As far as could be seen in the moon light filtering from above the canopy and shuttered torches this encampment was all canvas tenting. The surviving hostages were ushered into an extra large open fronted pitched roof tent. The open front facing the central camp area ensured that the guard and any passers by could see the occupants clearly.
“And now we are eleven.” Ryan intoned quietly as they huddled against the dark, waiting for promised food. This time it would be a pork stew. They could smell it cooking as they came into the camp and it smelled delicious.
“I hope they cooked for seventeen.” Joanne whispered, her voice strained. “I’m starving.”
“It doesn’t matter if they cooked for fifty.” Mike Wienhardt returned in a hiss. “The murdering bastards won’t give us the extra.”
He was right. This time all the hostages were ordered out of the tent and assembled into a single line then marched over to the cooking tent where they were each issued a half full wooden bowl and a spoon. It did not matter that the bowls were only issued half full; each was subsequently and individually scoured clean of any trace of food, all pretence of etiquette gone in the quest to satiate the ever-present hunger.
Back in the tent and following any ablutions each person found a corner to settle into, six on one side and five the other, huddled like sardines in a tin. “Odd.” Tom whispered to whoever of the six sat up was listening. “Didn’t Pierre say that these people were Boko Harem or something like it?”
“Al Shibab.” Ryan returned, his voice barely audible.
“OK.” Tom accepted. “But aren’t they supposed to be Muslims? And yet here we are eating pork.”
“I haven’t seen any praying either.” Joanne put in. “In Finsbury Park you can hear them wailing all bloody day.”
“Seven times.” George Adams Interjected. “I was in the Gulf for a while and officially it’s seven times.”
“As an aside, they have not questioned if any of us are Muslim either.”
“Like I thought at first then.” Ryan postulated. “More likely ANU then.”
“Who the hell are they?”
“Maybe not actually ANU as they don’t officially exist outside of national boundaries but there are so many splinter groups it’s hard to keep up.”
“Does that change anything?”
“Doubt it. Might make them harder to deal with.”
“But less likely to behead anyone.”
“That’s a real help to Mark and the others.”
That comment shut everyone up, to retract into his or her own private hell and in most cases eventual fitful sleep.
Dawn once again evolved into the usual cacophony of bird and animal calls, staking territory and mating rites. The rites or lack of them among the humans did not require any staking out. The Jumat boys, or the African Union splinter group as Ryan had suggested were the alpha males, their guns affording the dominance. M’longwe was back, and predictably without Rebecca or Sean. Neither his face nor deportment gave any indication of guilt or remorse for what must have transpired. It was conceivable that Sean had expired naturally in the night, hugely unlikely that Rebecca had. In Tom’s opinion, if he’d been permitted to count the rounds in M’longwe’s magazine he would find it two bullets short and if Tom had any way to make it happen he would have taken M’longwe’s gun and made its magazine at least a third bullet short.
Breakfast if you could apply the reluctantly delivered meal such an epithet, was once again dried meat slices and stale unleavened bread with water from a dubious origin. At least no one else had died in the night and none did that day or the next. A little routine established itself; wake at dawn take turns at the stream to wash and toilet, breakfast then sit tight through the day speculating the next move as what the captives as a group had, taking after Ryan’s suggestion, begun to refer to ‘the Union Splinter Group’ fighters mooched round the camp. Rarely were any of them unarmed and at no time were there less than two guards on the western captives.
The second day in this new camp saw an intriguing and even potentially positive episode where the K’gozi produced a smart phone and separating them out took short individual videos of each of the surviving hostages. Tom, as de-facto leader queried the action even though its purpose was obvious.
These pictures would be sent to either the media or directly to Occidental Prospect or Forward Oil with a ransom message.
The days wore on with no more marches. Day after day the same, up at dawn and strip wash where possible. The tiny stream running a hundred yards away had a clear sequence, drinking water was taken from the north, washing took place in the middle and toilet lower down, the only acceptable relief being urine. Defecation was conducted into a pit that stank and was a haven for flies. There was a jug of water by the pit that was used to rinse the backside after venting the bowel with the responsibility of the user to refill it from the stream. After toilet came dried meat slices and cold potato that had been cooked the night before. Then it was back to the crowded tent to do nothing other than sweat all day and bat off the incessant flies.
Days melded into one another, the tedium no respite to minds used to activity. Minds that having witnessed at first hand horror and brutality could conjure the worst. As incarceration and deprivation grew, inexorably morale degraded from an already low status as people became increasingly introvert and morose.
In the evening as dark fell, the cooking fire would be lit and all could look forward to meat slivers of whatever the USG boys hunting party had found plus half cooked sweet potato or maybe some bananas and on one or two occasions a pineapple. The only alteration to the repetition being the rain, and even that became predictable and welcome. The tent roof canvas had a habit of sagging in one place under the weight of water and Mike Weinhardt rigged it so that the one place it leaked badly was at the base of the sagging. The resultant was clean water of a sort. A purloined and scoured bucket collected it and the eleven incarcerated hostages were at least able to drink with a reduced risk of disease. After all who knew what had happened to the stream upstream of where they took water.
Even within such a group as these irregular fighters there existed a hierarchy, readily discernable even to the captives. The K’gozi had broken his force into four sub groups, each nine to twelve fighters strong and in any normal army referred to as a squad and each led by himself or one of his major acolytes, the four notably with more years and experience than the boy soldiers in their command. The K’gozi took the first group, his senior sergeant equivalent and second in command the heavily built and violent tempered Moboko took the second with groups three and four led respectively by prematurely grey Zakame and agile, jungle wise N’gome. In their routine each sub group swapped duties on a daily basis, one on day guard, one on night guard, the third on foraging with the last on maintenance, which included cooking duties, and rest. Despite this rostering there were always four guys, one from each group who day or night got prisoner guard duty. “It was,” Ryan postulated “So that there was always one who knew our faces.” And so slowly the captives, and most notably Ryan who even though it incurred Tom’s displeasure to continually make conversation with the guards, got to know them and their personalities.
Thin and wiry, maybe in his late teens or early twenties but already bitter and twisted with a mean streak, M’longwe came from Zakame’s group, N’gome invariably allocated the task to haughty, uncommunicative and untrusting Pepele from his group. The K’gozi always sent Young Zidane, most likely less than fourteen and dreaming of emulating his footballing namesake and lastly from Moboko’s group the lazy but cunning Offoto who was wont to steal food from your plate then dare you to challenge him.
Time wore on as steadily as nerves, Tom Williams marking it on the tent wall. They had been in captivity eleven days before reaching this encampment; another eleven here made it twenty-two days. What conversation there was gravitated to them surely being missed by now and at the very least a search mission set up with hopefully a rescue at the end of it. The aircraft they had heard on day three was a distant memory, no more had been seen or heard and hour by hour hope was beginning to fail.
Richard Vere had a better idea of what had happened and even why. In the 48 hours since returning to camp a dozen labourers and three whites had come out of hiding from the jungle. All gave accounts of their experiences that helped draw a picture of a deliberate attack with a clear aim. That of capture of western white hostages.
Aid was also arriving. Three planes had come and gone by the following midday. Two were the ubiquitous Cessna’s carrying stores and company people, black and white. Their purpose in reality to take over responsibility for the camp and free Vere and his team to his real purpose, that of finding the killers.
The third plane was a government aircraft. Word had got out quickly and the authorities were not slow to act. Even Vere was impressed at the speed of response. The strip was never intended to cope with anything larger than a Cessna Caravan or equivalent aircraft. That a Spartan could be got in was testament to skill, fortitude and no small measure of luck. That plane brought troops, troops who marched from the airstrip to the camp. A platoon of twenty-six of them with unusually for such a small group, two officers. The customary Lieutenant and a Major.
