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Authors: Chris Ryan

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Doug and Tom were doubling back now, the rest of us giving covering fire to protect their retreat. The arrowhead was reforming itself as a line abreast, still firing at any enemy that presented itself. I saw Doug curve his arm back in a throwing motion and smoke burst in front of him as a white phosphorous grenade exploded, obscuring the scene. We began dropping back in threes, sprinting five metres and falling to one knee to cover the others. I loosed off a couple more rounds, reloaded, turned and doubled past them to the rear. My bergen thumped on my shoulders; running with 120lbs of kit was a strain. I made fifteen metres, turned to face the front again and dropped to one knee. At the same time the other half of the section came running past me again. I could hear the hammer of the GPMG as Andy blazed away. We were dropping back in three-metre bounds, firing and dropping back again. Shots whistled overhead but the firing was wild. Nothing came near us.

We kept it up for about 500 metres till our lungs were bursting with the effort. At last though the firing died away. The enemy had had enough and broken contact. "Break right!" Andy called and we reformed, tabbing off at ninety degrees towards the west in single file again.

Andy called a momentary halt to check there were no injuries. Everyone called out his ammunition state and injuries. Luckily no one had been hurt. That done, we set off immediately at a fast pace. "They'll all be after us now," Taffy grunted. It was vital to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the enemy. My back ached from the weight of my pack. I'd have given anything to be able to ditch it but in this weather nobody survives long without a sleeping bag and warm clothing.

When we had made about a mile, Andy called a change of direction and we cut off back towards the crossroads again. Then Guy passed the word that we had run into a platoon-sized formation. "Twelve to fourteen men with FN Brownings. Most probably local conscripts." We tabbed on for another mile at a fast pace across the featureless landscape, hoping to throw off any pursuit. Then Andy called a respite and broke out the satcom dish again. It was vital we reported the contact. A weak sun was showing through the overcast behind us. Doug sent a burst message reporting contact with the enemy; there wasn't time to listen for a reply. There was nothing that Hereford could do for us right now anyway. It was a simple question of tabbing on and trying to work our way around any enemy formations in our path.

Andy came down the line checking everyone's packs, seeing how we were off for ammunition. "You OK?" he asked me.

"Why wouldn't I be?" I said. I told him I had fired four rounds and dropped at least one of the opposition ... I thought, but there wasn't time to be positive. He seemed pleased. Other members of the team had scored too. The reckoning was three or four enemy dead. After a blooding like that they would think twice before engaging us again.

I was thinking I'd been lucky to get out of that alive, because those rounds had been coming in bloody close. This was my first proper battlefield engagement, and I reckoned I had acquitted myself well. The same went for Doug. We were now both fully paid-up members of the Regiment.

"Just as well you were here," Andy said. It was as near as he could get to an apology.

I didn't say anything, and he passed on down the line.

"Thanks," I called out after him. Andy didn't hear, and I didn't repeat it. Afterwards I wished I had.

We headed due west. The country here became very flat. About half a mile off we made out a low ridge. That would be where the cave was. We walked over stony ground, covered with loose gravel and lumps of jagged flint. Spiky grasses and low thorn were the only vegetation and there were occasional deep patches where snow had been piled up by the wind. From what they had told us at the pre-mission briefing this was an indication we were in the immediate area of the border. It was easier walking and we made good time, but the lack of cover was worrying.

We reached the crossroads two gravel tracks in the wilderness running away into the distance. There was no sign of anyone. The rock outcrop was about a quarter of a mile off, with the cave at one end.

We covered the last stretch in just fifteen minutes. Doug was on point, but at the cave entrance he drew up sharp and made a gagging sound. Sheep car cases were dumped all over the cave floor. They must have gone in there for shelter and died of starvation or cold. The stink was disgusting, so we moved back on to the plain to wait in the fresh air.

Then we heard the sound of the plane again.

"Take cover!" I heard Andy shout. Sod this, I thought wearily as I pulled out my camo net again. The ground was hard as iron. On this barren plain I figured we'd stick out like turds on an ice rink. The plane was flying due south, following the line of the border. We were that close. Just as we were thinking it had passed over and missed us we heard a change in the engine note.

"Bastard's seen us and he's coming back," Taffy growled. I squirmed into the ground and tried to lie as flat as possible. It's a horrible feeling being hunted from the air. There's no escape from the all-seeing eye.

The plane was circling round, picking up speed. Guy was close by me. I heard him calling to Andy, discussing what to do. They agreed it was no use sticking where we were while the plane vectored ground units on to us. Now we had been spotted our best chance lay in making a break for the border and to hell with cover.

We jumped up and pulled on our packs. We could see the plane swooping towards us in a shallow dive. "Shit, he's going to strafe us!" I shouted, unslinging my rifle. There wasn't a prayer of bringing down an aircraft with a single-shot weapon, but the gesture would make me feel better.

Tom, our Stinger man, was crouched on the ground with the tube to his shoulder. I could see the plane clearly now. It was a twin-engine Pucara ground attack equipped with air-to-surface rockets. A salvo of those landing among us could wipe out half the unit. The pilot was readying up for his attack. He must have reckoned us for a soft target, I thought. He'd let us have it with the rockets and bombs, then come back for a second pass to finish us off with his guns. With luck he hadn't realised we had a missile launcher.

The other guys were readying their weapons like me. Aircraft had in the past been destroyed by small-arms fire, but it was a remote chance. They say the only way is to wait till the plane is overhead and then fire directly upwards.

I saw Tom press the eyepiece of the missile launcher to his face and heard the whine of the generator as he switched on the battery and lined the target up on the graticules. The missile's maximum altitude was around 3000 feet, and it performed better against an approaching target. We all waited as the plane grew larger, urging Tom silently to hurry up and press the tit. He was carrying three rockets with him but at this rate there wouldn't be time for a second shot.

Everything happened very quickly.

The pilot must have seen the plume from the launcher as Tom let fly, because he jerked the plane's nose up in a frantic scramble for height. He must have triggered his rockets automatically at the same instant, because the front of the plane was suddenly obscured by a burst of smoke. It was just as well for us he did pull up, because the salvo screamed over our heads as we threw ourselves to the ground, and exploded yards behind us, showering us all with rocks and dirt. I was smothered in a cloud of dust and gravel and for a moment I thought the plane had crashed on us. By the time we picked ourselves up we could see it staggering away towards the south-east, flying very low and trailing smoke from the port engine. The Stinger's proximity fuse had exploded the warhead right under the wing, peppering the fuselage and nacelle with shrapnel fragments.

"Got the fucker!" Tom was shouting exultantly. There was no time to waste, though. This plane would have sent out a distress message including our position, and the enemy would be massing for an attack. The patrol we had surprised earlier must still be in the vicinity, and now they would know where we were. And there would be others, some of them ahead of us. It was vital to get moving.

Andy gave the order to ditch our berg ens There was no way we could cover the terrain fast enough with all that weight on our backs. If we reached the border we could find shelter in the nearest town.

The ground was too hard to bury them so we chucked them into the cave, as far back as we could, reckoning no Argie would be mad enough to hunt through the decomposing sheep. With only our weapons and the satcom unit we set off at a rapid pace.

It was such a relief to have shed the weight that I felt light-hearted as we jogged on across the plain. The stony desert gave way to grass again which was easier and the light powdering of snow crunched under our feet. Overhead, the sky was dark with the threat of further falls to come.

We reached a small river which we forded at a narrow spot without difficulty, though the water was waist-deep and freezing cold like before. The ever-present wind played on our backs as we hiked up the slope on the other side. In the far distance was a line of jagged mountain peaks. If our map was correct we were very close now.

Reaching the top of the slope, we saw the line of the road less than a mile away. A civilian truck was moving slowly along it towards the west. The first sign of normal life we had seen all day.

The ground beyond the river was steeper, bisected by small streams and, where there was shelter from the wind, clumps of trees and shrubs. In spring or summer it would have been attractive. As it was, we at least had some cover for a change. Andy was still carrying his GPMG and he took point position to lead the way on this final stretch. He was trying to keep the road in sight as a guide.

We came to a fair-sized lake, fringed with marsh and rushes, and tabbed round it till we encountered a gravel track leading in the general direction we wanted to go. There were signs of sheep here and a few birds, but no other wildlife. The whole land was eerily quiet save for the occasional hum of a vehicle on the road. We paused a moment to catch our breath. After a minute I looked back and saw something moving along the gully we had just come from. Signing to Doug to cover me, I dropped back to take a closer look.

Whatever it was moved very cautiously, keeping in the rushes. I squatted under a bush, the L42 at the ready. If there was any doubt I would shoot first and no questions. The shape edged closer. It was a figure in camouflage carrying a long weapon. Too close for comfort. If I took out this one, his buddies would slow down a while. I raised the rifle and centred the cross hairs. Fifty metres, an easy shot.

My finger was tightening on the trigger when he moved out from behind some grass. In the circle of the sight I saw he was wearing civvies under his camo jacket. Shit, I thought. Now what?

"Hey, you!" I called out. "Halt!"

He spun around, the hunting rifle in his hands training towards me a tall, sunburnt man, bearded, with harsh, gaunt features, what I could see of them. His face was taut with suspicion. For a moment I actually had the impression he was about to fire, then he lowered the barrel.

"Tienne una habitation?" he called out in Spanish. "Have you a room?"

With a shock I realised this must be the agent sent to meet us. I tried to make my brain work. There was supposed to be a response to the codeword recognition system but for the life of me I couldn't recall it.

He must have understood my confusion because he added, "SAS? My name is Seb."

"Jesus," I whispered, "I almost shot you."

Slowly, he relaxed and stood up. He was a big man, dressed like a hunter, and swarthy, his wrists and the backs of his hands matted with dark hair. He looked like someone who spent much of his life outdoors, a man who could take care of himself. His expression was closed and hard. A loner, I thought.

"I did not see you properly for a moment," he confessed, lowering the rifle and coming over to join me. "I thought you were an Argentine soldier. I'm sorry I couldn't reach the rendezvous; the roads were crawling with soldiers. I managed to work my way round and pick up your trail."

Doug moved up to join us. "Welcome, friend," he said drily. "We missed you at the rendezvous." Doug mistrusted spooks.

Seb shook his head as if he had no time for pleasantries. "The Argentines know you shot down a plane. There's a patrol right behind me. Fifteen men with a light mortar."

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Seb didn't need to say more. A platoon of men with a mortar could sit out of range of our weapons and blow us to pieces. Then they could pick off the survivors at will. The three of us scrambled back to the others. We had two options: to lay an ambush and take them out or to quicken our pace and try to lose them. Ambush would've been the preferred option, but with the possibility of other patrols in the vicinity it was too risky. We could delay them a bit, though. Tom and Taffy, our demolitions experts, rigged up a couple of grenades on tripwires across the path it took them no more than a minute then we moved out at a run.

We jogged on in single file, Taffy leading this time, Seb following to give directions and myself bringing up the rear. I had been worried about whether he could keep up but Seb ran easily. He wore hiking boots and carried a hunter's light knapsack. He steered us unhesitatingly through a confusing tangle of small intersecting valleys. It was a relief to feel we were in safe hands. We splashed across a small river that chattered over its rocky bed, and Seb paused to check out the country beyond.

We had come out on to open ground again. In front of us stretched undulating ridges of pampas with tall grasses waving in the wind. Silently Seb pointed to a line offence posts marching across the horizon half a mile off.

"The border?" Guy asked after a moment.

Seb nodded.

"Is it guarded?"

He shook his head. "Not here. Further up where the road crosses the frontier there is a customs post."

I turned around to scan back the way we had come with the scope sight on my rifle. It looked as though we had shaken off the pursuit. Then abruptly I spied a cautious movement among the trees along the stream, about 500 metres off, long gunshot range. "Andy," I called softly, 'that patrol is moving along our trail. They'll be up with us in the next ten minutes."

BOOK: Land of Fire
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