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   Chapter 1 THE LETTER FROM THE WAR DEPARTMENT

Uncle Sam's Boys as Lieutenants; or, Serving Old Glory as Line Officers By H. Irving Hancock Characters: 15634

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


WHEW, but it's hot here!" grumbled Sergeant Noll Terry, of the United States Army.

"That's an odd complaint to hear from a young man who served so actively for two years in the tropics," laughed Mrs. Overton, a short, plump, middle-aged matron.

"Well, Mother, it is a hot day," put in Sergeant Hal Overton quietly.

"Yes, it is," agreed Hal's mother, "though you two, who came from the Philippines the very picture of health can't feel the weather to-day much. New Jersey isn't in the tropics."

Hal's mother said that with an air of finality. Her son and his chum had been through the most strenuous forms of active army service in Uncle Sam's colonial possessions, the Philippine Islands. If they could endure the heat in that tropical belt, even that day's broiling weather at home must seem cool by comparison.

"I suppose you have an idea, Mother, that the nearer you go to the equator the hotter the weather gets."

"Well, isn't it so?" challenged Mrs. Overton.

"It may be, as far as actual degrees of heat are marked off on the thermometer," explained Sergeant Hal. "But I'll stick to it, Mother, that the average of weather that we struck in the Philippines was not nearly so disagreeable as the weather is here to-day."

"That's so," nodded youthful Sergeant Terry, with emphasis.

"I don't understand that," replied Mrs. Overton, looking a good deal puzzled.

"I don't pretend to understand it, either, Mother," Hal continued. "But it's a fact that there are very few spots in the actual tropics that seem so disagreeable as are New York City and some places in New Jersey in the heated terms of July and August."

"That astonishes me," declared Mrs. Overton. "I have always supposed that, the further south one goes in summer, the hotter one finds it. So New York City is hotter in summer than the tropics?"

"It seems hotter," Sergeant Hal affirmed.

The boys were more or less inclined to joke Mrs. Overton, because, while there are many pleasant days in the tropics, particularly near the coast, the weather is for the most part undeniably hot and oppressive.

"Anyhow," remarked Noll, philosophically, "the hardest thing we have to do here is to walk a short distance down the street and buy another ice cream."

"I'd rather be working," retorted Hal quickly. "I'd rather be doing anything than lying idly around like this!"

"Henry!" cried his mother reproachfully. She was sure to be hurt or angry when she addressed him so formally. "Don't you care anything about being at home, after you've been away from us for more than three years?"

"Of course I care about being home, Mother," Sergeant Hal made haste to rejoin, as he rose, went over and kissed her. "But I don't believe you can gain a hundredth of an idea as to the suspense Noll and I are under at present. When we get our orders from the War Department we'll know-one way or the other."

"Oh, you're safe enough for your commission as second lieutenant, Hal," Noll broke in. "I only wish I felt half as safe for myself as I do for you."

"It doesn't seem fair that you shouldn't both get your commissions as second lieutenants," murmured Mrs. Overton. "You're both certain that you passed your final examinations at Fort Leavenworth."

"We'd both get our commissions, Mother, if there were vacancies enough. However, this year fifty-nine young soldiers passed their final examinations, and there are only forty-two vacancies to be filled from the ranks. Consequently, seventeen of us--"

"It isn't fair," broke in Mrs. Overton, with all a mother's logic where her son is concerned. "All of you who passed ought to be appointed officers in the Army."

"Seventeen of us won't be," sighed Hal.

Ever since their first enlistment Hal and Noll had been imbued with the ambition to rise from the ranks, and become officers. This promotion from the ranks is not as simple a matter as young people might gain from reading the stories of some misinformed authors who know nothing of actual military service. The enlisted man who would rise from the ranks must first of all be sure that his military record is fine and clean, and that his reputation for coolness and bravery is firmly established. But this is only the beginning for the ambitious soldier in the ranks. He must study almost incessantly, for, when his turn comes to be promoted to a second lieutenancy, he must be fitted to take a stiff academic examination and pass it with credit. That examination, in Sergeant Noll's grim description, "is enough to make a college professor's hair turn gray." There is no easy way of rising from the ranks to become an officer.

Hal and Noll, following the method provided by law, had gone up for their preliminary examinations in the Philippines. Both had succeeded in passing, though Noll was much nearer the bottom of the list than his chum. Then, a good many months later, both young sergeants had been ordered home from the Philippines, that they might undergo their final examination for commissions. As they were "up" for commissions in the infantry arm of the service, these two youthful soldiers were sent before a board of Army officers at Fort Leavenworth. In the interval between the examinations both young soldiers had studied harder than ever. They believed that they had passed these final examinations in July. They had then been ordered to their homes to await the action of the War Department. It was now well along in August.

"You haven't either one of you appeared on the street in your Army uniforms since you returned home," remarked Mrs. Overton, presently. "Noll, why don't you put on your uniform to-night and bring your mother over here? Then Hal can put on his uniform and you can both take your mothers out this evening. Don't you suppose that, when American women give their sons up to the Army, these same women like once in a while to be seen in public with their sons in uniform?"

"Why, yes, we can do that, of course, Mrs. Overton," Noll agreed readily. "But wouldn't you rather wait a few days and see if we don't obtain the right to wear officers' uniforms?"

"That won't happen in ages," declared Hal's mother warmly. "Every one over in Washington is sound asleep during these hot days. Mrs. Terry and I will have to wait until winter if we must wait to see you both put on lieutenants' uniforms."

"I'm horribly afraid that my mother will have to wait even longer than that," sighed Noll.

Tr-r-r-r-rill! sounded a shrill whistle up the street.

"I wonder if he's coming here?" murmured Mrs. Overton nervously.

Tr-r-r-rill! "Overton!" sounded the postman's voice. "Oh-young Overton!"

Hal fairly bounded out of the little parlor, through the short hallway, and pulled the front door open.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Colton," was Hal's almost shaky greeting. Hal had known this postman ever since the young soldier had been a boy in his first trousers.

"Good afternoon, Hal," rejoined the postman. "One letter-for you. I'll be back to ask you about it to-morrow morning."

Hal stood in the doorway, almost dazed. It was a long, official-looking envelope that he held in his hand. Up in one corner he made out the words, "War Department-Official Business."

Then, still clutching the envelope, Hal walked unsteadily back into the little parlor.

"By George-he's got it!" almost shouted Noll. "What's-what's the real word, Hal?"

Noll was now standing on his feet, actually trembling.

Mrs. Overton fairly flew to her son.

"What is it, Hal? What's the answer?" she demanded, in a shaking voice that was but little above a whisper.

"It's-it's addressed, 'Lieutenant Henry Overton, U. S. A.,'" replied Hal, turning the envelope so that his mother might read. But a sudden rush of mist to her eyes made the letters blur.

"Whoop

!" let out Sergeant Noll. "Hal, you've won out!"

"Why don't you open the envelope?" asked Mrs. Overton tremulously.

"I'm afraid I'm almost too dizzy to think of anything," answered Hal in a strained voice.

For answer his eager mother snatched the envelope from his hands, caught up her sewing scissors from a table, and held the envelope up to the light.

"Now, take out your letter, Hal, as quickly as you can, and let us know what it says," commanded Mrs. Overton.

Hal withdrew the letter from the envelope. It was from the adjutant general of the Army, stating that Hal had passed the examinations and that the President had just appointed him, ad interim, a second lieutenant of infantry in the United States Army.

"Now, what's the meaning of that awful 'ad interim'?" demanded Mrs. Overton.

"Why, you see, Mother, Congress isn't in session just now--"

"I don't see what that has to do with--"

"Why, Mother, officers are appointed by the President, and--"

"And it's none of Congress's business!"

"All appointments to commissions in the Army and Navy, Mother, are made by the President, subject to the approval of the Senate--"

"I just knew there was some string to it all," cried Mrs. Overton.

"As a matter of form the Senate has to approve. But the Senate rarely ever refuses to confirm the President's full list of appointments for the Army and Navy."

"Tell me this, Hal: Is there a bootblack at the Capitol in Washington?"

"I-I think it very likely that there is at least one, Mother."

"Then we'll find out that the bootblack has to be consulted, too, my boy, before we're at all sure that you're really an Army officer."

"Oh, no, Mother," laughed Hal. "I feel just as sure, at this moment, that I'm a second lieutenant in the Army as I shall ever feel."

"I-I hope so," sighed his mother. "But I-well, I'm afraid I don't trust any one in Washington any too thoroughly."

Hal laughed heartily. He had got over the first electric shock of the news, and was happy enough now to laugh at anything.

"Noll, I hope you--" began Mrs. Overton, overflowing with generosity. "Why-where is-what has become of that boy? He was here a moment ago!"

It was certain enough now that Noll Terry was nowhere about.

"Mother," said Hal wisely, "you needn't look for Noll. He's beating a nine-second sprint to his own house."

"He didn't need--"

"Don't you understand? Noll is traveling hot-foot to his own roof to see if the postman on that route has left a long envelope for him."

"Poor boy! I hope he has won his commission, too," sighed Mrs. Overton, wistfully.

"Oh, I think he has."

"He's a nice boy."

"Mother, he's one of the very best fellows in the world."

"I suppose Mr. Ad Interim will have a lot to say about Noll's commission, too," said Hal's mother.

"Ad interim is Latin, Mother. It means 'in the time between,' or something like that."

"Oh," smiled Mrs. Overton. "I didn't know but Ad was the bootblack at the Capitol."

"I feel like running right after Noll," murmured Hal.

"Don't you dare do it, my son. Don't you feel that I've any right to my boy's company in the first moments that such good news has come to him? Hal, I'm thinking how you'll look in your new uniforms-ad interim. Will you order a uniform at once?"

"No; I rather think I won't."

"Why!" demanded Mrs. Overton, eagerly.

"Mother, you may think me reckless, and over-confident. But the fact is, I've already been measured for my new uniforms."

"When? And when will they be here?"

"Do you remember the big mahogany chest that I brought with me from the Philippines, Mother?"

"Yes."

"Well, the whole outfit of uniforms is packed in that chest."

"Henry Overton-you take me right upstairs and unlock that chest-this instant!"

"Come on, Mother!" Hal called back, gayly, as he darted out of the parlor and up the front stairs.

"And they've been here all this time," panted the mother, as her officer-son brought out his key-ring and fumbled at the lock of the mahogany chest. "And you-you-you told me the chest held clothes of yours."

"Well, that wasn't a lie was it, Mother?" Hal threw up the lid and lifted out a tray. "Now, wade into 'em. Look 'em over to your heart's content. Here's the dress sword. Isn't it a beauty?"

Gripping the scabbard with his left hand, Hal drew out the handsome blade with a flourish.

"Ugh! I don't like it, except to look at," shuddered his mother. "I hope my son will never have any need to cut up a fellow-being with that sword."

"Hardly likely," chuckled Hal. "An officer carries only a cane or a stick of some sort just in order that he may point out the location of the enemy, or to indicate some tree on the other side that he thinks has a sharp-shooter up among the foliage, and, of course, he wears his heavy service revolver."

"And an officer never leads a charge, flourishing his sword?"

"Hardly. The officer would be in too much danger from the bullets of his own men if he got in front of them."

"Then an officer isn't in so very much danger, after all," guessed Mrs. Overton, speaking in a tone of relief. "Some one in front of him will stop the bullets."

"No one man can stop a bullet that's going under full steam, Mother. At two or three hundred yards' range, to-day, a bullet will pass through six or eight men in succession, if there are that many men in its path."

"I-I guess I don't want to hear any more of that kind of stuff," shivered the little woman. "It all sounds-awfully dangerous!"

But Hal's mother was not idle. With the deft fingers of a woman she was lifting and laying out the handsome uniforms one by one.

"Here's the one I want you to wear when you go out with your father and me this evening," she said, holding up the full-dress uniform.

Hal laid down the sword he had been examining, stepped over and placed an arm around his mother's waist.

"Mother, dear, I'm afraid you don't understand. An officer, when away from troops and duty, rarely wears his uniform in public. It would be looked upon as a foolish piece of vanity on his part."

"But you wore your sergeant's uniform when you first came home."

"All I can say, Mother, is that the two cases are different. One of these days you'll understand just why an enlisted man goes off post in uniform, and an officer, when away from his duties, ordinarily wears citizen's dress. But here's one uniform, Mother, that I can wear at home in hot weather."

He lifted two garments from near the bottom of the box.

"Why, that's only a set of tennis flannels," objected his mother.

"It's part of an officer's prescribed uniform, just the same," Hal assured her.

"But there's no gold lace, no braid, no shoulder-straps-nothing." Mrs. Overton's voice quivered with disappointment.

"Here's the red sash that goes with the trousers," smiled Hal, bringing to light the article he had named. "That gives the suit quite a gay and military appearance, as you'll soon see."

"It doesn't look like much more than any clerk might wear," remarked Mrs. Overton, doubtfully.

"It isn't meant to. This flannel undress is intended for an officer to wear when he doesn't want to look conspicuous among civilians. I'll go to my room and put it on presently, and then I think you'll like it a whole lot better."

"Maybe," said Mrs. Overton doubtfully.

"All this time," pursued Lieutenant Hal, "I'm wondering whether Noll had found a letter waiting for him at his home, and whether his news was as fine as mine."

"You up there, Hal?" called a voice from below-Noll's.

"Charge!" yelled back the young lieutenant.

Up the stairs very sedately came Noll Terry. His appearance proclaimed the story. He was wearing the tennis flannel undress, red sash and all.

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