The Little Army

 

 

 

Chapter 6

 

 

“Okay,” Lee said to the whole group, late that afternoon.  “Everyone understands what they need to do?”

When Meeka had translated, all heads, save the two youngest, nodded. 

“Birnok,” Lee turned to a boy of about nine, whose curly hair had a tint of red in it. The boy now had the designation as the Nav and was intensely proud of it.   “We need to go out and see if Stefan is back.  Then we can map out our route.”  He turned to Leela.  “Check the XO’s leg and then give me a report.”

“I’m fine, Lee,” Chip protested.  “I’ll be able to keep up tonight.”

“How far you go depends on the decision of the CMO,” Lee said somberly, noting the way his exec winced every time he put weight on the leg.  “I guess it’s lucky that the younger kids will be slower and we have to match pace with them.”

“How far do you think we will be able to get each night?” Morton asked, his face a mask of worry and guilt.

“If lucky, maybe eight or ten miles.  But we’ll deal with it whatever we’re able to do, so don’t worry about it.”  Then he clapped Chip on the shoulder.  “And maybe we can steal another truck.”  With the smile still on his face, Lee walked out of the cave.

Chip smiled, but it turned into a sigh.  He knew that the show of bravado was simply that, a show.  Lee was as worried as he was.  The assignment of duties had taken half the day.  Some of the younger children had been jealous of the rates that the older children had and they had complained.  Before Lee had to get nasty, though, Meeka had taken care of the problem.  She seemed to be every bit as tough as Lee but she knew these kids and knew which buttons were the right ones to push.  He was grateful that if there was going to be only one child that knew English, it had been Meeka.   He had to admit, it appeared that Lee’s instincts in making this group an ‘official crew’ were right.  But Chip couldn’t help but wonder if he, with his bum leg, would be a detriment to the rest?

Packs were made of blankets even as Lee worked with Stefan, Birnok and Meeka.  By the time the youngsters in the cave were finished, the four planners were back inside.  “Okay, crew, gather round,” Lee called out. 

The kids and Chip gathered in a circle around the others.  Birnok drew out a rough map in the dirt of the cave’s floor.  Stefan added a village to the map.  Both boys explained what they had to look forward to during this evening’s journey.  Some of the children were already aware of the next town, having periodically been conscripted to the mill that stood on the outskirts, Meeka explained to the men. 

“Are there any abandoned buildings there?” Lee asked. 

Stefan looked thoughtful and then nodded.  He pointed to the far edge of the town and then to the side, drew a picture of an old church.  When the government had discouraged religion; some churches had been abandoned.  Not as many as the leaders may have wished, but there had been a few and this one would house them the next day, if they could make it that far. 

“How far?” Chip asked. 

Again Stefan thought, but it was Dasha, the new gunner’s mate, local equivalent of a weapons scrounger, who answered that question.  “Twelve kilometers,” the slightly chubby boy answered. 

Lee figured quickly; about eight or so miles.  He nodded.  “We should be able to make it that far.”

Chip frowned.  At that rate….   He pushed away the thought before it fully formed.  They would do the best they could. 

“Tomorrow while we’re holed up, I want to look for some kind of vehicle we can ‘borrow,’” Lee said, looking meaningfully at Chip, then at Mirko, the physician’s assistant, and Jillia, one of the galley mates, who had the two youngest children in cloth slings on their backs.  The babies had enough milk for one more day.  He hoped that the new galley mates would be able to scrounge enough food for this motley little crew. 

“Holed up?” Meeka asked.  Her curiosity, now that she had been designated COB, was insatiable.

“Hiding during the day,” Lee explained.   The light inside the cave was fading.  The sun was setting.   “Okay, Chief Meeka, time to go.  All ahead full.”

She looked at him quizzically.  

“Aye, aye, Skipper,” Chip responded.  

“That means yes?” Meeka asked. 

“Yes, Meeka, it does, in Navy speak,” Chip responded.  “And all ahead full means to go at top speed.”

Lee grinned.  Maybe this little adventure would go smoothly after all.  They left the cave almost exactly the way they had found it, littered only with what had been there before them.  Birnok and Stefan worked point, with the latter boy scouting ahead and Birnok returning to report periodically.  Rika, as the boatswain mate, watched their rear.  Chip stayed with the main body of the group, keeping an eye on the children who were carrying the two littlest members of the crew.  Whenever one child grew too tired, Chip called for a switch.  All but Ranos, who was only four, took their turn carrying the babies.  Several times Ranos whined that he was too tired, but Meeka kept him going. 

During the first part of the night, the XO was able to ignore the pain in his leg, but after several hours, it became almost unbearable.  He could almost feel the bullet moving in the outer muscle of his thigh, pressing against the nerves.  He felt the blood trickling down his pants leg.  Mirko kept a close eye on him and despite his protestations, called to Leela. 

They rested by the side of the road while the CMO checked his wound.  She shook her head.  “No good,” she muttered. 

Lee and Meeka stood close by, watching intently.   In the moonlight, Chip could see his commander’s face drawn in his anxiety.    “Look, just change the dressing, bind the leg tight, and I’ll be okay.”

“Commander,” Lee said, his voice calm.  “Let the CMO do her job.”

Leela talked with Meeka who, in turn translated to Lee.  “Leela says XO cannot walk far.  Too much blood.   Too much pain.”

Lee nodded.  “Rest away from the road, while Birnok and I look for Stefan.” 

“I will come with you,” Meeka told him.

“No, you stay here with the rest.  I’ll be able to talk to Stefan,” Lee said. 

Meeka looked to argue with him. 

“That’s an order, Chief.”  And with that, Lee and Birnok turned and left the group. 

Chip sighed and then winced as Leela cleaned the wound and dressed it.  He cursed their bad luck, but finally just sighed in resignation.  He now understood why the elderly Indians would leave a village to die when they could no longer keep up.  While Chip knew that wasn’t an option, mainly because Lee would come after him, he wished there was something he could do.  Leela finished her work and then gave him a pill.  “What’s this?” he asked, indicating the tablet. 

Leela made motions to indicate that it was a pain killer.  He peered at it in the darkness.  An aspirin, he noted.  He went ahead and took it, chewing it up and swallowing, even while grimacing at the bitter taste.  “Keros,” he said in the only word of the local language he knew.

Crane and Birnok found Stefan about a mile ahead of the group, making incredibly good time for such a skinny kid.  Then he remembered that he had been a skinny kid when he was twelve, too and he had seemed to have reservoirs of energy.   “Stefan,” he hissed, when the boy/man jerked a large knife in their direction.  “Skipper and Birnok.”

Stefan made a grunting noise in his throat and stuffed the knife back into his pants.  In the moonlight, his long, pail fingers began to flash.  Best Crane could figure out he was indignant that they had interrupted his scouting.  He had planned on making it to the village, scouting and getting back to the group well before sunrise. 

Making hand motions of his own, the captain told the boy what was going on.  Stefan cut him off with a curt- “madya”—stop.  Then he made more signs. 

Crane was thunderstruck.  “You mean you’ve understood me all this time?”  Stefan nodded, a smirk on his face.  “And the XO, too?”  Again Stefan nodded.   He glowered at the boy.  “You can speak English, too?”

This time, Stefan shook his head.  Then he motioned.  He had listened to the lessons as the priest taught Meeka.  Fr. Vincente had thought the girl had been the only one interested in learning a foreign language. 

“But Fr. Vincente was wrong, wasn’t he?  You wanted to learn, you just didn’t want to admit it.”  Then Lee grinned and began to chuckle. 

Stefan grabbed his wrist and signed, his smirk gone, cold anger taking its place. 

“Stefan, I’m not laughing at you.  I’m laughing more at myself and at the irony of the situation,” Crane replied.   Looking at his still tightly held wrist, he looked back up into the boy’s eyes.  Here was another child who was old beyond his years.  “Despite the fact that I was so . . . uh, darned mad at you, I thought there was a brilliant mind in there.”  Lee gently touched a finger to the boy’s forehead. 

Stefan let go of Lee’s wrist.  He signed a question.

“Yes, I did.  Why do you think I made you the intelligence specialist?”

Stefan’s mouth quirked into a crooked grin.  Crane thought he would knock the girls dead in a couple of years if he only learned to loosen up a bit.   The boy squatted on the ground and stirred the dust with a finger as he thought.  Then he drew a shape on the ground. 

Lee recognized it instantly.  “A horse?”

Stefan nodded, then motioned that he could probably steal a farm horse for the XO to ride on. 

“Where?”

Stefan pointed in the direction they were going in and a bit to the south.  “Horses,” the boy said hesitantly and then motioned capturing more than one.

“Enough for everyone?” Lee asked, almost groaning with the thought of getting up on one.  Horses were for watching, not riding, as far as he was concerned, and he wasn’t all that concerned about watching them either.  The only time he had gotten close to a horse when he was a kid was when he had visited his cousin on a ranch.  He had tried to feed it a sugar cube and the damned beast had bitten him.  It was no consolation when he was later told that you didn’t feed a horse like you did a dog—that you had to hold your hand flat and let the horse gather the food with its rubbery lips.  All he had known at the time was that the animal was trying to eat him.   His ONI training had included that he learn to ride a horse and he felt he had done fairly well, but still, Lee was grateful that he had never been called upon to actually ride one on a mission.

Stefan seemed to be thinking, calculating carefully, before shaking his head no.  Then he motioned a question. 

Again, Crane had to be amazed at the child’s astuteness.  If he had only channeled his anger in other directions….    With a sigh, he answered, “I played with toy ships and submarines when I was a little boy, not horses and cap-pistols.  I have ridden horses only a couple of times.”  Then the boy’s look hardened a bit before he shrugged.  Lee realized that this boy had never had a toy and probably the only horse he ever had wasn’t a toy, but a real one for work or escape.  He reached out and almost touched Stefan on the shoulder, but hesitated, not knowing if it would be welcome or not.  “Stefan, tell me what I need to do to help you get these horses.”

Stefan looked at him in surprise.  Then asked hesitantly, “Why?”

“Why?  For the XO and the younger children, of course….”

“No.  Why?”  Stefan pointed his finger at Crane’s chest. 

Then it became clear to Lee just what the boy was wanting.  “Why am I letting you lead this mission?”

Stefan looked puzzled, then nodded.  “Why you . . . ask Stefan?”

Crane smiled and this time he did lay a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  Stefan gazed at it, but didn’t flinch or pull away.  “It’s a wise commander who can ask for help in an area that he’s not, uh, smart in.”

“Good,” Stefan said with a wary smile.  He motioned for Crane and Birnok to follow him.

“Wait, Stefan.”  He motioned Birnok over to him and then tried to convey to the boy to go back to camp and let the others know what was going on.  Birnok looked puzzled, but then Stefan spoke in his own language and the younger boy nodded and took off in the darkness.   “Thanks.” 

The young man slipped into his shell again and just shrugged, motioning for Crane to follow him.   They walked through the darkness, Stefan sure of himself and his path along the main road.  Twice they had to hide from patrols, and Lee could only hope that the others were equally successful in eluding the searchers.   After a couple of hours, Crane started hearing the sounds of livestock.  There was the soft lowing of cattle, the tinkling of a cow or sheep bell.  In the distance a rooster gave a half-hearted crow.  Apparently roosters didn’t just crow to sound a sunrise, Lee thought in wry amusement.  He looked up at the moon.  There were still some hours before sunrise. 

They left the main road and walked a bit further before they reached a stone fence.  He turned to gaze at the American and then gestured that he was going to go get a couple of the horses.  Crane was to wait for him.   “Stefan, what about the owners?  Won’t they miss them?”

Stefan looked at him as though he had asked the stupidest question on the planet.  Then the boy shook his head and gestured.  Lee caught on.  They would only be borrowing the animals for the night and they would be let loose when they arrived at the old abandoned church. 

“Good thinking.  Okay, I’ll just wait here.” 

Stefan smirked again and vaulted over the fence.  Somehow, Crane kept getting the impression that he had come out the worst in this scenario.  Well, if they got some transportation for Chip and the littlest children for the night’s journey, then who was he to worry about other things?  He continued to wait, hoping that everything was going all right for Stefan.  There were no sounds out of the ordinary in the direction the boy had gone.   

Just when he thought that Stefan might have gotten into trouble, Lee heard prancing and snorting from his left.  In the moonlight, Stefan appeared astride a monstrous horse that would dwarf a Budweiser Clydesdale.  Behind the boy and the horse was another horse, almost as large as the first.  Stefan had a huge grin on his face.   He reached down and handed Lee a rope.  The rope was attached to the halter of the large horse following behind.  The meaning of the boy’s gestures was totally unmistakable.   Crane perused the animal that was a great deal larger than any he had been on before.  The draft horse only had a halter with the attached lead rope.  No saddle, no bridle, just a rope.  Well, how bad can it be? Lee thought.  With a deep intake of breath, he walked up to the animal and felt its hot breath on his arm.    Then Lee wondered how in the world he was going to get on. 

 

 

Chapter Seven
Chapter One
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