He led his column of men back down the road towards the village. They wouldn’t go up the last trail they’d been down. Work there was completed, the helicopters having already tried out the LZ they’d prepared and found it adequate, and this now belonged strictly speaking to Echo and Foxtrot Companies. The trail though branched off into another which the last team he’d sent down and mapped a couple of days earlier. At his captain’s suggestion he and Hitu were starting at the outer trails and working in.
All things being equal they should meet in the middle, but if one of the crews got delayed for any reason it would be logical for the other to carry on going to the next trail. Their initial recce, anyway, had established that tings weren’t ‘equal’ to start with. Andrew’s search of his sector had revealed several more trails than Hitu’s.
They passed quickly through the village, not stopping this time but smiling and waving at the people they passed. He again handed out sweets to the group of children that quickly joined them, and he noticed that many of his team had brought along their own supply for the same purpose. There’d be little need for the children to share this time and their supplies wouldn’t last long at the rate they were passing them out. He’d have to ensure they were restocked as part of the weekly supply drops they were now expecting.
Once they turned off the road and entered the jungle, they formed a single file in the correct order for combat. Privates took point, supported by one of the corporals or lance corporals, then a couple more privates, himself, more privates supported by the other corporal in the team and ending with the last of the privates. The order echoed through the other teams, with the two sergeants taking his equivalent position. They were a man short, of course, one of the gunners now being in hospital until his broken leg had mended. He hadn’t bothered to replace him from the team that was staying behind. Twenty six men would do as well as twenty seven, and all the men that were to remain at camp deserved a break. Besides, he didn’t want the added complication later of trying to remember who’d had a relatively easy time and who was due for a break. Better to keep the teams as they were, for now at least. Things might be a bit different once they were engaging the enemy properly.
Their journey up to the planned ambush site was slow going, as he’d expected, and they arrived not all that long before it was due to get dark. He ordered the teams to make camp. They’d find the LZ and start clearing it in the morning. It was one the chopper pilots had given the thumbs up to. They’d done this for most in fact, with only one or two suggestions for better ones coming from them.
Andrew didn’t think this was out of politeness. Chopper pilots weren’t renowned for that particular trait. So it had to be that the teams selecting them had chosen well. A great compliment and acknowledgement of their skills, considering how much more difficult it was to locate suitable areas from the ground than from the air.
He had decided to try very hard to heed his sergeant major’s advice so he ate his meal alone rather than joining one of the small circles of men that formed as they started to eat. After eating his own meal of beef stew – he’d been right it was indeed very tasty, and not just his hunger making him think so – followed by apricots, he climbed into his sleeping bag and listened to his MP3 player for a bit, which he’d brought along for just that purpose. He took a final drag from the cigarette he’d been puffing, and another thirst quenching sip from his canteen of water, before settling down to sleep. The day’s march had been tiring, so after a few minutes of ‘I, Claudius’ being read by Derek Jacobi he fell asleep.
The alarm on his watch woke him just as the sun was rising, the men around him starting to stir too. They weren’t in any great hurry, but the sooner they got the work done on the ambush site and the LZ, the sooner they’d be able to return to the relative luxury of base.
After everyone had breakfasted he split his men into two teams, leaving the smaller one of nine to prepare the ambush site itself under Sergeant Flynn and leading the remaining sixteen down to the proposed LZ. He agreed with Sergeant Johanssen how much space they needed to clear here and left him to it, to return to the ambush site. Making his way back through the jungle on his own felt a bit creepy but orienteering had been one of his strengths so he wasn’t exactly worried that he’d get lost.
The ambush site was much more important to him than the LZ. It was, after all, where he and his men would be fighting from, and each one would no doubt be slightly different, so he had a vested interest in knowing the details of each one intimately and in ensuring it was as good as possible. The LZs were important of course. If nothing else they needed to be well hidden from the trail so that they couldn’t be spotted and their locations reported back by any of the locals who might stumble upon them. Apart from that though, and their basic size, they were nowhere near as important to their mission, and once one or two had been constructed creating the rest would become pretty monotonous.
