We moved on. When dawn arrived we had put eight bodies to rest and noted their locations; each of us glad in ourselves that none of them were ours. I had marched us pretty much nonstop for two days by this point and with almost no rations it was do or die. We could have lasted maybe a week with no food, but that risked organ failure. So, once Longshot called for halt near dawn I sat everyone down but ordered nobody to sleep.
“Gentlemen,” I began. “We all want to find Al and the rest of his crew, however, we can’t do that if we’ve starved to death. We’re not five miles from the island and we need food and shelter. We can go one more day on empty stomachs but we’ll have to eat tomorrow whether we link back up with them or not. Understood?”
“Sir, Yes, Sir,” their reply came in unison.
“I’m moving us on a day march the last five miles, where we will likely encounter the rangers who protect the park or more of these Shining Light animals. Once we get into the undergrowth of the island I want a camp setup and a hunting party dispatched to rustle up dinner for all of us.”
“I’ll take the dinner, Sir.”
“I’ll go with him, Sir.”
“Grubber,” I nodded.
“Once we’re under cover I’ll have Sid and Pretty Boy on watch and everyone else is to put their heads down. We should be there by noon when it gets too hot for even the Shining Light to operate, so dusk will have us out looking for our men. Any questions?”
To all our surprise there was no contact that morning. We moved up the shore and were just about to enter the reserve when Tony used the birdcall and we all dropped to the deck. Jesus, I fucking hate talking about this. So, there we are, all of us waiting for Longshot to come back into view at a low crouch or a crawl and he walks out of the brush stood upright, but with his head slung down. His left hand held his rifle slack by his waste and his right palm was rubbing the back of his neck.
“Aw, Jesus. What is it?”
“Sir. On me, Sir.”
“L2, Pretty Boy, on me. Everyone stay out of sight,” I ordered in a hurry and made a beeline for Tony.
“This way, Sir,” he slurred as he turned to guide us, his eyes dulled by his discovery.
Longshot led us to a tiny cove up the trail. Not as much a cove as an inlet big enough to hold a twenty footer. The water was deep enough to take the hull but the boat had lifted to expose the waterline time had shorn across its body like a war wound. From first glance I could see the broken wheelhouse window and the bloody smears on the outside of the wheelhouse door. A mesh of bullet holes peppered the fore-starboard. The crooked way the boat tilted towards us exposed more of the deck than is usually visible from the side and there, on the wooden boards, we saw them. Al, Big Brin and Kegs laid out, side by side and leaning each against the other under the weight of the boat’s thirty degree tilt. It was awful. I would have given anything to bring them back. Young Al, Big Brintock and Kegs, the sarcastic little bastard that he was. Fuck!
“Get up there Pretty Boy and examine them. L2, bring up the men. We need to bury these Soldiers.”
“Tony, check if there’s any chance we could salvage this wreck.”
It was a fucking nightmare come to life. In all my years, of all the men I’ve seen dead and dying, none have scourged my soul like the bodies on that boat. Murphy was the worst hit – he’d known Al since before they entered The Service. Jesus, I felt for him. When he came up and saw myself and Tony laying out the bodies on the shore he hit the roof. I’d seen brothers in arms cry out for their fallen comrades before, but this was a desperate wail of pain even the poppy couldn’t shield you from.
We all watched as he knelt over Al’s body and used the cuff of his sleeve and water from his own canteen to wash his brother’s face. Once he had straightened his old friend up he reached inside the man’s shirt and took out a letter he had known was there. Then he leaned in and removed the cross from around his neck and tucked both into his own breast pocket. Resting Al’s hands across his chest he arranged him with dignity as Tony and I arranged Kegs and Brintock. Everyone felt it. And, God, it nearly killed us all.
The whole unit stood to attention and raised their rifles up and across their chests. We all raised our right hands to our brows and saluted our fallen kin. And there we stood for a long moment. Each of us reflecting on Kegs, Al and Brintock. And on ourselves and our situation.
“Sir?” Tony began.
“This boat is scrap. There’s blood up and down the wheelhouse. It looks like they were attacked, Sir.”
“Gents, get these fine men buried.”
“SIR, YES, SIR!!”
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey