Caspian Hope – Written By Stephen Fahey. Part 8

“Excuse me,” bellowed Ben with his hand up in the air, some fifty yards out. “Hello…”

They turned and stopped when they saw us, the line of six camels coming to a staggered halt one after the other. Their front man stepped aside and put his hand up while the two others further down the line raised their heads up to try and get a better view of us.

Unarmed, but with Longshot training his eagle eye over our shoulders, we approached. Anyone that’s ever had to communicate without a common language will understand the value of universal sign language. With calm and slow hand movements Ben went on to explain that we wanted water and or food. And once the front man grasped our meaning he called out and waved the other two men to the front of the line.

One was a young man, maybe eighteen or nineteen years of age, the other an older man with a short white beard. After a sharp exchange that heated up and then died off just as soon, the young man walked back and pulled a bota bag from a pack tied to one of the camels. It was obvious from his expression as he handed me the water that he wasn’t happy, but it was clear that he didn’t have a choice.

It was unexpected to be given this water, I had thought we would have walked away empty handed, but desert people often surprised me like that. They seemed so primitive and isolated, but they were more civilised as nomads than most city dwellers I’ve ever known. I’ve thought about that moment many times since and all I can think of is that maybe something about the vastness of the desert they live in keeps them reminded how insignificant we all are and so more inclines them to help strangers.

After taking the bota bag I nodded in gratitude to all three men, took a large drink form the bag, waved and went to turn away when the bearded man started shouting something to his fellow traders. As it was in their own language I couldn’t understand a word of it but it sounded like Uzbek. In a split second things became heated again and then rocketed out of control when the breaded man and the youngster produced daggers from their belts. It was a bad move and I knew what was about to happen before they even got close to the two of us.

The young man was closest to me and the first to get hit. Jerking to our left as the right side of his head burst onto the sand, Longshot’s first report echoed just as the older man spun around and fell on his back, a bullet having torn straight through his hip. It all happened in just a second or two. Then Longshot’s second report popped. The bearded man screamed on the ground, desperation in his tone. He knew he was dead. Out there in the middle of nowhere, if you get injured you’re gonna die and he was old enough to know as much.

The front man had thrown his hands up onto his head the moment the boy’s skull scattered into the dirt and was standing there in shock. He had had no way to know and no reason to suspect the danger. I felt for them, but at the same time I felt happier to be alive. The front man stood there staring at the younger man’s body lying in the sand, a sludge of blood and sand in a puddle next to his head. I thought I heard a whimper but I couldn’t be sure.

“What do we do now sir?”

“Gimme the water. And keep an eye on him Ben, we don’t want him snapping and getting himself shot too.”

“Sir.”

I stepped back and walked around the boy to get to the bearded man. His screams were waning as he slipped into shock. It was a sad thing but a necessary thing. I had to keep my boys safe and I was glad those two were dead when it came down to it. The human in me still felt for them though – we had walked up on them after all – but they had signed their own death warrants when they unsheathed their daggers. As I got to the wounded man he was passing out. I’d seen this before in battle and it was eerily peaceful. By now he wasn’t feeling any pain so I waved over the front man as I poured a sip of water onto the dying man’s lips.

As he knelt beside his friend he began to whisper to him. I couldn’t tell for sure but it sounded like prayers to me. I’d seen the last rites administered many times and the dying wishes of men sworn upon their friends, but this was new to me. The bearded man slipped away mid-sentence and once he was gone the front man just stood and turned away. I was at a loss. I didn’t understand what had passed between the two men, but a silent promise was palpable.

Walking back to his camels with his head slung down, the front man pulled at a pack on the front animals back and yanked out a shovel. In a flash, I stood and turned back to face Longshot, waving my armed from side to side across my waist so he wouldn’t shoot him too.

“Hey!” I called to the forlorn traveller. Patting on my chest and then pointing at the shovel I asked without words to help. He looked in my eye and I could taste the hurt in his veins. He threw the shovel to me as I walked toward him and pulled another off the back of the same camel. Catching it I waved Ben over and dropped the bota bag as I walked towards him.

“Grab his legs.”

Sir.”

And with that I tucked the shovel under my arm and hoisted the bloody shoulders of the boy. Standing there we both looked to the front man. Teary eyed, for a moment he just stood there looking at the body in our hands. After a few seconds though he turned and waved us over to follow him. Walking off the trail he strode along in sombre woe for a few minutes, then stopped, seemingly at random, and pointed at the sand.

“Put him down gently, Ben.”

“Sir.”

“Ask him for his shovel and help me, but don’t turn your back on him as you dig.”

“Sir.”

And so we dug. It didn’t take long in the soft sand. All the while the front man stood next to us and looked on in pain. God only knows but I think the boy was family. I’d never seen a nomad weep before. It was unnerving. If such hard people could be pushed to such suffering as to break down then what hope was there for the rest of us?

“OK, gently now. And once he’s in, step back and give the man a moment.”

“Yes, Sir. Damn shame we had to shoot them isn’t it, Sir?”

Damn shame.”

Stepping back, Ben and I witnessed the distress written all over the traveller. Jesus I felt for him. And here were still had to bury the bearded man. After a moment he lifted a shaky handful of sand and said some words, choking out the last few, then poured the sand onto the body in the grave. Stepping back, he shook his head at the ground and we began to fill in the hole. Repeating this process with the second body, both Ben and I dreaded sending him on his way, but more so, I dreaded what I was about to have to do.

Walking back to the lead camel in the caravan, I began to undo the bridle of the second beast that was hitched to its rear. The man stood there in a haze and watched without protest. I felt sick as I undid the knot. Here we had left him alone and now we were taking his animals. Waving him over I motioned for him to take his wears form the other beasts but lifting up the bota bag from where I’d dropped it I tapped on it and shook my head while looking him in the eye. Nodding with a vacant glare in his eye, he loosed the binds to several bags and lashed them to the lead camel. He didn’t even look either of us in the eye in the end, just took the rope tied to the beast’s neck and began to walk.

“This is fucking awful, Sir.”

“Don’t feel bad, he knows where he’s going.”

“I suppose at least we have some material too.”

“Let’s get this caravan back to the boys. We need to prep them for the road.”

“Sir.”

Standing there as dusk approached, Ben walk back toward the dunes and I looked again to the old man who we had so gravely wounded. For a moment I stared at him, not thinking anything, just watching him. His head slung, the camel’s pathetic camel-gaunt lumbering along beside him.

To be continued…

© Stephen Fahey

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