Both guns were in action now. Each fired at six-second intervals. All about the flitting target the smokeballs burst—above it, below it, to this side of it and to that. They polka-dotted the heavens in the area through which the Frenchman scudded. They looked like a bed of white water lilies and he like a black dragonfly skimming among the lilies. It was a pretty sight and as thrilling a one as I have ever seen.
I cannot analyze my emotions as I viewed the spectacle, let alone try to set them down on paper. Alongside of this, big-game hunting was a commonplace thing, for this was big-game hunting of a magnificent kind, new to the world—revolving cannon, with a range of from seven to eight thousand feet, trying to bring down a human being out of the very clouds.
He ran for his life. Once I thought they had him. A shell burst seemingly quite close to him, and his machine dipped far to one side and dropped through space at that angle for some hundreds of feet apparently.
A yell of exultation rose from the watching Germans, who knew that an explosion close to an aeroplane is often sufficient, through the force of air concussion alone, to crumple the flimsy wings and bring it down, even though none of the flying shrapnel from the bursting bomb actually touch the operator or the machine.
However, they whooped their joy too soon. The flyer righted, rose, darted confusingly to the right, then to the left, and then bored straight into a woolly white cloudrack and was gone. The moment it disappeared the two balloon cannon ceased firing; and I, taking stock of my own sensations, found myself quivering all over and quite hoarse.
I must have done some yelling myself; but whether I rooted for the flyer to get away safely or for the cannon to hit him, I cannot for the life of me say. I can only trust that I preserved my neutrality and rooted for both.
Subsequently I decided in my own mind that from within the Allies’ lines the Frenchman saw us—meaning the lieutenant and myself—in the air, and came forth with intent to bombard us from on high; that, seeing us descend, he hid in a cloud ambush, venturing out once more, with his purpose renewed, when the balloon reascended, bearing the captain. I liked to entertain that idea, because it gave me a feeling of having shared to some degree in a big adventure.
As for the captain and the lieutenant, they advanced no theories whatever. The thing was all in the day’s work to them. It had happened before. I have no doubt it has happened many times since.
In the Trenches Before Rheims
After my balloon-riding experience what followed was in the nature of an anticlimax—was bound to be anti-climactic. Yet the remainder of the afternoon was not without action. Not an hour later, as we stood in a battery of small field guns—guns I had watched in operation from my lofty gallery seat—another flyer, or possibly the same one we had already seen, appeared in the sky, coming now in a long swinging sweep from the southwest, and making apparently for the very spot where our party had stationed itself to watch the trim little battery perform.