The Little Army

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

With a soft sigh, the priest closed his eyes and died.  “He was good man.”  The older girl was standing nearby and reached down and touched the dead man’s brow.   “We bury him now.”

“No time,” Lee said, anxiety for their safety weighing heavily on his mind.  “Someone could come to check out the gunshots at any time.  We have to leave.”  As he stood up, he saw the children slowly filing into the tiny room.  Suddenly it was stifling.  Over their heads, he saw Chip leaning against the doorframe.  “You all right?” he mouthed. 

“Let them bury him, Lee,” Chip said softly. 

Lee felt a burst of anger, the squelched it as he heard soft crying from the children.  The two older girls made no sounds, but simply dressed the priest for burial.  It was as though he was invisible and then he realized that he was.  He was a stranger; these children were mourning someone who had served as their mother and father for heaven only knew how long.  He had promised to take care of them, but here he was taking away their right to give this man a proper burial.  Lee sighed.  The younger children were sobbing, some loudly.   Turning to the girl who had spoken English, he said, “Do the others know English?” 

She looked up from what she was doing and shook her head.  “Priest teach me.  He said good to know.”

“Could you let the other children know that we need to keep as quiet as possible.  And we have to leave right after we bury Father Vincente.”

“I will. Thank you.”

“Thank me for what?”

“Bury Father Vincente,” she said simply. 

“Yeah.  Um, sorry, but we do have to hurry.”

“I am Meeka,” the girl said as though not hearing Lee’s last comment.

“Oh.  I’m Captain Lee Crane.  My friend is Commander Chip Morton.”

Meeka nodded and then turned back to the dead man. Somehow, Lee felt that this was a girl that was perhaps twelve going on twenty-two.  What was he doing when he was twelve?  Worrying about whether Mary Embersoll liked him or Jonathon Harker.  It certainly wasn’t where the next meal was going to come from or who was going to come to take you away to a slave labor camp.   “Carry on.  I’m going to reconnoiter.”   She looked at him briefly with a puzzled look on her face but quickly turned back to her chore.  Lee could only guess that her grasp of the English language was not as good as the priest’s had been. 

Slowly he squeezed past the milling children and was soon by his exec’s side.  “How’s the leg?”

“Painful, but bearable,” Morton responded, still watching the children pay their last respects.

“I want to look at it later,” Crane said tersely.  “But first I need to check around and see what our little gun battle brewed up.  Despite these people’s fear, I still can’t believe that there isn’t anyone curious, especially among the local government bully-boys.”

“I would guess that for the moment, the local governmental bodies are in a bit of disarray, with this coup happening so quickly.” 

“I hope so, Chip.  For all our sakes, I sincerely hope so,” Lee said fervently. 

“Did I actually hear you promise to take these kids to safety?” Chip asked as Crane headed toward the main door. 

Lee turned back, the flash of irritation warning his executive officer.  “Yeah.  I have rocks in my head.”

Chip smiled.  “No, my friend, you have your heart in the right place for these kids just as you do for everyone on the boat.  It’s the right thing.”

Crane frowned.  “Don’t push it, Commander.”  He was not feeling a great deal like a Samaritan at the moment.  Or if he was, it was a very unwilling Samaritan.  On the other hand, Lee knew that he couldn’t have left these kids to the whims of Tirean black shirts.  He stalked out of the orphanage and listened in the darkness.  All he heard were a few night birds and insects.  Lots of insects.  It was a muggy night, the kind that he remembered when he was a kid out catching lightning bugs in a jar.  He walked around the orphanage and gazed across the town.  Lights were out in most of the windows.  Probably part of the curfew. 

Crane walked back into the building and to the doorway.  “Meeka, make sure that window is covered.”  He pointed to the open window for emphasis.  

She nodded and said something to one of the children.  A boy quickly complied, drawing heavy drapes that would hide not only the light, but what was going on from anyone outside.  Crane went back out.  He checked out the three guards.  The two that were still alive had been stripped of their clothing and tied up well out of sight of the truck.  The dead one had simply been stripped.  He wondered what the kids did with the clothes, then he noticed that all of the weapons had been taken, too.  With a muttered curse, Lee continued his patrol.  Machine guns in the hands of children!  He heard a scraping noise in back of the church and realized it was coming from a small cemetery.  A tiny lantern illuminated two boys with shovels.  They were digging a grave.  As he approached, one of them dropped the shovel and snatched up a machine gun that had been near at hand.  A growled command in his own language brought Lee to a complete halt.  He may not know much, but he did know the local word for ‘stop.’  And of course, the gun spoke a universal language.

The boy approached and prodded him with the gun.  With his other hand, he pointed to the grave.  Why, thought Lee in shock and irritation, the little delinquent wants me to dig the grave!  With a speed that caused the boy’s jaw to drop in shock, Lee had jerked the gun out of the boy’s hands and then grabbed a handful of shirt.  The other boy stared at the two of them, shovel still in his hands. 

“You!” Lee hissed angrily.  He dropped the gun so he could make signs to convey his thoughts.  “You will not point a gun at me!”

The boy’s eyes blazed in hot anger.  He said one word and then spat on the ground.  It was one of the other few words that Lee knew—and it wasn’t pretty.  Jerking from Crane’s grasp, the boy returned to the grave and grabbed his shovel.  The American followed him, picking up the pile of confiscated clothing and the rest of the weapons.  The boy continued to glare at him even as he dug.  Lee gazed into the dark hole.  The boys had done admirable work so far, but still it would take far too long.  Putting down his bundle, and with a motion to the smaller of the two boys, the American took the shovel and began digging with the delinquent.  The angry boy gazed at him in the dimness of the full night, his eyes still cold, but he nodded his appreciation. 

By the time the other children had prepared the body, Lee and the boy had finished digging the hole.  Chip accompanied the children and was standing behind the line of sad-faced youngsters.  Meeka and her companions passed the priest’s body down to Lee and the other boy.  Gently, Lee laid the body into the grave and stepped out.  Meeka said some words and then crossed herself.  The others did the same.  “May God take him into His abode and give him rest,” Lee offered softly.  He felt this had been a very brave man and he wished he could have known him better.  Lee picked up the shovel. 

A hand stopped him and he looked into Meeka’s face.  “Please, Lee Crane.  I want to do this.”  With a nod, Lee let her take the shovel and backed away to stand next to Chip.  The children took handfuls of earth and threw it on the corpse; a custom that Crane knew was common in many different cultures.  Meeka and the oldest boy, the delinquint, began to shovel dirt into the grave.

After the hole had been filled, one of the younger children pulled brought a large crucifix that undoubtedly been inside the church and stuck it in the ground at the head of the grave.  Again they crossed themselves.

Meeka walked over to him.  “We must leave.  How?”

The oldest boy approached with the shovel in his hands.  His eyes were still angry, but Lee made no move and said nothing for a moment.  The boy spoke to Meeka and then spat on the ground.

“Stefan says he will not follow you.  Father Vincente his leader, not you.”

Crane frowned.  “Tell Stefan that Father Vincente is dead.  I promised him to get all of you to safety and that is what I plan on doing.”

Meeka seemed to puzzle over his words a moment, and then she turned back to Stefan.  At Meeka’s translation, Stefan simply folded his arms over his chest and glared.  Crane had had enough.  He reached forward, grabbed the twelve-year-old and threw him over his shoulder.  “Meeka, tell everyone that they have only a few minutes to get what they feel they need from here.  Clothes, especially.  Then you and you, he pointed to two of the older children, and you, gather what food you can.  Be back here in ten minutes.”  He gazed deeply into Meeka’s eyes, even as Stefan grunted and cursed softly and beat on Lee’s back with his fists.  The American couldn’t help but think that he was glad that the little hoodlum didn’t have a knife.  “Meeka, do you understand what I am saying?”

“Yes, I understand,” she said, gazing in consternation at Stefan.  She turned and told the other children, who were standing and staring at him and Stefan with wide, fearful eyes.  They all headed toward the orphanage.

“Good.”  He pulled Stefan off his shoulder and dumped him unceremoniously on the ground.  He gestured with both hands, while talking.  “Get what you need.  Be back here in five minutes.” 

The boy got up with great dignity, although the dark gray-brown eyes were still angry, and turned toward the orphanage. 

“What’s on your mind, Lee?” Chip asked. 

“We take the truck as far as we can.  You and I will be guards,” Crane began. 

“But we don’t know the language,” Morton pointed out.   “And I stand out like a sore thumb.”

The moon was just rising over the horizon of the eastern hills and showed Chip’s lean frame leaning against a tall tombstone.  His face was pale and Lee didn’t think it was just the moonlight.  “Let me look at that.  Looks like you’ve lost a lot of blood.”

“Maybe, but we can’t worry about that now.  How are we going to overcome the obstacle of not knowing the language very well?”

Crane sighed, suddenly feeling very overwhelmed.  On the Seaview, he felt he was in his element.  Even when things were going very, very wrong, he could process the information, make decisions, evaluate.  Here?  He rubbed a hand across a chin that definitely needed a shave. 

“You know, Lee, this kind of reminds me of another time when you were new to a situation that wasn’t of your making.”

“Huh?  What are you talking about?”

“When you took over command of the Seaview after John Phillips’ death.”

“What does that have to do with this?”

“The priest died and left you in charge.”

Crane snorted.  “These are kids.  Seaview is staffed with competent and trained personnel.”

Chip shrugged and sighed.  “But there is a correlation.  You’re just working with a different group of people and in a different environment.”  He smiled.  “But you are right, we have to get out of here soon, I believe.”  He started walking toward the truck, limping with great difficulty.  Lee quickly reached the exec’s side and draped Chip’s arm over his shoulder.  They were halfway to the truck when one of the children ran up to them.  She had a pair of crutches in her hand. 

They were short, but Lee was able to adjust them to their full height.  Chip tried them and although still a bit too short, he smiled his thanks to the girl.  Lee made a hand sign that conveyed his thanks as well. 

The girl, the same one who had been with Meeka when the priest had been shot, pointed to the bloody leg and made motions.  She was showing a box filled with bandages, bottles of unknown liquids, scissors, gauze and more things than Lee could figure out in the darkness.  He thanked the girl again and was amazed at her resourcefulness.  Chip’s words kept flashing in his mind.  Just a different group of people.  Like a different type of crew?  He wondered if the priest had delegated each child to do a different type of task.  Could the same thing be applied to get them across the distance to the coast?   But there was a big difference between washing dishes or planting a garden, and running from the secret police. 

Chip tried to gesture to the girl that any first aid would have to come later when they were away and someplace safer.  The girl was insistent.  Looking at his commander for help, he saw that he simply wasn’t going to get any.  Lee just smiled and motioned the girl to take care of him.  Then he walked toward the truck. 

Surprisingly, the girl was very deft, Chip noted.  She cut away his trousers.  Another bill to ONI, he thought.  Then she took one of the bottles and poured some of the solution onto a clean cloth.  The moonlight reflected off the bright white of the cloth before she applied it to his leg.  It stung and Chip straightened up in shock.  “Ow!  What the hell’s that stuff you’re using?”

“Pipe down, Commander,” Lee’s voice hissed from a short distance away. 

The girl continued as though he hadn’t said a word. 

When Lee returned, he was wearing one of the guard’s shirts and jacket.  The sleeves were a bit short on his arms, but otherwise the fit wasn’t terribly bad.  While the girl continued to dress his wound, Crane unbuttoned Chip’s shirt and peeled it off.  He helped the exec shrug into the borrowed shirt and then into the jacket.  The fit wasn’t any better, but it wasn’t constrictive. 

“We’re ready whenever you are,” Lee said. 

Meeka ran up to them.  “Stefan says he will not come.  He does not like you.”

“He doesn’t, does he?” Lee said quietly.  His eyes held a glint in them that didn’t bode well for the errant child. 

“Lee, remember, he’s only a confused child,” Chip reminded him. 

“Oh, I’ll remember all right,” Lee said ominously.  “Make sure everyone is in the back of the truck, except Meeka.  I’ll need her for translation.”   He stalked into the darkness. 

Within a few minutes, while Chip and the girl-doctor were walking to the truck, he heard a cut-off cry of anger.  Apparently Lee had found the boy.  The girl climbed into the back of the truck to join the others.  By the time they had reached the truck, Lee was back with a kicking and biting Stefan under one arm.  He climbed into the front of the truck, the child still in tow, and motioned Chip to get in with Meeka.   The girl sat next to Stefan who kept scrambling to get out.  She snapped a few words at him and he glared at all of them, but he stopped struggling.  After a few moments of silence Stefan spoke again.

“He wants to know where we are going.  He hates you and will not do as you say.”

“Tell him that he will do as I say.  I will let him and all of you know what is going on when we are some place away from here and a little safer.”  As he waited for Meeka to digest all of this and translate it, he started the truck.  It was a basic old deuce and a half with a clutch.  He began to drive down the road leading out of the valley.  “He seems to be pretty savvy.  Meeka, ask him if there is someplace in the hills toward the coast where we can hide during the day.” 

“What is savvy?” Meeka asked. 

“Don’t worry about that, just ask him about a hiding place.”

Stefan spat on the floor in answer.  Lee stomped on the clutch and the brake and reached over and took the boy’s chin in one hand.  He knew the kid had street smarts, or the equivalent in this rural area; he could see it in Stefan’s eyes the first time they had crossed each other’s path.  “Tell Stefan that I am not Father Vincente.  I am Captain Lee Crane, commander of the SSRN Seaview.  I have a duty to all of us in this truck.  Tell him that what he knows will save not just me, but all of the rest of the group.  Their lives are in his hands.”

“Lee….”

“Not now, Commander.”

In the slight moonlight that shone through the truck windows, Chip could see a fierce battle of wills.  An exhausted and anxious submariner and a highly incensed twelve-year-old boy.  He wouldn’t have taken bets at this moment as to who would win the confrontation. 

 

 

Chapter Four

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