The Little Army

 

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

 

After leaving the truck a couple of miles off the road, Crane headed back to the cave, slipping among the wind stunted trees and brush that dotted the hillsides even as the moon sat on the western hills, ready to make an exit.  He needed to get to their hideout before daylight, or he would have to hole up somewhere else.  The government bully-boys had begun their patrols earlier than he would have liked, but he wasn’t surprised.  If the man he remembered from last year was actually in charge, then Crane was surprised that they hadn’t been caught before they left the orphanage.  That had been incredibly lucky, but somehow, Lee felt that their quota of luck had run out.  The rest of the trip would have to be accomplished on old-fashioned skill and perseverance.   But with fourteen kids?   He sighed lustily.  Meeka he could deal with, but if the rest were like Stefan?   That kid reminded him so much of Prince Ang it almost gave him physical pain.  It wasn’t the arrogance of money and position, but it was nonetheless arrogance.  The kid intended to be in charge—the alpha male, so to speak, or bust trying.  He couldn’t get them all safely to the coast fighting a juvenile hood. 

Chip had compared the kids to a different kind of crew.  Could they be molded into one?  What the hell could a two-year-old do?  Or most of them for that matter?  Crane noticed a peculiarly shaped tree and knew he was on the right track.  He checked behind him in the waning moonlight and with the stalk of brush that he’d torn from a bush not far from the truck, he wiped out the evidence of his footprints.  He noted with satisfaction that the kids had done a good job of obliterating their prints.  If not for the landmarks he had memorized, he’d not have a clue as to where they had all gone.  

A rumble sounded from the road down which they had traveled hours ago and Lee flattened himself behind a boulder.  Several minutes later, a large truck, much like the one he had just abandoned came rolling up the road.  A spotlight shone from either side and the American held his breath.   The light flashed against his hiding place and silhouetted the boulder against the rocks behind him.  There was nothing to indicate a cave or other hiding place beyond.  Stefan had chosen well.  The vehicle moved on and the darkness that was left was complete.  The moon had gone behind the hills and a streak of pinkish-orange began to tinge the eastern hills.  Crane continued casting about between rocks and scrub plants.  He began to wonder if he was going to find this cave when a soft, tiny light shone before him.  It was almost imperceptible, but it was there and it wasn’t natural.  With a stealthy tread, Lee approached the light.  There was a slit of an entrance, low slung so he had to stoop to get in, then he was inside a cave staring at the small bodies grouped around an equally small fire.

Just as his anger began to rise at the fact that they had left no sentry, he felt a small form hit him like a cannonball, dropping him to the earth with bruising force.  The wind was knocked out of him and he gasped for breath while trying to pull the small missile from his shoulders.  A blow to his head almost caused him to black out. 

“Rika!” Meeka called out in a harsh whisper.  “It is Captain Lee.”

Turning over on his back, Lee saw black motes swim through his field of vision and his head felt like it would burst.  “Now that’s what I call security!” he gasped, not without some small bit of pleasure. 

“Welcome back, Lee,” Chip said sleepily from the end of the cave.  “You okay?”

A pair of very young eyes gazed down at him, then looked guiltily at the rock that she still held tightly in her hand.  Lee smiled at her in reassurance.  “Meeka, tell, uh, Rika, that she did very well.”

Rika, a dark-haired waif who reminded Lee of one of those big-eyed children on greeting cards, appeared to be no more than eight-years-old.  She beamed, then touched the lump that had formed on the side of his head.  Wincing, Lee sat up gingerly, allowing the last of the swimming dots to clear from his field of vision.  “But I was able to see the light of the fire from outside,” he added seriously. 

“A couple of the kids went out and checked and knew that it would only be visible to someone right outside the entrance—someone who knew we were here.   We felt we had to leave something to enable you to find us or had you suddenly found a sonar to track us with?” Chip asked with a wry smile.

Lee pulled himself to his feet and slowly walked to where Chip was sitting.  “Ha ha.  No, it was the fire that led me in here, but the government is on the prowl.  I had to hide to avoid a patrol on the road.  So it really would be safer if the fire was doused.” 

Meeka, listening, hastened to throw dirt over the small flames.  The cave was plunged into darkness. 

“Chip, how’s the leg?”

“Leela has done a fine job of binding it up.  I’m okay.”

“We have to watch for infection,” Lee reminded him. 

“She’s used some kind of salve that is supposed to take care of infection,” Chip answered.  “You never answered my question.”

“Which one was that?” Lee hedged, knowing perfectly well what his exec was getting at.

“That was quite a rap on the head you took.  How do you feel?”

Crane grinned in the darkness.  “Like eating crow,” he said, still evasive.

“These kids are pretty resourceful in a lot of ways.”

“So I’ve noticed,” Lee replied.

“What are you going to do now?” Chip asked.

“Take a nap.  That’s what you were doing, wasn’t it?” 

Chip cleared his throat.  “Yeah, it was.  Meeka said she and Rika would watch for you and I trusted them to do just that.   I feel rested now so I’ll watch and you go ahead and get some shut-eye.” 

“Thanks.  And it’s almost dawn, so only let me sleep a few hours.  There are some things that have to be planned before we head out tonight.”

As it was, he only got two hours sleep before the baby began fussing and the toddler joined the chorus.  Lee groaned and rolled over to see a child staring at him from a few feet away, his thumb in his mouth.   Filtered light made it possible to see everyone now.  Another fire had been built and one of the children was warming something in a pan.  Crane couldn’t tell what it was but his stomach was letting him know that it hadn’t been satisfied for over a day now.

“Sorry, Captain Lee,” Meeka said as she held the baby.  “Baby hungry.”

Lee nodded, glad that someone had thought to bring rations for the littlest children.  He chided himself for his lack of common sense.  They would need that and more if they were all to get to the coast safely.

“As soon as little ones have milk, Gunnar cook food for us.”

“Sounds good and while he’s doing that, you and I need to talk, Meeka,” Lee replied, stretching and standing up.  He gazed around at the cave and nodded his approval.  He walked toward the entrance and noticed a small body squatting just inside.  Lee hunkered down beside him and tried to listen for any sounds outside.  A thought occurred to him and he looked back into the cave.  He counted fifteen people including himself.  “Where’s Stefan?” he asked Meeka. 

“Watching outside,” she said. 

Lee felt his anger rising again and then he squelched it.  He would have to trust these kids sometime.   He couldn’t do it all.  And with Chip injured….   Motioning the child to silence, Lee slipped out and saw Stefan about fifty yards in front of him.  He slipped behind the boy and softly tapped him on the shoulder.  Stefan whirled around and then glowered at him.  Choosing to ignore the look, Lee drew pictures in the dust to show that a patrol had been by earlier and then asked with gestures if the boy had seen anything.  Stefan took a deep breath, still glowering, and then his expression softened.  He shook his head. 

“Good.”  He turned to leave and felt the boy’s hand on his arm. 

The gestures were fairly clear.  “When are we going to leave?”

“Tonight,” Lee answered, augmenting with gestures.  “After dark.”

“Keros, Skip-per,” Stefan said. 

Lee could only gaze at him for a moment in astonishment, and then he smiled and nodded.  He slipped back in the cave and found one of the younger girls and Chip helping the two youngest children with their cups of milk.  

“You wish speak with me, Captain Lee?” Meeka asked. 

“Yes, Meeka, and have one of the other children take care of the baby so Chip can join in.” 

Chip shrugged and handed the baby over to Rika.   “What’s on your mind, Skipper?”

“You compared this group to the crew,” Lee began.

“I just said that you were concerned about them like you would be the crew.”

“Whatever, I think you were getting at almost the same thing.”

“I guess I was, Lee,” Chip said with a slight smile. 

“Sorry, Captain Lee.  What is crew?” Meeka interjected. 

“Don’t be sorry, Meeka.  If you’re going to be the COB, then you need to ask questions.”

“Cob?”

“COB means Chief of Boat,” Lee began.  “I am making you a leader.  On my submarine, I am in command—the captain.”

“Then what does Skip-per mean?” she asked. 

“Just a less formal way of saying the same thing,” Lee tried to explain.   Seeing her confused look, he continued.  “It’s from the Dutch word for captain.  It means the same thing.”

“Oh.  Then I can call you Skipper?”

Lee laughed softly.  “Yes, Meeka, you may.”

Meeka pointed to Chip, who looked thoughtful.  “And Chip is—what you say?”

“XO,” Lee said simply. 

“X-O, and X-O means leader under captain,” she said, seemingly proud that she had remembered what had been said the night before.  “What does COB do?”

“Lee,” Chip said interrupting.  “Don’t you think that these kids are a bit young to join the Navy?”

“We rate them by their abilities, Chip.”  His countenance became troubled.  “Look, you and I both know that I am a total greenhorn—totally lost when it comes to dealing with kids.”  He took a deep breath.  “I’m only trying to get us all safely to the coast and putting them into some kind of organizational hierarchy is the only way I know to do it.”  Morton continued to look skeptical.  “The crew of the Seaview works together to make one cohesive whole.  Right now, it’s just a bunch of kids and a couple of adults and we don’t even have the benefit of knowing how to communicate with one another.”

Chip rubbed his chin and then grinned.  “Leave it to you to come up with something like this.  I assume you don’t mind me sitting back and watching you assign them rates and jobs, do you?” 

“Yes, I do.  I expect some input from you, Mister.”

Meeka tried to understand what the two men were saying, but they were speaking too fast and using too many words she didn’t understand.  What she did understand was that they were talking about her and her friends.  At first she thought the two men were angry with one another, but then realized otherwise.  However, she was still concerned that they were talking about the rest of them.  “What does COB do?” she asked again.  “And why so many leaders?”

Lee turned back to her, his expression almost guilty.  “Sorry, Meeka.  On the Seaview, everyone has a specific . . . uh, important job to do.  Everyone has to work together so that the boat will do what she’s supposed to do.   So you have leaders over different groups of people.”  Lee began drawing a diagram in the dirt.  “I am the skipper.  Over the whole submarine.  I decide what’s best for everybody.  Chip, here, is the XO, the executive officer.  He takes my orders and decisions and passes them to the COB.  Here that would be you.  Now the skipper can also give orders to the COB.  And the skipper and the XO can give orders to the other men, too, but most of the time, they talk to the COB first.  Understand?”

It was difficult, but Meeka thought she understood.  “Like Father Vincente sometimes told me to take a group of children to gather berries.  I had to be sure that no one got lost, or got hurt.”

“Exactly, Meeka!”  Lee flashed a brilliant grin.  “And because you are the oldest….”

“Stefan is a little older than me,” she corrected.

“Ah, but you know English,” Chip interjected.

“So you will be the COB,” Lee stated firmly. 

Meeka sat up straighter and smiled.  “What about others?”

“Okay, your first duty as COB of this boat….”

“But, Skipper, we are not on boat,” Meeka pointed out.

“Doesn’t matter, we will still act like a crew, even if we don’t have a boat.  If we can all be a crew, together, then no one can catch us, or hurt us.  We will get to the coast safely.”

“Okay, Skipper!” said Meeka.  “What is it you wish me to do?”

“I am going to rate each of the others and give them assignments to match their abilities,” Lee said.

Meeka looked puzzled.  “I do not understand.”

“Okay, for instance; Leela is very good with first aid—like a doctor.  So she will be the Chief Medical Officer, or CMO for short.  She will take care of anyone that’s hurt.”  Lee looked thoughtful.  “I think the CMO should also have charge of the two smallest children.”

“That is Shonna,” Meeka said, pointing to the baby in another child’s arms.  “And Arion.”  She paused.  “Will they be part of crew?”

“Indeed,” said Lee, getting into this thing.  “But they will only be seamen.  Arion, being only a toddler, may be able to do simple things, but that’s all.”

“Good.”

“Gunnar seems to be good at cooking,” Lee went on.  “He will be Cookie.”  That designation seemed easier than Mess Officer. 

“Stefan?”

Lee’s brow furrowed in thought.  “He seems to have a lot of knowledge of what is around him.”

“He certainly knew about this place,” Chip interjected. 

“Then he will be the IS, the Intelligence Specialist,” Lee declared and before Meeka could ask what that meant, he went on.  “That means he will check out the places to make sure they are safe before we go.  He will check out towns, talk to people and make sure they will not hurt us.”

Meeka gazed at Stefan, in a dark corner eating his breakfast.  “That is a good job for Stefan.”

A younger girl brought some bread and a bowl of something that was still steaming.  She looked apologetic and said something to Meeka.  “Triska says that she is sorry to only have one bowl for all of us.  She says the bread is also for all of us to share.”

“That’s fine, Triska,” Chip said with a smile.  He handed the bowl to Meeka and broke a sizable chunk off the half loaf of bread.  “What say we adjourn this conference until after breakfast?”

“I agree,” Lee said, taking the proffered bread.   From the noise his and Chip’s stomachs were making, it was unanimous.  “Thanks.”  

 

 

Chapter Six
Chapter One
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