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Gone West

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Harry Hawkes had been restless all day. Watching the flights come and go from his desk, or from the tarmac when he couldn't stand it any longer, the fledgling squadron C.O. found it difficult to organise his thoughts. When the roar of returning Bentley engines announced the arrival of Entwhistle, proudly wearing the streamers of a flight-commander, and Pootle just behind him, with one of the new boys safely in formation with them, he went out to greet them: to shake hands, and clap the new lad on the shoulder.

But his heart wasn't in it. They had lost only one pilot today, and still his heart wasn't in it.

After dinner, with the light dimming in the western sky, and as the talk in the Mess reached unaccustomed heights, he left his place at the head of the table (and he had not yet got used to that either) and went for a walk around the perimeter. He passed the sheds, where the Camels were safely put away for the night, and crossed the road leading in from the local village. Low hills beckoned beyond the flat ground of the aerodrome. As C.O. Harry could not go there, but he could go as far as the edge of his domain.

So he walked – not marched, nor yet strolled – along the quickset hedge, and tried not to think, and that didn't help; and then tried to think, and that didn't help either. He was so lost in thought that he didn't notice a figure looming up before him.

“Entwhistle! Gosh, you frightened the life out of me.” His heart was thumping; he'd need to get his mind on the job if he went up again in the next day or two, or three.

“What's up, old chap? You've been in a brown study all afternoon.” Entwhistle's enquiry was mild and had no trace of intrusion about it. He was probably the only person Harry could talk to in his present state of mind.

They reached the corner of the airfield, turned through ninety degrees, and walked on, strolling now. Entwhistle was always a reassuring presence. He always had been, since they met all those years ago at school.

“I can hardly explain it, even to myself.”

“Give it a try, old fellow. You're not like yourself at all.”

Harry laughed. “You'd know, even if no-one else could spot it... Well then.” He glanced up, to the sky: cloudless, soft, transparent blue, except in the west where the sun was going down among a guard of cirrus clouds. “Every pilot in the RFC will sleep sounder tonight – well, apart from poor old Jim.”

“Yes. Jim. But he's got the satisfaction of knowing that his kid brother's been avenged, and quickly. If he couldn't shoot Richthofen down himself -”

“Yes. That's right. And I'm glad Jim didn't fight him this afternoon, and he'll get to go on his leave and see his family and all the rest of it. I truly am glad. We're all safer now that Richthofen's gone. We've all got a better chance of surviving this mess.” Harry stopped speaking.

“Well then, what's the matter?”

Harry drew a breath. “I never told you the whole story of that time last month when I was stuck in No Man's Land. And mind you,” he added quickly, “this mustn't go any further – don't tell even Pootle!” Entwhistle nodded soberly.

Harry continued, “Most of that time I was with Richthofen.” Entwhistle gave an astonished exclamation, quickly stifled. “And someone else, and I can't tell even you who that was." Crown Prince Wilhelm. Harry could still hardly believe it himself. "But he – the Red Baron – and I – were just trying to stay alive. I think he actually saved my life at one point.”

Entwhistle was at a loss for words for a moment; then he stated the obvious. “You never breathed a word.”

“No, nor ever can, beyond tonight. I promised him that. But we became friends, I think, during that time. I'm fairly certain that he arranged for my return here.”

“You said you'd stolen that Camel you flew back in!”

“Well, I didn't steal it at all. Richthofen took me to it. I said we'd meet again, in the air I meant, and he said he thought not – that his time was about up - and he was right. He saw me off, and that's the last I saw of him, or ever will. And dammit, Entwhistle – he was an enemy, and the most dangerous of the lot. I should be glad he's gone. I am glad he's gone. The lads have all got a better chance of coming back now. So have you and I. I just wish -”

He stopped again, and they walked on a few paces along the eastern perimeter.

“You wish he'd been wounded instead. Got a Blighty one, or whatever they call it over there.”

“Yes. Oh, I know it's a risk we all run. But he was my friend as well as my enemy. I can't sort out how I feel about it. You remember when Immelmann died?”

“You went and dropped a wreath on his aerodrome. He was a good man – you remember how he treated us?”

“Yes! Chivalrous to a fault. But I don't think a wreath quite covers it, not this time.”

“Well, they're holding the funeral tomorrow...”

“I can't go – I've got too much to do here, and there will be hundreds of people there. Too busy for me.” Harry's hands were in his pockets, his head bowed as he walked, lost in memories: the Red Baron, huddled laughing in the shell-hole with Harry, the Red Baron knocking him out later with a single blow, and lugging him to safety as he regained groggy consciousness.

“Then visit the grave, next week, when it's quiet.”

“Yes.” Harry sighed, relieved that he could do that at least. “I will. You can watch the squadron for me, while I'm gone, can't you?”

“Of course I will, old chap.” There was a pause; Entwhistle was silent for a moment at his side as they turned again, towards the west, then touched his arm. “Harry. Look at that.”

The sun had gone down, but the sky was still luminous azure. The cirrus clouds had drifted into ranks above the horizon, painted red as blood, red as poppies, by the departing sun. One could almost see a glowing triplane flying there in the west.

Harry stopped and watched the spectacle, with a half-smile on his face, though he knew his eyes were bright with tears that he could not shed. “Oh. He's still there, isn't he? Up in the sky, where he belongs. He'll be there as long as men take to the air. They'll never forget him.”

“Nor will you, old fellow, and you were his enemy. That's as good an epitaph as any man could hope for.”

They resumed their walk, returning to the hangars and offices of the squadron, back to their own precarious existence: left-right, left-right, heading towards the bright west themselves.