After a moment he scanned the slopes above them. They were empty. There had been families with small herds of sheep and yaks when he had passed through on the way to the Chomolungma base camp the day before. After fifty years of living with the Chinese army, many Tibetans seemed to be able to sense soldiers from miles away.
"I dont understand why they do it," Jin said in a more conversational tone. "How many does it make this season?"
Shan turned and saw that the constable was gazing at the body on the mule. "This will be three Ive taken down." Although trucks and utility vehicles could make it to base camp, Tumkot, the village that provided most of the porters, was very traditional. It had no monks, but it had an astrologer who often played that role, and she had told the villagers the deities wanted them to keep their dead out of Chinese trucks. Later, for reasons Shan still did not understand, she had foretold that he was the one who would convey the bodies. "They say the mother mountain is angry this year."
"Angry?" Jin smirked, streaming two jets of smoke out his nostrils. "Id say shes become a bitch with a feud against the world." He gestured toward the dead man. "Damned fools. They must have a death wish going up there. Acting like theyre gods, thinking they have the right to be at the top of the planet."
Shan laid his hand on the back of the dead man. He had not known the other dead sherpas he retrieved from Everest and had only briefly worked with the ever-cheerful Tenzin, but he had developed a strange affinity for all of them. The old Tibetans would say their ghosts were befriending him. "They just carry the bags of those who would be gods," Shan quietly corrected, "so they can feed their families." His gaze drifted down the trail as the mule nudged him again. "How soon are they coming?"
he asked. Not far below, the trail passed within fifty yards of the road. He could ill afford to be stopped by Public Security with an unexplained body.
The constables expression hardened at Shans reference to the knobs. He tossed his cigarette into the rocks with a peeved glance, as if Shan had ruined its enjoyment, then rose to mount the horse. "Soon enough," he complained.
"Dont play music when you ride," Shan suggested as the policeman awkwardly tried to mount with the rifle over his shoulder. "It frightens the horse. And dont always stay on his back. Tibetans walk beside their horses half the time, speaking with them." Jin sneered at Shan and reached for the power switch on his tape player.
"Its a long walk home," Shan observed. The constable frowned again but did not touch the switch. He straightened, dug his heels into the horse and disappeared at a slow, stiff trot.
Twenty minutes later Shan stood in the shadow of a boulder and watched the cloud of dust that marked the passage of the bus, his gut tightening. He too had developed an instinct about Public Security. He found himself leaning forward, the way the small mountain animals did when they were about to leap away from an approaching predator. Forcing himself to keep watching as the cloud passed a tower of rock a quarter mile away, he glanced down as he realized his hand had clamped around his wrist, over his prison registration tattoo. He picked up the lead rope for the mule and had begun to slowly retreat when he felt an odd shaking at his feet, like a small earthquake. Then came a screech of metal, the sound of a tire bursting, followed by angry shouts, the flat crack of a pistol, and the frantic blowing of a whistle. He glanced at the mule, which had begun to graze on a clump of grass, then leaped down the trail toward the road.
Moments later he crouched at an outcropping, gazing down on a scene of chaos. A small military bus, designed to hold perhaps twenty prisoners, was wedged sideways in the narrow road, jammed between rock ledges on either side. The windshield was smashed. The front right wheel was flat, the bumper and fender above it crumpled where they had struck a column of rock that had fallen across the road. Other rocks from the apparent avalanche had smashed against the side of the bus, knocking in two of the wire-bound windows. A young Public Security soldier, probably the driver of the bus, sat against a rock, dazed, his head bleeding from where it had smashed the windshield. Only one other knob could be seen, racing into the rocks at the far side of the road, desperately sounding his whistle. The monks who had been imprisoned on the bus were escaping, except for one old man in a red robe who was bent over the injured driver.
Excerpted from The Lord of Death by Eliot Pattison Copyright © 2009 by Eliot Pattison. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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