He agreed with Sergeant Flynn’s choices of the best locations to site the men and the guns, and helped supervise the little work that was needed to prepare it for use, himself taking one side of the trail and the sergeant the other.
Once they’d finished he took the team back to the LZ to help with the clearance of this area. At midday he ordered that the men should take a longer break, to lunch and unwind a bit before finishing the task. Once it was completed they relaxed while they waited for the helicopters to pick them up.
They arrived quite quickly. It wasn’t far back to their home base, at least not by air. He’d split his company into two roughly equal teams for the journey. Part of this was natural as they were the same as the billet arrangements, eight in each plus the two sergeants. He split the remaining seven between the two choppers, before climbing in himself beside Lieutenant Forbes.
They passed the time on the flight back to Andrew’s base camp trying to chat over the noise of the engines. The mikes on the headsets designed for the purpose certainly helped, and they could be set so that their conversation was private and not picked up by the sergeant behind them who had pulled on a similar device.
“Still no time for that coffee,” the lieutenant yelled. Yelling wasn’t really necessary, but was a natural response to the roar that surrounded them. “Lieutenant Kopapetu radioed in a little after you did that his team as finished too, so we’ll have to head straight back out to collect them as soon as we’ve dropped you off.”
He nodded that he understood, then realised that Lieutenant Forbes probably wouldn’t see this as she was concentrating on the flight. He shouted back his understanding instead.
They were soon touching down in the base camp, and the troops dismounting.
“Are you here tomorrow?” shouted Lieutenant Forbes. She hadn’t bothered to stop the blades and now Andrew had removed the flying helmet, with its integral headphones and mike, shouting above the roar of the chopper really was necessary.
“Don’t expect so,” he shouted back. “We want to get all of the trails set up as soon as possible so I expect we’ll be out again at first light.”
“OK,” she called. “Well, I’m delivering supplies here tomorrow, so if you are around I’ll see you then. Otherwise it’ll be in a couple of days when we pick you up next time.”
The chopper took off again, its rotors blowing up the inevitable hail of dirt and dust as she pulled away. Lieutenant Forbes smiled as she rose, but didn’t wave, needing both hands to fly the beast she was perched in.
The sergeants were making sure the men got back to their billets okay and seemed to have everything in hand, so he headed straight for Captain Kergoat’s office to make his report. A brief nod from one of the batmen stationed outside his office – Lance Corporal Wing, he’d recently discovered – told him that his captain was in and he knocked on the office door. There wasn’t any hesitation to the ‘come in’ which answered it, and he opened the metal door and stepped inside.
The room was quite small, about 10′ x 12′, and dominated by the storage spaces down two of the walls. Against a third wall, and in the middle of the room, stood a desk which the captain was sitting behind, with a couple of ‘visitor’ chairs in front of it. It was, in fact, exactly the same as his own. There was no variety in these units, and very little opportunity to ‘personalise’ them. They were designed to be functional rather than aesthetic, goals they seemed to achieve in both cases.
After making a salute in greeting, and receiving one in return, the captain motioned for him to sit in one of the visitor chairs. He gave a brief report. There wasn’t much to say really.
“Up for that game of chess later?” asked the captain. Andrew could tell by the way the question was asked that the match had been eagerly anticipated by the captain.
“Of course, sir. Looking forward to it.”
Andrew was indeed quite pleased at the opportunity and had been thinking about it on and off for the last couple of days.
“Good,” said the captain. “How about back here at 1900 hours? My own quarters aren’t exactly spacious – only a bit bigger than yours – and being away from the men we’ll be able to concentrate better.”
Andrew agreed. The delay in starting would give him time to iron a clean uniform, get something to eat, and to shower, as well as a few other small tasks he wanted to get out of the way. On the captain’s side, it would leave him time to finish whatever work he was currently doing and to take Hitu’s report, who was probably no more than an hour or so behind him.
“Oh, and Lieutenant Hoch,” the captain added, “why don’t you stay behind tomorrow with the men detailed to camp duties? Sergeant Major Smith seems quite capable of taking the men out on his own, doesn’t he, and no doubt you’ll appreciate the chance to catch up on any paperwork, and take a bit of a rest after your hikes and your efforts over at the town a couple of nights ago. Good work there, by the way. I’ve had a very positive report back from the major in charge of the relief team. You and your men did well. Pass that on, would you?”
