white-crane-3dPaul Stevens and Rilo, the old hunter, hid behind a rock and watched. Tenga Dragotsang, Mingma and some of the other Tibetan guerrillas had taken another route to go ‘hunting’ for the day. It was almost like the old days when they had hunted mountain sheep close to the Golok country, and Tenga had pretended to have hurt his leg. Paul could still see Tenga and Rilo dancing triumphantly in the flickering light of the campfire on that icy mountainside. The wily sham! Now, they hunted soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army who had come to ‘liberate’ them. Rilo had become just as skilful and uncanny in tracking down, scenting out and hunting this species of  animal as mountain sheep and  bears.

Paul brought out his binoculars but Rilo pushed them away. ‘The reflection…the Chinese may detect us…’ he explained.

‘What can you see, Rilo?’ asked Stevens.

‘Chinese Communists,’ said the hunter, shielding his eyes. ‘Ten…twelve of  them. What a feast!’

Paul peered down the mountainside but wasn’t quite convinced. ‘Paul-o, let’s go into that clump of  trees. I’m sure that’s the way they’re heading. Just the spot for an ambush.’ ‘Agreed…’ said the young American.

Stevens, Rilo and seven Khampas scampered down the slope and ran into the trees and hid behind logs and a large rock.

‘Paul-o…you fire first,’ instructed Rilo. ‘Aim for the last man in the column.’

They waited. In spite of the intense cold and the snow, Paul found beads of  sweat on his forehead. His mouth went dry.

He saw a Khampa squat down behind a rock and urinate into the snow.

Paul’s heart thumped and his hands trembled as he waited. He heard voices approaching. He checked and rechecked that his rifle’s safety catch was released. He saw Rilo waiting behind the stump of a tree, gesturing to him excitedly that the Chinese were close. Every Khampa was ready for the kill, waiting tensely.

The Chinese platoon came along in a single file, their rifles slung behind their backs, talking casually to each other; unaware that they were walking into a Khampa guerrilla trap.  The air  was bracing and cold. Occasionally a clod of snow fell off an overladen branch and sprayed the air with a shimmer. The sun was shining brightly and the glare from the snow had induced one or two of the PLA men to don snow-goggles. Some of  them were vigorously thumping their gloved hands together to keep warm. They were rosy-cheeked, their breaths vaporous in the clear Tibetan morning air as they laughed and turned to each other, joking and poking fun.

Paul raised his rifle and took careful aim at the last man in the column, following him in his sights as he walked up the forest track—a young boyish-looking soldier. Paul fired and saw the soldier twist and stumble and the serene stillness of the mountains was shattered by the sounds of rifle fire as more Chinese soldiers went down. But they were not all dead or severely wounded for, in an instant, the Chinese fired back. Some Khampas darted out and ran from tree to tree, inviting more enemy fire mostly from automatics. And then the firing ceased.

‘Paul-o! Paul-o!’ There was loud whispering close to him.  He turned and saw Rilo just a few yards away, flat on his belly. He was smiling and appeared triumphant. A good kill… ‘Some Communists behind that log there…’ he whispered, prodding into the distance with his forefinger.

‘Where?’ whispered Paul.

‘That log…behind that log…’ said Rilo hoarsely. ‘Paul-o… I’ll go from behind. You stay here. Don’t move…don’t show yourself…’ Paul nodded. Rilo wriggled away in the snow, the jagged scar across his face showing white against his ruddy skin. Paul waited. There was a soft thud close to him as if a stone had been thrown at him to draw his attention. He turned, thinking it might be a Khampa warning him of danger or perhaps a lump  of snow fallen from a tree. In an instant he saw it was a grenade. Paul lay flat on his face and instinctively covered his head with his hands as at the same instant the grenade exploded with a tremendous roar, scattering snow and fragments of earth in a wide arc. The next moment bursts of automatic fire came from all sides and Paul looked up and saw a Chinese soldier dashing towards him, so close that he could have stretched out his hand and touched him. Paul fired, saw him lurch, stumble and disappear behind a slope. And then from every direction he saw his friends running, shooting, and shouting in excitement, and Paul realized the Communists had been overcome.

Advertisements