Alternate Universe - World War II
The man, wearing a white coat, if you could call it white, and bending double over someone lying on the floor, stood up and turned around. He was a young man, clean-shaven with auburn hair; under his coat he wore the uniform of a Lieutenant in the French army.
"They told us there was a French doctor here?" Buck enquired.
"Lieutenant Standish, MD." His tired, green eyes shifted to focus on Vin, "what's wrong with him?" he asked.
"Got hit in the head by a bullet and then caught in a fire," Chris explained.
"How long ago?" Standish was already advancing on them.
"Not sure, at least two days, probably more."
The young doctor lifted Vin's head and pulled one of his eyelids up, then shone a small light in his eyes. Then he looked over his shoulder and bellowed.
"Yes!" came the reply from the unseen Truman.
"Is the examining bed free?"
"No sir, you've got that Scots boy with the busted ankle on it."
"Well get him off, now!"
Standish turned back to look at Vin, lifting the bandage on his head and peering under it. They were standing in a corridor that seemed to run the width of the building. At the end of it Buck watched a burly young man, with a shock of jet black hair, help a skinny red-headed boy hop toward them.
"Where shall I put him?" he asked Standish as they approached.
"You can put him out front. The ambulance will be back soon. He can go with the others to the coast."
Vin was taken to the back of the building, where they found a smallish room with a sturdy wooden table in the center of it. It was covered with a bloodstained sheet, which Standish quickly pulled off and replaced with a fresh one.
"Okay, let's just lay him down here. Then one of you tell me everything you know about his injures."
Chris began to relate what they knew and what they had done.
"When he woke up, was he lucid?" Standish asked, as he peeled away the makeshift bandage.
"Yes, but he wasn't awake long. He's groaned and mumbled some since then, but other than that one time, he's been out."
Standish nodded. Truman came back in and the doctor addressed him, instructing him to get Vin's clothes off.
"I'm gonna take care of Annie and our stuff," Buck told Chris from where he stood by the doorway.
"Sure, meet me back here," Chris agreed.
"Who's Annie?" Standish asked.
"A horse. Is he gonna be okay?" Chris looked on as Truman removed Vin's clothes.
"Too soon to say."
"Bloody hell!" Truman exclaimed, as he exposed the silk bloomers.
Chris cringed. Why had he let Buck talk him into that? "We put those on him." Did I just say that, did I just admit that? Oh shit! "It's not what you think," he added hastily. "Buck, Sergeant Wilmington, he convinced me that silk would be better against his burns, I..."
"Did the right thing," Standish cut in. "There's a kitchen around here, go and get some hot food - if you can call it that - this will take some time."
Buck found a quiet corner of the garden to tether the ever patient Annie. Two soldiers immediately approached him. One had what looked like a badly broken arm and the other had one eye, and most of his head, bandaged. They were only too happy to pet Annie and feed her clumps of grass and clover.
Buck gathered up the items from their journey and headed inside; eventually locating Chris in the kitchen.
"What ya got?" he asked, looking down at his friend, who was sitting on the floor, leaning up against the wall, dipping bread in a bowl of something.
Buck ambled over to the hearth, where an orderly ladled some soup into a bowl for him. Then, grabbing a hunk of bread he joined Chris on the floor. At some point they must both have fallen asleep, because Chris woke up to the clatter of pots and voices, and with Buck's head resting on his shoulder. With some effort he got Buck awake and forced himself up. Reluctantly Buck followed suit.
"I need t' take care of business," Buck announced.
"Now that you mention it," Chris admitted and followed him out.
After locating and using the somewhat primitive outside facilities, they went to check on Annie. Rounding the building, Buck suddenly stopped; the garden was deserted. When he'd last been outside, there had been at least twenty men sitting or lying on the grass.
"Where'd they all go?" he asked out loud.
"Search me. Standish did say something about an ambulance taking people to the coast."
Without anyone to pay her attention Annie was dozing were Buck had left her, all alone but for a small man in rough clothing who was looking at her.
"Salut," he greeted cheerfully.
"Bonjour," Chris responded more guardedly.
Then, while Buck stroked Annie and looked on, the small man and Chris had a brief conversation. Finally Chris looked over at Buck.
"He owns the farm across the road, he says we can put her in his field," he explained.
"That's great. Hear that girl? A field - some nice grass, someplace to roll and enough space to stretch your legs. Damn, I wish I was a horse right now."
Returning to the kitchen in search of breakfast they found the orderly, who was acting as a cook, had managed to produce some potato cakes. There was even some bacon to go with them. Snagging two mugs of tea they waited their turn to be served.
"You the two Yanks the doc was talking about?" the cook asked.
Chris nodded as he drank some tea.
"Mind taking him his breakfast?"
"Sure," Buck agreed.
Six hot potato cakes were placed on a plate with three rashers of bacon.
"Plates are scarce, you'll have to share. Next!"
Thus loaded with food, they set out in search of the American-sounding French doctor.
They found him in a small office, drinking what smelled suspiciously like coffee, and scribbling furiously in a large logbook.
"Morning," Chris greeted.
"Is it?" The blackout board was still in place.
"Sure is." Buck crossed the room and took down the board.
Bright sunlight streamed in, making them all squint slightly for a few moments until their eyes adjusted.
"Is that for me?" the doctor asked, without looking up.
"Some of it." Buck and Chris quickly snagged their own share of the bounty.
"How's Vin?" Chris asked, once he'd consumed his breakfast.
"The guy we brought in last night, head injury, burns?"
Standish reached out a hand and took a potato cake, while still writing.
Finally, the man before them looked up and grinned, revealing a glint of gold. "Oh him! He's doing as well as can be expected, under the circumstances. No, come to think of it, rather better, those burns weren't as bad as I'd feared when I saw his clothing."
"Did he wake up yet?"
"Briefly, he's sleeping now."
"So that's good - right?" Buck asked.
Standish shrugged. "When he's awake, and can stay awake, and knows that one and one equals two, then we'll see how well he's doing."
"So what happens now, he gets sent to a proper hospital?" Chris asked.
The doctor snorted into his coffee, Chris had decided that it definitely was coffee, and he wanted to know where Standish had gotten it and how he could get some. "In case you hadn't noticed, we are in a precarious position and about to be overrun by particularly unfriendly fellows. Proper hospitals are in short supply."
"So?" Chris persisted.
"This is an aid station. I treat them; I stabilize them as best I can. Those that can go back to the front go, the others get sent on to the field hospital near the coast. I send those that are most in need of further treatment first. Most of them went last night."
"Well that explains where everyone went," Buck commented, mostly to himself,
"When the next ambulance convoy will get here is anyone's guess. Your young sergeant doesn't need any immediate treatment, so he'll just have to wait his turn."
Chris opened his mouth to protest, but closed it when Buck said. "Fair enough." Buck then cocked his head to one side, and listened. "It's awful quiet out there isn't it?" he commented.
Chris did the same, confirming to himself that while he could hear sporadic small arms fire, and planes continued to fly over, there were no sounds of battle artillery from the canal.
"Apparently there is a, and I quote, 'lull'," Standish explained.
"A lull?" Chris questioned.
"That is what I am given to understand. Apparently our German friends were, for once, less than efficient. They were, in fact, somewhat rash. There was only one tank and it has been disabled. Thus there is a stalemate, while we presumably wait for more tanks to arrive, on their side at least. I have yet to see any artillery passing us to join the fray. Everyone seems to be preserving their ammunition."
They moved in to the adjacent room were Vin now lay on his side on a small camp bed. The head wound had been properly stitched and with his burns covered, he was now dressed again, though the uniform he wore was missing a jacket and was clearly not his. Standish put a hand on his patient's brow.
"He was running a fever when he got here, but it's dropping now. I am more optimistic," he told them. "I now intend to take the morning air."
"What about your patients?" Chris asked.
"Truman will call if he's worried. He's a sterling fellow, comes from someplace called Yorkshire. Totally unflappable."
Leaving Tanner to rest and wanting to take advantage of the warm weather and relative quiet, all three moved outside to sit on the step and drink the rest of their morning brew.
"Sounds like you're a long way from home, Doctor," Chris commented. "By the way, what is your name?"
"I told you, Standish."
"He means, what's your first name?" Buck explained.
"Oh, Ezra. And I am not the only one who seems to be a long way from home?"
"You can say that again," Buck agreed.
"Where are you from?" Ezra asked him.
"Atlantic City originally, but me and Chris - the Captain - we met in Philly."
"So how do you come to be wearing a British uniform?"
"We were fighting in Spain, got sent back to England and decided to bum around Europe for a while, since we were there. Then the damn Nazis went and invaded Poland, ruined everything, so we joined up," Buck explained succinctly.
Ezra looked incredulous. "Let me get this right; not only did you volunteer to fight in someone else's war once, you did it twice?"
Buck shrugged. "Seemed like the right thing to do."
"We've seen what the Nazis and their kind can do," Chris commented darkly.
Ezra was still looking at Buck as if he'd just grown a second head when Chris continued.
"So where are you from?"
"What? Oh, you know here and there."
"Here and there being the south?" Chris prompted.
"I attended school there, for a while at least."
"That still doesn't explain why you volunteered for the French army."
Ezra looked horrified. "What on earth gave you the idea I volunteered? Do I look suicidal? You gentlemen may crave this kind of 'excitement.' Personally, I pass. Or I would have, if I had been given the opportunity." He looked at his audience of two, who seemed not to comprehend. "They drafted me," he explained.
"But you're an American!" Buck exclaimed indignantly. "Aren't you?"
"Indeed. However, I was fortunate, or as it now seems unfortunate, enough to have a French father. My dear mother thought it might be advantageous to have dual nationality. I even stayed with various relatives of my father in and around Nice - at one time or another. A few years ago I inherited some property there. While visiting said property last year, following the successful completion of my medical training, I was arrested; for avoiding the draft."
"Shit!" Buck exclaimed.
"Do you even speak French?" Chris asked.
Just then, Truman came to the door. "Sir, looks like he's waking up."
They didn't need to ask who was waking up.
Vin had been awake for sometime, lying doggo, until he could work out where he was and what the hell was going on. His head hurt, there were guys in there trying to drill for diamonds, he was sure of it. His head hurt so much he hardly noticed the constant sting of the burns, until he tried moving. Then the raw flesh ignited into hundred knives digging into him. He remembered a man shining a light in his eyes and asking him dumb questions. The guy talked funny, a bit like the guys in that film 'Gone With The Wind', so what this man was doing in the middle of this war he wasn't sure. Nor had he worked out who the man was or what he wanted.
Now, as he lay there, he was listening, watching when no one could see him, he was even taking in the various aromas around him. The sounds were few and sporadic, voices, people moving, breathing, coughing, footsteps. At least the voices all seemed to be in English. He'd seen people (mostly from the knee down) and most of them seemed to be in British battledress uniforms. He could smell blood, sweat, soap and - tantalisingly - food, specifically bacon. If only he could remember what had happened to him. He was hurt, how? Clearly someone had taken care of him, who? Trying to work this out made his head hurt, but he persisted.
"Well, hello," came a voice close to him. Not a voice he knew, or at least he didn't think he remembered it.
"No you don't, you just lie still." Vin wasn't even aware he'd been trying to sit up. "I'll go find the doctor."
By the time they reached him, Vin was sitting up, his back against the wall, head back, eyes closed. Ezra squatted down in front of him.
"Hum?" Vin opened his eyes a fraction.
"Can you tell me your name, rank and serial number?"
"Who are you?" Vin opened his eyes and looked around him. "Where am I?"
As Chris watched, it was clear Tanner was ready to bolt at any sign of danger. "It's a British aid station," he called from the door.
Now more alert, Tanner's startlingly blue eyes locked onto Chris. "Do I know you?"
Chris nodded. "We met at the farm, where we found you."
"The farm?" Before Chris could answer his question, Vin seemed to remember, his already pale features lost all remaining colour. "Oh God," he breathed.
Suddenly the ever efficient and unflappable Truman was there with a bucket, just as Vin needed it. A few moments later Buck was there with a mug of water.
"Take it slowly," Ezra advised, "don't gulp. Okay?" Vin nodded. "Now, about those details..."
"Huh?" Vin frowned at him.
"Name, rank, serial number?"
"Oh, um, Tanner, Vincent James, Sergeant - Wessex Rangers, 836513."
"Excellent. What's the last thing you remember?"
"You! Shining a light in my eyes and asking the same damn question."
Ezra sat back on his heels, then looked over at Chris and Buck. "He seems to be on the road to recovery."
Just then there was a series of booms and explosions somewhere fairly close, causing the glass in the windows to rattle, and small chunks of plaster to fall from the ceiling.
"Oh joy, the German's have found their missing tanks," Ezra commented as he stood up.
"Tanks?" Vin asked pushing himself up on to his feet.
"Lie down," Ezra commanded.
"Cha!" Vin all but snarled.
"Sergeant, I am a Lieutenant and your doctor - for now - and I am ordering you to lie down."
"I don't recognise your uniform. It's not British, so I don't have to take your orders." With that Vin tried to walk past Ezra. Unfortunately as soon as he surrendered the support of the wall, his legs began to tremble.
Chris strode across the room. "I take it you recognise my uniform?" he asked, as he grabbed Vin's arm.
Vin looked at him. "Ya...Sir."
"Good, then you will do as Dr Standish orders you to do."
"Cha, I mean, no Sir. I can't just lie about here when I could be killing those murdering bastards. Get me a gun."
"Hate to tell you this, Junior, but from where I stand it don't look like you could hold a daisy, much less a gun," Buck commented.
Vin's eyes shot toward him, Chris could see in them a look of almost feral blood lust. For now, revenge was all the young sergeant cared about. He understood that, he knew that feeling - like a knife twisting in your gut - all to well.
"Maybe some fresh air, Doc?" Chris looked over at Standish, fixing him with what Buck called 'the Larabee glare.'
After a moments hesitation the doctor nodded. Vin allowed Chris to help him to the front step, then sank down gratefully, tilting his head to the sun. Buck appeared behind Chris with both their guns.
"If the bastards come, we'll be ready," he announced, grinning at the alarmingly pale Tanner.
Chris sat down beside him and passed his revolver over. "Reckon you can handle that?"
They sat there in the sun for little more than two hours. All the time they could hear the battle raging just a few miles down the road. Suddenly a Humber truck came tearing down the road. In the back were wounded men.
"Doc?" the driver shouted at Chris as he jumped out.
Chris and Buck were already on their feet, as Chris shook his head, then turned and shouted for Standish.
"You the doc?" the young driver asked again as Ezra ran out.
"I am." Ezra saw the men in the truck. "Come on let's get them unloaded."
"No time Sir, we're falling back, C.O. said to tell you to get loaded up, fast as you can. I'm to take these guys straight on!"
"Load up? On what?" Ezra asked, but the young man was already running back to his vehicle.
Despite the proximity of the battle for the bridge, the report of a rifle so close made everyone jump. The shot slammed into the ground at the heels of the driver, making him freeze.
"Turn around!" Chris ordered.
The Corporal slowly turned around, hands now raised in the air. A dangerous looking Captain was facing him, rifle at his shoulder, a waft of smoke still rising from the barrel. Beside him, a dark haired Sergeant was also aiming a gun at him. Even more worrying was the younger man with the revolver, he had a gun in a double-handed grip, but even so, the end was weaving erratically.
"Buck?" Chris growled.
"Help Tanner up. You!"
"S...sir?" the Corporal stammered.
"Move away from the truck. You men on the truck!" One brave soul, who wasn't too badly hurt, looked out. "You stay where you are, do you hear me?" The man nodded.
Chris then told Buck to help Vin over to the truck and have him sit behind the wheel.
"No one moves this truck until I say so - right?" Chris called to him, once he was in the cab.
"Understood," Vin called back.
"But sir," the Corporal protested. "my orders are..."
"Your orders are out of date, I'm giving you new ones." Chris put his gun down and turned to Ezra. "Check on them." He indicated the truck. "Who goes and who stays is your decision - just don't take too long."
Ezra nodded. "Truman!"
"Coming sir. Hammond!"
The orderly who had made breakfast came out of the building and followed Truman to the truck.
Buck turned to the clearly petrified driver. "What's your name son?"
"Knott, Allen Knott. The Major told me to take them on to the coast. I was only s'pposed to tell you guys to get out," he explained again.
"I know, but now you've got new orders, and it's best not to argue with the Captain - in my experience," Buck told him with a smile.
"I can believe that Sarge!"
Ezra checked each of the men on the truck. Those that could be called 'walking wounded' were fearful they'd lose their best chance to get home. But in the end it was the two worst cases, both lying unconscious on stretchers, that he, Truman and Hammond began to unload.
"But Sir, he's in a bad way," the mate of one of them pointed out. "He needs to get to the hospital."
Ezra looked at the young man sadly. He couldn't be much more than twenty, and from the look of it, he was going to lose his arm. "I'm sorry son, he's gone."
"You mean he's...?"
They placed the unfortunate young soldier under a tree, then returned to the truck where Ezra told them to remove the second stretcher.
"He ain't dead!" someone protested.
"Yeah, he's still breathing," another man protested.
Ezra told his men to continue. "There is nothing anyone can do for him," he told the others in a calm professional manner. "He won't regain consciousness again; so he'll feel nothing."
"You sure doc?"
"I am. I'm sorry, I have to help those who can be saved." Ezra looked at the exhausted, frightened faces in the gloom of the truck. "I am sorry." There were no further protestations. Leaving the men in silent contemplation, he went back to Chris. "With two stretchers gone, we can get probably get five or even six more men in the back," he told him.
"How many patients do you have here?"
"Including Tanner, seven. And I want to send Hammond or Truman, some of those men will need care en route."
There were already two men in the cab beside the driver. "Where?"
"They can stand behind the cab, I know it's not ideal but it is necessary."
"That still leaves one of the men here with us," Chris pointed out. "Who's most able to walk?"
Ezra shrugged. "Two of them have food poisoning. They really are too weak to walk more than a few yards. I was going to put them in the cab with the corporal. Of the others, only one is really mobile, he took some superficial shrapnel to the back. He's stiff, but he can walk I guess."
Both men turned. They had forgotten Vin was sitting right behind them in the truck.
"Sergeant Tanner you have first and second degree burns as well as a severe concussion, you are in no condition to walk anywhere," Ezra reminded him.
"Nothing wrong with my feet, I can walk," Vin stated again.
"You'll pass out before we get a mile up the road."
"I've had worse."
Chris found he didn't doubt that statement for a moment.
"I'm okay, and I'm staying," Vin reiterated.
A shell landed not a hundred yards from them. "Boys, I think we need to make a decision now!" Buck called over as he was helping the wounded men out to the truck.
"I'm staying!" With that Vin climbed out of the cab and stood up, ramrod straight and still.
"Very well!" Ezra threw up his hands in exasperation. "Why should I worry, no one ever listens to anything I say anyway!"
In a frantic twenty minutes, the wounded were sent on their way with Hammond in the truck. Chris disappeared in search of Annie and the farmer, Monsieur Villems. Vin sat down by the front gate, stating that he was on guard duty, while Buck, Ezra and Truman grabbed what they could in the way of food, water, first aid equipment and documents.
More and more troops were falling back as the shells came ever closer. One hit the outer wing of the building. Thankfully, no one was in it at the time. Thick, acrid black smoke drifted over them, probably from a vehicle of some kind, Buck reckoned by the smell of it. A rumbling of a different kind alerted Buck to Chris' return. He came jogging up, leading Annie, who was now hitched to a small, two-wheeled, flat cart.
"Are we ready?" he asked Buck.
"Reckon so. Where'd you get that?"
"The farmer, he says he has no use for it, too old."
Buck stood back and looked at it. It was old, a few flakes of paint indicated it had once been brightly painted, but no more, now it was just grey, weathered and plain. The iron rimmed wheels and rusty sash springs promised a bone-shaking ride, although, from the look of it, someone had added oil to the wheel hubs quite recently.
"Don't care if it's prehistoric, let's get this show on the road."
Piled up beside Tanner at the gate were the things Ezra had decided they had to take, food, water, first aid and his logbook. Now that they had transport he went back into the building to get more things.
"We don't have time!" Chris called after him.
"Won't take a moment!" With that Ezra disappeared inside with the ever present Truman behind him. Moments later they came out, each cradling a small cylinder of oxygen. They had just loaded these, beside Vin, who was now looking even paler, on the cart, when Truman turned to go back inside.
"What are you going for now?" Ezra called after him.
"Your coffee Sir, you know you need it."
"Don't be a damned fool man, it's not worth it!"
Ezra began to pursue his trusty assistant, who was already at the door, when the telltale whistle of a tank shell gave them warning, but no time to act, as it slammed into the former aid station. Smoke and flame erupted from the inside, shooting out from the door and windows, spraying glass, splinters, stone and plaster before it. Chris had this impression; it was no more than that, of Ezra being picked up and flung backwards, landing in a heap on the grass close to the garden wall. As the smoke cleared and he and Buck raced toward the ruins, Ezra was already trying to get up.
"Take it easy," Chris advised as he dropped to his knees by the doctor.
"I'm fine," Ezra muttered, his voice no more than a whisper.
"Sure you are."
Green eyes looked balefully up at Chris. "And you got your medical degree where?"
"I don't need a medical degree to see that you look like crap and your leg is bleeding."
Ezra looked down at his legs. Blood, dark and sticky, was spreading out over the top of his right thigh, the material of his trousers torn and ragged.
"Damn! I had this uniform custom tailored in Paris." Suddenly Ezra's head shot up. "Truman!"
Chris looked over his shoulder; he knew Buck was searching for the other man in the rubble and debris that had once been the porch and front steps. He could hear rather than see Vin doing his best to keep Annie from bolting in terror.
"You found him?" Chris yelled.
"I got him."
The tone of Buck's voice told Chris all he needed to know. "I'm sorry," he told the doctor.
"What? No, are you sure? Let me up, let me see him!"
Knowing this was something the young man had to do, Chris helped him to his feet, noting how he only offered his right hand up for assistance, keeping his left arm against his chest. There was no doubt that Truman was dead, Buck had seen enough death in the last few years to be sure. Nonetheless he helped Ezra to hobble over to him.
Ezra gazed sadly down at the bloody wreckage that had been his staff and his rock in the madness of war. A man of unshakeable courage and dry, wicked humour. A man who had taught him more about battlefield medicine in a few short weeks than he'd learned at medical school in all those years of study. He did not attempt to bend and check for a pulse, there couldn't possibly be one.
"We have to bury him," Ezra stated hoarsely, keeping his head down to hide his tears.
Chris looked over at Buck, they were in the midst of a full and very frantic retreat, there really was no time. And yet...
"Okay," Chris began. "But we can't dig a hole for him, we'll have to cover him with whatever we can find."
Ezra looked up and then around at the devastation. There was an ample supply of materials. "That would be acceptable, and ...fitting."
"Right, well let's get you back to the cart; see if you can talk young Vin through patching you up, while we get on with it." Buck spoke in that soft but firm voice of his, the one Chris vaguely remembered hearing through many a drunken haze, in many a seedy bar. There was no saying no to that voice.
"Very well, the blind shall lead the blind."
This proved to very close to the truth. With Vin still suffering from a blinding headache and waves of nausea, not to mention being hampered by his burns, and Ezra criticising and instructing in equal measures, it was a wonder they didn't kill each other. At least it kept them occupied and distracted while Buck and Chris made fast work of their grisly task. They placed Truman next to the two men from the truck, the young man who had been in a coma had already died. No words were said over the dead men, other than in the heads of those who left them behind and moved on. There just wasn't any time.
Annie wasn't the fastest horse in the world, but she was strong. Nonetheless with Vin and Ezra on the back, and Chris and Buck up front, all the medical equipment, food, water and personal baggage (such as it was) around them and hanging off the sides, the most she could manage was a gentle trot on the flat. On any kind of hill she slowed to a walk, even with Chris and Buck walking behind her. It was hard to pass other wounded men who had no transport, but there was no room for them, and besides, how did you choose who to offer to help? Everyone they passed was at least able to walk, Ezra couldn't even do that. Despite Vin's efforts and more work by Buck, the cut across his thigh continued to ooze blood. Ezra informed them it didn't need a tourniquet.
"Dangerous things, usually do more harm than good," he told them firmly.
So long as he remained still, or as still as the cart's bone shaking ride would allow, the blood loss was slow. If he moved his leg at all, let alone tried to stand, the blood began to flow freely again, despite the three field dressings, one on top of another, wound tightly around it. Vin continued to claim he was 'fine' but his pallor and trembling hands told a different story. Lying on the cart, he dozed off a few times only to jolt awake as if woken by some nightmare.
After covering some miles over flat ground the land was now rising steadily. Evening was fast approaching as they finally crested the hill. There, below them, was the distant sea, their only escape route. And there before them was a maelstrom. Smoke plumes, some hundreds of feet high, rose from the little town of Dunkirk and at intervals along the shoreline. Beyond this, just offshore, there were ships, no more than little dark smudges barely visible in the fading light. Smoke rose from some of them too. Planes roared in from the north, dropping bombs and strafing the ships and, presumably, the men on the shore, though this was hidden from them by the lay of the land. The whole British Expeditionary Force, and what could be saved of the French Army, were being funnelled onto this one small stretch of coastline, where, as they waited for rescue, they made easy pickings for the Luftwaffe. It was a hell on earth, but if they wanted to remain free, their only option was to walk into it.
"Yes!" the seventeen-year-old, yelled from the stables
"Come up to the house!"
John Daniel Dunne patted the big hunter and picked up his grooming kit. Cromwell liked to be groomed. He was a people horse and he just loved the attention and JD loved to give it to him, making his chestnut coat shine.
The house wasn't much more than a cottage really, nestling into the valley side overlooking the Beaulieu River.
JD ran across the small cobbled yard to the house, stopping at the half open stable door that led to the kitchen.
"Yes sir?" he asked his employer.
Edward Vernon was a small, compact man, who'd long ago lost most of his hair. His voice had the gravelled quality of a man who smoked and drank too much. The tobacco he said he needed, the Scotch he enjoyed and, since he was retired, he was entitled to enjoy himself. Vernon had been a naval officer. Despite graduating from the Dartmouth Naval College, his was not a glittering career. In over forty years of service, he never rose above the rank of Lieutenant Commander, and had spent the years since the last war behind a desk in Portsmouth. Unambitious, his lack of promotions or command didn't bother him much.
"Take the boat and get her filled up."
JD frowned. The boat, a motor yacht called 'The Storm,' had all but been mothballed since the war began. Petrol was just too scarce, which had been a real shame, since she was only a year old.
Vernon stepped closer. "Here." He handed over the necessary fuel coupons to fill the vessel's capacious fuel tanks.
JD looked down at them and then back at his employer. "Is this because of what's happening in France?" he asked.
"Just get her ready, I'll explain once you get back."
When JD arrived at the riverside fuel depot, he found, to his surprise, that he was not the only one. He had to queue for almost two hours. All the boats around him were bigger than The Storm, which was just under thirty foot, but that didn't bother him: she was a good boat, sturdy and stable, even in poor weather. By the time he got back home, Mr Vernon had assembled a substantial picnic, had his overcoat on the table, and was cleaning his shotgun.
"Sir?" JD stood just inside the kitchen. "You're going to France, aren't you?"
"No, but Storm is, I think. She's been requisitioned and I have to take her to Ramsgate."
"Ramsgate, that's a long way, you'll need help."
Edward Vernon looked up. "No." Then went back to cleaning his gun.
"I'm a good sailor, you taught me."
Edward sighed, that was true; the boy was an excellent sailor, a real wiz at navigation. "You're too young."
"Please, let me help. Mrs Potter can take care of the house. I'll turn the horses out, they'll be fine," JD pleaded.
Vernon kept two hunters, Cromwell and his preferred mount, Rosie. He hunted in the winter and hacked out in the summer. Since the war, both horses had had to get used to pulling a trap, since hay wasn't rationed and petrol was. JD took care of the horses, the car, the boat, did odd jobs and helped his employer keep the garden. Mrs Potter, a local woman who'd recently been widowed, came in six days a week to cook and clean. Keeping house had been JD's mother's job; she and JD had lived in the two attic bedrooms. Then Rachel Dunne became ill. At first it seemed to be her back, she was all but crippled by terrible pain running down her leg that the doctor blamed on sciatica. Eventually fibroids were diagnosed. When the pain became unbearable, surgery was the only option. Edward Vernon, a good and considerate employer with no family of his own, had paid all the bills. Sadly there were complications and Rachel Dunne bled out and died on the operating table. JD was just eleven.
Edward paid for JD to attend boarding school and gave him a home during the school holidays. So good was he to the boy, that some people began to whisper that possibly he was JD's father. He wasn't. John Dunne, an Irish merchant seaman, had left his heavily pregnant wife in Southampton and boarded his ship bound for the USA - where he promptly jumped ship and was never heard from again. Those that knew Edward well, knew he was a confirmed bachelor for a reason and he couldn't possibly be JD's father, but that people thought it did neither of them any harm.
JD proved to be a very able student and had passed his school certificate early. He wanted to join the navy, but, as his legal guardian, Edward, refused to let him until he was eighteen and his birthday wasn't until April.
"I joined the Navy at fourteen and I was miserable for at least four years. Take my word for it, you need to wait," he had told JD firmly.
Despite his insistence that JD wait to join up, he knew how desperately the boy wanted to 'do his bit' for the war effort, and the expression on that earnest face swayed him. JD could accompany him to Ramsgate.
Edward snapped the unloaded shotgun closed. "Very well," he finally conceded.
When they arrived at Ramsgate it became clear just how big the operation was. The harbour was already crowded with small craft, trawlers, life boats, passenger ferries and even small open row boats and launches.
"It's amazing," JD breathed.
"They get this lot across to France it'll be a bloody miracle!" Vernon muttered as he manoeuvred The Storm next to a much larger motor yacht. There were so many boats and ships JD reckoned that pretty soon you'd be able to walk from one side to the other and not get your feet wet.
"Come on, get your stuff and let's go," Edward instructed.
JD looked around at the new, and still pristine, boat he'd hardly got to know. "Do you think we'll ever see her again?"
Edward looked around him and shrugged. "In all honesty, no, I just hope she can be of some use, save some lives, help bring some boys home. Come on."
They were directed to a large warehouse. In an operation of remarkable efficiency, given how little time there had been to organise it, they were directed to a table were they could register their boat.
"Hello sir, vessel's name?" the young WREN at the desk asked.
"The Storm," Edward replied.
"She's twenty nine foot six, eight foot six in the beam and she draws three foot."
The young woman looked up. "Really, three foot?"
JD nodded. "Sure I can get her right into the moorings at home even at the bottom of the lowest tide."
The WREN underlined the '3' draft' on her from. "Owner's name and address?"
Edward gave her the information.
"Fill out this form and take it to the desk over there in the corner, they'll give you a travel warrant to get you home. There's tea and sandwiches by the exit." She smiled up at them, but Edward didn't move. "Is there a problem sir?"
"Is there any chance I can pilot her over myself?" he asked.
"No sir, I'm sorry, only professional seaman are to be allowed to stay with their own boats, fishermen, lifeboat men, Thames watermen - I'm sorry."
"I was in the Navy for more than forty years young lady, I was fighting the Germans while most of your 'professional seaman' were in short trousers."
Of course he didn't mention that his ship in the last war was HMS Hecla, a submarine tender and support ship. It wasn't that Hecla didn't do her part, but she wasn't a front line ship.
"I'm sorry, sir, I didn't realise. Speak to the flotilla coordinator's aid, the lieutenant over there." She pointed to the tall officer speaking to a group of fishermen.
"JD, go on and get yourself something to eat, I'll join you in a little bit."
JD knew that tone of voice. His employer, who until he was eighteen was also his legal guardian, was an easygoing man, but he had a limit, and past that he would not go. That was the tone JD heard now.
He stood, holding but not drinking the mug of lukewarm tea he'd been handed and munching absentmindedly on the door wedge of a jam sandwich he'd been given. On the other side of the warehouse, the man who was the closet thing to a father he'd ever had, the man who was the only 'family' he had, was negotiating to go to war. No man of sixty-seven should go to war. Hadn't he done enough? The trouble was, as much as JD didn't want him to go, JD wanted to go. He hated that he wasn't old enough to join up. More than anything he wanted to follow the other young men of the village who had joined the Army, Navy and RAF.
After about five minutes, he saw Edward shake hands with the young officer and begin to walk towards him, he was smiling.
Not without me, JD vowed, knowing what had been agreed.
Edward Vernon's smile slipped when he reached JD. "I'm going to take her across. You go straight home. I'll get your travel warrant," he fished in his pocket, "and here are the house keys. There is cash in the top drawer of the desk, the key is this bunch." He held the keys out, but JD made no attempt to take them. "JD, you're not going with me."
For the first time in his life JD was going to try and push past the limit. "I'm not letting you go on your own."
"Yes you are. You are going to get on that train and go home, where you'll be safe."
"What about you? You don't need to go. Why don't you come home and be safe?"
"I used to be in the Navy, they need help..."
"And I'm gonna be in the Navy. I've been in the cadets for four years, I'm a much better navigator than you, and I'm a lot fitter."
"You're just a boy."
"And you're an old man."
Despite the number of people all around him, it seemed to the two of them that a silence descended around them.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean... I just want you to be..." JD blurted out.
"It's alright. You're right. It's hard to look at you and not see that little six-year-old that hid behind his mother's skirts on my front doorstep. The same little boy who I found in my study one Sunday morning playing with my toy soldiers." JD blushed. "You are still a boy, but you're right, I'm an old man and I always was bad at navigation."
"You mean... I can come?"
"If they'll let you."
It took some doing, but that fact that JD was a Navy cadet helped, and he was permitted to go. JD went back to the boat, while Edward got their orders. The big yacht they were birthed next to was called 'Sundowner." JD was forced to cross her decks to get to Storm. A man stood at the prow, stowing ropes.
"Permission to cross sir?" JD asked out of courtesy.
"Of course," came the reply.
Once aboard The Storm, JD went below and packed everything movable away. With that done there was little he could do but wait.
"Are you coming with us?" the man on the motor yacht asked.
"Um, yes sir."
"No," JD responded a little to quickly.
"I am, and I'm prepared to bet every man preparing to make this trip is as well. So, are you scared?"
"Good, fear and a proper respect for the sea is going to help keep you safe. That and listening to your elders and betters." He smiled at JD.
"Yes sir, thank you."
Just then another man appeared. "Dad? They need you to come and collect the orders."
As JD watched, Edward and the owner of Sundowner met and spoke. He saw them shake hands.
"Do you know him?" he asked when Edward arrived back on their boat.
"That man, the other boat's owner."
"Oh, no, but I know of him - why?"
"He told me it was alright to be afraid and to respect the sea."
Edward smiled. "He's right and he should know."
"So who is he?"
"That, young JD, was Charles Herbert Lightoller, he won the DSC in the last war and he was second officer on the Titanic."
JD's jaw dropped about a foot. "Really?"
"Come on, we have work to do."
The sea was kind to them, it was calm. Nevertheless, many of the small open boats being towed across were lost. They had to follow a naval escort who guided them through the safe route cleared by the minesweepers, but they all knew that as fast as the sweepers cleared the shipping lanes, the Germans lay new mines, so it was a nervous trip, especially as night fell. The darkness kept them relatively safe from air attack, but it made it hard to see the escort ship who was showing minimal lights, most of the small craft around them had little or no lights, their owners had never thought to need blackout regulation lighting on their boat.
As dawn broke, the skyline was filled with columns of inky black smoke. Ships - little more than ghostly outlines in the dawn haze - were all around them. The wind had picked up and with it the swell. It quickly became clear to JD why the WREN had underlined their draft on the form. Lines of men were already leaving the beaches and wading into the waves to meet the boats. The larger craft lay offshore, unable to get close to the men.
"I guess we go in, pick up as many men as we can and take them out to the big ships." Even as he spoke JD ducked as a German plane roared overhead. Guns on the ships around them opened up as the plane headed for the harbour.
"We do, come on." Edward gunned the engine. "We need to concentrate on our job, there is nothing we can do about anything else."
The worst part was telling the man behind the last man on queue that they were full, to watch him standing there, chest deep in cold water, waiting for who knew how long for the next boat. Edward did the embarking, JD handled the helm. They had made three runs into the surf and were heading back for a fourth, when it happened. A plane overhead, neither one took any notice. The whistle of a falling shell, still they took no notice - the planes went for the big ships and they were well away from the big ships, already heading back again to the shore.
Suddenly there was a deafening explosion, a wave of heat blew over them then they were blown off their feet as water and debris hit them.
JD found himself on the deck covered in splinters. "Oh God," he gasped as he forced himself up and looked around. The wheelhouse was on fire as was much of the upper deck forward.
"Sir!" he shouted. "Mr. Vernon sir!"
Edward was lying in a heap in the corner. Half covered in splintered wood. JD flew to his side.
"Just... don't move, don't try to move. I'll get this off you," JD blurted out.
"I'm not moving," Edward told him in a strange, hoarse voice.
"I'll have it off you in a second..."
"JD, leave it." Edward lifted a bloody hand and placed it on JD's wrist.
"No, I have to..."
But JD continued to lift the section of deck that lay over Edward's chest. Then he froze. A huge splinter impaled Edward through the chest.
"Oh! Oh! Errr," JD spluttered. He looked up and around them, desperately looking for some help. There was no one. There were men and ships all around them, but they were either too far away or having problems of their own. "What do I do?" he asked.
"Nothing, leave me." Edward took a shallow, clearly painful breath.
"You have to. We're on fire, You have to get off before she blows."
"Not without you," JD stated adamantly.
"I'm already dying. I can't move my legs, I can't feel them and it's hard to breathe." He took another shallow breath and coughed. Blood, bright red and frothy, escaped from the corners of his mouth.
"No! You have to come with me, please!" JD pleaded.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry I came, I'm sorry I let you come and now I'm going to leave you alone here. I promised your poor mother I'd take care of you and look what I did."
"NO! Don't say that! You took care of me, you did, you sent me to school, you were there. Don't go, please, please don't leave me!" JD begged, tears rolling down his cheeks.
"I can't," he coughed again. More blood appeared and he was forced to spit it out. "It's so hard to breathe. Please go, before she blows."
JD backhanded his tears away. "No, I won't leave you, I can't, you're all I have left."
"It's all yours... the house, the land...the...the place in Cornwall...money, shares, it's...all for you," Edward gasped out. "You're all the family I have. You were...a...good...son."
"You're the best father ever. Please, please don't leave me all alone."
Flames licked up behind JD. "Time for you to go."
"NO!" JD clutched on to Edward's arm.
"Please, I have to know...know that you're safe. Go, now, be...be...fore she blows."
There was that tone again and this time JD didn't have the strength to disobey.
"Swim away... as far away as...as...as..." Edward was suddenly wracked by another coughing fit, blood now flowing freely. "Go, please," he begged.
JD took a deep breath and stood. "Goodbye, Dad."
With that, JD did the hardest thing he'd ever done. He turned his back on a dying man and lowered himself into the water and began to swim away.
Swimming wasn't easy. Despite the warm, late May weather, the sea was icy cold. His bulky cork-filled life jacket made swimming all but impossible. He didn't want to look back, he didn't want to see the boat in flames and know Edward might a still be alive as the flames reached him. He didn't want to see the inevitable explosion. He didn't want to know it was finally over - his life as he'd known it, the only family he'd ever had known would be all gone.
The water hit him in the face again and again, try as he might he couldn't help but swallow it. His main ambition was to get away from 'The Storm' before she blew, but he was also trying to swim toward the land. The trouble was that he only got the odd glimpse of it when a big enough wave lifted him up. He could see the plumes of smoke, but there were so many ships on fire it was hard to be sure where the fires were - on land or sea.
Time didn't seem to pass at all. All JD knew was he was swallowing more and more seawater and feeling more and more sick. Eventually he had to roll over and take a breather. He expected to see some sign of 'The Storm' behind him, but there was nothing. No flaming hull, no burning wreckage, he hadn't heard an explosion, or at least he didn't think he had. Had he missed it? Was it all over? Swimming on his back proved a lot easier than on his front and he swallowed less water, the trouble was it was hard to keep track of were he was headed. There might be dozens, even hundreds, of boats working to get the armies off the beaches, but none of them were anywhere near JD. The sun was getting low and the light was fading. He tried to remember where the land was by the compass.
South he decided, a north facing beach, so it was south of him, but were was south? The sun was setting in the west; so that meant that south was...where? It was so hard to think, he was so tired and so cold, the salt made his eyes sting. South, where was south? 'Remember W.E. spells 'we'' his mother had taught him when he was little and got west and east mixed up.
So, if west is on my right then east is on the left and that means...think JD! Think, you know this stuff! he still couldn't work it out, so he slowly turned around and tried again. West the left, east right, so north is in front of me and south is behind me - I think.
Just then a large wave, possible the wake of some distant ship he couldn't see, hit him in the face. He coughed and spluttered as he swallowed more water. There was a familiar taste to it, not just salt, but petrol as well. His stomach could take no more and rebelled, forcing him to roll back over to face forward again. The sea was rougher now and as fast as his body expelled seawater he swallowed more. Each wrenching heave took more and more energy, his arms and legs were so cold and so weak with fatigue he could barely move them. Darkness edged his vision as he found it harder and harder to breathe. It just seemed to take more energy than he had. By the time something snagged the back of his lifejacket and began to drag him backwards, he was no longer aware of it.
The open rowboat didn't stand a chance, designed to be rowed by eight men, only six were at the oars. Never designed to carry passengers, the sleek racing gig was now weighed down with nine men, in addition to her crew of seven. The men at the oars were tired beyond exhaustion, as they pulled away from the beach, headed for a paddle steamer that had been converted to a minesweeper. This was their ninth trip from the ship to the beach and back. Low and slow in the water, for a Stukka pilot, they were as good as a sitting target. The line of bullets all but cut them in half, killing four men as the others dived into the water.
Nearly an hour later, Josiah Sanchez waded ashore and sat down on the beach. No one came to ask if he was hurt or needed a drink. There were men around him, good men, brave men, men who stood up to their armpits in the sea for hours, waiting patiently for a boat. They didn't rush the boats; they just stood in long snaking lines, trailing out into the sea like the dark tendrils of some beached sea monster. Those whose unit hadn't been called to join a line sat in groups among the sand dunes, eking out their water and rations as best they could. If a German plane came low enough they would open up on it with their rifles. There was little chance of hitting anything, but it made them feel good, for a while. There were other men on the beach, dead men; their bodies rolled in the surf, charred and burnt, black with oil, some already bloated. There were too many to bury, though some men did try, digging graves in the sand with trenching tools, rifle butts and bare hands. Here and there the sea was already claiming even these men back, pulling the sand from over them with each high tide, leaving hands or feet or jaws exposed, grisly reminders of the destruction of war and the power of the sea.
Josiah pulled himself to his feet and looked around, tying to see if he could see any of the men from his boat, not that he knew them that well. He'd only met them on the steamer coming across the channel. Josiah Xavier Sanchez was forty two and had been a professional seaman for more then twenty years. Never raising above Able Seaman, he'd travelled the world, stopping off for weeks, months, even years at a time to explore.
He'd taught English in China, marched for independence in India, studied with a holy man in Tibet, driven cattle in Argentina, mined for emeralds in Columbia, cut sugar cane in the Caribbean and smuggled whisky in America. He'd fought before, too. Each war seemed to be the right war, the war to defeat evil, the war to end all wars, the war to hold back the powers of darkness. The war to end all wars wasn't, the powers of darkness were stronger than ever. Yet he couldn't give up the fight, not yet. He'd been crewing a river ferry - after the tramp steamer he'd arrived in Britain on was impounded as no longer seaworthy. When she was requisitioned, as the only member of the crew over seventeen, under sixty five and unmarried, he'd been the one to take her down to Folkestone. The ferry was to be crewed by the navy, but - in need of strong backs - they recruited him to man one of the open rowboats that would ferry men off the beaches.
He walked up and down the beach for the best part of two hours, but found no one he recognised. It was getting dark, so he headed into the dunes to see if he could find some food and drinkable water. What he found was a small aid post, set up in what had once been a seaside café.
"Hello?" he called as he approached.
"In here!" came the reply in an accent Josiah thought sounded familiar.
With darkness fast approaching ,the shutters had been closed to provide a blackout. A blanket hung at the door kept the light from escaping. Josiah slipped in. Inside, the room was dark, only one lamp illuminated the former dining area. Tables had been pushed together to make beds. Beyond this there was a bar and a door, presumably leading to the kitchen.
No patients seemed to be in residence.
"Are you hurt?" A man emerged from the door behind the bar.
"Um, no, just thirsty."
The man stepped into the lamplight and Josiah realised why his accent sounded so familiar. He was a tall black man, broad shouldered and powerfully built, if his arms were anything to go by.
"Let me guess, Tobago?" Josiah asked.
"Close, Trinidad," came the reply.
"Nathan Jackson. Come on back here, I've got water." He turned and headed back into the kitchen.
Josiah followed. "The water is still working?" he asked incredulously.
Jackson looked over his shoulder. "Hardly. The ambulance that takes the serious cases up to the field hospital brings the water in jerry cans. They have a well."
The water tasted wonderfully sweet and cool as Josiah gulped it down.
"I thought you said you weren't hurt?" Jackson reached out and took Josiah's hand, turning it over to look at the palm. It was blistered and raw.
Josiah looked down at it, then put down the cup and looked at his other hand, which was equally raw. "I haven't had to do much rowing in a while," he said, by way of explanation.
For the first time Jackson took in the man before him, registering that he wasn't in uniform.
"You were rowing men out to the boats?"
Josiah nodded. "It was shot up, damn near cut in half."
"Come on, let's get your hands seen too."
While Nathan cleaned and dressed the wounds on his hands Josiah tried to find out a little more about him.
"Are you a doctor?" he asked.
"No, not by a long way, just a medic. But I was a first year medical student, in London, in thirty nine."
"So how come you didn't carry on studying? Don't we need doctors more than ever?"
Nathan shrugged. "Of course, but it will be at least five years before I'm of any use to anyone. The war will be over by then..." He looked at Josiah and smiled. "...at least I hope and pray it will be."
"As do we all." Josiah looked around. "You alone here?"
"Sometimes. I have an orderly, Marshall. He travelled up to the clearing station in the ambulance with today's wounded, he'll be back before dawn, I hope." He gave a hesitant little laugh. "Well he always has come back before. There is meant to be another orderly and a doctor. I don't know why there's only one orderly, but the doctor - Doctor Boarder - never showed up. I have his orders, but not him. I guess he didn't make it through the bombing, or something."
The two men sat in silence for a while, until Josiah decided to change the subject.
"So, Trinidad, it's a long way from London."
"True. My father works on a sugar cane plantation. He used to be a cutter. Now, he just supervises. I was luckier."
"Clearly, medical training in London doesn't come cheap."
"I won a scholarship, the sugar company paid."
Josiah knew of such schemes. He also knew the competition was fierce and that meant Nathan must have been an outstanding candidate. If he were killed before he could complete his training, it would not only be the waste a young life, but of what could have been an outstanding career.
"There, you're all done," Nathan announced, applying the last bit of tape to the dressings on Josiah's battered hands.
"Thanks. Guess I should go now, I don't want to clutter up the place."
Nathan looked up at him, clearly disappointed. "Do you need to go now? I was gonna offer you something to eat, you look like you could use it."
"Um, well, that would be wonderful, if you're sure you can spare it?"
The meal, bully beef risotto, wasn't exactly haute cuisine, but it certainly hit the spot as far as Josiah was concerned. Nathan explained that although the little café had been stripped of all the perishable food, as well as the preserves and confectionery, for some reason the dry goods had been overlooked.
"I know it's not much, but it's nourishing. I just wish there were some fresh vegetables or fruit."
Josiah didn't look up from wolfing down his meal. "Don't apologise, right now this is heaven."
"Hey Doc!" someone called. "We got wounded!"
Both men stood and walked to the doorway as two men carried in a third, they were followed by two others. It was clear that the wounded men were both badly burnt, their clothing was wet through, oil clung to them - to their uniforms, to their skin, to their wounds, to their hair.
"Put them on the tables. Did a boat get hit?" Josiah asked.
"Don't know mate, we found 'em in the surf. Our officer told us to bury the dead. Can't see the point myself, tide's just gonna uncover them again. Guess he thinks it'll keep us occupied. Anyway, we found these two. They was still breathing so we brought them here," one of the men, the one with Corporal's stripes, explained.
"They gonna make it?" one of the others asked.
"I don't know," Nathan said softly. It was what he always said.
The Corporal looked at him, then at Josiah, then back to Nathan. "You're not the doctor," he accused. "I want the organ grinder, not his monkey!"
"I'm the medic, there is no doctor."
"Well that ain't right. These fellers need a real doctor, not you jungle boy!" the Corporal sneered.
"What they need," Josiah began, placing his hand firmly on the Corporal's chest, "is for the medic take a look at them and for you lot to clear off back your unit. We wouldn't want you to miss your boat."
The corporal looked down at the bandaged hand on his chest. "And just who the hell are you?"
"I'm the organ grinder, and, if you don't go now, I'm gonna grind you up and spit you out - comprenda?"
For a second it looked as if the Corporal was going to make a fight of it, then one of the other men tugged on his shoulder. "Come on Rod, he's right, we don't wanna miss our chance at a boat."
Once he was sure the men had gone, Josiah turned back to see if he could help Nathan.
"Well?" he asked as Jackson looked up from examining the first man. He shook his head sadly and turned to the second man.
With infinite care he began to examine the second man, looked for signs of consciousness and assessing his injures. The man was in a bad way; third degree burns covered his face, chest and arms. He knew almost immediately that the man was doomed. The burns on his chest were just too bad. Even if he didn't die from shock or simple heart failure, the burned and charred skin over his chest was already tightening, soon it would be so tight it would no longer be able to expand as he breathed. Little by little his breathing would become more laboured and shallower until he couldn't get any oxygen at all, then he'd asphyxiate. Worst of all, there was nothing anyone, not even in the best equipped hospital in the world, could do about it.
Nathan looked sadly at the man's disfigured face, one side was unrecognisable. There were no discernible features. As he watched, the other eye, the one that was just about recognizable, suddenly opened.
"Hello," Nathan greeted softly, leaning over so that his face was in the man's line of vision. "You're in a British aid station. My name is Nathan. I'm going to take care of you."
As Josiah watched the man blinked once. The pain, so evident in that one eye, was almost unbearable to look at.
"I'm going to give you something for the pain, alright?" Nathan asked.
The man blinked once.
Taking this as a yes, Nathan looked up at Josiah. Understanding what was needed, Josiah stepped into the man's line of vision as Nathan stepped away.
"Hello, my name is Josiah." He looked down at the man; there was no way to tell how old he was, but since he seemed to be in uniform, there was a good chance he was young. Around his neck, as well as his ID discs, was a small blackened cross on a chain. "You are a Christian?"
Another one eyed blink.
"Would you like to hear a psalm?"
"The twenty third?"
Josiah was almost relieved when the poor man blinked 'yes.' You didn't need to be a doctor or even a medic to see that this poor wretch was dying. That this man knew it somehow made it easier to watch.
"The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake."
Nathan returned with a syringe and a pair of scissors.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."
Nathan cut the man's trouser leg and pushed the needle into his calf.
"I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over."
The man's one usable eye closed.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
Almost as Josiah spoke the words, the painfully slow, shallow, breathing ceased.
Josiah sank down to his knees, while Nathan confirmed the man was dead. Then he recited a prayer for the dead. When he was done, they carefully removed the man's ID tags.
"His name was 'Small'," Nathan made out. "I can't read anymore."
Josiah nodded. "What did you give him?"
Nothing more was said. Josiah knew that the dose given was in all probability well in excess of what was needed to ease the pain. It didn't matter. The man was no longer in pain. He wouldn't have to fight pointlessly for every breath. He was no longer scared and bewildered, he was at peace.
They wrapped the body in a blanket and placed it outside. As soon as the eastern sky paled, Josiah carried it down to the beach and, using a tea tray, dug a grave at the base of one of the sand dunes. He marked it with plank on which he carved 'Small. British' and the date. That done, he stood up.Dawn was just breaking. No doubt the Luftwaffe would be back soon.
On the horizon, the ships were still there, small craft still plying back and forth. To his left the town of Dunkirk still burned, abandoned by its citizens to be occupied by one army, for now, soon to be occupied by another, for who knew how long.
Needing to stretch his legs and get some fresh air, Josiah strolled down to the water's edge. There seemed to be fewer bodies now. The tide was falling, no doubt taking them out with it. He was about to head back to the aid post, having decided he could be of most used helping Nathan, at least until his orderly came back, when he saw something in the water, just beyond the surf line. There was something about it that made him look twice. That it was a body was clear, but it looked different, this body was clean, not covered in the black oil that coated most. Whoever it was had a life jacket on and was floating face up. Josiah made his decision and began to wade into the water.
"Nathan!" Josiah bellowed before he'd even reached the aid station. "Nathan get out here!"
Jackson appeared at the door. "What?"
"It's a boy, I found him in the water. I swear, he's just a boy." Josiah had the boy in his arms and was already shouldering past Nathan into the aid station.
Nathan got no more than a glance at the casualty as Josiah passed him. His heart dropped. The boy, for he did look young, was deathly pale, his lips looked blue. He just prayed this was not another hopeless case, like the men brought in last night.
Inside Josiah was surprised to see two new patients, though why he was surprised he wasn't sure. It was an aid station after all. Ignoring both, the two men on the tables and the two standing watch over them, he placed his precious burden on the nearest free table.
"Tell me," Nathan demanded as he began his examination.
"I don't know if he was breathing when I dragged him out of the water, but I managed to get some water out of him." Josiah was still panting; he'd carried the young man at a run all the way up the sand dunes from the beach. "Actually quite a lot of water, then he sort of coughed and spluttered. I swear I could feel breath on my cheek after that. So I just picked him up and ran."
Nathan nodded as he picked up a stethoscope. "He's breathing, for the moment, but only just," he confirmed. "If only I had some oxygen."