Andrew nodded, and thanked his captain for the positive feedback. He’d certainly appreciate the chance to stay back at the camp the next day. He could do some of the tasks he’d been planning to cram into that evening, as well as being able to rest up a bit. He could also, he thought with a touch of pleasure, finally take that coffee with Lieutenant Forbes.
The sergeant major had seemed pleased to be leading the Company out alone the following day, and had set out immediately he’d been told to let the sergeants know they’d both be needed for the assignment. If this arrangement would fuel the apparent animosity between Sergeant Major Smith and Sergeant Flynn, Andrew didn’t know. It was mainly their own problem to work out, but he’d probably have to get involved to sort things out if his suspicions were correct.
He returned to the captain’s office at the appointed time, having completed most, though not all, of the tasks he’d set himself for that day. He’d managed to get a couple of his now washed uniforms ironed, so would have something fresh to wear the next day as well as being able to turn up appropriately dressed for the chess game, although he’d noticed that Captain Kergoat didn’t seem too particular about this, not yet anyway. Getting this part of the mission completed was more important than looking smart and they weren’t, for the time being anyway, expecting any visitors to their camp beyond the weekly drops by the supply helicopters and the odd arrival of the village’s children, as much curious to learn what was going on as scrounging for more sweets. These visits were always rewarded with the chocolates they craved. Andrew had noticed that their stock was, as he’d expected, dwindling quite quickly. He’d be sure the following day to make sure the batman responsible had added them to the list of things that needed to be replenished.
It was obvious from the captain’s initial hesitation that he hadn’t played a game of chess in quite a long time, as indeed Andrew himself hadn’t, but it didn’t take long for the old moves to return and they were soon deeply engrossed in the struggle with each other. They weren’t talking much, concentrating instead on the board in front of them. Occasionally their thoughts were disturbed by the batman bringing a fresh supply of tea in for them to consume. The captain had ample cold drinks in his fridge, but the hot tea was welcome. He had no chance of this luxury when out in the field, and when he was back at the base he usually drank coffee. He probably preferred this anyway but it was also a bit easier to make, at least when drinking the instant stuff. Going through the rigmarole of filling a percolator with beans and waiting while the beverage brewed was something he rarely did, though the rich tasting brew with which he was rewarded was probably worth the extra effort when he had time to properly appreciate it.
As their knowledge returned, it was obvious that chess was a game that the captain was very good at. Andrew was glad in a way. He’d never been one for ‘throwing’ games. He had too much of a winner’s appetite for that. But he wasn’t sure of the political expediency of beating his captain too frequently either. In fact, they were about equally matched, Captain Kergoat winning slightly more games than he did, but more often than not their battles ending in stalemate, with neither winning. The time between each move became longer and longer as each player calculated the various replies a particular strategy might bring and how they would counter it.
The little conversation they had while playing centred mainly around the mission and its immediate next steps. They didn’t have a lot of sites to set up. Andrew had found a dozen trails himself and Hitu’s team another ten, so getting them prepared would take days rather than weeks. The captain told him that other companies were reporting similar numbers in the stretches of border they’d been assigned to. Andrew took the opportunity to suggest that they take smaller squads out in future, led by the sergeant majors as well as the lieutenants. Preparing the sites would take longer once they arrived, having smaller teams to deploy, but they’d undoubtedly save in travelling time and could still expect to accomplish their tasks in the same number of days, although returning quite a bit later. The captain agreed that this would be a good plan.
“We’ll start it in a few days,” he said. “I think I’ll give everyone a day’s break after they return from their next outing. Some of them haven’t had one for quite a while … Lieutenant Kopapetu for instance.”
They were enjoying their sparring matches over the board between them, so it was quite late when they finally called a halt to proceedings and Andrew left his captain to return to his billet. The team’s bunks were already full, and the upper deck empty and black. The team would be going out again the following morning so they were making sure they got a good night in preparation for the trip.