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almost fainting condition. Frank, with closed eyes, looked deathly in
the early morning light. Bill struggled out of his seat, and stood
shakily beside the plane, undoing his helmet. A group of orderlies and
janitors ran up, and several officers in more or less undress appeared
on the porches. Bill, reeling, walked over to his mother's door.

She herself opened it, clasped him in her arms, and gave a cry of
delight.

"Bill, darling, you have _grown_!" she cried, and then as an
after-thought, "How _late_ you are! I have been watching for you for an
hour."




CHAPTER XV


"How did you know I was coming, mother dear?" asked Bill, clinging
rather crazily to her as he tried to steady himself.

"I just _felt_ it," she answered, "and once I was so frightened about
you, but that passed away."

"What time was it, do you remember?" asked Bill.

"Nine o'clock," she said. "I was waiting for dad to come home from a
board meeting."

"Yes, it was just nine," said Bill with a strange look on his face. "I
heard you when you spoke to me, mother, and I think it saved my life,
and the lives of the other fellows.

"How very strange!" exclaimed Mrs. Sherman. "Who came with you, Bill,
and who piloted the plane?"

"I did," replied the boy. "It is a very long story, mother. It was the
only way we could come. We _had_ to get here, and a storm had torn all
the wires down, and the school was in quarantine, and oh, mother, Lee is
_saved_! We have the envelope and the money and it is all going to be
right again. They have not taken him away, have they?"

"They were going at noon to-day," answered Mrs. Sherman. "I don't
understand at all, Bill. How do you happen to have the money, and all
that?"

"I will tell you everything about it presently, mother," said Bill. "I
want you to take care of Ernest Breeze, if you will. It is his plane,
and he has a broken arm and could not manage to drive, so I had to do
it. We flew all night and all day yesterday. Gosh, we are about all in!"

"Don't say another word then!" cried Mrs. Sherman. "Dad isn't out yet,
but go get Ernest and I will make some coffee."

Bill took a quick step to her side.

"Coffee for three, please, mother," he said. "There is someone else with
us. Frank Anderson is here. He knows something about the theft."

Bill stumbled over his statement. Somehow he hated to tell his mother
the bald and awful truth about the boy who had been his friend and hers.

She did not wait for further explanations. Already she was moving
rapidly about the tiny kitchen, regulating the roaring fire that had
already been started by the janitor, and getting out the canister of
coffee.

Bill went back to the airplane. With the aid of the soldiers grouped
about, he assisted Ernest over to the quarters, and laid him down on the
Major's bed. That gentleman called a lathery greeting from the bathroom
where he was shaving.

Ernest was in bad condition. The exposure and the lack of proper care
had caused his arm to become terribly inflamed. Mrs. Sherman sent an
orderly with a side car over to the Hospital on a hurry call for the
doctor.

Then she braced the boy carefully with pillows and covered him with a
warm blanket. As soon as it was ready, she brought him a cup of hot
coffee and an egg, leaving Bill to care for himself and attend to Frank.

Frank had reached a state where he seemed numb. He was past caring what
happened. After a hot drink, however, he braced up a little and prepared
to face his ordeal. He did not know what it was to be. For all he knew,
he would be taken to Leavenworth. It was agony to think that soon
someone would go to his father and mother and tell them that their son
on whom they had built such hopes was a thief. He sat silent and
downcast and only answered in brief sentences when they addressed him.
Of course Major and Mrs. Sherman sensed something dreadful, but they
were too wise to press their questions until such time as the boys were
fed and rested.

A little color had already crept back in Ernest's face, and Bill was
seemingly quite himself.

Then he asked Major Sherman to come into the den, and beckoned Frank to
follow. The boy did so with the air of a condemned man.

No one ever knew what went on at that solemn meeting. One hour, two
passed and still they sat behind the closed door. Then Major Sherman,
with a grave and troubled face, came out, kissed his wife, mounted the
horse the orderly had been holding for the past hour, and rode away in
the direction of the General's quarters. Bill and Frank remained seated
in the den.

Bill, almost as shaken as the culprit, stared out of the window at the
quarters across the court. Frank, broken at last, lay on the hard
quartermaster cot and shook with dry and racking sobs. Neither boy knew
what the outcome would be. It seemed days before the jingle of spurs in
the tiny passageway told of the approach of officers, and the door
opened to admit General Marcom, his aide, and the Major. Bill rose and
stood at attention. Frank too struggled to his feet and stood drooping
before his judges.

Once more the story was told, this time Frank adding a broken sentence
here and there. He told how Jardin had filled him with the longing for
money, and how he had seen the amounts that Jardin spent and wickedly
wanted to do likewise. It was on the impulse of the moment that he had
taken the envelope filled with bills to pay the Battery. Once in his
possession, he was panicstricken. The terror of being found out and
punished had driven him onward; that was all.

The General, an old and kindly man, listened with a grave face. He said
nothing. Writing an order on a slip of paper, he gave it to his orderly,
who galloped off toward Old Post where the jail is situated. In this
grim building with its small, grated windows and thick stone walls, Lee
was awaiting the hour of his departure for prison. There was much red
tape to go through with, but at last the orderly went clattering back to
the General with his answer, and close behind him followed an ambulance
with Lee and a couple of guards, armed with short carbines and heavy
pistols.

As they entered the quarters through the kitchen, Mrs. Sherman placed
both hands on Lee's shoulders - shoulders as straight and proud as ever.

"Oh, my dear boy, it is _all right_!" she whispered so the guard would
not hear. "It is all right, just as I knew it would be! Be generous, be
forgiving, won't you, Lee?"

He smiled down tenderly at the little lady he loved so well and nodded.
Then he too passed into the den. For a long while the rumble of the
General's deep voice rattled the ornaments on the thin walls, and once
more the wild sobbing of a boy was heard. The orderly, standing just
outside the door, saluted as the door opened and the General gave him
another order to deliver. He came out in person a moment later and
dismissed the ambulance and the guards, who went away wondering.

_Lee was a free man._

When the General returned to the den he looked long at Frank, and the
Major was inspired to ask permission to leave for a few moments.

"Please call if you want us," he said, and nodding to Lee and Bill to
follow, he took them across into his wife's room where they awaited a
signal from the General. The wise Major knew that anything the General
might say to Frank would be burned forever on his memory. For the
General was not only a very great man but a wise one as well, and his
words were always words of wisdom, and they were often words of mercy
and forgiveness as well.

So the deep old voice rumbled on in the den, with only a brief word in
Frank's boyish tones once in awhile.

Presently the door was opened and the General called.

The group advanced.

"Lee," said the General, "have you anything to say to this boy?"

There was a silence. Lee stiffened. Then Mrs. Sherman's tiny hand closed
around Lee's great horny fingers and pressed them in the warmest,
tenderest clasp. It was very unmilitary, but the General said nothing.

Lee looked down at the little lady and smiled; the first smile for many
weeks.

Then he stepped forward a pace, still holding Mrs. Sherman's little
hand. Lee raised it, looked at the General, at Mrs. Sherman and last at
Frank. With a gesture of reverence he let the little hand drop.

"I forgive you!" he said, "Let's begin new." He held out his hand to
the boy, but with a cry Frank turned away.

"Not yet, not yet! I can't take it!" he cried.

"You can if I can," said Lee.

"No, no, I can't; not yet!"

"He is right," said the General. "Let _me_ shake your hand instead,
young man, and thank you as one man to another for your forgiveness."

"My car is outside," said Major Sherman meaningly.

"Thank you," said the General. "Anderson, the hardest part is before
you. Go home and make a straight confession to your father and mother,
and then close this black chapter. Somehow or other I will see that our
part of it is taken from the records. It remains for you to turn over a
clean page."

Looking at no one, Frank left the room. He entered the Major's car, a
lonely, frightened, despairing culprit.

"General," cried Lee suddenly, "if you please, sir, let me go with him!
Major Anderson is a hard man, sir. Please let me go!"

"Go!" said the General, and in a moment the boy who had caused such
bitter trouble and so much pain and his innocent and forgiving victim
were on their way to the Anderson quarters at Aviation Field. The
General fussed for a moment, then went outside to the fateful telephone
and called Major Anderson.

The others could hear what he said.

"Anderson," he commenced, "this is unofficial. General Marcom speaking.
You have a hard and trying interview before you. I want you to meet it
with _mercy_, Anderson; _mercy_ rather than justice. Justice has already
been done. I could recall something in your past, Anderson, that met
with mercy, and which saved your whole career. I ask you to remember
this. What? No, I won't explain - the explanation will reach you
shortly - You will do as I suggest? Thank you, Anderson. Tell your wife
what I have said. Good-morning!"

He hung up the receiver and returned to the house. A round wicker table
stood in the center of the living-room near Ernest's couch. A snowy
cloth covered it, and it was spread with the most delicious breakfast.

Notwithstanding the General's assurances that he had eaten hours ago he
sat down, unable to withstand the delicious whiffs rising from the
coffee urn, and the smell of crispy toast browning in the electric
toaster.

Grapefruit and eggs and commissary bacon (which is by all odds the best
on earth) and that same before-mentioned toast, and coffee, and orange
marmalade.

Bill, who had never imagined the time would come when he would be taking
breakfast with a real General, was nevertheless so hungry and so happy
that he forgot rank and everything else. The General did too, it
seemed, because he sat and sipped, and ate, and ate, and questioned the
boys and finally wanted the story of the flight from the very first
instead of getting it tail-end first in little pieces.

Bill told his side of the flight, and Ernest told his, and together they
told about the landing in the farmer's field, and the amusing people and
about Webby, the "pig-headed" and trustworthy one.

And then the General and Major smoked as though there were no dispatches
for the General to read and no classes waiting for the Major - in fact,
as though there was no military discipline at all. But as the General
said, what was the use of being a General, anyway, if it didn't give you
some privileges?

But at last the General jingled away, happy and quite full up with
delicious coffee and things, and thinking Major Sherman was a lucky dog
anyhow to have that little wife and fine boy. Before he left he gave an
order for a guard for the airplane standing so calmly in the small
field.

Close on his departure came the ambulance, and Major Sherman went off
with Ernest to the Hospital for an X-ray of his broken arm.

Bill and his mother were alone.

Together they hustled the dishes into the kitchen and cleared up the
living-room. Then Mrs. Sherman sat down in her favorite corner on the
couch and Bill threw himself beside her with his tousled head in her
lap.

"Goodness, Billy, you certainly _have_ grown!" she said. "Your legs
trail way off the end, and when you went to school you didn't reach to
the edge."

"Oh, come now, mother," said Bill, "quit fooling! I have grown about an
inch."

"More than that," insisted Mrs. Sherman. "You are taller than I am now.
What an awful time I am going to have bossing you around now that you
are so big."

"You never _did_ boss me," boasted Bill. "You just twisted me around
your little finger."

"I won't be slandered!" said Mrs. Sherman, pulling his hair. "You are
tired now and I should think you would like a nice hot bath and a good
long sleep."

"That does sound good, Mummy. We will have to stay here for awhile, you
know, because of the quarantine. But we will get rested up in, a few
hours."

"Yes, you _must_ get rested," said Mrs. Sherman, "because as soon as you
feel right, I want you to take me for a ride in that nice, lovely
airplane."

Bill sat up. "_What!_" he cried. "You - fly!"

Mrs. Sherman nodded, smiling. "Yes, _me_ - fly!" she mimicked. "Bill, I
am converted!"

THE END







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Online LibraryFrank CobbBattling the Clouds → online text (page 9 of 9)