See ya in the great beyond
- 01 May 2018
Three men walked in single file under the light of a full moon in the Sahara Desert.
They were deserters from the French Legion. If their unit caught them they’d be summarily shot. Yet, they took the risk to get away from their notoriously cruel captain.
All had been severely punished for minor infractions numerous times. They were stationed at an oasis, Azerbu, located in the Libyan Desert, when they decided the risk of deserting outweighed their lives under their crazed superior.
All three men, Americans seeking adventure, found themselves involuntary Legionnaires in January of 1840. The three devil-may-care Americans who sought adventure found only misery.They were forced to work, and do military drills in the hot Sahara sun every day. Then they would have to stand guard duty at night. It pushed many men beyond their physical endurance, breaking them down physically, and even killing them.
Between the notoriously bad food, fiery days, numbing routines, and harsh treatment from the captain, the three men plotted to escape. It took them months to achieve their goal. Circumstances had to be just right.
All they knew about their surroundings was that they were in the Kufra District of Libya, about 150 miles to the northwest of Kufra. Having only been stationed in Azerbu since they enlisted, their knowledge of what lay ahead in the world’s hottest desert was minimal at best. But they were all young, still in their 20s, and strong-willed enough to risk their lives for freedom.
The night they left all three were on guard duty. They each stuffed a backpack of essentials in them (including a change of civilian clothes), and brought two canteens of water. A coarse blanket was rolled up and tied onto the top of the backpack. They also took their rifles and extra ammunition.
The men had no trouble slipping past their sleepy comrades and getting to a grove of palm trees ten miles outside the fort. They knew it would be just hours before the sun came up and the search for them would get underway immediately.
After talking with local workers who were allowed to enter the fort during the day to do domestic duties, they had found out about the hiding place ten miles from the fort in a wadi that had some ancient caves concealed by local vegetation. Their mission was to get to those caves and hide out during the day. The following night they planned to strike out for Kufra on foot.
When they reached their destination they selected a cave and crawled inside of it. The small opening gave way to a larger area where it was possible to stand up. Anyone coming in after them would be an easy target for the trio. They slept throughout the day. Roscoe, the oldest of the three, was the first to wake up as the sun slipped out of the sky. He stood up, stretched, and gave his partners a kick to rouse them from their dreams.
“Easy Roscoe!” Henry complained.
“That time already,” Ben said, sitting up and peering out the entrance.
They each chewed on some beef jerky, while taking small sips of water to get it down. After packing up, they cautiously ventured outside. A hyena cried out at the full moon. A cheetah, hunched behind a thick cluster of vegetation, warily watched the men walk by.
Roscoe took out his compass and looked up at the clear skies. The stars glittered like diamonds as he sought familiar constellations.
“Northwest is this way boys. Let’s set a good pace. We have 140 miles to go.”
The men silently walked in single file, lost in their thoughts.
Henry, from Dallas, Texas, was trying to compare how hot it was in the panhandle during the summer, compared to this desert. It was making him homesick.
Ben, who was from Boston, Massachusetts, thought he’d been in the hottest place on earth when he took a stagecoach to Dallas, Texas where he met up with Henry. He knew better now.
Both men responded to an ad that Roscoe ran in the newspapers, looking for individuals interested in adventure. When Roscoe rode down from Laredo to Dallas, to meet with the two men who responded to his ad, he wondered what kind of experience each would bring to the table.
Over beer in a Dallas saloon, the three men got to know each other. Both Texans immediately recognized that Ben was a greenhorn despite the western garb he was wearing. After a few hours of steady drinking, Ben admitted that he was a librarian back home and was bored to death with his life. He always wanted to go on an adventure to the Wild West, or anywhere else in the world that offered excitement.
Both Texans were uneducated. Neither could read or write their name. Roscoe had to get a friend to write-up the adventure ad for him. But, they were both outdoorsmen familiar with weapons and horses.
Henry and Roscoe were raised on small ranches, but left early in their lives to become cowboys driving cattle along the “Beef Trail” to New Orleans. One of the things that motivated the two men was a restless urge to see more than cattle on dusty drives. Though they never met, they were of one mind when it came to traveling. After that saloon meeting in Dallas the men agreed to go to Europe first. They pooled their funds and agreed to share everything from that time forward.
After a series of drunks in French bars, they were recruited into the French Foreign Legion by what they thought were drinking buddies. Once the two Texans made their mark, and Ben signed his name, they passed out.
When they woke in the morning they were in the French Foreign Legion.
As they trudged through the night towards Kufra, the men were trying to keep their spirits up. Ben estimated that if they walked 20 miles a night it would take about seven nights to reach Kufra. Just before the sun started its journey up in the sky they came across a small wadi. The pool of water was brackish and they didn’t try to drink it. They tied their blankets together with pieces of rope to make a tent for shade.
The trio kept constant guard by rotating the duty through the day. Sleeping came easy as they were exhausted. Ben figured they had enough supplies left to last a week.
Two days later a monster sandstorm separated the trio.
When Henry woke he had his blanket wrapped around his head and his body was half buried in sand. As he dug himself out, coughing all the while, he wondered what happened to the others. It was daylight, and the fierce sun beat down on his head as he looked around for his hat and Charleville musket. It didn’t take long for him realize it was a fool’s errand. It was like looking for needles in a sea of sand.
He gave up and thought about searching for his partners. His odds of finding them were as long as finding his hat or musket. He didn’t even know what direction to turn. Confused and dispirited, he found a pile of stones to sit on. He leaned back and took the canteen out of it’s pouch on his belt, and sipped from it.
It was almost empty. He checked the other one. It was still full. He still had food, but didn’t feel like eating. He was discouraged and exhausted when night fell like a cool blanket on the desert floor. As he sat there, head nodding in an effort to sleep, a voice pierced his thoughts.
“There you are!” Roscoe said.
“Looks like you made it!” Ben congratulated him.
His joy at seeing his two partners didn’t hide the fact that they were hovering a couple of feet above the sand. One part of his brain said that was impossible, and the other part said…”Oh, no!”
Reading his mind they both smiled reassuringly.
“Listen Henry. There’s a caravan coming this way today. There’s an English woman on it who will help you get home.”
“But what about you fellas?”
“As you’ve guessed by now, we didn’t make it partner. But the good news is we’re going on an adventure better than anything we ever dreamed about. See ya in the great beyond.”
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