The boats were too slow for my liking but we would get our chance to requisition other vessels on our way back to Kyzylorda. The police boat was far too conspicuous, alas. I had all my men on watch for anything faster than what we had and by Christ if they saw something we could use there wasn’t a hope in hell it would get away from us. Furthermore, because the policemen we took captive wouldn’t have been seen for days by that point, or hadn’t checked in in three nights, we knew the river should have been under observation. All our hearts were burning as we begged the god of war to let our Brother still be alive. The tension was unbelievable, but true to form, it was focused on the mission at hand.
I couldn’t help think about Tony. I knew if he was alive he’d be at the ridge, but what condition he’d be in was anybody’s guess – if he wasalive. His supplies would be limited as we’d used up everything we’d looted from Kyzylorda before moving out. After three days now, he’d have had to start drinking river water and his food rations would be running out within twenty four hours. With all his experience it was probable he have survived, if he hadn’t been injured or captured, but there would be search parties crawling all over the airport and the oil depot, not to mention a probable government presence since the destruction we caused would have warranted an investigation. His chances were slim, but I knew he could make it. If anyone could, he could.
“Report” I said as soon as L2 stepped into the lead wheelhouse.
“Sir. No signs of life on either shore. It’ll be dark in the next hour and we’ll need to stop and refuel soon.”
“Make it quick.”
“Every second counts, Sir.”
“You’re fucking right it does, Soldier.”
Refuelling the boats from their spare barrels on deck only took a few minutes but it felt like hours. Once we were ready we didn’t waste a moment, there would be no rest and no stopping until we had Longshot in hand. The cool night air was lost on us, all minds fixated on their tasks. If could have been twenty below and we wouldn’t have noticed. I stayed in the wheelhouse as L2 rotated out for Toddy and then as Toddy rotated out for Murphy. I hadn’t slept in two days by that point but I hadn’t even noticed. I was too busy planning our next move. At the rate we were moving we’d be in Kyzylorda in just under a day, if we didn’t run into any trouble. With the ridge we had designated as the rendezvous at five miles from the town we would have to drop off the boats, get to Tony, if he was even there, and then return to the boats and head back to Al and the policemen in the reserve. It was going to be a tough mission and it could take a whole extra day to get to the ridge if we ran into company, a day that we didn’t have.
As the second day dropped off into darkness we were about ten miles from Kyzylorda when things went from bad to worse. We were spotted by a vessel fitted with searchlights and sirens and as it approached we were forced to open fire on it. They returned fire and began to list as if there was nobody at the helm, but one of their shots had ripped through Big Brin’s shoulder and another had hit a fuel line, disabling the boat. We were sitting ducks so I signalled all men ashore and once Pretty Boy had stabilised Big Brin I ordered Kegs and Toddy to take him back to the reserve on the one good boat left and wait for us there with Al and our captives.
Things were falling into a state of decay and Tony’s window for survival was closing by the heartbeat so I ordered everyone else to march on. We made a beeline south-southwest and got to it. It felt strange to be marching by night again but we had come ashore at the right time of day and headed off into the darkness for what would be at least a two hour hike. There wasn’t a sound in those two hours. Not a grumble, not a cough, not a solitary sigh to voice the anguish we were all feeling. It was both tense and serene. I felt right at home there and then, I can’t speak for my men, but I’ve never felt such urgency and calmness all at once. It was both surreal and grounding.
“Sir,” a whisper came from ahead of me.
“What is it?”
“Sir, we’re nearly there.”
“Any signs of life?”
“OK, lead the way. We have to be sure,” I whispered back.
The ridge was about eight or nine foot high and surrounded by rocks. A natural protrusion from a flat area; it was a landmark visible by day for miles around. At twenty odd yards long and curved like a banana, it offered shelter from the cold winds at night and the sun during the day. As we approached we saw no signs that Longshot had been there. No scent, no fire, no trails in the scrub in the vicinity. Each of us hoped we’d find something, anything to show he’d made it this far, but the more we searched the less we found until I gave the order to huddle up under the ridge and hydrate. I was gutted, but there was no way I or any of his brothers were giving up on him. No. Fucking. Way!
“Get your heads down for an hour, Gents. We’ll wait one here before doubling back. ”
I was too angry and sleep, but once I sat down I started to drift as the third night without sleep finally registered. Jesus, I was drained. I’d always been able to function on almost no sleep at all, but this was different. We had been on the run for two months at this stage. We’d had to sacrifice a massive amount of time in doubling back for Longshot, we’d all nearly been killed multiple times and we still had no certainty of escape. But out on that ridge, with my men huddled together behind me we had come to an impasse. He wasn’t there. And if he was still alive he could be anywhere, even in enemy hands. I had to decide whether or not to move out and abandon hope of saving Tony, my friend, my brother, my son in arms. I knew if I’d been in his position I’d want me to wait. Hell, I wanted to wait, but we couldn’t leave Al guarding those policemen forever and even with Kegs and Toddy at his side, we needed to keep a close eye on Brintock, he could turn at any minute. Plus, I still had to get my men to the Caspian and home to safety. We couldn’t afford to wait around.
“I’m up, I’m up,” I grumbled in exhausted confusion.
