Hamid led the way through the trees, his boots crunching the crusted snow and as Drummond pushed frost-covered branches to one side with a gloved hand, a feeling of exhilaration took possession of him. It was going to be all right. It had to be. They’d come too far, suffered too much.
Hamid raised an arm and they halted. The road lay just in front of them. As they stood in silence looking at it, snow began to fall quietly in large, firm flakes.
A tall, black finger of rock lifted out of the gloom on the other side and he pointed to it. That’s as good a marker as any. We might as well use the road, it’ll be quicker, but keep your eyes open. I’ve a nasty feeling we’ve left a little late. It’s getting lighter by the minute.’
And he was right. One by one, the trees seemed to step out of the darkness as they marched along the road. The muddy rats were ice-bound and iron-hard with just enough snow covering them to make walking easy. They moved quickly, Hamid in the lead, Drum-mond behind him and keeping to the other side.
The snow was quite heavy now and reduced visibility considerably. There was that strange, absolute quiet that snow always brings and it affected Drummond powerfully so that for a while, he walked with his head bowed, oblivious to all possible danger, alone with Ms thoughts.
They had travelled for no more than half a mfle when he was brought back to reality sharply by Hamid’s low, urgent call. He was standing at the side of the road and Drummond hurried to join him.
The tail of a truck was sticking out from the trees at an unnatural angle perhaps twenty-five yards into the wood. They stood there for a moment, not speaking, both thinking the same thought and then Hamid led the way forward, following the snow-covered path the vehicle had made for itself.
It was the supply truck. Drummond brushed snow from the side of the vehicle and his glove snagged on rough edges. He regarded the bullet holes dispassionately.
The thing’s like a sieve. He must have run straight into trouble..
Hs wrenched open the door, but the cab was empty and then Hamid called from the other side. Bracken-hurst lay huddled under a tree, his face turned slightly, fingers frozen into tallons. There were three gaping holes in his chest.
They stood looking down at him and somewhere, a horse snorted softly. There was the jingle of harness and voices, soft on the morning air. Someone laughed and Hamid and Drummond slipped into the shelter of the trees.
At the end of the jagged lane the truck had made into the wood, two horsemen appeared, Chinese dressed in great sheepskin coats and peaked caps, guns slung across their backs. They reined in, looking down towards the truck and one of them laughed again.
Hamid handed his sub-machine gun to Drummond and said softly, ‘Give me your rifle. We can’t let them go on. They’ll spot the other truck.’
Drummond gave him the Garrand and Hamid rested the barrel against the tree trunk in front of him. The horsemen had just started forward again when his first shot tumbled the lead man from the saddle. He screamed, turning on to his face in the snow. As both horses plunged in panic, the second rider fought to turn his mount. He was still trying when two bullets in the back lifted him from the saddle.
As Drummond and Hamid ran forward, one horse cantered away slowly, back towards the village. The other stood patiently beside the body of its rider. Hamid slung his rifle across his back, gathered the reins and vaulted into the crude sheepskin saddle.
Til catch the other one, Jack.’
He urged his mount forward and disappeared into the curtain of snow. Drummond checked the action of the sub-machine gun and waited impatiently. Somewhere in the distance, he seemed to hear a faint cry and then Hamid galloped back along the road, the reins of the second horse in his right hand.
‘We’d better get moving. More horsemen back along the road. The bastards are out early this morning.’