The Little Army

 

 

 

 

Chapter 14

 

Chip felt the raft lifted and pulled toward the water after the booming of a distant explosion came to their ears.  Again, he cursed his inability to help the kids or Lee.  His leg throbbed incessantly, a fiery brand coursing up through his groin and into his chest.  Each time he shifted position, he felt the grinding sensation of something moving against the bone.  Most likely, the bullet actually was.   Sweat poured down his face; his shirt stuck to his back.  The cooling breeze helped, but not much. 

When the boat was in the water, the smallest children were placed in the cockpit with him.   He felt the rocking motion that he usually enjoyed so much, but even that seemed to add to his misery now as it also jostled his leg.  Gritting his teeth against the added movement as the rest of the kids climbed in, he felt his awareness floating in and out like the waves trying to push the boat back to the shore.  Birnok and Gunnar picked up paddles and began rowing furiously.   Stefan was at the transom, working the small outboard motor.  With a slight cough, it came to life and they shot forward. 

“You okay, Commander Chip?” Meeka asked, her face close to his, concern easily discernable. 

“Okay, Meeka,” he replied tersely, stifling a gasp of pain as the surf slapped against the bottom and made the boat buck.  “I . . . the explosion was from that direction,” he said pointing.

“Yes, Stefan is going where boat should be,” Meeka reminded him. 

Then Chip remembered.  Lee had given the older children lessons in naval navigating earlier in the day.  He had also taught them basic Morse code, how to use a flare gun and a few other things that might be needed in case they were separated.   Every time he had awakened in that cellar, either Lee was teaching the kids something there or he was out teaching them something on the bluff.  The skipper hadn’t had any sleep since his enforced rest the day before last when that truck door had nailed him.  While that wasn’t anything new, it nevertheless worried him. 

Sighing, Chip could only hope for the best.  When Lee was back with them he could sleep and let the kids navigate.  He watched the sure movements of Stefan, heard Meeka consulting with Leela and others, and saw the younger kids taking care of the babies.  These kids were something else, he conceded with pride.  It had been a rocky start, but they had molded together from necessity and from loyalty to each other and then to Lee and him.

A dark shape loomed ahead.  The patrol boat?  But he had heard the explosion. 

“Patrol boat,” Dasha hissed over the noise of the waves. 

Chip pulled out the pistol he insisted on carrying.  “Cut the engines, Stefan,” he ordered.  “I don’t see the machine gun at the bow, but they were undoubtedly armed with hand weapons.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” Stefan whispered. 

“Stay alert,” Chip reminded them, although he could see that it wasn’t necessary.  They were all, except the toddlers, wound like clock springs.

“Ready missiles,” Meeka ordered, using the word the kids had adapted for their slings. 

Chip saw six kids load their slings.  Everything seemed to waver as the patrol boat approached.  No!  Have to stay awake.  There was a voice from the boat.  A familiar voice?  Was it speaking English?  He couldn’t tell, but there was something strange, almost surreal about all of this. 

Then as the patrol boat came within range a figure loomed on the fly bridge, next to the machine gun housing. 

Just as Meeka cried, ‘Fire!’ Chip heard Lee’s voice call out.   He cried out, “No! Lee!”  But his own consciousness wavered, danced and then everything slid into darkness. 

 

                                  ===============================

 

It was quiet except for the slapping of waves against the sides of the two boats.  Dasha looked at Meeka, his eyes wide with fear.  “Did the XO call out the skipper’s name?  Could that be who….?”

“Shhh!” Meeka hissed.  They all listened, but the sounds of water were all they heard.  “Stefan,” Meeka called out softly.   He was by her side in an instant.  “We must see who it is on that boat.”  She turned to the rest.  “You will keep your slings ready while we are checking it out.  If it is clear, then everyone will transfer to the patrol boat.”  She felt dread in her heart, dread that it could have been the skipper they had just attacked and dread if it wasn’t.  

“But what about Commander Chip?” Leela asked. 

“We will worry about that when the time comes,” Meeka said tersely.  “Stefan, do you have a pistol?”

“Yes.”

Birnok and Rika paddled closer to the patrol boat and held the raft steady as Meeka and Stefan climbed on board the ominously quiet vessel.   While Stefan stood guard, Meeka checked the unconscious figure in front of the deckhouse.  He was still alive; there was a pulse.  She pulled out the small flashlight that had been with the lifeboat and shined it on the man’s face.  Skipper!  It was the skipper!   “Stefan?  Did you find anyone else?”

“No.  Is that….?”

“Yes, help me get him off here.”  Together they carried/dragged the unconscious man behind the controls and laid him gently on the deck.  Meeka called out to the others.  “Birnok, tie off the raft.   Make sure it’s tied fast.   We are going to take this boat.  It’s faster and safer.” 

“But the XO?” Leela asked.

“We will just have to be careful,” she returned quickly.  They had to make the transfer quickly.  Leela came first and then the babies were handed over.  The younger children came next.  Gunnar, Leela, she and Stefan carefully pulled Commander Chip onto the edge of the lifeboat and with Dasha, Rika and Birnok’s help, they lifted him onto the bigger boat and laid him next to the skipper.  He groaned, but didn’t wake up.  All the supplies were hauled on board as well and then the lifeboat was cast off. 

“Stefan, let’s get out of here before they send another patrol boat,” Meeka said.

“Aye, aye,” he said with a grin.  Soon the boat roared to life and with Birnok studying the stars, they set out for the open sea.    “How is the skipper?” he asked over his shoulder, when they had gone about a mile.  He had to shout to make himself heard. 

“He has a lump on his head where one of the stones hit him.  I think one also hit him in the chest,” Leela reported.

As the girl continued to check over her patient, he began to groan softly.  Then Lee opened his eyes and gazed at the worried children.   His head pounded horribly and he felt aches and pains that hadn’t been there earlier.  The children!  He tried to sit up, but the pounding increased and was augmented with a sick dizziness.  He lay back with another groan.   Meeka leaned closer.  “Skipper….”

He felt the blackness trying to converge on him again, but he hung desperately onto consciousness.  “Chief Meeka, report,” he murmured. 

“Report?”

“You tell me what’s happened.  Where . . . where we are.  Important things….”

“Oh, we are going to ocean in boat you took.  All are on board and safe.  Commander Chip is asleep.  You are hurt,” she said in a rush.  “Oh, I am so sorry, Skipper!”

“No . . . apologies.  You . . . you all did fine,” he replied, feeling that he was losing the battle to stay awake.  “Damn fine crew.  Carry on, Chief Meeka.”  And he surrendered to the darkness.

Meeka, although worried about him, nevertheless beamed with pride at his words. 

 

                       ==============================

 

Lieutenant Commander Michael Vincent, captain of the HMS Signet was just waking up when he got the call from the bridge.  He picked up the receiver.  “Yes, Brandley?” he asked his executive officer.  He listened; suddenly awake.  “A patrol boat?  And signaling?”  He rubbed his chin.  “I’ll be there in ten minutes.  If anything develops before, give me word.” 

In eight minutes, he was dressed and shaved.  In nine he was on the bridge.  The officer on watch handed him his binoculars.  The signal was Morse code.  The standard S-O-S.   “You didn’t say it was a distress signal.”

“Sir, we were mindful of the situation with the Hermes,” came the clipped reply from Ensign Walters. 

Yes, Vincent remembered.  Another patrol boat had displayed a white flag and then fired upon the light cruiser when it had approached close.  One man had been killed in the attack.  “Weaponry fix?”

“None that we can make out, Captain.”

“Signal back asking the nature of their distress,” Vincent ordered, not taking his eyes off the vessel.  The sky was getting lighter.  The boat began another message.  It was undecipherable.  Then the distress signal again.

