Jack Higgins – The Iron Tiger

Once or twice when they paused, he looked up at

Janet and was shocked at the weariness in her eyes. Somehow she managed to smile and he smiled back.

Half an hour later they emerged from the ravine on to a ledge perhaps forty feet across that slanted upwards to the left, jutting out from the cliff face.

Hamid turned, still holding on to the bridle of the old man’s horse. ‘Everyone all right?’

Drummond glanced up at Janet and she nodded. ‘Fine. Keep going.’

The ledge lifted steeply, following the curve of the wall and a sea of swirling snow cloaked the valley below. Drummond followed Hamid and Father Kerrigan, holding the horse as close in to the wall as possible.

And then the ledge narrowed until there hardly seemed room for man and animal together. He pushed forward frantically and came out on the edge of a great plateau.

Beyond them, the ultimate peaks of the mountains stabbed into the sky and great sterile valleys ran between, cutting their way through to the other side.

‘The main plateau,’ Hamid shouted above the wind. “The monastery can’t be very far away. We’ll keep on going.’

It was cold at that height, very cold. No more snow fell, but the wind blew harder and harder until it cut through their clothing, whipping their bruised bodies with cold fingers and the child started to cry.

Janet held him close in her arms and Drummond took the reins of the horse, pulling it forward and then they moved over the crest of a small hill and paused.

Below them was a great natural arena into which many valleys spilled, and squarely in the entrance of one of them stood the monastery of Ladong Gompa. Hamid urged Father Kerrigan’s mount forward with a savage cry and Drummond went after him.

The monastery walls had been painted red, green and black to signify the nature of the order, but the colours had faded with the years. It was of no great size and had a bleak, deserted look about it. There was no encircling outer wall, a usual feature of larger establishments, and the entrance was at the top of several steps, protected against the weather by a stone porch.

Snow had drifted in an unbroken line across the steps and a chain hung through a hole high in the wall, jingling faintly as it swung in the wind. When Hamid pulled hard on it, a bell rang hollowly somewhere inside and they waited as its brazen sound died.

After a while, they heard a rattle of wooden clogs on stone and a metallic rasping as bolts were withdrawn. The door swung back to reveal a Buddhist monk in faded yellow robes. He showed no particular surprise and came forward at once to give his hand to Father Kerrigan as the old man stumbled up the steps. Drum-mond held Kerim until Janet had dismounted, then handed him to her and she followed Father Kerrigan.

Another monk, a younger man, came down the steps and Hamid said, ‘What about the horses?’

Like the other one, the young man did not speak, but motioned them to follow him and when he tucked his robe into his girdle so that it didn’t trail in the snow, Drummond saw that his feet were bare.

There was an enclosed courtyard at the rear. They waited at the gate and after a while it was opened from inside and they moved in. There were the usual stables and a young novice took the horses from them and they followed the other monk into the monastery.

They walked along a narrow, stone-flagged corridor and entered a large, poorly-furnished room at the far end with a fire of logs burning on a large stone hearth.

Janet was sitting by the fire, Kerim nursed in her arms, while Father Kerrigan sat on a bench by a large wooden table, engaged in animated conversation in English with a much older monk in a yellow, conical hat with ear flaps.

Father Kerrigan got to his feet and the monk rose with him. ‘Major Hamid and Mr. Drummond.’ He made the introductions in English. ‘This is the Abbot of Ladong Gompa. I’ve been giving him a brief account of our misfortunes. Apparently they still get a few pilgrims across during the summer. Lucky for us, eh?’

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Categories: Higgins, Jack