Out of the Blue
An excerpt from the novella by Josh Lanyon
France, November 1916
“Don't be too hasty, Captain Bryant,” Orton warned. “Not like I'm asking a king's ransom. Not like you can't find the ready, eh? What's a couple a bob 'ere and there? Could 'ave gone to the major, but I didn't, did I? Not one word to 'im about what you and poor Lieutenant Roberts used to--”
Bat punched him.
He was not as tall as the mechanic, but he was wiry and strong, and his fist connected to Orton's jaw with a satisfying crack. Orton's head snapped back. He staggered, tripped over something in the shadowy darkness of the stable, and went down slamming against the side of the stall.
The elderly dappled gray mare whickered softly. Leaning over the stall door, she lipped at Orton's fallen form.
For a second, perhaps two, Bat stood shaking with grief, anger, and more than a little panic.
“Get up, you swine,” he bit out.
Orton's head lay out of reach of the uneven lamplight, but his limbs were still--and something in that broken stillness alerted Bat.
He moved the lantern and the light illuminated Orton's face. The man's head was turned at an unnatural angle--watery eyes staring off into the loft above them.
Bat smothered an exclamation. Knelt beside Orton's body.
The mare raised her head, nickering greeting. The lantern light flickered as though in a draft. He could see every detail in stark relief: the blue black bristle on the older man's jaw, the flecks of gray in his mustache, oil and dirt beneath his fingernails.
There was a little speck of blood at the corner of his mouth where Bat's ring had cut him. But he was not bleeding. Was not breathing.
Bat put fingers to Orton's flaccid throat and felt for a pulse.
There was no pulse.
Sid Orton was dead.
Bat rose. Gazed down at the body.
Christ. It seemed...unreal.
He was used to thinking swiftly, making life-and-death decisions for the entire squadron with only seconds to spare, but he could think of nothing. He'd have to go to the CO. Chase would have to go to the Red Caps...
Bat wiped his forehead with his sleeve. First he'd need to come up with some story--some reason for what he'd done. Gene mustn't be dragged into it. No one could know about Gene and him. Wasn't only Gene's name at stake. There was Bat's own family and name to think of. This ... just this ... murder ... was liable to finish the old man.
He couldn't seem to think beyond it. Disgrace. Dishonor.
He ought to feel something for Orton, surely? Pity. Remorse. He didn't. He hadn't meant to kill him, but Orton was no loss. Not even an awfully good mechanic. And Bat had killed better men than Orton--ten at last count--for much worse reason.
A miserable specimen, Orton.
But you couldn't murder a chap for that.
Gaze riveted on the ink stain on the frayed cuff of Orton's disheveled uniform, Bat tried to force his sluggish brain to action. Yes, he needed a story before he went to the major. More, he had to convince himself of it--get it straight in every detail--in case he was cross-examined. Mustn't get tripped up.
If only he had ignored Orton's note ... Why the devil hadn't he?
“You waiting for him to tell you what to do?” a voice asked laconically from behind him.
Bat jerked about.
Cowboy leaned against the closed stable door. His eyes glinted in the queer light. Bright. Almost feral as he watched from the half shadows.
“Pardon?” Bat asked stupidly.
“If you don't plan on getting jugged by the MPs, you better get a move on.”
It was as though he were speaking to Bat in a foreign language. Granted, Cowboy was a Yank -- a Texan, at that -- and did take a bit of translation at the best of times.
Bat said, “I don't--what d'you mean? I-I shall have to report this.”
“Why's that?” Cowboy left his post at the door and came to join him. Oddly, it gave Bat comfort, Cowboy's broad shoulder brushing his own. Together they stared down at Orton's body.
Already he had changed. His face had a waxy, sunken look. The smell of death mingled with kerosene and horse and hay.
Bat's stomach gave a sudden lurch and he moved away, leaning over a rusted harrow. But there was nothing to vomit. He hadn't eaten since yesterday. Hadn't eaten since Gene bought his packet and crashed in flames in the woods of the estate his family once owned near Hesdin.
Instead, he hung white-knuckled onto the rough metal frame heaving dry, empty coughs and nothing coming out but a few exhausted tears. Not for Orton. For Gene.
“You better pull yourself together, boy,” Cowboy told him when the worst of it was over. Listening distantly to that terse voice, Bat knew he was right. He shuddered all over. Forced himself upright, blinking at the American.
Cowboy was a big man. Several inches taller than Bat. Broad shoulders and narrow hips. Long legs. Must be the way they grew them in Texas. Cowboy certainly fit Bat's notion--based entirely on the works of Zane Grey and Max Brand--of a man of the West. He'd been attached to the RFC for about two months. Which was a bloody long time in this war. Several lifetimes, really.
The old mare stretched her long neck and nibbled at the collar of Cowboy's tunic. He patted her absently and drawled, “Orton was a sidewinder. A low-down, miserable piece of shit pretending to be a man. He wasn't even a very good mechanic. Whatever else you might be, you're one hell of a pilot. And the RFC is running short on pilots these days. Let alone aces.”
Bat blinked at him, wiped his face again. He felt hot and cold, sick and sweaty. He felt as though he were coming down with something--something fatal. He was unable to think beyond the thing at their feet. “What are you saying?”
“I'm saying what the hell's the point of you going to jail for killing that skunk? Anyway, I saw what happened. It was an accident. You slugged him and he fell and hit his head.”
“It's still...” But he didn't finish it. He felt a flicker of hope. “You'll back me up then? When I go to Major Chase?”
“I don't think you want to do that.”
Too right there. Bat didn't. But...
“How are you going to explain what he said that got you so mad you punched him? Or what the hell you were doing meeting this time of night in the stables?”
Before Bat thought of an answer--assuming he'd have come up with one--Cowboy added, “I guess Orton ain't the only one who ever noticed you and Lieutenant Roberts were kinda sweet on each other.”
Bat lunged, and Cowboy sidestepped, grabbing him and twisting his arm behind his back in a wrestling move they never taught in any officer's training course Bat had received. It was fast and efficient. Pain shot through his shoulder and arm and he stopped struggling, sagging against Cowboy. The American was so big, so powerfully built, it was easy to underestimate how fast he was when he needed to be. Not least because he never seemed to be in a hurry. He spoke in a lazy drawl and moved with easy, loose-limbed grace. Even when he flew into battle, he picked off enemy planes as though he were potting birds off a branch with a rifle. As though he had all the time in the world.
Listening to the calm, strong thud of Cowboy's heart, Bat thought dizzily that this was the closest he'd come to being in a man's arms ever again.
Cowboy's voice vibrated in his chest as he intoned, “Never realized you had such a temper, Captain Bryant. One of these days it's going to land you in a fix you can't get out of.”
Bat yanked free and Cowboy let him go.
“Not tonight, though.”
Bat rubbed his wrist where Cowboy's fingers had dug into the tendons. “What d'you mean?”
“I mean, if you can simmer down long enough to listen, I'm going to help you.”
“Help me how?”
Cowboy wasn't looking at Bat. He stared down at Orton's body. Thoughtfully, as though only making his mind up to it, he said, “I'm going to get rid of him once and for all.”
“Never mind how. It'll be better if you don't know. Go back to the mess, and make sure everyone sees you. Close the place down. Then head up to your quarters. Understand?”
The flicker of hope flared. Bat knew a cowardly longing to do exactly as Cowboy instructed. Leave it to him, go get blind drunk, then retire to bed and forget any of this happened.
He forced himself to say, “Awfully good of you, old chap, but you must see I can't ... can't let you do this.”
Amused, Cowboy retorted, “You don't even know what I'm going to do, old chap, so why argue about it?”
He was staring at Bat, smiling that funny crooked grin of his. Bat had never noticed how blue Cowboy's eyes were. Blue as the sky--back when the sky was empty of anything worse than clouds--light and bright in his deeply tanned face. His hair was soft gold. Palomino gold.
Helplessly, Bat said, “Why should you do this? Why should you help me? I haven't been ... it's not as though...”
“You've acted like a stuck-up sonofabitch since the day I arrived, is that what you were going to say?” Cowboy asked easily. “Not a member of your old boy's club, am I? Well, I guess it could be that I like you anyway. Or it could be having you around makes my life easier--'cept days like today when you seem bent on getting yourself blown out of the sky.”
His gaze held Bat's, and there wasn't anything Bat could say. Today. Yes. What a long time ago it seemed.
If Cowboy hadn't been there today ... Sid Orton would still be alive.
“Git,” Cowboy said softly. “I'll find you later.”
And so ... Bat got.
* * * * *
No. 44 Air Squadron was stationed at an old château outside the village of Embry near Calais. The château had withstood the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars--and it wasn't doing too badly against the 44th although the piano in the former grand salon would never be the same.
Bat heard the voices before he pushed open the door: shouts and laughter and singing. He felt a wave of grief--a longing for Gene so fierce that he stopped in his tracks, resting his head against the carved wood of the mess entrance.
Never again. Never hear his voice, never taste his mouth...
He had told himself he was prepared for it. They had spoken of it many times in that hard, light way they all spoke of the inevitable. But he had not been prepared.
He smoothed the emotion from his features and went inside.
The room was long and handsome with forest green walls and large windows facing the gardens and the aviaries which had once been stocked with exotic birds. The birds had been set free or eaten long ago, the shutters were closed and the blackout curtains drawn tight. There was an ornate marble fireplace reputedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The fire in the grate crackled merrily and threw warm shadows. Of the original furnishings only the piano, several needlepoint chairs, and a few watercolors had survived. They were all but invisible in the fug of tobacco smoke. The mess was packed. West and Rowbothom were tucking into eggs and bacon beneath the Iron Cross Gene and poor old Sandy had wrenched off a downed Fokker. Elliot was sleeping, a letter crumpled in one hand, an overturned glass by his elbow. Varlik and Heath were at the bar bellowing “Roses of Picardy” in accompaniment with the gramophone.
Roses are shining in Picardy
In the hush of the silver dew
Roses are flowering in Picardy
But there's never a rose like you
And the roses will die with the summer time
And our roads may be far apart
But there's one rose that dies not in Picardy
'Tis the rose that I keep in my heart.
“Bat, old son,” shouted Ambrose. “Where the devil have you been all night?”
“Oh, you know,” Bat said vaguely, dropping into the chair across from him.
Ambrose blinked at Bat over his pint. He was lanky and fair and Bat had known him since Eton, which no doubt entitled Ambrose to a few liberties. Difficult, after all, to keep any distance with a fellow with whom you'd shared smuggled bull's-eyes at midnight, toasting your slippers on the fire grate, and bemoaning the general barbarity of Latin masters everywhere.
Ambrose said solemnly, “Don't want to brood, old bean. Owl wouldn't want that.”
What did any of them know what Owl had wanted or hadn't wanted?
“No, of course not,” Bat said. He nodded thanks as MacArthur, the mess steward, brought him a pint. Mac began to mop up the new recruits, sending them off to their quarters with brusque kindliness. Dawn patrol was only a few hours off.
For a time Bat sat there listening to but not taking in the comfortable and familiar ack-ack of voices. Ambrose began to quiz him about the small mirror Bat had rigged to the cowl of his plane three days earlier. The mirror offered a lovely view of the tail of his plane--and anyone coming up on it. They all experimented with ways to give themselves some edge. No secret Jerry had better planes and better-trained pilots. Gene had said--no. Better not to think of that.
Instead, Bat nodded and drank and wondered what the devil Cowboy was doing.
“Roses of Picardy” went for another spin on the gramophone.
The last hour felt increasingly unreal. Bat wondered if he was by chance even now dossed down and dreaming. He must have been mad. Mad to meet Orton at all, mad to lose his temper, mad to strike him. What had possessed him? It was not like him. At least ... not like he had used to be.
“I mean, you take all the sport out of the thing, old son,” Ambrose was telling him quite earnestly.
Bat started to laugh. He caught himself up sharply. If he started, he was liable not to stop.
Tubby yelled across the room, “Bat, we're drinking to Owl.”
Bat's hand clenched on his glass. He relaxed it consciously. The room fell silent--except for Elliot's snores.
Varlik rose, drink in hand, steadying himself. He had a fine speaking voice--even three sheets to the wind. He pronounced carefully, “Here's a toast, now! Fill the cup! Though the shadow of fate is on the wall, here's a final toast ere the darkness fall. Fill the cup.”
There was a rumble of acknowledgment.
Bat lifted his glass, drank deeply. Managed to keep smiling.
Gradually, one by one, the other fellows began to drag themselves off to their beds. Ambrose bade Bat good night and Tubby took his place across the table. Tubby--The Right Honourable Thomas Lovesby--had also been at Eton with Bat. They had roomed together, in fact, and if anyone knew Bat, it was the man who had cheered him with contraband cigarettes when he was homesick, assured him with bold-faced lies that no one noticed that little stammer when Bat was upset, and thrown pillows at him when he snored too loudly. Not that anyone ever really knew anyone else, according to Gene. In the end they were all alone. Flying alone, dying alone--
Leaning forward, his elbow missing the edge of the table, Tubby just managed not to slam his chin on the tabletop. He fastened an earnest if bleary eye on Bat and said, “Thought you were done for today, old man. Fritz nearly had you. Lucky thing Cowboy moseyed along when he did.”
“Yes,” Bat replied. “Johnny-on-the-spot, wasn't he?” He watched the steady slow sweep of Mac's broom on the marble floors.
“Bat, you mustn't...”
Bat leveled a look at him and Tubby's round face reddened. “No use giving me that look, old man. I know you. Best pilot in the fuckin' squadron. We can't do without you.”
“Tell it to the brass hats,” Bat said, and despite his best effort the bitterness crept into his voice. “Two patrols a day with odds only five out of seven planes returning at the end of it. Has a single man in this last batch of replacements more than eighteen hours in the air?
We're all for it eventually. It's only a matter of picking the when and where.”
“That what you were doing today? Picking the when and where?”
Bat used his sleeve to wipe away the ring of wet his glass had made on the table. “Lost my head for half a mo, I suppose,” he said grudgingly. “It won't happen again.”
Tubby broke off uncomfortably, and Bat summoned a smile.
“I'm all right, Tubby. Truly. No need to fuss, old thing. Just need a good night's sleep, that's all.”
Tubby grinned and checked his watch. “Better run to catch it then.”
“On my way.” Bat stood up, steadying himself with an unobtrusive hand on the table edge. All at once he was dead tired. Running on nerves and will for ... how long was it now? Even before Gene, really. But somehow, with Gene, it had been bearable.
“Shall I tag along and tuck you in?”
“Tongues will wag, Tubby darling. Tongues will wag.” Bat squeezed Tubby's shoulder and left the mess.
The fliers were quartered upstairs in the old château. No question pilots lived well--certainly better than the Poor Bloody Infantry. Better housing, much better food, and an enviable degree of freedom. They didn't live long as a rule, but ... a short life and a merry one, eh?
Bat went up the wide marble staircase and down a long hallway punctuated by occasional snores from behind carved doors. He had the “blue room” which looked over the shattered wreckage of what had once been the conservatory. The château had been bombed twice so far, though that was before the RFC had taken up residence.
He let himself into his quarters and went over to the bed without bothering with a lamp. It was a nice enough room: threadbare blue velvet furnishings and pale squares and ovals marking where pictures had once hung on the azure walls. It was a long time since he'd spent a night at the château. Gene never could reconcile himself to the noise and roughhousing of life on an aerodrome, and had taken lodgings in a ramshackle former hunting lodge near the aerodrome. His widowed landlady was elderly, somewhat deaf, mostly blind, and grateful for the small income. Most nights Bat had stayed with Gene in the room that had once belonged to Madame's son--killed in the first summer of the war.
Bat tugged at his left boot, but any effort seemed too much, and he let himself fall back on the tapestry-covered bed and covered his eyes with his arm. True what he'd told Tubby; if he could just sleep...
Once again he saw Gene's plane descending down in long swooping curves.
At first he'd thought it was all right ... Gene wasn't hit. He knew what to do. Bat had survived being shot down twice. Then Gene had looked up and waved at him. Just ... casually. So long. I'll be seeing you.
Bat had registered part of Gene's tail was gone, shot away, and by the time his machine dropped out of the clouds, it was in pieces and Gene was falling ... falling...
His eyes flew open and Bat sat up, breathing hard. Sleep? Not bloody likely. Not when every time he closed his eyes he saw Gene plummeting to his death.
He shouldn't be sleeping anyway. He should be dealing with the business he had funked last night. He rose, eased open the door to his room, and listened. All was quiet. Everyone sleeping--or lying awake dreading the swift approaching dawn. He shrugged back into his leather jacket, making his way softly, silently down the hall--past the bad paintings of irritable-looking French counts and countesses. Not an attractive bloodline, the Molyneuxs, but they were all done now. There was only a daughter left--fled to London.
Bat ran lightly down the grand staircase, marble steps and marble balustrade. For a moment he stood outside the open door of the mess. Tubby was still chinwagging with Mac. Good old Tubby. He could hear the clink of glasses, the clatter of dishes.
He turned, went out the entranceway beneath the enormous Molyneux crest, down the steps into a damp night perfumed with the scent of roses and wood smoke. High above, the stars blazed on indifferently like beacons on a faraway airfield, burning as they had burned since man first crawled out of the ooze. Man's first bloody mistake.
Slipping through the herb garden, he dodged the sentries without much effort, and cut across the parkland of overgrown lawns and tangled rosebushes to the road. He'd stolen this way many times and did not need the moon--that big, bright bomber's moon--to show the way.
In the meadow that now served as airstrip, the planes waited, shadowy and ghostlike in the moonlight. A crust of frost sparkled on the ground like broken stars and a hint of cordite drifted on the breeze.
Bat headed automatically for his plane. Oh, she was a little beauty! A DH-2 with 100-horsepower Monosoupape engine and a cockpit large enough to shift around in and get a good look at the sky. Not like the old crates they flew at the beginning of the war. This girl could go eighty-six miles an hour at 65,000 feet in the air.
He stroked the bat insignia--the malicious pointed grin--painted on the forward part of the fuselage, and examined the neatly mended stitching of bullet holes. The chill of metal beneath his fingertips brought it all back, and he was in the clouds once more feeling the shock of bullets punching into the left side of her. Not a feeling one ever quite grew accustomed to--assuming one survived getting hit the first time, and that was as often luck as skill. This afternoon it had been luck that had saved Bat. Knocked sideways in the sky, he'd yanked the stick, pulling her up into a steep climb as he emptied his drum into the belly of the Fokker blasting over.
He had to have hit it but the Fokker rolled out and came around again as Bat was completing his half loop. He reached the top. Spun her back into upright position only to spot--with a sickening jolt--that grinning bastard in his mirror, waiting...
The end then. That was what he'd thought. It had felt like destiny--but he dived anyway, plunged into the blue emptiness below him like a swimmer striking into deep water. Every moment he'd expected to feel machine gun fire tearing into him, thinking that at least it would be quick. No time for regrets. No time for anything but the recognition that his number was up.
But like the U.S. cavalry, Cowboy was there, coming in fast, spitting bullets.
Bat banked sharply, gave Cowboy plenty of room, and the American sat on the Fokker's tail and strafed it.
The Fokker seemed to melt right out of the air. One minute it was there, the next it was hurtling downward amidst the long white streamers of machine gun tracers.
Cowboy drew up beside Bat and gave him that little nod. Bat nodded back and then veered right, and Cowboy sheared off to the left. But despite his brisk demeanor there was cold sickness in Bat's belly, and his hands shook on the stick. It was the shock of it, the unexpectedness of it. Not of the attack--of surviving it.
Now, remembering, it felt a very long time ago. Years ago. A lifetime before Orton. Before he had killed Orton.
He stood motionless absorbing that.
He had killed Orton.
It was unbelievable. The entire night was like some ghastly never ending nightmare.
He thought again about finding Orton's note in the pocket of his flight jacket, the scrawled slip with its misspelled demand to meet in the stable. He should have ignored it. Followed his first instinct to burn the note and forget about it. Why, why hadn't he? Curiosity? No, more than that. Unease. There had been something in Orton's manner for some time. Something that wasn't quite open insolence, and yet ... Yes. Something knowing and contemptuous. Instinctively, Bat had recognized it and feared the mechanic might have some evidence, some proof.
But what? They were careful. Always.
There had to be something, though. Something damning, or Orton wouldn't have dared approach a superior officer in such a manner. Something had emboldened Orton. Perhaps he'd gone to Madame's last night--last night while Bat was drinking himself insensible. And if that was the case, it was Bat's own damned fault. He should have faced it then. If he'd had the sand last night, perhaps none of this need have happened.
Instead, like a bloody fool he'd struck Orton--killed him--before finding out what the man knew. It was only too likely at this very instant a piece of incriminating evidence sat awaiting discovery by the military police when they went through Orton's personal belongings. Perhaps Orton had the proof on him when he died? Either way it was too late. Nothing to be done now.
Leaving the airfield, Bat located Gene's battered bicycle beside one of the huts. He walked the bike to the road, mounted it, and skimmed along through the moonlight until he came to the black mouth of the tunnel of trees. As darkness swallowed him, he closed he eyes, holding the bike to the unseen road, feeling the dank cool breeze against his face, whistling in his ears. He flew along, the tires skipping off the ground here and there--
He was almost startled by the bright wash of moonlight. Opening his eyes again, he saw before him the old hunting lodge where Gene--and, unofficially, Bat--had lodged for the past year.
He'd had no real plan when he left the aerodrome--he simply needed to be moving, not thinking, not remembering--but now he was focused on the things he must do--and do quickly. Time was against him now.
He propped the bike beneath an arbor sagging under the heavy shroud of pallid roses. He unlocked the side door. Digsby, Gene's French Bulldog, waited in the warm darkness, wriggling and whimpering as Bat stood trying to find his bearings.
Old Madame Fournier would be long in bed. The house smelled of rising bread and other pleasant things that triggered memories of a different time, of a different life.
“Hullo, Digs,” he whispered. The dog darted past him looking for Gene, snuffling at the bottom of the door.
“He's not here.”
Digs sat down, eyes gleaming in the shadows, and stared at him perplexed. Bat knelt, tugging the dog's ears, making a fuss of him as Gene would have done.
Madame must have been expecting him after all. She had left some kind of pie wrapped for him on the stove--squirrel or rabbit, no doubt. The woman had an astonishing way with vermin. She could probably make rat taste like fine cuisine, but he was not hungry. It was hard to imagine ever being hungry again.
Dog at his heels, he made his way silently into the sitting room. The blackout curtains were drawn, the hearth laid. He lit the tinder and as the flames caught, went to unlock Gene's desk. The clock on the mantle tolled the hour with silver chimes, a peculiarly civilized tone.
He reached into the desk drawer and pulled out Gene's journal and the long leather-bound ledger where he had jotted down his poems. Opening the journal, he flipped through the pages. Gene's writing--that firm, graceful script--was as familiar to him as his own. The words blurred and he blinked fiercely.
For a time he read by firelight. Read about the boredom and monotony of life on the aerodrome when they weren't flying. Read about the exhilaration of when they were in the air hunting. Read about that final leave together in Arras. A faint smile touched his mouth. They had walked a lot that weekend, exploring the ruins outside the village and the caves they called “Baume aux pigeons.” Gene had talked about Diogenes and St. Vedast and the Vikings and the Benedictines. In the evenings they had stayed in the grand old hotels with their faded grandeur--lace-trimmed sheets and muted tapestries of noblemen hunting boars and lions and unicorns. They dined in the restaurants on chipped china and mismatched polished silver and watched each other's faces in the candlelight. For that brief time the front had seemed far away although not a night passed that they did not lie in each other's arms and listen to the distant thunder of guns.
Bat read about himself. Gene saw too bloody much. His smile faded, remembering Orton, but there was nothing here that anyone else could not read.
A photo fell out: him standing beside one of the old BE-8s.
Bat studied his own cocky grin and tried to remember being that young. Tried to remember what had amused him so. It was like looking at a stranger. He turned back to Gene's papers. What had Orton found? They were always careful, always circumspect. Always guarding their words, schooling their expressions. And shuffling quickly through the papers, Bat resolved he would not be careless in this; it was the only thing left he could do for Gene. He rose and put the journal and his own photo on the fire. The flames leapt with a hungry whoosh.
Quickly, he went through the poems.
Somber is the night...
A broken roof whence the rain drip, drip, drops...
Flung toward heaven's flowering rage...
He knew them all, knew every one of Gene's poems. Knew them from Gene's bellyaching about rhythm and meter and his pains to find the exact word to the final, astonishingly lovely results. Not that Gene ever considered any of these “final” results. Bat had no idea if they were any good. He wasn't sure he'd really even understood them--but he'd liked them ... very much. Anyway, if Bat didn't understand half of them, surely this lot could safely be sent back to the maiden aunt in Quebec?
He heard the drone of a plane and looked ceilingward. Digs, too, raised his head listening.
B Flight arriving home? He listened, automatically counting. But there was only the one plane -- and it was too early for B Flight to be returning to the roost.
Odd. They were sharing the drome with 19 Squadron. Perhaps it was a pilot from the other squadron returning from reconnaissance? Archie kept silent, so it wasn't enemy aircraft.
The engine faded away into silence. Digs lowered his head to his paws. Bat returned to sorting papers.
Major Chase would write the official letter. There was only the aunt left. Aunt Monique. “Aunt Moneybags” Gene had called her. Bat would have liked to write to her as well, but he couldn't seem to think of anything that an elderly woman in a faraway country would wish to hear. You should have been kinder to that small boy. He grew up to be a fine man, a decent, brave, generous man--he should have had longer. We should have had longer...
His fingers lingered on the fragile paper of the poem Gene had been working on that final night.
The lamps are lit and there is the thunder of guns in the east
You lay your head upon my breast and smile...
The words blurred. Christ, he was tired. He wiped his eyes.
When he opened his eyes, Digby, settled before the fire, was watching him with the steady intent regard of a dog who knows something is up.
“It was over before I knew he was in trouble,” Bat told the little bulldog. “That's some comfort, I suppose.”
Digs continued to stare at him, as though requiring further explanation. But there was no explanation. Nothing made much sense anymore--hadn't for a long time. The only thing that had made sense was Gene--the way they felt about each other--and most people wouldn't think that made sense either.
Quickly now, Bat went through Gene's books, and stacked them neatly on the desk. Unlike his own motley collection of paperback westerns and detective stories, Gene's library mostly consisted of history and philosophy books and a few “Georgian” poetry collections. Bat tied the books with string and picked up the photo of Gene.
Most people would have thought it a good likeness, but you couldn't tell from the photograph that Gene's eyes had been brown, not black, or that there were red glints in his hair or a pale smattering of freckles across his nose. You couldn't tell any of that. You couldn't tell from the steady way he stared back at the camera that he had a trick of raising his left eyebrow, giving him a quizzical look. You couldn't tell from his photo ... how funny he had been; how he could always make you laugh. You couldn't tell the way his hands had felt on Bat's body or the way his hair had smelled or the way he used to whistle when he was happy.
Bat put the photo with the books, rifled through the drawers one last time, but there was nothing left. Empty wooden boxes. Nothing to hurt or disappoint here. He gathered the photos of Gene's family and the few letters from home, bound them neatly and put those with the rest of his things.
The poems ... he waited till the last. He didn't want to put them in the fire. When he read them he could hear Gene speaking each line.
Well, what do you think about this then? 'Unlucky as magpies...'
What the hell could anyone make of that? But Gene would have feared someone reading between the lines. And Bat had given his word. He rose, gently laid the thin pages across the logs and watched them catch, watched the flames turn blue and the papers blacken.
Digs raised his head and watched them go, panting softly as the papers went in a blaze, then turned to regard Bat.
His task finished, Bat stood unmoving. Was there something left to do? He couldn't think what it might be. If he'd only thought to do this last night it might have made a difference--or had it even then been too late? No use thinking of that now. In any case it would almost be a relief to put paid to all this. It seemed an awfully long time since he had truly slept. Days. The last time he'd slept, Gene and he had held each other through the night.
It seemed strange that they had no presentiment, no foreshadowing...
At last he turned, put the keys to the desk atop the stack of books, and pulled his revolver out. All the while Digs watched with bright, intelligent eyes.
“I don't think there's a way around it,” Bat told him. “He'd never have tried it on if he hadn't proof, you know. It's bound to come out--and then what?”
Digs' bat ears twitched.
“Too right. If they don't hang me for murder, they'll shoot me for conduct unbecoming.”
As though the dog had put forward some argument, the man said, “You know as well as I do it's the honorable thing. Be much worse the other way. Worse for everyone.”
It didn't take much to pull a trigger, yet he stood unmoving as the china clock ticked away long minutes.
Madame Fournier was three parts deaf. Still, not a pleasant sight to come down to in the morning.
No. He couldn't do that to Madame Fournier who had been so kind to him and Gene.
He turned from the desk and made his way quietly through the dark house. Digs followed at his heels breathing in his enthusiastic asthmatic way.
In the kitchen Bat knelt for a moment, ruffling the silky ears.
“Cheerio, Digs, he whispered, rising. “Behave yourself.”
The dog began to whine and scratch as soon as Bat locked the door behind him.
“Quiet, you,” Bat ordered.
The grass sparkled wetly in the moonlight as he started across the lawn toward the old hexagonal gazebo.
He tried the door. It wasn't locked and it swung open onto a mostly empty room. Melancholy moonlight spilled through the broken slats in the roof illuminating a few pieces of wicker furniture and some faded cushions. The room smelled of dead leaves and dry summers. It smelled of the past. Of people and times gone forever.
“This is beginning to feel like a lost cause,” someone said behind him, and Bat nearly leapt out of his skin.
Cowboy stepped out of the shadows of the surrounding trees. Bat tried and failed to think of a thing to say.
“I thought I told you to wait for me,” Cowboy said, and Bat finally found his tongue.
“What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you.”
“Told you I'd see you later.”
Had he? Perhaps he had. It all felt like a very long time ago.
Bat said, “I did as you said. Then I remembered--”
“What? You had an urgent appointment with your Maker?”
“The pea shooter. Or were you planning on sittin' in the moonlight and bagging a few trench rabbits?”
Bat looked down at the Webley. He'd nearly forgotten he still held it.
Bat jerked out, “Did you--?”
And Cowboy said easily, “Said I would, didn't I?”
He must have been more strung up than he knew because the old schoolboy stammer returned. “W-what did you do?”
“Don't fret. I took care of him.”
Proof of how tired he was, Bat couldn't seem to think how to frame the question he needed to ask. Finally, he said, “I sh-shouldn't have let you. I'm grateful of course. But it was a mistake to drag you into it. I should have gone to Chase straightaway. This doesn't change anything.”
Cowboy laughed. “Now there we disagree.”
Bat couldn't see the joke. “Tonight,” he began. “Earlier. Why were you following me?”
He felt Cowboy's scrutiny, although the gloom did not allow a reading of his expression. “Guess I thought you might be feeling lonesome,” Cowboy said, adding as Bat opened his mouth, “and blow your brains out.”
Bat swallowed hard. “That's a ... a bloody extraordinary thing to say.”
“Ain't it, though?”
He heard the irony and was reminded that he was standing there clutching his service revolver.
It stung something back to life inside him. “Surely even you can understand...”
He stopped--hearing the priggishness of that--before Cowboy repeated quietly, “Even me?”
“I don't m-mean it that way,” he said quickly. “I apologize. You've been kind in your way.”
Cowboy's laugh was genuine. “That's your idea of an apology, is it? And you folks say Americans are rude!”
Bat put his hand to his eyes. “Look, I put that badly. I mean only that ... this is my problem. Despite your ... help, I shall have to deal with the consequences.”
“By blowing your goddamned fool head off?”
“Oh, leave off, can't you?” Bat cried. “I didn't ask you to involve yourself. I'm sorry it happened. Damned sorry. It doesn't change anything. If you want the truth, I can't face the disgrace. It isn't only me--my name. It's my family. Gene's name. Gene's memory. Can't you understand?”
“I understand Roberts is dead. His feelings don't come into it. Are you afraid of going to prison for murder or being court-martialed for being homosexual?”
“Either. Both, goddamn it!”
“What happened to keeping a stiff upper lip? Okay, okay,” Cowboy said quickly as Bat drew himself up. He seemed to be thinking. “So you can't live with the shame or whatthefuckever. But that doesn't explain what the hell you were doing today, does it?”
“Perhaps you know what you're talking about. I don't.”
“Today. Before you tangled with Orton. What were you doing up there in the clouds this afternoon?”
Bat stared. He couldn't understand everyone's preoccupation with one bloody dogfight.
Cowboy said, “You didn't know anything about Sid Orton trying to blackmail you when you were doing your damnedest to get yourself blown out of the sky.”
“That's the fucking job.”
“The fuckin' job is to patrol inside enemy lines and knock down anything that gets in our way. And to do that we need every plane and every pilot.”
True enough--as far as it went.
“Not going to be a hell of a lot of use to anyone in prison, am I? Or shot.”
“You're not going to prison--if you can keep your head. Which, I will admit, appears to be harder than I'd've thought given what a cool bastard you always seemed to be.”
The futility of it all overwhelmed Bat for an instant and he groaned, “What possible difference can it make? Today or tomorrow, the end will be the same.”
What possible difference could it make to Cowboy? And yet, apparently it did. He said stubbornly, “Every man counts. You know that. That's why they keep sending up wet-behind-the-ears kids in planes made of sticks and wires. If you're going to throw your life away, at least go out fighting. Take a few Jerries with you.”
Neither of them spoke.
On the other side of the lodge, a rooster began to crow. Better than an alarm clock, that bloody bird. It would be light in less than an hour. Another night got through; Bat felt a twinge of relief. The nights were the worst. Sunrise meant dawn patrol, and if he'd made it this far...
Cowboy said, “I'll tell you what I think. I think you're grieving for your--for Gene. You're looking for a reason to pack it in.”
“That's fucking ridic--”
“And I think if you show some of the steel you use to hold this outfit together, you'll discover pretty quick being alive is a hell of a lot better than the alternative.”
Bat opened his mouth but he simply hadn't the energy to fight Cowboy, and Cowboy was still waiting. Bat said slowly, “I never thanked you for today.”
“I'm not looking for thanks.” Cowboy added as Bat started to speak, “Not for that. But you're right. You do owe me, and I do plan on collecting.”
Bat gaped as Cowboy moved toward him in the darkness, pulled him into his arms, and kissed him.
Despite his harsh words and rough hands, it was the gentlest kiss--a warm brush of lips--like a sun-warmed blossom skimming Bat's mouth. Had it been anything else, he'd have reacted violently. As it was ... for one bewildered moment he couldn't move.
Then he drew in a sharp breath and kissed Cowboy back fiercely, wanting the feel of that hard hot mouth on his own--needing to feel, to be touched--craving it. That desperate hunger for physical contact took Bat aback, shocked him, but he couldn't help himself.
The kiss seemed endless. Cowboy's hand went to the back of Bat's neck, fastening, drawing him closer.
When he suspected he was about to die of suffocation, Bat pulled away, gasping. His heart was racing violently.
“Are you mad? What are you doing?”
“You seemed to have a pretty good idea.”
Bat wiped his mouth--wet from Cowboy's hot kisses. Cowboy grabbed him and kissed him again, hard and brief. Like the final word in an argument.
“And don't forget it,” he said.
They stood there breathing hard, and Bat felt raucous laughter well in his throat. The knot that had wedged itself there ever since Gene went down kept it from escaping in hysteria.
“See you at five,” Cowboy said.
After the sound of his footsteps in the fallen leaves died away, Bat walked slowly back to the lodge, unlocked the door, and went inside. It wasn't until he closed the door behind him, leaning weakly against it, that he realized Cowboy had walked off with his revolver.
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.