‘I shouldn’t imagine so,’ Hamid slapped him on the shoulder. ‘We’d better get moving. He’ll need horses if he’s going to follow and that means going to the village. It’ll take time.’ He grinned savagely. ‘With any luck, one of my grenades may have finished him off. He could be lying down there in his own blood right now.’
And then the wind tore a hole in the curtain, and for a moment they saw the road below, the bodies sprawled in the snow, the living moving amongst them and one man who stood quite still, staring up at the mountain, the fur collar of his greatcoat framing the pale face.
‘No such luck,’ Drummond said with a shudder.
As the curtain swept back into place, he turned and followed Hamid upwards into the driving snow.
On the road, the carnage was absolute as Cheung turned to examine the dead and the dying. Only Sergeant Ng and three men were left on their feet, and then one of the soldiers from the village limped out of the wood clutching a bloody arm, his sheepskin wet with snow.
Cheung went to meet him, the sergeant at his side..You are from Chamdo, the next village?’
‘How did you get there?’
‘By boat from Huma. Two patrols crossed straight over, we came down river.’
‘And there are horses there?.
‘As many as you need, ColoneL.
Cheung took out his map and examined it quickly, the sergeant peering over his shoulder. He traced a finger along the track leading from Chamdo up over the mountain to Ladong Gompa.
‘So that’s where they’re going,’ he said softly and turned to the sergeant ‘A Tibetan name.’
‘A monastery, from the sound of it, Colonel,. the sergeant said.
Cheung folded the map and turned to the wounded soldier from Chamdo. ‘How far is the village from here?’
‘Five miles, Colonel.’
Then we’ve no time to waste.’ He nodded to the sergeant. ‘We’ll march there as quickly as possible and get horses.’
‘And the wounded, Colonel?’
‘Leave them. We’ll send someone from the village.’
He pulled up his collar and started to walk along the iron hard road into the falling snow.
The Mountain of God
THE snow was a living thing through which they stumbled blindly. Death and the valley had slipped far away and they were alone with man’s oldest enemy -the elements.
The hillside was rough, strewn with boulders, and the carpet of snow made the going difficult and unsure. At one point, Father Kerrigan’s mount plunged to its knees and Hamid grabbed its bridle, pulling it up again by brute strength.
Janet reined in and Drummond moved up beside her. She was covered in snow and her cheeks were flushed as she smiled down at him.
‘How are you doing?.
‘Fine and so is Kerim.’
The boy was so swathed in blankets that only his single eye showed, but it sparkled suddenly and Drum. raond knew that he had smiled.
These horses are used to this kind of country,. Hamid said. ‘Let them choose their own way. They know what they’re doing.’
‘Do you think we’ll find the track?. Drummond said.
‘I don’t see why not If we keep climbing on a diagonal line to the east, I can’t see how we could miss it’
They started again, Hamid leading followed by Father Kerrigan, Drummond bringing up the rear.
The slope steepened as they moved higher and the fuH blast of the snow, driven by the wind, hit them as they came out on to the bare mountainside.
At one point half-way up a shelving bank, Janet’s horse started to slide. Drummond scrambled forward beating it hard across the rump with his clenched fist and it plunged forward.
It was the snow that showed them the track, the shape of it clear under the white carpet, zig-zagging up the steep slope beneath them and turning into a narrow ravine about a hundred yards to the right.
When they moved into the ravine, they were sheltered from the wind for a while and climbed upwards, the clatter of hooves against the hard ground echoing between the walls. Gradually, the slope steepened, the walls of the ravine fading into the ground and they came out on the bare mountainside again.