His wheels bumped in long grass. The Camel bounced off the ground, nose angling down. Winthrop knew the machine was going to turn tail and plough his head into the dirt.

Something snapped and twanged, whipping his face. The Camel was tumbling upwards and over. He hit the release mechanism of his straps and shot out of his seat. The stick jabbed his gut and groin. Wings crumpled around him. The ground came up and slammed against his head. A couple of hundredweight of debris came down on his back.

There were shouts. Liquid was trickling past him, smelling like petrol.

He was dragged boneless out of the wreck. He heard the crump of his remaining fuel going up, and felt the waft of warm, oily air. Flame darts rained down.

Death reached out a hand for him, closing on his heart and mind, but its fingers lost their grip and he screamed with life. He sucked down air, and was helped to sit up.

Opening his eyes, he saw the heaped bonfire that had been his Camel.

'You won't do that again in a hurry, I'll wager,' someone said.

She had been slung in the back of a lorry with the wounded. After a couple of miles of rutted roads, most of the wounded were dead. Kate had been hit a couple of times, but not with silver. The mud in her clothes had dried, mummifying her in stiff cloth. She had lost her scavenged tin helmet.

She was in a daze, curiously distanced from her body. It would be easy to flutter off into the dark and leave behind a living corpse. Would it continue without her? Perhaps this was how vampires became mindless thirsty things.

A boy in her arms called her Edith. She tried to comfort him anyway. Blood trickled through his field dressings but she would not drink from him. For the first time in her undeath, she'd had enough blood.

Genevieve had once told her, 'Vampires don't drink blood because we have to, we drink blood because we like it.' Kate was fed up with trying to be like Genevieve. It was time to become a twentieth century girl. Rather than spend five weeks cleaning mud out of her hair, she'd have it cropped and bobbed. The earth mask on her face cracked and came off in sections.

The lorry kept pulling over to the roadside to let reinforcements pass. British tanks rumbled into the fray to counter the German machines. A platoon of Americans, new to the fighting, were driven past. They called out in sympathy to the lorry of mainly corpses, throwing across packs of cigarettes.

Kate stuck a gasper in her mouth but had no matches. The taste of tobacco was enough of a jolt just now.

Having been in the thick of it, she had no idea what had really happened. The German offensive had broken through. After the widespread breaching of the lines, the Allies had thrown hidden reserves into the fight. It might have gone either way. The war could be won or lost.

The lorry left the road and made its rough way over fields, creaking over newly laid boards.

A huge fire burned in a forested patch, where a Zeppelin had come down. Kate craned and saw the vast circles of the airship's ribs still linked in the forest of flame. The heat roused Edith's young man, who turned to gape.

it's the plain of hell,' he said.

There were quite a few fellows mixing in the tent city at the edge of the field, pilots from forward outfits who had also fallen back. Winthrop found himself a dryish patch of grass and slumped there. Someone gave him a cigarette and a light. He asked if any other men from Condor Squadron had made it home safe. Everyone seemed to think so but no one could give him names.

Pilots stood about the field, sweaty in Sidcots, soot-rings about their eyes. Some were quietly wounded, most were exhausted. Acting Sergeant Chandler, an American in brand- new RAF fatigues, was responsible for compiling details of men and machines who had made it back.

'Are you a warm man?' he asked Winthrop.

Winthrop thought about it and said yes.

'Good for you,' said Chandler. He wasn't a vampire, but almost all the pilots he was herding were. 'Bloody good for you.'

'I'm with Condor Squadron. Have you logged any others from the outfit?'

He looked down his list.

'A white knight named Bigglesworth, shot down weeks ago, showed up tonight. Made it back through the lines on foot.'

Good grief.'

'Otherwise, no one yet. But don't give up hope. It's a typical shambles, actually.'

Suddenly, a ragged cheer went up from the crowd. There was a field telephone in one of the tents and good news had come through.

'Have we beaten the bastards back?' Chandler asked a grinning young pilot.

'No, better than that. Richthofen's dead. Confirmed. Aussie ground fire got him. Heavy Archie.'

'It should have been one of our blokes,' a British flight lieutenant said. 'A pilot. Should've paid him back for Hawker and Albright and Ball.'

'Ball was the other Richthofen's. The brother.'

Already, the facts were blurring. Winthrop had shot baron von Richthofen just before the German died. He could claim the victory. But he said nothing, just listened.

'They're talking about burying him with honours. Sporting spirit and all that.'

'They should cut off his rotten head and stuff the mouth with garlic, then bury him face-down at a crossroads with a silver spike through his black heart.'

'Taking it a bit personal?'

Winthrop didn't listen any more. It wasn't his war now. Kate was recovered enough to feel she was using a space that would be more usefully occupied by a genuinely wounded soldier. She left Edith's young man to his own devices and slipped off the back of the lorry.

Her legs were still a bit rubbery.

As she walked, dry earth cascaded from her clothes. She'd have given a hundred years of her life for a hot bath. Wandering through crowds, as pre-dawn light filtered into the sky, she picked up snippets of gossip, rumour and news.

Most people agreed the German advance had halted. Some said the Allies had lured the Boche into a trap and cut them to pieces from entrenched rear positions. Some said German troops were so successful in the initial breakthrough that they were cut off from their orders and milled about with nothing to do, wondering at the supplies of food they found in the Allied messes. After years of starvation and blockade, the Hun was undone by the maddening smell of new-baked bread.

Kate did not know if she could write about the night.

She walked, not knowing where she was going. A rumour went around that Baron von Richthofen was dead. So that was that.

At dawn, the new-born pilots took refuge in the tents. Winthrop lay where he had fallen, Sidcot wadded into a pillow. The spring sun fell on his face. The noise of battle had receded.

Chandler told him word had come in from another of the temporary fields. A couple of Condor Squadron bods had turned up: Cary Lockwood, and Bertie and Ginger. So it had not been complete extermination.

Had any of JG1 survived? It didn't matter. The worst of them was gone. The terror was over.

Winthrop could no longer hate Richthofen. If the Allies buried the Baron with honours, he would stand as pall-bearer. He'd volunteer to fly over Hunland and drop whatever personal totems a shape-shifter took aloft with him. That, he hoped, would be his last flight.

The field and sunshine reminded him of a previous life. Cricket at Greyfriars. Spring walks with Catriona. He had a lot of things to mend. His knee burst with pain, reminding him of No Man's Land. Some things would never mend.

Kate found a fast-running stream. Not caring for modesty, she peeled off her mud-starched clothes, dislodging patches of encrusted dirt, and laid them on the stream-bed, weighting them with stones.

She looked down at herself and saw the body of a savage, marked with blood and different colours of dirt. Her wounds had healed over but were generously scabbed.

A passing line of troops whistled and cheered at her. Fresh from Paris, they must have seen better form at

Вы читаете The Bloody Red Baron: 1918
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату