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. ”
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey