The engine was still warm and it burst into life with a surge of power when he pressed the starter. He reversed quickly, the tyres skidded for a moment, searching for a grip on the soft, crumbling edge of the track, and then they found it and he drove away rapidly.
Sitting at the whesl of the Land Rover in the courtyard of the mission and remembering what had happened at Howeel, Brackenhurst shivered involuntarily. He could hear the rise and fall of voices and looked put again at Father Kerrigan, at Drummond standing in the doorway, the old priest holding a lamp in one hand.
After a moment, Father Kerrigan went back inside, closing the door and Drummond ran down the steps and scrambled into the passenger seat
‘Right, let’s get moving..
‘What did the old man have to say?’ Brackenhurst asked as lie drove away.
“What could he say? He’s going to pack up as fast as he can and follow on in the jeep with Janet and the boy. No sense in staving to face what’s coming. You know what they do to people like him..
‘What do you think the Khan will do?’
.What in the hell can he do except get out? He hasn’t got a defence pact with India, which means they’re going to sit tight on their side of the border, and if I know them, the Chinese will be smart enough to go just that far and no further.’
‘But why?’ Brackenhurst demanded. “What in the hell can they possibly want with a dump like this? There’s nothing here that’s worth having.’
.You could say the same about the Aksai Chien and the Ladakh, but they moved in there and for the same reason. Prestige, a paper victory. The glorious Army of the People’s Republic takes back what was part of the Chinese Empire a thousand years ago. The fact that Balpur is a few thousand square miles of the most sterile territory on God’s earth doesn’t matter. It’ll take the people’s mind off the bad harvest back home.’
As they drove through the deserted streets, the sky was beginning to lighten over the mountains, and beyond the scattered, flat-roofed houses, grey and sombre, the river roared through the valley, gwollea by the rain.
Later, at the palace, waiting for the Khan in the room where they had dined in what now seemed another age, another time, Drummond opened the french windows and stood on the terrace in the rain, listening.
The Khan was taking his time, but when he came in, he was wearing a khaki drill uniform, the medals above the left hand pocket, a splash of vivid colour in the grey morning. The major domo to whom Drummond had given the original message followed him with a decanter of brandy and glasses on a silver tray.
The Khan had dropped twenty years and there was a new vitality in his step. ‘It seemed to me that a drink might be in order, gentlemen. If what Ahmed has told me is anywhere near the truth, it may well be some considerable time before we have another.’ The major domo filled three glasses, passed them round and left the room. The Khan toasted them silently. ‘Now, Mr. Brackenhurst, perhaps you would be good enough to tell me in your own words exactly what happened at Howeel.’
When Brackenhurst had finished, the old man turned to Drummond. ‘What do you think?’
‘I don’t understand it,’ Drummond said. ‘Last time I was up there, there was nothing. Not a damned thing.’
‘But that was ten days ago now, am I right?’
.What are you going to do?’
Tm not sure. First I must confer with Colonel Sher Dil and Major Hamid. I have sent messengers already telling them both to meet me urgently at Army Headquarters.’
‘Seventy-five men,’ Drummond said. They won’t go far and you can’t rely on the tribesmen. They’ll simply take to the hills and stay out of trouble. And I don’t think the Indian Army will interfere.’
‘A pessimistic view, but a correct one, I fear. How many can your plane take?’
‘Not more than fifteen in this kind of country. I’ve got to get over those mountains, remember, and if we’re going we must go quickly. Once the people get hold of the news we’ll have a howling mob running for the airstrip. Father Kerrigan’s the only other person I’ve told so far. “We called at the mission and left my jeep. He’s going to pack up as quickly as he can and follow us in with Kerim and Miss Tate.’