The Little Army

 

 

 

Chapter 7

 

 

 

As Crane was gazing at the placid but monstrous creature before him, he heard Stefan laughing.  Turning, he watched the boy pantomime his reactions to having to ride the huge animal.  At once Lee felt a flaring of anger and only wanted to grab the brat off his horse and spank him, but then the captain saw the humor of the situation and began to laugh, too.  “Okay, what now?”

Stefan, still grinning, reached down with his hand.  This time the humor extended to his large brown eyes. 

“Well, if I’m going to have to ride a monster like this, I would rather do it behind someone who knows what they’re doing,” Lee admitted.  “But won’t I pull you off?  I’m much bigger than you.”

Stefan looked thoughtful and then guided the horse to the stonewall. 

Lee understood at once and carefully, so as not to spook the horse, he climbed up on the wall.  After Stefan had the horse close to the wall, it was an easy matter to climb on the broad back.   He had ridden before, in fact had become decently adept, but never on anything this huge, and not without a saddle and bridle.   He held onto the other horse’s lead as Stefan kicked the draft horse into a rumbling trot.  That was when Lee realized fully why saddles had been invented.  More than just his bones were being abused.  He encircled Stefan’s waist with his free arm.  The boy was still laughing softly as he kicked the horse into a rumbling gallop.  

That gait was somewhat smoother, surprisingly for such a huge animal, but still Crane felt his body being battered as they galloped down the road.  Then he remembered his various instructors.  Lee willed himself to relax and let his body move with the gait of the animal below him.  Much better, he thought in relief.   Crane watched for signs of the group he had left behind.   “Slow down, I think we’re close.” 

The boy nodded.  He pulled back on the lead and the draft horse came to a lumbering trot once more, then a plodding walk.  A shape materialized from the bushes.  Rika.  She waved to them and motioned.  Stefan walked off the road and through the brush and trees of a small woodland.   Some distance from the road, they found the group resting.  It was hard to see, but Chip looked more worn as he sat leaning against the bole of a large tree.   Stefan nimbly swung his leg over the horse’s neck and slid to the ground.  Lee, feeling every one of his thirty-five years, plus another decade or two, was less agile.   When he hit the ground, his legs felt like jelly.  The muscles in his thighs knotted and made it difficult to walk for a short distance.  It hadn’t been that long since he had been on horseback!   He could stand the conn for hours, but to feel this way after only an hour on the back of a horse the size of an elephant?  Finally, he made his way to Chip. 

“How are you doing?  You look a bit green around the gills,” Crane said anxiously.

“You’re a fine one to talk,” Chip grunted.  “I thought you said you’d been on a horse before.”

“I have, but certainly not one the size of a Sherman tank,” Lee retorted, with the hint of a sardonic smile.  “But you get your opportunity.  One of those taxi’s is yours, bucko.” 

“To be honest with you, that monster is the most welcome sight I’ve seen since we lost the motorcycle.”

Lee cocked an eyebrow.  Chip must really be feeling it, if he was admitting the need for help.  “Well, let me give you a hand up.  If we’re going to make that church, we need to get a move on.”  He studied the bandage on his friend’s leg.   “Leela’s been doing a good job?”

“Yes, and she isn’t as waspish as our illustrious doctor,” Chip agreed. 

Still, Chip wasn’t looking too well and Crane determined to consult with Meeka and Leela when they continued on their way.  When he had checked the wound earlier in the day, he saw that the bullet was in deep enough that it would take a real doctor to extract. “Well,” he said as lightly as he could.  “Let’s get you up on the Bud-mobile and be on our way.” 

“What did you call it?” Chip asked and then he began to laugh.  He was still chuckling as he grabbed Lee’s outstretched arm and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. 

Crane didn’t miss the little hiss of pain or the grimace that fell across his friend’s face.  “Don’t bother with the crutches.  Just let me help you.”   Chip nodded and put an arm around his friend’s shoulder.  “It can’t be getting better; not with that bullet still in there.”

“I’ll be fine,” Morton repeated.   They reached the horse, which was calmly eating at a stand of grass.  “Give me a leg up, Lee,” he said. 

“Don’t think it will work that way.  You grab the halter rope and mane, and let me lift you up.”  It was awkward, but Lee finally managed to boost his friend on the horse.  “You okay?”

“Yes, little bit stiff in this position, but it’s okay.  Why don’t you let me carry one of the babies,” Morton suggested.

Willam, Dasha’s seven-year-old helper, handed the youngest child, Shonna, up to Chip.  One of the younger children climbed up behind the exec.  “Meeka, prepare to shove off,” Crane ordered.   He carried Chip’s crutches. 

“Aye, aye, Skipper,” Meeka said with a smile.  After numerous questions, she was learning the Navy terminology well. 

The rest of the journey went smoothly.  Chip with Shonna and four-year-old Ranos, who had the honorary title of entertainment officer, rode one horse, while Mirko, the toddler Arion and five-year-old Jillia rode the other one.   They saw no one and according to Stefan, no one saw them.  Just as the moon had set, they got to the church.  Stefan took the horses to the edge of town and let them loose.

 Gunnar used the last of their stores to prepare breakfast and then everyone, except the designated lookouts found a place to sleep.  Chip fell asleep immediately on a wooden pew.  Lee had a harder time of it.  He was exhausted, but his mind refused to let him relax enough to do more than doze at first.  Suddenly, he saw Meeka standing over him. 

“What is it, Meeka?” he asked.

“We need food.  Gunnar, Triska, Jillia and me.  We go and find things to eat.  Milk for the little ones,” she stated.

Lee sat up.  “I was thinking about that.   Let me come with you,” he said, reaching for his shoes.

“No, Skipper.  You do not know language; you do not have right clothes.  We can do it.  I will get them back and we will have food,” Meeka declared firmly. 

Crane bit his lip.  The girl made perfect sense, but it didn’t make him feel any better.  Finally he nodded.  “Be careful, Meeka.  Don’t let the little ones do anything foolish.”

She nodded and then smiled.  “We will be back in time for supper.  I will find better clothes for you, too.”

Lee walked to the door with them.  “Good luck on your mission, Meeka,” he said, and the four children slipped out.  Stefan was next.  “You are going out, too?” 

The boy nodded.    “Birnok, too.”

Sighing, Crane nodded.  “Good luck to you, too, as well.  Don’t stay out all day.  Everyone needs to get some sleep before dark.”

Stefan pointed at him and made sleeping motions. 

“I know, Stefan.  I’ll try.” 

With that Stefan nodded and slipped out of the church with the younger boy.  Crane tried to lie down and rest, but now it was impossible.  He sat up and thought of the six children out there in town without adult supervision and all the things that could possibly happen to them.   Unable to sit still, he got up and checked on Chip.  The XO was sleeping peacefully, for the most part. 

When he turned, he saw Leela standing with her hands on her hips, glaring at him.  With many motions, he gathered that like Doc on the Seaview, the pint-sized CMO was taking her job seriously and was worried about his lack of sleep.  Did he know that it was dangerous to go without sleep for two or more days?  Did he know he wasn’t setting a good example?  “Leela, I can’t sleep,” he said, at the same time trying to say the same thing with gestures.  “And I’m fine.  When we’re….”  

The ten-year-old took his hand and pulled him over to the tiny fire partially blocked by a wall on one side and a pew opposite.  She picked up a small brass teapot and poured some steaming tea into a tiny cup.  Handing it to him, she demanded that he drink it.  Lee was instantly suspicious and sniffed at the aromatic tea.  He couldn’t place what kind it was, probably herbal, since Meeka had told him that the priest had grown herbs at one time. 

Leela looked highly incensed and insisted that he drink it.  After all, she herself had fixed it.   

“No sleeping potions in there?” he queried, gazing into the dark liquid. 

After he had motioned his suspicions, she shook her head vehemently.  So, to please her, although he would have much preferred a large mug of coffee, he drank it.  It did slide soothingly down to his stomach and had a pleasant flavor.  Next Leela ordered him back to a place to lie down and rest.  With a smile, Crane did so.   He listened to Ranos softly singing a lullaby to the sleeping Shonna.  The warmth of the tea and his own exhaustion conspired against him and soon he was sleeping as peacefully as the baby was. 

He woke to find Chip sitting at his feet and Meeka gazing down at him, tears in her eyes.  Leela was by her side, her head downcast.  A quick glance above told him that it was probably mid-afternoon.  But the look in Meeka’s eyes immediately woke him.  He jumped to his feet.  “What’s wrong, Meeka?” he said, placing his hands on her thin shoulders. 

“I am not good at being COB,” she murmured, sniffing.

“What’s wrong?” Lee demanded, looking at Chip now.

“Apparently Willam, Jons, and Ranos felt that they could go out and scavenge, too.  No one knows where they are,” Morton told him. 