The Lieutenant set piquets and sent his men to eat while the Major introduced himself.
It took Vere all of two seconds to ascertain that Major Daniel Okimbo was not a normal part of the fighting formation. It was clear that unlike the Lieutenant, he was not familiar with the line soldiers and also clear that he was keen to get going.
“It is none of your business.” Okimbo told Vere on his querying the Major’s intentions. “This is the work of real soldiers.”
“Well I wouldn’t want to get in your way.” Vere responded sarcastically. “But having some idea of your intentions might just be helpful.”
“We will follow them.” Okimbo stated.
“I already have a team out.” Vere advised. “They’re heading north east.”
“My people will track them properly.” Okimbo restated. “I have the best trackers in all the land.”
“You do realise these people already have a three day lead.”
“We will catch them. They will be much slower with prisoners.”
“And then what?”
“We ambush and kill them.”
“Kill them all?”
“Yes. They are a scourge upon the nation. We kill them all.”
“And what happens to our people?”
“We save them of course.”
“During an ambush?”
“There are always difficulties in these things. But we will save many of them. Our government does not give in to bandits, criminals or terrorists.”
“You know who they are?” Vere asked. “You’ve had contact already?”
“No, I do not believe so.” Okimbo responded. “But it does not matter. This will not happen in our country.”
The troops ate, cleaned their kit and headed out in three files. As they were leaving the Lieutenant approached Vere.
“Major Okimbo tells me you have people tracking the enemy. Is this true?”
“It is.” Vere confirmed.
“Do you know more?”
“There are close to forty insurgents with sixteen hostages. They are heading North East and are pushing hard.”
“Do you communicate?”
“Satellite telephone. Every evening at twenty two hundred. That’s how I know they already shot two of our people.”
“Will you be with us?” The Lieutenant asked.
“Not exactly.” Vere replied. “I don’t think I’d be welcome.”
“That is not true. I would welcome you and your men.”
“Thank you.” Vere responded. “But I don’t think the Major agrees with you.
The Lieutenant smiled. “You may be right. But I will listen. Do you know where the enemy are now?”
“No.” Vere admitted. “And I won’t until tonight. But I can show you on the map where they camped the last three nights.”
Into the jungle.
Vere was not concerned that the soldiers left before him. They would not make much progress before nightfall and Vere would leave the following morning and gain ground on them with ease. He knew from his trackers where the insurgents were, and where they were headed. He would use the old survey lines and roads so although travelling nearly twice as far would not have to traverse virgin jungle and so march at five times the pace. He even believed that despite the lead it was possible to get ahead of the insurgents before the lines and roads ran out, and particularly if he used the company truck to drop him and his team off. Vere planned to drive back along the line until it cut the Milando road then run up that until it hit line 42 then run up that line as far as it would let him. De truck there and head east to cut off the insurgent’s line of march. He would have a satellite ‘phone and keep contact with his trackers on a nightly basis. With both of them aided by GPS location Vere could align his route to intersect. By then he should also be receiving reports of the government troops’ progress.
Seven days out from camp, two full days in the truck and five days on foot Vere was where he wanted to be. Regular reports from his Deltas four and five, David Beko and N’dabe Phillips kept him abreast of the insurgent location. Now he was astride their line of march and ahead of them with a full days advantage. The insurgents had paused but were on the move again.
Vere’s plan was to observe the insurgents as they passed and then rendezvous with Beko and Phillips who had been out for ten days without resupply. Only once he had a true picture of the situation could he formulate a plan of his own, for Beko and Phillips were tailing, not contacting the insurgents and could not report on their true strength or condition, let alone that of the hostages. They had however reported the en-route murders. Vere could not be more outraged at those any more than the wanton killing of the labourers at the camp. A life was a life, black or white.
