Alternate Universe - World War II
Buck spoke softly to the faithful Annie as he walked beside her, leading the patient horse along roads clogged and crowded with retreating troops and refugees.
The Luftwaffe had been concentrating their attacks on the port of Dunkirk, its beaches, and the ships lying off shore, but enough stray bombs had landed on the roads to create havoc. This havoc was something the placid farm horse wasn't used to, so Buck had been leading her, rather than having one of them drive. Unlike Chris, Buck hadn't been raised with them, but he loved horses and had ridden ever since he was a teenager. More recently, while fighting in Spain, horses had been an invaluable method of transport.
"Easy there girl, don't mind him," he told her as a motorbike tore its way through the traffic, coming perilously close to Annie's legs.
They had been travelling all day, and they were still more than twenty miles from the field hospital, which itself was still five miles from the coast.
Chris had left the cart to scout ahead. It wasn't difficult; they were moving at a slow walk, when they moved at all. Looking over his shoulder, Buck tried to see their two passengers. Vin was improving; he was less disorientated and more alert, although he was dozing at the moment. Ezra however was getting weaker. His leg wound was still bleeding. It didn't gush, but blood still seeped into the field dressings. There were now three, one on top of the other.
"Buck?" Chris came running back toward them, calling out as he approached.
"See the farm up there, on the right?" Chris stopped and pointed over to his left.
"I see it."
"Pull off there."
Buck frowned. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing, just pull over." Chris had reached him.
It wasn't easy, getting to the other side of the road, but they managed it.
"Okay, what's up?" Buck asked.
Chris pulled out his map. "Major up there says the field hospital isn't there anymore, it's been evacuated. All there is now is a casualty clearing station just outside the town. If we're ever gonna get them there, we have to get them off this road. There has to be a different way to the coast, back roads, farm tracks, something."
Buck looked down at the map; no such roads were marked. "You sure?"
"There has to be. Stay here."
As Buck watched, Chris walked toward the farm and the elderly couple standing in the doorway of the cottage, watching the tide of defeated humanity pass their door.
"What's going on?" Ezra asked.
"Oh, hey there Doc, didn't know you was awake." Buck looked around, alarmed at how fragile the younger man looked. "Ol' Chris is fed up with the traffic, he's askin' the locals for a short cut."
Ezra managed to sit up a little, propping himself up on one elbow. "Ah, well I'd better go and help him." With that, and before Buck could stop him, he tried to sit up.
"Oh no you don't, you lie right there." It didn't take much pressure from Buck's large hand on his chest to push Ezra back down. "And what in the hell were you gonna do anyway?"
"You know, contrary to what you may have seen in the movies, most people in France don't speak English, no matter how slow or loud you speak."
Buck gave him a pitying look. "No shit Sherlock." Then he grinned. "Don't worry Chris speaks French real good."
"Like a native."
"And just how did he managed that? Seeing as he is patently not a native of La Belle France."
"His Ma's from Canada."
Ezra snorted. "Like a native indeed. I'll wager he speaks French about as well as you speak English."
It took a while for Buck to work out he'd just been insulted. "Hey, there ain't nothing wrong with how I speak English!"
Just then Vin began to mutter something unintelligible in his sleep, a frown creasing his brow.
"At least you speak English," Ezra commented.
"Yeah, what language is that anyway?"
"I don't know, but from the look of things and from your report regarding the circumstances under which you discovered him, I doubt they are pleasant dreams."
Buck thought back to the carnage they had found at the farm and in the barn in particular. "No, don't reckon they are."
This brief conversation had been enough to drain Ezra and he dropped back down onto his make shift bed, wincing as the movement further jarred his injuries.
"You okay?" Buck asked.
"Oh just peachy," Ezra told him through gritted teeth.
As Ezra relaxed back and closed his eyes, Buck turned his attention back to Chris, who was still at the cottage. After about ten minutes he watched his friend shake hands with the elderly couple and turn away.
"Well?" Buck asked as Chris approached.
"I have a plan."
"You always do pal. The question is, is it as crappy as most of your plans and am I gonna get killed?"
"Funny. Take a look." He unfolded the map and showed it to Buck. "This is the road we're on, and if we stay in it we will get to Dunkirk, 12th casualty clearing station is here, I think, from what the Major said." He pointed to a point on the landward edge of the town. "The trouble is, with this much traffic it'll take us another day, at least, to get there. Now if we get across to this road, we hit the coast east of Dunkirk and miss it, but I reckon even if we have to go back on ourselves, it'll be quicker."
"True," Buck admitted.
"The old guy says when we get to the village just down the road, turn off to the right by the church, there's a lane, well he described it as a track, too narrow for a truck, or even a car, but he reckons Annie and cart should fit. It'll take us to this lane here." Chris had pencilled in some lines with notes on them, apparently they were roads or tracks, Buck wasn't sure, but he was sceptical. Nevertheless, he listened. "This lane takes us to the other coast road, about here."
Buck stared at the map, the road Chris was pointing at was marked on the map, but there was a problem.
"In case you haven't noticed, that road stops at the canal, there's no crossing."
"I have a plan."
"I hate it when you say that."
The track was so overgrown it was barely passable, especially as the sun went down. The sky was clear and moon full, out in the open it would have provided sufficient light, but between the thick overgrown hedges it cast inky black shadows. Nonetheless, the ever steady and faithful Annie just plodded on. The lane they emerged onto was a little wider and more open, and it was deserted. Ezra was sleeping, or possibly unconscious, but Vin was awake, and feeling more and more clear-headed.
"So, do we rest up, or carry on through the night?" Chris asked.
"I say carry on," Buck voted.
"Vin?" Chris asked.
"This is survival, it's just the four of us, so you can call me Chris and you get a vote, same as everyone else."
Vin nodded. "Well, then I say we carry on, the Doc doesn't look too good to me."
So they went on. Buck and Chris took turns leading Annie, mainly because they needed to stretch their legs. Vin walked a little, but the burns on his hip bothered him, so most of the time he rode on the cart. The trouble was, while walking was painful, riding was almost as uncomfortable - not that he admitted any of this. As they neared the coast, the war became louder as the planes roared in to bomb and strafe the beaches and the ships, using the moon to guide them. As they neared the canal, Chris led them off the road and down to a farm.
"Let me guess, this is your plan?" Buck asked.
"The old man told me most of the farmers down here have land on both sides of the canal, they use their own rafts to get stock back and forth."
"So all we do if find one of these farmers and get him to help us?"
"That's your plan?"
"That's my plan."
"Shut up, Buck."
Vin looked from one man to the other. "You two have known each other a long time haven't you?"
"Eight years," Chris told him.
"Ten," Buck corrected.
By the time they reached the farm, Ezra seemed to have passed out. He certainly didn't respond when they tried to wake him. It was a small farm, and with just moonlight to go by it was hard to be sure, but it looked to Chris a lot like the kind of farm he grew up on back in Berks County, Pennsylvania. The Larabee farm was small, nestling in a wooded valley. They grew some crops, mostly corn and tobacco. There was an apple orchard and a kitchen garden that provided most of their own fruit and vegetables. They kept half a dozen dairy cattle, pigs for their own use and a fair number of chickens, plus a few horses. The house was old and small, but it was home. The Larabees had been living and farming that land for over a hundred years, but even thought they owned the land outright, the depression had been hard on them. At times they had no income at all and just lived on what the land provided.
Sometimes Chris regretted leaving. At times he hankered for the slower, simpler life on the farm, but in his heart of hearts he knew he was no farmer. He'd escaped as a restless eighteen-year-old when he won a scholarship to study engineering in Philadelphia, though as things turned out, he never finished his studies.
As the others waited, he banged on the front door. After three or four bouts of prolonged hammering, a voice on the far side of the door called out.
"Etes vous les Allemands?"
"Non monsieur, nous sommes Britanniques," Chris called back.
"What do you think they're talking about?" Vin asked.
"Search me," Buck admitted.
"Qu'est-ce que vous voulez?" the voice behind the door asked.
"De l'aide, s'il vous plait Monsieur."
"Aide - that I understand," Buck commented.
The farm house door opened. Chris then engaged in a long conversation with the farmer. Eventually the two of them walked over to the cart, where the farmer, an older man, balding and distinctly skinny, took a look at Annie by the weak light of an old hurricane lamp.
"What's going on?" Buck asked.
"He'll help us, but we're leaving Annie here."
"What!" Buck exclaimed.
"Calm down pal, I know you like her, we all like her, but what did you think we were gonna do? Put her on a boat and take her to England?"
Buck shifted from one foot to the other. "Well, yeah, I guess - okay so I hadn't thought about it."
"She can't go to England, end of story."
Buck grabbed Chris by the collar and pulled him away from the cart "They eat horses in this country, you know? How do you know she'll be okay?" he hissed.
Chris raised an eyebrow. "We ate horse meat in Spain."
"That was different, it was a war and we were... okay so it wasn't different, but they eat horses here even if they're not starving."
"I know, but Monsieur Pargoire says he needs a horse. Petrol is already hard to get. Who knows when he'll get some more? He has a horse, but he needs two to pull the plough and his heavy wagon. I think she'll be much safer here."
"He's right," Vin agreed from the cart's driving seat.
Both men turned to look at him. They had been whispering after all. "What are you, part bat?" Buck asked.
"Me? No man," Vin responded with a smile, his teeth almost all that was visible in the gloom. Then his smile was gone. "She's a good horse. Don't punish her by taking her into hell."
Buck turned back to view Annie's dark form. Her head was down, she was tired. The farmer was standing at her head, stroking her neck and speaking softly.
"Yeah, okay, I guess you guys are right," Buck admitted.
Annie pulled the cart down to the canal. Buck was glad it was still dark. God knew what state the raft was in. There was room for the cart, Annie (who as usual took the whole thing in her stride), and all of them, plus the farmer. Despite his fragile-looking frame and advanced age, the old man seemed to be able to pole the raft across the dark waters with surprising strength. Buck stood beside Annie, speaking to her the whole time. Chris and Vin stood at the front. As they neared the other bank, the farmer spoke to Chris in hushed tones. Why he was bothering to whisper Buck wasn't sure. From what he'd seen, the Germans weren't into stealth at this point in time. In response to his words, Chris picked up the rope that lay at his feet, Vin, on the other side, copied his actions. As the raft touched the far side both men stepped onto the bank and pulled the raft in. Wasting no time, and not waiting for instructions, Buck led Annie off and up the bank on to the towpath.
From the towpath they made their way up to the coast road, old Monsieur Pargoire riding on the back of the cart. Then, once they were on level ground, it was time to say goodbye to their faithful friend and travelling companion. Buck stood back as Chris approached. He patted her thick neck affectionately then walked away. Vin limped over, spoke softly to her in the same strange language he spoke in his sleep, and then, after giving her an affectionate rub between the cheekbones he stepped aside. The eastern sky was paling, giving urgency to their farewell and enough light for Buck to snatch up a handful of clover as he stepped up to say his goodbye.
"Here you go darlin' . Nice and sweet. Bye, Annie. You've been a good horse." He looked up at the man he was trusting his new friend to. "Her name is Annie." He patted her neck. "Annie," he repeated.
"Annie," Monsieur Pargoire duly repeated.
"There you go, you got it." He patted Annie one more time. "Bye Annie."
Despite his protestations that he was 'fine' and could do his share of the work, Buck and Chris ordered Vin to ride while they pulled the cart. The sun was just peeping over the horizon when the first enemy plane roared in, headed for the town. There were more people now, and as the dawn mist lifted, they emerged, ghost-like out of the gloom. All along the beach, as far as they could see, there were men. Dark lines of men, waiting. Small huddles of men were dotted around the sand dunes, a few were trying to sleep but most just gazed out to sea, waiting and hoping their chance would come, that it would be their turn to get on a boat before the enemy reached them or bombed them. Hoping their boat wasn't one of the ones that didn't make it, that one of the increasing number of semi-submerged smouldering wrecks wasn't their ride home.
No one they spoke to seemed to know where the last casualty clearing station was, but someone pointed to a low building a little further down the road.
"It's an aid station, if you can call it that," a sergeant told them. "I hear they only got a medic, no doctor."
"Come on, let's go." Chris headed back to the cart.
Buck nodded his thanks to the sergeant as he turned to follow Chris. They both knew Ezra probably didn't have long. If the bleeding wasn't stopped soon, he'd probably die right in front of them.
"Hello?" Buck called as he pushed in past the blanket hung at the door.
Buck looked at the tall black man before him; he took in his tired eyes, dishevelled appearance and less-than-clean white apron. In the world Buck grew up in, people of colour were second class citizens, but not to Buck or his mother. A known prostitute and her bastard son knew all about being treated as if they were less than others. They knew all about the casual insults, the assumption that they didn't hurt and feel the way others did. His mother always told him everyone was the same in her line of work. She would say, 'Darling, all I know is, it don't matter what colour they are, under their clothes they all look petty much the same and they all look a dumb as shit when they come.'
Buck smiled at the man before him. "We just got here, got two wounded men," he explained.
"Bring them in," came the reply.
Buck didn't recognise the accent, but then that wasn't surprising. As far as he could see, the British Expeditionary Force was a regular League of Nations.
"Already ahead of you." Buck turned back to let Vin limp in. "You got a stretcher?"
"Sure, right there by the door. You need help?"
Buck picked up the rolled stretcher. "Nope we've got it covered."
"Come and let me see what I can do to help." Vin looked at the man, trying to decide if he could trust him. "My name's Nathan by the way."
"Vin? That's it, just Vin?"
"Vincent Tanner, Wessex Rangers."
"Come on Vincent Tanner, let me see what I can do for you. Get up on the table. I'd call it a bed, but it's a table... actually, it's two tables." All the time he was talking Nathan was leading Vin to the table. Before Vin even knew how it happened, he was lying on his side.
"Hey Doc, we're here," Buck called from the door as they carried Ezra in.
Nathan took one look at his second patient and made his decision. "Sorry mate, he needs me more."
"Of course he does. Man, even I knew that," Vin commented mostly to himself. "I'll get the stuff from the cart."
"Tell me what you know," Nathan demanded of Chris, as he crossed the room.
"He was standing outside a building when it took a direct it, he was thrown backwards, got a bad gash on his leg. We put field dressings on it, but it keeps bleeding."
Nathan glanced up. "Did he hit his head?"
"Don't reckon so, he was fine in the head, for most of the time. Might have hurt his shoulder some."
"How long ago did this happen?"
Nathan tentatively lifted the corner of the three field dressings then shook his head as he turned away. "What's his name?"
"Doctor Ezra Standish. He's a Lieutenant in the French army."
Nathan looked back at his patient. "Typical. I've been waiting for a doctor all this time, now when I get one, he's a patient."
"So if you're not the doctor, who are you?"
Nathan was collecting some scissors and didn't respond.
"Nathan Jackson," Vin informed them as he came back in, Ezra's medical bag over one shoulder, the duffel with everything else they had collected in his other hand. "That's what he told me."
"I'm a medic." Nathan returned to Ezra's side and turned his attention to carefully cutting the dressings away, along with a good portion of Ezra's trouser leg. The gash wasn't bleeding as badly as it had been. At the extremities, the blood had clotted and dried. But at the centre it was still oozing blood steadily. "He should see a real doctor, but Marshall isn't back with the ambulance yet." He looked over at Buck's wristwatch. "He should have been here by now." Nathan looked up to see the worried faces of the men around him. "I'm sorry, the orderly, Malcolm Marshall, he's late. Did you come by way of the town?"
Vin shook his head. "We went around it, on the back roads."
"The only way to the casualty clearing station is back through the town and that's...he'd never make it." Nathan turned his attention back to Ezra's leg wound. "It could be worse, I think."
The hesitation and worry in the young man's voice was all too clear.
"You're doing great Doc," Buck encourage.
"Told you, I'm not a doctor."
"Hell you know more than the three of us put together," Chris pointed out. "I'm Chris, by the way, and the tall ugly one is Buck."
"What he means is..." Buck began, then he stopped. There wasn't time for their usual banter. "Doc, you just tell us what to do, and we'll do it."
Despite his extreme weakness, Ezra flinched from the pain as his leg was cleaned and stitched. He did his best to pull away from the hands that held him down. He groaned a few times, his head rolling from side to side, but he didn't wake. While Buck and Chris concentrated on keeping Ezra still, Vin handed Nathan whatever he asked for.
"You're doing well, Corporal. Have you done this before?" Nathan asked.
"Only once. The Doc told me what to do while I cleaned up his leg, right after he was hit," Vin explained.
Nathan just nodded in response. "You did a good job."
"What do you reckon, will he be okay?" Buck asked, as he watched Nathan put in the last few stitches.
"I don't see any sign of infection, but he's lost a lot of blood. Hell, I don't know, He needs a doctor, and probably a blood transfusion."
"I've got blood," Buck offered.
"Well unless we know what blood group he is, we need someone who's type O."
"Is his blood group on his dogtag?" Chris asked.
Nathan looked at Ezra's neck. "He doesn't seem to have one."
