Slowly, the mountainside fell away. The mountain-brushing episode had been no mere bravado or folly, Carpenter had been deliberately lining up for his pre-determined course across the narrow plateau. Once again, and for the last time, he had his head outside, while his left hand slowly—interminably slowly, it seemed to Tremayne—reached up for the button on the bulkhead above the screen, located it, paused, then pressed it.
Sergeant Harrod, head craned back at a neck-straining angle, saw the red light turn to green, brought his head down, screwed shut his eyes and, with a convulsive jerk of his arms, launched himself out into the snow and the darkness, not a very expert launching, for instead of jumping out he had stepped out and was already twisting in mid-air as the parachute opened. Schaffer was the next to go, smoothly, cleanly, feet and knees together, then Carraciola followed by Smith.
Smith glanced down below him and his lips tightened. Just dimly visible in the greyness beneath, Harrod, a very erratic human pendulum, was swinging wildly across the sky. The parachute cords were already badly twisted and his clumsily desperate attempts to untwist them resulted only in their becoming more entangled than ever. His left-hand cords were pulled too far down, air was spilling from the parachute, and, still swaying madly, he was side-slipping to his left faster than any man Smith had ever seen side-slip a parachute before. Smith stared after the rapidly disappearing figure and hoped to God that he didn't side-slip his way right over the edge of the precipice.
Grim-faced, he stared upwards to see how the others had fared. Thank God, there was no worry there. Christiansen, Thomas and Smithy all there, so close as to be almost touching, all making perfectly normal descents.
Even before the last of the parachutists, Torrance-Smythe, had cleared the doorway, the sergeant air-gunner was running towards the after end of the fuselage. Swiftly he flung aside a packing-case, dragging a tarpaulin away, reached down and pulled a huddled figure upright. A girl, quite small, with wide dark eyes and delicate features. One would have looked for the figure below to be as petite as the features, but it was enveloped in bulky clothes over which had been drawn a snow-suit. Over the snow-suit she wore a parachute. She was almost numb with cold and cramp but the sergeant had his orders.
“Come on, Miss Ellison.” His arm round her waist, he moved quickly towards the doorway. “Not a second to lose.”
He half led, half carried her there, where an aircraftman was just heaving the second last parachute and container through the doorway. The sergeant snapped the parachute catch on to the wire. Mary Ellison half-turned as if to speak to him, then turned away abruptly and dropped out into the darkness. The last parachute and container followed at once. For a long moment the sergeant stared down into the darkness. Then he rubbed his chin with the palm of his hand, shook his head in disbelief, stepped back and pulled the heavy door to. The Lancaster, its four engines still on reduced power, droned on into the snow and the night. Almost immediately, it was lost to sight and, bare seconds later, the last faint throb of its engines died away in the darkness.
Smith reached his hands far up into the parachute shrouds, hauled himself sharply upwards and made a perfect knees-bent, feet-together landing in about two feet of snow. The wind tugged fiercely at his parachute. He struck the quick release harness clasp, collapsed the parachute, pulled it in, rolled it up and pressed it deeply into the snow, using for weight the pack he had just shrugged off his shoulders.
Down there at ground level—if seven thousand feet up on the Weissspitze could be called ground level—the snowfall was comparatively slight compared to that blizzard they'd experienced jumping from the Lancaster but, even so, visibility was almost as bad as it had been up above, for there was a twenty-knot wind blowing and the dry powdery snow was drifting quite heavily. Smith made a swift 360° sweep of his horizon but there was nothing to be seen, nobody to be seen.
With fumbling frozen hands he clumsily extracted a torch and whistle from his tunic. Facing alternately east and west, he bleeped on the whistle and flashed his torch. The first to appear was Thomas, then Schaffer, then, within two minutes altogether, all of the others with the exception of Sergeant Harrod.
“Pile your chutes there and weight them,” Smith ordered. “Yes, bed them deep. Anyone seen Sergeant Harrod?” A shaking of heads. “Nobody? No sight of him at all?”
“Last I saw of him,” Schaffer said, “he was going across my bows like a destroyer in a heavy sea.”
“I saw a bit of that,” Smith nodded. “The shrouds were twisted?”
“Put a corkscrew to shame. But I'd have said there was no danger of the chute collapsing. Not enough time. We were almost on the ground before I lost sight of him.”
“Any idea where he landed, then?”
“Roughly. He'll be all right, Major. A twisted ankle, a bump on the head. Not to worry.”
“Use your torches,” Smith said abruptly. “Spread out. Find him.”
With two men on one side of him, three on the other, all within interlocking distance of their torch beams, Smith searched through the snow, his flash-light raking the ground ahead of him. If he shared Schaffer's optimism about Harrod, his face didn't show it. It was set and grim. Three minutes passed and then came a shout from the right. Smith broke into a run.
Carraciola, it was who had called and was now standing at the farther edge of a wind-swept outcrop of bare rock, his torch shining downwards and slightly ahead. Beyond the rock the ground fell away abruptly to a depth of several feet and in this lee a deep drift had formed. Half-buried in its white depths, Sergeant Harrod lay spread-eagled on his back, his feet almost touching the rock, his face upturned to the falling snow, his eyes open. He did not seem to notice the snow falling on his eyes.
They were all there now, staring down at die motionless man. Smith jumped down into the drift, dropped to his knees, slid an arm under Harrod's shoulders and began to lift him to a sitting position. Harrod's head lolled back like that of a broken rag doll. Smith lowered him back into the snow and felt for the pulse in the throat. Still kneeling, Smith straightened, paused for a moment with bent head then climbed wearily to his feet.
“Dead?” Carraciola asked.
“He's dead. His neck is broken.” Smith's face was without expression. “He must have got caught up in the shrouds and made a bad landing.”
“It happens,” Schaffer said. “I've known it happen.” A long pause, then: “Shall I take the radio, sir?”
Smith nodded. Schaffer dropped to his knees and began to fumble for the buckle of the strap securing the radio to Harrod's back.
Smith said: “Sorry, no, not that way. There's a key around his neck, under his tunic. It fits the lock under the flap of the breast buckle.”
Schaffer located the key, unlocked the buckle after some difficulty, eased the straps off the dead man's shoulders and finally managed to work the radio clear. He rose to his feet, the radio dangling from his hand, and looked at Smith.
“Second thoughts, what's the point. Any fall hard enough to break his neck wouldn't have done the innards of this radio any good.”
Wordlessly, Smith took the radio, set it on the rock, extended the antenna, set the switch to “Transmit”, and cranked the call-up handle. The red tell-tale glowed, showing the transmission circuit to be in order. Smith turned the switch to receive, turned up the volume, moved the tuning knob, listened briefly to some static-laden music, closed up the radio set and handed it back to Schaffer.
“It made a better landing than Sergeant Harrod,” Smith said briefly. “Come on.”
“We bury him, Major?” Carraciola asked.
“No need.” Smith shook his head and gestured with his torch at the drifting snow. “He'll be buried within the hour. Let's find the supplies.”
“Now, for God's sake don't lose your grip!” Thomas said urgently.
“That's the trouble with you Celts,” Schaffer said reprovingly. “No faith in anyone. There is no cause for alarm. Your life is in the safe hands of Schaffer and Christiansen. Not to worry.”
“What else do you think I'm worrying about?”
“If we all start sliding,” Schaffer said encouragingly, “we won't let you go until the last possible minute.”
Thomas gave a last baleful glance over his shoulder and then began to edge himself out over the black lip of the precipice. Schaffer and Christiansen had an ankle apiece, and they in turn were anchored by the others. As far as the beam of Thomas's torch could reach, the cliff stretching down into the darkness was absolutely vertical, black naked rock with the only fissures in sight blocked with ice and with otherwise never a hand- or foot-hold.
“I've seen all I want to,” he said over his shoulder. They pulled him back and he edged his way carefully up to their supply pile before getting to his feet. He prodded the pack with the skis protruding from one end.
“Very handy,” he said morosely. “Oh, very handy for this lot indeed.”
“As steep as that?” Smith asked.
“Vertical. Smooth as glass and: you can't see the bottom. How deep do you reckon it is, Major?”
“Who knows?” Smith shrugged. “We're seven thousand feet up. Maps never give details at this altitude. Break out that nylon.”