Willam, who had been designated as a torpedoman’s mate and Dasha’s helper, Jons, the quartermaster and all around scrounge, and Ranos were much too little to be out on their own.  Crane bit off an expletive and gazed around the huge room.  “You sure they aren’t just hiding somewhere; playing hide and seek or something?”

Meeka shook her head.  “No, Leela thought same thing.  She say she thought all were sleeping.  She sleep, too.  She woke up and saw Willam and Jons gone.  She look.  Arion woke up and say that Ranos went with Willam and Jons when they left through door.  They say they get things we need.”  Meeka pointed to a door partially off its hinges near the back of the sanctuary. 

“How long?”

“Leela thinks maybe an hour, maybe two.  No more.”  Meeka rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes. 

“Is Stefan back?” Lee asked. 

“No,” Meeka said. 

“Did you get the clothes you said you were going to find for me?”

She nodded. 

“Good, hand them here.  Find a blank sheet of paper in one of the old hymnbooks and write the following on it in your language.  “Deaf and mute.”

Meeka stared numbly at him. 

“Now, Chief, we don’t have time to lose,” Lee said, his voice anxious, but not angry.  There was really no sense in showing anger, at least not until they were all back together again.  The little children had felt the need to compete with the older kids, but Lee would have to find them before the state police picked them up.   

Meeka studied him.  “You are going out to find them?”

We are going out to find them.  If Stefan gets back before we leave, he can help us, too,” he said grimly.  “Regardless, we’re going to get those children.  Undoubtedly there have been reports of fourteen kids scheduled for pick-up disappearing, along with a government truck.”  Lee scratched his thickening beard.  “Hmm, you think I look the part of a beggar?"

“Oh, Skipper, begging is not allowed.  You will be picked up by people’s guard.”

Crane grinned.  “Exactly.  After we’ve found out where the kids are, and I don’t doubt they may already be at the police station, then I get myself captured.” 

“But how….?” Meeka began.

“Not sure, but I’ll think of something,” Lee said with a glint in his eyes.

“Uh, Lee….?” Chip began.

“Yes, Commander?” Lee said softly, his voice holding an edge.

Chip sighed.  He wanted to tell Lee just how dangerous going out would be, but he had no alternatives thoughts in his mind.  And ultimately, someone would have to go out for the children, and with the bullet in his leg, it certainly wasn’t him.  As much as his friend was worrying about him, he was worried about Lee.  Too much worry, too little sleep.  “Just be careful,” was all he ultimately said.

“Of course.”  Stepping behind one of the partitions, Crane changed quickly and was soon back with the group. 

As though by prearrangement, Stefan slipped in with Birnok.  He looked agitated.  Only sparing a glance at the skipper, he began his report.  Then he saw Meeka and gaped at her in confusion. 

“I bet you have come to tell me that three of the crew have been taken into custody,” Lee anticipated.

Stefan only nodded, then it dawned on him what was going on.  With clipped and frantic words he talked to Meeka.  At the end of his tirade, she nodded.  “Willam, Jons and Ranos.”

Stefan looked more carefully at Crane and his new clothes. 

“I am going with Meeka to get them back.  I would like you to accompany us, even though I know you’re tired and need to rest,” Lee said.

“I go,” Stefan said curtly.  Then he spoke to Meeka.  Without translating, she responded.  With her reply, Stefan seemed to soften.  “We go now?"

“Yes, Stefan.  The sooner, the better,” Crane said. “And any talk about whose fault it may have been will be later—after the children are back.”   Meeka finished the sign he had requested and he folded it once and stuffed it in a front pocket. 

“Good luck, Lee,” Chip said, wishing there was more he could do.  The wound shot messages through his leg, but he kept his face as bland as he could. 

“Thanks, I suspect that we may need all we can get.”  He looked around at the other children.  “Meeka, please let the rest know that it’s very important that they stay here with the XO.  Do not leave unless the police come.”  She did so.  The children nodded their assent, and the trio slipped out into the late afternoon sun.   Crane began to walk in a more shuffling gate, slightly hunched over.  He had done it before on ONI assignments and it had worked well, for the most part.  Stefan stared and then smiled softly.  Out of the side of his mouth, Lee talked to Meeka.  “Until we get to nearer the police station, if someone asks, I am your poor handicapped uncle.”

Meeka nodded and they continued into the heart of the small city, Stefan leading and Lee bringing up the rear. 

 

 

Chapter Eight
Chapter One
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