots the atmosphere was electric. In no time they were ready, I’m convinced our collective will hastened the cooking process. Each of us was drooling as Kegs divvied out the catch and I myself brought Sid and Shelley theirs as they sat on watch before returning to eat last myself. Jesus it was the best damn fish I’ve ever eaten! And I don’t even like fish.
As I lay back that night, a belly full of fish, in clean clothes, I felt better than I had in months. The last time the simple pleasures in life had evoked such profound happiness I was a child. Looking around at my boys, each was glowing with contentment. Even our two guests from the dinghy looked like they had enjoyed their meal. We could have all been lying on a beach somewhere to look at us.
That night watch was doubled, but it didn’t help. You’d never think it to look at Balkhash Lake, but it’s a haven for creatures we all soon wished we had known about. I don’t know if it was the fish or just the scent of twenty five men, but we had a visitor. It came when nobody expected. We had all started feeling a measure of safety in the trees so it was a shock when, in an instant, Floppy was suddenly dragged out from under a bush at speed. Heavy thumping footsteps galloped out of the forest, away from the shore, as we all arose in alarm, rifles drawn.
There was an almighty flurry as Floppy punched and kicked with everything he had. As he sped past me on the ground I saw him reaching for his side arm just as I was reaching for mine, but it stopped a few yards later and savaged him with its enormous jaws. One bite to his neck and he went limp. I fired two shots as it bit his leg and started to run off with his body, but it was no use. In the dead of night its dark fur made it all but invisible.
We gave chase and followed the tracks it left, but by the time we caught up it was too late. We found Floppy’s body torn to shreds a few hundred yards into the desert. The sand was black in the moonlight, soaked through in a large circle around him remains. The bear’s footprints along with chunks of hair and flesh were strewn around the pile of crooked bones. He never screamed, not even once.
After burying Floppy we all felt the sudden loss.
“Sir, it couldn’t have had him for more than five minutes but there was practically nothing of him left!”
“I know, Bint. That bastarding thing took two shots from my .45 and just kept going!”
“Sir, we have to go after it. We should skin that thing alive!”
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure, Pretty Boy, but we have a mission to complete. We can’t let Floppy die in vain.”
“I want everyone huddled together tonight. Thumbs, find a spot that can accommodate us all and get everyone in tight.”
“Longshot, Big Tits, Simon, Big Brin and Toddy come with me. Everyone else, get your heads down. We’re out of here tomorrow evening.”
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey