The Little Army

 

 

 

Chapter 9

 

 

Crane looked at Chip and saw the sincerity of his statement.  It didn’t make what was ahead any easier, though.  He was worried about their chances for getting out of this country alive.   “They are already in hell, Chip.”

“But the difference now is that we are a unit and as a unit we’ll make it out of hell and to something better.”

There was a knock on the door.  Chip beckoned and Meeka opened the door.  She and Stefan climbed into the cab and shut the door. 

“Skipper.  Everyone is in truck and ready,” Meeka reported. 

Crane could see the veracity of Chip’s statement.  At least the older ones were acting as a cohesive unit. 

“Good work, Chief Meeka, Chief Stefan.” 

Stefan looked surprised.  “Me?”

“A chief?” Lee asked as he turned the key and started the engine.  “Of course.  Meeka is Chief of the Boat, but the Information Specialist is also a Chief.  It’s just short for Chief Petty Officer.  Even if you weren’t already one, you’ve earned the privilege.”

Stefan said something to Meeka.  “Stefan asks me to ask you to explain these titles when you are able to.”

Crane laughed, some of his good humor restored.  “Chip, you feel up to the honors?”  Morton grunted in pain as he shifted to get comfortable.  A sheen of sweat shone on his face.  Lee had never had that long talk with Leela about his XO and he was worried. 

“Sure, Skipper.”  While they slowly headed down the road out of the city toward the coast, Chip explained as simply as he could, the ranks and rates and duties of the various positions in the Navy.

It was a long night, made longer by the fact that they had to drive without lights and part of the time clouds obscured the moon.  He had also had to keep it slow because of his passengers in back.  But he figured that they had done fifty or sixty miles by the time the sun began to make itself known on the eastern horizon and had avoided all but a couple of government patrols.   Chip was leaning back, asleep.   “Stefan, are you familiar with this part of the country?” Lee asked softly.   He was ready for some serious sack time.

“No, Skipper.”

“Meeka?” 

“No, I have not been to coast.”

Crane sighed.  The twinge in the small of his back was making its presence more obtrusive.  “Well, we’ll have to look for some place we can hide for the day and try to find out more of where we’re at and what it’s like ahead.” 

“Skipper, there are woods up there,” Meeka said pointing to an area about a quarter of a mile ahead.  “They seem to be . . . uh, much trees.”

“Densely wooded,” he prompted.  “Yes, I think that’s our best bet.  I’ll drive close by and let you all out.” 

“Maybe hide the truck in woods and then use again tonight?” Meeka asked.

“No, as you noted, Meeka, it’s dense.  We wouldn’t be able to hide it well enough.  We’ll look for something else for tonight.”

It was light enough to see that a farm road led along the forest.  Crane stopped and ordered everyone out, including Chip, who appeared to have not slept well.  Lee bit the inside of his cheek in anxiety.  He didn’t know how much longer his friend could go without getting that bullet out of his leg.  Without seeing the wound lately, he knew that it was infected.   Without proper medical treatment, the leg might get too infected to save.  “Chip….”

“Got Stefan to help me.  I’m fine, Skipper,” Chip said, his overly bright blue eyes telling him not to argue. 

Crane nodded, too tired to argue.  “Meeka, keep the group close to camp today until I get back.”  She waved her acknowledgement.   He watched as the group walked into the woods and disappeared.  Shifting the truck into gear, he turned it around and headed back to the regular road.  Then he took it toward the coast.  If he could find a good enough hiding place, then maybe, just maybe, they could use it again tonight.  The further he went, though, the more apparent it was that they had to be approaching a town.  There were fewer fields and forests and more habitations.  There was no place to hide a truck this large.  He would have to ditch it.  Then Lee saw the lake on his left.  It appeared to be a fairly deep one.  Just as the sun began making its appearance, he drove off the main road and toward the body of water.  He stopped just before the shoreline.   It was too shallow on this side, and too close to the road.

He drove around the perimeter, noting that there was a point above the lake that was almost like a bluff.  If the water was deep enough, then it would work.  Lee stopped, studying the scene in front of him.  The sun rose just above the hills and he decided.   Backing up, he put the truck into gear, then gunned it.  He shot forward, gaining speed as he descended toward the water.  About twenty feet from the edge of the bluff, Crane quickly shifted into neutral and then opened the door, throwing himself out of the truck.  The truck lurched; the door slammed back at him and threw him against the flatbed.  He was unconscious when he hit the grassy ground.   The truck rumbled toward the edge and seemed to hover for just a moment before it pitched over the edge and into the lake.  The cab sank immediately; the flatbed slowly disappeared as the heavy vehicle slid forward in the mud.  

 

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Stefan walked to the edge of the woods for the fourth time that morning.  It was almost noon and still there had been no sign of the skipper.   He wondered just what it was that had caused him to change his mind about the American captain, and finally decided that it was several things he couldn’t pin down.  However, now, he was worried.  Captain Crane should have been here by now.  The XO was truly sick and there was nothing Leela could do about it.  The bullet wound was beyond her skills.  After the skipper’s hurried instructions this morning, Meeka was afraid to send anyone out for supplies and they were already running low.  Yesterday’s efforts had only yielded enough to carry them through for one day.  

He walked back to the camp.  “I am going out to look for Captain Lee,” he stated to Meeka. 

“No, you heard the skipper,” she said, her eyes showing their worry. 

“Meeka, you aren’t thinking like a COB.  You’re thinking like a scared girl.  Somehow, I don’t think the skipper meant to be this late.”

Still Meeka hesitated.  “He was late before when we were in the cave.” 

“That was at night.  It was dark and it still didn’t take as long.  I think something has happened.”

Meeka’s eyes told him that she agreed with him.  She sighed. “Yes, you are the IS, you should go.”  She reached for his arm and held it a bit.  “But be careful. If it is something that you need help with, please come back and get us.”

Stefan smiled.  “I will.”  He grabbed one of Gunnar’s pancakes and headed out of the forest in the direction the skipper had gone.  Quickly, he made his way to the main road, careful to watch for government vehicles. When he heard the rumble of one of them, he ducked in a ditch or behind bushes.  He didn’t think they would bother him, a boy, in their eyes, but he didn’t want to take that chance.   There seemed to be more of them, most likely in response to the raid on the police station of the previous day.  He couldn’t help it, Stefan grinned at the memory. 

After another hour walking, he saw a fairly large lake nearby.   A narrow farm road led beside it and the hill rose steeply behind it.  Even in the truck, it had to have been almost full daylight by the time the skipper reached this far.  He would have been getting desperate to either hide it or get rid of it.   When the traffic had lightened, Stefan examined the farm road leading away from the main highway.  While he wasn’t certain, it almost appeared that there were fresh tracks of a large truck like the one they had stolen yesterday.  He decided to investigate.  As nonchalantly as he could, because this part of the track was in plain view of the road, he walked along as though he belonged here. 

Vehicles rumbled up and down the road behind him, but none stopped and he continued.  He watched both sides of the track for signs that a truck might have left it, but so far there was nothing.  Then when the hill rose sharply above the lake, he saw it.  Grass still flattened in two parallel lines as though a heavy vehicle had driven across it.  He turned off the track and followed the path of what he was sure was the flatbed truck.  At the top of a small bluff, he looked out toward the highway.  Cars and trucks moved up and down, but they were smaller.  Still, a person in a truck up here could be seen, so whatever the skipper had done, he had undoubtedly done in haste. 

Stefan saw where the truck had been maneuvered and then driven toward the lake.  He smiled.  A perfect way to get rid of something that big.  Looking over the edge of the bluff the boy saw where the vehicle had careened off to hit the lake below.  Just vaguely outlined, he saw the back end of the truck.  Then a horrible thought struck him.  If something had happened, and the skipper had not been able to get out….   Stefan jumped off the edge of the bluff and slid down the embankment, jerking off his shoes when he reached the bottom.  If Captain Lee hadn’t been able to get out, it wouldn’t matter now, but still—he had to know.  He ran out into the water as far as he could and then dived to get to the cab of the truck.  The window had been open when they were on the road; there was no reason to think it was otherwise now. 

The boy took a quick look inside the truck and saw no body.  He surfaced and quickly gulped down another lungful of air, then dove again.  There was still no body.  Of course, it could have floated away, but then he would surely have seen it.  Slowly, he swam back to the shore where he picked up his battered sneakers.  Knotting the laces together, he wore them around his neck while he climbed up the embankment to the top of the bluff.  He was panting by the time he got there and he just collapsed onto the grass.  After a few minutes he had caught his breath and Stefan decided that he would do no good laying in the meadow.   When he rolled over, he felt something slick in the grass and looked at his hand.  It was red.  Blood!  There was blood on his hand!  In desperation, he studied the ground where he had found it and saw several spots of blood. 

Something had happened.  Something horrible!  Again, he studied the ground, trying to find any clues, anything that would tell him where the skipper was.  Then he saw vague traces of footprints leading up the hill.  Knowing there was nothing at the lake, he followed them.   They led to a small path that continued upward toward the crest of the hill.  Stefan continued, pulled as though on a rope.  When he could, he ran, but the incline of the hill had him panting and he had to slow down.

 

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Crane woke up with a hellacious headache and more aches and pains than he thought possible for someone his age.   When he opened his eyes, he saw a very worried middle-aged woman staring down at him.  She began speaking, but he couldn’t begin to understand her.  His mind seemed to be mush.  All he knew was that this wasn’t Meeka; these weren’t the woods and he hurt like hell.   He started to shake his head, but that brought more pain so he stopped.  She asked him another question, but he just stared at her, trying to figure out where he was.  That this wasn’t a government jail was obvious, but where? 

He tried to think back to his last waking thoughts and remembered the truck rolling down the hill toward the lake.  Then the door flew back and hit him and that was it.  He must have been thrown against the flatbed and knocked unconscious.  When he tried to sit up, the woman said something and gently pushed him back down.  He didn’t argue, but instead simply looked around.  It was a bright and cheery room, although small.  There were red and white curtains on the window on the other side of the room.  He was in a narrow bed, almost too short for his frame.  The few decorations on the walls, the presence of a few toys, seemed to indicate that he was in a child’s room.   There had been farms, could this be one of them?  Had a farm family found him?   That was certainly better than being found by the kradiz. 

All in all, he felt he was on very precarious ground.  What time was it?  There was no way to tell with just the one small window.  Probably well into the day.   And what about the kids?  And Chip?   The woman was talking to him again, asking him another question.  He decided to play it the way he did in the city yesterday.   He pointed to his ears and shrugged.   The woman gazed at him a moment and then gestured if he was thirsty.  He certainly was.  He nodded carefully, still mindful of his headache.   Later she brought in some soup.  The aromatic smell of chicken and vegetables brought to mind just how hungry he was.  He had almost forgotten when he had eaten last.   Lee sat up and this time the woman let him.  The meal also seemed to stave off the worst of his headache. 

She was gazing curiously at him, as though trying to figure him out.  A baby cried in the other room and the woman gestured to him that she needed to leave for a while.  He nodded.  When she had left, he got up, noticing that only his shirt had been removed when he was put to bed.  The headache stayed on the back burner and Lee reached for the shirt and pulled it on.  The beat up old sneakers that Meeka had found for him lay by the chair and he slipped those on, too.  It was time to get back to the kids, and while he appreciated this woman’s hospitality, he needed to leave. 

He realized that it was not just for him, but if he was found by the guards while here, these people could be in big trouble, too.  Carefully, he pulled off the bandage and noticed the dried blood on one side.  He probed gently with his fingers and winced as he felt the lump on the left side of his head above the temple.  With a sigh, Lee understood just how lucky he was.  He started out of the room when the woman returned. 

Her voice rose in her agitation and she tried to herd him back into the little room.  He motioned that he needed to leave and she countered with his need to rest some more.  Lee was still trying to explain his need to leave when he saw a face that startled him into frozen immobilization.  It was Stefan.  The boy grinned and motioned a question.  The woman turned and began talking to Stefan.  The boy answered.  Lee could only hope that Stefan was quick on his feet. 

The woman, still talking, came over and showed Stefan the bandage.  By her motions and the tone of her words, he could tell she was trying to tell him why Lee needed to stay.  Stefan turned to him and Crane saw that he was pale, as though she had told him something that wasn’t good.  Stefan motioned but it was the boy’s lips that Lee watched.  ‘C.M.O.,’ the boy was mouthing.  Leela? Lee thought.  Then it dawned on him. The farmwoman had called a doctor.  He didn’t need a doctor.  What’s more, doctors usually had to report various injuries to the government, especially dictatorships like this one.  He couldn’t afford anything like that.  Crane shook his head vehemently, feeling the headache return in full force.  He motioned to Stefan to thank the woman for her hospitality but that he needed to leave. 

She was still fussing at him when someone else knocked and the door opened.  An older man entered the room with a black bag in his hand.  With a sinking in his chest, Lee knew this was the doctor.  Again, he motioned that he was fine and he began to leave the room.  The doctor didn’t budge; he didn’t say anything, but he transferred his bag to his left hand and reached into his pocket.  When he partially pulled out his hand, Crane saw a pistol butt.  It was unseen to anyone except he and Stefan.  The boy started to move to his side, but Lee grabbed his arm and shoved Stefan behind him.  The doctor moved toward him and motioned toward the little room. 

There was no choice.  Lee turned and went back to the child’s room.  He motioned Stefan to go on back to the forest, but the doctor countermanded that with a gesture and all three went into the small bedroom.   The doctor shut the door gently and then gazed intently into Lee’s eyes.  “Sit down, Captain Crane,” he said in almost flawless English. 

 

 

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