“I can’t make it out, sir,” Walters told him the obvious.

“Yes,” Vincent murmured.  “But I can see enough to determine that there is no machine gun in front.  Can’t tell if the depth charge launcher is at ready.”

As the sun rose, he continued to study the boat, now only a hundred yards off the port bow.  Then he did a double take.  The individual on the fly bridge was either a very short adult or . . . or a child.   He continued to watch.  He could make out more children on the deck behind the wheelhouse.   They seemed to range in all ages, but all were definitely children.  Where were the adults in charge of this brood, he wondered?  “Bring us around, slow, to allow the boat to meet us.  Tell the master-at-arms to be ready, but do nothing without my orders.  Call Lt. Brandley on deck.  I’m going down to meet our refugees.”  He handed the binoculars back to Walters.  “The bridge is yours, Ensign.  Oh, and call a medical team on deck.”

He stood at the rail watching in the continually growing daylight as the small patrol boat deftly came along side.  He didn’t know if the young man at the wheel had previous experience with small ocean craft before, but either way, he was doing an excellent job.  “Young man,” he called out when they were within several meters of the side of the Signet.  “Cut your engines.”  The order was quickly carried out. 

Vincent turned to the seamen watching with him.  “Make that vessel fast.”  The patrol boat was soon bobbing in time with the light cruiser.  “Help these people on board.”

“Sir,” a new voice called over his shoulder as children were helped onto the deck and the two unconscious men were tended to.  It was Lieutenant Brandley.

“It seems that our latest group of refugees are a bit younger than normal, Lieutenant,” Vincent observed wryly. 

“I thought we were only supposed to pick up foreign MIA’s and former regime sympathizers, Captain.”  Brandley sounded puzzled. 

Vincent continued watching the action below him as he answered.  “I suspect we’ll get all the information when everyone is aboard, Paul.”  But he, too, wondered. 

“We’re bringing the two men aboard, sir,” one of the physician’s attendants called out.  “The first one needs surgery.  Gunshot wound.”

“Brandley, inform the doctor.”

“Aye, sir.” 

As the two men were carefully loaded onto stretchers and pulled on board, Vincent studied them as best he could.  Both were bearded, in ragged farm or work clothes, although the blond man’s shirt might once have been part of a business suit.  The two men were taken below and fourteen children stood before him on the deck.  The two oldest were standing in front of the little group and had been the last to leave, ignoring the seamen until the two adults had been evacuated.  Not one of them said a word.  Even the baby was silent.

Vincent introduced himself as well as his executive officer.  He assured their safety as well as the safety of the two men now below in sickbay.  There was no response.  After ten minutes, there was still no response. He sighed in exasperation.  Vincent felt he was at a standoff with the children positioned in front of him on the deck.  Not one of them could be more than twelve-years-old.  They continued to refuse to give their names.  Indeed, he felt that most of them probably couldn’t even speak English. 

A call from below interrupted the impasse.  It was from sickbay.  “Yes, Doctor?”  He was given a report.  That added to his frustration because he now had the confirmation of what he had assumed.  At least one of the two men below was an American.  His fevered ravings, when understood, were in English—American English and he was blond and blue-eyed, a total antithesis to most of the people of this region.  The other adult, still unconscious, could possibly have been one of these children’s countrymen by his looks, but the captain seriously doubted it.  He wished one of these waifs would open up and enlighten him. 

The wish was almost immediately granted.  “I am Meeka, COB of boat,” the tallest child, a slender girl of maybe twelve years, said.  

He had felt her to be the leader of the group from the moment they had all clambered aboard.  If not her, then the boy next to her.    Vincent almost choked.  “What?  What did you say?” 

“I am Meeka, COB of boat.  I am at head if Skipper and XO in-ca-pa-cee-ta-ted.”  The girl said it with some great satisfaction, as though it was something recently learned and repeatedly practiced.

Vincent and Lt. Brandley gaped at each other for a moment and then turned back to the group. 

Meeka began pointing out the others as though, in the time of the impasse, she had decided that the two British officers could be trusted.  “Stefan,” she indicated the boy next to her. “He is I-S, Chief under me, he checks out villages, makes sure they are safe, talks to people, makes sure they are good.  Leela is C-M-O.”  

At that the girl called Leela stepped forward and began speaking.  It was as Vincent had suspected.  Most of these children didn’t know any English. 

Meeka translated.  “Leela, she takes care of XO, and now Skipper.  She is wanting to go and watch over him and Skipper.”

“Soon, Chief Meeka.  Please continue with your introductions,” Vincent urged her gently.  He could only imagine what this group had been through. 

“Begging your pardon, sir, but shouldn’t we be getting the names of the two injured men?” Brandley asked. 

Vincent laughed.  “I think that’s already been taken care of, Paul.  Weren’t there two U.S. submariners on the roster of MIA’s?”

“Yes, sir, they were….”  He looked at the small printout on his clipboard.  “Commander Lee B. Crane and Lt. Commander Charles P. Morton.” 

“Yes, Paul.  Captain and XO of the SSRN Seaview, respectively, I believe.” 

Brandley looked blank for a brief second and then smiled, gazing at the children with new understanding.  “They gave the children naval designations.”

“Indeed, and their respective duties.  It seems these kids learned them well.”

Meeka had been studying the two older men carefully while they talked.  She recognized Lee’s name, but not the other.  She did also recognize the rank that Captain Vincent mentioned.  “Lee, that is right. Skipper. But he is captain, not commander.  The other, the XO, his name is Chip.”

Nickname, Vincent reckoned and then nodded. “Duly noted, Chief Meeka.  But I think you were introducing us to the rest of your crew.”

Meeka nodded and continued with a dignity belying her years.  “Dasha, he is G-M, gunner’s mate, he find weapons.  Willam is T-M, tor-pe-do-man’s mate, he helps Dasha.  Rika, she is boat-swain mate, she watches for enemy. Birnok is Nav, he make sure we go in right . . . direction.  Gunnar is Cookie, he cooks, Triska is gal-lee mate, finds food for Gunnar.  Jillia is gal-lee mate, also.  Jons is Q-M, he find other things we need, Mirko is P-A, he helps Leela and takes care of Shonna, who is too little.  She is only seaman,” Meeka said, pointing to the baby.  “Arion is also only seaman,” Meeka pointed toward a two-year-old with huge dark eyes, sucking his thumb.  “Ranos is E-O, he sings songs.  Skipper says we damned fine crew.”

At her last words, Vincent had a hard time keeping a straight face, but he succeeded.  “Indeed you are, Chief Meeka.”  

“We are safe now?” Meeka asked.  Vincent nodded.   “Good, then I give report to Skipper.”

“As soon as our CMO says it’s all right, you may see your commanding officers—your skipper and XO.”   He was going to see them, too.  He definitely wanted the story behind this motley crew.

“Good.”  Then Meeka stood quietly, not quite able to figure out what to do next.

The captain turned to Brandley.  “Would you contact the Nelson Institute of Marine Research and inform Admiral Nelson that we have found his lost packages.  Add that we also have fourteen smaller ones for him to deal with.”   Vincent wondered what Admiral Nelson would think when he received a message like that.   Just as well it had to be soft coded.  The Yanks would most likely be tearing their hair out if they knew.    Brandley chuckled as he left to have the message sent.  Vincent turned to a nearby seaman.  “Henson, would you kindly escort this crew to the galley and make sure they get a good, hot meal.”  The young man saluted and after Vincent had explained to the children what was happening next, was able to conduct the fourteen children below decks.   The captain stood quietly for a moment, gazing toward the distant shoreline, before he turned to join the children below decks.

 

 

Chapter Fifteen
Chapter One
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea Contents
Main Page