Hannah’s voice boomed over the speaker. “Beautiful, kid, just beautiful. What a show. Are you getting this?”
I reached for the mike. “Loud and clear, Sam. Avila just bought it. I’m bringing the women out now.”
“Wait on the bank and don’t cross till I’m down,” he said. “I’ve got the other Thompson with me. I’ll give you covering fire. Christ, I wish I’d a couple of Vickers on this thing. I’d give the bastards something to remember.” He laughed out loud. “I’ll be seeing you, kid.”
Sister Maria Teresa was on her knees beside Avila, lips mov-ing in prayer. I dragged her up roughly. “No time for that now. We’ll leave by the vestry door. Once you’re outside run for the river and don’t look back. And I’d get that habit off if I were you, Sister, unless you want to drown.”
She seemed dazed as if not understanding what was happen-ing, her mind, I dunk, temporarily rejecting the terrible reality. Joanna took charge then, literally tearing the habit off her, turning her within seconds to another person entirely. A small, frail woman in a cotton shift with iron-grey hair close-cropped to the head.
I hustled them into the vestry, opened the door cautiously and peered out. The Bristol was very close now, circling some-where overhead. The river was perhaps sixty or seventy yards away.
I pushed them out into the darkness, struck a match, dropped it into the pool of paraffin I had left earlier. Flames roared across the floor into the church. I had a final glimpse of the altar, the Holy Mother standing above it, the Child in her arms, a symbol of something surely, then I turned and ran.
I slid down the bank to join Joanna and Sister Maria Teresa in the shallows below. Flames danced in the dark waters, smoke drifted across in a billowing cloud, a scene from hell.
I could not hear the Huna for there was only one sound then, the roaring of the engine as the Bristol came in low. And sud-denly he was there, bursting out of the smoke a hundred feet above the river, the Black Baron coming in for his last show.
It needed a genius and there was one on hand that night. He judged the landing with absolute perfection, his wheels touched down at the very ultimate tip of the sandbank, giving himself the whole two-hundred-yard length to pull up in.
He rushed past, water spraying up from the wheels in two great waves and I saw him clearly, the black leather helmet, the goggles, white scarf streaming out behind him.
I shove the women out into the water, held the Thompson over my head and went after them. It wasn’t particularly deep, four or five feet at the most, but the current was strong and it was taking them all their time to force a passage.
Hannah was already tax-ing back to the other end of the sandbank. He turned into the wind, ready for take-off, and then the engine cut. Out of the night behind us, voices lifted high above the flames, the Huna in full cry.
Hannah was out of the Bristol now, standing at the edge of the sandbank; firing his Thompson gun across the channel. I didn’t look back, I had other things on my mind. Sister Maria Teresa slipped sideways, caught by the current. I flung myself forward getting a hand to her just in time, another to Joanna. For a moment things hung in the balance, the current pushing against us and then we were ploughing through the shallows and up on to the sandbank.
There must have been a hundred Huna at least on the river-bank, outlined dearly against the flames. At that distance most of their arrows were falling short, but already some were slid-ding down into the water.
When the Thompson emptied, he slipped in another maga-zine and commenced firing again. I gave Joanna a leg up into the observer’s cockpit, then shoved Sister Maria Teresa up after her.
Hannah backed up to join me. “Better get in and get this thing started, kid.”
“What about you?”
“Can you turn that prop on your own?”