With what little material we could scrounge from the enemy we moved on. Laying Shelley to rest only hardened each of us further, forcing us into a tighter and more efficient unit. It wasn’t just anger, it was unspoken rage we all shared. Having lost another of our group we weren’t sullen again as we had been before, we marched on.
Because the Shining Light had come to town I knew Al & Co. would have got to a safe distance, but where they went was anyone’s guess. The next leg of our journey was across the lake to the nature reserve on the island – where we would resupply and rest. And so I took a chance and decided to move us onto the island in the hope Al had moved there ahead of us. First we had to find transport.
“Scout ahead, Longshot. We’ll skirt the lake until we find a vessel for tonight. And keep your eyes peeled for any signs of these Shining Light wankers.”
“Gentlemen, we’re on the move in ten. We need water transport and we need it today. By nightfall we’re moving to the island.”
“Sir. Yes, Sir,” came the group response.
It was a harsh call to have to make, but necessary. When the unit we had run into didn’t report back a contingent would be sent to find them, and we didn’t want to be there when they arrived. We were starting to run low on ammunition and even with our rations spread out we’d have to find something to eat soon too. The island would provide dense cover and a massive source of food. I had long since given up my feelings of regret at having to kill endangered or protected animals. My men would get what they needed, no matter what.
Hours passed without sighting anything, there were no boats on the lake at all – as if traffic was limited to staff of the nature reserve. The Shining Light didn’t seem to have any other presence in the area so we knew the boys we had engaged were just a scouting unit. Judging by the ages of those boys though I had thought they were a reserve unit. How wrong I was.
Dusk fell on the lake and the familiar birdcall announced Longshot’s presence. He looked fresh after having had some time to himself.
“No joy on your side either?”
“Damn it, we really need to get to the island.”
“Sir, we could march the rest of the way. It’s not a true island, but there’s bound to be rangers manning the border. If the Shining Light haven’t scared them off, Sir.”
“I know, it’s an option I didn’t want to have to entertain, but we may have to.”
“Permission to speak freely, Sir?”
“Jesus Christ, Tony, you know better than to have to ask.”
“Sir. I think we should try for it. If we have to shoot our way through then so be it. If we run into rangers we should be able to get around them. Needs must and we are nearly out of time.”
“Fuck. We really don’t need this. And the time it’ll take is a pain too.”
“Sir, if Al sailed over to the island then he might do a short range patrol by night.”
“There’s no protocol for it but you’re right. He’d keep the channels open for as long as he could. I’ll think on it. You get your head down, Tony. And send L2, Pretty Boy, Murphy and Sid up to me.”
There I sat. My men about to run out of food and Al, Big Brin, Toddy and Kegs all off the radar, with another couple of hundred miles to the Caspian and the Shining Light on our tails. I pondered on how all the years behind me had brought me to this moment. I could feel them reaching out through the ether, helping me. All the lessons I’d learned. All the tricks of the trade. All the survival abilities. All of it made me able to get this far. I knew well though that more lessons would be learned. I was up to the challenge, and I knew my men were too. There, waiting for my men to arrive, I watched as the day sank into the Barsakelmes Lake, the deep dark purple melting into black.
“You’re on watch, Gents. Murphy, Sid, I want you two keeping an eye out for any boats; especially the one we sent Big Brin back on when he got shot. Al might patrol the water looking for us; any questions?”
“Thank you, Gentlemen. Go to it.”
My lookouts fanned out and took up positions along the water and I stayed where I was. The sounds of night coming in across the water reminded me of home. The ripples of the tiny waves on the shore, the insects buzzing by, it was calm and dark. Looking out across the water I could see nothing. Clouds blotted out the starlight. Sat in the grass that lined a small wooded area, I took in the sounds of night and pushed my hearing out around me. I could hear the wind churning the foliage with a calmness and the occasional popping of the water’s surface as fish ate insects. No boats, no sounds of any human being whatsoever. After an hour or so of that joy, I turned in.
“I’m up, what is it?”
“No sign, Sir.”
“How long was I out.”
“About two hours, Sir.”
“Thanks, Tyk. Has everyone else got their heads down?”
“Good. I want you and Grubber to relieve the watch. We’re on the move in two hours.”
And off he went. Soon after L2, Pretty Boy, Murphy and Sid all walked into camp and got their heads down. I couldn’t sleep. There was too much to calculate. I knew we were gonna have to walk around to the island. It was a desperate measure, and a necessary one, but it grated on me. If we still had the boat then we’d be there already with full bellies and high spirits, but it was what it was. I knew I’d want Longshot on point again, and I needed Glynn under watch, as always – so he’d stay in the centre with me. L2 and Pretty boy would fan out along the line and deal with anything that might arise. At the water all sorts of creatures came to visit, and by night they came out of the woodwork. That being said, it was the two legged variety we had to worry about most – so I wasn’t too bothered by the wildfire.
As we hadn’t seen sight nor sound of Al & Co. I had to face the reality of their chances of survival having dwindled. With their training and the size of their brass balls I didn’t doubt them, but I still had to calculate the probability of them still being alive as I made my plans. Now that the Shining Light were local we couldn’t stay long on the island, but with their operations based on taking and holding the country I knew the reserve wasn’t high value. Jesus, I hoped they were still alive. My boys.
“Let’s get on the road. Five hours to sunrise”
Putting my hand on his shoulder and stepping aside with him I said in a deadpan tone, “no matter what, we make that island tonight.”
Moving out I watched my men. Everyone was hungry, in body and soul. After going back and getting Longshot we had proved to ourselves we could and would save ourselves. It was indicative of our overall struggle. If we could get Tony back, we could get Al and the others back, and we could get the fuck out of that sandbox. Even I wasn’t prepared for what we found.
We marched twenty yards off the animal trail that ringed the lake for two hours and stopped for rehydration and rest, then moved on again as usual. Just after we began our second leg of the march Longshot gave the birdcall and we all froze. A moment later he was by my side whispering in my ear.
“Sir. Down by the water. Just there, Sir.”
I looked but couldn’t see what he was pointing to.
“This way,” he whispered and led me to the shore.
There, face down, a body was in plain view where the water met the land. My heart sank. In the darkness I couldn’t tell if he was one of ours but in my heart I knew it was. We double checked the area and moved in for a better look. The wet heavy shirt on his back was black in the night’s dim light. As I rolled him over I felt the shoulder emblems of one of the policeman.
“It’s a policeman.”
“One of ours prisoners, Sir?”
“I don’t know. Looks like it.”
“Let’s get him onshore so we can examine him.”
We dragged the body ashore and stripped it down. Pretty Boy gave him a once over and then gave his verdict.
“Drowned, Sir. Looks like he took a bit of a beating first too, and he’s been in the water for at least a day.”
“So we’re only a day behind the rest of them,” I thought aloud.
“L2, Glynn, Tyk and Grubber bury that man on the double and plot his grave on the map. The rest of you, take five. We’re out of here soon as. Tony, move on ahead and see if there’s any more of these boys strewn about.”
Less than two miles on we found another. And then another, until we had uncovered almost all of the policemen who had been in our custody under Al. I couldn’t help wonder what had happened; if Al was still alive, and the others. He volunteered to stay behind. And on his own with ten bound men he was well able to guard and protect them, but anything could have happened.
“Yes, Pretty Boy. Walk with me.”
“Sir. I didn’t find any binds on any of the policemen we’ve fished out. Something isn’t right.”
“I know, Soldier. My guess is they had the boat.”
“And Al, and the others?”
“Likely they were left behind. There were signs of struggle on the policemen’s bodies and the lads wouldn’t have given up that boat without a fight.”
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey