The records show we were attacked four days later, but it was only two. Early that morning I had sent half the unit on a hike to set up targets on the other side of a nearby valley for our long-range shooters and they had just returned when the first shot came whistling in over my head. I ducked and grabbed Floppy by the wrist dragging him down out of reflex as the rest of the boys jumped into the dirt. I’d already been shot at many times by this stage in my career, but after weeks of peaceful border duty it was the last thing we expected. What was strange about it though was that there were no more shots after the first one.
This threw a chill up us all because it meant it wasn’t a pot shot or a stray celebratory round. We were pinned down and we knew it. It was just after noon so it wouldn’t be dark for hours, and I was crouched in a gully between Floppy and Big Brin with no water and no shade. I looked at the two boys and shouted across the camp:
“Anyone get a fix on him!?”
All three of us in the gully sighed a communal “Shit!” We were in for a wait.
After an hour or so we were still lying there, waiting, sweating, burning and praying for relief, so I turned to Big Brin.
“Brinner, Pal. Gimme your rifle.”
“Hold it up straight.”
“Fix this on the muzzle,” I said, taking off my helmet.
“On three. One, two…” and on three he hoisted it enough to be visible over the lip of the gully, but nothing. No shots, to screams. It seemed our visitor had crawled back under his rock.
“Wait five, Brin,” I ordered.
And so it went for the next thirty minutes. Over and over Big Brin gave sight to the shooter but nothing came, until I declared the area clear and my boys back to work. There were no more shots that day, or the next, but the following morning our visitor upped the ante, the little bastard.
I was sat on a rock shaving. Ben and Junior were playing cards on a crate and Hill Billy was sleeping on his bunk, next to mine. The rest of the boys were manning their posts or at the range a mile and a half away staying sharp and practising for that week’s competition. In the heat of the early morning – it was always fucking hot, even when it was cold – each of us had the shot from two days previous in the backs of our minds, but none of us expected what happened.
In the middle of camp there was an oven in a supply tent with a small gas cylinder attached to it. It was in shade and half buried to prevent it from exploding in the brutal heat we all cursed each day. The cylinder couldn’t have been five inches across and the nearest cover outside of camp was a sand dune three hundred and fifty yards out, so the bastard had to have had some skill to hit it.
There was the faintest metallic clink a half a second before the ear bursting explosion in the middle of camp. I had been facing towards the tent so I fell backwards off my rock. Ben and Junior leapt to their feet, dove onto the ground and threw their arms up onto the crate to grab their rifles, all in one fluid motion. Hill Billy didn’t even flinch, the madman, he just opened one eye, looked around and just rolled off his bunk and into the sand. I swear he was as calm as a cup of water that boy. It was a damn shame what happened to him.
Looking up from my back in the dirt I saw the black cloud of smoke rise from the supply tent that been engulfed in flames.
Hill Billy looked over at me, “Sir, mortars, Sir?”
“What fucking rifle fires rounds like that, Sir?”
“Bill, he hit the cooking gas cylinder you fucking tit!”
“HA SHIT, Sir!! Could’ve fooled me,” he choked out between gut laughs.
“HAH” Shut the fuck up Hill Billy!” I had to laugh too.
That was one of the great things about Sgt. William P. Grantworth. He always lifted the mood, and more so when we were in the shit. Slight of build and sharp of mind, he came from fine stock and could have avoided this life, but he chose to serve his country with pride. He’s sorely missed, the cheeky prat!
Ben and Junior called over from their sudden and sandy beds and reported in.
“Everyone else ok?” I hollered.
“Nobody else here, Sir,” Hill Billy whispered.
“Thank Christ, Billy!”
That bastard could’ve killed a half dozen men if he had have waited till lunch. We knew we had to get him, no matter what. So that night, after another obligatory wait. I set up watch in hides in all directions around the camp. We had been sleeping a few hundred yards below the snowline where it was a little warmer, but once the shit hit the fan I moved the camp up into the snow. That way any foot prints in the area could be tracked with ease. It was only a matter of a few hundred yards so by dawn we were sitting pretty.
I also sent Toddy and Simon off on the motorbike and sidecar – our only mode of transport – for extra rations and water back at HQ. They wouldn’t be back for two days, maybe three, but at least they were out of dodge. During the night we also set up watch – not the checkpoint – on the trail that ran across the border. I assigned Tyk, Donkey, Swanson and two others, I can’t remember who, so they were away from our new friend too.
I couldn’t rightly order my boys to setup the checkpoint with a loose gunman able to pick us off at will, so the border crossing wouldn’t be open for business until we had him. With God knows what getting across the border unnoticed it was a race against time. I myself took Big Brin up to a hide some hundred yards uphill from the new camp and began a standard overnight vigil.
It snowed that night and by dawn there was a thin coat of white on everything in camp – no footprints in sight. I had sent most of my remaining boys into hides and chosen the quickest lads on their feet to stay in camp. I ordered them to stay in their tents and out of sight, but it didn’t help. Once it got to lunch time, around about noon, the first shot came in. Hill Billy was sat on his bunk reading letters from home when a bullet came through the canvas and entered his back without exiting his front. It was a lucky shot by any account, the shooter having no doubt taken a pot shot into the tent. Glynn was lying on his own bunk not two feet away when Hill Billy folded over and fell onto the boards between their bunks. He told me later he hadn’t heard the report of the rifle, but we did.
Nobody was to fire unless they were absolutely sure. Neither Big Brin nor I saw anything and the echo bounced around the hillsides making it impossible to spot the shooter unless someone saw a flash, and of course at this point we didn’t know Hill Billy had been hit. It was frustrating but I wasn’t going to let this little bastard get away. None of us were.
The little fucker took more pot shots at the other tents over the course of the next hour. Then, when he took his fourth shot Tony, in the farthest hide, let one loose. After we recovered the body it became clear the bullet had cleaved straight through the man’s spinal cord at the base of the skull, killing him instantly. When we saw Tony stand up on the other side of the valley we knew he had got his man. He strolled down towards the camp and waved at us all to follow. All of us had complete confidence in Tony, so without hesitation we all stood up and followed him down.
The boys knew Tony was a good shot, but this kill made him a hero. After calculations were made it became known that he had bagged his prey at almost seven hundred yards, downhill, in the freezing cold. The cross winds were only half-value, but even at that, it was a miracle shot.
Tony, or Longshot as the boys started calling him from then on, met me half way and we walked out to where the sniper lay – blood sprayed onto the rocks behind him. Just as we got up to the body I noticed he was young, couldn’t have been more than twenty. For such a young man he was an exceptional shot, a natural shooter, and as such deserved our respect. He had hidden right on the edge of the snowline. A small overhang jutted out from the mountain where the snowline elevated to just level with the camp. I still don’t know how the hell our man saw him but I’m damn glad he did. All us of were.
As Longshot went through his pockets I took up his rifle. It was a piece of shit. I had seen better looking blunderbusses. How he ever hit anything with it was beyond me. That’s the way it was out there. Herdsmen all wore antique looking rifles or, at the least, a pistols. Everyone did, except the women. It was as much for wild animals as it was for enemy tribesmen and of course status came into it too.
After we had cleared his remains we buried him under a stack of rocks and headed back to camp, Longshot with the piece of shit rifle over one shoulder and his own over the other. If he was proud you’d never know it to look at him – no swagger about him at all. The chap could win the lottery and he wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
The boys had given Hill Billy the best medical care we could but by the time longshot and I had got back from checking the shooter he had already slipped away. It had an awful effect on the boys. If it wasn’t for the shooter having already been killed then God only knows what state our morale would’ve been in. I could have kissed Tony for that. He’d stopped more than one threat with that bullet.
With the checkpoint reopened the following day it almost felt normal again. I filled out William’s paperwork for transportation back to HQ then checked in with the men one by one. I also told Longshot he could sleep in for two extra hours – a small reward for his miracle shot. Sixty seconds later he was laid prone at his post conducting surveillance of the surrounding area. That boy had gunpowder in his veins and didn’t see his shot the day before as anything special. He didn’t even need thanks, but I gave it to him anyway, which almost made him embarrassed.
Moving up to the checkpoint, walking along the ridge road itself, I walked toward Junior, Floppy and Thumbs. There hadn’t been any traffic since they set the post back up and they were just talking shit while waiting for their next customer.
“The fuck he isn’t the best shot in the army,” boasted Floppy. “He could put a bullet between the eyes of a fly!”
“I’m not sayin he ain’t hot shit, but he’s never competed against the big boys in the internationals.”
“Shut the fuck u,p Junior. What difference does it make, he shoots as if he was born with a rifle in his hands. Plus, he didn’t even think it anthin special takin out that muppet yesterday. Sure didn’t he pass up on a lie-in The Top offered him this mornin!?”
“None of us could’ve made that shot Junior,” chimed in Thumbs. “Hell, The Top himself couldn’t’ve and he competed in the nationals back home.”
“Whatever lads, none of the three of us can shoot close to his scores anyway so what’s the point,” Junior relinquished.
“Just be glad he’s on our side boys,” I told them. “He doesn’t ever bitch or moan and he’s the goddamn MVP!”
Three “Sirs” came back with conditioned response.
“Sir. Were you in the nationals back home, Sir?” asked Junior.
“So how’d you make it into this outfit then, Sir? Surely The Service must’ve offered you a spot on some crack shot team. You know, those behind enemy lines type of guys.”
“Shut up, Junior,” Thumbs jumped in out of nowhere. “That’s none of your fuckin business.”
And with that Junior snapped to attention and babbled out another conditioned response, this one in the form of an apology to me and his sergeant. Ha, fuckin “Sgt. Thumbs”. He was some man. He’d been in The Service since he was eighteen and didn’t ever accept a promotion higher than sergeant. He was better than half the Colonels we had but he was just too good to get on by stepping on people. He was more of a big brother to all the new boys than anything else, and as CO of the unit I can say in all honesty he was one of my best men. He could hold sermon when I wasn’t there and I’d counted on him to do so more than once. The poor bastard, and his poor wife, Milly, she’s just one of those little dears who would bake you a cake just because you came for tea – pure gold, and now…
Anyway, I stayed with Floppy, Junior and Thumbs for a while to pass some time before I started on my reports. As the two newest and youngest members of our unit I wanted to assess Floppy and Junior in a casual way. I don’t know if Thumbs noticed this, but I think he did. He’d never say it anyway, he didn’t need to.
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey