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- Our Pilots in the Air - 10/30 -
"You may as well: you'll go anyway. Please do not give me away."
With remarkable nerve, Bauer lifted the wondering child to his arms and led the way inside.
Five minutes later he emerged, the captain and the sentry on either side, and set out amid childish protests from within.
"She overtook me while I was on my way," he confessed. "It is fate, I guess."
Then the three started on the way to aerodrome headquarters.
About this time came the sounds of heavy firing over No-Man's-Land.
"That is one result of your rocket, Bauer, Byers, grimly.
DOWNING THE SAUSAGES
Once clear of the Allied front line of trenches, the double platoon of planes spread out on either hand, flying swiftly yet keeping near the earth. This was strange for so formidable a squadron of fighting, one-man planes that usually soar up to lofty heights, far from the direct range Fritzy's Archies.
But their instructions were clear, and each trained pilot knew just what he had to do. Swiftly and still more swiftly they flew. The night mists, growing yet more opaque, promised, favorably. Appincourte Bluff, just beyond the little river, could hardly be seen at all, but the roar of the motors overhead indicated that something might be on the wing. Without question few advance sentries still remained near the ruins that once had been a capacious subterranean chamber. From there the Germans had doubtless expected to emerge in assault, while their artillery made the essential barrage to stay any possible resistance while their infantry crossed the stream. But the Allied bombardment, made possible by Erwin's daring final flight across the Bluff towards his own quarters, had made Appincourte futile so far as that assault went. Still Fritz might be there. He was there -- that is, a few of him. They were watching for a signal - the blue flare of a rocket that should tell Fritz of another air raid.
But the noise of motors close above confused his calculations. Why were the Entente airmen flying so low? Might they not be up to more devilment with regard to Appincourte? The blue flare had gone up.
But it happened that Fritz did not see it. Fearing now that many bombs might be dropped their defenseless heads, and with the whir of many motors in their ears, all the time growing louder, nearer, the small squad of night sentries, scudded as one man for the small dugout. This had been made immediately after the Bluff was wrecked by the bombardment. In there they cuddled, expecting the deafening explosion of many bombs over or on their heads, determined to fly back to their advanced trenches at the first let-up of the expected deluge.
But no bombs descended. The motor thunderings passed, then dwindled, but towards the east. What did that mean?
Their sergeant was telephoning hurriedly as to what was happening: "Airplane motors close overhead. No bombing yet. Watch out."
Thus it happened that Bauer's first (and last) signal was rendered void insofar as it went. The raiders escaped the German fire for the time being. Moreover, they were puzzled. Why should the Allied "schwein" fly so low, yet do no harm where once they had wrecked things only a few days before? What were they up to, anyhow?
This query was not answered at once. The telephones roused the Huns in the front trenches. Yet it puzzled them, too. Hitherto the bombing on both sides had been done mostly from far above. Such skimming the ground across No-Man's-Land might mean anything.
Presently the thrum of approaching planes became more and more audible along that portion of the front.
From his plane Blaine made private signal to the others to put on all speed. Erwin did likewise. Consequently it was not a minute before the raiders were upon the front trenches, going at the rate of two miles a minute. Each man in those planes sat with an open nest of hand grenades within easy reach. The handle of the gun crank was handy, its deadly muzzle pointed along the top of the fuselage of each mobile plane.
Then a pistol shot rang out, and at the signal grenades were dropped as the now far extended line passed over those open trenches in which troops were massed. For, be it known, that fatal blue flare from the aerodrome a dozen or more miles away had filled those trenches yet more full of human cannon fodder. Hence the bombing was all the more deadly.
Passing the trenches, at another signal, the hostile planes nimbly wheeled, shot back again and poured forth more bombs upon those trenches. Still again they wheeled and traversed them for the third time.
By this time machine guns began to spatter their deadly contents among the darting planes, while further back the anti-aircraft guns gave forth searching roars as to what they might should a plane be hit.
It was enough so far as it went. Now for the gas-bags, the sausages; for these observation balloons were the real object of all this nocturnal pother.
"Forward!" came the signal again and, steering to the left, rising higher from the forty to fifty foot level they had hitherto kept, the squadron made for the rear line. Here rose a shadowy line of oval bags, so shaped as to qualify them for the term "sausage" as humorously fitted to these defenseless spying observatories. In daytime their elevation enabled them to see over a great expanse of that level, war-ruined region.
There they were, open carriages below, in each a small group of Fritzies with machine gun and bombs handy for use in times like the present. But here, too, Fritz was at a decided disadvantage.
Evidently no raid was anticipated, for here they swung, hardly half manned except by the few constituting the night watch. In and out among them shot the fast planes, the machines belching their deadly hail, with Fritz apparently too dazed by surprise to make much resistance.
Using explosive bullets that would flare sparks of fire at the moment of contact, soon those bags of gas were ignited, one after another. Down rope ladders the occupants climbed or dangled, dropping off to hit the ground maimed or lifeless. By this time, however, the Archies were pouring a rain of shells from the machine guns at the assailants with murderous and often fatal effect.
One plane after another sagged, lamely drooped and went to earth crippled or in flames. It so happened that Blaine and Erwin nearly met in, mid-air as each verged close in a final assault on the last balloon.
Seizing his megaphone, Blaine shouted:
"We'll down this one, then home!"
Bang - puff! A burst of flame enveloped the last sausage, and Blaine was already mounting higher, higher, when he saw Erwin's plane go zigzagging earthward at a gentle angle. One of his wings had been shattered, the remnants flopping as they fell. Orris, working at the controls, partially righted, then staggered on, and finally mounted upward, showing his chief that he would make the home trip if nothing further happened.
Blaine himself tried to follow. But something was wrong. He fell, half gliding, and finally landed with his planes too much shot to up for the machine to float longer.
"I'm a goner, unless something happens," he thought.
"Where was he? In that last staggering rise the sergeant was vaguely aware that just beyond some trees under him was an open space of some kind. Could he make that open space? The front enemy trenches and the line where the vanished gas bags had swung were behind him.
"Seems to me I saw one of our planes drifting over this way."
On earth it was darker, more misty, more impenetrable than it had been overhead. His watch, having an illuminated dial, indicated that the time was about ten o'clock. In his rear the darkness was more dense than ahead. Probably his plane had dropped just in the edge of that open space he thought he had dimly seen while up in the air.
While looking over his machine as best he could to see if there was any chance to tinker it up so as to make another flight, he stopped short, his pulse leaping. Then he stood motionless.
"What was that?" he kept thinking, keeping as quiet as possible.
After a lengthy interval he heard rustling amid the trees near by, then a subdued crashing limbs, then an unintelligible moan or groan. After that came a heavy shock as if something or some one had struck the earth.
"I must look into this," he reflected, listening now also for any other sounds of human presence. But all was still near by. Back west there came the dying echoes of the recent scrimmage with the raiders. Hans, having gotten the worst end that deal, seemed to have subsided.
"Fritzy is preparing to look into things. He must know that some of us were knocked out. Doubtless he is getting ready for a more thorough look around."
Without formulating any definite plan, Blaine headed towards where the last sounds of some thing or some one falling had come from. To the left came the far rumble of trains crawling forward on one of the many side lines used by the Huns for war transportation.
From the right came the distant roar of heavy artillery, such as enlivens the front night and day. Yet it was so distant as to insure no connection with the finished air raid that now threatened disaster to himself.
Under the trees the darkness deepened, if such was possible. Where was he going? Could he find his way back to his own crippled plane?
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