Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Into the Valley of Jam'aah.

The flying bullet down the pass, That whistles clear, "All flesh is grass." ~ Rudyard Kipling.

The Company broke camp well before dawn, and several miles of African dirt passed beneath their boots until the sun rose over the faraway ocean. Instantly the heat soared and sweat broke out on every man. Clouds of insects rose with the sun to engender an irregular chorus of slaps and curses as the vicious creatures homed in on the succulent flesh of the intruders. After a short pause for rest and water the Men of Barsetshire marched on, until the range of craggy hills grew distinct out of the heat haze and the opening of the Jam'aah Valley lay ahead.

Captain Pike called a halt, climbing a rocky outcrop to view the scene through his field glasses. CSM Harrington stood beside him, trying to turn his thoughts from the delightful Fatima bint Daud to more military matters.

Eventually Pike lowered the glasses and pointed. "The tower's there, on that hill at the far end of the valley just as Miss Daud described. The town lies beyond. I think the slavers are on to our presence. There's a red flag with Arabic script waving over the tower, and I can see movement on some of the hills either side."

"A nasty place for an ambush, sir." Harrington pointed to the road, little more than a track that ran beside the Jam'aah stream. "I propose taking our main body down the road to the town, with at least a section either side to clear the heights. If we keep pace with each other we'll be able to give support to whoever needs it."

Pike nodded, his expression thoughtful. "That's my idea, also. Two sections - Numbers 1 and 3 - will do for the main body, and you will take Number 2 section up on the hills to the right of the road. Sergeant Rutledge will take the other side with his askaris..."

The Captain glanced down and back at the side of the road where the white-clad askaris had fallen out to rest and drink water. The rims of their red fezzes were dark with sweat. The blond and blue-eyed Sergeant Rutledge, on loan to the askaris from one of the Barsetshire's sister companies, moved among his command, seeing to their needs as a good NCO should. He had caught the sun; the skin on his face and neck was red and peeling badly. Harrington could see the doubt in his officer's face as Pike looked them over, for the new askari sections had not covered themselves in glory on their previous deployments.

Pike gave a little shake of his head, as if to say it was all out of his hands now. He continued with his briefing. "We'll bring up Havildar Shukla's gun for support. It can accompany the main body, and help winkle out any stubborn fellows who may be hiding amongst the rocks."

"The valley floor's not so wide, sir. We'll need the infantry on the road. The gun will have to make best speed the other side of the river."

Pike studied the flow of the stream. "Yes, the ground looks dry there and should do very well for the gun. It's a good job the wet season's a week overdue, otherwise that side of the valley would be impassable." He paused, as if thinking of anything he might have overlooked. "I think that's all, sergeant. Look to your men, if you please." As Harrington saluted and made to move away Pike added. "Albert?" He held out his hand. "This may be an unpleasant task that awaits us today. Good luck."

Harrington returned the handshake and nodded respectfully. "Thank you, Fred. Good luck to you, too."

As Harrington made his dispositions Number 2 platoon fell in by the side of the road. The CSM moved off to confer with Rutledge of the askaris, and Marksman Lewis nudged his neighbour in the ranks, a comparative newcomer to the company. "I think we can expect a hot 'un today, Tommy boy."

The man glanced to where Lewis watched Harrington. "Why so, Jack?"

Lewis sucked his bottom lip thoughtfully. "Albert 'imself probably never notices it, but whenever we're about to take a tiger by the tail, 'e starts whistlin' Lillibulero through 'is teeth. 'E's been whistlin' that bloody tune since 'e came down off the rock after talkin' with the Captain..." 

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