Word count: 4,665
The only sound was the low rumble of the engine as they traveled across the vast expanse of sand.
The landscape was featureless except for the shadows created by the rise and dips of the rolling dunes which looked almost white under the blazing sun. God, but he was sick of sand. He thought longingly of his home, so far from this war-torn hell. Would he ever feel grass under his feet again? Hear the creak of the saddle as he loped across the range on his line-back dun? Or smell that wonderful warm and heavy scent of horses and barns and hay?
“Why the hell d’you join up, Sarge? You being a Yank and all, it weren’t like you got conscripted.” The cheerful Cockney voice jolted him back to the present.
He flinched as they bounced and bumped over a sand dune, throwing him against the side of the Dingo, even as he tried to think how to frame his answer. Frowning, he stared out at the endless desert and wondered how many times he’d asked himself the same question.
“It was Dunkirk, I think.” He nodded his head slowly. “Yeah, Dunkirk. Seeing you all standing alone, fighting against all odds. And all those brave little boats heading out to rescue your army…” He shrugged. “My family originally came from Britain. We still got family there. It seemed the least I could do was to come and do my bit.” It wasn’t the whole truth but he didn’t want to explain the rest.
The corporal grinned, showing a mouthful of crooked teeth. “So not some wild adventure then?”
Richard Lancer laughed. “Well, hell, yes! I get to spend my time with a bunch of limeys, riding around in Dingo armored cars, with sand in every crevice of my body. And I mean every damn crevice!”
His words earned a laugh, and they all scratched at their groins in unison.
The lieutenant chipped in. “No, it was because of his name. He just wanted to be Sgt. Lancer of the 12th Royal Lancers. He reckoned it would garner him some respect. These Yanks have got to take it anywhere they can get it.”
“Stuka!” The private leapt to man the Bren gun.
Richard winced, preparing for the screaming siren as the Stuka bomber came diving toward them. The siren was the worst part. The planes rarely hit their targets, and unfortunately the gunners rarely hit the planes. But manning the Bren gun made everyone feel a little better.
The plane shrieked out of the sky, machine guns blazing.
The explosion shook the earth and in the flashing light and smoke everything slowed down. He registered shock and piercing pain…
The air stank of burning fuel. And burning flesh.
Screwing up his eyes he could see the Dingo still burning. The corporal, hunched in the driving seat, was burning with it. He was due to be married on his next leave.
Richard looked away, repulsed by the sight. Acrid smoke filled his lungs, and he coughed and retched, groaning as he waited for the wave of pain to pass.
But it didn’t pass. The first wave was followed by a second wave and then a third. He let out a shuddering moan and all he could see were silver stars dancing a wild tarantella. The next wave had him slipping out of consciousness, and glad of it.
When he came to, the Dingo was still burning, but less fiercely now. He could see parts of the bodies of the lieutenant and the private, scattered untidy in the sand. The corporal was a blackened caricature, still sitting rigid in the driving seat.
He looked away and tried to haul himself into a sitting position, but the effort made him retch again, and that made everything hurt far more.
What a damn stupid place to die.
He’d bleed out here in the desert, thousands of miles from home.
Would they send him home to be buried?
Hell, would anyone even find his body?
Maybe he’d lie here for eternity, entombed by the fine sand from one of the storms that whipped up out of nowhere.
He tried to push the thoughts away, but in his heart he knew he was finished. He could feel the blood pooling around his leg.
“You really should try to stop that bleeding.”
He jolted upward, with a cry of pain, to see a man squatting next to him, watching him.
“You’ll bleed right out if you don’t do something soon.”
“Who the hell are you?” His voice sounded unfamiliar and weak. “And where did you spring from?”
The fellow shrugged. “I was passing by.”
Despite the pain, Richard waved his hand toward the featureless desert. “Passing by? Out here?”
The stranger grunted, and rolled his eyes. “Does it matter where I fucking came from? Like I said, if you don’t do something soon, you’re gonna bleed right out. So stop moaning and groaning and use your shirt to staunch the flow.”
“My shirt? You want me to take my shirt off? The sun will burn me to a crisp.” The words were out before he could stop himself; what a damn stupid thing to say.
The stranger snorted with laughter. “Hell, you probably won’t live long enough to burn. And you sure as hell won’t if you don’t do something about that leg.”
Richard summoned up a glare. “Maybe you could lend a hand. If it’s not too much trouble.”
The man leaned over and peered at his leg. “It’s split from the knee to the groin. Lucky it wasn’t an inch or two higher. That wouldn’t have looked too pretty.” He paused, glancing over at Richard. “And you got a bullet in the side of your chest. You’re lucky that wasn’t an inch to the left. And another one in your shoulder. Yeah, you been real lucky, I reckon.” He leaned over and helped Richard drag off his jacket, and then his shirt.
A wave of pain swept over him again. “I don’t feel lucky.” His whisper was hoarse.
The man rolled his eyes again. “It’s only a few bullets, and bits of metal and glass. You sure as hell moan a lot.”
“Only a few bullets―” Richard paused, hissing with pain, “If you’d been shot you’d―”
“I been shot up plenty of times and I sure didn’t make as much fuss as you.”
Richard ignored the comment and concentrated on trying to stem the bleeding. “The first aid kit may have survived the fire. It’s in a metal box. Maybe you could look for it. It’s got a cross on it.” He added the information because maybe this stranger was too stupid to recognize a first aid box.
“It didn’t.” The fellow held up some crushed and twisted pieces of metal, the red cross almost obliterated by charring. “A pity I ain’t got my jacket with me. I always carry a needle and thread in it. I could have sewn you up. But it’s too damn hot for a jacket.” He leaned down to pick something out of what little remained of the first aid box. “There’s some pins here. I reckon we’ll have to make do with those.”
Richard swallowed hard as the man showed him the safety pins. “OK. I guess they’ll have to do.” He wanted to delay the inevitable. “Are you with the Lancers?”
The man laughed softly. “Yeah, kind of.” He bent to his task, pulling the skin together and jabbing the pins into Richard’s thigh.
“I thought… I thought I was the only American in the regiment―” He screamed as he passed into a merciful oblivion.
A hand covering his mouth brought him back to consciousness. He struggled but the hand clamped harder. The stench of fuel filled his nostrils. He could hear the rumble of engines, and the ground trembled.
“A patrol passing by. Shush,” whispered the stranger.
Richard heard voices calling out in German. Then he passed out again.
When he came to, the stranger was squatting watching him. “It’s fine now – they’ve gone. You’re safe.”
Richard licked his parched lips. “Gone? They may have been my best chance. They’d have taken me prisoner. They’d have got me to a doctor.”
The other man snorted. “Or more than likely put a bullet in your head. They’re a long ways from their base. They wouldn’t want to bother dragging you around.”
Richard sucked in a breath. Shit, but it hurt. “How come they didn’t see us?” He paused, thinking hard. “And why the hell are you wearing a pink shirt? It’s not exactly regular camouflage gear.”
“It ain’t pink. It’s red.” The stranger scowled at him.
“Either way, you stand out.” He paused. “But it’s pink.”
The stranger glared. “It’s red.”
Richard frowned. “Why aren’t you in uniform? And what the hell do I call you? You got a name?”
The fellow narrowed his eyes. “My name ain’t none of your fucking business. But you can call me Sir.” He scrambled to his feet. “I reckon we’d best get moving. I need to get you back to your unit before you bleed out. I suppose I’ll have to damn well carry you. What we really need is a horse.”
He said the word ‘horse’ loudly, as if he was emphasizing the point.
“A horse? What we need is a jeep,” muttered Richard. He felt very woozy. And the waves of pain kept on coming. He was vaguely aware of the stranger hefting him up over his shoulder. And then the world faded out again.
When he came to again, it was dark. Stars twinkled in the vastness of the desert sky, but there was no moon. He was propped against a small pile of rocks that dug into his back. Moaning with the effort, he shuffled to one side.
“Drink this.” The stranger pressed a canteen of water to his lips. “But not too much. That ain’t good for you when you’re shot up like this.”
Richard shivered, grateful for the army jacket that the man draped over him. “You never said why you’re not in uniform.”
“No, I didn’t.”
There was a finality in his tone. Richard knew that he’d get nothing more from the stranger on that line of questioning. The man had to be either a deserter or one of the new covert team who worked behind enemy lines causing as much disruption as possible. Even so… A pink shirt?
“So, soldier boy, what’s an American doing in the British army?”
Richard sucked in a breath as pain washed over him again. The rehearsed line was the easiest way to answer the question. “My family was originally from Britain. Scotland in fact. I hated to see Britain standing alone while the rest of Europe succumbed to the Nazi onslaught. And my ancestors were in the Lancer regiment. It seemed appropriate for me to join up and do my bit.”
The stranger let out a small mocking laugh. “Yeah? That sounds good. And what was the real reason?”
For some reason he couldn’t fathom, Richard felt bound to give an honest answer. “It’s because of my girl, you see. She’s Jewish.” He waited to see if the fellow would react to that, but he didn’t. He continued to stare impassively at Richard. “She has lots of family in Europe. She was lucky, her parents sent her to stay with relatives in the States, but now her parents have disappeared. Rounded up and sent to a camp, along with lots of her friends’ families. They were all herded onto trucks like we transport our cattle on. And we’ve heard the stories of what happens to Jews . . .” He gasped as more pain stabbed at him. “I couldn’t stand by and see the pain in her eyes. America wasn’t in the war at that point. I had to do something.”
The man nodded. “That’s a good reason. I hate men who make war on those weaker than them. I hate bullies.” He paused. “I met a Jew one time. A long time ago.” He paused. “Yeah, a very long time ago. It was that old Jewish fellow taught me to play chess. I liked him. I’ll never forget one thing he told me. Save one life and you save the world. I liked that. It kind of stayed with me.”
The silence filled the night.
“You got a cigarette? I been longing for a cigarette for what feels like eternity.”
A flaming meteor shot across the sky, lingering longer than was normal. The man grunted again, seemingly irritated. “I like cigarettes, and I been waiting a long time for one.”
“In my pocket,” whispered Richard. The pain felt worse now.
The stranger rummaged in his pocket and drew out the cigarettes and the Zippo. He stared at the lighter, apparently confused. “What the hell is this?”
“My lighter. Surely you’ve,” he broke off with a moan and sucked in some rapid breaths, “surely you’ve used a Zippo before.”
The stranger fumbled with the lighter and then gave a sigh of pleasure as he struck the light to his cigarette, and put it to his lips. He took a very long drag on it, and then blew out a perfect smoke ring. “Oh boy, that’s so good.”
A gust of wind came out of nowhere, whipping the cigarette from his fingers. “Damn it!”
“You can have another. You’re more than welcome,” Richard gestured toward the pack.
The man shook his head. “Thanks, but no. I shouldn’t smoke ’em.” He paused and then chuffed out a laugh. “Can I have a look at your gun? I really like guns.”
There was an ominous roll of thunder.
“Sure.” Richard whispered. “But it’s no different from any other Webley. Damn good guns though.”
The stranger examined it. “Powerful. Nice weight too.”
“You’d best hang on to it.” Richard shut his eyes for a second, trying not to groan as the pain assaulted him again. “You’re better able to use it than I am right now.”
“Thanks.” The stranger stuck it in the belt of his pants as another roll of thunder shook the desert. “I like guns.” He sounded defiant. “So what does your pa reckon to you joining up with the Brits?”
Richard closed his eyes again. Maybe he should sleep. He wanted to sleep.
The stranger grasped his shoulder and shook him, none too gently. “You gotta keep talking, boy. I ain’t gonna let you slip away, so you keep right on talking.”
“We’re not going to make it.”
The stranger eyed him silently for a few seconds. “Yeah, we will. I’ll get you back to your camp. Alive. That’s a promise. So, like I said, what does your pa think about you joining up.”
“He understood my reasons. We have a ranch in California and I should be there, but I had to do this. Even so, if I die, I don’t know what will happen to it. I’m the only son.”
“You ain’t going to die. Tell me about this ranch.”
Despite his pain, Richard smiled. “It’s really something. My great-grandfather started it. He came from Scotland. And I reckon it’s the most beautiful place I ever saw. More than a hundred thousand acres of prime land. I reckon there’s no grass greener, no sky bluer.
“Sounds real pretty. Anyways, you got a girl waiting back there for you. So you can’t die.” He grinned suddenly. “Is she pretty? She got a name?”
Richard smiled weakly. “Yeah, she’s very pretty. She has thick chestnut hair and brown eyes, and a wonderful smile. She’s called Hannah. I promised her I’d go home safe.” He sucked in a shuddering breath. “Have you got a girl?”
“A girl? No, I got me a woman.” His voice sounded dreamy. “I got me the most beautiful woman in the world. She’s smart, and funny and really something. I don’t know what she sees in me, but I reckon I should go down on my knees and kiss her feet every day, she’s so special. And her eyes… It’s like they can see right into me. And green. The greenest eyes you ever saw.”
“So we both got reasons to get back.” Richard shut his eyes again, gasping at the all engulfing pain.
“We need a horse. I wouldn’t have to carry you then. You ain’t exactly a lightweight. A horse would do the trick. One of those pretty A-rab horses.”
