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Hall: High Adventure
Chapter 11 - The Camouflaged Cows

NANCY, a moonlight night, and "es sales Boches encore." I have been out on the balcony of this old hotel, a famous tourist resort before the war, watching the bombardment and listening to the deep throb of the motors of German Gothas. They have dropped their bombs without doing any serious damage. Therefore, I may return in peace to my huge bare room, to write, while it is still fresh in mind, "The Adventure of the Camouflaged Cows."

For the past ten days I have been attached —it is only a temporary transfer—to a French escadrille of which Manning, an American, is a member. The escadrille had just been sent to a quiet part of the front for two weeks' repos, but the day after my arrival orders came to fly to Belfort, for special duty.

Belfort! On the other side of the Vosges Mountains, with the Rhine Valley, the Alps, within view, within easy flying distance! And for special duty. It is a vague order which may mean anything. We discussed its probable meaning for us, while we were pricking out our course on our maps.

" Protection of bombardment avions " was Andre's guess. "Night combat" was Raynaud's. Every one laughed at this last hazard. "You see?" he said, appealing to me, the newcomer. "They think I am big fool. But wait." Then, breaking into French, in order to express himself more fluently: "It is coming soon, chasse de nuit. It is not at all impossible. One can see at night, a moonlight night, very clearly from the air. They are black shadows, the other avions which you pass, but often, when the moonlight strikes their wings, they flash like silver. We must have searchlights, of course; then, when one sees those shadows, those great black Gothas, vite! la lumiere! Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop I C'est fini!"

The discussion of the possibility or impossibility of night combat continued warmly. The majority of opinion was unfavorable to it: a useless waste of gasoline; the results would not pay for the wear and tear upon valuable

fighting planes. Raynaud was not to be persuaded. "Wait and see," he said. There was a reminiscent thrill in his voice, for he is an old night bombarding pilot. He remembered with longing, I think, his romantic night voyages, the moonlight falling softly on the roofs of towns, the rivers like ribbons of silver, the forests patches of black shadow. "Really, it is an adventure, a night bombardment."

"But how about your objectives?" I asked. "At night you can never be sure of hitting them, and, well, you know what happens in French towns."

"It is why I asked for my transfer to chasse" he told me afterward. "But the Germans, the blond beasts! Do they care? Nancy, Belfort, Chalons, Epernay, Rheims, Soissons, Paris, — all our beautiful towns! I am a fool! We must pay them back, the Huns! Let the innocent suffer with the guilty!"

He became a combat pilot because he had not the courage of his conviction.

We started in flights of five machines, following the Marne and the Marne Canal to Bar-le-Duc, then across country to Toul, where we landed to fill our fuel tanks. Having bestowed many favors upon me for a remarkably long period, our aerial godfather decided that I had been taking my good fortune too much for granted. Therefore, he broke my tail skid for me as I was making what I thought a beautiful atterrissage. It was late in the afternoon, so the others went on without me, the captain giving orders that I should join them, weather permitting, the next day.

"Follow the Moselle until you lose it in the mountains. Then pick up the road which leads over the Ballon d 'Alsace. You can't miss it."

I did, nevertheless, and as always, when lost, through my own fault. I followed the Moselle easily enough until it disappeared in small branching streams in the heart of the mountains. Then, being certain of my direction, I followed an irregular course, looking down from a great height upon scores of little mountain villages, untouched by war. After weeks of flying over the desolation of more northerly sectors of the front, this little indulgence seemed to me quite a legitimate one.

But my Spad (I was always flying tired old avions in those days, the discards of older pilots ) began to show signs of fatigue. The pressure went down. Neither motor nor hand pump would function, the engine began to gasp, and, although I instantly switched on to my reserve tank, it expired with shuddering coughs. The propeller, after making a few spins in the reverse direction, stopped dead..

I had been in a most comfortable frame of mind all the way, for a long cross-country aerial journey, well behind the zone of fire, is a welcome relaxation after combat patrols. It is odd how quickly one's attitude toward rugged, beautiful country changes, when one is faced with the necessity of finding landing-ground there. The steep ravines yawn like mouths. The peaks of the mountains are teeth—ragged, sinister-looking teeth. Being at five thousand metres I had ample time in which to make a choice—ample time, too, for wondering if, by a miscalculation, I had crossed the trench lines, which in that region are hardly visible from the air. I searched anxiously for a wide valley where it would be possible to land in safety. While still three thousand metres from the ground I found one. Not only a field. There were bessonneau hangars on it. An aerodrome! A moment of joy, — "but German, perhaps! "—followed by another of anxiety. It was quickly relieved by the sight of a French reconnaissance plane spiraling down for a landing. I landed, too, and found that I was only a ten-minutes' flight from my destination.

With other work to do, I did not finish the story of my adventure with the camouflaged cows, and I am wondering now why I thought it such a corking one. The cows had something to do with it. We were returning from Belfort to Verdun when I met them. Our special duty had been to furnish aerial protection to the King of Italy, who was visiting the French lines in the Vosges. This done we started northward again. Over the highest of the mountains my motor pump failed as before. I got well past the mountains before the essence in my reserve tank gave out. Then I planed as flatly as possible, searching for another aviation field.

There were none to be found in this region, rough, hilly country, much of it covered with forests. I chose a miniature sugar-loaf mountain for landing-ground. It appeared to be free from obstacles, and the summit, which was pasture and ploughed land, seemed wide enough to settle on.

I got the direction of the wind from the smoke blowing from the chimneys of a near-by village, and turned Into it. As I approached, the hill loomed more and more steeply in front of me. I had to pull up at a climbing angle to keep from nosing into the side of it. About this time I saw the cows, dozens of them, grazing over the whole place. Their natural camouflage of browns and whites and reds prevented my seeing them earlier. Making spectacular virages I missed collisions by the length of a match-stick. At the summit of the hill, my wheels touched ground for the first time, and I bounded on, going through a three-strand wire fence and taking off a post without any appreciable decrease in speed. Passing between two large apple trees, I took limbs from each of them, losing my wings in doing so. My land ing chassis was intact and my Spad went on down the reverse slope —

"Like an embodied joy, whose race is just begun."

After crashing through a thicket of brush and small trees, I came to rest, both in body and in mind, against a stone wall. There was nothing left of my machine but the seat. Unscathed, I looked back along the wreckage-strewn path, like a man who has been riding a whirlwind in a wicker chair.

Now, I have never yet made a forced landing in strange country without having the mayor of the nearest village appear on the scene very soon afterward. I am beginning to believe that the mayors of all French towns sit on the roofs of their houses, field-glasses in hand, searching the sky for wayward aviators, and when they see one landing, they rush to the spot on foot, on horseback, in old-fashioned family phaetons, by means of whatever conveyance most likely to increase expedition their municipality affords.

The mayor of V.-sur-I. came on foot, for he had not far to go. Indeed, had there been one more cow browsing between the apple trees,

I should have made a last virage to the left, in which case I should have piled up against a summer pavilion in the mayor's garden. Like all French mayors of my experience, he was a courteous, big-hearted gentleman.

After getting his breath, — he was a fleshy man, and had run all the way from his house, — he said, "Now, my boy, what can I do for you?"

First he placed a guard around the wreckage of my machine; then we had tea in the summer pavilion, where I explained the reason for my sudden visit. While I was telling him the story, I noticed that every window of the house, which stood at one end of the garden, was crowded with children's heads. War orphans, I guessed. Either that or the children of a large family of sons at the front. He was the kind of man who would take them all into his own home.

Having frightened his cows,—they must have given cottage cheese for a week afterward, — destroyed his fences, broken his apple trees, accepted his hospitality, I had the amazing nerve to borrow money from him. I had no choice in the matter, for I was a long way from Verdun, with only eighty centimes in my pocket.

Had there been time I would have walked rather than ask him for the loan. He granted it gladly, and insisted upon giving me double the amount which I required.

I promised to go back some day for a visit. First I will do acrobacy over the church steeple, and then, if the cows are not in the pasture, I am going to land, comme unefleur, as we airmen say, on that hill.


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