CAUGHT AND CLEARED!

Spellbound the three watching youths saw Griff count the bills in that
packet he had taken from the aircraft plant safe.

They heard the ruffle of paper as he ran through the ends of the crisp,
new bills.

Then he stepped out of their line of vision.

With unexpected promptness, startling his companions, Al flung the door
inward so that it banged against the wall. Instantly he leaped into the
room. His chums followed. Startled, dropping his packet, Griff swung
around to stare in amazement and terror.

“Drop those bills!” Al cried needlessly, “we’ve caught you red-handed!”

All three of the Sky Squad were in the room.

Al dashed across to the window, to block any possibility of Griff trying
to drop the ten or fifteen feet to the ground. Bob snatched up the
money. Curt blocked the door.

After his first look of stunned horror, Griff sank into the swivel chair
and buried his face in his hands. His shoulders shook with a sudden
revulsion of feeling that unmanned him, made him sob like a creature in
pain.

For a moment no one moved. The comrades were rather dismayed and
nonplussed by Griff’s pathetic attitude.

They had caught him, yes! Red-handed, as Al had said, they had caught
him, in the act of something very dreadful.

Nevertheless, his surprising way of giving in, sitting there in a bent
posture, with his body racked by his sobs, made him a rather pitiful
figure.

“Stop that!” Bob said, finally, and rather gruffly. “You’ve done wrong.
You’ve been caught. Take it like a man!”

“Yes,” Griff replied in a shaking voice. “Yes—I’m caught. I know I’m a
baby—but—but——”

He fought back his weakness and gulped.

“But—what?” demanded Curt. “I suppose you’ll say you were forced to do
this by somebody else. They always do, in books!”

“No,” Griff answered. “No. I—it’s all my doing. But——”

“Why do you keep saying ‘but’?” asked Al.

“Oh!” Griff had hard work not to break down again. In spite of the way
they had found him, in spite of what he had been planning to do, there
was something that touched the youthful hearts of the trio, in Griff’s
sorrowful eyes and drawn face.

“Oh!” he repeated, “if only somebody could help me instead of hounding
me and——”

“We’re not ‘hounding’ you,” Bob defended their action. “You’d have done
the same.”

“But you’ve been watching me and following me and suspecting me,” Griff
declared sadly. “I know I deserve it—but——”

“Oh! Stop saying but!” Curt was annoyed by what he took to be an attempt
to win sympathy. “We’d have helped you, instead of ‘hounding’ you if
you’d been honest, instead of trying to be cunning and in with the wrong
sort of people.”

“Oh, yes, you would!” retorted Griff, bitterly. “That’s easy to say.”

“Well, it’s true,” declared Bob stoutly.

“Nobody helps me,” responded Griff. “Everybody is after me for one
reason or another.”

“That’s because you’re so furtive and fidgety that you ask for it—and
doing things—like this—” Bob shook the bills.

Griff sat in silence for a moment. Bob walked over to the open safe, saw
where the package belonged, and pushed it into place, then slammed the
safe door, turned the knob of the combination to lock it and swung back
to Griff.

“There!” he exclaimed. “That shows we’re helping you.”

“I—I—what do you mean?” Griff stared.

“I mean this!” Bob came and stood in front of him. “I mean that the
money is back in the safe. If you can show any reason besides temptation
or somebody forcing you to do—this!—we’ll all promise to say nothing
more about the things we saw you do.”

Griff shook his head.

“That wouldn’t do any good,” he said despondently. “I’ve got to have
that money. You think it’s—” he could not bring out the word, but he saw
that the trio recognized what he meant. “It isn’t—because Lang is
flying, right now, to his uncle, to get him to come back and give me
money—a loan—to replace this.”

The chums exchanged surprised, wondering glances.

“Lang! Going to Father for money for you?”

“Yes,” Griff answered Al. “It’s—it’s all mixed up and—awful!—but you say
you’d help instead of telling on me, if I could show I wasn’t as bad as
you think.”

Bob thought he saw a genuine honesty in the clear look Griff gave him.
His sympathy was really quick and he wanted to be fair.

“You could count on that!” he stated earnestly.

“You bet you could!” Al declared and Curt added a similar assertion.

“If I thought you meant that—if I thought you’d believe me——”

“Really we would!” Al was also touched; Griff, caught and breaking down
and seeming to be declaring innocence in some way, was not the furtive,
uneasy, shifty-eyed Griff they had known. “Honestly! Try us and see.” He
and Curt moved closer. The three stood in a group in front of the
huddling youth in the swivel chair.

Griff looked up dolefully.

“It will make me out bad enough,” he stated. “But—not as bad as you’ve
been thinking. Oh, I know!” he took on a touch of his old defiance, “I
know you’ve tried to connect me with all the wrong things that have been
going on here! I know I’ve acted as though I am guilty. I’m not,
though—not in the way you think.”

“All right,” Curt admitted. “We’ll listen. We’d rather have you innocent
than guilty—of anything!”

“Even if our case—” Al stopped suddenly, but Griff nodded.

“I guess you all think you’re clever,” he said, forgetting his own
trouble for a second or two. “You come here to learn all about this
mystery of where the missing parts go and who did things to the crates,
and why. Don’t you think we have eyes? It’s all over the plant what you
are trying to do. Don’t you suppose we all know one of you is a close
friend of the other two, and Bob and Al are sons of a detective? What’s
the answer?”

“The answer seems to be that you thought we weren’t smart and so you
went right ahead.” Curt was a little nettled by Griff’s statement,
although common sense told him, now that Griff mentioned the point, that
their scheme must be fairly evident to any sensible person.

“I didn’t think whether you were smart or dumb,” Griff replied. “I had
too much on my mind. Bad as it is, it might as well be confessed. I
gamble, and owe money for it, and I came here to borrow this from the
safe—it’s as much my father’s as anybody’s, because he’s Mr. Tredway’s
partner, but—I didn’t intend to try to ‘get away’ with the money. I only
wanted it overnight. Before the office opens Lang will be back with the
money to replace it.”

“What makes it so important to get money at this time of night?”
demanded Curt, suspiciously.

“I guess I’d better tell the whole thing.”

“We’re listening!”

“Go ahead. Tell us!”

Griff nodded. Dejectedly, shamefaced and humble, he related his story:

“I’ve been running around with a pretty rough crowd,” he admitted, “and
they got me in the habit of going to places like The Windsock, out on
the——”

“We know!” Al interrupted impatiently.

“All right. There’s ways to gamble, out there, if you know the people
who run the place.”

“Jones?”

“Well—he owns it, yes. Mostly its Jenks, his manager, and the waiters
that let the crowd do things outside the actual license rights of the
roadhouse. Well, anyhow, I got to spending money pretty fast and I
gambled. After awhile I lost so much I found out I was owing the ‘house’
as they say, more than two hundred dollars!”

Although several maxims and Biblical quotations sprang into Bob’s mind,
he kept silent. This was no time for preaching, for pretending the
“holier than thou” pose. Under the same temptations, argued Bob to
himself, it would be hard to say whether he’d go Griff’s way or not. It
isn’t how good a fellow thinks he is, but how good he proves himself to
be under temptation, that counts, Bob decided.

“That’s what you’re taking the money for—or trying to,” Curt determined.
“But why did you have to take it this way, and at this time?”

“The manager at the roadhouse said, last week, he’d have to get all the
debts owed the house and clean up, because they’re spending a lot on a
new dance place, like a——”

“Hangar. We know. Never mind why they wanted it. Tell me,” Bob changed
the subject for a moment, “what does the owner look like? Is he short,
thick-set——”

“That’s the manager——”

“But that man let on to be Jones.” Al broke in.

“Maybe he did? What were you doing there—snooping?”

“Never mind,” said Curt, pacifically, wishing to get Griff’s side of the
matter first. “We wanted a specimen of his handwriting——”

“I wish _I_ could get one!” declared Griff, ruefully. “That’s the whole
trouble, fellows.” His manner was more eager, more confidential. “I paid
the money once—and he didn’t give me a receipt——”

“Oh!” Bob was connecting some things in his mind. “He came here one
evening and demanded the money, and you gave him a parcel and then
realized he didn’t give you a receipt. You tried to chase him on your
motorcycle and got into an accident.”

“I thought you were watching, but I was too excited and upset to care,”
agreed Griff. “Yes, I had borrowed from all the fellows I knew, and had
scraped every cent out of my savings account, and I had the money. But
he didn’t give any receipt, and when I finally got over the smash of the
motorcycle and went to ask for it he declared I’d paid him with a
package of wadded, folded paper and not money!”

“But it was money,” declared Bob. “Unless you changed it, because I
caught you wrapping up something green the day I came into the engine
assembling room.”

“It was money, all right enough,” Griff asserted. “But he wanted it
twice. Well, I had promised my father that I wouldn’t go with that crowd
any more, and I had been weak and went against my promise. So I couldn’t
go to him about it.”

“If you had, and made a clean breast of it, he would have gotten you out
of this scrape.” Bob had to say that much.

“I don’t think so!” Griff was morose. “He’s got so much worry on his
mind about the plant and all that’s happened that he’s jumpy and nervous
and suspicious and he’d throw me out of here, and maybe send me away
from home. And I am trying to go straight. I will—I make a vow on
that!—if once I can get out of this scrape. I’ve learned a lesson.”

“But that fellow at the roadhouse knows you’re afraid of your dad, I
guess,” asserted Curt.

“Yes, and when I said I had paid the money——”

“I overheard that,” Al stated, and related what he had heard through the
open office window at The Windsock.

“You fellows have been on the job!” There was a note of admiration in
Griff’s voice, then he sobered and went on. “Yes, that fellow, out
there, knows about me being afraid of Father, and he said if I didn’t
have the money tonight, before midnight, he’d tell my ‘old man’ as he
calls Dad. They’re opening a dance place and he said the cash was
essential tonight.”

“So you told Lang and he went to get it,” ended Curt for him.

“Yes, and he’s going to call me, long distance, as soon as he gets
there, and I was getting the money out so I could start for The Windsock
the minute he calls up.”

“What’s your father doing out there so much?” demanded Al, suspiciously.

“Trying to ‘get a line’ on me, I guess!”

Curt turned to his comrades with a rueful grin.

“That explains everything,” he stated, almost regretfully. “Griff has
cleared himself, and his father’s motive is logical.”

“It leaves us ‘up in the air’—and not in any ‘crate’ either!” agreed Al.

“Yes,” nodded Bob. “Barney said the case was all sewed up—but the
threads must have been weak, because here’s our case all torn apart!”

“Well,” said Curt, “for my part—I’m glad!”

Since Griff and Mr. Parsons were cleared of suspicion, the other two
agreed promptly.

“I may be cleared,” said Griff sadly, “but I’m not out of trouble. If I
don’t get this money to that man—Jenks is what we all call him, Toby
Jenks!—why, he’ll call up Dad—and then——”

“We said we’d help if you could clear yourself,” stated Bob.

“And we will!” agreed Curt.

“With all our heart!” added Al. “But—how?”

“Let me take the money out there!” urged Griff. “Just keep quiet about
catching me here——”

“Even if the money belonged to your father, which the stockholders of
the corporation might argue out with you,” said Bob seriously, “taking
it, just overnight, would be—wrong, to say the least.”

“Why don’t you go to Mr. Parsons—to your father?” suggested Curt.

“He’s got all this worry on his mind, trying to see what’s wrong——”

“Yes,” admitted Al, “I guess it would be better not to worry him about
this, if we could see how to get around it and still not let you take
this money.”

“We suspected him,” Curt said, rather ashamed but anxious to be as frank
as Griff, whose manner and actions convinced them that he had been
absolutely honest with them. “We suspected him of being mixed up in
something.”

“Everybody suspects everybody else,” admitted Griff. “Dad suspects
Barney, Barney suspects me, I suspect the supply clerk and the
bookkeeper of working together to get cheaper supplies here, and they
suspect each other and everybody else—even you three!”

“Well,” Bob waved the statement aside, “that isn’t getting down to brass
tacks. Think, for five minutes, everybody. We’ve got to help Griff!”

Seeing their case destroyed, their chief suspect cleared, they turned
loyally to help to retrieve themselves by aiding him.

For five minutes no one spoke.