That morning we felt like Gods, but the next night’s march was tougher than it had ever been. We weren’t badly dehydrated, and we hadn’t lost much sleep, but the low after the heights of revelry was a trough of sorrow. Still and all, we made good time and by the break of dawn we were only twenty or so miles from the Barsakelmes Lake. Over the course of the trek back from Kyzylorda to the nature reserve I had seen a shift in Glynn. Nobody spoke to him and he didn’t try to speak to anyone either, but that maniacal smile was gone and had been replaced by a burned look of certainty. I couldn’t pin it down, but it wasn’t healthy.
We’d been watching Syr Darya each day and there was the usual traffic, but nothing to indicate there was a search underway; at least not this far southwest. I’d been lying on top of a dune and peering out at the water over just a mile or so away when Pretty Boy came over. He didn’t say a word, just lay down in the sand next to me and peered out towards the river too. And there we lay, in silent vigil, watching the tiny boats drift along in the distance like ducks on a pond. This continued for about an hour before he opened his mouth.
“Sir. I just want to say thanks from all the lads for the beers, Sir. ”
“My pleasure. Believe me, it was my pleasure.”
“Spit it out Pretty Boy.”
“Sir. I’ve been working on some maths and I reckon the Shining Light, if they’ve gone all out, will be blocking the Caspian when we get there. Judging by the convoy we spotted back at that abandoned house, they were moving far too fast not to have taken the country by now. China and the Russian don’t care about their neighbours so there seems to be nothing to stop Serik from pushing out across the Kazakh borders. Sir, if we get the chance we have to do something. Sabotaging supplies, taking out officers, anything we can do. Sir, I know we’re not all gonna make it home, but if I die here I want it to be in a good fight for a good reason.”
“I know Robert. I would to. But we’re not turning back now. There’ll be no suicide missions and no last stands against an overwhelming enemy. The unit is my responsibly, and I’m taking us home. We might not even be sanctioned to fight these animals and an uncoordinated attack could kill our own boys if they’re in-country engaging them already. I would love to have the opportunity to gut this Serik chap like a fish, but I have to put my own wants on hold until I deal with our situation first. I salute you though.”
“Just bide your time, Soldier.”
That last day on the sands seemed to linger. Perhaps knowing we were so close to relieving Al and moving on toward freedom just warped our perception. Whatever it was, the sun seemed to tease us as it made its slow way across the sky. I had slept for three or four hours and was cleaning my rifle with Tony when the sun finally set. I moved us out and began the final leg of our trek to Barsakelmes. Knowing we had saved Longshot and found Glynn out mixed my feelings though. I was both proud and ashamed.
The sweet music of the prearranged birdcall signalled our arrival about halfway through the night. It was still dark, and in the middle of the desert there were only the lights of the small shacks on the eastern shore of the lake to guide our way. The lights oriented us to the cove where we’d left Al and the policemen, and where we’d sent Kegs and Toddy with Big Brin, so we made our way through the darkness. In the dead of night we were able to manoeuvre to the cove within an hour, but we couldn’t find our men.
“Sir. This is exactly where we left them. I’m sure of it, Sir.”
“I know, I remember it too. Maybe they had to move for safety.”
“There’s no trail to follow that I can see. And Al would always leave breadcrumbs. You know him, Sir. This doesn’t look good at all.”
“Make a perimeter check and come back to me. I want to be sure. And use the birdcall.”
“Longshot. A word?”
“Tony, something is up. The lads are gone and there’s no sign yet they left by choice.”
“When he gets back from a perimeter check I want you and L2 to take two teams of three and go find Al and the others. It’s been over week since we left them here and you know yourself there’s only one of two reasons for them of have moved on. We need to find them and get out of dodge.”
And there we sat, in the long grass, under the stars, with nothing but the sound of Tony and four men gathering their gear for the search. In about half an hour I had L2 back empty handed so I sent him and Longshot out with Tyk, Donkey, Sid and Shelley. Though they’d each experienced battle and had been well trained, I’d never fielded our four youngest men together on a mission before. Needs must; I wasn’t about to let my men spend another day without our backup.
“Sir. We’re ready, Sir.”
“Good. Now Gents, I want a tight pattern spread out over the surrounding two square miles. You know how to track and I want your eyes out on stalks. I don’t need to tell you if that was you out there you’d want us to find you, so give it everything you’ve got.”
“Sir. Yes, SIR!”
And there we Sat, me and eight souls, each eager to find our men and bed down before sunrise. There were plenty of hiding places in the long grass and the tress, but without our men we weren’t going anywhere. Longshot’s rescue compounded an already profound urge to see our men safe. It should have taken a little over an hour but after only about forty five minutes it began.
“You hear that?!!”
“Sir?” Murphy whispered.
Faint pops echoed through the grass as the north winds carried the sound of battle toward us.
“Fuck! I heard that, Sir!”
“Everyone up! On me…”
I led in a crouched run around the cove and north to the distant sound of shots. Everyone followed in a rush. Lifting my right arm mid stride and pointing to one flank, half of us fanned out. I pointed left. The rest moved out. Once we had lined up side by side I charged, the height of the grass obstructed our view up to our chins so we couldn’t see more than ten or fifteen paces ahead of ourselves. In a matter of minutes we saw the first muzzle flashes – bright orange and white sparks in the darkness.
“CONTACT!! EVERYONE DOWN!!”
We all halted dead in our tracks as our Brothers came into sight. Silhouettes of Longshot, Sid and Tyk were holding a fixed position were twenty yards ahead and to our right, popping up and down as they fired single shots towards the enemy. L2 and Donkey were moving to our left at a gallop, fifteen yards ahead of us across our line of fire. There was no sign of Shelley.
“TWO RIGHT, AT TWENTY! TWO LEFT, AT THIRTY! ON MY FIRE!”
Fanning out brought our line to fifty yards wide as I started to move forward. The line followed suit and as we got closer to our boys I fired dead centre on a concentration of muzzle flashes about a hundred yards out. The moment I opened fire Longshot, L2 & Co. all ceased fire and dropped to the ground, L2 and Donkey dove down into the grass too. All at once my whole line erupted in a wall of bullets. Each of us exercised the exacting control necessary to conserve ammunition.
“CEASE FIRE!! ON ME!!”
The enemy rate of fire dropped off that instant, but they continued to take pot shots at a steady rate; shooting blind, but still keeping our heads down. I crawled forward and the line followed me. In seconds we came across Tony. He swung around and stuck his side arm right in my face on instinct but recoiled a split second later without batting an eyelid.
“At least fifty, Sir.”
“Good, we could do with the target practice. They’re firing ragtag.”
“I know, they’re ridiculous, but it’ll be dawn any moment now, Sir. Do you want to stand or bolt?”
“We’re gonna outflank them. Where’s Shelley? He’s dead, Sir. Just over here. That’s why we’re holding this position. Wasn’t about to leave his body to these pretend soldiers.”
“Shit! Drag him out of there and head back toward the lake a hundred yards, we’re gonna loop around the right of these tits at the same distance and take them from behind.”
As he turned back to go get Shelley’s body, everyone worked their way to me. I gave the order and we formed up, all at a low crouch. Intermittent whizzes of bullets chimed overhead as the faint early dawn cast striped shadows on our faces between the tall thick stalks as we waited for Tony. The second he was in sight we began to fall back. Once we made a hundred yards we flanked left and double-timing around the enemy in a circle. The long grass petered out into marsh as we came level with our foes, half way around them, and just as dawn had started to break. I ordered L2, Tyk and Murphy to take up positions at the lip of the long grass to cover us and guard Shelley’s body. Tony and I took the rest of the men around toward the back of our attackers, who by now had almost fallen silent. We could make them out in the distance with the naked eye but we didn’t have time to stop.
“On my fire, L2.”
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey