That dawn we made it to the Caspian. Holy Mother of Jesus it was beautiful. The rising sun seemed to peel the water up from its surface, creating a mirage on the horizon as if the sea itself was floating in the air. The purple and plum sky sat like silk atop the water and in our hearts it lifted us from our circumstances. We all stopped to rest and rehydrate as soon as the Caspian came into view. Sitting together, side by side, we all felt the power of our achievement. We still had four to five nights of marching ahead of us to get to the ports up north, but we had made it to the Caspian Sea. We had marched across a country. We had survived, this far.
“Fucking look at that!”
“You said it, Sid” added Donkey.
“Have you ever seen anything as beautiful in all your lives, Gentlemen?” I said.
“I did once, Sir.”
“Back home, in a small house near the barracks, there’s a little girl my wife is taking care of for me. She’s waiting on me, Sir. And I can tell you in all honesty. She’s the most beautiful thing you’ll ever lay you’re eyes on!”
“What’s here name, Grubber?”
“Sir. It’s Annie, Sir.”
“Well here’s to Annie!” I toasted, lifting my canteen. “May she get her looks from her Mother!”
We all enjoyed the laugh, even Grubber. I’ll never forget that moment, sitting there shoulder to shoulder with my men. I couldn’t give them more rest, but after everything we’d been through just being together with them was a pleasure in itself. Nobody, and I mean nobody, can appreciate how we felt right then, looking out across the water and watching the sunrise; our backs to the east. Even now when I look back I can’t believe the emotion of that moment. We felt like giants.
“Right, Gents. We have seventy to a hundred miles ahead of us and all of it is coastline. Some of it will be rocky and some of it will be beaches like you’ve always hoped to visit. We’ll be moving just inland and the pace is going to be brutal, but we’ll have our rest by day. Our day-watch will be detailed with recording all traffic on the sea. Patrol boat patterns will especially need to be mapped out – once we have a vessel we’ll need to know the earliest moment when we can depart. By now our supplies are running low so water collection and fishing will be high priority. I’ll have resupply-details out as well as day-watches and L2 will rotate shifts. There’ll be plenty of coves along the coast so we should be dining on crab in no time.”
“Sir. No Champaign, Sir?”
“I’ll see what I can do, Sid.”
“Yes, Sir” he smirked.
The smell of the Caspian was sweet. We were at the northern half of it, which is freshwater. With the Volga pouring in from the northwest and the Ural from the north east salinity north was diluted to drinkable levels. Thus, we had all the water we needed. Collections performed under the cover of darkness only, of course. By day the flat surface of the lake gave perfect views to anyone with a pair of binoculars, so our posts were camouflaged with the local terrain and fishing was permitted only in covered areas. For the most part the fishing was a great detail to be given. Men would talk and unwind as if they were at home in the rock-pools of our unexciting shores.
That first day onshore I took the first shift on the landside of camp and Longshot took the waterside. I spotted the patrol truck early in the day but we were so close to the water they skirted us, oblivious to our presence and Sid reported them returning that evening. There were no sightings offshore all day, but I knew there would be soon. The coves we were hiding in offered little draft for patrol boats to access, but they were out there, watching and waiting.
“Right, Gents. It’s time to move out. We’ve all had our fill of whatever the hell those little kipper things were, thanking you Tyk.”
“We’ll be moving north between the shore and the nearest trail inland. There will be night patrols on and offshore so absolute silence is necessary. Sid is on point and nobody is to fire without being fired on first. We can’t afford to get sprung on the last leg of our journey, Gentlemen. Heads down and eyes open. Move out.”
That first night on the shore was slow going. We couldn’t afford any injuries and moving on the rocks and gravel was ill fated, anyone could slip and break a leg or an arm. Still though, we made our way in and out of all the small coves and sharp inlets, around the endless curves of the land. It was exhausting work. We heard the patrols coming inland and held fast as they passed us, but there were still no sounds from the water; no lights floating by. A few hours later the land patrol came back up the coast and again we waited it out in the shadows. It was uneventful and rough work of only fifteen or twenty miles by dawn.
“Sir,” whispered Tony. “Donkey’s signalling from his post, Sir.”
“Everyone down!” I ordered in a horse, loud whisper. “Donkey! Report!?”
Still peering out over the water, he leaned his right hand out and held up one finger. Then he moved it across behind his waist then met it with his left hand midway and continued it laterally until he made it into a fist. It was our first contact with a water patrol. The land levelled out some for about ten miles about twenty miles north of our location on that day so it stood to reason there was a staging area in that location. Serik would have been smart to assume a landing of any forces would occur on that level stretch of shore. The rest of the shoreline in the area was useless for landing ships looking to deploy men, so patrolling that area and the surrounding shoreline would be vital for protecting the coast, and thus the country at large, from incursion.
After crawling down, Donkey reported a single thirty footer with four armed souls aboard. It was as I expected. They moved at speed and in a matter of two hours they passed back again on their return leg. And so it went that day. Every two hours the patrol boat would pass us. Everyone ducking down under cover and emerging again as they passed. Four men, armed. We could have taken them if they came ashore. Whoever, chances were they would radio back to base and bring reinforcements. God, if I had had a radio we’d have been home by that stage. I’d have given my life for my men to have had a kit in their hands. It was what it was.
And so we stocked up on the rock-crab and small fish we caught during the day and slept as much as we could between shifts. We all dipped in the lake to wash and stay hydrated, but sleep took precedent over all other necessities.
Taking L2 and Tony aside I again fleshed out my plan for the next leg and when we were as sure as we could be I fed it to the rest of the men.
“Gentlemen, we are likely going to come up on a stretch of shore around dawn tomorrow that will be heavily defended. It’s a natural landing zone so Serik will likely have it under strict watch and with most of his men likely to be based around the Caspian, both to the south at Fort-Shevchenko and the north at Atyrau, we’ll be swarmed and crushed in no time if we’re discovered. We will be moving in two columns still, and I will designate fall-back positions at various natural landmarks along the way. Action is practically inevitable tonight so be prepared, I’ll hold at a distance if we’re not spotted but it’s highly likely tonight’s the night. Any questions?”
“Thank you, Gentlemen. Move out.”
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey