Colonel Humberto Hurtado followed his Indian guide up the steep mountain trail, gasping for breath in the thin air, his eyes fixed on the rocky ground that rose inexorably in front of him. After what seemed like an eternity the guide stopped, and Hurtado, his face locked into a mask of effort and pain, almost ran into him.
"We rest here," said the guide, his first words since dawn.
Hurtado noticed that they were on a rare patch of level ground, and then he realized with relief that they had reached the top of the pass. Spread out in front of them along the horizon was a wide golden band, shimmering and hazy, like an apparition. The great Kahlarine desert.
The guide grunted and pointed, and Hurtado followed his outstretched arm and saw a tiny walled settlement nestled in the dry hills right at the edge of the sand. Fort Amatilla: the furthest, most remote outpost of Her Majesty's far-flung empire.
He reached into his backpack and dug out the last chunk of stale bread, and after wolfing it down he treated himself to a long draught from his canteen. Then he nodded to the guide, and they set off on the long descent that would take them into the hellish heat of the otherworldly landscape below.
He reached the front gate of the fort a few hours later, trudging alone along the desolate, sun-baked track. His guide had left him once they had reached this road, if you could call it a road; he had nodded to Hurtado with a hint of sympathy around the edges of his impassive face, and then turned and headed back up the mountain at a rapid pace. A few seconds later Hurtado remembered that he should really have given the man a few reals, and he turned around and reached into his pocket. But the man was gone, as if he had never existed. Hurtado shrugged philosophically; after all, Indians had no use for the metal coins of a civilized empire.
He wasn't surprised when a young man in a major's uniform marched stiff-legged out of the front gate and saluted him. In this flat, treeless country he had been visible on the road for a least an hour. He returned the major's salute wearily, painfully conscious of his own filthy, sweat-stained uniform and unshaven face.
"Welcome, Colonel. We have been expecting you. My name is Major Ramon Dilantro. I hereby turn command of Her Majesty's Fort over to you."
Hurtado nodded formally. "Thank you, Major Dilantro."
"Would you like to conduct your initial inspection now, sir?"
Hurtado wanted nothing more than a meal, a bath, and a comfortable bed. But custom dictated that he tour this Godforsaken fort and meet its unfortunate inhabitants immediately.
"Certainly." He followed the young man inside, noting the thick stone walls with approval. The twenty-three soldiers he was to command were lined up single file on the dusty floor, and they pulled themselves to attention as he came in. They were all painfully thin, and their uniforms were threadbare and patched, but they were more or less clean, and none of them seemed drunk. As he formally greeted each one, he wondered what unfortunate circumstances, what grievous misconduct, had caused them to be assigned to Fort Amatilla. No doubt they were wondering the same thing about him.
After meeting the men, he toured the inside of the fort. The men slept in wooden bunks along the walls, while as commanding officer he had one corner for his living quarters, walled off with hanging blankets. The inspection didn't take long. Once he was satisfied that the cannons were in good working order and that the interior of the fort was reasonably well-kept, he wasn't inclined to ask many questions.
"The men all seem to be sober and well-behaved," he remarked to Dilantro when they were finished. "Is discipline not a problem in such a place?"
"No one wants to be here," admitted Dilantro. "But we make the best of a bad situation, and morale is reasonably good. Drunkenness is not an issue, of course - there is no alcohol within three hundred miles of here."
"I see," replied Hurtado heavily. "The time must pass very slowly. We both know there is precious little chance of seeing any action, with the recent treaty ... how do the men amuse themselves?"
"It's not easy, sir. During the day it is too hot to do anything but talk. At night the men play cards and dice, and sometimes there is singing. But for true amusement, the kind of amusement that all men require from time to time, we have only our one camel. Each man has the use of the camel for a night, in rotation." He gave Hurtado a nervous, sidelong glance.
The animal in question was a shaggy, smelly beast tethered to a post near the back of the fort. Hurtado was deeply shocked by the obvious meaning in Major Dilantro's words, and his first impulse was to reply angrily. He was a decent man, proud to be an officer in Her Majesty's army, and to have such a thing spoken of openly ... it was terrible.
But he was tired, bone-tired, and he was loath to make a scene so soon after taking command. There was also a little voice in the back of his head. A voice that said "Humberto, perhaps you should not judge these men until you too have spent many months here ... Are you not a man of hot blood, a man of strong passion? Is that not how you came to be here in the first place? Perhaps you will have a different view about the camel in time."
He realized that Dilantro was looking at him anxiously, waiting for some sort of reaction.
"It is, I hope, a female camel?"
"Why yes sir, it is. Her name is Mathilda. But the men would be equally happy with a male camel, I imagine."
This was too much. It was enough to turn his stomach. He nodded curtly to his second-in-command and went into his private quarters.
Time did pass slowly at Fort Amatilla, and it passed more slowly for its commander than for anyone. He had many long, hot, dusty hours to reflect upon the woman he had left in Sevilla and on the ruin of his once-promising career. Indeed, he could hardly reflect upon the one without finding his thoughts drawn to the other. It was the old military story: the wife of a superior officer. A few months of bliss, and then his life had been turned upside down by a traitorous manservant. He and his beloved Isabel had been flogged in public, and then he had been assigned here, forced to leave immediately. They never had a chance to say goodbye, and probably never would.
This alone would be enough to make a man melancholy, or worse, but there was also the matter of the camel. Hurtado would pretend not to notice when, every evening around dusk, a man would untether the unpleasant beast and lead her out the front gate, accompanied by good-natured joking and teasing by his friends. Many hours later, sometimes not until nearly dawn, the man would come back inside, dirty, smelly, and exhausted, with a ridiculous smile on his face and a friendly pat for the camel as he tethered her back to the post. Yes, he pretended not to notice, but he did notice, and although he didn't put a stop to it, it affected his relationship with the men. He quickly became the kind of distant, fault-finding commander that he himself had always detested, and the men learned to avoid him.
Months passed, many sleepless nights, and Hurtado became increasingly miserable. The dislike of his men bothered him more than he cared to admit - he had always been popular with his fellow officers and with the enlisted men under him, and the cold stares, the sudden halt in the flow of conversation when he approached, was more than he could bear. Added to this was the image of his lovely Isabel, always hovering nearby, ready to invade his thoughts whenever he let down his guard. Her warm, loving embrace, her sweet lips. And yes, her firm, creamy-white bosom and her hot, moist sex, always ready for him.
The only thing he could do to improve his rapport with the men was unthinkable. But he did think about it, late at night when the fort was quiet and dark, the silence broken only by the regular cries of "All's well" from the sentries. It was unnatural, detestable. "And yet," the little voice in his head would whisper, "is it natural that a man should live in such a place? Is it natural for a man to be without the company of women for months on end?"
One night the little voice wore him out. He simply ran out of moral strength, like an hourglass running out of sand. "Yes," he said out loud, softly. "Yes, I will do it." And then he turned over and slept more soundly than he had in months.
The next afternoon he called Major Dilantro into his quarters. Thinking he was to be disciplined, the young man shaved and presented himself in his best uniform.
"You wanted to see me, sir?"
"Yes. Please, have a seat."