The outside view
Vere was incandescent. For twenty days his little team had tracked and assessed the insurgents. They had first circumnavigated the forward operating base and now what they saw as a supply or support base, and they knew its weaknesses and strengths. The encampment lay in gently undulating heavily forested land in what was essentially a very shallow valley with a steam in it’s bottom and low ridges running either side in a north-east south-west orientation. The camp lay on the north side of the stream with the main access tracks generally following the stream up its course. Primarily tented and heavily camouflaged, the camp was arranged in a rough horseshoe with the messing and hostages located centrally.
The insurgents were not fools. They had in place three external sentry observation points, one on a low outcrop overlooking the stream and track to the south of the camp, another at the head of the valley with a similar outlook at the north end and a third halfway up a tree on the south east ridge from where, way in the distance the smoke from the nearest village could be seen. A series of trip wire alarms were set out around the perimeter at more or less fifty metres from the nearest tent. This ring had of necessity gaps for the sentries to pass through and Vere had each tripwire and gap mapped out. The biggest gap was where these wires abutted the stream and the opposite bank. A crossing here in poor light or the dark would be undetected and unopposed.
Vere’s team knew the routine and had a viable plan. There was no way they were going to get the hostages out without a fight and the terms were not good. Seven against forty-three was never going to permit extraction without casualties or a follow up and the hostages looked in no condition to make another perilous and strenuous journey. It would have to be a joint effort with the government troops and they were delayed.
The promise Major Okimbo had made of catching the insurgents had not been kept. The government troops only caught up with Vere on the eighteenth day and Okimbo was incredulous and very angry that Vere had got ahead of him. It took his Lieutenant to calm him down and stop the shouting that could have alerted the insurgents to their presence.
A full kilometre back along the track the Government troops made bivouac. The Lieutenant pulled in his scouts and set piquets as was his norm, then set his men to erecting a small tent for the Major while he returned to speak with Vere. The Lieutenant wasn’t fooled, he wasn’t so crass as to acknowledge Vere’s piquets disguised vantage point but Vere saw him take note and was quietly pleased. They did the introductions properly. Richard Vere, ex major in the South African Defence Force with his right hand man Dzuke Rawlings and their specialist team on one hand and Lieutenant Peter Mugabe with a platoon of Rangers on the other. They shared tea and on talking to the Lieutenant Vere was mildly amused to discover that like Vere and his team Lieutenant Mugabe and his men would shelter and sleep under poncho covers, but not the Major.
Mugabe explained the reason for their poor progress to that point. Firstly Major Okimbo was not a fit man and had no real experience of being in a tropical jungle for a sustained period, let alone the expediencies of warfare in that environment. He simply did not comprehend that scouts had to be either extremely vigilant on any trail for booby traps and ambushes or to be off-trail. Keeping contact with off-trail scouts in that terrain is a difficult and time-consuming business. They had lost more time both at the previous encampment and again at a diversion to pick up air dropped supplies. Now they were here and he listened as Vere both explained the lie of the land and proposed a strategy for elimination of the insurgents and rescue of the hostages.
Mugabe took this information back to Okimbo and it was roundly rejected. No trumped up stinking mercenary would dictate a self indulgent and distorted plan on Major Okimbo. No, an independent operation would be conceived and carried out.
Vere had intended the action to take place at dawn, Okimbo did not want to be moving up into position in the dark and considered the low point in the day to be late afternoon. He conceived a pincer movement where his three squads would move up at dawn and deploy in daylight then attack in an all out, overwhelming wave of surprise that even if the insurgents did manage to regroup, his left and right squads would hinge in to trap them in a killing zone. Major Daniel Okimbo was not of a mind to listen to any of his Lieutenant’s suggestions or to share this plan with Vere.
Vere was tired. He had taken the early stag with Ngomo Wapete. It had become normal practice in the eleven days they had the encampment under observation, to mount a watch from a vantage point on the low ridge to the north. His team of seven, including himself took it in rotation to mount a doubled watch. The insurgents had lookouts on a similar spur south of the camp overlooking the stream and approach path where they could see anything coming from that direction, provided that was that the approach was not completed in a clandestine manner.
It was Wapete who noted the activity first.
“Boss.” He whispered. “Do you see it?”
Vere’s mind had been elsewhere. Thinking how he could persuade Major Okimbo to accede to an action plan. Returning his attention he could see both by starlight and then in more detail through his night vision scope that the insurgents were arming up and deploying in force out through their trip wire cordon to the west. West was where the Government troops had bivouacked.
Vere touched Wapete’s shoulder, whispering “Go now. Go quickly and warn Lieutenant Mugabe. I will wake the others and be twenty minutes behind you.”
Like a shadow, Wapete was gone and Vere was close behind him.
Waking all his team Vere sent David Beko and N’dabe Phillips up to the vantage point and with the other three made his way as quickly as was sensible toward the Government bivouac. He was too late. The shooting had started even as he approached the position.
“There’s something up.” The voice hushed but clear in the darkness.
“What do you mean?” The question from another sleepless hostage.
“Shh.” A quietening indicator from the direction of the first voice. “The locals are up and about. Better get all our people awake and ready, but quietly now.” The voice identified itself as Ryan.
Moderated to the same level the second voice, that of Tom Williams queried, “What’s going on?”
“Listen for yourself. The Onion boys are on the move.” It was a term Ryan had adopted for their captors and the others had taken up. “But they’re going about it all hush-hush.” Ryan continued, his voice pitched low. “It’s not like them. I think they’ve got a whisper someone else is about, maybe government troops.”
“A rescue squad?”
“Aren’t they supposed to be a surprise?”
Tom checked, a momentary hope dashed. “Who then?”
“Who knows? Whoever it is, they’re some kind of a threat because the boys are taking it seriously.”
Tom did not argue, the evidence was too clear. With all the lights out he’d sat up enough to see but not arouse interest and he’d seen the AN Union splinter group boys moving silently in the darkness across the hard ground, each shadowy huddle laden with weapons and ammunition, their taught faces reflected in the sparse starlight, their shoulders hunched as if in expectation of the dangers of the combat to come. These were no longer stupid and arrogant youths on an ill advised, poorly conceived political or religious crusade, they were soldiers going to war.
“Are they all going?” Mike Wienhardt queried in a whisper. “Leaving us?”
“An opportunity?” Ryan postulated. “Hardly likely, but we’d better be ready if it is.”
Everyone was awake and on edge. There could be no dispute that something very unusual was afoot. Excepting for the four guards left behind and who were very edgy, the camp was all but deserted. The shooting started as dawn rose, the noise sounding muted almost distant, absorbed by the foliage but its intensity clear.
“That’s some fire fight.” Rob Greggson commented.
“You heard one before?” Tom queried.
“A few.” Greggson returned. “And that sounds more like.” He shut up as the noise died as quickly as it had started. Greggson listened for a moment. “That was not a skirmish, it was an ambush.”
Almost as he finished speaking the gunfire resumed. It had a different pitch, a staccato effect ebbing and flowing in intensity and slowly, so slowly getting ever nearer. M’longwe and Ndoko, the other guard outside the tent were severely distracted by the conflict even to the point of taking cover from as yet non-existent incoming fire.
“We need to get to a safe place.” Ryan said. “I don’t want to get killed in the cross fire.”
“We need to stay together.” Mike Davies interjected. “If this is a rescue, we would be pretty stupid if they can’t find us.”
“I’ll take my chances.” Ryan answered, He tapped Joanne as he made his way past her. “You coming?” He questioned as he rolled under the flap at the back of the tent.
She followed. There was no good reason but she did it anyway. Ryan was a guy that didn’t compute. He was gruff and obtuse but at the same time patently and realistically practical. There were no hopes or desires in the man other than the long dead want for Joanne’s company and consequently no false hope. Ryan had never expressed an expectation of rescue or alleviation from this condition. He just got on with coping and seemed to Joanne to be the better for it. He did not look back, nor hold out a hand to help as he crouched down, exiting into the vegetation. Joanne followed, as did two others. She could hear them but did not dare to look back in case she lost touch with Ryan.
For all the time they had been forced together Adam Tomes had almost been a nobody. In more than three weeks he had hardly said a word, just following along, doing what had to be done like an automaton. He had been mentally traumatised at the killing of his team of black workers in front of his eyes, a team he had a close bond with. Adam was no stranger to distress; only in his late twenties he had three work redundancies and a destroyed marriage behind him. Life had dealt Adam no favours, fate always conspiring to rip the rug from under his feet as soon as he felt on solid ground. Adam was no quitter, each time he’d picked himself up and carried on. This was no different. On the move he’d been introverted and withdrawn, caught in an emotional trance. Even the first halt had been no help. He could not rid himself of guilt as to how was he a survivor and his team were not and the endless questions in his head as to what he could have done to save them.
This last time, stuck in the tent with nothing to occupy his physical side he’d started to pull himself out of the malaise. He’d survived thus far and the only thing he could do was survive to the end. Despite his mental isolation he’d been aware of events and knew quite clearly that any non conformist behaviour was rewarded harshly and so he’d deliberately remained overtly withdrawn while making cold assessments as to the probability of his survival and how he could take revenge on those he had come to hate. Already thinking of making an exit as the bullets started to fly, Adam did not hesitate in following Ryan out.
Into the brush and a hollow behind fallen trees Ryan used his hands to deepen the scrape and plug more damp soil into the gap underneath the trunk. Realising what he was at, Joanne, Alan and Adam set to with a will.
“For god’s sake quiet down.” Ryan hissed. “There are still Onions in the camp.”
Everyone stilled and waited. There was enough noise coming from the jungle, the cacophony of combat growing by the minute.
The foliage above them shivered as a bullet ripped through the canopy, then another this time lower and smacking with a wood splitting crack into a nearby tree trunk. All four hunkered down lower into the scrape as more bullets flew around. There had been shouting heard among the gunshots as the Onion boys retreated and their opponents gained ground. Closer and closer the firing came to peak in a sustained burst all too close by.
Back at the tent M’longwe was getting concerned. Bullets were coming his way and he didn’t know why or where they were from. He, Ndoko and the other two fighters had already adopted low positions when the bullet struck. In a heartbeat Ndoko contracted then was flung back to the ground as if he’d been struck by a sledgehammer and exposing a great rent in his torso. It was more than enough for M’longwe and the other two. It was time to go somewhere safe. As they sprinted away more bullets threw up dirt at their feet. Consumed by fear, anger and hatred M’longwe realised that his departure might permit a rescue of the westerners. That wasn’t going to happen on his watch. He flicked the safety catch to automatic and emptied all the 30 rounds in his magazine into the side of the tent as he passed.
At the front of the tent George Adams took the first shots, the bullets tearing through him at close range and into Mike Weinhardt immediately behind him. They too had been keeping low and the bullets tore George’s chest to ribbons before tumbling out to gouge great rents in Mike’s neck and shoulders, severing his carotid artery and sheeting gouts of blood over the tent wall. In mid tent Rob Greggson, Tom Williams, Mike Davies and Pete Swanson took more rounds, sharing the bulk of the magazine between them. In the confined space the bullets punched neat holes through vital organs, going on to strike multiple targets in the men’s thorax and abdomens.
Harold Tarn had been laying down and but for extreme misfortune would have evaded the spray of lead. Like his namesake he was hit in the eye, not with an arrow but a high velocity bullet that exploded his eyeball and continued into his skull obliterating the major part of his brain to exit the back of his head along with a huge portion of brain and bone. Harold may have been the last to get hit but he was the first to die.
