That day we kept a close eye on Big Brin, god damn was he in a bad way. I’ve never seen someone vomit and burn up the way he did once he woke up. The poor bastard, even the morphine wasn’t doing much for him. Fucking snakes, there’s small but they’re bad news. He didn’t get boils around the bite itself, which Pretty Boy explained was a good sign, and by the late evening he was coming around. He wasn’t marching anywhere though.
I ordered a hammock to be made out of the silks and we carried him in shifts. Someone getting hurt was the last thing I wanted, especially just before going into battle, but needs must. We moved out with Longshot and Junior scouting ahead of us, and with blood in our hearts. We were all focused. Even I didn’t know at what time we’d make contact, but it was of little import. Whenever it was going to be, we were ready.
The sky was heavily clouded that night and I thanked god it was; the darker the better. The farther we marched the more tense we all became, and yet, the more sure of ourselves we became too. It’s a strange thing to go into battle. Explaining it is next to impossible, but it’s a rush and, if you’re wise, it’ll be spiced with some constructive trepidation. Each mile brought us closer to our goal and by the time we’d taken our second rest for rehydration even Big Brin was so focused he asked to walk, but I refused him. He might have been ready for war but his leg still wasn’t.
Then it came. The birdcall, and long before dawn. We all dropped a knee as soon as it came and myself Big Tits and Thumbs moved up to meet Longshot as he came back to meet us.
“Sir. We have contact. Two miles out. Come take a look.”
“Gents, wait here.”
The four of us moved out, Tony guiding us up to the cusp of a tall dune where Junior was laying prone looking through his binoculars. West of our position, about two miles away, a large settlement loomed in the pitch darkness of night. Dotted with campfires and electric lights it stretched for about five hundred yards. We could make out people moving but we couldn’t get a count for distance so I ordered Junior and Longshot to get closer and get a proper look at what we were dealing with. Duly the boys slinked away as Thumbs and Bit Tits took their packs back to the rest of the unit.
“Right, gentlemen. We’ve sighted the enemy. We’re scouting their settlement now and we’ll be on the move shortly. You have time to clean your rifles so make hay. You all know what to do. Murphy, you’re taking Big Brin’s place. Brin, you’re gonna get laid down on the ambush line; just keep off that leg until Pretty Boys gives you a green light. Any questions?”
I headed back to the dune to watch my scouts perform their duty. The two lads were expert. They skulked the next mile and crawled the next half mile, then lay prone and took notes. All in all they were out and back inside an hour and their details were exceptional.
“Sir, we have sixteen road vehicles, eight jeeps, two trucks and six motorbikes. Next we have a feast of camels, maybe twenty of them. And lastly, but by no means least, we have at least sixty men.”
“Thank you, Tony. Well, there you have it, Gentlemen. We have three hours till sunrise and I want you all in position in the next thirty minutes. Bint, Simon, Longshot and Junior get ready to enter from the Southeast. Pretty Boy, Al and Murphy setup on the West. Big Tits and the ambush crew circle around Southwest and Thumbs and Toddy, come with me. I don’t need to tell you this is make or break, Gents. Wait for the first explosion and then have at it.”
“SIR. YES, SIR!”
And so we moved out. Every one of us focused to a level that was beyond our individual selves. As Toddy, Thumbs and I moved north I watched as the ambush crew carried Big Brin off and the rest of my boys made their way out to take up their positions. It had been months since we had taken action as a group and some of the new guys had never taken part in battle at all. It felt great to see them all working together in one action.
As we neared the North eastern most point of the settlement we crawled as close as we could without getting spotted and waited. Through my binoculars I saw Longshot & Co. sneak up in a crouched jog, then stand and casually walk in with silk wrapped around their heads. Then, after about ten minutes, I saw them walk back out like they were strolling in the park before they crouched down again and jogging back into the darkness. I couldn’t see the ambush crew or, of course, Pretty Boy & Co., in my heart though, I knew they would be in position by that point.
And there we lay. Not a word shared among us but each of us focused to the absolute, waiting for the signal. In the extra dark night, the clouds blotted any starlight as we watched the settlement churn – people moving around camp fires, readying for the day ahead. With the trucks just to our south and the camels and motorbikes hitched around various segregated tents, we planned our entry point in a whispered vigil. As soon as the signal went up we’d be off so as we waited we charged ourselves, our muscles relaxed but our minds on fire.
It cracked first, then burst the sky open with a deafening explosion that seemed to linger even after it had passed. With that we waited for people to move out of their tents and away from the trucks and made our way low and fast. Scuttling like madmen, we got to the trucks then threw ourselves onto the sand between two of them and looked around for anyone that might have seen us. After less than a minute that felt like twenty we heard the crossfire of the ambush and the screams of men between reports. A moment later we could hear Pretty Boy & Co. opened up to the west, storming in with all guns blazing. Once we heard our shock troops whirl into action we pulled open the doors of two trucks and climbed in. There wasn’t a soul in sight. Despite the disparate nature of the groups at the settlement they all swung into fighting mode in unison; survival instinct I suppose.
From the sounds of the ambush and the shock troops dying down to intermittent engagements it was obvious we were destroying the settlers wholesale, true to form. Firing up the two large diesel engines we swung the canvas backed lorries around and drove out into the darkness with our headlights off until we were a few hundred yards from the settlement. We didn’t see a sinner until we got around to the back of the ambush sight where Longshot and Big Brin lay side by side in the sand picking off hapless settlers as they fired into the darkness at us. It was pitiful as they ran out into the night and fell into the sand one by one, silhouetted by their own campfires.
From the sounds of Pretty Boy’s action they had made it to a position almost central to the settlement and were throwing everything they had at whoever was brave or stupid enough to engage them. There were constant bursts of fire behind the edge of the camp where the ambush was set up, and we saw more than one person second guess where fire was coming from before we dropped him from the shadows. I almost felt bad for them.
As Thumbs, Toddy and I rolled around the back of the ambush site we blasted our horns to signal the retreat. That instant the firefight died down. The shots at the centre of the camp fell back to the west and petered off as Pretty Boy got his men out of dodge. As they retreated, the ambush crew fell back in waves and climbed aboard the trucks. One by one they stood and ran back as those on the ground covered them with intermittent fire. Half way through the manoeuvre though we saw three of our boys lying motionless in the sand. In the dark of night I hadn’t noticed until their turn came to move back to the trucks.
“Who is that?” I roared out of my rolled down window.
“Sir, I think that’s Bint and Simon on the left…” roared back Longshot.
“And who’s that there?”
“I can’t tell. Can I go get him, Sir?”
“Go! And you two go with him!” I ordered as I saw Murphy and Big Tits move past my truck.
“Sir!” they bellowed back to me.
And off they ran, heads and rifles down, feet pumping in the sand to get to their three brothers. It was all fluid motion until they threw themselves next to their fallen kin in awkward piles of limbs and dread. Each man dove down and lay next to his buddy, checked him over and then stood again to haul him back. From where I sat in one of the trucks I could see no movement whatsoever form the three downed boys. I knew there and then they were dead. As Longshot came back the fifty yards or so with Simon, Murphy dragged Bint back. Both had taken hits to the chest.
Big Tits though, struggled back through the darkness with the farthest of the three bodies; the unidentified brother. As Longshot hoisted Simon’s body onto the back of my truck he turned back and ran to help Drenten with his precious cargo, but just as he did, Big Tits got hit too. Falling backwards onto his back he kicked and groaned a low sad growl, then lay motionless. Seeing this, I jumped down from the cabin and followed Longshot without thinking. We covered the twenty odd yards in a dash and dropped down next to Big Tits, then rolled over his charge. My heart sank.
Thumbs lay there, hit in the face just below his right eye. My two Sergeants; both killed in one action.
“Damn it!” I whispered to myself.
“Sir, let’s get out of here.”
Looking up at Tony as he grabbed Big Tits by the collar, I grabbed Thumbs by his and we heaved the pair of them back to the trucks. As I jumped into the truck the shots continued to wiz past us and ping off the metal bodywork of the vehicle. I didn’t even think about it. Once Toddy signalled with his horn I banged of the back of the cabin and a quick flurry of bangs replied, then I slammed the gearstick forward and ploughed my boot down on the accelerator.
The shots were still coming after us as we drove into the darkness and swung westward to pick up Pretty Boy & Co. Once we got there they jumped on as we rolled by, then we sped off. Jesus, I felt awful.
“Fucking Thumbs and Big Tits!” I spat at myself, alone in the cabin.
I was thrilled to have got two trucks and secured my boys’ transport, but I knew the coming weeks would be all the harder now we had lost two of our best. I knew how the boys in the back of the truck were feeling as they sat there next to the bodies of their brothers. I’d been there myself in the past and it felt fucking shit. I knew morale would be plummeting by the mile. Still though, we’d got out of dodge with most of our men intact, with transport and my boys had got some action. Once we’d made it to the north shore of Karakoyyn Lake we filled out canteens and then doubled back around to the southwest. After driving for an hour I brought us to a stop.
Getting out and looking up at the sky I watched as the clouds began to thin out and then fade away to nothing. With their departure the temperate dropped, chilling us all. I ordered the bodies of Bint, Simon, Big Tits and Thumbs lifted down from the backs of the trucks. It was a sombre sight, my boys gently laying their brothers down on the sand.
“Gentlemen, I want you to dig four proper graves here. These heroes have given their lives that we may live on, do right by them.”
“SIR, YES, SIR!” came the emphatic, honourable response.
“Longshot. A word?”
“Longshot, I know you’re not a man for pomp so I’ll cut straight to it; I’m making you acting sergeant.”
“You know what duties to take over. But I want to know who you’d like to work with most as my other sergeant?”
“Take a moment, but be quick about it.”
Without hesitating he replied, “ Sir. Junior, Sir.”
“Done! Go get him and then we’ll bury our brothers together.”
While Tony went to fetch Junior I took a moment to reflect. As actions often do, it had all happened in an accelerated burst at Karakoyyn, maybe fifteen minutes in reality but it felt like two. Losing any of my boys was hard on all of us and, though I never let it show, me most of all. The blow to morale was severe; four dead, two of them sergeants. At least we had got the transport my boys had died for, and we’d resupplied on water. Still though, it was a gut-kick for all of us.
“Junior, you’re now acting sergeant alongside Longshot here.”
“Sir, Yes, Sir.”
“You know what duties you have to manage, but if there’s any questions come me or Tony and we’ll put you straight.”
“Now, let us lay our brothers to rest.”
“This night,” I began, “we bury four good men. Four brothers who had fallen in the act of preserving the lives of their fellow soldiers. Four men, each from different backgrounds, who shared one unifying truth; they were one of us. The next time we engage an enemy I want you to dedicate your kills to these fine gentlemen right here.”
Lowering their bodies down on silk lines, we filled in their graves, plotted their locations on our map and moved on with sullen hearts. It was a stark reminder on the truth of mortality and its horrendous fragility.
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey