It was two hundred miles to the western shore and after five and a half hours of open throttle before we made land just before dawn. We stopped at the north western shore, just north of Saryshagan, and headed west across the desert without pause. There was another four hundred miles to Karakoyyn Lake and another four hundred or so to the Barsakelmes nature reserve. We were back on foot but we had all the water we could carry and fish for cooking. And we had cut more than a week off of our time. We marched about two miles inland and dug in at a ridge of sandstone in the middle of nowhere just before dawn. Spirits were high.
“Gents, you did me proud tonight! I’ll take first watch with Simon and Kegs, the rest of you get your heads down.”
And so, my boys bedded down as Simon and Kegs stepped forward with their rifles and we walked away to take up positions.
“Kegs, you take the west. Simon and I will take the east.”
And on we went. Simon and I walked back towards the lake some fifty yards then dug in at the cusp of a dune.
“That was some show you put on back there on the jetty, Simon.”
“You nearly got left behind though, you all right? Looked like a rough landing when you jumped for it.”
“Cracked a rib, Sir. I’m fine. I just couldn’t get a good shot off from the dingy.”
“You did a top job. If it wasn’t for you stepping up we would’ve all been shot to pieces, so thank you. Really.”
“Any of the boys would have done the same thing, Sir. Just doing my job.”
“Just wait till the lads hear about your exploits. God knows what they’re gonna start calling you. They’re probably already talking about it now.”
“I’d rather they didn’t, Sir. Wasn’t anything special, I just did what needed doing.”
There we lay, scouring the landscape for any signs of life, vehement in our efforts. By this stage we were about halfway to the Caspian and we all knew it. Once we got to Karakoyyn Lake we would be bang on halfway, but that was another week of marching away. Behind us to the east we could see the Balkhash Lake shimmering in the birth of day. Once more the rich and full colours of sunrise unfolded one by one, their beauty as sweet and tender as ever.
“Have you ever seen such sunrises as they have here, Sir?”
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to them.”
“Sure beats the dull greys of home.”
“Yeah, but what I wouldn’t give for rain like at home! Wouldn’t go astray.”
“Ha, God no.”
And then he fell silent with a clear shift in his mood.
“Do you think Floppy suffered? As in, was he in much pain?”
“Not for a minute,” I lied. “He was right beside me when that bear bit his neck. It was instant. He didn’t feel a thing.”
“I don’t want to go out in pain. If it comes I’d want it quick and clean.”
“You and me both, soldier.”
“My Grandfather died at The Somme, Sir. Gassed. His whole unit wiped out in a mustard attack. Knowing what we know now, it was a terrible death, Sir. I’d hate to go out like that.”
“We’re getting out of this country in one piece, Simon. We’re nearly exactly half way. We just gotta keep on the move.”
“Don’t get bogged down in thinking about death. It follows us all, and eventually it gets every man. But we have the best bunch of lads ever put together right here. We’re gonna be supping beers in few weeks, just you watch!”
“Thanks, Sir. In that case first round’s on me!”
“I’ll hold you to that!”
An hour or so later watch swapped out and I turned in. Before I did though I watched Simon as he bedded down. He had the look of a man who knew the danger he was in but refused to let it show, just like at the jetty, he was resolute. It was inspiring to see, even if none of the rest of my boys saw it. Big Tits, Toddy and Big Brin could see it, but they never said a word, true to form.
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey