The Little Army
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
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
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?”
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?”
“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.
“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.
“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
“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.
“Brandley, inform the doctor.”
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
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.
“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.
“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.”
Captain and XO of the SSRN Seaview, respectively, I
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.
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.
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