Inspection of the stricken vessel revealed a dark pool of blood in the wheelhouse where someone had bled out. Pretty Boy figured it was Al because he’d been shot in the stomach, but none of us could be certain. Kegs had taken a round to the head and hadn’t suffered any pain. And Brintock appeared to have succumbed to a second gunshot, this one to his neck. There were boot prints that matched the policemen and Murphy found a trail when he walked off to gather himself after cleaning Al up.
“Gents, I want everyone to move one half mile west towards the island and dig in. Myself, Murphy and Grubber are gonna follow this trail. If we’re not back in one hour L2 is to assume command and continue on without us. That’s an order! Get to it.”
With that, Murphy Grubber and I moved up the trail as the rest of the unit moved out. The woods around the lake were only a few hundred yards deep but they were dense. They’ve been growing there since time began and working our way through them was rough, but they left a damn good trail. We hadn’t got two hundred yards when we saw the first signs of struggle. There was blood on leaves and the bark of trees. Deeper in the woods we saw a flattened area where a body had lain, with a small blood pool at one end of it.
Then, there at the lip of the trees, where the sand encroached on the lush greenery, we found Toddy and the last two policemen. They made a sorry sight. Each had been shot at least once and Toddy was caked down one side with a deep crimson coat. The two policemen looked as though they’re just collapsed in the dirt, but Toddy looked to have survived a little longer. He had pulled the shirts of the two policemen up over their faces, his hand still clutched the collar of one of them when blood loss finally got the better of him.
“Would you look at that, Lads?”
“Even in death, Sir!”
“Even in death! Get your shovel out, Murphy. I’ll start. Grubber, run back to the unit at the half mile, and get two volunteers to bury the dead.”
“Sir!” he replied, already halfway into a jog as he said it.
The heat blowing in from the sands dried out my mind, and by looking at Murphy I could tell he was miles away too. Seeing the noble, honourable way in which Toddy had met his end was inspiring. Uncommon grace has been present in every war I’ve ever fought in, but Toddy was the singular embodiment of that ideal. I buried him with a full heart and a clear conscious. He died doing what he loved. And his final act showed us he had served out his orders to the very last.
Once we had plotted the graves and made our way back through the woods we moved up the shore and linked up with the rest of the unit. There were questions on everyone’s faces as we formed up. I didn’t have time to divulge details. I just told them we’d lost Toddy and we moved on. We had to get to the island. In the afternoon heat we had to drag our hungry bodies through the scrub. We were all still on tenterhooks waiting for the Shining Light to pounce on us at any moment, but they never came. By early evening we made it to the reserve and Grubber and Tyk went hunting while the rest of us collapsed into a generalised heap on a gentle slope above a stream.
It was like a different world encapsulated inside that island on Barsakelmes Lake. There were ferns and vines and moss and all manner or plants that had been carried there from far and wide by migrating birds who sought refuge in that natural oasis. The sounds there were beautiful too. The insects and the birds, even the water seemed to sound fresher as it lapped the shore some hundred yards from our camp. And when we dipped in it, it seemed to soak into our souls. The cooler air wafted through the trees and bushes, scented with by the abundance of leaves and petals too. Jesus, it was heaven!
After about an hour our hunting party both arrived back, each with a small deer on their shoulders. And you can imagine the excitement. Small cooking fires were lit once darkness fell and by Holy Christ himself did we eat like kings! I still don’t know what those small deer were called and I don’t much care to. To me they were manna, sent from above that my men would live.
“What I wouldn’t do for one of those for one of those beers now, Sir?” smiled Tony as we sat around basking in the flavour, forgetting our situation, or perhaps forcing it from our minds.
“You evil bastard! Now all I can think of is those two we quaffed back on Syr Darya!”
“Ha! Enjoy, Sir!” he said with a fain bow.
“Can we get a tally?”
“Sir!” he said as he swung around and dipped into his pack, which he had been using as a pillow and produced his notes. His small ledger contained all the counts of rations, ammo, men and material we had.
“Ok, we have fourteen souls in all, each with full packs. A half supply of medical gear, plus individual scraps. Ammo count comes in at one grenade per men, plus seven more on the grenadier, one hundred and seventy five heavy rounds on the sub machine gun and Longshot’s personal supply of…,” he said, pointing his pencil at Tony.
“…one hundred and seven…”
“…one hundred and seven rounds. Each man has fifty rounds of thirty-ought and fifteen to twenty rounds of thirty-eight or forty-five calibre for his side arm. All arms clean and ready, sand or no sand we have em oiled down perfect, Sir. Water is plentiful, food is low but we’ll stock back up tomorrow. There are nuts, berries, meat and fish all around us. We’re good, Sir.”
“Perfect,” I smiled. “L2, at first light I want you to assign details to food collection and everyone is to bath and wash their clothes. We have to be ready to move out before we can rest tomorrow night. There’s another a hundred plus miles to the Caspian and only one more lake left between here and there.”
“Yes, Sir!” he smiled.
“For now, everyone is to get a full night’s sleep,” I ordered. “I’ll take first watch. Who wants in?”
“I’ll do it, Sir.”
“You’re on, Sid.”
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey