Heroes, p.6
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       Heroes, p.6

           Leigh Barker
 
The twelve brave and selfless men, who’d been ordered to volunteer, were a sight that would have brought tears to Sergeant Major Needle’s eyes had he not been ten miles away organising another desperate rear-guard action.

  The horses were fine examples of cavalry mounts, commandeered from their furious owners by Lieutenant Shaw’s written orders from Smith-Dorrien, but their riders were a mix of cavalry, infantry, and artillery troops. The four cavalry troopers looked good enough, though scruffy and exhausted, but the others sat their horses like sacks of potatoes.

  Although an infantry soldier, Regret had been riding since he was a boy and was happy to be astride a fine horse rather than tramping along the endless roads. He looked at the mix of troops and shook his head. If the Germans saw them, they’d be too busy laughing to shoot straight.

  Lieutenant Shaw was home. He sat his magnificent white charger and trotted ahead down the deserted country road, his boots and kit shining as if he was on parade. There was trouble if Regret had ever seen it. He glanced at Alan, who was riding next to him and looking uncomfortable as he held the saddle pommel and bounced. He’d never liked horses; they had brains of their own and tended to exercise their free will whenever he got on one. He saw Regret’s look and followed it to the lieutenant strutting his stuff. If that little lad made it through the week, it would be a miracle.

  Suddenly the lieutenant stopped, stood up in his stirrups, then turned and galloped back to the men.

  “Enemy infantry,” he gasped excitedly and pointed down the road, in case they hadn’t got the idea. “I could see twenty or thirty.”

  Sergeant Gail, who through attrition was now the ranking NCO, pointed at the woods at the side of the rode and tried to get his horse to go in that general direction.

  “What are you doing, Sergeant?” the lieutenant snapped.

  Gail turned in the saddle and grabbed the pommel as the movement almost unhorsed him. “Taking cover, sir,” he said. “We should keep out of sight until they pass by.”

  Lieutenant Shaw’s eyes opened wide. “Hide? Are you saying we should hide?”

  Gail nodded; the others nodded in support.

  “I won’t hear of it.” The lieutenant pulled his horse round in a tight turn. “Have the men follow me, Sergeant.” He set off at a trot, drew his sabre, and began to gallop. “Charge!” he shouted over his shoulder.

  Regret couldn’t believe it. He wanted them to charge the infantry. With these men who could barely stay on their horses.

  Gail licked his lips and banged his heels into the horse’s flanks. At that moment German infantry flowed over the hill, took one look, and spread out across the road.

  “Dismount!” Regret shouted and jumped down.

  After a few moments of indecision, the others started to obey and mostly fell onto the road. The lieutenant, now a hundred yards along the road, was still charging the grey line, alone.

  “Five rounds rapid fire!” Regret shouted and snapped the bolt back on his Enfield.

  Years of training kicked in again, and the others stepped away from their horses, raised their rifles and fired, reloaded and fired again. The deadly accurate volley decimated the ragged line of grey that was about to end the young lieutenant’s short and glorious career.

  Regret shifted his aim a fraction and shot the German officer who was trying to rally his stunned men, then killed the fat German who was fumbling with his rifle. He tracked along the line, but there was no one left to shoot.

  Lieutenant Shaw continued his charge, waving his sabre and apparently oblivious to the fact that the Germans were all sprawled out across the muddy road. Then he slowed, and his sabre gradually sank to his side as he turned and trotted back.

  Suddenly a German jumped to his feet and ran, but four .303 rounds hit him before he could take more than a couple of steps.

  “Now you’ve done it,” said Alan with a smile. “You got the little lad all cross.”

  “Better cross than dead,” said Regret, reloading.

  “Amen to that,” added Sergeant Gail. “Still, he’ll probably have us all shot for disobeying an order.”

  “I didn’t hear any order,” said Regret. “I just heard him shouting charge as he galloped off up the road.”

  “That’ll work, I’m sure,” Alan said, with a sad shake of his head.

  “I’ll have you shot for disobeying a direct order!” Lieutenant Shaw screamed as he reined in his mount.

  Regret and Alan stared at Sergeant Gail, giving him their complete support and making it obvious whose idea it had been.

  Gail saw the look, and his mouth opened and closed as he tried to think of something to say. Regret took pity.

  “That charge was magnificent, sir,” he said with a big nod. “You kept them busy long enough for us to dismount and see to them. Brilliant strategy, sir.” Nobody could smell it, but they would need to be careful where they stepped.

  The young lieutenant was puzzled for a moment, then looked back down the road and suddenly got the picture. “Who shot that soldier as he retreated?” he snapped, trying to change the subject.

  “Sergeant Gail guessed you would want to keep this secret mission, err… a secret,” said Regret helpfully.

  Gail glared at him.

  He coughed. “Well, yes, quite. Err… good show, Sergeant.”

  “Thank you, sir,” said Gail, squinting at Regret. “It seemed like the thing to do.” He waited a moment, but nobody moved. “We should get out of here, sir.”

  The lieutenant frowned and followed Gail’s pointing finger to the pile of German bodies down the road. “Ah, yes. Secret mission and all that. Carry on, Sergeant.”

  “Very good, sir.” Gail turned to the squad. “Get mounted, and let’s get out of here,” he said and swung up into the saddle with the ease of someone who’d done it before. “And remind me to thank you, Brown.”

  Regret waved and smiled. “Pleasure, Sarge.”

  “You think so?”

  Regret watched the young lieutenant ride away none the worse for his glorious, if suicidal charge. His eyes shifted to the twenty Germans the squad had shot down in the road. That boy officer was going to get them all killed.

  He turned and saw Chalky trying not to catch his eye and smirking. “You know we’re in a war, don’t you?” he said with mock reproach.

  “What, that little thing yesterday?” Chalky’s smile broke through. “I hardly noticed.” He climbed cautiously up into the saddle of his chestnut mare, watching for the first sign that she was going to do what horses always did. He’d been thrown before and didn’t think much of it.

  Regret watched him mount as if he was climbing onto a dragon. He scooped up the reins of his fine sorrel stallion, put his foot in the stirrup, and swung up into the saddle. It was a poor quality military saddle that squashed him in all the wrong places, but it was a hell of a lot better than walking. And he’d never need his equipment to work again, because the odds of him surviving long enough to have children were practically zero. He’d never grow old, his father had told him that when he was just a troublesome kid. He started his horse moving, leaned over and slapped Chalky’s mare on the rump and sent her cantering down the road, with Chalky shouting and swearing and clinging to the saddle pommel.

  “If he falls off and breaks his neck,” Alan said as he rode up beside his brother, “who’re you gonna torment?”

  Regret gave him a long meaningful look.

  “I don’t think so,” Alan said and spurred his horse ahead. “I did my shift when we were kids.”

  Regret replayed the memory of good times a few years and an eternity ago. He sighed heavily and rode after the squad, and Chalky was still trying to control his gentle horse.

  He stood up in the stirrups and looked over the fields stretching away on all sides to the roads running parallel to the one they were using. The roads were deserted. He sat back into the saddle, puzzled. Where was everybody? The civilians and the British Expeditionary Force? And the Germans? Though he wasn’t sor
ry he couldn’t see them.

  Lieutenant Shaw had halted the men at a crossroads and was studying an oversized map when Regret caught up. The boy officer seemed to know what he was doing, but that was something they taught them at the officer training college. Even if things are hopeless, look in control and don’t frighten the men. A bit patronising to the other ranks, but it did make sense. Time would tell.

  He looked around at the thirteen other tired soldiers sitting their borrowed horses with differing levels of comfort and confidence. Fourteen men and a lieutenant was all General Allenby had detailed for this mission. It was all he could spare. Regret thought about the slaughter at Mons. This squad could easily have been all he had left. He pushed the thought aside. It wasn’t helpful, and it was as scary as hell.

  The men watched the lieutenant turn the map this way and that and frown, but none of them minded; it was a rest. And it kept them away from the shooting.

  The lieutenant pointed west. “That way.” He started to fold his map.

  Regret glanced at Alan, caught his look, and shook his head slightly. Then he stared at Sergeant Gail until he looked his way. Regret pointed down the road, the other way. Gail frowned, looked both ways and shrugged, clearly not intending to do anything about the mistake. Regret watched the lieutenant for a few moments as he put his big map carefully in its leather case. He could just follow him, except it was a racing certainty that heading west would put them slap-bang in the middle of the German army, and that was probably best avoided.

  “Sir,” he said at last, deciding it was all the same to be shot by his own men as by the Germans. Shot is shot.

  The lieutenant looked up and raised his eyebrows questioningly.

  Regret moved his horse a little closer. “I took a look from that hill back there…” He pointed back up the road at the non-existent hill. “And I could see what looks like a whole German division moving down the road that way.” He pointed in the direction the lieutenant was proposing. “But that way is clear.” He waited for the boy officer to look east at the deserted road. “With this new information, sir, perhaps you’d like us to go that way and avoid the enemy?”

  The lieutenant looked left and right as he made up his mind. That way, an enemy division against his fourteen men. The other way a clear road. “Very good, Sergeant.” He pulled his horse around to face the right direction. “That way,” he said again.

  Sergeant Gail gave Regret a long look through narrowed eyes, turned and led the men down the road, leaving Regret at the crossroads chuckling quietly. Not shot, then. Yet.

  He was about to follow when he heard the sound of an engine approaching very quickly, and looked around urgently. The last thing they needed was to run into a convoy of enemy infantry heading for the battle. There was no sign of any trucks or any other vehicles, and he could see the roads across open fields for miles in every direction. He looked up. A biplane with black cross markings on the wings was approaching at about two hundred feet. He felt his heart jump as he realised the German pilot could see him and the men as clear as day, and was sure to report their position.

  The plane flew over noisily. But he was thinking as he had before the war, and he needed to adjust his perspective. To the west the whole French and British armies were retreating along crowded roads, so there was plenty for this pilot to see and report without having to worry about a dozen Tommies wandering around the countryside. He relaxed and watched the biplane dip its wing and turn east towards the main German army. The pilot would be home safe and sound before the lads had ridden a mile. He felt a pang of envy. That was the way to see the war, from the clouds, not from a muddy hole in a field with shells raining down.

  The plane turned and lost height to disappear behind a sprawling wood a couple of miles away. So this was the pilot’s operating base, and it showed just how close the enemy was.

  He rode after the squad with one last look at the place where the plane had disappeared. From up there in the clouds that pilot could see all three armies, but from his horse he couldn’t see a soul out there in the sunshine. So where were they? He could be out for a Sunday ride instead of in a warzone with a million men trying to kill each other. The British and French armies were retreating to the south-west, toward Le Cateau, and the German 2nd Army was racing to catch them and finish off what they’d started at Mons. And behind them—he turned and looked back down the deserted road as if to confirm it. There was nothing. It was eerie and unnerving.

  He’d expected to see patrols and supply columns following the advancing Germans. He turned back to face the road. The supply convoys would be coming from the north-east, through Mons, and this road was further east and south. There were no armies here. He felt safe and knew how stupid that feeling was, but maybe this wasn’t going to be the suicide mission it had looked like. He sniffed. Yes, and that would be a first, a mission being easier than it looked.

  He caught up with the men and rode alongside his brother without speaking, his mind still considering the mission and the likely cost. Still, it was quiet now, and he should enjoy it while it lasted. Just for a change things were going well.

  Sergeant Gail grunted and rolled backwards off his horse and landed sprawled in the ditch alongside the road.

  Gail didn’t move.

  “Sniper!” Regret shouted, pulled his rifle from its saddle boot and jumped from his horse.

  He looked around quickly. Wide open countryside and a hidden sniper. If he didn’t find a miracle fast, a lot of good men were going to die on that road. And he had three seconds before the next shot.

  _______________

  The Hellfire Legacy

 
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