THE VATICAN – 1941
THERE WAS VERY little sound in the chamber as Cardinal designate, Enrico Donatello walked slowly past the finely crafted cabinets, their beauty lost now in the darkness of the Secret Archives of the Vatican. It was well past midnight and Donatello had removed his shoes to conceal the sound of his footsteps. All he had to guide him was the yellowing ring of light thrown by the small torch he carried, pointing down towards the floor. He held one hand out, feeling for any object that might impede his progress, groping his way along the catacomb–like rows of cabinets that held the Vatican secrets, many of them centuries old.
As he approached the second hall with its ornately carved and painted ceiling, embracing the coat of arms of Cardinal Scipione Cafarelli, librarian of the Secret Archives four hundred years earlier, his heart began to beat faster, pulsing down to the soles of his stockinged feet. He paused and listened for other sounds, but none came. Slowly, his hand shaking as he reached into the sleeve of his vestment, he retrieved a large key. It rattled against the keyhole as he pushed it into the lock. He turned the key gently and opened the door into the second chamber. He withdrew the key and stepped through, closing the door and locking it behind him.
Cardinal designate Donatello, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church, had already committed an unforgivable sin by venturing into the Secret Archives without permission and in the dead of night, but his reasons were, he believed, for the good of the Holy See and to prevent a calamity that could endanger the whole credibility of the Catholic Church.
Ignoring the demons that began to assail his conscience, and refusing now to listen to his own, good advice, Donatello moved forward carefully, following the yellow ring of torchlight until he came to a door which he knew would be securely locked. He stopped and reached into a pocket for a second key that was concealed beneath his vestment. Even as he looked at the door, he knew he should stop this madness, but without hesitating, he pulled out the key.
With a trembling hand he inserted the key into the lock and turned it carefully, fearful that the lock might tumble noisily and announce his presence, although there was nobody in the vast chambers to hear Donatello’s fumbling access into the most secret room in the Vatican.
He closed the door behind him, locked it and raised the torch so that its beam fell on to a cabinet door that he knew concealed a wall safe. He walked over to the door and opened it. He composed himself by taking deep breaths to steady his shaking hands. He then reached for the dial on the safe door and began turning it, dialling in the combination, sensing rather than hearing the tumblers falling into place. He heard the sound as the final tumbler dropped and pulled open the heavy, metal door. It opened noiselessly on its well–oiled hinges. He shone the torch into the safe, sweeping the beam over the array of boxes and documents inside.
The box he wanted had been placed on the lowest shelf. He knelt down and pulled it towards him. He paused and looked up, and offered a prayer up to God that his sins would be forgiven. He took a smaller key from his vestment pocket and opened the box. Inside was the document he sought. It was enclosed in an envelope with the Papal seal emblazoned across the flap. The writing on the face of the envelope was in a clear, bold hand. Donatello nodded his satisfaction and removed the envelope, which he carefully concealed beneath his robe. Then he withdrew an identical envelope from his pocket. The Papal seal and handwriting were perfectly forged. He looked at it for the last time and put it in the box. He closed the lid, locked the small casket and closed the safe, spinning the dial once it was closed.
Archbishop Enrico Donatello, Cardinal designate to the highest offices of the Roman Catholic Church, had entered the most secret place in the Vatican, like a thief in the night and removed the most important document ever to reside in the Secret Archives and replaced it with another.
TWO WEEKS LATER
LIBYA, NORTH AFRICA –- 1941
THE SILENCE IN the desert was so incredible it was as if you could reach out and touch it, almost as if you could feel its presence. A patrol of the British Army had pulled in to a dry river bed to avoid the heat of the day. It was mid–afternoon and the heat was coming off the sand in shimmering waves while the sun seemed to bounce off it in every direction. It was dazzling and the need for eye protection was paramount.
The patrol was about one hundred miles south–west of Jalu, deep behind the Italian lines, waiting for something to happen. The patrol leader, Captain Miles Roselli had called a halt, knowing the brief respite would be most welcome to his men. The patrol had been warned by Allied HQ in Egypt of an Italian convoy that would prob¬ably pass within a few miles of their position.
