The three Australian soldiers crouched low, covered by the large granite boulder, as bullets whizzed over their heads and explosions intermittently lit up the surrounding desert terrain and then plunged it into pitch black. They breathed deeply, unable to speak for a moment, exhausted by their sprint to this safe haven.
‘Where’s everybody else?’ Edouard asked after a while, his voice trembling with fear. ‘Did you see where they went?’
‘No,’ replied Michael, ‘it was too dark. I was too busy running for cover, trying to save my own arse.
‘Me either,’ added August, ‘I didn’t look back, I was a bit scared of what, or who I might see.’
‘Have you still got the radio in your pack?’ Michael asked August. ‘We need to get some help down here, quick.’
‘Hang on,’ said August opening his pack on the ground. He sighed deeply, disappointed at what he saw. ‘Well, I did have, but it looks like it took a bullet, on the way here. It probably saved my life.’
‘Shit,’ said Edouard. ‘What are we going to do? We can’t just stay here and wait to be picked off, like frigging sitting ducks.’
The three men hit the dirt as an explosion rocked the ground about thirty feet from where they sat.
‘No, we have to get out of here,’ said Michael sitting up and dusting off his shirt. ‘They’re sighting us up with mortars; it’s only a matter of time before they get their target right. We need a plan.’
‘If only we could contact the rest of the patrol,’ said August. ‘The sergeant would know what to do.’
‘I guess we could always try communicating the good old-fashioned way,’ said Michael sliding himself up to near the top of the rock. ‘Hey, can anybody hear me out there?’
‘Yeah, I can hear you,’ called back a voice from out of the darkness. ‘Is that you Michael Marshall?’
‘You bet your sweet arse it is,’ replied Michael laughing, relieved that he’d made contact with at least one of his comrades.
‘Hey, Mike, it’s Sam Jakobson, here. Who else have you got with you there?’
‘There’s August Richers and Edouard Mutabazi. We’re all okay, what about you guys? Who’s over there?’
‘Yeah, there’s Shaun Boyce, who’s got a fractured wrist, so he can’t handle anything more than a pistol and Tim Purdie. Tim’s in a bad way, with a broken leg. There’s no way he’s going to be able to make a retreat if we have to run.’
‘Have you got good cover?’ Michael called back.
‘Yeah, we’re okay. The truck turned over on its side, so its giving us a place to hide.’
‘Did you see what happened to the Sarge?’ Michael asked.
‘No,’ replied Sam, ‘everything happened way too fast. I know that Louise Carter, the truck driver bought it, when the rocket hit. It came right through her window. I didn’t see where the Sarge went, but if you ask me, he’s still alive. It’d take more than a rocket attack and a few machine guns to kill that son of a bitch. He’s as tough as nails.’
‘Have you got a radio over there?’
‘Doesn’t August have the radio with him?’
‘I’m afraid the one he was carrying is a casualty of war,’ said Michael. ‘It got hit by a round on his way here.’
‘I understand,’ said Sam. ‘No, we don’t have one with us. The only other radio is in the dashboard of the truck, if it wasn’t wrecked by the rocket.’
‘Can you get to it, Sam?’
‘Yeah, I probably could, but that would mean leaving these two alone out here, and I don’t want to do that. I’d get back and they’d be dead for sure and there’d be a group of not so friendly natives waiting for me.’
‘I see your point,’ said Michael. ‘I guess we’ll have to come over to you.’
‘Sorry Michael, but I can’t even provide cover fire for you guys. I can’t see for shit.’
‘That’s okay,’ said Michael. ‘Look, I’m going to give you a quick signal in a second, so you know where we are and which way we’re coming from. Keep your eyes open, I don’t fancy getting plugged by friendly fire.’
‘Okay, Mike, will do.’
Michael moved down to the base of the rock. ‘Here, August, give me your penlight and the two of you, get ready to run. Only chance is to make it over there and get to that radio. If we stay where we are, we’re either going to be shot full of holes, blasted to pieces, or die of thirst before the choppers come looking for us.’
‘Okay,’ said August handing over the little flashlight, ‘I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.’
‘Me too,’ said Edouard nervously.
Michael stood up, starting to make his way again to the top of the rock, when he saw a shadow move to the side of him. ‘August, I think we’ve got company,’ he said calmly.
‘Oh shit, where?’
‘Don’t make any sudden moves,’ whispered Michael, ‘but look at about three o’ clock from where I’m standing. I’m sure I just saw something move in the shadows.’
August took a deep breath and moved his hand to his pistol holstered to his side, knowing that moving the heavier weapon at his feet would be too much of a giveaway to their visitor. He shifted the .45 pistol inside his jacket blocking the noise as he moved the slide and entered a bullet into the firing chamber.
When the shadow moved again, he took the pistol out and aimed it squarely at the moving shadow, while also looking around for anyone else that might be lurking in the darkness.
‘Well, hello, girls,’ said a familiar voice from out of the darkness. ‘You weren’t going to fire on your dear old Sarge, were you? Not after all the trouble I went to, training you useless idiots and turning you into soldiers.’
August put down the gun and breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Sarge, are we glad to see you.’
‘You seem to be getting along just fine without me,’ replied the older man. ‘I’ve been listening to your plan and to tell you the truth, I would have done the same thing myself. I guess some of the common sense I tried to drill into you, must have sunk in.’
‘All right,’ said Michael, ‘you want to take over? I’ve just been improvising as I go along.’
‘Nope,’ replied the Sergeant. ‘What I will do is provide cover fire, while you three make a run for it. I’ve seen where those bastards are and I’ll be along, in good time.’
‘Okay,’ sounds like a plan,’ said Michael. ‘Good luck, Sarge.’
‘You too, boys, now, get ready.’
Michael flashed the penlight twice at Sam and then the three of them sprinted away from the rock, hoping the direction they moved in, was the right one. Behind them, they heard the rattle of the Sergeant’s automatic weapon and return fire from the enemy who called out in a language they couldn’t understand.
The three of them ran as hard as they could, listening to the bullets that flew over their heads and others that hit the ground, spraying up dust at them and causing them to jump with fear. Their hearts beat like drums, not knowing if the next round to come out of the pitch black would be the one to end their lives, or wound them, leaving them at the mercy of the enemy. They knew if captured they would be tortured for information and then probably beheaded, the spectacle, no doubt, ending up on the Internet for the public and their loved ones to witness.
Soon, the truck loomed large in front of them. ‘Over here!’ Sam called.
The three of them collapsed on the dirt next to the truck, out of breath, much to the joy of their comrades who slapped them on their backs and welcomed them.
‘All right,’ said Michael once he had composed himself, ‘we’ve got no time to lose. I’m going in through the back of the truck, to check out the radio. August, you and Sam, keep an eye out, and for god’s sake, don’t kill the Sergeant when he makes his move to get here. Edouard, you take a look at Tim’s leg, will you?’
‘Righto,’ replied August. ‘Get going, Mike.’
Michael made his way through the rear of the truck, listening to the sounds of ricocheting bullets as they bounced off the roof. He crawled over the spilled boxes of supplies that they had been taking back to their camp and then tripped in the darkness. He stretched his arms out in front of him to break his fall and was shocked to find that he had grabbed somebody’s hand.
He followed the hand up the arm and couldn’t believe it, when he saw the face of the Sergeant, who had obviously been dead for quite some time, judging the large pool of congealed blood on the floor that Michael accidentally stuck his hand in, which had escaped from the wound in his head. ‘Jesus,’ he said, completely taken aback, ‘that’s not possible. I just saw him a couple of minutes ago.’
Michael knew that he had no time to contemplate this turn of events and left the Sergeant where he lay and moved to the front of the truck. He saw in the moonlight that the rear window had been shattered, when the rocket had hit the truck and used the butt of his gun to remove the remnants of glass that prohibited his entry to the cabin.
He managed to squeeze inside, swearing to himself as he accidentally stepped onto the dead body of Louise Carter, the driver, so horribly burnt that she was unrecognisable.
‘Oh, god,’ he prayed desperately under his breath as he reached for the on-switch, ‘please let the radio work.’
He looked outside through the portions of still intact windscreen of the truck and much to his relief saw that the aerial to the two-way radio, remained attached to the hood and was not on the side of the truck that touched the ground.
He quickly began fiddling with the dials, tuning it in, frantically hoping to hear a friendly voice that he could alert to their situation and send rescue choppers to take them to safety.
He turned the knob and heard the sweet sound of two American voices, talking about troop movements somewhere in the desert. ‘Mayday, mayday,’ he said into the microphone.
‘Hang on,’ said one of the voices to the other, we got a Mayday on the line. Please go ahead Mayday caller.’
‘This is Corporal Michael Marshall from the Australian Army. I’m part of a detail that was driving a load of supplies back to our camp, when struck by an enemy rocket. The truck overturned. We’re trapped and still under attack, with continuing enemy fire. It’s too dark to see how many there are, but there’s a shitload of them. We have two dead and two wounded. One soldier has a broken leg. We need help, straight away, over.’
‘Okay, Michael,’ said the voice on the radio. This is Corporal Henry Armstrong from the United States Marines. Can you give me an approximate location, over?’
‘Yeah, we’re about fifty miles due east of the Aussie base known as the Kangaroo patch, on the road from Qandahar.’
‘Okay, Mike, hold tight, I’ll inform both my Lieutenant and your bosses straight away, and we’ll have choppers out there ASAP, over.’
‘Thanks Henry,’ said Michael. ‘I have to go; I’m a bit vulnerable here, standing in the cab of the truck, with only the windscreen between me and them, over.’
‘Okay,’ said Henry, ‘hold tough and good luck. I’ll keep this channel clear, just in case you need to make further contact, over.’
‘Thanks Henry. I’ll buy you a beer, if I get out of this alive, over and out.’
‘You’re on, Mike, over and out,’ replied Henry, his voice quickly replaced by static.
Michael crawled back through the truck and over the body of the Sergeant, which he quickly examined again to reconfirm the identity. He still couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
It suddenly struck him that on the last day of training, just prior to their deployment; the Sergeant had gathered the whole platoon together and had told them that the most important rule in conflict is to never to leave your comrades when they’re in trouble. ‘I can promise each of you, that I won’t leave you in a jam and I’ll always come back to help and that’s a rule I live and will die by, if I have to. You should all consider that, because when you’re out there, all you’ve got in an attack is yourself and your brothers-in-arms to rely on.’
He smiled at the memory. ‘Son of a bitch really did do it, come back, and help us. I bet too that he told the Supreme Being, he’d be along on good time, but he just had to go assist some helpless schoolgirls in a playground fight.’
Michael finally made it outside and told his comrades the good news about his contact with the Americans, which was welcomed with relieved sighs and quiet exclamations, thanking God.
‘How long do you think it’ll be until they get here?’ Edouard asked. ‘We really need to get Tim to a hospital and there’s not much morphine left.
‘There’s not much of anything left,’ replied Michael, ‘especially live ammunition. My best guess is they’ll probably get here at first light. I don’t know if they’ll risk just walking into a firefight, with an unknown enemy contingent, in the dark, no matter who’s at risk. It’d only get more people killed.’
‘Yeah, I guess that makes sense,’ said August.
‘Oh, well,’ said Sam, ‘it’s only a few more hours until daybreak.’
‘Yeah, we just need to hold out for a little while longer,’ said Michael trying to encourage everyone, ‘and then, we can all go for a hot breakfast.’
Edouard laughed. ‘You know, Mike, you really are one screwed-up individual.’
Michael laughed too, which caused all of them to start giggling. ‘Well, Christ almighty, you got to have some comedy relief in a situation like this, don’t you?’
‘Maybe, when you leave the army, you should consider a career as a comedian,’ said Edouard, ‘but don’t try a stand-up routine right now, or you’ll get your head blown off.’
‘Forget that,’ said August with a laugh; ‘you two could do a double act, sure to draw a bigger crowd.’
While the group laughed, Michael tapped August lightly on the arm and leaned over to whisper in his ear. ‘Look, I don’t want to freak you out, but there’s a dead body in the back of the truck and I think it’s the Sarge…and he’s been dead for a while. I need you to go and confirm it for me. Take your penlight and tell them you’re going to look for some more morphine. Don’t ask me to explain how it got there, because I don’t honestly know. My only theory that fits, is that it was his ghost, or his spirit that came back to offer us cover fire to get to the truck.’
‘Look, Mike, shock can do a lot of things to people, especially in a situation like this,’ said August trying to find a rational explanation.
‘I’m not asking you to believe me, August, just go, and look for yourself. When we get out of here, we need to be able to tell the chopper pilots they can go and the Sarge is dead, otherwise they’ll do a search for him, which I’m telling you, is going to be a waste of time.’
‘All right,’ whispered August taking out his penlight. ‘I’m going to search the back of the truck, for some more morphine or painkillers,’ he announced to the group.
‘I’ll come with you,’ offered Edouard.
‘No,’ said Michael, ‘we need all of the eyes out here we can get. One person’s enough to do the job.
August disappeared into the back of the truck and Michael watched as his penlight moved about, stopping in one place for a minute, and then moving around the inside of the vehicle.
It felt like an eternity passed in those few minutes and then August arrived back and gave Edouard his penlight and a box, which was marked with a morphine label on the top. He looked at Michael and gave a small, almost imperceptible nod of his head, to say that he’d found the body of the Sergeant, and that Michael had been right.
‘Thanks,’ said Edouard opening the lid and retrieving the utensils he would need to administer a further injection to both Shaun and Tim, who were both resting comfortably, seemingly oblivious to what was going on around them.
‘I wouldn’t have believed it, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes,’ whispered August sitting next to Michael, his back resting against the bottom of the truck. ‘I feel like I just entered an episode of the Twilight zone.’
‘Yeah, it kinda feels that way for me too,’ said Michael, ‘but hopefully, this episode is almost done. We need to keep this quiet, for now. I think the men take comfort in knowing that the Sarge is out there somewhere, looking out for them.’
‘Sure,’ said August. ‘I just want to get the hell out of here,’ he added looking at his watch. ‘It’s almost four in the morning, so they shouldn’t be too long now.’
‘Yeah, time just flies by, when you’re having fun,’ said Michael. ‘It gets light in this god-forsaken place, before five, so they should be on their way already.’
‘Hey, can your hear that?’
‘No, what is it?’ Michael asked grabbing his gun.
‘The silence,’ replied August, ‘there’s no more bullets hitting the roof of the truck.’
Michael stood up and looked over the top of the truck. He hoped that the quiet didn’t indicate that the enemy were sneaking up on them in the dark, planning a surprise attack. He stared into the blackness, looking for shadow movements and was relieved when he saw nothing. He moved back down to where August sat. ‘They must have decided to scarper. Probably knew that someone would come looking for us at first light and wanted to be well away by the time the choppers got here.’
‘Hang on a second,’ said Sam excitedly cocking an ear. ‘Listen to that.’
‘If I’m not mistaken,’ said Edouard with a laugh, ‘that’s the sound of choppers.’
‘Yeah, they sound like they’re a bit of a distance away, but coming closer,’ said August.
As the first rays of sunlight broke over the desert, two large, U.S. Marine helicopters appeared on the horizon. One of them was a fully armed gunship, which did a quick sweep of the area and remained hovering in the air, while the other chopper landed in the sand, close by the overturned truck.
Two men, dressed in helmets and flack-jackets jumped out of the helicopter, carrying a stretcher each to bear the wounded. They quickly assessed the situation and moved Tim onto one stretcher and Shaun onto the other, which Edouard and Sam carried to the chopper, while Michael and August stood guard, looking out for gunfire around them.
Just as they reached the chopper, three successive mortar blasts shook the ground around them causing them to dive for cover underneath the body of the helicopter, followed by heavy gunfire, from a set off boulders about a hundred metres away.
Michael and August immediately returned gunfire, while the gunship headed in the direction of the mortar fire.
‘We still have two dead in the truck,’ yelled Michael to one of the men over the noise.
‘I’m sorry,’ replied the marine, ‘but we can’t afford to go get them. These assholes have mortars and rocket launchers and might be sighting us up right now. Get in, we got to get going.’
Michael and August were the last to board and watched as they moved quickly up into the sky and away from the overturned truck.
Michael made his way to the front of the chopper. He asked the pilot to radio the gunship, and request that they launch rockets at the truck. ‘I don’t want the Sarge’s body to be displayed on the Internet, like it’s some sort of victory,’ he said. ‘He was too good a man and doesn’t deserve that indignity. Besides, we had a shitload of supplies in the back of the truck and we don’t want to go supplying the enemy with anything they might find useful.’
Michael looked on, as the gunship launched two high-powered rockets at the truck and saw it erupt into a huge fireball, sending thick, black smoke pluming up into the air.
For just a moment, he thought he saw the image of the Sergeant beside the flames; look up at him, smile, and salute. Michael returned the salute and when he blinked his eyes, the image had disappeared.
It was two years later; when Sergeant Michael Marshall gave his final lecture to the platoon, he had trained and would be commanding in the desert. He looked out of the window, pensively glancing at the snow-covered Afghani Mountains in the distance.
He told them that the most important rule in conflict is to never to leave your comrades when they’re in trouble. ‘I can promise each of you, that I won’t leave you in a jam and I’ll always come back to help and that’s a rule I live and will die by, if I have to. You should all consider that, because when you’re out there, all you’ve got in an attack is yourself and your brothers-in-arms to rely on.’