Drummond went after him, fists ready, but there was no need. Hamid stood over the huddled figure of a man who crouched in the mud. He grabbed a handful of hair and jerked the head back savagely. A great scar ran from the man’s right eye to the corner of his mouth. The tattered remnants of a khaki uniform with corporal’s stripes on the right sleeve still clung to Ms wiry -body.
‘It’s the one who plunged into the river ahead of us,. Drummond said. ‘You remember? He’s one of Sher Dil’s men.’
The man’s face split into a wide, impudent grin..You know me, Major Hamid. Ahmed Hussein, Corporal in Number One Section.’ His English was almost perfect, but. with a slight, sing-song accent ‘Drummoad Sahib, I have seen many times.’
Hamid started to laugh. ‘I know this one, all right One of the greatest rogues you’ll ever meet in your life. An old Indian Army man, Khyber Rifles, wasn’t it?”
“That’s right, ” sahib.’ Ahmed got to his feet and Indicated the row of medal ribbons above his left breast ‘D.C.M. from King George himself, sahib.’
‘Probably bought in the bazaar at Peshawar,’ Hamid said. ‘But he’s an Afridi. They’re good fighting men.’
They went outside and Ahmed crouched over the fire, warming his hands. ‘What are we going to do with him?’ Drummond said. ‘We can’t afford to wait for him to dry oE’
‘No need, sahib.. Ahmed picked lip another sheepskin. ‘This will do fine. The cold is nothing to me. Hardship is nothing.’ He grinned hugely. Tm an Afridi.’
‘Which also means liar, cheat and rogue,. Hamid said. There’s goat’s cheese in one of the jars. If you’re hungry, you’ll have to carry it with you and eat oa the way.’
‘Where do we go, sahib?.
To the road, where else? The road out of this accursed country. Colonel Sher Dil told us to meet at Bandong if we managed to cross the river. Do you know it?’
‘About eight miles south, sahib. I take you there.. When they climbed out of the hollow, Drummond paused for a moment and looked down at the small hut, the smoke rising into the air. Somehow it represented security and safety and now he was moving into the unknown again. He shivered and hurried after his two companions.
For the first quarter of a mile, Ahmed trailed at the rear scooping handfuls of the soft cheese from the jar, devouring it avidly with groans of delight. Finally, he tossed the jar to one side and ran ahead to take the lead.
Drummond kept a pace or two behind Hamid. The world was a few cubic feet covered on all sides by walls and a ceiling of mist and rain and they were the only inhabitants.
They had been marching for about half an hour when he stumbled into Hamid who grabbed bis arm. ‘Listen for a moment’
Ahmed joined them and they stood in a small group, strange figures in their sheepskins, streaming with ram and somehow symbolic like a piece of modern sculpture.
‘I thought I heard firing,’ Hamid said and at that moment it sounded again, a faint echo to the west
‘Sounded like a machine gun,’ Drummond said.
Again, there was a faint, deadly echo of small arms fire and then there was silence.
‘Probably back across the river,’ Hamid said. ‘We’re still moving parallel with it, remember, but I think one of us should scout ahead from now on.’
1 will go, sahib,. Ahmed said with a grin and ran into the mist
They commenced to march again. Drummond’s senses were on the alert for danger at first, but gradually he succumbed to his surroundings. There was a safety, an anonymity about the rain and the mist that was vaguely comforting.
He withdrew into himself, an old trick, forgot about fatigue, discomfort, the danger of his present situation. He didn’t even feel fear when Ahmed suddenly emerged from the mist and ran towards them.
Hamid grabbed hold of the Afridi and steadied him. “What is it?’
.There is a village up ahead, sahib.’
‘Good, lead the way.’
He walked into the mist and they followed him. Drummond found that he was sweating a little, the ground sloped and then dipped suddenly as they descended into a large hollow.