"On his wrist," Vin pointed to Ezra's left wrist. Sure enough, there was as small metal disk on a chain, nestling behind the expensive looking watch.
"Name, number, date of birth," Nathan reported. "No blood group. I'm B positive, by the way."
They both looked at Chris. "AB."
All three turned to Vin, who shrugged. "Don't know."
"Didn't they tell you at your army medical?" Buck asked.
"I guess, but I can't remember what it was."
"The most common blood group of all, and none of us has it," Nathan shook his head.
"What if he doesn't get a transfusion?" Vin asked.
"I honestly don't know. If he was in England, in a proper hospital, he'd probably be okay, if he didn't get an infection. But here? Now? Who knows." Nathan turned his attention from the slumbering patient and looked critically at Vin, who was clearly favouring one leg. "I was going to check you out, wasn't I?"
"Fine?" Nathan queried incredulously.
"He's got a head injury and some bad burns," Chris informed him.
"Get back on that table." Nathan pointed to the make shift bed.
They had just persuaded Vin back onto the table when someone shouted from outside the door.
"Nathan! Nathan get out here!"
"Friend of yours?" Buck asked, picking up his rifle.
"Yes, at least I think he could be. I better see what he wants."
Without even realising it, Chris and Buck took up defensive positions, protecting their new friends, rifles in hand. Nathan came back inside, followed by a huge man, dressed in clothes typical of a sailor, in his arms a boy. To Buck, who was standing beside the unconscious Ezra and closest to the door, the lad looked dead. He was very pale, his lips and fingers had a bluish tinge. Nathan was questioning the big man, who explained how he'd dragged the boy from the sea and managed to revive him - at least get him breathing.
"He's breathing, for the moment, but only just," Nathan stated. "If only I had some oxygen."
For whatever reason - fatigue, concern for their new friends, preoccupation with bombardment, which was getting ever closer - neither Buck nor Chris, reacted to this.
"We've got oxygen," Vin suddenly announced.
Nathan's head snapped around. "Where? How?!"
"Ah shit!" Chris exclaimed. "Ezra - the doc - he made us bring it."
Buck put his gun down. "Come on." He headed for the door, grabbing the newcomer by the upper arm and spinning him around. "Damn thing weighs a ton!"
"I'll get the rest of the stuff." Chris followed them out.
In no time they had the cylinder set up and had retrieved the rest of the supplies. Nathan placed the mask over the boy's face.
"Let's hope this works," he breathed.
Come on lad, fight! Buck silently encouraged. "How old do you reckon his is?" he asked.
The boy's rescuer shrugged. "Fifteen, maybe?"
"If that," Chris commented.
"His colour's coming back," Nathan informed them. "Josiah?"
"Come here and hold this." Nathan showed him how to hold the mask on the boy's face. "Tell me if anything changes." With that he turned to Vin. "Right, it's you're turn, finally."
While Nathan took a look at Vin's injuries, and rechecked Ezra, Buck moved to the other side of the boy.
"The name's Buck, by the way." He held his hand out to the new arrival.
"Josiah Sanchez." He lifted one hand free and gave Buck's a quick shake. "You're Canadian?"
"American," Buck corrected. "Sanchez? Doesn't sound very British?"
"I'm from Gibraltar."
"How'd you end up here?"
"Would you believe I volunteered?"
"Didn't we all. What happened to your hands?"
Josiah looked down at the bandages. "More rowing than I'm used to." Buck looked puzzled. "I was ferrying men out to the big ships."
"You're in the Navy?"
"No, Merchant seaman. I was working on a ferry. They needed men to help with the evacuation. Seemed the least I could do." Josiah went on to explain about the desperate measures being taken to get the men on the beaches home.
"Reckon that was what the kid was doing here?" Buck looked down at the worryingly still form under the oxygen mask.
"Most likely. What about you fellers?"
Buck made introductions and quickly explained how they came to be there. "Say, do you know what your blood type is?"
Josiah took a moment to adjust to the sudden change of subject. "Um, O?"
"O? You're sure?"
Josiah nodded. "Gave blood once, on a ship. A man lost his leg and needed a transfusion."
Buck looked over to where Nathan was tending to Vin. "You hear that Doc?"
"Josiah here says he's got type O blood."
Jackson's head snapped around. "Really?"
"Ouch!" Vin exclaimed. "Careful there man!"
"Sorry." Nathan turned his attention back to Vin.
The boy was improving. Nathan had taken him off oxygen, worried Ezra might need it later. The Doctor had received two pints of Josiah's blood. He hadn't show any signs of rejection and was resting comfortably. His colour - like the boy's - was improving. Having given more blood than he should, Josiah was also resting, sleeping on the floor having consumed some of their precious food supplies. While Nathan watched over his patients, Buck, Chris and Vin had moved outside.
"What did the Doc say about your burns?" Buck asked Vin as they sat on the edge of the sand dune.
"Said you guys and Ezra did a good job. There's no infection. Still hurts like hell, mind you." He gave a stifled laugh. "Told me not to get it wet."
All three of them looked out at the lines of men, snaking out into the sea. Not getting wet wasn't going to be an option. Off to their left, Dunkirk was being pounded, as were the big ships out in deeper water. Yet for now, their section of beach was peaceful. They knew it couldn't last.
Chris pinched out his cigarette, carefully pocketing the inch long stub for later, and stood up. "Sergeant..." He looked down at Vin. "...you stay here and keep an eye on this lot. Me and Buck 'll have a scout around, see if we can't get a ride home, maybe find our regiments."
Vin opened his mouth to protest, but closed it when he saw Buck shake his head as he picked up his gun. The Captain was already heading down the dune toward the closest group of men.
"Make sure you're all still here when we get back." With that, Buck gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder and followed his friend down onto the beach.
Ezra was aware of voices, unfamiliar voices, somewhere in the distance, the far distance. Along with the voices, there was a drumming. To be sure, the drummer had a terrible sense of rhythm - it was probably one of the new 'progressive' compositions. So, the question was - were was he, and why? Then there was the headache.
What the hell was I drinking?
Along with the voices, he became aware of the smell of the place - wherever it was. It smelled of sweat and salt and carbolic. Ezra had slept in a good many 'odd' locations, including a good few hospitals, especially hospitals, in fact - it is the fate of all medical students. This placed smelled like a hospital, except for the smell of salt. Why, he wondered, did a hospital smell of salt? The avant-garde drummer was getting more excited.
Damn him, it sounds more like a bombardment than music!
A bombardment! That was when reality punctured the dream world his brain had concocted from the limited information his senses could provide. He wasn't in some hospital, he was no longer a medical student, no one was drumming.
Think! Think man, what happened?!
And then he remembered it all. Poor Truman was dead. He'd been travelling with two fellow Americans and a ... well the other one. The last thing he remembered was being jostled on the cart. He wasn't on a cart now and he could no longer hear any American accents.
The question is what accent can I hear, English or German?
The more he concentrated, the more his head pounded and the more he became aware of a terrible thirst. He must have moaned or groaned, because someone approached.
"Doctor Standish? Come on now, open your eyes."
Doctor Standish? Now who is that? No one's called me that for a while. The men call me 'Doc' and my erstwhile travelling companions seem to have taken to calling me Ezra.
"Doctor, it's time to wake up now."
You may be right, who ever you are. Lord, I am thirsty.
He opened his eyes. A figure came in to view, a surprisingly dark figure. It was hard to concentrate, but one of the things he was fairly sure about was that the Germans didn't have any black soldiers. He must have licked his lips or something similar, because the dark man asked him if he wanted some water. Whatever he did in response was taken as a yes, because a warm hand was placed under his neck raising his head, and a tin cup held to his lips. The water was wonderful.
"How are you feeling?"
"Um, tired. I have a headache."
"Do you remember what happened?"
"Sadly, yes. What I don't know is, where I am and who you are."
"My name's Nathan Jackson. I'm a medic with the British army. Your friends brought you to this aid station on the beach at Dunkirk."
Ezra looked around. "We made it." With that observation, he tried to sit up.
"What are you doing?"
"What does it look like I'm doing?"
"You need to rest."
"Agreed, but what I don't need is to develop pneumonia. Now help me to sit up."
Silently cursing himself for not remembering that, Nathan stepped forward to help Ezra to sit up. "I'll make you up a bed - such as they are - next to the wall."
When Nathan put his hand under Ezra's left shoulder the doctor gasped.
"Broke my collar bone. Not much you can do about that. Let's just get this over with."
Nathan nodded, but was more careful how he handled his patient. Once he had Ezra sitting up, supporting himself on his one good arm, Nathan hurried to move some tables together next to the wall.
"I can put it in a sling, if you want?"
Ezra took a look around. On the far side of the room, an alarmingly large man was sleeping on a pallet on the floor. He knew he was sleeping because he was snoring - loudly. Also apparently asleep was another man on a bed, similar to the one he was sitting on. Shifting his leg, he lifted the blanket and tried to see what had been done to it. All he could see was an impressively neat white bandage.
"It was still oozing, but all it needed was some stitches. As far as I could see, but..."
"I did have to give you a blood transfusion."
"Josiah over there donated two pints of type O - what type are you by the way?"
"Type O, not that it would have made a difference but..."
"Type specific is always better."
"You, Sir, are more than just a medic."
As he helped move Ezra to the new 'bed' where he could rest up against the wall, Nathan explained how he came to be in the British army medical corps.
From what they had seen, it was not total chaos on the beach, far from it, but there was a lot of confusion. What officers Chris and Buck found were clear on what they and their men were to do, but what anyone else was doing was a mystery. Slowly they worked their way up the long stretch of sand toward the town. Aircraft roared overhead, thick black smoke rose from the town and harbour. There was evidence everywhere of men living on the beach. Small 'camps,' foxholes and slip trenches in the sand, the smell of human waste and sweat, discarded equipment, ration packs and even uniforms, littered the sand. Here and there were more personal items; photos, books and 'souvenirs' of time spent in France.
No one had any news of their Regiment, the Green Rifles. This wasn't unexpected, Only three sections of the second battalion had come to France, mostly working with other regiments as scouts and snipers. That they found no sign of the Wessex Rangers was more worrying. The Rangers were not a big regiment, based in the Somerset town of Chard. Before the war, they only had one battalion and were struggling to get enough recruits to be viable. It was probable that the majority of Vin's comrades had either already been evacuated or they just hadn't found them yet, but it was also possible that they had been so decimated in the retreat that Vin might be the only one left. All this meant they were basically adrift, with no regiment. It was a choice of either hope the central command didn't loose them in the shuffle or get themselves home. Buck had no doubt which option Chris would go for.
Nonetheless, they continued to head for the harbour, having been told it was from there that the whole operation was being directed. That was the plan.
"Down!" Buck's big hand slammed into Chris' shoulder blade and propelled him forward as he fell face down on the sand just as shell whistled over head, exploding on the beach less than a hundred yard from them.
"Shit!" Chris snarled as he pushed himself up, shaking sand from his back. "Thanks."
Another shell flew over, landing further down the beach. Men were scattering, heading for the dunes, the only protection available. Another shell landed, so close they had no time to get down, the shock wave sending both of them flying.
"Okay?" Chris asked.
"I think I'm deaf, but, not dead."
They scrambled to the closet slip trench, along with about a dozen other men. Shells were now landing faster and faster.
"Everyone alright?" Chris asked, ever the leader.
Various affirmative calls confirmed everyone was more or less okay.
"How long have you been here?" Buck asked the man next to him.
"Three days, what about you?"
"Just got here."
The man's name was Richards, and he was guardsman from Somerset. Between explosions, he and Buck managed to exchange information.
"Seven of you... well, maybe you'll see the goose," Richards commented enigmatically.
"Goose?" Buck shouted above the scream of another shell.
"They're saying there's this goose, big white one with black wingtips. They say if you see it you'll get rescued, seven at a time."
"Well seven is a lucky number - so they say."
Suddenly four more men came running toward them and piled into the trench, one of them landing on Chris.
"Damn it, you'd think ol' Jerry had better things to do than bomb a lot of sand." Chris just looked at the newcomer, giving him one of his best glares. "Hello, name's Botham by the way, Royal Marines," he greeted breezily.
By his insignia he was a Second Lieutenant.
"Larabee, Captain, Green Rifles."
To his credit the young man realised he needed to change his attitude. "Sir, sorry about landing on you."
"Not a problem. Are you and your men okay?"
Botham looked over his shoulder, then looked back. "So far so good - though God knows how."
"Are you part of this evacuation?"
"Yes sir. I know it doesn't look good, but we're doing our best."
"My Sergeant and I have lost touch with our regiment. We have another sergeant with us, possibly four other men. I need to get them over to England."
"Then you need to find them a place on a boat, and fast."
"Fast!" Another shell landed close by, showering all of them in sand. "Navy's lost too many ships already. From what I've heard, this operation isn't going on much longer. They wouldn't be using little boats and civilians if they weren't desperate."
"Any point us trying to get into town?"
"Not unless you're tying to get killed. Nope, you've got as good a chance of getting on a boat here on the beach as you have from the harbour."
"Yeah, that's what I figured. Thanks, I hope you guys make it home."
After about ten minutes, when the guns turned their attention back to the town, Buck and Chris headed back to the aid station.
"Look!" Buck grabbed Chris' arm and pointed to the top of the sand dune. An ambulance could be seen moving slowly just above the sparse grasses. "Come on!" With that, he set out at a run, forcing Chris to follow.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Catching the ambulance! Think about it, there's only one place it can be going."
Moving diagonally they managed to intercept the ambulance and flag it down.
"You got wounded?" the driver asked.
"Nope. You Marshall?" Chris asked.
"Yes sir - why?"
"We need a lift back to the aid station."
They hadn't gone more than a couple of hundred yards when the planes returned. One moment there was a semblance of a road in front of them the next there was a flash, a plume of smoke and debris.
Buck cursed as he was thrown forward, his knee impacting with something hard and sharp. Glass showered onto him as the ambulance lurched one more time and than came to a stop.
"Oh fuck," Marshall cursed beside him.
Buck sat back and looked at the driver, who was pushing himself back from the steering wheel. Blood covered his face, running freely from a good-sized gash across his forehead.
"You okay?" Buck asked.
"Think so." He instinctively put his hand over the wound and winced. "Damn!"
Buck nodded. "Chris?" he turned to his left - there was no one there, there was no door! "Chris!"
Buck scrambled out of the vehicle, scanning the area beside and behind them. It took only a second to locate a khaki clad form lying in the long grass beside the road.
"Oh God." Buck took off at a run.
Even as he reached his friend, Chris was trying to push himself up, making it to his hands and knees.
"Easy there, Stud," Buck cautioned.
"I'm fine," Chris ground out.
"Of course you are," Buck commented sarcastically.
Chris, who was breathing heavily, his arms shaking, turned his head and glared.
"Don't look at me like that. That's what you said to me in Spain."
"You'd been shot!"
"I was fine, it was just a nick.... And I'm just winded."
"Right. Can you stand?"
"Can sure try."
With Buck's help Chris made it to his feet. He had a nasty looking graze down one side of his face and was holding his arm across his chest.
"So tell me the truth?" Buck demanded seriously.
Chris was balancing on one leg, only the toe of his right boot resting on the ground. "Busted some ribs I reckon, twisted my ankle."
Buck nodded. That all tallied with that he could see.
"You?" Chris asked.
"Cuts and bruises."
Buck helped Chris hobble back as far as the ambulance.
"I need to check on Marshall, you gonna be okay for a bit?"
Chris was now leaning on the ambulance's side. "Sure, go."
Marshall was still sitting in the driver's seat, holding on to his head when Buck reappeared, having retrieved a rather battered, blood stained and depleted first aid kit from the rear of the ambulance.
"Le' me see." He lifted the bloody hand away. "Doesn't look too bad. Gonna needs stitches, mind you."
"No kidding, it's bleeding like bloody Niagra."
"Does it hurt?"
"What do you think?"
Buck pulled out a field dressing and unwound it. "Ready?" he asked.
"As I'll ever be."
Chris could hear Buck doctoring their driver as he hobbled toward the front of the vehicle. It was badly dented. To be fair, it had been dented when they started out, only now there was steam escaping from the buckled radiator. The unnatural angle of the wheel closest to him spoke of a broken axle. Ahead of it, the single track road had been obliterated; all that was left was a deep crater. From now on they walked. He briefly cursed Buck, after all it was his idea to hitch a lift, but then again, the beach was as dangerous. If they'd stayed on the sand they could just as easily have been hurt or even killed.
"Can he walk?" he asked, as Buck came around from the driver's side, taking a look at the damage for himself.
"Do I look like a doctor?"
"I can walk," Marshall called out in response.
They both ducked instinctively as a shell whistled overhead. The sudden movement made Chris grunt as it pulled at his ribs.
"Sit down, let me take a look at your ankle," Buck instructed.
"You? I though you were 'no doctor'?"
"Just sit down and quit complaining." With that he pulled a crepe bandage from the first aid bag.
Chris bowed to logic and let Buck slowly and carefully removed his boot. He knew his friend had done this before, and he trusted him. He winced as Buck pulled off his sand laden sock, not so much because it hurt, but at the sight of his own ankle. It was already swollen; the ankle joint looked like a balloon and the swelling was spreading down his foot. No one, not even the most skilled doctor could strap up an injured ankle in the field painlessly. Buck did his best, but he needed to strap it tightly, so Chris just gripped the edge of the truck and gritted his teeth until it was done.
Finally, discarding the sock, Buck all but pulled out the laces from Chris' boot and eased it on, then re-laced it as tightly as he could.
"Okay, try that." He stood up and held out his hand to Chris.
Tentatively, Chris placed his foot on the ground and let it take some weight. It held, it hurt like hell, but it held his weight.
"Here, use these."
They both looked up to see Marshall holding out a pair of crutches. His face was still covered in blood. The huge field dressing Buck had applied to his forehead was soaked in blood and he looked a little shaky, but he was upright and moving.
"Thanks." Chris took them. Pride be damned, it hurt too much to turn them down.
"You're going back to the aid station?" Marshall asked
"Of course," Buck responded.
"Then you best take these to the doc."
For a moment Chris though he was talking about Ezra. He couldn't think how this man knew about him. It took him a second or two to realise it was Jackson he was talking about.
"What is it?" Chris took the envelope the man held out.
"Orders, Sir, for the doc. I've got mine here, so I'll be saying goodbye now and heading back to town."
Buck looked behind them at the town, or what was left of it.
"I take it you were ordered to take these to Jackson?" Chris asked.
"Um, well, yes sir, but you're going anyway. My orders were to take the bus." He tapped the crippled vehicle behind him. "Drive out to the aid station, pick up the stretcher cases, hand Jackson his orders, come back to the chateau."
"The chateau?" Buck asked.
"The casualty clearing station. Then I was to pick up the walking wounded and take them to the dock and board a boat home." He waved his own orders. "This is my ticket home, and I'm not going to risk losing my ride. Please, sir, you're going there anyway."
Chris looked over at Buck, who just shrugged. "Okay, we'll take the orders."
Marshall turned to go, then looked back. "I hope you make it. I...I overheard something... Don't think I was meant to know but..."
"What? Spill it," Chris growled.
"They aren't going to take any more wounded. If you can't get yourself on a boat you don't get a place."
"What!" Buck exclaimed. "But they can't! What about Ezra? He saved so many people! They can't just leave him!" He was looming over the other man, shouting in his face.
"Calm down Buck. It's not his fault. Besides it makes sense."
"Makes sense?" Buck turned to face his old friend.
"Man on a stretcher takes up as much space as three standing, takes maybe three or four times as long to load. I'm not saying it's right, but it makes sense." He turned back to Marshall. "Good luck soldier, hope you make it."
Marshall came to attention and snapped out a salute. "Yes sir."
Chris did his best to return the salute then the young man was gone.
Ezra looked over at the only other patient in the room, the boy who'd almost drowned. Josiah had gone with Nathan when he'd been called to an injured man on the beach; Vin was outside someplace keeping watch. The boy muttered something and tried to sit up.
"Hold it son, just lie still, I'm coming," Ezra called. "Not sure how I'm coming, but somehow," he commented.
Easing himself down on to the ground he used the tables and chairs to support his weight as best he could on one arm.
The boy tried to roll over. "I'm coming, I'm coming," Ezra told him. "Just don't fall off the table."
"Err," the boy moaned, just as he vomited.
Finally, breathing heavily, Ezra eased himself down on a table beside the makeshift bed. The boy had stopped heaving.
"Feel better for that?" Ezra asked.
"Good. I'll get someone to get you some water as soon as they get back."
"Thanks, err where am I?"
"In an aid station on the beach at Dunkirk," Ezra explained.
"Oh, yeah, I remember now. Who are you?"
"Ezra Standish." Ezra reached out and took the boy's wrist.
"What are you doing?"
"What does it look like? Taking your pulse."
"You're the doctor?"
"I am a doctor, though not the doctor. You seem to be doing much better. I suggest you sit up properly. What's your name by the way?"
"John, John Dunne, but you can call me JD - pleased to meet you."
"Likewise, I'm sure."
JD was about to sit up when he realised he wasn't wearing anything.
"Where are my clothes?" he demanded.
"I have no idea, I didn't see you arrive."
Mortified, JD gathered the rough blanket around himself and slowly swung his legs over the side of the 'bed' and sat on the edge. He still looked pale but his breathing and pulse seemed to be normal.
"I assume you're clothes were wet. Possibly they are drying somewhere?" Ezra offered.
JD looked around hopefully, but his things were nowhere to be seen.
Just then there were voices outside. "We have company it seems," Ezra announced.
The walk back to the old café had taken its toll on Chris. He'd quickly had to abandon one of the crutches. The damage to his ribs made it impossible to use both, though Buck continued to carry it, pointing out that the way things were going they might need every crutch they could get. To begin with, he'd been able to put some weight on his injured ankle, but that had become increasingly painful. Fire shot up his leg every time it touched the ground. Chris Larabee wasn't one to give in to pain. He might chide Buck for claiming to be 'fine' while losing pints of blood, but he was just as guilty. Yet there came a point when sheer bravado and guts couldn't get you through.
Had he been with anyone but Buck, he might have struggled on for longer, but there was no need for false pride with Buck, especially as he seemed to be well aware of the problem.
"Will you quit being pig-headed and let me help you for once!"
"Don't know what you can do," Chris pointed out, balancing as best he could on one crutch on the shifting sand.
"Give me the crutch." Buck held out his hand. Once he had both he put his arm around Chris and took hold of his belt on the far side to the injury. "You hop and I'll take your weight, it's not that far."
Far or not, it felt like a long, long way for both men. Chris concentrated on gritting his teeth and saying nothing. He kept his head down. It would take as long as it took, and seeing how far they still had to go wasn't helping. He lost track of time. When Buck finally told him they had arrived, he was sure it must be almost dark. It felt as if they had been limping along for hours, although in fact it was only just past noon.
"Man! What happened?" Vin exclaimed as he came down from the top of the closest dune, rifle in hand, still limping himself.
"Shell hit the road right in front of us," Buck explained. "Get the door open."
Ezra and JD both looked up as three men entered, one leaning heavily on another.
"What's wrong with him?" Ezra asked instantly.
To JD, the man looked half dead. He watched as the injured officer was sat down on the closest table. Then the tall, dark sergeant who'd been helping him came over and offered Ezra a crutch, which he used to cross the room.
"Hey, you're awake!"
JD looked around to find that the same tall sergeant was now sitting opposite him.
"So, what's your name kid?"
A large hand was thrust out toward him. "Buck Wilmington, that's Chris, um... Captain Larabee over there, the one trying not to hit Ezra every time he prods him. The skinny one's Sergeant Vin Tanner. Don't know much about him, seems like a good guy."
JD was staring at Buck.
"What? Oh I know I look a bit woolly, but I can't look that bad, ain't hardly possible, I..."
Buck cocked his head to one side and grinned at the bemused boy in front of him. "Sure am, same as Chris and..."
"Very good. Like I said, not sure where Vin's from. Don't sound English to me."
JD looked around. He tried to listen to the other sergeant as he helped the incapacitated doctor, but he didn't recognise the accent, what he could hear of it. The injured officer was giving the equally injured doctor a hard time.
"Take your shirt off," Ezra instructed.
"So I can take a look at your ribs."
"I don't walk on my ribs, it's my ankle needs fixing."
"You need ribs to breathe."
"I am breathing, or hadn't you noticed."
And so it continued.
While he was distracted, Buck had taken the time to duck outside and collect a big handful of sand, which he used to cover the pool of vomit on the floor, then he filled a mug of water.
"Here kid, drink this," he instructed, sitting down again, holding out the tin mug.
JD was still watching the 'battle' between Chris and Ezra. "Don't mind them two," Buck assured. "They like each other, really."
"You're sure about that?"
"I never met any Yanks before," JD confessed, turning his attention back to Buck.
"Boy, you call Ez over there a Yank and he's likely to shoot you!"
JD just looked puzzled.
"Don't worry, I'll explain it later." He turned to look at the door, his hand instinctively reaching for his gun as Josiah and Nathan came back in.
The man Nathan had been called to treat had died before he reached him, nothing could have saved him. He'd treated several other men, none of whom would come back to the café for treatment. No one wanted to risk being left on the beach when the Germans finally broke through the line.
"What happened?" he asked as soon as he saw Chris. "And what are you doing up?" he demanded of Ezra.
"I'm treating this man. In case you'd forgotten, I am a doctor."
"You're my patient."
"Would you two stop this and get me on my feet again?" Chris rebuked them both.
Nathan huffed and then moved to take Vin's place. "What's he done to himself?"
"Badly sprained, possibly..."
"Wait a moment," Chris cut in. "I did? Me? I'm not the one throwing shells around, hitting perfectly good roads, wrecking ambulances!"
"The ambulance was wrecked?" Nathan turned on Chris. "Where? What happened to Marshall?"
Buck took pity on Chris and quickly filled Nathan in on their adventures. "Chris has got your orders," he concluded.
Chris dutifully handed over the plain brown envelope. "Well?" he asked, as Nathan read the document.
"I'm to place all stretcher cases on the ambulance. The walking wounded are to return to their units and I'm released to get back to England as best I can, having destroyed any supplies of use to the enemy."
Buck chuckled. "Oh, I'm so sure the German war effort hinges on a few bandages and some rice," he commented sarcastically.
Chris looked around at the seven of them; Buck and Nathan were fine, they could no doubt get a place on a boat. Vin - well Vin was mobile but in no condition to stand in cold water for hours on end waiting his turn. Josiah seemed okay, but like the boy, he was a civilian. Would they get a place? And as for himself and Ezra, there was no way they could get on a boat without help.
"It's up to us to get ourselves home," he announced. "All of us."
Tending to Chris, with first Vin and then Nathan's help, had taken a lot out of Ezra. He didn't like to admit it, but he was still very weak, and unless he kept quite still, his leg throbbed fiercely. The broken collarbone was painful, but mostly it was an inconvenience. Nathan insisted that he needed to eat, as did JD who, while he was awake and seemed not to have suffered any injury or lasting ill-effects from his near downing, was still looking pale and drawn.
Chris was also forced to rest. Ezra and Nathan agreed that his ankle was more than just sprained. There was serious soft tissue damage, possibly even a fracture. Despite Chris' protests, they insisted it had to be splinted. His ribs also had to be strapped. Without any available painkiller except morphine - which he refused point blank - all they had to offer him was oxygen. When it was done, Chris was lying back against the wall; you didn't need to be a doctor to see how much pain he was in. Breathing heavily, he wasn't trying to tell anyone he didn't need the oxygen. His grey pallor and cold sweat made it all too clear he did.
Josiah took it upon himself to use up most of their supplies giving all of them a decent meal. Bully beef risotto might be boring, and short on beef, but it was hot and filling. They were all tired and hungry and there seemed little point hoarding the supplies. By his reckoning, in twenty four hours they would either be on a boat or prisoners of war. Either way, they wouldn't be in any position to cook.
Only Chris didn't eat much. He just wasn't ready to face food. Buck made sure Nathan put the last of the cheese aside for him, for when he was ready.
"Chris pulled the mask from his face. "Buck, you and Josiah head on out as soon as you've eaten, see what you can find out about getting on a boat."
"Sure," Buck confirmed. "Looks like you just joined the army," he told Josiah with a grin.
"Not for the first time," the big man told him.
"I can help," JD offered, coming to sit beside Buck.
"Sorry kid, that beach is no place for children."
"I am not a child!" JD spluttered.
"Come on boy, how old are you, thirteen, fourteen...?"
"Seventeen, I'm going into the navy soon. I can help, I was on a boat out there, just like him." He pointed to Josiah. "We rescued men, picked them up from the beach and took them out to the ships. There were bombs and shells flying over head all the time. I know what to expect."
"I don't think you do son..." Josiah began, remembering the bodies in the surf.
"I know," JD reiterated. "and don't call me son. You're not my father, he was..."
Suddenly JD deflated, his anger seemed to melt away to be replaced by sadness. "Who JD? What happened?" Buck asked softly.
"Mr. Vernon, Edward, he was the only father I had, he...I had to leave him. Something hit us, I don't know what. The boat was on fire, he was hurt. I couldn't move him. He made me leave him." JD looked up, scanning the men in the room, looking for some kind of understanding, even forgiveness.
"Sounds like you did what you had to," Buck told him softly.
JD took a deep breath and nodded sadly. "I can help," he reiterated.
Buck looked at Josiah, who nodded.
"Okay kid, let's head on out and see what we can come up with."
"I'll come with you," Vin offered.
"No," Chris ordered. "You stay here, we need someone on look out, I don't want Jerry creeping up on us."
Vin looked torn, but then he nodded. "Yes sir."
The lines on the beach looked impossibly long, the boats that could get in close enough to pick them up ridiculously small. The only thing that made the whole crazy plan look like it could work was the sheer number of them. Boats of every size moved back and forth seemingly oblivious to the shelling, the bombing and the strafing. They were doggedly determined. Only now that he was actually watching it, as opposed to just seeing it, and with JD and Josiah standing beside him, did Buck begin to comprehend what was being attempted. A miracle, plain and simple, that's what it was.
No one seemed to mind if they joined the back of a line, but the lines were so long. Then there was the problem of having their injured friends chest deep in a choppy cold sea for who knew how long. And assuming they got to a boat, would they take on injured men? How strictly were these new orders going to be enforced? For the first time, Buck began to have doubts.
"Come on, let's explore a bit further up," he suggested, setting out determinedly, hoping his companions hadn't seen his fear.
Buck always tried to look on the bright side; his glass was always half full. The good Lord knew he'd had enough troubles in his life to make him look on the dark side, but that he steadfastly refused to do. His sainted mother would always point out that - whatever their problems - they had a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs and food on the table.
"There are plenty who don't have even that, and we still have each other. Some mothers and children are split up, never see each other again," she would remind him.
Young Buck would have gladly gone without food or clothes or shelter, so long as he still had his beloved Ma, so he learned to appreciate what he had and not worry about what he didn't have.
"Darling we all need to change the things you can, accept the things you can't and learn to tell the difference," his mother would say to him.
Accepting what he couldn't change had always been the hard part. He had an in built urge to protect the weak and vulnerable, and that made accepting injustice hard. It was also how he came to meet Chris, a meeting that had changed the whole direction of his life.
While he'd been reflecting on his life, the other two had got a little ahead of him. Smoke, black and acrid, was drifting across the beach ahead of them. Josiah walked on, but JD hung back waiting for Buck reach him.
"You okay kid?" Buck asked, almost automatically.
"I guess. What about you?"
"Fine. So this Mr Vernon, he was your Pa?" Buck asked, trying to deflect the conversation away from him.
"No, he was my guardian. My father was a seaman like Josiah. Before I was born, he jumped ship in America and no one has ever seen him since." JD shrugged. "My mother was Mr. Vernon's housekeeper. He was good to me and then, when she got sick, he paid for the doctors."
Buck just knew from the tone of his voice that this story didn't have a happy ending.
"My mother didn't get better."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Well, I was eleven then, it was a while ago now. Mr Vernon became my guardian. He took care of me, sent me to school, he was..."
JD looked up. "Yes. He had been for as long as I can remember, I just hadn't noticed until it was too late. We used to go sailing and fishing. He taught me to ride and shoot. We used to play chess and backgammon and share books and ..." Tears fell down JD's cheeks unchecked. "I left him, I just left him."
"Come here." With that Buck wrapped one long arm around the distraught teen and pulled him into a Wilmington bear hug. "You did what you had to. No one is blaming you, least of all him."
Suddenly the smoke was all around them, Buck pulled JD closer for a fraction and pushed him away.
"Let's get out of this."
They charged blindly through the smoke until they emerged on the other side, where they all but ran into Josiah. The big sailor was standing stock still, staring at the smoke cloud. Behind him on the beach was a boat. She was beached, listing to port, so that all you could see was her hull and some of one side.
"A boat!" Buck all but exclaimed.
JD just stood and stared at it, while Josiah stared at the smoke, which was now drifting slowly down the beach.
"Josiah, there's a boat," Buck pointed out again.
"I thought I saw..." Josiah began.
"What? Why are you looking at the smoke anyway?"
"A goose, with black wing tips," Josiah all but breathed.
Buck turned to face him. "So? Maybe the poor thing got scared. Can't say as I'd blame him."
"White goose, black wing tips, that's a Snow Goose."
"And I ask again - so?"
"Snow Geese live in North America. What's it doing here?"
"We do not have time for this!" Buck grabbed Josiah by the arm and pulled him away.
Josiah shook his head and let Buck turn him around, he was about to head for the boat when Buck himself turned back to face the smoke.
"You sure it was a goose?"
"No. I only saw it for a second, but I could have sworn it was a Snow Goose. Why?"
Buck remembered what the man in the trench had said, about stories of men seeing a goose, how it was an omen of rescue.
"Nothing, come on."
By the time they turned around fully, JD was almost at the boat, one hand reaching out almost tentatively toward the hull.
"What's up kid?" Buck called, as he ran up to join him.
"The Storm." He turned to look at Buck, then gestured up to the prow, where the boat's name was still visible.
"Is this your boat, the one you came here on?"
JD nodded. "I don't understand, she was on fire, he was..."
"Stay here," Josiah cautioned. "Let us check the other side."
When a boat catches fire, its end can come in two ways. Either the flames reach the fuel, or in the case of military ships, the magazine, and they blow up, causing catastrophic hull damage - water floods in and the ship sinks. Or, the flames burn down to the water line, then water laps over the sides into the hull and it sinks. Fire had indeed swept through the boat, the long fore deck was all but gone, exposing the charred skeleton of the interior to the elements. The wheelhouse was mostly gone, but behind that the aft well was almost un-touched. Something had put the flames out before they could consume the ship. The most likely explanation was that there had been a large explosion in the water close to the boat, and the resulting cascade had put out the fire raging on the little motor yacht.
As they got closer Buck and Josiah made an unpleasant discovery. Wedged in the corner of the wheelhouse superstructure was a body.
The man was dead, his legs and one side of his body were badly burned. Though the fire had eaten away at him, the remains of a huge splinter, at least a foot long, still protruded from his lower chest.
"JD can't see this," Buck stated softly.
"Never," Josiah agreed. "We need to cover him and then..."
With that brief exchange the two men set about their grisly task, each thinking the same thing. God I hope he was dead before the flames got to him. While JD paced back and forth on the far side, they found a soldier's coat on the beach and wrapped the body in it. Once they had dug a shallow grave in the sand they lowered Edward Vernon in and covered him. There was little time to say anything, but JD stood and recited the Lord's prayer.
"He didn't even go to church, except at Christmas," he explained almost apologetically when he was done.
"It's not for him that we do it," Josiah explained.
"What does that mean?" JD asked, anger tightening his voice.
"Funerals are for the living, a way to say goodbye, to wrap up all the loose ends. It makes everyone feel better."
JD opened his mouth as if to disagree, then closed it.
"We need to get on," Buck prompted. "Can we use the boat?"
Josiah and JD turned their attention to The Storm. From what they could see, the hull was intact. The fire hadn't lowered the sides of the boat significantly so she was basically seaworthy.
"The steering gear is gone," Josiah commented, as he examined the wheelhouse controls. "But the rudder is intact. We'd have to rig some kind of tiller."
"What about the engine?"
JD and Josiah both tried to start the diesel engine, but failed. "Starter's gone, or the ignition switching, hard to say," JD admitted. "I don't think it's the battery, she was switched off when I...when I left."
"Well, it looks okay." Buck pulled his head out from the engine compartment. He pulled his penknife out. "Give me a moment."
As the other two watched, the big sergeant lay flat on his stomach on the deck, his head and shoulders disappearing inside the engine compartment. Suddenly the engine turned over - nothing. It turned over a second time and burst into life with a puff of blue smoke. Buck coughed and pulled himself back onto the deck, rolling over to face them, a look of pure triumph on his face.
"Well?" he asked.
"How the hell did you do that?" JD asked.
"Not the first boat I ever worked on." Buck winked at them and rolled back to the engine and killed it. "Better save the fuel." He stood up. "How do we get it off the beach?"
"On the high tide," JD explained. "She only draws three and a half feet. If we don't overload her - and with most of the cabin and superstructure gone she's a lot lighter - she should float off with no problem, all we need to do is give her a bit of a push. We'll need something to push with, boat hook, oar, something."
"When's high tide?"
Josiah and JD looked around and at each other. "Looks like it's about half way out, so high tide should be in about nine hours?" Josiah told him. JD nodded his agreement with this assessment.
Buck looked at his watch. "Okay that makes it about one twenty, which gives us about three hours of daylight. You two get back to the others. Get them down here, use the cart. Bring everything you can, food, water, medical stuff, blankets - lots of them. Josiah, find whatever you can to make a tiller. There are plenty of trucks around, one of them must have a tool kit."
"There's a tool kit," JD interrupted. "Here." Bending down he opened a seat locker behind the engine hatch. "See?" He pulled out a big wooden chest.
Buck opened up the box. The tools like the box were untouched by the fire. "Great. Okay, when you get back there, look for something to push her off with. Get Vin to help you. Get back here as soon as you can."
"What are you going to do?" JD asked.
"Well the engine may go, but unless I can get it in gear it's not a lot of use."
"Right." JD silently cursed himself for not remembering that. "I can help, I've been looking after her since she was new."
"You ever do more than check the oil, fill up the tank and swab the deck?"
"Err, no," JD admitted.
"Right. To get going, I'll probably need your help eventually, but we need to get the guys here before it gets too dark."
"Come on, JD. I've suddenly got a good feeling about this." Josiah slapped him on the back, winced and cursed because he'd all but forgotten his injured hands, then jumped down from the boat.
JD follow him, then he paused, looking down at the simple mound of sand with a charred plank as a head stone.
"JD?" Josiah prompted.
It was about an hour and half before the others made it back to the boat. Buck had struggled and cursed and skinned his knuckles, but he'd managed to rig a basic engine control. All the wheelhouse controls were shot to hell. They would have to travel with the engine hatch open so he could control the throttle, and they could only go forward. When he got her started next time, she'd be in gear and that was that, no neutral, no reverse. It was going to make getting off the beach and into port interesting, but it should get them across the channel.
The bombardment had intensified but so far nothing had landed close enough to do any damage. Through the smoke and showers of falling sand, the other six had emerged, Josiah and Nathan pulling the cart, with Chris and Ezra riding on it, JD and Vin walking on either side, helping to push, though from his elevated position Buck noted Vin was limping heavily.
"This thing really gonna get us home?" Chris asked, viewing The Storm suspiciously.
"No reason she can't," Buck affirmed.
They unloaded most of the supplies; there wasn't much room at the back, so, while Buck, JD and Josiah worked to rig up a tiller, the others took cover in the dunes. Before he left, Nathan reminded Josiah about taking care of his hands, Buck noted that he had new dressings and these were substantially bigger than their predecessors.
"You okay?" he asked once the doctor and the medic had left.
"Seems I haven't been taking care of them," Josiah glanced down at his mummified hands. "I'll be fine."
"Well okay, I'm not gonna argue with you," Buck joked.
"Hey, I'm a pussy cat."
"I'll take your word for that."
As the sun began to dip to the horizon the bombardment seemed to ease as the Germans once more concentrated on the big navy ships off shore, and on the town. Vin, who had been keeping watch from the top of the closest dune, moved back down to sit beside Chris.
"How are you holding up?" he asked in his distinctive accent.
Chris looked tired and pale, but he was no longer grey with pain. "I'll make it. I gotta ask, just where are you from, 'cause I've never heard any Brits who talk like you."
Vin laughed. "No man, I don't suppose you have. I am British, half English, half Scottish, but I was born in South Africa."
"That where you grew up?"
Vin nodded. "My father was a hunter. He used to take rich white guys out hunting so they could bag themselves a lion or a leopard or a buffalo - something they could stuff I guess. I don't really remember it much. We used to move around a lot, living in camp while he was out with the rich guys." Vin turned and gazed out at the setting sun. "Well, anyway, when I was about six we were in South Africa. Dad took this guy out hunting - him, the hunter and two Zulu bearers - they never came back."
"What happened to them?" Chris asked.
"No one knows. They never found them, not even bones, nothing." Vin shrugged. "My mother wouldn't or couldn't accept it. She wouldn't even move out of camp, so we lived there for about a year ,I think. The bearers families helped us. In the end she sort of just left."
"Sort of left?"
Vin tapped his head. "In her head. Her mind sort of went somewhere else."
"Damn, that's...that's rough. What happened to you?"
"The family of one of the missing bearers took us in. I don't think mother even noticed. I grew up in a Zulu kraal until I was thirteen."
"On day Mother wondered off, got lost, died of sunstroke. I carried on living in the kraal but someone must have told the authorities. They said a white boy couldn't live with Zulu without a parent. So they took me away, sent me to one of their orphanages. Man, I hated that place; it was full of Afrikaans kids. I didn't speak their language. I hated the way they treated the blacks. I was always in trouble - ran way twice in the first week."
"So how did you end up in the British Army?"
"They must have made enquiries, 'cause the next thing I know I'm being put on a boat for England. My mother's aunt, in Scotland, she claimed me. So I moved in with Aunt Nettie. She made sure I got an education, taught me how to live in the white man's world." He turned back to look at Chris. "If I don't make it, can you..." He held up his wrist. There, under his shirt, was a multi-coloured bead band. Chris was amazed he hadn't spotted it before, but then again his wrist was one of the few parts of Tanner that was uninjured. "Could you send this to her? Her address and my other personal stuff is in my locker back at the barracks."
Chris nodded. "Sure, I'll make sure it's done, though if you don't make it, chances are I won't either."
"You never know."
"What about you, is there anything I can do for you, if...?"
Chris shook his head. "Nope, got nothing here to send back."
"You got family?"
"Parents, older brother, and Buck of course. He's just about family."
"You two known each other long?"
"Ten years, near enough."
"So how did you two meet?"
"Mr Jackson, may I say that was exemplary work you did on Mr Sanchez's hands," Ezra complimented.
"Man needs to take care of those blisters. Some of them are beginning to get inflamed."
"Talking of which, I need to change your dressing before we get on that boat."
Ezra looked at him and then down at his leg. "Very well."
He watched carefully as Jackson pulled back the tattered remains of his trousers and placed both his and Ezra's medical bags beside him.
"The trick is going to be keeping the sand out," he commented.
"I have faith in your ability - which is really quite advanced, for a first year medical student."
Nathan smiled. "Well, I always knew I wanted to be a doctor, so I've kind of been studying most of my life."
"For which I am very grateful."
Nathan continued to talk, hoping to distract Ezra from the inevitable pain his ministrations must have been causing. "What about you? Why did you go into medicine?"
Ezra gave a mischievous little laugh. "Spite."
"My mother and I have an..." He searched for the right word, "unconventional relationship. She wanted me to go to Harvard business school. Anything Mother wanted me to do I naturally was against, so since I was eligible for two scholarships - mother, you have to understand, never pays if there is any way at all to get someone else to - business school and medical school - I..."
"Chose medical school to spite her?"
"Indeed. But believe me, no one was more surprised than I that I stuck it out to the very end."
"It kind of gets to you doesn't it? I mean, the human body is so amazing. You can never learn it all."
And right there Ezra saw in Nathan the same thing that had kept him at his studies those long years - curiosity.
Josiah suddenly looked up from his task of attaching a table leg to the rudder. "Do we have enough fuel to get back across the channel?" he suddenly asked.
JD's oil smudged face appeared over the stern. "Sure. We were towed most of the way over here. The tanks were topped up before we left, so she's basically full."
"So how far will 'full' get us?"
JD shrugged. "We went to Torquay once. That's about a hundred miles."
"Well, England's about fifty miles away so that shouldn't be a problem."
"Good to know. Can we get back to work before it gets dark?" Buck's voice boomed from the engine hatch.
Despite his 'whip cracking,' the job was almost done. It only took a little longer to bolt and screw the table leg and part of the tabletop in place, making a working tiller. JD and Buck had managed to wire a rod from the broken side rail on to the throttle control cable link. Now at least no one had to lie on their belly to change speed, though turning the engine on and off still needed some one to lie on their belly. Buck had shown both JD and Josiah, however with his hands bandaged Josiah couldn't get to it in the tight space.
"How come you know so much about boats?" JD asked.
"Grew up by the sea, place called Atlantic City - you ever heard of it?"
"That's where they have the diving horse. I saw it on a newsreel once."
Buck chuckled, but nodded. "Yes they do. Well, where there's water and visitors, there's boats. I used to work vacations and weekends in a boat yard."
"So how come you're not in the navy?"
Buck sat back as Josiah climbed on board and began to finish his new tiller by winding a thin rope end around the handle to protect them from splinters.
"Long story kid."
"So, we've got hours before the tide's in."
Buck looked over his shoulder at the distant surf. "I guess. Like I told you I was working vacations and weekends, until I was sixteen, that's when...when I lost my Ma."
"Well I know you know how that feels. It was winter. Not many jobs by the sea in winter. Besides, I wanted a break, a chance to explore. Couldn't afford to stay in school so I headed inland, ended up in Philly - Philadelphia. Jobs were hard to come by but I knew some people. Ended up working in..."
Now Buck was stuck. He didn't want to out and out lie to the boy, but he wasn't ready to tell him the whole truth. Sure he'd worked on boats; in the summer he worked mostly on the boats of rich men who knew nothing about boats and were forever doing dumb things to mess up their engines. Out of season he was more often working on boats used to smuggle alcohol, usually making them faster. He'd met a lot of 'powerful' men, men whose connections he had been forced to used to get a job so he wouldn't starve in some freezing Philadelphia alleyway. How did he tell JD he'd been working as a bouncer in a bordello?
"Um, well I was kinda in the security business," he carried on. Before the boy could ask more questions, the look on Josiah's face told him he probably didn't need to explain to him what he'd been doing. "Well, I used to play football at school, so one weekend I went to a game. There were no Eagles then, so I went to see the Quakers play."
"I play football," JD interjected. "Midfield."
"He doesn't mean your kind of football," Josiah interrupted, "He means American football, sort of like rugby."
JD's mouth formed a perfect circle. "Oh, right, sorry, you were saying?"
"I was saying that I was at this game and I meet this guy, a student. Now my kind don't normally mix with college pukes, but he was different. Well, before you know it, we're meeting up most weekends to watch a game and the rest his history."
"The one and only Chris Larabee. He was studying engineering, scholarship and everything... well, until he had to drop out."
Josiah frowned. "Why'd he drop out?"
"'Cause he met the prettiest little gal there ever was - Sarah. Well, he was lost as soon as he set eyes on her. Mind you, he needed a little nudge from his old friend before he'd speak to her." Buck winked at JD. "Before you know it they're gettin' hitched, there's a little Larabee on the way and Chris needs a steady job."
"So what did you do?" Vin asked.
Chris shrugged. "Needed a job with medical benefits and a pension. Wasn't about to work in an office nine to five."
Vin visibly shuddered.
"Right, so I joined the police - managed to convince Buck it was time he was on the right side of the law for once. Prohibition was about to end, things were changing."
"You didn't mention a wife and family back home," Vin remembered quietly.
Chris looked out at the dying sun. With all the smoke in the air it looked like the whole sky was on fire.
"No. No, not any more."
"We heard a call over the radio, a fire in Chris's neighbourhood. When we got there the whole building was alight, Chris lived on the third floor - they never had a chance. Cops and the firemen reckoned it was deliberate, but we never found out who or why."
"Oh," JD finally said.
"You guys can't say anything to Chris. Don't let him know you know."
Josiah reached out a placed his arm on Buck's shoulder. "We understand. I also can see that it wasn't just Chris who lost his family that day."
Buck, who had been looking away from them as he told the story, backhanded a tear away. "He was my Godson and he was only five. Ain't meant to be that way."
"No, it isn't."
Buck stood up, gazed out to sea, took a deep breath and turned around. "Come on, let's get the others over here before it gets too dark. Time to get this show on the road."
The hull might have looked sound, but until they got her floated, there was no way to be sure. The forward sections were so badly burned it was too dangerous for anyone to venture onto the charred ruins, for fear they might put to much stress on some invisible weak spot. This meant all seven of them were going to have to crowd into the small rear well, and somehow they had to accommodate Ezra's lacerated leg and Chris' probably broken ankle.
As it got dark, they could still see the battle. The flashes of exploding shells were clear. More worryingly, as they looked inland, the muzzle flashes of the German artillery looked alarmingly close. Little by little, the sea came closer; to a man they willed the waves to move faster. As the Storrm began to move with each wave, Nathan and Buck edged their way along the starboard side, walking on the very edge of the hull, hanging on to the guard rail, which on that side, at least, had survived the fire. The oars JD and Vin had found to push them off with were already at the prow. Balancing themselves as best they could, they placed the oars over the side and into the sand. As another big wave rocked her, they pushed. It took eleven hard shoves, but eventually she floated fee and didn't ground on the next wave. Heaving with all their might, they pushed her back and back. When the oars wouldn't reach the bottom anymore, they paddled her back, then, with JD pulling the rudder hard over they began the process of turning her. It was too risky to switch on the engine until she was turned around, for fear she'd ground again before they could make the turn.
Once they were pointing out to sea, Nathan and Buck made their way back, bringing the oars with them - just in case.
"Everyone ready?" Buck asked.
They had only a lashed up tiller, a boat that could only go forward and had no neutral. Their navigation was dependent on Vin's pocket compass. They only had Josiah and JD's memory of where the safe channels through the mines were and they had no running lights - and, since all the boats were running in black out conditions, neither did anyone else.
"As we'll ever be," Chris confirmed.
Sanchez was on the tiller.
Buck lay on his belly and got ready to make the connection that would start the motor. It coughed once then turned over. They were on their way.