The river was very close now and he increased his pace as he smelled water. A bullet plucked at his heel and he tripped and fell heavily. Hamid was beside him in an instant He dragged him to his feet and together they stumbled down the slope to the water.
The river was in a sullen, angry mood. It ran smoothly through the heavy rain, but sudden swirls on the surface indicated dangerous currents and the speed with which tree branches drifted by argued against any attempt to reach the other side.
There was a rattle of stones and earth behind and one of Sher Dil’s soldiers ran past, his face purple with effort so that a scar which stretched from one eye to the corner of his mouth gleamed whitely. He plunged into the water and began to swim furiously.
In a few moments, the swift current had carried him out of sight into the heavy rain. Others followed, some bleeding from wounds, crying with fear as they stumbled down the slope and flung themselves into the river.
They won’t last five minutes,’ Hamid shouted. The water must be near freezing.’
A bullet landed at their feet, showering them with dirt. He turned as four Chinese appeared at the top of the slope and swung the sub-machine gun in a wide arc, firing from the hip. Two of them crumpled to the ground.
As their companions dropped behind an outcrop of rock, several more appeared on the skyline and Hamid drove them back with a long burst that emptied the gun.
As one of the troop carriers came into view, Hamid tossed the useless weapon to one side and they ran into the river and splashed through the shallows towards a line of dense, thorny bushes that grew down into the water. Bullets churned around them and then they were waist deep and hidden by the rain.
The water was bitterly cold and Drummond could feel it eating its way into his bones. They could hear the cries of the soldiers coming nearer and began to move further downstream aided by the strong current
The land curved out for about fifty yards making a natural breakwater, imprisoning a floating mass of smashed trees and branches. They pushed towards it and the current, taking pity on them, swept them into the safety of the floating jungle.
They rested side by side, holding the branches of a tree, gasping for breath. Voices came from the shore and half a dozen soldiers appeared, pushing their way through the bushes along the water’s edge.
They were no more than ten yards away from the shore and through the branches Drummond could see the Chinese clearly, the peaked caps pulled down over the eyes, the red star prominent, the shining Burp guns and rubber, knee-length boots.
The breathless minutes passed slowly and the cold gradually numbed their limbs. The soldiers appeared to be having a conference. After a while, they split into pairs and disappeared into the driving rain.
‘Now what?’ Drummond said.
‘Only one thing for it,’ Hamid said, his lips blue with the cold. ‘We’ll have to try to get across on one of these logs. They’ll be swarming around like flies on this side of the river. We wouldn’t last five minutes..
He let go of the tree and splashed to the next one, progressing slowly through the floating mass and Drummond followed. When they reached the edge, they found a krge tree that was already swinging out into the river, straining to be free.
Hamid pulled himself into the branches and Drummond said, Til try to guide it from the other end.’
He lifted a foot from the water and pushed against the next tree. There was a snapping of branches and the tree lifted into the current In a few moments they were drifting rapidly away and the floating mass of trees and the promontory disappeared into the mist.
Drummond soon found that it was impossible to guide the tree. It went with the current and his feeble kicking had no effect. He gave up the struggle and tried to heave himself into a more secure position, but his frozen limbs refused to help him. He trailed helplessly through the water, arms hooking over a projecting branch and gradually all discomfort and pain left him.