“On the Wings of Faith,” Part 25

 

 

Chapter 25

Moving On

June, 1960

May passed uneventfully, for which Otto was grateful. Tom reported that no one in the Bureau knew where Victor was, which could be both bad and good. Mata, Polly and Abigail enjoyed setting the bookstore up and preparing for customers. They opened on June first and were overwhelmed with the response to both parts of the operation. The twins helped out, as did Betty, Frances and Marion. Otto visited a couple days after the opening. “Looks like a family operation,” he observed.

“You got that right,” Mata answered. “Now stop standing there gawking and do something! And I know, you ‘hear and obey.’”

Otto grinned. “You took the words right out of my mouth.”

“Someone has to. Might as well be me.”

The store had been open for about two hours when Tom came in, looking serious. He found Otto. “What’s wrong?” Otto asked.

“I need to talk to you. Outside.”They went out into the bright clear day and stood on the sidewalk. Tom got right to the point. “It’s happened again.”

“What’s happened again?”

“Someone’s been shot at.”

“Oh, no! Who was it?”

“Luis’ cousin, Raphael Gomez.”

“He’s one of our pitchers.”Tom nodded.“Yes, I know.”

“What happened?”

“Raphael went to Minneapolis to visit relatives. While he was stopped at a light, some guy pulled up in a dark Chevy and fired a shot into the car. Fortunately, it missed.”

“Oh, wow. Any idea who it was?”

“He couldn’t identify the individual, but I believe I know who it is.”

“Who?”

“Mr. Victor Benson.”

“None other, I suppose.”

“I’d bet on it.”

“So why do you think he took a shot at Raphael?”

“Revenge. Frustration. Cowardice. I could go on.”Otto looked up the street where people bustled about doing errands. Such a peaceful scene, he thought. Who would expect to find what lies beneath the surface of our lives? “So what are you going to do?”

“That’s easy. Same thing as last time your family was threatened. We’ll have someone with Raphael twenty-four hours a day and the same protection for all of you.”

“Same agents?”

“Yep.”

“Good. We grew very fond of them. Is that all?”

“Isn’t that enough?”

“I’d say so. Let’s go in and tell the others.”

***

A couple of days later, they had all settled into what Mata called “our new reality.” The twins and little Otto (they continued to call him that although he was approaching six feet) were delighted to have the agents with them, and Mata and Betty put them to work. The feds weren’t supposed to do that, but no one said anything. The morning was calm and bright when Abigail burst into the store, nearly hysterical. “Abigail! What’s wrong! Sit down! Do you want a glass of water?” Mata headed for the bar.

The young woman collapsed into a chair, nodding since she could not speak for lack of breath. After she took a few sips from her glass, she choked out, “I saw him.”“Saw who?”

“Victor. He’s in town. I saw him driving up North Main, headed away from us.”

“What was he doing?”

“Looking for me! Oh, don’t let him do anything to me!”

“Where were your escorts?”

“They were in a car right behind me. But I had no way of telling them until I could pull over. They took off up North Main. We’ll have to wait to see what happened.”

Just then the door opened and the agents walked in, guns drawn. “Clear,” one of them said. They holstered  their .38s and walked over to the two women. “Sorry,” the taller one said, “We lost him.”

Abigail’s face fell. “Thanks for trying. I know you’ll catch up to him sooner or later.”

“Yes, m’am. Now, would you ladies mind if we had breakfast next door? We haven’t had a chance to eat and, well, we’re hungry.” He sounded like someone out on Dragnet.

“Sure. Go ahead.” Mata felt some uncertainty about their leaving but knew they had to eat.

“We’ll be close. Don’t hesitate to call.”

“Oh, you’ll hear my screams if something happens.” Mata smiled tightly.

“I hope that won’t happen.” With that, the two men put on their hats and walked out the door.

“What do we do now?” Abigail was still trembling.Mata went into her office with Abigail trailing behind. “We call Otto and Tom.” She lifted the receiver and dialed the first number.

An hour later, Tom and Otto sat at one of the tables having coffee. They offered to pay, but Mata offered to dump an urn of coffee on their heads if they tried. The men acquiesced and decided to stay and sample the wares. Mata has always made good coffee, Otto thought, and this would be no exception. I’m glad more people can enjoy it.

Mata and Abigail came over and joined them. “What’s going on?”

“Not much so far. Tom notified his office and they’re sending out more manpower. The warden at the pen is going to have his people put pressure on Benson to see what he knows. Tom usually carries his gun, and I’m going to do that as well. We’ll do our best to protect everyone.”

“That’s a relief.”

“I hoped it would be.”

“Be careful with those guns.”

“Yes, m’am.”The phone rang and Mata jumped to answer it. “Yes, this is she. What? Where? OK, I see. Thank you.” She put the phone down wearily and came back to the table, tears starting in her eyes. She sat down.

“What happened?”

“I can’t believe it. That son of a biscuit shot Raphael.”

“How badly is he hurt?”

“It’s the worst. He’s dead.” With this, she sobbed and put her head down on the table. Abigail went over and put her arm around Mata, tears running down their cheeks. Otto and Tom sat there, trying to think of something to say. Nothing occurred to either man, so they didn’t move. Mata raised her head. “What are you going to do? Don’t just sit there! Do something! Anything! Now!”The fury of her words made them rise from the table.

“Sit tight. We’ll get your agents to come back. Don’t go anywhere. We’ll keep in touch by phone. Don’t move until you hear from us. Do you understand?”

Mata nodded, her cheeks still wet with tears. With that, Tom and Otto slipped out of the store.

***

Otto and Tom drove out to the airport where Raphael had been killed. They pulled up to the hangar to find Charlie Draper hard at work investigating the crime scene. He had called in some investigators from Minneapolis who weren’t there yet, but would be in a couple of hours. Otto and Tom joined Charlie and they worked busily, going over every inch of the taxiway for clues. Otto saw blood stains at the spot Raphael must have been shot. Well, I’ll just get in the way here, he thought, so he went to the office and called home. “Betty! Are you all right?”

“Yes! We have our agents here. One of them went to school and picked the girls up. We’re here together. Where are you?”

“I’m at the office. I’ll be home as soon as possible.”

“All right. Be careful.”

“I will. I love you.”

“And I love you, too.”

Otto hung up the phone and turned to some paperwork that had to be completed that day. Just then he heard shots from the direction of the dorm. He grabbed his Colt and ran over. Tom was crouched behind his car, popping up occasionally to exchange fire with someone in the building. Otto skidded to a halt behind the car. “Who is it?” Otto exclaimed.“It’s Victor,” Tom said grimly. “And he got Charlie with his first shot. He’s over there beside the squad car.”

“I’ll go get him.”

“Don’t, Otto. I’ve called for reinforcements. Let the experts handle this one.”

“I can’t leave him out there, Tom. I had some infantry training. I know what to do.”

“That was nearly twenty years ago. As agent in charge, I’m ordering you to stay here.”

“As a major in the United States Air Force Reserve, I outrank you. I’m going.”

“Do I have to shoot you to make you stop?”

“You keep threatening to do that, and one day you probably will. But not today. Cover me.”

“Well, all right, but if you get killed, I’ll never speak to you again.”

“I’ll count on it. On three—one, two—”

“Wait, Otto!”

“What is it?”

“Be careful. You’re the best brother-in-law I could ever hope for.”

“I’m your only brother-in-law. The same to you. Now let’s do it!”Otto slid his way alongside the car. Charlie was about twenty yards away.

“On three,” Otto called. “Three—two—one!” He burst from cover. I must look like a flushed pheasant, he thought. Tom stood, braced his elbows on the squad car’s roof, and poured round after round into the dorm. Bullets kicked up asphalt chips as Otto dodged and wove his way to where Charlie lay. He was still breathing, even though Victor had shot him in the stomach, and a pool of blood spread out from beneath his body. Otto was glad that he was unconscious since moving him would be painful.He reached Charlie, grabbed him by his arms, and flung him on his back, just as they had taught them during basic. He didn’t even feel Charlie’s weight, and when he tried later to lift a sack weighing about the same as the sheriff, he couldn’t budge it. Such were the effects of adrenalin, he thought.He ran crouched over, dodging as best he could with the weight.

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon!” Tom yelled as he continued to shoot into the building. As Otto neared the car, he felt a sting in his upper arm, but it seemed no worse than a bee sting. He had been grazed, but that didn’t matter to him as he reached safety and gently laid Charlie on the tarmac. “First aid kit in the car under the dash! Get this bleeding stopped and I’ll keep firing.”

Tom jumped for the door, and Otto turned his attention to the dorm window where the shots seemed to come from. After a few rounds from both of them, Otto noticed that Victor was moving around. After a brief silence, gunfire started up from an adjacent room. He’s got to be getting low on ammo, Otto thought. I hope reinforcements get here soon. I’m running out myself. Then he remember the squad car carried extra. They were set.Tom slid up beside him. “Got the bleeding stopped, but he needs to get to the hospital pronto. I called it in, and they’re on their way.”

“I hope this will be over soon. I can fly him to the hospital in Eau Claire. They’re better equipped to handle that kind of wound. Charlie’s going to need extensive surgery.”Just then the firing from Victor stopped.

“Wonder what happened.” Otto tried to see inside, but to no avail.“Probably ran out of ammo. Let’s try talking to him. Hey! Victor! Come out with your hands up! We know you’re out of bullets, so give up before someone else gets hurt!”

After a moment’s silence, a hoarse voiced called out, “Never, you sorry excuse for an agent! Come in and get me!”

Tom and Otto dropped beside the car. They could be wrong about the ammo, so it didn’t hurt to be careful. “What do you think?” Otto wanted to know.

“I think we need to wait for the troops. They should be here shortly.”

“Good plan.” They sat with their backs to the car, Otto noticing for the first time what a pleasant spring day it was. A good day to keep on living, he thought. He allowed himself to enjoy the soft breeze and clear skies for a moment when one of the front windows blew out of the dorm.“What the—” Tom started up and then quickly dropped down.

Otto peered across the hood of the car. “He’s set a fire. One of us needs to go around back so he doesn’t try to escape that way. I’ll do it.”

“I’ll cover you until you get around the building. Fire a single shot into the air so I’ll know you’ve gotten there.”

“OK. Here we go again. And—I’m off!”Otto dashed the fifty yards or so to the log building, crouching below the windows. He felt the heat of the flames and heard beams inside burning through and collapsing. As he rounded the corner he heard a single shot. Well, I won’t have to do that now, he thought. About a hundred yards away, he saw Julio lowering his hunting rifle. Abigail must have called him. Maybe he’s taken care of business. He motioned for Julio to come closer, and the young man picked his way along the edge of the clearing in which the dorm sat. Flames were now coming from every window, and Otto knew it was only a matter of time until the building collapsed.As Julio came close enough to hear, Otto called, “Did you get him?”

“I think so. It was dark inside so I can’t be sure.”

“We’ll have to go in to make sure.”

“We’d better do it quickly. I’ll go.”Otto shook his head.

“I’m the owner and it’s my responsibility. Go around and tell Tom and see how Charlie’s doing.”

“Wait until I get back.”

“No can do, amigo. It has to be done now!”

“Well, then, vaya con Dios.

Otto shook his hand. “And you also, my friend.” With that, Julio disappeared around the corner.Otto studied the back wall to figure out the best approach. He chose the main door, which showed no evidence of burning. He drew in a deep breath, went over and felt the door and, satisfied that there wasn’t any fire behind it, opened it and went in.

 

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“On the Wings of Faith,” Part 24

 

Chapter 24

Denver

April, 1960

Otto looked around at the panorama surrounding the city. He had never seen mountains like these except at a distance when he overflew them. The mid-West has nothing to rival this, he thought.

They had spent three days in Denver and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Tom and Mata took them around to some of the places they visited on their honeymoon. It’s hard to believe that was just under two years ago, Otto thought. They had done their sightseeing and now it was time to press on again. Otto supposed the trip was beginning to wear on him—there were almost too many sights and experiences. So far, though, meeting President Truman had been the highlight.

They loaded into the Mata Maria III and took off toward the mountains, bound for San Diego. Tom, Otto and Bob wanted to visit the place where the Spirit of St. Louis was manufactured, while the rest of their crew was bound for shopping and the zoo. They planned to meet at the Red Sails Inn on Shelter Island. Tom had eaten there when he was on temporary duty. “I think you’ve had temporary duty in every city in the country,” Mata smiled.

“Sometimes it feels like it, but I only was stationed in about ten.”

“I think I’ve been in about as many,” Otto mused.

“Yep,” Tom nodded. “Nothing like TDY.”

“For sure. It has its ups and downs.”

“You got that right.”

The friends split up to go their ways and gathered near noon at the restaurant.

When they were seated, Otto asked the girls, “What did you see at the zoo?”

“Oh, Daddy, we saw lions and tigers and bears—“

Oh my, Otto thought, but kept smiling at the twins’ enthusiasm.

“And flamingos and turtles and penguins,” added Marion.

“And giraffes, seals and ostriches—”

“Whoa, hold on.” Otto held up his hands. “You’ll have plenty of time to tell us all about it.”

“Tell your vater which you liked the best,” Mata smiled.

Maria thought for a moment. “I liked the giraffes. They have such long necks they have to bend down to eat and when they drink, they stick their legs out like this.” She stood at her place and lowered her head to the table and splayed her arms out to either side. She did resemble a small giraffe at a watering hole. With a short neck, Otto thought.

“And tell him what you liked best, Marion.”

She thought for a while. Marion always has been one to think things over, Otto mused. She debated so long that Maria shoved her. “Think of something, dummy! I’m hungry!”

“Ow!” Marion grimaced. “Don’t shove me!”

“You’re the dummy who can’t make up her mind!”

“I am not a dummy!”

“Are too!”

“Am not!”

“Girls!” Betty snapped. “Stop fighting!”

The twins glared at each other. Marion pouted and then stuck her tongue at her sister, who returned the favor. Finally, she said, “I liked the penguins.”

“Very good,” Mata said. “I declare a truce.” She put down her menu. “Let’s order.” They looked over the selections for a while and then signaled a waiter who came over and took their orders.

Bob pushed his chair back. “So we’re bound for Dallas next. Has anyone ever been to Dallas?”

“I had—” Tom started.

“Let me guess—temporary duty in Dallas,” Mata laughed.

“How’d you guess?” Tom put his arm around her.

“Just lucky, I guess.”

We’re all lucky, Otto thought. Very lucky indeed. And blessed.

***

Otto dozed in the right seat until an errant ray from the sun woke him. Bob lowered the visor on his side and Otto followed suit. They were high above the Sonoran Desert, three hours out of San Diego, north of El Paso, headed in a straight line toward Dallas. They should be there in time for lunch.

“How’s it going?” he asked Bob.

“Everything’s routine.”

Just then the port engine backfired. Their heads swiveled to look just in time to see flames shooting out of the back. “Pull the bottle!” Otto shouted. Bob lunged for the CO2 handle while Otto pulled the release. They peered at the engine. Nothing happened. “Again!” They repeated their actions with the same effect.

Just then Mata stuck her head into the cockpit. “What’s wrong?”

“We’ve got a fire and we can’t put it out! We’re putting down! Give everyone pillows and have them brace!” Mata turned and disappeared into the cabin.

“Where can we land?” Bob scanned the desert floor.

“Anywhere,” Otto grunted, cutting fuel to the engine. By this time the flames had spread to the wing. Uh oh, Otto thought. He adjusted trim to compensate for the dead engine while Bob got on the radio.

“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is Pioneer 47 Bravo, we are declaring an emergency! We are fifty miles north of El Paso with an engine fire and we are setting down! Mayday! 47 Bravo out!” Bob adjusted the volume but all they heard was static.

“Repeat the call.” Otto’s expression was grim as he brought the Mata Maria 3 down as quickly as he dared. He didn’t want to tear a wing off. Bob sent the message again.

They lowered through 10,000 feet…5,000…2,000. “Mata!” Otto yelled. She appeared at the door almost instantly. “I’ll call ‘Brace! Brace! Brace!’ when we’re about to land. I can’t say how it’s going to be. Our wing is on fire.”

“Understood. Good luck.”

He looked back at her with gratitude. “I love you, sister.”

“And I love you, brother.”

Otto turned back and concentrated on holding the aircraft level. Bob called off the altitude. “1,000…800…600…400…200…100…hold on!” They both braced themselves against the controls as the ship settled onto the salt pan of the desert. Otto held it off as long as he could and then eased it down. The Mata Maria 3 glided onto the gleaming white salt flat and rolled out to a complete stop.

“Let’s go!” Otto called. “Get out of here!” Bob grabbed the fire bottle from under his seat and they shepherded their passengers toward the back of the aircraft. Mata had the door open and stairs down. The group piled out into the blinding sun. Bob ran toward the engine. The wing around it was charred, but the fire was out. It had extinguished itself in the last few feet. Otto fell to his knees, partially from a sudden weakness in his legs and partly out of gratitude for their deliverance. The others stared at the engine.

“We were lucky,” Bob observed.

“Yes, or we were incredibly blessed.” Betty bowed her head. “I think we need to thank God for saving us.” The rest of the group followed suit. “Lord, we thank you for saving us this day, as you save us every day we live, and even beyond this life. Amen.”

“Short and to the point. I like it.” Tom put his hat back on. “So, what do we do now?”

“Figure out how to get out of here. Bob, you get on the radio. Mata, get some supplies and water out of the cabin. It’s going to turn into an oven in this sun. Betty, take some sheets from the bed and improvise shelters under the wings. Girls, help your mother and aunt. Julio, you and Abigail are with me.”

“And what are you going to do?” Mata spoke quizzically with a touch of confrontation in her voice.

“I’m going to see what tools we have and try to fix this thing, although I suspect I won’t get very far without parts which I know we don’t have.”

“We’re going to die!” sobbed Maria. Mata went over to her.

“No, honey, Uncle Bob is going to call for help and someone will come and fix the plane if your daddy can’t. You help me. You both are good helpers, and then let’s see if we can paint some of these beautiful desert scenes. Is that OK?”

Struggling hard to control her tears, Maria nodded. Marion came over and hugged her. Nothing like a sister, Otto thought.

Bob climbed into the cockpit. Otto could hear him repeating the distress call. “Mayday, mayday, mayday. Calling CQ. We are down in the desert, about fifty miles north of El Paso. We have ten souls and need repair. I will monitor this frequency. 47 Bravo out.” Around him, everyone was pitching in to set up their makeshift camp. We’ll be all right for several days, he thought. Then the water will run out. Surely someone will notice we didn’t make it to Dallas. He had filed a flight plan, and they would start looking for them when they didn’t show up.

Bob climbed out of the cabin. “I guess we wait.”

“Yep. Not much else to do.”

Just then the radio crackled to life. “Four-seven Bravo, this is Hotel November 53. Come in, please.”

That voice sounds familiar, Otto thought, but he couldn’t place it. Bob leaped for the door. “Hotel November 53, reading you five by. Man, am I glad to hear you. Over.”

“Four-seven, what sort of assistance do you require? Over.”

“We have an engine that caught fire. It might need to be replaced. Over.”

The voice chuckled. “I have a little shop that can take care of that. I’m about twenty miles out, so why don’t I land and have a look-see? Five-three over and out.” Otto joined Bob in the cockpit. They looked at each other in amazement.

“There is a Santa Claus,” Bob exulted.

“I’d say. Let’s tell the others.”

They had just finished telling everyone and setting up camp when Otto heard the unmistakable sound of a radial engine approaching from the east. He shielded his eyes against the sun, and Bob joined him. It was hard to make out the kind of aircraft it was against the glare, but he caught a quick silhouette as it turned to land. It couldn’t be—but as the silver airplane came closer he could tell it was a Hughes H-1 racer. There was only one made and it was flown by the man himself. He hadn’t heard that Hughes had sold it, but surely he wouldn’t be flying around the desert just like anyone else. Would he?

Hughes or whoever it was came in on a long glide slope and touched down gently, smoothly taxiing over to where they stood. The pilot applied right brake, and the ship swung around to face them. He cut the engine and pulled the canopy back. When he stood up, Otto couldn’t tell who it was because of his sunglasses, but when he jumped down to the wing and then to the surface, he knew at once it was Howard Hughes. He come to bail them out. He couldn’t believe it.

Hughes yanked off his helmet and strode toward the little group. Otto didn’t think anyone else knew who he was, so he whispered, “I can’t believe this—it’s Howard Hughes, who is about as famous as Charles Lindberg.”

“What did he do?” Mata whispered back.

“A whole bunch of stuff. I’ll tell you later.” Just then Hughes reached them. He stood for a moment, hands on his hips, surveying the group. “Well, if this isn’t a pretty party. What in the name of all that’s unholy did you think you were doing overflying the desert at this time of year?”

Whoa, Otto thought. Jump back, Jack. “Mr. Hughes, I’m Major Otto Kerchner, United States Air Force Reserve, and these are my family and friends. We came this way because it was the most direct route between San Diego and Dallas. That’s all.”

Hughes acted as if he hadn’t heard him and went over to the Mata Maria III. The group trailed along behind him. “Polite fellow, ain’t he?” Mata whispered. Otto grunted.

“What happened here?” As if you couldn’t tell, Otto thought.

“We had an engine fire?”

“Whose fault?”

“Mine.” Otto felt his temperature rising. This guy might be their only way out of here, but Otto decided he would walk out if the abuse continued.

Mata stepped forward. “I see what you’re getting at and I don’t like it one bit, Mr. Hughes. My brother is a decorated World War II bomber pilot and he was badly injured and he has done a lot of good for a lot of people since the war.”

Hughes looked taken aback for a moment and then recovered. “Little lady, you just described about a million servicemen. That don’t impress me a lot. I’m trying to see what happened here so I can help you people. If you want to be helped, that is.”

“We do need help, but you don’t need to be nasty about it. And don’t call me ‘little lady.’ I’m a woman, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Well, I thought so, but I couldn’t be sure.”

Mata started toward Hughes, but Otto held her back. He could tell she wanted to claw Hughes’ eyes out, and while that would make them all feel better, it would do nothing to get them out of there.

“Let’s look at the damage. You might be stuck here for quite a while.” Hughes turned on his heel and walked toward the DC-3. The group trailed behind.

“Let me get him alone for just five minutes,” Mata fumed.

“Easy. He’s our ticket out of here.”

“He’ll be a punched ticket if he keeps this up.” They came up to the wing where Hughes stood looking up at the damage.

“As you can see, we’ve had an engine fire and need repair. You wouldn’t happen to have a mechanic and tools with you?”

Hughes turned with a look of disgust. “Normally I carry a whole machine shop and people to staff it with me, but this trip I forgot it. What the hell do you think?”

“I thought you could help us.”

Hughes sighed. “I suppose I could. You’ve ruined my day with your so-called ‘flying.’”

“Mr. Hughes, we didn’t intend for this to happen.” Mata looked ready to go after him again.

Hughes walked off abruptly and went to his aircraft. “Do you have any damage to the wing?” he called.

“None that I can see, but I’m not an airframe specialist,” Otto shouted.

“You’re not much of anything, Major.”

Otto looked down. “Mata, I might join you. Together we can take this old man.”

“Otto, come over here and sit in the shade. Mata, you too.” Betty looked insistent. “We don’t need a murder charge to add to our troubles.”

Sitting in the shade, Otto couldn’t hear exactly what Hughes was saying, but clearly he was used to being in charge, giving orders and having them obeyed instantly, even from people who didn’t work for him.

Hughes finished his conversation, climbed into his plane, taxied out, and took off.

“And a pleasant farewell to you, Mr. Hughes. Don’t let the door hit you in the butt on your way out.” Mata lay back on the blanket spread out on the sand. “My stomach hurts.”

“Can I get you anything?” Betty wanted to know.

“Hughes’ face within my arm’s reach.”

“Mata, give it up.” Tom had said nothing to this point. “I know plenty of people like Hughes, and the best thing to do is to ignore them.”

“You’re right. I need to let it go.”

As they relaxed in the shade of the wing, Otto thought, I hope there is still enough of human kindness left in the old man to help us out. We’ll be in quite a fix if there isn’t.

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“On the Wings of Faith,” Part 23

 

Chapter 23

Discovery

April, 1960

Otto walked up and down the streets of his section of Atlanta, even getting into residential areas with fine old homes. Whenever he saw someone, he asked if they had seen a young couple fitting Julio and Abigail’s description, but no one had. After about an hour and forty-five minutes of this, he turned back to the hotel, wondering how the others fared.

He trudged onto the elevator with a heavy heart, hoping nothing had happened to the young couple. As he walked toward their suite of rooms, he heard unmistakable sounds of celebration coming from that direction. That meant they had been found! He ran the last few yards and burst in to find the whole group standing around Julio and Abigail all talking at once. He went over and broke his rule about hugging men and gave Julio a big bear hug and then reached out and drew Abigail in. “I’m so glad to see you! We were worried sick! What happened?”

“Well, you know how the FBI always gets its man?” Tom beamed. “In this case we got our woman, too. A couple of agents spotted these two love birds wandering around in Callaway Gardens and brought them back. They’ll be charged with being in love.”

A wave of laughter rolled through the room. When it subsided, Julio raised both hands for silence. “Please sit down. Abigail and I have something to tell you.”After they all sat down, Julio put his right arm around Abigail and held her right hand in his left. “I am very happy and proud to tell you that Abigail and I were married this afternoon.”

There was a moment of shocked silence and then Betty blurted out, “You what?”

“We got married by a justice of the peace at the courthouse,” Abigail said calmly, her hazel eyes shining.

“But…”

“But nothing, Betty,” Mata told her. She embraced the newlyweds. “I couldn’t be happier for you.”

“What did you want to say, Betty?” Abigail looked puzzled.

“Didn’t you want a nice church wedding? What about your parents?”

Abigail looked at her evenly. “We can always have a church wedding later. And my parents died in a plane crash ten years ago. I was raised by an elderly aunt who did it only for the money she got.”

The group was silent. “I’m sorry,” Betty said. “I’m very happy for you. This is just so sudden.” She embraced Abigail.

“We just didn’t want to wait.”

Julio shook hands with everyone. Marion and Maria were jumping up and down with excitement.

“Well,” Otto said, “It’s been quite a day. What do you say we celebrate with a nice meal?”

“Are you thinking grits with cheese?” Mata wanted to know.

“More like biscuits with gravy.”

“For dinner?”

“They’re good any time.”

They all laughed and went out the door.

***

Otto rubbed his eyes. He had been flying into the sun, bound for Independence, Missouri, for three hours now, and even though Tom and Bob spelled him, the glare was still tough to take. I just don’t tolerate things like I used to, he thought. Must be getting old. I’m what, forty this year? That’s not old, although I feel like I’ve lived through enough to be eighty. He shook off his thoughts and concentrated on setting up for landing at Kansas City Municipal Airport. Betty came up to watch the approach. Otto turned his head and smiled at her briefly. “Charles Lindbergh dedicated this airport in 1927,” he told her.

“Wasn’t that about the time you broke your leg trying to fly?”

“About then. Did I ever tell you I met Lindbergh once?”

“No! When did that happen?”

“I was about sixteen. He stopped by the airport next to our farm for fuel and a sandwich. He made me promise not to tell anyone, and I haven’t, until now.”

“I don’t think he’ll mind.”

“I suppose not. If he even remembers it.”

“I sure do. He gave me a pair of gloves. I still have them some place.”

“That must have been so exciting for you.”

“Yep, if I ever doubted that I wanted to fly, meeting him erased all doubt.” They were quiet for a moment, thinking about all that had happened through the  years. Otto turned his attention back to his landing. “I’m sorry,  I have to concentrate now.”

“Understand.”

Otto put the Dakota down on the numbers, and they taxied to the terminal. They intended to visit Harry Truman, who lived in Independence. Mata had written him, but had not received a reply before they left, so they didn’t know whether they would be able to visit with him or not.

They rented a couple of cars and set out for the Truman residence. Mata figured it was worth taking a chance to see if he were home. At the very least they would have the opportunity to see where he lived.

They drove through a quiet residential section, but as they neared the address Mata had found, they saw a crowd of people gathered in front of the house, pressing up to a wrought iron fence. “Looks like we’re not the only ones who want to see the President,” Otto remarked.

“I’d say,” Tom answered. “No wonder they didn’t answer Mata’s letter.” They got out of the car and joined the crowd. Obviously their idea of talking to Mr. Truman was ill-founded. They would have to settle for looking at the house from the street and taking a few pictures.

Just then Tom went further down the fence until he was close enough to the Secret Service agent near the gate. Otto heard him say, “Jeff! Over here! It’s Tom Durham!” Tom spoke to the agent for about a minute and returned to the group, beaming. “We can go on in, folks.”

“But how—” Mata started.

Tom held up his hand. “I used to work with Jeff Richards in Denver. It’s not a problem.”

They went through the gate, the men shaking hands with Agent Richards. “Go right up the walk and around the house,” he told them. “Agent Johnston will be there to let you know if Mr. Truman is available.”

“Wow, who could have believed this?” Mata breathed as they walked to the gate in the side yard. A tall, stern-looking agent stood there holding a clipboard, but he smiled as they walked up. “Major Kerchner?”

“I’m Otto Kerchner.”

Johnston put out his hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Major. When I was in the Air Force, we studied your tactics and command techniques.”

Otto hadn’t known this. “Oh. Did you learn anything?”

Johnston laughed. “A great deal, but I became an AP. That got me this job.”

“Thank you for your service, Agent.”

“I should say the same to you.”

“Good thing. Thanks.”

They went around to a huge screened-in porch on the back of the house. Otto couldn’t see for the sun’s glare, but he thought it was the man himself sitting at a table with a glass of something—he would bet bourbon—in front of him. As they walked up, the figure arose and came toward them with his hand held out. “Hi,” he said, “I’m Harry Truman, and I assume you’re Major Kerchner.”

Otto couldn’t speak for a moment. How did Truman know his name? Probably had an assistant look him up. He recovered himself and took Truman’s hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. President. I have to ask, though, how did you know who I was?”

Truman chuckled. “I have quite a memory for names—in my business, I have to—and I recall you commanded a B-29 squadron during the Korean conflict.”

“That’s right, but that was a long time ago.”

“Yes, well, an old man like me remembers what happened long ago better than I remember what happened yesterday. Say, introduce me to the rest of your group, will you?”

Otto went around making introductions. Truman was gracious, and especially good with the twins. Years of campaigning, Otto thought. When they finished, Truman motioned them to sit at the table. “Would anyone like lemonade?

They nodded silently. They all seemed awe-struck at how friendly the former President was. After about a minute, a maid appeared, apparently unbidden, with a tray holding a pitcher of lemonade and a number of glasses with the Presidential seal on them. They seated themselves around the table. Truman lifted his glass, filled with a dark amber liquid which Otto recognized as bourbon after all. “Here’s to our armed forces and our great country,” the former President called.

The others raised their glasses and answered, “Hear, hear,” and they all drank up.

“So what brings you to our state, Major?”

“We’re on vacation, touring the country in our DC-3.”

Truman looked pensive. “Oh, yes. I flew in one many times. Good reliable bird. Don’t see how we could have won the war without it.”

“Yessir.”

“Let’s see, you flew Forts out of England and were wounded for your trouble.”

Apparently Truman had received the letter and had done some research on Otto. Or had someone do it. “That’s right Mr. President. I was glad to be able to contribute to the effort.”

“We appreciate your sacrifice.” Otto hadn’t thought about his scars for a long time, but he reached up and touched his cheek gently.

“And you, little lady, you kept the home fires burning.”

Mata blushed, whether from embarrassment or from being called a ‘little lady,’ but she nodded. “Just doing my part as well, Mr. President.”

“Well, my people tell me you’re quite a businesswoman.”

“I do my best, Mr. President.”

“And that’s what we all need to do. The country would be much better off if everyone would. Hell—excuse me—what the heck, it would be better off if the Democrats get back in the White House.”

“Who do you like for this fall?” Tom spoke up.

“Well, I do like that Kennedy fellow from Massachusetts, although I think he’s too young and the country’s not ready for a Catholic President yet. But the rest are either too old or corrupt. And Hubert Humphrey never shuts up. The man would talk us to death if he’s elected.”

The adults around the table smiled. This was vintage Truman, Otto thought.

Truman finished his bourbon and looked around the table. “I’ve enjoyed meeting with you folks, but even an ex-President has a lot to do. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll get back to work before Bess gives me something to do that I don’t want to.” He got up, shook hands all around and went to the house amid a chorus of good-byes. When he was gone, they sat quietly for a moment.

“Wow,” Mata said.

“Double wow.” Betty looked transfixed.

“Who would have thought we could sit and have drinks with the President even though he didn’t know we were coming.” Julie looked around at each of them.

“Oh, he knew,” Otto said. “He has people.”

As if on cue, Agent Johnston appeared to escort them out. “There are tours of the house starting at noon,” he told them. “I think you’d enjoy seeing how they live.”

Tom held up his hand. “We need to shove off for Denver. Do you remember the good times we had there?”

Otto couldn’t read Johnston’s expression. “Sure do. And it was good to see you.” He took them to the front gate and said good-bye. They piled into their cars and headed for the airport, and for Denver.

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“On the Wings of Faith,” Part 22

 

Chapter 22

Eastbound

April, 1960

Otto reached over and adjusted the synch on the engines of the Mata Maria 3, the refurbished C-47 they had used in the air show for years. They were somewhere over West Virginia, on a line for Washington D.C. and some heavy duty sightseeing. None of them had ever been to the capital city, so they were all looking forward to their visit. He looked back at the cabin where his family sat behind Tom and Mata. Frances was across the aisle from Betty while Bob acted as co-pilot. Julio and Abigail sat as far back as they could, for privacy and some smooching from what Otto could tell. It was a good group.

They dropped over rolling Virginia hills, and Tom delighted in pointing out Civil War battlefields sites at places like Winchester and Manassas, where two battles were fought. They came in from the west, following the Potomac River to National Airport on the shores of the Potomac. They looked down at the falls bordered by the C and O Canal, which led into the towers of Georgetown University at the end of the Key Bridge. As they came past the Pentagon, the twins were glued to the starboard windows, and quickly ran to the other side to see the Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson Monuments. They came over Memorial Bridge with a view of Arlington Cemetery and then made a turn over the Fourteenth Street Bridge to line up with the runway. By that time it was early evening, and the airport’s lights glittered like stars fallen to earth. Otto glided in, and they were down, turning off at the first taxiway. Mata had made arrangements with the FBO there, and soon they were in taxis on their way to a hotel not far from the White House. The taxis went by the monuments on their way in and they got a close up look at what they had seen earlier from the air.

“They’re just so white and so beautiful,” Maria exhaled.

“Yes,” Marion added. “So much better than the pictures in our history book.”

Otto leaned up to the driver in their cab. “Would you mind going by the Tidal Basin? I think these girls would enjoy seeing the cherry blossom.”

“Yessir,” the cabbie replied and then added, “They certainly are worth seeing. I’ve lived here all my life and I never get tired of it.”

“Are you from Washington?”

“Yes, I am. I’m fifth generation and plan to stay here.”

“I’d say you’re a vet.”

“Yessir, I served with the Red Balls supplying Patton. That was some time, I want to tell you.” He chuckled. “Driving them big trucks all over the place. It was somethin’.”

They planned to do as many touristy things as they could during their three-day stay, but that evening they wanted to rest and relax at the hotel. The twins were delighted to discover that it had a pool, and they planned to try it out after dinner. The adults wanted to walk around some after they ate, so Mata and Abigail joined the two girls while the rest went out into the soft April evening. Betty and Frances especially wanted to walk by the White House, thinking they might catch a glimpse of the President or First Lady. Otto reminded them that Eisenhower had been his commander-in-chief during the war. He had high respect for the general, although he didn’t care that much for politics. He was an independent politically as well as in other ways.

Their walk finished, they rejoined the others in their adjoining suites. Maria and Marion couldn’t get over the color televisions in the rooms, and even sat through commercials. The adults talked and ordered some things from room service. And so the evening passed quietly.

The next day, they found many of the attractions were within walking distance, so they made the rounds most of the day, stopping for lunch to have a hot dog from a sidewalk vendor. The twins were intrigued by the street cars, and made their parents promise that they could ride out to Glen Echo, an amusement park located in Maryland. None of them had ridden a trolley before, so it promised to be quite an adventure.

They rose early and made their way to the park, enjoying the smooth ride and the sights and sounds of the city in the morning. Everyone seemed to be in a big hurry to go somewhere, and it all seemed very different from their little town. They passed a pleasant day at the park and returned too tired to do much that evening with the exception of Julio and Abigail. “Those two spend so much time in the dark they’re going to look like cave fish after a while,” Otto noted.

“Shhhhh,” Betty cautioned. “You were young and in love once, you know.”

“Yes, I was, and I still am.”

“You know just what to say.”

“I’m glad.” Things were looking up.

The next day was their last, and they visited Senator Wiley from Wisconsin and would have seen their Representative , except he had gone back to Wisconsin. After they found out he was gone, they enjoyed some of the famous bean soup in the Senate Cafeteria. Standing on the steps of the Capitol looking westward down the Mall where he could see the Washington Monument and beyond it, the Lincoln Memorial, Otto thought, this is what I was fighting for during those long months away from home. It makes me proud and humble to live in such a country and realize that the freedoms we enjoy are the result of sacrifices of so many people over the year.

They ended their stay with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery with row upon row of white markers marking the resting place of service people since the Civil War. Otto blinked back tears as he thought of friends he had lost during the war, and said a silent prayer of thankfulness for all those who returned, including himself. He thought that they should have a reunion trip to England after all, if for no other reason than to recognize what they all had done. He promised himself to start on it as soon as they got back and to try to make it happen as soon as possible.

They started for their hotel as the sun fell toward the distant horizon, full of memories and in a reflective mood. It was the best stop so far on their trip, but there was much more to come.

***

The next day, they made their way to the airport and took off for their next stop: Atlanta. After a smooth flight along the East coast, Otto put the DC-3 down at Atlanta Municipal Airport about 10:30. They took a taxi into town and immediately set off for a day of sightseeing. The twins wanted to see Stone Mountain, so that was their first stop.

The group stood on the observation platform, looking at the giant bas-relief figures of Lee, Jackson and Davis. “It’s a good thing they didn’t win,” Otto remarked. “The carving would cover the whole state.”

“That’s right,” Mata observed. “Imagine a giant relief of Grant.”

“I’d rather not,” Tom answered. “He has a tomb, though.”

“Who’s buried there?” Mata wanted to know.

“You are so clever.”

“I know.”

After they had looked at the statues for a while, the girls wanted to ride the train that circled the mountain. While the park was scenic, there really wasn’t much to see other than the mountain itself and a lot of trees. Clearly Maria and Marion were ready to move on to the next attraction. They toured some old houses which didn’t interest the twins that much, but they loved Chandler Park. “I wish I had brought my paints!” Maria exclaimed.

“Me, too!” said Marion.

“We can stop somewhere and pick up some materials,” Mata told them. “Would you like that?”

“Oh, yes, please!” they said together.

“We’ll do it right after we finish here.”

They made their way to the Buckhead area and their hotel, stopping at an art store to pick up what they needed. Then they checked into the hotel and are in the dining room. The girls were abuzz with plans for the next day to return to the gardens and paint some landscapes. They came into Otto and Betty’s room after they had finished eating. “Can we ask you a question?” Maria wanted to know.

“Sure,” Betty said. “What is it?”

“Why do Julio and Abigail hold hands all the time?”

“Yeah,” Marion added. “And why do they trail behind us everywhere we go?”

“Well, they like each other.”

“I think it’s more than ‘like’,” Maria said. “I think it’s love!” With that, they started singing,

Julio and Abigail

            Sitting in a tree

            K-i-s-s-i-n-g

            First comes love, then come marriage,

            Then comes Abigail with a baby carriage.’

 

“Yep, that’s pretty much how it goes.” Otto walked over to the television and cut it on. “That’s how you two got there.”

“Ewwww,” the girls moaned.

“I’m not ever getting married or having children,” Maria told them. “Boys are just too yucky.”

“Me, either.”

“Oh, you’ll change your mind,” Betty said.

“Will not!” And with that, they flounced out to their room.

 

***

The next day Mata took the twins to paint in Callaway Gardens while the rest of the group walked around downtown Atlanta looking in shops and observing people scurrying about. They stopped for lunch at a corner diner.

“So, what do you think?” Otto asked.

“I think there sure are a lot more busy, hurried people than I’m used to.” Mata studied the menu.

“How is that any different from Milwaukee?” Tom wanted to know.

Mata looked thoughtful for a moment “I don’t know. For all the talk of Southern hospitality, people here seem to have more of an edge than folks back home.”

“Hmm.” Tom put his menu down. “Otto, what do you think?”

“Well, I did some training in Alabama and about the only difference I could see was that the Southern boys thought grits tasted good.”

“Well, are they?” Betty smiled wryly.

“Nope, not even with a lot of sugar on them.”

“Sugar?”

“That was my desperate attempt to make them palatable. It didn’t work. Some of the fellas ate them with cheese.”

“Oh.”

“I didn’t even try that.”

Mata laughed. “I’ve never known a family that could get into a five-minute discussion about the virtues of grits.”

“Or the lack thereof.” Otto signaled the waitress that they were ready to order. “But the biscuits the cooks made were heavenly. One guy learned how to make them from his mom in Tennessee. I couldn’t get enough of them. One guy said I was going to turn into a biscuit if I didn’t stop eating so many.”

“Say, I noticed a place called Biscuit City while we were walking around. I wonder what that’s like?” Tom looked from face to face.

“It would be fun finding out. Do you remember where we were when you saw it?” Otto looked hopeful.

“It was about three blocks over.”

“Great! Don’t order dessert, and we’ll have biscuits with jelly or honey.”

“I hear you can also have them with grits.”

“You can have my portion, Mata.”

“I’d like that.”

“I bet you would.”

Just then the waitress showed up and they gave her their orders. No one wanted grits. They paid their check and went over to Biscuit City, where everyone enjoyed a biscuit with grape jelly on it, except for Mata, who put honey on hers.

After that, they just walked around some more, enjoying looking at the buildings and people. After about half an hour, they started toward the hotel where Mata and the twins were waiting. As he walked in, Otto could tell the girls had been crying, and Mata looked very upset. He went over to them. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

“We don’t know where Julio and Abigail are. They were supposed to meet us here an hour ago and they haven’t shown up yet. I don’t know what’s happened to them.” Mata looked close to tears herself.

“They probably went to a movie and then forgot the time. People in love do that, you know.” Betty put her arm around Mata’s shoulders.

Otto shook his head. “I can’t think of two more dependable people. Something has happened.”

“Should we call the police?” Mata sat down and the girls climbed into her lap.

“I think a person has to be gone for twenty-four hours before they’re declared  missing.” Otto chewed his lower lip.

“I have some friends who work here. I’ll call them. In the meantime, think about where they could have gone and we’ll split up and look in different places.” Tom turned and went to his room to make some calls. Betty sat down with Mata and the twins, soothing all of them.

“All right,” Otto said, “Where were they when you last saw them?”

“They left the park, saying they were going to get something to eat. We kept painting, and when they didn’t come back, we figured they had come back here, although it was unusual that they didn’t tell us. We got back here and I’ve told you the rest.”

Otto thought for a moment. “We could look for them from the air but it’s hard to spot people in a city that way. I think the best plan is to spread out on foot. How long has it been since you saw them?”

Mata sniffed. “About an hour.”

“All right. That means the most they could have traveled is three miles in any direction if they were on foot. Let’s divide the area into four sectors and each take one. Mata, you take the south quadrant; Betty, you take the east, I’ll cover the west and Tom will have the north. Are we agreed on this?”

“How about us?”

Otto knelt down in front of Maria and Marion. “I don’t want to lose you, so you stay here with Polly. Is that OK?”

They nodded somewhat reluctantly. “Say,” Polly told them, “I saw a pet shop about two blocks away. Would you like to go visit the animals?”

“Oh, yes!” the girls said in unison.

“You’ll have to change your clothes,” Betty said. “Let’s go.”

“Thank you, Polly. That was just the right thing to say. So, are there any questions? We’ll meet back here in two hours. If you find them, call the hotel and Polly will let us know when we get back.”

“I wish we had radios.” Mata looked frustrated. “I know we have one in the Cessna, but we don’t have any portables with us.”

“Maybe we ought to get some.”

“Yes, let’s do that.” Just as Otto said these words, Tom came back. That kicked up an idea in Otto’s head. “What’d you find out, Tom?”

“The Bureau is putting out an A.P.B. for all of Atlanta. If someone sees something, they’ll bring them back.”

“They have radios, right?”

“Of course.”

“Our problem is solved, then. They call it in to headquarters, and then they relay it to the hotel. We should know something one way or another in a couple of hours.”

“I don’t like the sound of ‘another.’” Mata grimaced.

Betty put her arm around her again. “I’m sure they’re fine.”

“I’m not so sure.”

Betty patted her hand. “It’ll turn out well. You’ll see.”

“Everyone ready?” Otto asked. They all nodded. “Let’s go then! Be back in two hours.”

And with that, they were off.

 

 

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“On the Wings of Faith,” Part 21

 

Chapter 21

Full Circle

April, 1960

Otto leaned back in his chair, looking out at a couple of student pilots practicing takeoffs and landings on Runway 9. Mata had established a flying school about a month earlier while he was in Colombia retrieving Bob. Things were going well, he thought. Frances was understandably delighted to have her husband back, but made him promise not to take any more trips involving such risks. Abigail and Julio conducted a courtship by mail until Tom twisted some arms and got him moved up the list. Otto wondered idly if Tom pled the cause of true love to make his case. Knowing Tom, he more likely called in some favors, and Julio arrived two weeks ago. He fit right in and soon was helping Luis with repairs and maintenance.

He and Betty were on good terms after she exacted the same promise Frances did. He was through with high-risk adventures. The twins were older now, and would go into eighth grade in the fall. They were starting to act like the teenagers they soon would be, listening to rock and roll. Otto liked some of it, the remakes of older songs but couldn’t stomach most of it, especially Elvis Presley. Maybe it would grow on him, he thought.

He brought his feet down from the desk and swung around to look at some reports Mata had prepared for him. The door opened and she came in.

“What’s up, sis?”

She sat down on the sofa. “We need to have a serious talk.”

“Oh? What did I do this time?”

“It’s what you haven’t done?”

“I haven’t done a lot of things, like parachute out of a perfectly good airplane. What haven’t I done?”

“You haven’t taken a vacation with your family for years. You’ve been gallivanting all over the place, and Betty’s been here running the house and your girls are not growing up before your very eyes because you’re not here to see them.”

Otto sat quietly for a moment. He put both hands in the air. “Guilty as charged. Where should we go?”

“Where would you like to go?”

“Anywhere but Colombia or England.”

“We need to have a crew reunion over there.”

“Not any time soon.”

“Otto.”

“Yes?”

“You need to get over it.”

“I do, but I won’t.”

“You are one determined fellow. And stubborn.”

“We’re German. We’re supposed to be like that.”

Mata sighed. “What about this, then? I have a backup.”

“Mata, you always have a backup.”

“And aren’t you glad?”

“Frankly, yes.”

She laid a map of the U.S. out on the table. “Come here, listen and learn.”

“Yes, ma’m.”

Mata took a handful of pennies out of her pocket.

“I see you got paid.”

“Dear brother, please shut up and listen.” She laid ten of the pennies on cities—Indianapolis, Dayton, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Independence, Denver, San Diego, Dallas, and  Chicago—and stepped back. “There! There’s our vacation!”

“It is? We’re going to find pennies in ten cities?”

“No, silly, we’re going to take a grand tour around the country. We’ll see the sights and it will be a great experience for the twins. We can go over spring break.”

“That’s in a couple of weeks. There isn’t time—”

Mata laid a folder stuffed full of papers on the map. “I’ve taken care of all the details.”

“You must have been planning this for quite some time.”

“Ever since you took off for Colombia the first time.”

“How did you know—”

Mata smiled archly. “There are just some things a woman—and sister—knows.”

“We men don’t stand a chance.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Well, let’s do it. Have you talked to Betty about this?”

“It was her idea.”

“Oh. Have at it, then.”

“I will, brother.”

“That I know.”

“How do we get around on this trip?”

“We have a whole fleet of airplanes. Use one of them.”

“Which one can hold all of us?”

“Uh…that would be the C-47 we use in the airshow.”

“Right again.”

“I’m sorry; I just not thinking clearly.”

“That’s unusual for you. Do you feel all right?”

“Just tired. I’ll get right on this.”

“Thanks, Sis.”

“You know I love to do this. Talk to you later.”

Otto watched walk back to her office, thinking, I hope you’re all right, Mata. We need you.

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“On the Wings of Faith,” Parts 19 and 20

Chapter 19

I Shall Be Released

March, 1960

Otto closed his eyes and held his head down, praying that the end would be quick and painless. He thought he could hear Blanco pulling the trigger, and then he opened his eyes when nothing happened.

Blanco still stood before him, but his furious expression had changed to puzzlement. He stared at Otto for a few seconds, then dropped the gun and lowered his head. The point of a gaff covered with blood protruded from his sternum, and he regarded it as if he had never seen one before. He swayed for a few seconds, then fell off to one side, crashing onto the planks, rolling as far as the shaft would allow. He shuddered once and then lay still. Otto thought, he’s dead. Then he thought, that’s obvious.

He turned to Julio, who had regained consciousness by that time. He was busy tending to the young man, and didn’t think to see who had wielded the gaff. Once he was satisfied that Julio would be all right, they both looked at once toward the end of the dock. A gaunt, bearded figure stood there, wearing only a loin cloth and a huge smile. He was dirty and disheveled and they could smell him thirty feet away, but as soon as Otto looked into his eyes, he knew who it was. Bob might have been held captive for months by Blanco, but he still had that gleam in his eye. Otto surmised the Blanco had kept him drugged him, and, with the impending attack, had forgotten to. Either that or Julio had dumped the pills. Whatever happened, it had worked, and it had saved their lives. Otto pulled Julio to his feet and together they went over and embraced Bob. Later on, Otto couldn’t remember the stench although it must have been powerful. “So, fellas, where ya been?” Bob smiled.

Otto felt tears welling up. “We’ve been looking for you, man. We didn’t know where you were.”

“I was here all the time.”

“We know that now. And I’m glad.”

“How did you find me?”

Otto nodded toward Julio. “This young fellow kept broadcasting until we heard him. He led us to you. How’d you get loose?”

Bob looked toward Julio. “Our young friend here ‘forgot’ to secure my cell this morning. While Blanco was out rallying the troops, I looked around for a weapon but couldn’t find anything. So I improvised.”

Otto whistled. “That was some improvisation.”

Bob shrugged. “You do what you have to do. A fish is still a fish.”

By this time Rodriguez and his officers had reached them. “Coronel Donovan, we are pleased to see you and happy that this turned out well.”

Bob looked at Otto, who quickly said, “This is Coronel Rodriguez of the Colombian Army.”

Bob stretched out his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Coronel.”

Otto couldn’t help but smile at the irony of pleasantries contrasting with Bob’s appearance. He could have stood in for the Wild Man of Borneo in a documentary. Well, whatever he looked like (and smelled like), it was good to have him back. A whole bunch of people were going to be very happy once they cleaned him up and got him home.

The soldiers worked to clear up the mess on deck and put Blanco’s body below decks on the lead ship. Since the army had authority in the area, Rodriguez assured Bob and Otto that although there had to be an investigation, the board would certainly find that Bob had acted in self-defense and was probably not in his right mind when he skewered his captor.

Bob sat on a bench watching them. Otto came over and sat beneath him. After a while he asked, “How was it?”

Bob hesitated a long time. “I don’t remember a lot. I do remember being hungry and itching all the time. I don’t recommend it.”

“I’m sure you don’t. Say, how about something to eat?”

“You got any swill?”

“Swill?”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m used to eating. No sense changing things up.”

“Tell you what—we’re fresh out of swill but there’s a big thick porterhouse with your name on it.”

Bob stood up. “I’ll make the sacrifice. Let’s go.”

“I’m with you, my friend.”

 

 

Chapter 20

And Blossoms as the Rose

March, 1960

Later that evening, the boats arrived and tied up. They rocked gently at anchor as the troops sat on deck and smoked and talked. Bob, freshly groomed and immaculately clean, sat with Otto on a bench against the front of the wheelhouse. They watched Julio talk animatedly with Abigail, who seemed to relish the chance to practice her Spanish.

“So what do you think, Major?”

“About what, Colonel?”

“About yon couple over there?”

“Doesn’t ‘yon’ mean ‘over there’?”

“Do I look like a Shakespeare scholar?”

“Frankly, no, but what did you want me to think about?”

“Does it seem to you that those two young people have more than a passing interest in each other?”

“The thought had occurred to me, yes.”

“Perhaps a romance will blossom.”

“You never know.”

“No, you don’t. Say, did you ever find out what killed all those tribes?”

Otto sighed. “No. Our best guess based on tracks and other evidence was that it was some sort of large mutant cat that had needle sharp teeth and somehow was able to inject poison into its victims.”

“Huh. Sounds like a science fiction novel. Where did it come from?”

“Dunno. Also don’t know where it went. Reports of killings stopped suddenly after you were captured.”

“You think Blanco was behind it?”

“I think anything is possible, but no, that wouldn’t surprise me.”

“I suppose it will remain a mystery.”

“I suppose so.”

The two men sat as the evening wore on and, with the others, drifted away to their quarters, leaving only Julio and Abigail underneath a giant full moon. Otto took one last look at them before he went below decks. If you can’t romance a woman under these conditions, I’ve seriously underestimated you, Julio, my friend. I wish you good night and good luck. And with that, he went below.

***

The next morning dawned warm and clear. Otto sat on the deck drinking coffee. Bob and Tom soon joined him.

“So, what’s next?” Bob asked.

“First of all, we get you home. Then I want to bring Julio to the States and adopt him.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Rodriguez joined the group. “Buenos dias, mis amigos.”

“Buenos dias,” the three other men chorused.

“What do you intend to do once you get back in the States?”

“Hug my wife,” Bob offered, and they all laughed. “And whatever happens next.”

“I want to adopt Julio and bring him to live with us.” Otto looked at Rodriguez hopefully.

Rodriguez shook his head. “That won’t be necessary.”

“Why not?”

“Julio turned 18 yesterday, and that is the age of majority in Colombia.  He’s an adult, so he’s free to do as he chooses.”

“He didn’t tell us.”

“No, I believe he is too busy being infatuated with the young senorita.

“What a birthday present I gave him,” Bob mused.

“Yeah, but remember you weren’t in your right mind,” Otto said.

“Never said I was.”

Rodriguez stood up. “It is difficult to emigrate to the U.S. Do you know anyone in the State Department?”

“I have a few contacts,” Tom offered.

“That’s the understatement of the year,” Otto said.

“Very well. We will leave in an hour. We’ll have you back in Bogota in a couple of hours.” He saluted them and they returned the salute. As Rodriguez walked away, he passed Julio and Abigail coming toward him and tipped his hat.  Julio was holding Abigail’s hand, and nearly tripped over a coil of rope on the deck.

Love is truly blind sometimes, Otto thought.

“Here come the love birds,” Bob murmured.

“Yeah, what do they think this is? Some sort of love boat?”

“Shhhh,” Otto warned as the pair approached. He stood up. “Good morning, you two! Did you sleep well?”

“Very well, thank you Señor Otto. I slept the sleep of a freed man. I can never thank you enough for what you did for me.”

“Glad to do it. Have a seat. We want to talk to you about something.”

The two sat on a hatch cover. “What is it?” Abigail wanted to know.

“I want to bring Julio to the States.”

She looked at Julio with delight. “We were just talking about that, but we don’t know where to start.”

“Tom here has contacts in the State Department. He’ll ease the process.”

“Oh, thank you señors! I couldn’t ask for a better birthday present.” He jumped up and shook everyone’s hand while Abigail embraced each of the men and gave them a light peck on the cheek. “Now we will go for a walk to celebrate.” With that, they went down the gangplank.

“We leave in an hour!” Bob shouted. “Be back before then. We’ll leave the light on!” They heard Abigail laughing, whether about Bob’s comment or something Julio said, they could not tell. Otto would have bet on the latter.

“There goes a happy couple,” Tom said.

“They deserve it. All right, gentlemen, let’s get ready to go.”

“I was born ready,” Bob said, and they all laughed.

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“On the Wings of Faith,”Part 18

 

Chapter 18

Heart of Darkness

March, 1960

Otto was flying. He was surprised that Rodriguez let him take the controls of the Beaver, but when he protested, the coronel shrugged. “Who has more experience with airplanes? Certainly not any of these novatos who call themselves pilots.”“But what about the Air Force?”Rodriguez made a dismissive motion with one hand. “Most of the brass fly desks. I will take care of them.”I bet you will, Otto thought. He turned his attention back to the view before him keeping the nose of the big de Havilland right the middle of the broad estuary, about fifty feet above the surface. He couldn’t help but contrast the smoothly flowing waters with those the last time he was here. The landing should be easy, he thought. He waggled his wings to indicate he was going to start his descent. In the rear-view mirror, he saw Tom flash his landing lights in the trail aircraft. Lafayette, we are here and we’re going in.Otto’s airplane carried four soldiers, while Tom’s held a full complement of six. Otto set on 30% flaps and retarded the throttle, popping up to clear the trees as the two ships made a wide sweeping arc to come into the wind, which was blowing downriver. Perfect, Otto thought. He looked out the windscreen to the big Pratt and Whitney Wasp pulling them along. It was a smaller version of the Cyclones that powered the Mata Maria, and for a moment, he was taken back to those missions.Small black clouds stretched from horizon to horizon through the windscreen. They looked like tiny thunderstorms, but Otto knew, as did every man on the crew that they were flak. And there was no way around the line of explosives, only through it. Otto tightened his grip on the wheel and looked over at Bob, who was crossing himself. Otto keyed his mic. “Hang on crew: we’re going in!”

He heard various comments, most of which he could not repeat in polite company, but King, as usual, had a verse for the occasion. “All in the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.” Most of the crew remained silent, but Riley had something to say, as usual.

“King, shut up for once!”

“Who’s going to make me?”

“I am!”

“May I remind you that I boxed lightweight in college?”

“You may, but I don’t care. I was went to the College of the Street. And I—“

“Knock it off, you guys,” Bob ordered.

“Yeah, I know, save it for the Jerries.” Riley had been ordered to stop so many times he knew the complete script. Otto nodded his thanks to Donovan for doing what he ordinarily would have done. He was tired of it—in fact, he was tired of the whole war, and the crew was, too. This was mission number 17, and the magic number stood at 25. They had a fifty-fifty chance of making it, which was either encouraging or discouraging depending on how you thought about it. He dealt with it by not thinking about it at all, and that seemed to work well.

They hit the first line of flak, and Otto could hear shrapnel pinging off the fuselage. He tried to ignore the sounds and powered on through. Then it happened. There was a tremendous explosion and a flash of fire to his right, and the cockpit filled with smoke for about thirty seconds, and then it disippated. The aircraft fell off into a diving turn, and it was only with great difficulty that Otto was able to wrench it back to level flight. He looked over to see if there was anything left of Bob and was surprised to see him sitting there grasping the wheel as if nothing had happened. Bob’s head was turned to the right so that Otto could not see his face. “Bob! You’re all right!”

His friend looked over. “I’m more than all right,” he answered in a gravelly voice.

Otto just about fainted. Something had happened to Bob—something terrible. His face was a ghastly gray color, and blood ran from the corners of his mouth. He looked like—like one of those creatures in a horrible movie he and Betty had started to sit through but left early after they were given a refund. It looked like Bob had somehow become a zombie.

“Bob! What happened to you?”

The co-pilot began undoing his harness. “It’s not what happened to me,” he rasped as the smell of rotting flesh filled Otto’s nostrils. “It’s what’s going to happen to YOU!” With that he threw himself across the cockpit, his bloodshot eyes wild, rotted teeth showing in his wide-open mouth. Otto felt the first impression of one of those teeth, and then he was falling through the same white substance he had come to know so well. Just before he hit bottom, everything went black.

Señor! Señor! Are you all right?”

The jungle lining the river came into focus, and Otto shook his head to clear it. “I’m all right. It was just a bad dream.” Although his nightmare or whatever it was had seemed to take ten minutes, to Rodriquez it must have seemed he blacked out momentarily.

“From the way you were screaming, it must have been very bad.” Rodriguez still looked worried.
“Can you make the landing?”

“I’m ready, Coronel. Let’s do this thing!” He checked his mirror and saw the number two aircraft keeping station perfectly. Tom was an amazing fellow. They lowered toward the river, but when they were about 300 yards from the station, Otto heard the remembered sound of bullets tearing through the aircraft’s skin. They were being fired upon! Rodriguez gave a rapid order and all four soldiers crowded the port windows and poured in fire toward the shore. One of the soldiers spat out something so quickly Otto had no idea of what he said. He had to concentrate on getting down.

“Those are the hired guns of one of the cocaine cartels. Do you suppose your amigo Blanco is involved with the trade?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me,” Otto answered, thinking how badly he would like to get his hands on Blanco, if only for five minutes. “Hang on, we’re almost down.” He chopped the throttle on the big floatplane, and they were down, running rapidly against the current. As they came around the last bend, Otto saw something that froze his heart. Blanco was standing on the veranda of the station, and he had Julio kneeling before him, a pistol to his head.

“Whoa,” Otto groaned. “Have everyone stand down. If shooting starts, someone’s going to get killed, and I don’t want it to be any of us.”

Rodriguez issued a rapid command, and the firing ceased from the aircraft. A few seconds later, the guerillas followed suit. Apparently Blanco felt he had them at a disadvantage and was in a position to bargain. Otto’s Beaver drifted closer to the dock. He could still see the gouges where the pontoon had been punctured last December. That seemed so long ago now, so much had happened.

When they drew within shouting distance, Blanco brought the pistol up. “Hey gringo!” he shouted. “Do you want to try to rescue the boy? Come on, Señor Hero! Here I am! Come get me!”

From the way Blanco swayed and slurred his speech, Otto realized to his horror that he was drunk. Just what we didn’t need, he thought.

“Blanco! Put down the gun and let the boy go! I’ll put in a good word for you with the authorities!”

Blanco spit on the dock. “No, Señor, this time we will do it my way! You come over here without a weapon. How do you like that, Commandante?”

Otto sat in silence for a moment. Then he unfastened his harness and put his revolver between the seats. Rodriguez looked at him with alarm. “No, Commandante, do not do this. I have a francotirador who can take care of this. Pour el amor di Dios, do not do this thing.”“What’s a francotirador?”“A sniper. Literally it means ‘a true shot.’ Please. I beg you.”Otto looked directly at the Coronel. “I’ve been in worse situations. I’ll be all right.”Rodriguez sank back into his seat. He looked so defeated and worried that Otto said, “If he gets me, have your sniper fire away. At that point, I won’t care.” He grinned, and Rodriguez smiled weakly.Otto stepped out on the pontoon as the Beaver drifted up to the dock. He jumped onto the rough logwood planking and quickly put his hands in the air, walking slowly toward Blanco and Julio. Julio’s face was contorted, and as soon as Otto drew near, he choked, “Señor Otto, do not risk your life on my account. My uncle is not right. Please turn around.”When he heard Julio say that he was not right, Blanco raised his revolver and brought it down, hard, on Julio’s head. The boy collapsed, inert, on the deck. Blanco raised the pistol and pointed it at Otto.

“You come here and have the nerve to try to change my life and kidnap my nephew. You do not deserve to live. Prepare to die.” He stepped closer to Otto until the barrel was six inches from his head. Otto heard the click of the Colt’s hammer and prayed quickly, Lord, have mercy.

 

 

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