SOLDIERS OF MISFORTUNE by Rex Mundy
1. The Attack
The attack came as we began to march down the defile between two craggy hills.
Sand thudded under the hoofs of our sergeant’s horse, the lowering cliffs echoed back the jingle of equipment, the sun beat down fiercely from a coppery sky, but the Legionnaires marched in silence. Our two patrols had met on the far side of the line of cliffs, both with a fruitless search to report.
There had been no sign of the desert raiders who had torched peaceful settlements in several nearby oases, and Sergeant Herzog had given the order to ride back to Fort Elise. But as the two combined patrols reached halfway up the rock strewn defile, we discovered where our quarry had gone to ground.
The first I knew of the attack was a pop-pop-pop of matchlock fire from the boulders that lay along one side of the defile, jagged rocks fallen from the towering cliffs at some point in antiquity. Smoke blossomed a dozen times from amongst them before being whipped away in the desert wind.
At the same instant, the man ahead of me fell with a cry, his white kepi knocked from his head to roll hectically across the sand. More matchlocks opened up from the cliffs on the other side, a ragged volley that betrayed all the indiscipline of the desert folk, but nevertheless men and camels fell to its unexpected onslaught.
Sergeant Herzog was riding at the front, his tanned, bearded face down beneath his black kepi as he spurred his horse onwards. More legionnaires fell.
Firing broke out from some of the men, who blazed away aimlessly at the rocks from which had come the stinking clouds of gunpowder. With the sudden resolution that the conviction of one’s own death brings, I added my own fire to the attack.
But what with the smoke and the glare of the sun and the thunderous noise of firing as it echoed back from those high cliffs, I do not believe I shot a single. At times I glimpsed blue robed figures ducking into cover or rising to fire matchlocks before ducking again to reload. But I soon saw that the fight was futile, shouted ‘Courir!’ to the men about me, and raced down the defile in pursuit of Sergeant Herzog.
A stray bullet winged me, but I barely noticed it, feeling only a solid thump from the vicinity of my shoulder. All my attention was focused on Sergeant Herzog, who was riding out of sight into the cover of a tall rock like a menhir leaning against the cliff. I grinned to myself. This would give us a chance against our sneaking opponents. This would even the field. I turned to shout encouragement to my comrades, only for the words to die stillborn on my lips.
The defile was littered with bodies of legionnaires. Only a few men put up a splendid defence, firing from behind fallen boulders and the dead pack camel. Still the cliffs on either hand popped with matchlock fire. It was incredible. The best part of twenty fully armed and fully trained men of the French Foreign Legion had fallen to the matchlock fire of a few cowardly nomads. I looked back in horror as I reached the cover of the leaning rock but then my view was cut off by its cool, shaded immensity.
A declivity led down into the gloom. The sergeant looked up from where he was loading his pistol, standing beside his snorting steed. His eyes narrowed. From the defile filtered the continuing clamour of the firefight.
‘Sergeant!’ I cried. ‘I must report a massacre.’
‘Legionnaire Mundy,’ he drawled in his Pennsylvanian accent. ‘Why did no one follow me? I gave the order clear as day.’
‘I heard nothing,’ I admitted, ‘and I don’t think anyone else did. Most of the men fell in the first volley.’ I looked down at the ground as his horse snorted in seeming derision.
‘We found the raiders,’ I added quietly. But my words were almost drowned out by the roar of gunfire.
‘What’s happening now?’ Herzog demanded, scratching his beard irritably. ‘Go find out!’
Unwillingly, I jumped down from the saddle and crawled a short way back up the sandy gradient until the defile came into view. It was much as I had left it, strewn with the dead, only a few legionnaires firing from the makeshift redoubt of dead pack camel and boulders. One seemed to be in command, a tall man who had been leading the second patrol. He was a man from a different troop, and I had not met him before. And yet there was something strangely familiar about his lean form.
I saw him aim his gun, squeeze the trigger—and a blue robed figure fell with a scream from the lea of a rock. I licked dry lips. At least we’d take a few of them with us. Herzog crawled up to join me.
‘Sergeant,’ I said urgently, ‘we must help them!’
The stocky sergeant spat a brown line of tobacco into the sand beside me. ‘Better we return to Fort Elise to report this attack,’ he said dispassionately. ‘Those men are already dead, legionnaire.’
Anguished, I watched as another legionnaire was shot down, falling over a rock to twitch and writhe out his last in the blood stained sand. A shadow fell over me. I looked up to see that above the clouds of gun smoke that choked the defile, several vultures were wheeling.
‘Sergeant,’ I said, ‘I must protest. Besides, how will only two of us have any hope of returning to the fort with this shocking news?’
Herzog gritted his teeth. ‘Stay here and die with the rest of them if you must, legionnaire,’ he said uncaringly. ‘I must take word to Commandant le Boucher.’
But he made no move to return to his horse. Instead I skidded back down the sandy slope into the shade of the great rock, seized the sergeant’s nervous horse by the reins and calmed him, then mounted, reloaded my rifle, and rode back up into the full glare of the sunlight.
As I reached the place where Herzog still watched on hands and knees, I saw to my horror that the raiders had risen from their cover and were converging on the valiant legionnaires. Blades flashed in the desert sunlight as they cut men down. For a moment, I wanted to ride far away, forget this slaughter, forget the desert, forget that I had ever joined the Legion. I blamed ol’ Jenny Wren—we boys’ nickname for our headmaster—who had told such fearful bosh about his days in the Legion on award days, and, of course, when he thrashed a chap.
But where could I go? A man does not join the French Foreign Legion if he has a hope of going home. I could never return to England, my home.
Besides, I knew the penalties for desertion from the Legion. It was this as much as any other consideration that encouraged me to spur the horse and ride back into the defile, firing as I came.
Blue robed men looked up in surprise or fell to my shooting, but I paid them no heed and rode into the mass of them, to where one legionnaire stood alone, a broken sabre in his fist, his long lean form slick with blood. Bodies lay heaped at his feet, some those of his comrades, but more those of the raiders.
A huge raider cut at him with an ornate scimitar, and wearily the legionnaire parried with his broken blade, then seized the man by a fold of his robe and flung him to one side, but another man came to take his place. They baited that legionnaire like mangy pariah dogs menacing a wolf. Now he flung away the blade, snatched up a fallen rifle and swung it like a club.
Then I was there, my horse riding down raiders, scattering them as the sand drummed to his hoofs. The legionnaire glanced up, and I saw cold grey eyes firm with resolve beneath his white kepi, a cruel mouth twisted into a sneer. In that moment I knew him. This was no stranger. I had known him long ago. I had cause to hate him.
But I thought nothing of this in that instant, as I rode past him, snatched him up so he scrambled onto the back of the horse and clung on for dear life as I sawed at the reins and we rode back through the shrieking desert men, back towards the head of the defile where even now Sergeant Herzog was racing from beneath the leaning rock, running for freedom.
2. March or Die
‘The Arabs are still following,’ I called back to my comrades.
Looking back at the stony stream where one horse and two men knelt gulping at the brackish water, packs and saddlebags strewn about the rocks beside them, I raised my voice. ‘I say, the Arabs are still after us.’
I looked back, peering through the gap in the line of boulders that stood along the ridge overlooking the stream. Beyond it rolled the desert sands, a scorching waste as dry as ashes that stretched into the shimmering haze. Long shadows were flung across the nearer reaches as the sun descended, but out there, out in the open desert, there was little to cast a shadow. It stretched flat and featureless but for the distant figures of mounted men.
They had been pursuing us ever since we had evaded them in the defile, although we had initially thought we had lost them among the labyrinth of rocks south of the gorge where they had ambushed us. And after many hours of hard riding and marching—these alternated as we took turns to ride the sergeants horse—they were still following our trail across the sands. Still a long way off, looking like ants as they toiled under the desert sun, they were indisputably following us.
‘They’re not Arabs,’ said the tall, lean man who I had snatched from certain death. He dabbed fastidiously at the water that clung to his moustache as he rose lithely.
After hours of marching in the baking sun I was in no mood for contradictions. ‘Of course they’re Arabs,’ I snapped.
Ned Storey was his name. I knew him of old.
‘They are Touaregs.’ Sergeant Herzog also rose, having filled his belly and his water bag. Droplets dewed his black beard. The horse continued to slurp at the meagre stream waters. ‘No Arabs live this far out into the desert,’ the American added. ‘The name means the Abandoned of God.’
‘Gad, I don’t care if they’re Esquimaux!’ I said. ‘The fact is, they’re still following us. We’ve got to get away from here.’
The sergeant indicated the setting sun. ‘It’ll be dark soon,’ he said. ‘The Touaregs will not be able to follow us in the dark.’
Storey shot him a look. ‘Can we be so sure, sergeant?’ he asked. ‘They have followed our trail all day without stopping. Why should the night daunt them?’
Herzog shrugged and laid a hand on his horse. ‘The beast is too tired to go on, legionnaire,’ he said. ‘The rest will do him good.’ He shivered. The cold of the desert night was fast stealing upon us.
‘But we can’t camp here, sergeant,’ I said, indicating the rocky landscape through which wound the stream, trickling futilely into the desert sands. ‘We’ll need somewhere we can defend—against predators at least, even if these Touaregs as you call them will give us the night off.’
Herzog scanned our immediate surroundings. The stream trickled down from a beetling rocky eminence above us, in whose lea grew a few scrub trees and bushes. ‘We’ll find somewhere to sleep up there,’ he said. ‘Gather firewood from those shrubs.’
He led the horse by the bridle up the stream and into an area flanked on two sides by walls of sandstone, with the cliff behind it and only the stream itself as an entrance. Here he corralled our mount amidst the rocks. Storey and I worked quickly to gather up dry twigs and branches while Herzog loaded a rifle and disappeared beyond the rocks on a mysterious errand.
‘Do you really suppose this will keep out marauding Touaregs?’ I asked Ned Storey as we laid the fire on a flat stretch of ground by the stream. ‘If they decide to make a night attack, I mean?’
Storey looked pensive. ‘The horse won’t be able to go any further without rest,’ he said with a yawn. ‘Nor will I, truth be told. Are you such an iron man that you can march all night as well as all day?’
I rubbed my tired muscles regretfully. ‘Certainly not,’ I said, as Storey lit the fire, ‘but our pursuers, call them Arab, Touareg or anything you like, are steadfast and determined. They’ll be only too glad to slit out throats. And we have to return to the camp and warn the commandant! That’s why you insisted we take this route, since you said it’s a quicker…’
A shot rang out from beyond the boulders. We both exchanged glances. Storey scrambled up onto a high rock and surveyed the area with one hand shading his eyes.
‘Is it the Touaregs?’ I hissed. ‘Have they got the sergeant?’
He laughed suddenly, and leapt down again. Seconds later, Sergeant Herzog swaggered into the camp, rifle in one hand, the carcass of a gazelle over his shoulders. He dropped it down on the ground, and leant on his gun, looking pleased with himself. He saw that the fire was burning.
‘We’ll not starve tonight,’ he said with a laugh, and knelt down to skin and gut his quarry.
‘Did you see any sign of our pursuers, sergeant?’ I asked as he cut up the meat and placed it on sticks to roast over the flames. He nodded without looking up. I’d always warmed to the sergeant. Since he was the only other English speaker in the troop, it was natural. The rank and file were another matter—particularly the rank. Krauts, dagoes, and worse. And all of them seemed to speak French better than I did.
‘I caught sight of them, legionnaire,’ Herzog said absently, ‘further down the valley. Seems they had lost our trail. They were examining the ground. Seemed to be having some kind of dispute, as if not sure they should go on.’
‘Our trail would have died when we entered the rocks,’ Storey observed. I glanced at him, where he sat with his back to the cliff, a rifle over his knees. ‘Even Touaregs would have trouble following our tracks across the arid stretch we have traversed to get here.’
‘Maybe this plan was not so foolish,’ I muttered.
‘Maybe, legionnaire,’ said Herzog. ‘And maybe you can take first watch.’