“Sir. You ok?”
“I’m fine, what the fuck happened?”
“Sir. It’s me, Sir.”
“TONY! JESUS-FUCK, Tony. CHRIST! When did you get here? What the fucking hell happened to you?!” I said, jumping up and throwing my arms around him like a child whose father just got home from work.
“Sir, I love you too but please get the fuck off me. My leg…”
Stepping back and looking down I saw a limp right leg and the trail behind him that was a line of swirls and footsteps.
“You fucking well dragged your limp ass all the way out here?”
“I did, Sir.”
“After having whatever the fuck has happened to you?”
“You fucking lunatic, Tony! If I had ten of you I could rule the world!!”
“Got any water, I’m all out?”
“Fuck! Bollix! I’m sorry. Here, take mine…”
Now, if that was me I would have just poured that canteen of water down me, but that wasn’t Longshot’s way. I couldn’t believe it when he just sat down in the first hints of dawn and just sipped on it. It was unreal to see this man, a human being who had crawled through hell, alone, and came out the other side. We’ve all felt the jaws of loneliness at times, but when you’re alone and injured in the desert you know you’re going to die. Unless you have absolute faith your people will be where you need them to be. He had bet his life on us being at that ridge, and we had been late in getting there too. Sometimes it works out.
The second I woke the rest of my men they came over to reunite with Longshot and to patch him up, but Glynn hung back. It was obvious right then and there. When Tony saw him he looked at me with murder in his eyes and I knew. I didn’t turn my head, but I looked towards Glynn and his face betrayed him.
“Come on lads, get off him. Can’t you see his leg is fucked? Get yourselves together, we’re on the move in two. L2, Murphy, get on either side of Longshot and help him along. Glynn, you’re on point.”
It wasn’t long before the temperatures started to climb to unbearable levels so we stopped for two hours and shielded ourselves in a slight ditch with our packs overhead. I didn’t ask and Tony didn’t tell, but when I saw the bloodlust in his eyes I caught his attention and gave him the knowing nod. Being his stalwart self he acceded and kept it to himself. I felt for him, but I knew he was well aware I wouldn’t let it pass. He knew me better than that.
“Right, we’re up. I’ll take Longshot, everyone else move out. Only about two more hours and the river will be in sight. We’re gonna follow it north, but we’re gonna keep our distance by at least two miles.”
And so, we pressed on. Letting the column stretch out until Tony and I could talk a little, I prepared myself. I knew what was coming and knew what would have to happen. And it was something I didn’t want to have to do.
“So what the fuck was that back at the ridge? What did he do? Tell me straight out and no bullshit. I know you and I know you’ll want to cover for him.”
A deep sigh dragged the words out from a place inside Tony no man wants to have to speak from, “Sir. Back at the oil depot, when we were making our escape with those two boats, I got tangled on some barbed wire. That’s how my leg got fucked. I was actually ahead of him as we made our way to the jetty and as Brintock and Kegs made haste to get on board the second boat. So I got tangled, and Glynn ran right past me. When I called him he stopped and looked back but then turned and got into the boat. It wasn’t twenty fucking yards, Sir. I called out to him and he looked me right in the eyes, then he just fired up the engine and sailed off. He left me to rot.”
“Mother of Jesus! Did Kegs or Big Brin see any of this?!”
“I don’t think so, Sir. They were high-tailing it out of there too and Glynn pulled out first so they likely figured we were both aboard.”
“I know. And we still have to get back to the Caspian, Sir.”
“We’ll deal with this. You just wait. I give you my word, Tony.”
God I fucking hated Glynn right then. I wanted to just shot him on the spot, but I had to do my duty. We marched on, Tony and I hobbling together as best he could manage until we all came to a halt. We hadn’t spoken much at all since Longshot exposed Glynn, but we were both still seething. It was the hardest call I had ever had to make, but justice is absolute. I couldn’t proceed until I spoke to Kegs and Brin and I’d be damned if I didn’t hash all this out the first instant I could, it ate at me. If Glynn was guilty, as all evidence appeared to indicate he was, things were only going to get worse. And right in the middle of our trek across a barren country – it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
“Murphy, you’re with me on watch. Gents, you have two hours and we’re on the move again. L2, I want you to relieve Murphy here in an hour, and Pretty Boy, stay with Longshot. Everyone else, get your heads down.”
We had made it to within two miles of the river and followed it a further ten miles by this point and as dusk fell we bedded down. South of the river there was nothing, just desert and patches of grassland, so I wasn’t worried about unexpected company, but we still kept watch. I had become used to living under stress by this point, but this was pushing me to my limit. We had, of course, knitted into an indiscernible unit, so for one of us to betray the group was absolutely unforgivable.
“Sir. You ok, Sir?”
“Hey Murphy, yeah I’m fine. How about you?”
“Just going to put my head down but I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Of course, what’s on your mind?”
“Sir. It’s Glynn. There’s something off about him. I worried for him, Sir.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that when we stopped here he walked off a little and sat on his own. He had a bad look on his face. I think all this might be getting to him.”
“Did you talk to him? Usually you’re the first person to let someone bend your ear.”
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey