by Amit Temurnikar
The hostiles triggered a land mine that blew up a few metres ahead of the patrol vehicle. The impact kicked Colonel Singh and his soldiers in their chest and threw them few metres away. Their car was damaged, arms and radio blown to smithereens. The intel reports were wrong. The area was infested. They should have used a different route for routine patrols. Their base camp, where they could get protection and reinforcements – and now seemed like heaven – was still a long ten kilometres away.
Singh lay in the crater created by the blast. The pungent and irritable smoke quickly inhabited his insides. The mahogany trees around him were spinning. The gunpowder-laden air gushed into his senses. The fire all around created asphyxiating acrid black smoke. Amidst the hoarse howl of rushing men and women, still blinded by the flash, his eyes searched frantically for his best friend and trusted lieutenant. Like a harbinger of esprit, her rich golden face emerged from the mushroom-head shaped column of gas.
Half-choked, and half-encouraged, he pulled a packet of ammonium nitrate from his green pocket and held it closer to her. She inhaled it to register the scent and her new mission, which was to navigate through the explosive laden forest and reach the base camp.
“‘TRISH! GO. GO. GO,” he yelled a throaty clarion call.
Her brownish nostrils flared. She dashed away into the forest. Singh and his patrol got to their feet. Armed with nothing but handguns, they did their best to keep up with Trish, allowing her to take the lead. Not far away, she stopped. She squeezed her ears, held one of her front legs up, and gave a rapid string of four barks. Singh sensed a familiar threat.
“Fall back,” he screamed. The soldiers took positions. One of his soldiers came out of the patrol to defuse a 20 lbs. improvised explosive device, and they marched on.
Trish’s olfactory receptors were trained to decipher smells and send signals to the brain to interpret and assign emotions of fear, terror and memories of her previous deadly missions.
She ran deeper. All she could think of was the accustomed scent. She purposefully avoided every other smell that she could ‘see’ – the grass, the trees, people and other animals. Further down, she signalled on a large haystack that covered a cache of weapons, scattered clothes and half-eaten food. Her nostrils continued to receive odour bursts of what was there now, what was there minutes or hours before, to orchestrate her next move towards home.
Her legs hurt. Her throat was dry. But she didn’t stop. Even as she tripped along wiring that led to the detonators, she ran ahead of the patrol to ensure their safety. As they reached closer to the camp, she sat down stomach to the ground. Heavy gunfire and a grenade shower ensued, cutting through the trees and bushes. Singh too instructed his patrol to lay down in foetal position absorbing hydrostatic shock waves that swayed through the ground.
Singh and his soldiers returned the gunfire, covering up for Trish to pave the way further to safety, but they appeared outgunned in this blood lust. The muscles in her nostrils continued to vibrate seeking the familiar trail. With the base camp just across the half-constructed road, she made another alarm bark. Her canine sense of smell discovered another pressure plate. As she propelled for one last explosive to dodge, a massive blast wave took off. A pillar of fiery smoke and dust boiled up. A series of new flashes broke out, lifting and spreading the shrapnel.
“Trish. TRISH. TRIIISSHHH!” Singh’s throat throttled. One or two short low-pitched barks was all he could hear.
As the smoke hoops subdued, he could only see slick, thick red on her dense golden coat. The explosion had caused immediate loss of her front left leg and burns to her chest and head. They picked her up, ran to the shelter of their camp, administered a tourniquet to her leg and called the medics.
They were safe, but she wasn’t. Singh remained with Trish for the next two days till she opened her eyes again.
“Hello! How are you doing?” she seemed to say, beaming, in a solitary string of barks at a slow pitch.
“Alive, kicking and in one piece. All because of you, baby!” He sat back and let the joyous turbulence soak into his bones.
She flashed her tongue and pulled one of her hanging ears from the cheek to just cover the eye.
He closed his teary eyes and savoured the moment, but did not release his grip on her. In a first during the last forty-eight hours his body and mind relaxed. At that moment there were no expectations on her, no operations to execute and no training drills to complete.
She was there. She had made it. She was the guide. She was the saviour.