As the guttering flames made the darkness darker, I sat by the fire, rifle at the ready. Down here, in this little valley, it would not be visible to our pursuers, or so the sergeant had assured us. He lay beside the fire, bundled in a blanket, head resting on his saddle bag. On the far side, Storey also slept. The horse stood, gently blowing and nickering to himself. I rose to my feet.
Silently I crossed over to where Storey lay and stood looking down at him. I remembered him as he was at our school, captain of the rugger team and a promising scholar, two years above me. He had seemed almost godlike in those days. Our ways had separated after school—not that we had ever been pals in the first place, although I’d known a chap who was his fag.
It was several years later that I had next heard of him, but that was when the whole country knew his name—the Great Detective, to the life. The closest thing England ever had to the fictional Sherlock Holmes. That had all been forgotten about, of course, after the scandal. The idol of the mob proved to have feet of clay.
I knelt down and began searching through his knapsack, moving very slowly, very tentatively. I found a change of clothes, the tinderbox he’d used to light the fire, a penknife… Nothing of any interest. I turned to search through his pockets—he would be keeping it very close, of course—and froze.
‘You won’t find it in there,’ Ned Storey told me, breaking the silence.
His cold grey eyes glittered malevolently in the firelight. I felt a cold flush prickle across my skin. ‘I… I don’t know what you mean,’ I stammered awkwardly. The man slept like a cat!
‘It’s not in my knapsack,’ he said. ‘What you’re looking for. And you won’t find it on my person, either.’
He rose and stretched, then picked up his rifle. ‘It must be time for second watch,’ he added quietly. ‘Get some sleep. You’ll need to be ready and refreshed for the journey in the morning.’
I wanted to say something. To think of some witty sally. I felt humiliated, ashamed. And frustrated.
I said nothing, but instead unrolled my bedroll, bundled myself in my blanket, and sought sleep. As I lay there, I went over the events of the day in my mind. Two whole patrols of the Legion wiped out, except for we three fugitives. It was unheard of. Surely there was an explanation. How had the Touaregs known to attack us in that place? A child ran through me. Had we been betrayed?
The last thing I saw before I nodded off was Storey sitting by the fire, cleaning his gun.
I awoke with a start.
It was still night. What had woken me? I listened. As I did, I heard a strange whirring sound. Craning my neck round, I saw a dark figure by the fire, holding a flaming brand high overhead, swinging it back and forth in what was obviously a signal. A signal—to our enemies?
I was about to speak but before I could assemble a suitable sentence in my mind, another dark figure burst into the firelight and dragged the first to the ground in a flailing of limbs. As I flung off my blanket I heard the two men struggling.
‘Storey? Sergeant?’ I called. ‘What’s going on?’
They paid me no heed, grappling with each other and raining each other with blows. I sprang across the small space and seized the taller, leaner of the two figures.
‘You fool!’ Storey shoved me away and I staggered backwards. Herzog seized the opportunity to wrap an arm round Storey’s neck and began to throttle him. Still my fellow countryman struggled.
‘Sergeant,’ I hissed. ‘He was signalling to our enemies! They could be out there, in the darkness! Try to keep quiet or they’ll hear us and come looking!’
Herzog flung Storey to the ground, snatched up his rifle and levelled it at him. Without looking away, he said, ‘You think he was signalling to the Touaregs? Why would he do that? A legionnaire of France!’
‘This man, sergeant,’ I said, ‘is a murderer and a thief!’ Of course, the Legion did not lack such folk. One might as well have pointed out to the judge at my trial that he and the police who had arrested me were all members of the Freemasons. But I forged on regardless. ‘That ambush—it must have been his doing! He brought the Touaregs down on us!’
‘Keep your voice down yourself,’ Storey spat. I had come close to shouting. ‘Quiet!’
He raised a hand for silence, ignoring the gun Herzog had trained on him. And I heard the clatter of hoofs amongst the rocks below us. Other, similar noises were audible from either side. Riders were approaching our position.
‘Touaregs!’ I hissed, as a mounted figure rode into the firelight.
But I was wrong. This was no Mohammedan desert nomad. This fierce, barbaric rider was a woman.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK