The Little Army

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

The two submariners lay on their stomachs at the crest of a hill overlooking a small town.  Their uniforms were dusty and sweaty by now, and they were hardly recognizable from the striking clean-cut figures of the night before.  How Chip had managed to navigate the narrow, pothole-laced paved road, Crane couldn’t even begin to imagine.  The highway had deteriorated only twenty or so miles out of the capital city.   However, his friend had done it and about an hour before dawn, they had turned toward the coast from the northerly route they had been on since they had left the capital city of Tirea. 

“There’s not much gas left in the tank, Lee.  We’re going to have to try to steal some soon,” Chip said. 

Shaking his head, Crane continued to study the town below them.  It was a mostly agricultural area, with farms dotting the area all through the valley.  There were several larger buildings; the largest undoubtedly the government building.  Another, if he remembered his knowledge of the country correctly, was a cooperative.  There would be a school, a few stores, at least partially government controlled.  There was a church on the outskirts of the town farthest from them.  He had heard that the former, scratch that, Lee thought; now present government had even infiltrated the churches, using indoctrinated priests to teach the tenets of good citizenship along with religion.  He wondered about the large building next to the chapel, though.  The government ran the schools, so it couldn’t be a school.  Sweat trickled down his face as the sun rose higher, beating down on the two men.  People gathered in the town square, listening to someone who appeared to be in the uniform of a government official.  Apparently telling the populace that they were back to statue quo, he thought caustically.  No wonder most of the people he had met the year before seemed beaten down and confused.  Their old government had been a repressive presence for over two decades and the new one had only lasted a week.  Officially less than that since the swearing ceremony hadn’t had a chance to take place.

“Why not, Lee?” Chip asked, breaking his friend’s reverie.    They had been close in Annapolis, but their relationship had risen to a new level when Lee Crane had been tagged to replace John Phillips.  Often it seemed that they could almost read each other’s thoughts, but there were still times, like now, when his companion was almost impossible to read.

“Why not what?”

“Why not steal gas for the motorcycle?”

“Oh, sorry, because the only way to continue with a vehicle is through town.  We can skirt around the village on foot with less chance of discovery,” Crane said.

“Then what do we do, walk all the way to the coast?”

“Steal a truck,” Lee suggested. 

Chip chuckled.  “Oh?  So you can drive?”

“Well, after that kidney jouncing ride you just took me on, maybe that’s not such a bad idea.”

The XO grinned and then his countenance grew serious.  “You mentioned that we needed to get different clothes,” Morton said, gazing at the intent face of his commander, still studying the town below them.  People were moving around now, the vehicle with the government official having left, the announcement apparently over.  The people looked busy, going from building to building, or maybe they were just stunned and wandering aimlessly.  On the nearby farms, workers were bent over, picking, weeding or planting, he couldn’t tell which.  Wheat grew on the hillside just below the two men.  “Where do you suggest we do that?”

“See that church down there?”

“Yes, on the other side of the valley?” Chip asked, pointing.

Lee nodded.  “I think that would be our best bet.  I think the farmers are too sharp-eyed to steal clothes from and the government offices are in the middle of town. The church located on the far end of the valley.  Quick access to the road leading to the coast.”

“So we hope that the friendly neighborhood cleric will take pity on us?”

Lee’s hazel eyes gazed at him reproachfully.  “No.  I don’t even want the priest to notice us. Think about it, though.  A church is empty or almost empty most of the time.  There are usually only one or two priests, maybe a couple of ground’s keepers.  What I’ve been told, that’s even more the case here than in other places.  Most of the people only go to the churches on Sunday, not daring to visit at other times.”

“The churches are persecuted here?”

“Let’s just say that they’re not on the government’s most favored list.  Unless of course, this is one of the ‘indoctrinated’ priests.”

“Okay,” Chip conceded.  “So how are we going to get down there? There’s a lot of brush and trees up here, but very little nearer to the church.”

“I know.  We get as close as we can get and then go in after dark,” Lee explained.  Where there was brush and trees, the two men furtively made their way around the outskirts of the town.  The uniform jackets were peeled off as the sun got higher.   A quickly dug hole was their final resting place. 

“The Navy will definitely owe me for this.  I can’t believe I’m burying over a hundred bucks worth of material,” Chip complained. 

“Still got the trousers—such as they are.   Just send the bill to ONI,” Lee said caustically.  “I am.”

Chip smothered a laugh.  “Sounds like a plan, Skipper,” he tried to say nonchalantly.

When they could go no further, the two men hunkered down and rested in the shade of a dense thicket a few hundred feet from the church.  It afforded them a view of the road heading toward the coast, as well as a good view of the church and its larger building.  Lee watched carefully, trying to draw his conclusions on the purpose of the building.  He felt frustrated that he wasn’t able to filter what he was seeing into something that would be useful to them.  He felt tired, too.  Last night, of course, neither of them had slept, and the several nights before, Lee had slept only sporadically.  There had just been too much going on with the Seaview to allow him much rest.  His eyelids kept drooping in the warmth of the late afternoon.

“It’s an orphanage!” Morton hissed.

Crane jerked wide-awake.  “What?”

“Lee, it’s an orphanage.   Look.  There are some younger children working in a garden behind the building and older ones coming from the school further in town.”

Great! Lee thought.  Not enough to avoid a priest….  He knew there would be no chance of stealing off a clothesline with kids around.

“So now what?” Chip asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe we can just watch for a while longer.  Only a few hours until dark anyway,” Chip suggested. 

“Yeah,” Crane answered, his voice indicative of his intense displeasure.  “At the rate our luck is going, we’ll be going back and digging up our jackets.”

So they waited.  About an hour before sunset, a truck drove up in front of the church. It was a deuce and a half with a tarpaulin cover.  Three soldiers got out, and while one stood by the vehicle with his machine gun at ready, the other two walked toward the church and entered.   There were muffled cries inside and then a procession of twelve teen-agers marched out of the orphanage and to the truck.  The first one hesitated and was shoved forward with the butt of a guard’s machine gun.  There was no further resistance. All of the young people climbed into the truck in absolute silence.  

As the guards were getting into the truck, the priest came out of the building, his voice strident in his agitation.  Lee couldn’t understand what was being said, but could only assume that this was not a planned removal.  The last guard slapped the priest and shoved him to the ground.  With a soft growl of anger, Crane began to rise from his position.  A hand restrained him. 

“I don’t know what’s going on, Lee, but we can’t get involved.  Besides, if we began a gun fight with those goons, one of those kids could be hit,” Morton whispered in his commanding officer’s ear.

With a sigh, Crane crouched back down.  “They are most likely being taken to a labor camp.”

“What?!  None of them can be more than fifteen or sixteen.”

The truck roared off, biting off any reply the captain might have had.  Dust filtered to their position and they had to fight to keep from coughing and attracting attention to themselves.  The priest slowly picked himself up and watched the cloud of dust that was part of his group of charges.  A tall, slender, dark-haired girl of about twelve came out and joined him, asking a question.  The priest answered and then pointed toward the building where the two Americans saw faces staring out of each ground floor window.  The pair went back inside. 

As the sky darkened another truck drove in front of the orphanage.  “They’re coming for more?” Morton asked incredulously.  “There can’t be any more teens in the group.”

“Wouldn’t be surprised, considering the way they pushed him around, if the priest ends up with no kids to take care of,” Lee replied, his voice holding a hard edge.  “I don’t think this regime gives a rat’s behind about the age of its workers.”

Again, three guards jumped out of the truck, one of them remaining behind to watch the truck.  This time, though, the other two didn’t even reach the door of the orphanage.  The priest burst out of the door, gesturing wildly and shouting heatedly. 

“He’s got guts, I’ll say that for him,” Chip murmured. 

Crane motioned him to silence, intent on the scene before him.  Dread knotted itself in his stomach, as he was very much afraid of what would happen next.  And what he dreaded happened with startling speed.  One of the guards jerked a pistol out and fired, hitting the priest solidly and throwing him to the ground.  Lee jumped to his feet.  He had had enough.  Involved?  Just being here involved him. 

The guard on their side of the truck only had time to give a gasp of surprise before Lee tackled him, slamming him with crushing force against the truck and knocking him unconscious.   The noise brought a guard from the other side, but Chip was right behind Lee and clobbered him with the butt of the machine gun he was carrying.   The third guard ran around the corner of the truck and came to an abrupt stop with the muzzle of Crane’s gun in his abdomen.   Even in the dark, it was easy to see the man’s eyes widen in intense shock and then fear.   Lee prodded the machine gun a bit harder in the guard’s stomach.  “I’m not an unarmed priest,” he growled softly.  “Not so easy now, is it?” 

The guard’s mouth opened and closed silently, sweat suddenly running down the side of his face. 

“Drop it,” Crane said in the man’s language, knowing at the same time that he was horribly mutilating the words.  The machine gun hit the ground with a satisfying thud.  He poked the man in the stomach again and then without warning, whacked him over the head with the barrel.  Without so much as a groan, the guard sank to the ground.   Lee gazed at the form of the priest on the ground and started forward.  A click behind him made his breath catch in his throat and he pivoted in time to hear the sharp pop of a pistol and Chip’s sudden stifled cry of pain. 

With a muttered curse, Crane reached his exec in two steps, clicking the switch off the rapid fire at the same time and firing a round into the attacker.  This time the guard stayed down.  Lee knelt beside Chip.  The remaining daylight showed his friend clutching his upper right leg.  Lee tried to look at the wound, but Chip continued holding the wound.  “I was an idiot!” Lee spat out in self-recrimination.  “I thought I had knocked him out.  Let me see.”

“It didn’t hit the bone and it’s not bleeding that much.  I’ll be okay,” Chip hissed between clenched teeth.  “Just have to get over the initial shock.”  He looked around at the tire he was leaning against.  “You did say you wanted to steal a truck, didn’t you?”

Lee sighed.  “Yeah, I did, but not to transport an injured passenger.”

“Lee, I think the priest got it worse than I did.  Check him out and then we better get him in the orphanage before the locals get curious.”

“Somehow, I don’t think they’re going to get overly curious; not with this change of politics.  That was the only thing that saved my butt last year.  Everyone was too scared to get involved,” Crane said, hoping he was still right.  “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes!  I’m fine,” Chip snapped.  “Take care of the priest.”

Lee nodded and stepped over to the wounded man.  He was older, his hair salt and pepper, his face dark from the sun and the wind, and lined with the worries and cares of his job.  The girl that had been out earlier was squatting next to him, her eyes large and swimming with tears.  She was unbuttoning his shirt.  Another girl, one about the same age, maybe a little younger, Lee thought, came out of the orphanage, followed by about a dozen other kids ranging from about eleven down to a baby in the arms of another child.  “Get back in the house,” he growled, motioning for them to leave.  The second girl continued over to them, but at a word from the first girl, the rest went back in the building.   Crane gazed at the two girls and then at the priest, whose shirt was blood soaked.  “I am going to take him in the house where I can see his wound better.”

The first girl nodded.  “Yes, that is good thing to do.”

Crane was hoping that someone knew English, but hadn’t counted on it.  Carefully, he picked up the older man and carried him as gently as he could into the orphanage.  Still, the man cried out softly as he walked toward the door.  At a word from the girl in their own language two boys went to Chip and helped him up.  Another word and two more children ran out and began to drag the guards behind a shed near the back of the orphanage.  Lee couldn’t help but be impressed, even though he felt uncomfortable dealing with so many children.   The second girl opened the door and motioned into another room.  There was a bed on which he gently laid the priest.  He peeled back the blood-soaked shirt and saw blood welling from an abdominal wound.  Lee couldn’t help it; he shuddered in sympathy.  The wound was in nearly the same area the admiral had shot him while under the control of Krueger a few years earlier. 

He looked up at the second girl and found that she had already anticipated his request.  She had strips of clean, white material in her arms.  Leaning over, she began to pack the wound.  Lee took the rest of them.  “Water.  I need clean water to wash this.”

“It will do no good,” the soft voice of the priest said in accented, but perfectly understandable English.  “I can feel it.”

Lee held the bandage against the wound.  “I had a similar wound and I survived.”  He wasn’t about to go into the details of that one.  His intent was to give some encouragement. 

“You must have . . . had very good care,” the priest replied. 

Lee nodded.  

“You are American?  I am Father Vincente.”  He took a tremulous breath and then moaned in pain.  “My English is rusty.”

“Your English is excellent.”

Despite his pain, the priest studied him intently.  “What are you doing here?  It isn’t very safe for Americans here.”

Lee smiled softly.  “That, Father, is an understatement.  My executive officer and I were representing, uh, a scientific firm at the inaugural festivities for the new government.”

The priest nodded.  “But you are military?”

“You might say that.  We are with the Nelson Institute of Marine Research.  My name is Lee Crane and my partner is Chip Morton.”

Father Vincente groaned and coughed.  Lee knew that there would be nothing he could do to help the priest, so the older man’s next words came as no surprise to him.  “I am ready to die.  I have done my best.”  He gazed deeply into Lee’s eyes, his countenance desperate.  “But there is one thing that I fear.”

“What’s that, Father?” Lee asked.

“The children.  Already the older ones have been taken away to the labor camps.  These will have the same fate.  Please, I know you and your friend are heading for the coast.”

“How do you know that?”

The priest smiled.  The girl next to him wiped his sweaty brow with a damp cloth.  “I have helped others leave the country in the past.”  His countenance grew serious.   “Promise me you will take the children.  Get them safely away.”

Lee felt his jaw drop.  “What?”

“Promise me you will take them away from here.  They do not deserve to be slaves.  Promise me.”  He groaned and then cried out. 

Lee saw a sea of faces staring through the open door.  He had fought some of the most horrific villains and creatures imaginable, but the fear he felt now was worse than what he had felt at those times.  What in the world would he do with a dozen or more small children?  Most were younger than that bratty Prince Ang had been.  “I don’t know anything about….” 

“It doesn’t matter, just promise me.”  Father Vincente reached up and grabbed Lee’s hand.  “By the God of Heaven, promise me.  I can see that you have had the responsibility of lives in your hands.  Let me die knowing that these little ones will be led away to safety.”

And Lee found himself nodding.  “I promise.”     

 

 

Chapter Three

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