Miles Roselli was a big man, well respected by those under his command. He was of Italian descent which often meant a great deal of 'mickey taking' by his soldiers, but his Italian antecedents were several generations back so it meant little to him other than a liking for things Italian. Despite being English, he still carried something of the Mediterranean look in his appearance. He was a little over six feet tall and weighed over two hundred pounds; an ideal weight and size to lead a bunch of independent–thinking, tough, battle–hardened troops.
There were eight men in Roselli's group and they were all utterly reliable, extremely competent and experienced men. They had fought many battles with him, or skirmishes as Roselli often called them, in the unforgiving desert of the Sahara.
The patrol had two Chevrolet trucks, each armed with a Vickers 303 machine gun. There was also a Bren gun on one Chevvy truck and a Lewis machine gun on the other. The other addition to their armoury was a bazooka; a phenomenal weapon that had recently been invented by the Americans. It was not officially available to the British Army but some of the weapons had found their way to the Desert patrol groups. The bazookas were ideal for taking out tanks.
The patrol's daily routine was always left to the leader unless specific orders were received from HQ in Egypt, and generally speaking the patrol employed itself with hit–and–run tactics, engaging with the enemy whenever and wherever the enemy appeared. Generally the officers commanding the patrol groups preferred to operate under the cover of darkness, but they were never averse to doing the job during the heat of the day. Miles Roselli was no excep¬tion and, in fact, he believed that this tactic had much to favour it. This was because the enemy were nearly always conscripted soldiers who were not trained for such ordeals and had little stomach for them against the battle–hardened soldiers of the desert groups.
Roselli's patrol was bivouacked along the slope of the river bed that offered a little shade. Corporal 'Ginger' Edwards was on watch. He had positioned himself high enough to have a clear view across the wadi. He didn't expect to see much movement, if any, but it was from this vantage point that he spotted a small dust column on the horizon.
He called Captain Roselli up to the high point above the wadi from where he had a commanding view. Whatever was causing the dust column was about thirty minutes away from their current position, where the patrol were resting up. There was another reason why Roselli had chosen this particular spot; it was a good point from which to launch an ambush if the convoy they had been warned about should pass this way. The ground from the river bed rose up to about sixty feet and, with the sun in its present position, the shadows were lengthening into the wadi itself.
Roselli joined Edwards on the high point and lifted his binoculars to his eyes. He focused carefully until he could make out a line of trucks forming the convoy. He lowered the binoculars and rubbed the tip of his nose with the back of his hand; it was an unconscious habit he had when he was thinking.
He got to his feet and ordered Edwards to follow him back down into the wadi. The other men in the patrol were lying in the shade cast by the trucks, some catching a precious nap when Roselli and Edwards scrambled down the sloping side of the river bed. Roselli gathered the men around him and told them what they had seen.
They began preparing themselves with a sense of disciplined urgency and moved their vehicles into a position that would give them the benefit of surprise when the convoy drew closer. The shadows were lengthening by the minute, and as they lengthened, so they darkened, which gave excellent cover for an attack.
The convoy was following the river bed, and as it drew closer, Roselli could see it consisted of a leading, Autoblinda armoured car, two L3, anti–tank 'tankettes', a Mercedes half–track and a Magirus Deutz three¬ ton truck. The truck had an unusual rigid, metal box construction that had obviously been manufactured to replace the usual canvas 'tilt' that was common among these types of general–purpose vehicles.
Although the convoy carried a lot of armour, Roselli could see no reason why his men shouldn't succeed in the attack. His strategy was usually the same, depending on circumstances. But basically he always tried to engage the enemy with a direct, frontal assault. In this attack he could see the benefit of using the patrol's massive fire–power and the American bazooka to disable the 'tankettes'. He knew they would be facing a lot of cannon fire from the L3s and the half–track that appeared to be riding 'shotgun' on the convoy, but he was still supremely confident.
It didn't take long. The suddenness and swiftness of the ambush completely overwhelmed the Italians as Roselli's group hurtled at them out of the shadows. The Italians responded with guts and resoluteness which probably meant they were not conscripts. The fire fight lasted no more than five minutes. Two of Roselli's men were wounded in the conflict, one seriously. Roselli never liked losing men in an attack, naturally. The downside, apart from the injury to a soldier was that it meant that he would have to make some arrange¬ment for the wounded men to be evacuated for medical treatment. This would mean a weakening of the group and inevitable delays until suitable replacements could be found.
Roselli ordered his men to search the damaged trucks for survivors and any documents that might be of value to the Allied Headquarters back in Cairo. He had sent Edwards back up to the top of the wadi as a lookout, and it was while he was planning ahead that one of the men made a startling discovery in the Magirus Deutz truck.
It had been quickly established that there were no survivors, so the men were carrying out their searches in relative quiet. Suddenly the voice of Lance Corporal Joe Reams cut through the peace and quiet like a blast going off. Roselli turned and looked across to the Magirus and could see Reams waving frantically at him from the truck.
He jogged across to the truck, not knowing what to expect. Reams had disappeared back inside the Magirus. Roselli heaved himself up into the back of the truck and it was immediately obvious what it was that had got Reams so worked up.
Inside the truck were several boxes stacked one on top of the other. A couple of the boxes had toppled and one of them had taken a hit from a shell during the fire–fight. And there on the floor, spilled out like hundreds of playing cards were glittering ingots of brilliant gold.
Roselli could only stand and gape. He had never seen so much gold. For a while everything else was forgotten as he stood at the back of the Magirus truck while Joe Reams stood in front of him with a bar of gold in each hand. Reams watched his captain stare in awe at the gold.
Suddenly Roselli shook his head as if he was trying to clear his mind. 'Put the gold back, Joe,' he said softly.
'Beg your pardon, sir?' Reams answered.
Roselli's eyes went back to the gold. He said nothing for a few seconds. Reams continued staring at him. Then Roselli snapped out of his trance–like state.
'Put all the gold back into the box, including the bars you've picked up,' he ordered Reams again. 'Then tidy it all up.'
Joe Reams looked extremely disappointed. He dropped the bars on top of the others.
'Sir,' he began to say.
'I know what you're thinking,' Roselli interrupted sharply. 'But we've got to be careful and think clearly.' He looked at Reams. 'I don't want you to say anything to any of the others. Do you understand?'
Reams nodded. 'Yes sir,' he answered, although a little hesitantly.
'Not a word, Corporal. I mean it!'
Reams turned away and began to put the gold ingots back in their boxes as tidily as he could. He didn't understand why Roselli had told him to keep quiet about the gold. He had a feeling that his captain was already thinking ahead but probably had no clear idea what he was going to do; he was probably just being cautious, Reams decided but he found it, well, disturbing.
Roselli jumped down from the truck and went to find the other members of his patrol, his mind working furiously. None of them had noticed Joe Reams's display of excitement, and for now it suited Roselli to keep it that way until he could figure out exactly what he was going to do.
Within thirty minutes of the attack, what was left of the patrol was mounted up and ready to leave. It was clear from an examination of the two wounded men that one had only superficial wounds, which could be dealt with. The other soldier needed medical treatment in a field hospital as quick as possible. Roselli took the decision to order two of his men to remain with the wounded soldiers, which meant leaving behind one of the Chevvy trucks, while he took the Magirus truck and the other half of the patrol to a safer location. They agreed to meet up at a rendezvous point near the small desert town of Bardai in the extreme north–west corner of the country of Chad, over two hundred miles away. The oasis town nestled near the foot of the Tibesti Mountains. Different varieties of palm trees grew there in no particular pattern or order, but lent a picturesque element to what was really a harsh environment. The backdrop of cliffs behind Bardai sheltered it from much of the fierce Sahara winds and it was from these and the mountains behind that moisture and occasional rainfall filtered down to fill the wells of the oasis. It was a popular rendezvous area for members of the desert patrol groups.
Roselli ordered his patrol to stop about two miles north of Bardai. He was not interested in the charms of the desert oasis; but was more concerned with what he should do about the gold.
Since leaving the wadi where the patrol had ambushed the Italian convoy, Roselli had been troubled about the gold. He had thought of little else. It was obviously a large shipment and quite probably the patrol could claim it as theirs as the spoils of war. But Roselli knew that was out of the question; they certainly couldn't carry the gold around with them for the duration of the war, and his senior officers would certainly contest any claim, likely or unlikely, that his patrol group might make.
Roselli was also convinced that his own men would have something to say about the gold. He had seen the look in Joe Reams's eyes as he stood in the back of that truck, a bar of gold in each hand. Roselli knew that gold did strange things to men, of that he was sure. What he needed to do now was to find an acceptable answer to the prize that had landed in their hands and ensure that his men all agreed once he had told them.
There were only two others in the patrol now who didn't know about the gold; Corporal Harry Edwards and Private Simon Richie. The men he had left behind knew nothing of it, but Roselli's belief in honesty and fair play meant that he would include those men in any decision that was reached. Although he had ordered Reams not to mention the gold, he knew it was inevitable that the men would talk, and Reams would not be able to keep secret what he had seen in the back of the Magirus, so he had to assume they would probably all be aware of the prize they had netted.
And a prize it was indeed. Roselli knew that they could all simply disappear into the huge continent of Africa, be posted 'missing presumed dead' and no–one would be any the wiser. If it ever came to light that the gold convoy had been overwhelmed and the gold taken, too many years would have passed for the trail to be picked up and followed; it would have gone cold.
Roselli's problem was how to convince the others to agree with him and not become deserters and criminals, which would be against their natural inclination. If he could achieve that then they would have to conceive a plan that would ensure they all received a fair share of the gold. But each of them would know that there were three other men who would have knowledge of the gold's whereabouts and the question of honour among thieves would be paramount in their minds. Would any of them come back, single handed, to plunder what they had agreed to keep safe?
They made themselves as comfortable as they could where they had stopped. Roselli decided to take the first watch as they bedded down for the night. He wanted to be on his own and to collect his thoughts, to come up with an agreeable plan.
It was while Roselli was on watch that Reams told the others of what he had seen despite being told by his captain not to.
'Look, I put the gold bars back in the box that had been smashed. I tell you, there must have been a hundred or more in the box.'
Ginger Edwards drew heavily on a cigarette. He asked how big the bars were.
'About six inches long, maybe; couple of inches wide.' He held the thumb and finger of one hand about half an inch apart. 'About this thick,' he suggested.
'How much do you reckon they're worth?' Simon Richie asked.
Reams gave him a blank look. 'Don't be bloody daft; how am I supposed to know that?'
'How many boxes were there?' Edwards asked.
Reams shrugged. 'I don't know; one hundred perhaps.'
Simon Richie lit a cigarette and drew the smoke deep into his lungs. He expelled it forcefully and coughed. 'So why did the captain tell you to say nothing?'
The three of them looked at each other.
'I'll tell you why,' Richie went on. 'It's because he's up to some¬thing. Why else would he tell Joe to keep quiet?'
Richie took another drag on his cigarette. 'He means to do a runner,' he said in a wave of smoke.
'What, with all that gold?' Edwards laughed scornfully. 'Don't be bloody daft. There are three of us and only one of him.'
'Well, if he is up to something,' Richie suggested, 'we had better be on our guard. Make sure we're not caught in a group of three.'
Edwards studied his friend for a while. Then suddenly shook his head. 'No, bollocks, he ain't going to do that. What's he going to do with the gold if he does get the drop on all of us, drive the fucking stuff back to Blighty?'
The three of them talked around the problem until it was time for Richie to take over watch from the captain. When Roselli returned to the bivouac, the other two had turned in. He made himself a brew and sat outside of the tent, looking up at the dark sky covered in a million jewelled stars and thought again of his future.
The following morning the patrol were up early and looking down towards the town of Bardai from an elevated position. The men had all had different plans and schemes running through their minds during the night, but all of them knew they would have to wait until the captain broached the subject. The only one of the group who had a positive idea of what he wanted to do was Joe Reams, but he intended playing his cards very close to his chest and to wait for the right moment.
The town of Bardai was about two miles from their position. Roselli's thoughts were fixed not on refuge in the town, but on a drive into the foothills of the Tibesti Mountains to a cave he had known about from earlier forays in the southern Sahara. He wasn't absolutely sure where it was, but he intended to find it.
The mountains were well known for their prehistoric caves and cave paintings, and many anthropologists and archaeologists had scoured the hills and studied the ancient art forms found deep within the walls of the mountains. Roselli was not a scientist, but as a Long Range Desert Patrol leader, he had always believed that a good commander should have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the areas that could afford refuge if it should ever be needed.
This far south was really the extremity of his knowledge, but he was sure he would find the cave he recalled from earlier visits; it was big enough in which to conceal the Magirus truck and its precious cargo. It was now simply a case of searching carefully while avoiding others who might see them.
It took Roselli several hours before he came across the cave he remembered. It was situated about five hundred feet above the desert on a steep incline. The cave entrance was in shadow, largely because of an overhanging rock which jutted out across the opening to the cave.
They drove the trucks up the slope and into the cave, which ran about sixty or seventy feet into the mountainside. They switched off their engines and as the noise of the engines subsided, the silence in the cave swamped them. Roselli jumped down from the cab of the Magirus and slammed the driver's door shut behind him. The clunk of the door resonated around the cave walls. The others quickly followed suit and were soon standing in a small group looking up at the high roof of the cave and around its walls. Deeper into the interior of the cave they could see the familiar sight of stalactites and stalagmites, none of which now bore signs of moisture that would have trickled through the seams of the mountain rock to form the prehistoric shapes that fascinated so many explorers and visitors alike.
Roselli gave the men a few minutes before ordering them to prepare the cave entrance for the next part of the plan.
'Right lads,' he said, rubbing the tip of his nose with the back of his hand. 'I want you to put charges beneath that rock above the cave entrance.' He was pointing towards the fading light coming through the opening. They looked towards the entrance.
'What's your plan, sir?' Edwards asked.
'I want the rock brought down over the opening. Seal the cave.'
'It will take a bit of doing,' Simon Richie pointed out. 'We don't really have the tools.'
'Innovate,' Roselli said simply. 'That's why you are different from other soldiers.' It was true; there was no real rule book to guide this breed of desert soldier, they simply had to react to whatever situation developed.
The three soldiers exchanged glances and collectively shrugged their shoulders. Then they began assembling the equipment and explosives they would need to bring the rock down over the entrance. Roselli left them to the task and found a suitably high position to stand watch on the mountainside above the cave.
By using natural fissures in the rock face beneath the giant rock, they were able to lay charges in a pattern that they considered sufficient to do what Captain Roselli had asked. It took them about three hours, and when they were finished darkness had already wrapped its cloak around them, and the moon was beginning to rise. They set about lighting a couple of oil lamps, cooking up a brew and getting something to eat.
Roselli came down from his watch and asked Reams to move the Chevvy truck away from the cave and position it facing down the hill. He then climbed into the back of the Magirus and began checking the boxes. He simply wanted to make sure there was nothing else they had missed that might have been of some use to them. That was when he came across one box that was completely different from the others.
Roselli lifted the box, which was very light and ornately carved, and placed it on top of one of the other boxes. He knelt down beside the box and flipped the clasps that secured the lid. When he tried to open it, he couldn't; it was locked. He glanced swiftly round the inte¬rior of the truck and realized that this was the only box that was different from the others. As he lifted it to carry it out into the open he heard one of the men shout. He spun round as the sound of the Vickers machine gun filled the cave with a deafening wave of explo¬sions. Roselli threw himself on to the floor of the truck and pulled his pistol from its holster, cocking it ready to fire.
He thought he could hear return fire coming from within the cave, but such was the deafening noise of the Vickers, he couldn't be sure whether it was just the sounds reverberating off the walls. He crawled forward swiftly towards the tailgate and peered cautiously out as the firing from the Vickers gun stopped. He lay there, quite still and heard the sound of footsteps coming into the cave entrance.
Joe Reams stepped into the cave carrying the Bren gun, which he had lifted from the Chevvy. His manner was distinctively aggressive and murderous in the faint, yellow glow from the oil lamps that had been set up inside the cave.
Roselli watched Reams walk past the side of the Magirus. He couldn't see him then, but he could hear him muttering, looking at the corpses of his dead comrades. Roselli knew then exactly what Reams had done and what he planned to do.
Slowly, Roselli brought his pistol up, reaching forward so that his arm was fully extended, the pistol gripped tightly in his hand, the butt resting on the wooden boards of the floor of the truck.
He heard the grit scratch beneath the soles of Reams's shoes as the murderer turned round and walked to the rear of the Magirus. Small beads of sweat began to trickle down from Roselli's armpits, and little spikes of fear danced along his spine. The footsteps slowed as Reams reached the corner of the truck.
Roselli saw the barrel of the Bren appear and knew what Reams intended. He was going to pepper the inside of the truck with a hail of lead and rip his captain apart. Roselli knew he had one chance to win and one only. He moved the aim of his pistol so that it was pointing at the barrel of the Bren gun. He was only three feet from it and knew he had to make it count. Squeezing the trigger slowly until he felt the first pressure, he held his breath and squeezed again. The bullet exploded out of the gun and smashed into the barrel of the Bren.
Reams cursed as the Bren was knocked from his grasp, but it was the last sound he was to make as Roselli leapt forward and shot him clean through the head. Reams dropped to the ground as the blood poured from his wound like a fountain until it slowed to a mere trickle where he lay.
Roselli jumped down from the truck and went quickly to where the bodies of Edwards and Ritchie lay crumpled together. It was obvious they were dead. Ritchie lay across the body of his friend. Roselli removed their identity tags and took their wallets from their pockets. Then he did the same to Reams and bundled everything into a back pack. After a quick look round the cave he shook his head sadly and walked out into the night.
The Chevvy truck was there, its Vickers gun clamped to its support frame and pointing towards the cave. Roselli knew now exactly what he had to do, and that was to seal the cave. One day, perhaps, he could return and give his men a decent burial. One day.
He quickly located the fuse wires that the men had left trailing from the dynamite around the cave entrance. He pulled a box of matches from his pocket and lit the fuses. Then he jumped into the Chevvy and released the handbrake. The truck rolled forward and began to gain speed as Roselli settled himself into the driving seat and gunned the engine into life.
He didn't look back when he heard the explosion, but felt the blast wave wash over him. When he reached the bottom of the slope, he stopped the Chevvy and turned round. There was little to see because of the dust thrown up by the explosion, but what he could see in the moonlight was that the rock that had overhung the cave entrance was no longer there.
And then he realized that he had completely forgotten about the small, beautifully carved box he had come across in the back of the truck. But it was too late now; it was entombed in the cave with the bodies of his men and an unknown fortune in gold.
HARRY EDWARDS COULDN'T open his eyes or move his arms and legs. He was aware only of total darkness, which seemed to come from within him, and he wondered if he was actually dead. There was no sound he could hear and no pain he could feel. All he was aware of was the fact that he was aware of himself. He didn't know what had happened and was unable to recall anything, his mind just an empty shell.
He then became aware of the sound of his own breathing, and with it the almost imperceptible rise and fall of his chest. Something bubbled inside him and the sensation reached up to his throat and made him cough.
The explosive rush of air caused one of his eyes to spring open, and he was immediately aware of a subtle shade of grey interposing itself on the inky blackness around him. Then the throbbing in his head and in his side began to pulse with each beat of his heart, and with it came the pain. The pain was enough to bring life to his voice and he began moaning. The sound trickled up to the unseen roof and reverberated gently like a ghoulish echo.
He tried to move his head and the pain screamed at him. He cried out and the strength of his cry brought terrible pains to his chest. Gently and carefully, he lifted his head a little, but the effort and pain were too much. He relaxed and almost immediately became aware of something pressing down on him. It was the body of Simon Richie although Edwards didn't know what or who it was. He tried to remove the dead weight that lay across him, but he had no strength save the strength to curse his pain and the body that pinned him down.
He struggled until the effort was too much and the pain was unbearable. He collapsed and passed out, but that merciful moment was fleeting and soon he was awake again, struggling with the corpse of Simon Richie and the abominable pain that scorched through his body and into his head. But his struggle was useless and he soon slipped back into unconsciousness.
When Edwards woke again, the cave was in total darkness. It was past midnight and there was not enough starlight to percolate through any gap left after Roselli had brought the huge slab of rock crashing down over the entrance to the cave. He wished something could give some light to be aware of.
Edwards had no idea who he was or where he was or even why he was in the predicament he found himself in. He was in terrible pain and that was the only reason he knew he must have been seriously injured. His chest hurt abominably and one eye felt as though it was no longer in its socket.
What Edwards couldn't have known was that he had been shot several times through both legs, the upper left part of his chest, and he had lost one eye completely. Although he could feel the lifeless body of Simon Richie lying across him, he had no idea who it was or why the body was there. He did know, however that he needed to get out from underneath the corpse and take care of his wounds, if indeed that was possible.
He began the struggle and made up his mind to ignore the pain as he gradually rolled the corpse off his body and on to the floor of the cave. The effort made the pain almost unbearable and he collapsed again, lapsing into unconsciousness.
Once again he lay there, bleeding, his life seemingly ebbing away and his unconscious ramblings and groans filling the cave with horrific echoes.
The night slowly turned to dawn as he lay there unconscious, and a trickle of weak light seeped into the huge cavern from somewhere. Edwards came to and just lay there searching his memory and trying desperately to understand what had happened and why he was there.
He moved his hands over his body, carefully and tenderly searching out the wounds. Each one he probed until he understood how badly he was hurt. He still didn't know why, but he did at least have the ability to think through his situation.
He tried sitting up, slowly at first, until he was able to support himself with his arms behind his back. The effort opened the wound in his chest and he started bleeding again. He glanced around in a desperate search something, anything that he could get hold of to stem the bleeding. It was then he saw the vague silhouette of the Magirus truck.
He frowned, not knowing the significance of the vehicle and why was there, but wondered if he might find something useful in the cab. He began edging towards the wagon until he was close to the step below the driver's door. His next effort was to get himself upright and to open the door, which he managed with another bout of pain and cursing, but he succeeded in opening the door. He leaned forward, resting his arms on the driver's seat to compose himself. Then he lifted up a foot and placed it on the step. Gripping the cloth covered seat with both hands, he levered himself up and succeeded in climbing up into the cab.
It was still extremely dark and he was forced to sag back into the driver's seat and let the pains swamp him until his natural resilience overcame them. He lifted his head and looked around the cab. There was a red cross marked on a box above his head. In the darkness there was no colour to the cross, but he knew what it was.
He reached up and with a great deal of effort he managed to empty the contents of the box on to the bench seat. He was then able to search among the jumble of packets in the gloom and finally begin the process of applying dressings to his wounds.
It was painful in the extreme, but after struggling for a considerable time, Edwards had been able to partially dress his wounds and now felt marginally better. It was probably the psychological effect of the dressings rather than any real benefit.
He climbed out of the Magirus, as carefully as he could, and began to take stock of his situation. There was little in the cave he could see or even identify, but his good eye had adjusted itself to the darkness and he was able to make out the shapes of his dead comrades.
He stepped away from the cab of the Magirus and walked unsteadily to where their bodies lay. He could see they had been eating a meal, although it was too dark to make out clearly what it was they had been eating. He saw two oil lamps, but they had long since burned out. But what he did see and recognize was a water bottle, and this suddenly made him aware of his raging thirst.
He picked up the water bottle and lifted it to his lips. Something flicked into his mind and he stopped for a moment. What was it? He shook his head, ignored the pain brought on by the sudden movement and carried on drinking until the bottle was empty. He threw it to one side and knelt down. Then he began rummaging through the various bits of equipment he could feel, because that was all he could do, feel his way through the gear strewn about the floor of the cave.
Feeling a lot weaker now, Edwards crawled across the floor towards the truck. He only made it as far as the rear of the Magirus when he suddenly collapsed and passed out.
He came to again much later, but time meant nothing to him; all he knew was that he was in trouble. He might have all the time in the world, he thought, to get out of the predicament he was in, but he realized he was so badly injured that help would have to come to him if he was to survive. And being inside a sealed cave, it was unlikely.
He pushed himself forward mentally and tried to follow physically, but despite his mental efforts, his physical efforts were extremely slow and painful. He eventually got back into the cab of the truck and reached for the light switch. He wondered why he hadn't thought of it before. When he turned the lights on, the brilliance inside the cave blinded his one, good eye. He quickly turned the main headlights off and left the side lights on. Although they were low-wattage lamps, there was sufficient light for him to see inside the cave.
Edwards knew that his condition was deteriorating fast and there was little hope of rescue. He didn't know why he felt that way, but something had flicked into his mind again and there was a connection; he just couldn't figure out what it was.
He could see much more, and using the light from the Magirus, Edwards walked unsteadily towards the far end of the cave. The roof of the cave began to descend sharply at that point and looked as if it became part of the cave floor. He began scrabbling round on all fours, looking for some kind of opening, but in the shadows it was difficult to make out shapes and form.
He suddenly felt a gentle breeze on his cheek and he reached forward, brushing his hand over the surface of the rock. It wasn’t long before he found a small opening. It was about fifteen inches or so in height, and about three feet wide.
He had nothing to lose, so he slid into the opening, ignoring the pain in his chest and continued to follow the slight breeze in the hope that it would lead to daylight. But he was to be disappointed; after about twenty feet, the ground began to slope sharply. He slithered down the slope, and then suddenly came to water.
It was a mixed blessing for him; it gave life but presented a barrier to him. He leaned forward and began to lap up the water like a dog. The water was extremely cold, but tasted pure. He drank until his belly was full, and then he thought of the position he was in. But he had nothing to consider; he was trapped and would die of his injuries and of hunger if he didn't find a way out of the cave. He had to press on.
He slid into the water and the cold almost took his breath away. He gasped and cried out as the iciness stung his wounds and squeezed his flesh like a clamp. But the water was deep enough to give him a little buoyancy and this had a mollifying effect on his battered frame.
Eventually he came out of the underground pool and found himself on dry land. By this time the light from the lamps of the Magirus that had reached into the tunnel was non–existent. Edwards was in total darkness, but the breeze on his face, although fading, was still there, so he pushed on.
By now the walls of the tunnel through which he was crawling were beginning to close in on him and he feared he would finally reach an end through which he would not be able to crawl. He had little to fear except a mind–numbing death from being buried alive, so he convinced himself that to push on was the only thing he could do.
How long he had been crawling through that tunnel, Edwards had no idea. He had banged his head on the roof of the tunnel several times and had lost count of how often he had scraped his elbows on the walls, and now he had reached a point of total exhaustion and stopped. In his mind he knew that once he stopped trying, he would start dying. But there was only so much left in the tank, and he couldn't go on. He let his head sink to the floor, closed his eye and fell asleep.
The sound trickled through the tunnel like a whistle. It sounded in Edward's mind like something from a musical instrument, a piccolo or flute. He stirred and opened his good eye. He could see little and remember nothing. Then the memory of the tunnel came sharply to him and he lifted his head, striking it on the low roof. He winced and kept his head down.
The sound came again, but this time it was not the sound of a musical instrument but the sound of a strong breeze funnelling along the tube in which Edwards was now lying. And he could see a light of sorts, a dim light. He stirred his weary body again and began drag¬ging himself towards the source of the light.
It was an opening, small and barely large enough to squeeze his torn body through, but it was enough. He could see the early morning dawn just beyond what appeared to be a mountain range as the rising sun began to show itself beyond the peaks.
He struggled on and eventually reached the opening. He pulled himself through and dragged himself out on to the side of a shallow slope that dipped gently away from him.
He lay there, breathless, ecstatic, thirsty and in great pain. He couldn't move because of his injuries and having used all of his mental and physical strength. But he was out of the cave and in the open. Now all he could do was pray that someone would find him.
He lay there feeling the gradual warmth of the sun begin to warm his cheek. For now he welcomed it, but soon he would hate it. But there was nothing he could do. If nobody came for him, he knew he would die where he lay.
And he still couldn't remember a thing.