To Ryan the long burst he heard had been accompanied by hoarse shouts in English of disbelief and agony. Appalled, he realised that in defeat and retreat the Onion boys were shooting their hostages. As the realisation dawned he was distracted by a crashing in the underbrush as two camouflaged figures rushed past to disappear into the jungle. A third crashed in behind the two and slid sideways into the scrape. Surprised to find it occupied, the Onion boy reacted quickly. Gun up and into Ryan’s face M’longwe signed for silence. Had they known M’longwe’s gun was empty the three guys would have taken him there and then. But no one could have known that and so with heavy hearts all four stayed quiet.
The gunfire ebbed and flowed for at least an hour, almost dying out at times but not getting nearer. The rescue team whoever they were had ceased to gain ground. A final flurry of shooting ceased abruptly to be replaced at a pause by almost random single shots.
Tentatively M’longwe raised his head over the tree trunk barrier. With his attention distracted Joanne hoped one of the guys would try and jump him. None did, and seeing his compatriots returning victorious to the camp M’longwe grinned and stood.
“We have won.” He said. “Now we will go back.” He gestured for them to stand and place hands over their heads then marched them out of the hiding place back into the camp.
Even as they approached it the big tent was a mess, great rents torn in the fabric. Inside was reminiscent of an abattoir. Of the seven souls who had remained in the tent, six were already dead, their wounds horrific, each corpse riddled, the bodies grotesquely posed and piled together as if trying to hide from the bullets. Ryan was speechless, rigid with anger and hatred. Adam matched Ryan’s mood while Joanne covered her face in a vain attempt to deny the horror. Alan retched. There was nothing but bile in his stomach but he brought that up anyway.
The general fabric of the camp was untouched, the major casualty being the hostages. There may have been odd stray bullets but there had been no fire fight here. Whoever had been left to guard them had either panicked or deliberately eliminated that which prevented him going to the fight. Or more likely, as Ryan suspected of M’longwe, to run away. The face of the K’gozi betrayed that he thought the same.
A groan attracted their immediate attention, a groan from the back of the wrecked tent. Ryan and Adam entered the charnel house to drag the bloody and still oozing but indisputably dead bodies of Mike Davies, Tom Williams and Rob Greggson away. Beneath them just Pete Swanson remained alive and he only just. Pete had seven bullet holes and he had been at the bottom of the pile, semi protected by the other’s flesh.
The tent was awash with blood, the flies already drawn to the smell. There was no way they could leave Pete in it and even with all four of them carefully lifting Pete out into the open there was no guarantee of improving his condition. Although Joanne tied rags and handkerchiefs the boys had rifled from their dead colleagues over the holes there was no way to completely staunch his bleeding. Pete seemed to be in no real pain, drifting in and out of consciousness, as the rags grew more and more red, the blood turning from crimson to maroon until he slipped quietly from this existence.
“Jesus.” Joanne exhaled. Her exposure to violent death may still be new and raw but even with that she’d not been so close as to be holding someone’s hand as they died before. Even Pete Edgecombe’s hand had slipped from hers before he died in the night. Despite the trials of their circumstance it was still an overwhelming emotional trauma. Still clutching Pete’s dead fingers Ryan reached over to lay his hand on hers. “Be careful of what you say.” He whispered close “We still don’t know that these boyos don’t take offence to Christian terms.”
She turned to him, eyes full of tears and responded, her voice as low as his had been. “You callous fucking bastard.” It was warranted and yet not.
The onion boys began to bring their own dead in and roused Adam, Alan and Ryan to help fetch the bodies of Government soldiers into the camp. Rob Greggson had been right, it had been a brutal business. It was the Government soldiers who had been ambushed as they prepared to attack the camp, not the ANUSG fighters. Some nine of the government soldiers lay dead in various postures in a quite small area. It was to their credit that even in the face of that catastrophe the Government troops had fought back and forced the onion boys to retreat. How the battle had proceeded was evident in where the bodies lay. A further twelve soldiers and eleven onion boys had perished in the running gun battle that ended in another semi ambush, the last five soldiers caught together and dying together. Clearly there had been a miscalculation somewhere. Just twenty government soldiers sent against nearly forty ANU.
The dead Onion boys and soldiers were laid unceremoniously in the big tent alongside the dead white hostages. Joanne had attempted to dignify the shattered corpses of Pete, Rob, Mike, Tom, George and Harold but that touch was lost as the dead Government troops were piled on top. It struck Ryan that there were no injured survivors. He’d read somewhere that for every life lost in combat there were three wounded casualties. Not here. Among the government soldiers it was clear why, each had a ‘make sure’ killing shot in the head. The onion boys didn’t but each of the eleven had multiple bullet wounds and were just as dead.
The K’gozi was busy with his troops, congratulating and cajoling. There was another move imminent and the four surviving whites were once again provisioned and pushed into line, their guards fatigued but edgy and animated, on a high as good as any drug.
No words were said before the entire tented camp was set afire. The Onion boys stayed only long enough to see the flames had caught before moving their charges off.
The big tent burned fiercely, the odour of roast flesh stronger in the air than the smell of burning wood and canvas, a pall of smoke rising through the canopy.
“That will give the game away.” Alan muttered dejectedly.
“Irrelevant.” Ryan responded. “The military know where we are already. It’s why we’re moving.”
The route out of the camp was back the way they had come. Four days this time, the pace slower than before despite having fewer captives. The pace dictated this time by caution. This time there were regular halts, this time the K’gozi sent scouts, this time they set traps behind them. They may have won their fire fight but they were hunted men now and they knew it. Next time, and they all knew that sooner or later there would be a next time, it would not be the same. It was obvious in the faces and body language of the onion boys that they were not so confident as they had been before. It was also revealed in the communication. Prior to the fight only orders and hostility had been given to the western hostages. Now, instead of orders the onion boys talked even chatted, becoming almost protective. What was left of any ransom needed to be kept intact.
They passed the small clearing where Sean and Rebecca had been left and Mark Nuttal had been executed as an example of what to expect in the case of dissent. Ryan, as usual the one to take note and comment on it pointed the location out. In the very short time they halted no traces of the three bodies, nor even any sign of their being there at all could be discerned. Maybe M’longwe had dragged them off or buried them but given both the short time before he had returned and as they had discovered recently, his self-centred nature, that prospect was unlikely.
Joanne wasn’t sure that Ryan was even right. She thought and said that maybe they’d got the wrong place. Ryan did not dissuade her. He knew he was right and was only too aware that the jungle consumes everything. Life and death are everyday occurrences and unseen creatures will move entire carcasses into secluded places where they eat their fill in relative safety and the remains get stripped bare by increasingly ever smaller creatures such that within days almost nothing remains.
On and on step after step, slow and steady. A pace that would have been much easier on the now dead Sean, Rebecca, Pete and Rob, let alone the just as dead Tom, Mark, Both Mikes, Martin, Brian, George or Pierre.
They had been around the onion boys long enough and particularly when collecting the government soldiers bodies that Ryan could name all but a few of them. They already knew leader of the group went by the name of K’gozi and now had learned that it was not a name but a title. In full the honorific was Kiongozi Muku, which in one of the thousand African languages meant great leader. To some of his followers M’longwe among them, that honorific was no longer completely to their taste. The latest battle had not been the walk over they had expected. Well planned and executed though the ambush had been, that the government soldiers had managed, even temporarily to turn the tide and cause casualties did not sit with the idea of invincibility these boys had been sold.
Like all dictatorial leaders the K’gozi had an inner strength and ruthlessness that despite setbacks kept him in charge and in control. The K’gozi had both that strength and some military competence. Despite being in a jungle he had an eye for the land and would regularly send small scouting parties out in specific directions. The party was small enough now that even the hostages were close enough to witness the briefings and even though the language was strange to them they could begin to appreciate the quality of the K’gozi’s comprehension and leadership skills. What still eluded them all was the genuine rationale for their capture and incarceration or indeed the real aims of the group.If it were as had been supposed ransom, they had thrown away an awful lot of money with an awful lot of lives.