“You keep going on about horses. A jeep would be better,” Richard muttered. “Maybe we’ll come across an abandoned one. The desert is littered with Italian stuff. We found a couple of Moto Guzzi motor bikes the other day. We rode them till they exploded.” He smiled weakly at the memory.
“Why?” The stranger sounded puzzled.
“Oh for the hell of it. A bit of freedom, I guess. We just rode them as fast as we could. Anyway, right now a jeep would be great.”
“Nope, a horse. That would sort us out.” The stranger’s voice sounded a long ways off.
When he opened his eyes again, dawn was breaking, turning the sand a striking gold. But the silence was broken by a noisy grunting.
The stranger stood throwing his hands in the air, gazing at a camel which was grunting repeatedly. “I asked for a fucking horse and this is what I get! Madre de Dios! I had one puff of that cigarette, so they send me this damn thing. One puff, that’s all it was. One damn puff.”
“Better than a horse,” whispered Richard.
“Better?” The stranger swung around to glare at him. “Better! Have you ever tried to ride one of these things?”
“Back in Cairo.” He groaned from the effort of talking. And his shoulder felt very wet. “I think I’m bleeding.”
“Yeah, it’s that bullet in your shoulder. It’ll be fine. My brother got shot in the shoulder.” He suddenly snorted with laughter. “Hell, every time he got shot up it was in his damn shoulder. Like a bullet magnet it was.”
Richard didn’t bother commenting. It wasn’t worth the effort. He watched as the stranger struggled to get the camel to lie down. He seemed to know an awful lot of cuss words in English and Spanish. But eventually, with much grunting and blowing, the camel obliged.
The stranger turned to Richard and shrugged. “We’ll have to make do with this. It’ll be a damn sight easier that carrying you. ’Specially with you moaning and groaning in my ear all the time.”
“I’ve been shot,” Richard muttered.
“Yeah, yeah! Three bullets. I know. And boy aren’t you making the most of them! Anyway, I’ll get you on the camel and then climb on behind to hold you. And for heaven’s sake quit moaning. Damn it, a camel! I know they got horses out here – I’ve heard of them A-rab horses. Was that too much to ask for? A pretty A-rab horse. But what do I get? A camel! A fucking camel! It’s because of the gun, I bet.”
Richard shut his eyes as the stranger hefted him onto the camel and then clambered up behind him.
“They stink too,” said the stranger. “Now horses smell good. And there ain’t a better smell than a warm stable. And saddles. Hay, leather, and horses. They should bottle that smell.”
He wished the stranger would quit talking. He wanted to sleep, but every time he started to drift away the man jabbed him in the ribs.
“I told you before, you ain’t going to sleep. I ain’t having you die on me. Not after I’ve gone to all this trouble to save your butt. You got to keep your promise to that girl of yours. And hell, that ranch of yours needs you. What would your pa do if you died?”
Richard sighed. “Are you always this annoying?”
“You ain’t very grateful, are you?”
In spite of the pain, Richard chuffed out a laugh. “Oh I’m grateful. You got no idea how much. I thought I was a goner for sure until you showed up.”
“Yeah, well. Try not to get shot up again. I might not be passing by next time.” The man raised his arm and pointed. “See over there? That’s your base.”
Richard peered in the direction the stranger was pointing. It was indeed his camp and he could see activity. Two jeeps were coming toward him.
“I’m going to leave you here,” said the stranger. “But do me a favor and say hi to your pa for me. It’s a long time since I saw him.”
“You know my father?” Richard jerked his head around to stare at the stranger, flinching with pain as he did so. “You must tell me your name.”
The man laughed. “No, see if he can guess who I am. Here’s a clue for him. Tell him what I said about my woman.”
He hefted Richard down from the camel, and gave him a mock salute. “See you around.” And with that he swung the camel around and loped away.
The jeeps pulled alongside in a cloud of dust, churning up sand, even as Richard passed out again.
The next few days passed in a haze while he drifted in and out of consciousness, vaguely aware of healing hands tending to him. He knew they moved him several times, the days passed in a blur of trucks, and a boat at some stage, and then a plane.
Luke Lancer rocked his chair back and forth as he studied his son sitting opposite him. The young man was still pale and too thin, but he was here, home with his family, thank God. He’d so very nearly lost him, and he knew the fact that Richard had survived was nothing short of a miracle. He must have one heck of a guardian angel. He grinned at the ridiculous thought. “It’s good to have you back, son. I have to admit that I hope your recovery isn’t too fast. Your mother and I want to keep you here for as long as possible!”
Richard grinned. “From what the doc said, you’ll get your wish! At this rate the war will be over before I’m declared fit to fight.” His smile faded. “My unit is fighting its way up through Italy, and although it’s great to be home, I should be there with them. I hate to think of what they’re going through.”
Luke blew out a smoke ring from the cigar he was enjoying. “I reckon you should count your blessings. Heaven knows how you made it back to your base. They found the remains of your armored car way beyond the enemy lines – you were a hell of a long way from camp. The doctors told me they thought it was physically impossible for you to have made that trek with all your injuries, but you did.”
“I had help, Pa.” Richard frowned. “I told the doctors I had help.”
Luke shook his head. “I know what you told them, but they saw you coming in, boy. You were alone. They reckon you were confused and delirious. You were going on about some fellow and a camel. But all they saw was you.”
His son shook his head. “Pa, I couldn’t have made it alone. I know what the doctors say, but a fellow helped me. I don’t know what his name was, he sure as hell didn’t want to tell me. Maybe he was a deserter, or one of those new covert ops fellows, but believe me, he was there. Heck, I even gave him my gun. I was in no shape to use it. And the docs admitted my gun was missing when I came in.”
Luke shrugged. “You probably left it in the truck.”
Richard ignored the comment, frowning and seemingly lost in thought. “I’d forgotten this until now, Pa. But it was strange, just before he left me, when the medics arrived, he told me to remember him to you. Said he knew you.”
Luke raised an eyebrow. “But you don’t know his name? That’s not a lot of help. I’ve met a lot of men over the years, son, so why should I remember him in particular? What did he look like?”
“Dark hair, very blue eyes.” Richard grinned and shrugged. “I reckon girls would think him good-looking. I’m sure even my Hannah would say he was handsome. Mind you,” he paused, “she might have thought his shirt strange. It was pink! Although he insisted it was red.”
Luke smiled, remembering a similar disagreement over shirt colors from his childhood. “Anything else about him? You’re not giving me a lot to go on here! Why on earth wouldn’t he give you his name? How am I supposed to guess!”
Richard winced as he shifted in his chair. “He said he’d give you a clue. He said to tell you what he’d told me about his woman.”
“His woman?” Luke took another puff on his cigar.
“Yeah. He said she was smart and funny, with green eyes―”
Luke laughed. “That’s still not a lot to go on, son.”
“He also said she was so special he ought to get down on his knees each day and kiss her feet.”
Luke jerked forward, dropping his cigar. “He said what?”
“That he should kiss her feet every day. That rings a bell with you, obviously.”
Luke ran his fingers through his hair. “It just reminded me of someone… You say he had very blue eyes? And a pink shirt? Anything else about him you recall?”
Richard tilted his head back, lost in thought. “He seemed to think that three bullets was nothing. He said he’d been shot up lots of times. Oh, I almost forgot. He went on about his brother always being shot in the shoulder.”
Luke sucked in a breath.
Richard shrugged. “He was very strange, I have to admit. But he obviously loved horses. And guns! And he sure knew a lot of cuss words!”
“Shit.” Luke shook his head. “You’ll think I’m crazy, never mind thinking him strange. Wait here a moment.” He heaved himself out of his chair and limped back into the hacienda. He opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a pile of old photographs. Staring down at them, he hesitated for a moment. This was a crazy notion. Even so…
He headed back outside and handed the pile of pictures to Richard. “Tell me if there’s someone in there you recognize.”
Richard flipped through them, smiling at some of the old fashioned poses and clothes. Then he seized on one. “But this is him! This is the fellow I met in the desert. Who is he?”
Luke stared down at the photograph of the young man. A picture taken in the last century. “That’s my father.”
Richard stared at him, eyes wide open. “Your father? My grandfather? But that’s crazy, Pa.” He leaned across and took the photo again. “But it is him.” He spoke very softly. “I don’t just mean it’s someone similar, Pa. That is him. That’s the man who got me back to my base.”
Later that evening Luke sat outside watching the sun dip down behind the distant mountains. A cool mist had come in from the west, settling over the land. Through the hazy twilight he watched a man walk out of one of the barns to lean on the coral fence. The dying light glinted on the silver conchos which decorated his trousers.
Luke nodded slowly, smiling to himself. “Thanks, Pa.”
The man half-turned and raised a hand in acknowledgement, before turning back to throw an arm around the shoulders of the tall woman who’d joined him there. Together they strolled away, fading into the gathering darkness.
Luke rose and walked back into the house with a spring in his step.
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