That evening I called Longshot, Thumbs, Floppy and Big Tits into my tent. All the boys were keeping an eye on Glynn, who by now was so fast asleep God himself couldn’t have woken him. Rolling open a map on my desk I looked them all in my eye and began.
“Gentlemen, you’re my staff. You are here to get done what I need doing, and you do an immaculate job. I’m sorry to say HQ has been overrun, so we have to assume there is nobody coming to relieve us. We are alone.”
“Yes, Sir,” they responded in unison without flinching.
“I’m herby issuing you all with new orders. We have to get out of dodge as soon as possible. Astana is here,” I said pointing at the map. “These Shining Light fuckers said they control everything north of it, so we’re going south west across desert and the grasslands. The Kazakhs aren’t exactly friendly but the Russians and the Chinese will really enjoy fucking us up if they get their hands on us. We’re headed for the Caspian via the Barsakelmes Lake and nature reserve here, then across the Caspian to Azerbaijan to meet up with friendlies. It’s gonna be a long and brutal trek, Gents, and God knows how many of this General Serik’s boys will be chasing us, but we have to try. Any questions?”
“When do we leave, Sir?” asked Thumbs, the only one to say a word.
And off they went. Each knew what was required of them. Word was spread and as soon as dusk began to fall camp was dismantled and packed up. The tents were buried along with anything we didn’t need or couldn’t carry. Everyone cleaned their weapons and filled their packs with what was left of the rations, water and ammunition. Spirits were high despite the situation, typical of my boys. I was proud as hell of them right then, I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of lads.
Glynn was the last up and still wasn’t right and ready so his gear was sorted by Tyk and Murphy while Toddy volunteered to march beside him. Once everyone was ready I gave the order and we moved out in silence. Marching west at night wouldn’t buy us more than a few minutes of extra darkness but psychologically it felt better than marching east – as if we had the wind at our backs. Everyone knew what was happening, the situation the way it was I opted not to withhold anything. It wasn’t every man for himself. We were totally dependent on each other without any back up.
I’d put Al and Big Tits on point. They had left fifteen minutes ahead of us to scout the safest route and, in turn, we followed. There wouldn’t be much traffic off the ridge road, but natural obstacles, settlements and herders’ camps were to be avoided at all costs. We didn’t have the resources or manpower to take on anyone, most of all on the first night. We just needed to cover as much ground and put as much distance between us and these Shining Light lunatics as possible.
The terrain was rocky until we got about three miles out, then it became soft sand that was hell to march through. Fit and healthy men, even in fresh night air, still find sand a drudgery, but there wasn’t a word out of anyone. No complaining, no grumbling, just dedicated effort. None of them had gone slack after our time at the border. All those hikes were paying off. Stopping once every two hours for three or four minutes gave the boys time to rest and rehydrate, but it was still a gruelling first night – despite not running into anyone.
Glynn was able to keep up with the rest of us while the boys carried his pack for him in pairs; they rotated so nobody got too tired. I had to give it to him, the man had only made it back after a week walking in the desert and here I had ordered him to walk again for days. True to form though, he just got on with it. I could see the respect that the rest of the lads had for him when we finally bedded down at dawn.
Al made the prearranged birdcall to I.D. himself in the dark gloomy rays of the first morning of the march. He and Big Tits had scouted a saddle in a rocky outcrop that was bald of all vegetation, and so, useless to herdsmen and traders alike. Al led us up onto the bear rocks and as we arrived we saw Drenten had already begun rearranging shale to make a rudimentary bed for Glynn. He’d come a long way in a short time had oul’ Big Tits. I knew he had it in him.
And so it went, that first day we kept a low profile and waited out the heat while keeping watch in shifts. Of course, the boys all slept well after their first long distance march in months; by my calculations we had made just under thirty miles. I was damn proud; we had come through with an excellent count for the night. My scouts too had managed a great location for our down time, it had a good view of the surrounding area at about fifteen yards of elevation in the saddle and forty odd at its peak. There was little chance of running into anyone. We couldn’t have asked for a better spot.
That morning I had done the rounds and checked in with each man once they were all bedded down, starting with Glynn. He was still burned to a crisp and it was obvious he was in great discomfort, his fatigues were covered in flakes of skin, some of them the size of your thumb. As always he never mentioned it. He just volunteered for second watch, then ate his rations and turned in. Each man was the same, even Big Tits, bless him, he was having the hardest time of all of us. He volunteered for first watch so I took him with me and sent Grubber off to watch the far side of camp.
“It’s actually quite beautiful, the desert, isn’t it, Sir?” he asked.
“Aye, clean and silent. Almost like some dream I forgot long ago.”
“I know the feeling, Sir. I had it easy at HQ: desk fan, running water. I hadn’t even been in the field once since I came in country.”
“Yes, Sir. They gave me a few days to acclimatise and then put me straight to work as a batman.”
“Colonel Hart, Sir. I suppose he’s dead now. All the boys I knew up there probably are.”
“Don’t dwell on it, Drenten. It won’t do you any good.”
“I’ve lost friends too, quite a few of them over the years actually. And while I loved my brothers, and I still do, we can’t afford to wallow in self-pity. Besides, you don’t know for sure who is or isn’t dead, so what’s the point?”
“I suppose so, Sir. Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it. Big Tits,” I said, scoffing at his moniker.
With that, we walked up and down, around my boys as they took their well-earned rest. Longshot was sitting up cleaning his rifle and didn’t look at all tired so I peeled off from Drenten for a quick word.
“She’s a beauty, Longshot.”
“She’s my favourite, Sir. I brought her from home.”
“What’s her name?”
“Yes, Sir. As in, “nevermore”.”
“Ah, I see. Didn’t know you could read, Longshot.”
“Five years of university, Sir. Didn’t finish my studies but I intend to go back when this is all over. They’re holding my place till I get back.”
“Well fuck me, what you study?”
“Jesus, I’d never have pegged you for a fop! Does your wife know?”
“Indeed, she was my head lecturer.”
“Oh. Well look at you. Scoring the teacher. You naughty boy!”
He didn’t say a word. He just smiled one of those smiles only those who know can smile. A part of me was even jealous, I’ve no idea why. But I was.
“OK, I better get back to the new guy. Don’t want him wandering off,” I said with a grin.
“Oh, and Longshot, at first light I want you up on that peak above us there scouting behind us to see if we have any company coming our way. Just be quick about it. We’ll be on the move soon as we can.”
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey