Alternate Universe - World War II
"JD how fast do you reckon we're going?" Josiah asked.
JD cocked his head to one side and listened to the engine. "Well, when we went to Torquay we were going at about eleven knots. It sounds about the same - but that was nearly a year ago. I might not be remembering it right."
"Is eleven knots her best cruising speed?"
Josiah looked over at Buck, who was just visible in the weak moonlight. "What do you think?"
"Sound right to me."
Now that he knew the speed Josiah could work out their approximate course.
"There's meant to be a pair of buoys where we turn, but who knows if they're still there?"
The buoys were there, just visible, bells ringing gently in the thankfully light swell. They turned on to a heading of 350' magnetic. It had taken them over an hour to make this first marker, but at least it had been uneventful - uneventful other than Nathan's distress.
Conscious that they needed to keep the boat trimmed they had tried to even out their respective weights. Josiah sat in the centre, hand on the tiller, flanked on the right by Chris and on the left by Ezra, both with their injured legs propped up on the blankets, and their collective personal belongings - such as they were. Buck was beside Ezra with JD on the far side of him. Beside Chris sat Nathan, and beyond him Vin. They weren't more than ten minutes out into the channel when Nathan abruptly turned and leaned out over the stern, retching violently.
"Oh God," he groaned, "I hate boats, I hate the sea. I hate water."
"Oh no, don't tell me," Josiah began.
"Oh yeah, every time." Nathan confirmed.
"But you must have sailed across the Atlantic," Ezra realised.
"Worst two weeks of my life." With that he turned around once more, as his stomach rebelled again.
As they headed along the coast, Nathan suffered continuously. What little food and water he had had in the last day was lost. He refused a drink of water, despite Ezra's urging that he take it.
"I'll only throw it up again. We can't afford to waste it," he reasoned. "How long is this trip going to take?" Nathan asked as they changed course.
The tight turn only added to his distress, though now he had lost what little there had been in his belly he was suffering dry heaves.
"About another three hours, if we're lucky," Josiah told him.
"It only took two to get here. I guess it's better than the Atlantic."
"There you go Doc, look on the bright side," Buck encouraged.
It was only a short distance to the second turn, though it felt like an age to poor Nathan. They were almost there, and that meant they were as close to the mines as they should get. After this, they just had to head for the North Goodwin Light before turning for the short run into Deal or Dover. On their port side they could just see a light, they were on course and about to make the turn.
Suddenly a huge white flash lit the sky ahead of them, followed a faction of a second later by a huge boom of an explosion. Almost as one, Buck, JD, Nathan and Vin stood up.
"What...?" JD asked, knowing the answer and not wanting it to be true.
"Some poor bugger's boat hit a mine," Vin confirmed.
"But we're in the safe passage, aren't we?" JD turned around and looked at Josiah.
"As far as I can tell, but we can't be sure. We're basically running on dead reckoning."
JD turned back as the others sat down. "Sit down kid."
"But we have...those men..."
"We can't help them, even if they are still alive," Buck told him softly but firmly.
"Sit down, JD," Chris ordered.
With one last look at the rapidly fading glow in the distance, JD sat down. There was silence aboard The Storm for the next ten minutes or so, until...
"Hard right!" Vin suddenly shouted leaping to his feet. "Right! RIGHT!"
With out waiting to find out what was going on, Josiah shoved the tiller hard to the left. The Storm - like the good river craft that she was, designed to navigate tight, twisting channels - responded in an instant. Now, even above the noise of the engine, could hear the rumble of much bigger engines - much, much bigger engines. Behind them, what looked like a navy Corvette was bearing down on them at alarming speed. She appeared out of the darkness, the white horses at her bow easily visible and alarmingly big.
If Vin hadn't seen, or heard or possibly just 'felt' the Corvette's approach, they would have been matchwood. As it was, the wash as she passed began to lap over the more seriously damaged starboard side.
"Bale!" Buck and JD shouted as one.
The need to bale their less than shipshape craft had been anticipated. Fire buckets from the café had been emptied of sand and attached to lengths of rope. Getting the buckets down to the water was a different matter. Water in the rear well was easy to deal with; Chris grabbed the tiller while Josiah baled. But the water in the vulnerable forward section was a different matter. The need to keep the boat trim had determined their pre-planned course of action. Buck and Nathan - who had stepped up instantly despite his malade de mer - were well matched in weight, and although Nathan was slightly the tallest, they were a reasonable match in height as well. They climbed up onto the boat's sides. Balancing was the tricky bit. JD and Vin respectively, stood beside them, ready to grab hold of their friends if they began to fall. Lowering the heavy metal buckets into the water one handed was one thing, even with the boat still rocking wildly in the aftermath of the navy ships wake. Getting them back up was another.
Nathan, with a safely rail behind his legs, was more balanced. Buck, on the damaged port side, had nothing but a few bits of tangled and broken metal behind him. Both of them managed to get their half full bucket up high enough for JD and Vin to grab it and empty it over the side. It was a laborious, long-winded, back-breaking process, but little by little, it worked. As the sea evened out again, they slowly got the water level down. Buck was getting confident, using both hands he could get the bucket up much faster.
"Be careful Big Dog," Chris called up.
"Stop fussing you old mother hen, I got my sea legs now."
Just then, all hell broke loose. The boat lurched, almost reaing up. Nathan began to fall, windmilling his free arm wildly until Vin grabbed his belt and pulled him back. Buck, balancing on a narrow strip of wood and not holding on to anything, fell. There was no time for JD to grab him as he crashed down to land straddling the boat's side. To a man the others winced in sympathy as Buck let out a bellow. Matching his pain the engine began to scream its own agony.
"JD get over here!" Josiah bellowed.
"Buck needs me," the teen called back.
"JD we have to turn the engine of now or it'll burn out, get over here!"
Still JD hesitated.
"Now, JD!" Chris shouted.
Abandoning the groaning and gasping Buck, JD all but threw himself at the open hatch in front of Josiah, and put his arm in, feeling for the temporary connection Buck rigged as a starter. Seconds later the terrible sound of an engine in pain died.
"What happened?" Chris asked.
"I think the propeller's fouled," Josiah told him.
Nathan and Vin were doing their best to lift Buck down. One minute he was on the edge of the boat, the next he was lying in a heap on the deck.
"You gonna make it?" Chris asked
Buck's only response was. "Uh...I...ahhh."
"Nathan?" Ezra asked.
"I'm doing it," Nathan confirmed as he knelt beside his newest patient, checking for other injuries.
Satisfied that his friend was being taken care of, Chris addressed their more pressing need. He turned his attention back to Josiah.
"What do we do?"
Sanchez was already hanging over the stern, the flashlight in his hand. "Can't see a damn thing. Someone'll have to go over the side," he reported.
"I'll go," JD offered.
"Let me do it," Vin put in.
"With those burns, I don't think so," Ezra warned him.
"No, I'll do it."
They all turned to Nathan.
"I'm not injured and I'm a lot stronger than JD." He looked at the teen. "No offense?"
JD shrugged. It wasn't as if he could argue with the truth.
"How's Buck?" Chris asked.
"I'm okay," Buck confirmed, as he began to sit up, hand still cradling his bruised groin.
"I didn't finish checking you out," Nathan reminded him.
"Ezra can do it," Buck told him.
Nathan was the logical choice. He was fit, if a little queasy, and he was strong. Stripping down to his underthings was cold, but not freezing. It was June, after all, and dry clothing would be welcome when he got back on board.
"Here." Vin reached over. He'd untied a rope from one of the buckets. "Tie this around yourself."
Nathan took the rope. "Thanks."
"Don't worry, I've got the other end," Vin assured.
The air might not have been that cold, but the water was freezing. It sucked the air right out of him as he slipped in. After taking a minute to get his breath, Nathan began to feel for the prop. Thankfully it wasn't so far down that he had to go under the water to reach it. Something was stuck between the hull and the propeller. He had been expecting rope, netting, seaweed; something 'stringy' wrapped around the shaft. What he found was solid but soft, even squishy. It was jammed in well; the propeller blades were embedded in it. He tugged, pulled, wiggled and eventually it came free.
"You got it man?" Vin asked as he peered into the darkness.
"Yeah, I got it, it's a..." He held the obstruction up out of the water. "Oh."
"Oh God!" Vin exclaimed.
All the others who could, looked over the side. Nathan was holding a mangled severed human arm.
"Shit!" Chris exclaimed.
"Must have been the mine," Josiah commented.
"Is that...?" JD began.
"Yeah it is," Chris confirmed. "Let it go and get back on board," he ordered Nathan.
"What's going on?" Buck demanded.
"You don't want to know," JD told him as he helped haul Nathan up.
Buck was forced to move as Nathan was pulled back on board. The pain in his groin had been overwhelming, knocking the air out of him and blinding him to all else. Now that this pain was receding, he became aware of another pain. This was deeper, this was not a passing flash of pain. It hurt to breathe, more with each breath. It was as if something had got hold of his lungs and was squeezing them. The harder he tried to get a breath, the harder whatever it was squeezed.
With everyone doing their best to get Nathan dry and warm while JD restarted the engine, there was very little room on the deck. No one was really paying Buck much attention, but he was aware his long legs sprawling out across the deck were a hazard.
Get your self up off the deck and out of the way, he told himself.
He pushed himself up onto the bench seat across the stern. Pain lanced through his chest, it was as if an iron fist had hold of his lungs and was squeezing tighter and tighter. Nathan was still dressing, JD was getting off the deck having restarted the engine, while Chris was getting out of the way so Josiah could take the tiller again. Buck was aware of is old friend cursing as he moved his injured ankle.
It's broke, gotta be, Buck decided.
Chris' hip bumped into him as he slid across the seat.
Just breathe, don't do anything, just sit still and breathe, it'll be okay. Must have busted some ribs. Breathe - oh God it hurts!
"Buck?" Chris' face appeared in his eye line. "What's up?"
Buck didn't respond, all he could do was wheeze.
"NATHAN! EZRA!" Chris bellowed, not caring who heard the panic in his voice.
In the rush to get to Buck, the small boat began to list alarmingly, and worse, it was rolling toward its damaged port side.
"No!" Vin reached out and grabbed JD's collar, pulling him back even as he tried to get to his new friend.
"But..." JD began, then stopped, realising what was happening.
"Chris, take the tiller," Josiah ordered.
Larabee hesitated. He was reluctant to leave his friend's side, but eventually he nodded and slid back along the seat to take control of the boat. As soon as he did so, Josiah moved to the port side to help balance the boat.
"We need to turn," Josiah told him, shining a light onto the compass. "Push her to starboard until I stay stop."
Chris was still looking at Buck, though he was mostly obscured by Nathan and Ezra.
"Chris? Captain Larabee?"
Finally Chris looked around. "What?"
"We need to change course, I'll tell you what to do."
"Oh, yes, sure, tell me."
"Starboard, just a little."
Nathan didn't seem to be able to think at all. It was hard enough get his hands to do as he wanted, let alone get his brain to work. Never had he been so glad he was still just a medic and there was a real doctor there to take control. So far, all he'd had to do was support Buck in the position he was in and not let him fall off the seat.
"Buck, I can see you're having problems breathing," Ezra began.
Buck nodded weakly.
"Do you have chest pain?"
"Can you show me where?"
Another nod, then with a hand that was clearly trembling, he managed to point to his left side.
"Very well, I will be as quick and gentle as I can be."
With that, Ezra began to peel back Buck's uniform. He had been expecting to find some mark to indicate damage to the ribs, maybe even a depression over an unstable fracture. What he wasn't prepared for was to find a gaping hole, the diameter of his thumb, in Buck's chest wall.
"I need more light!" he demanded.
"As soon as we're on course," Josiah told him.
"If we miss this course correction and we'll sail right into a mine field, then..."
"I understand," Ezra cut in, the anger leaving his voice. "just make it as fast as you can."
Seconds later the light was passed to Nathan who managed to hold it reasonably steady.
The wound had bled some, but not a great deal. Ezra let Buck's shirt fall back over the wound and watched as it was sucked into the hole with each shuddering breath Buck took.
Clamping his hand over the hole, Ezra swore. "Merde!"
"What is it?"
"He's got a sucking chest wound." Ezra looked up. "He must have fallen onto one of those spikes."
"Spikes?" Nathan asked, looking over his shoulder.
There they were, the remains of the boat's safety rail, blackened, twisted and splintered metal, just where Buck had fallen.
"What's going on?" Chris demanded.
"Buck punctured his chest when he fell," Nathan explained.
"Every time he breathes more air is sucked into his chest cavity. It's taking up the space his lungs use to expand. That's way he can't breathe," Ezra added.
"What do we do?" Nathan asked the doctor.
"We need to make a valve, let air out but not in."
"It's easy, if you have small patch of an air tight material."
Nathan looked over at Ezra, for the life of him he couldn't think of anything. "Um, err - oil cloth?"
"Can we cut up a gas mask?"
Ezra thought for a moment then shook his head. "Not flat enough; there must be something."
"Buck's inside pocket, cigarette case," Chris told him.
"This man does not need a..."
"Buck doesn't smoke," Chris cut in. "Just look."
Ezra shook his head, but did as instructed. The case was heavy, and at one time had been covered in red Moroccan leather. The leather was still there, but it was worn, faded and torn. The case itself was made of steel and was dented and scratched. Ezra flipped the catch and it popped open.
"Well what do we have here?" he asked himself. Taking a closer look at the contents of the small case, he smiled. "Now I have always respected a man who takes precautions and is equipped for every eventuality; these well do nicely."
"What is it?" Nathan asked.
Ezra showed him the contents of the case. "Ah."
With that, Ezra grabbed some scissors from his medical bag, pulled out one of the sheaths and deftly split and trimmed it. He then taped the neat square of latex over the hole, leaving one corner untaped. Immediately the untaped corner fluttered slightly and was then sucked against Buck's chest.
"It's working," Ezra announced with relief. Bending lower he spoke to Buck. "It should get easier, it shouldn't get any worse at least. I can't re-inflate your lung, but you should be alright until we can get you to a hospital - okay?"
Buck nodded. "Th...an...ks," he managed to gasp out.
They moved some of the blankets and kit to prop him up, leaning over to his left side. Ezra insisted that Nathan sit with him and was himself wrapped in blankets.
"How much longer?" he asked Chris.
Chris looked at Josiah. "Well, I reckon the swamping and the fouled prop cost us at least an hour, so I'd say another three hours."
Ezra nodded. It was longer than he'd like, but there was nothing they could do about it.
"Is Buck gonna make it?" Chris asked him in a low voice.
"I can't promise anything, but I am hopeful. Right now it's Nathan I'm worried about."
"Nathan?" Chris glanced over at the young medic. He was hunched down beside Buck with the blanket pulled tightly around him.
"A man can take a dip in a cold sea in June with no ill effects - so long as he can get dry and warm afterwards. So long as he's not already at the point of exhaustio. So long as he's been eating, drinking and sleeping regularly and hasn't just thrown up what little food and water he has had."
Chris frowned as he tried to make out more of Nathan in the weak moonlight. "And if he is wet, cold, half staved, exhausted and sick as a dog?"
"He can't maintain body heat, so he can't get warm and he starts to get weaker and weaker."
"What can we do for him?"
"Get him on to dry land and into a warm bed as soon as possible - hot food would help."
"We're doing our best."
A tense hour past as they sailed on. Occasionally, they saw another boat, or a bigger ship. Chris kept control of the tiller, taking course corrections from Josiah, who sat beside Vin and JD on the starboard side. On the portside, Ezra sat with the two men most in need of medical care. The trouble was, he was in no position to give them the care they needed. All he could do was sit and watch and pray they made it to England in time. Nathan continued to shiver, hunched down under his blanket. He didn't complain, he didn't ask how much longer it was to land, he just sat there, in his own personal hell.
Buck just concentrated on breathing. The strained, uneven, painful wheezing made it clear to all just how difficult he was finding it. Ezra was fairly sure he was the only one who really appreciated just how much pain Buck was in, but resisted the temptation to tell the others. It wasn't as if there was anything they could do to help him, and from his observations during their short acquaintance, Sergeant Wilmington wasn't a man who liked being fussed over.
For the first hour, Buck held his own. It might have been less than that, but it was after an hour that Ezra noticed a marked decline in him. His breathing was becoming more and more laboured. That wasn't entirely unexpected. He was getting tired. But, this was something more than that. Switching on the flashlight he checked his patient more closely.
"Switch that ruddy light out!" a voice shouted from somewhere in the darkness to their left.
"Ezra?" Chris asked.
"I need light," came the emphatic response.
"Didn't you hear me? Put that light out!" They could see the white wake of the boat beside them now.
"When we're done with it!" Chris bellowed back.
"Blackout regulations are in effect. As an air raid warden I'm ordering you to put it out."
"Piss off and let the doctor work!" JD shouted.
Vin, Chris and Josiah stared open-mouthed at the teen.
"What?" he asked. "Where does he get off, shouting at us while Ezra's trying to help Buck?"
Chris shook his head. "Good for you kid."
"See you turn it off as soon as the doctor is done with it." With that, the other boat passed them.
Ezra was doing his best to ignore all this and try to ascertain what was actually wrong with Buck. What he found wasn't encouraging. If the improvised valve was working, then little by little the excess air in his chest should be pushed out and his lung should have more room to inflate. Instead there seemed less room and now his heart seemed to be under strain. It was hard to be sure, with so little light, but it looked to him that Buck's lips had taken on a bluish tinge.
"Buck?" he asked.
There was no response. Buck seemed to be conscious, but he wasn't responding.
"Not much longer now," Ezra assured him, little knowing or caring if it was true. "Nathan?"
Nathan looked up. He looked dreadful, but he was responsive. "Can you monitor him, just for a short time?"
Nathan nodded. He pulled out one hand from the blanket and took Buck's wrist and gave it a gentle squeeze.
Ezra turned to Chris. "How fast can we make land - any land?"
"What's the matter?"
"How long?" Ezra persisted.
"Don't know." Chris turned to Josiah, who in turn looked at JD.
"Um, well we could make Deal or Walmer in say - an hour and a bit, if we went at full speed, I think."
Ezra shook his head. "No good, Buck doesn't have that long."
"I thought he was okay until we made land, you made that valve." Chris looked over Ezra's shoulder at his best friend.
"I assumed - wrongly - that air was all that was leaking into his chest. I think he's bleeding into his chest cavity. Not only is there no room for his lung to inflate, there is less and less room for his heart to expand as it beats. I have to relieve the pressure or his heart will just...stop."
"You can do that?" Chris asked.
"Yes, but not here, not at sea. It's a risky procedure, quarter inch out, fraction of an inch too deep and I could kill him. I need light and we need to be still! I don't even have all the right equipment, I'll have to improvise."
"I don't see how we can get to land any faster," Josiah told him. "Unless we can flag down a big ship."
"What about Goodwin?" JD asked.
Josiah's head snapped around. "JD be serious."
"I am, it's almost low tide, must be. We could beach her, it's calm, we'd have about an hour. I've done it, three years ago, in the old boat, we went there, with lots of others - a friend of Mr Vernon was playing in this mad cricket match - right there on the sand."
"What the hell is he on about?" Vin demanded.
"The Goodwin sands. It's a huge sandbank off the coast of Kent. It's only exposed at low water and not always then. It's a ships' graveyard. We've been making for the Goodwin light, so we can avoid the damn thing."
"But that's in bad weather. It's calm."
Ezra looked at JD. "How long?"
"Half an hour, maybe less."
"He might make it. Well?" Ezra looked at Chris.
"JD are you sure about this?" Larabee asked the seventeen-year-old.
The big merchant seaman looked out to the portside, then over his shoulder, to the east, the sky was paling. "I say go for it."
Chris nodded. "Where do I find this place?"
"Push her to port, I'll tell you when to stop. Vin can you get forward?" Josiah asked, already pulling out the compass.
"Sure." Tanner was already up.
"Keep a lookout for the sands. You should be able to see waves breaking."
"Got it." With that he was up and making his way carefully along the starboard side.
"Anything else we can do?" Chris asked Josiah.
It was a nervous fifteen minutes on the Storm before Vin shouted that he could see waves ahead of them.
"Can you see a buoy?" Josiah asked.
"Yes, just off to our right."
"Good, we need to pass it, but only just, to the right of it. How are we doing?"
"Come in a bit." Vin lifted his right arm.
Chris made the course correction while Josiah stood beside him, relaying the directions.
"You're good now, straight on. Take it slow, we're close."
JD knelt by the open engine hatch and eased the throttle back. Suddenly, there was a bump, Ezra reached out and steadied Buck. The others all looked at Josiah, all except for Vin.
"I can see sand, I swear I can see sand ahead of us, right here I the middle of nowhere." Somehow Vin sounded amazed, as if he hadn't really believed that it would be there.
The boat hit the sand one more time and stuck fast. JD didn't need to be told, he cut the engine.
Hope to hell I can re-start it, he thought.
There they were, stuck fast on the Goodwin Sands, something most ships did their level best to avoid, but then, this was war and crazy, illogical things somehow became normal in war. Ezra was already issuing orders.
"Mr. Tanner, get back here. I'm going to need your help. Josiah, get me a bucket of sea water, then take JD and get forward out of the way."
All three were about to ask why, when Chris turned to them. "Do it," he ordered in a voice that brooked no argument. He then turned to Ezra. "What can I do?"
"With that broken ankle, not much. Stay put and hold the light. Mr Tanner - Vin, come over here."
Vin edged closer, looking more than a little worried.
"You will need to assist me, do everything I..."
"Me!" Vin all but squeaked. "What about Nathan? He's the doc, I mean medic," he protested.
"You," Ezra stated firmly. "Nathan is in no state to help."
Vin looked over at Jackson. He was helping to support Buck and holding his hand, but he looked terrible, and was visibly trembling.
"Mr. Sanchez's injured hands are of no use in this situation and young JD is, frankly too young and too..." he searched for the right term, "attached to your patient to be reliable. You strike me as man who isn't going to faint at the blood and bone."
"Bone," Ezra confirmed. "Am I correct?"
Vin swallowed hard. "Ya man, I can do it," he admitted.
Having delivered the bucket of water, Josiah and JD retreated to the far end of the boat. Since it was still dark and they had no way of knowing how solid the sand was, they didn't dare get off.
Vin washed his hands in the seawater, as did Ezra, then helped the doctor get all the equipment ready. They needed a clean place to lay things out, and finally settled on a folded blanket. There was a scalpel, needle, thread, a field dressing and some Vaseline. Ezra then pulled out a length of rubber tubing, Vin thought it looked like the kind doctors tied around your arm when they wanted to take blood. As Vin watched, he picked up a scalpel and seemed to make some small slits in the end of the tube. Finally he produced a small silver hip flask.
Ezra held up the flask and sighed. "I was saving this, to celebrate our safe landing on the shores of Albion, but needs must." He took up one of the swabs and doused it in alcohol. "Hold thatm would you?" He passed the flask to Vin. "Don't spill it."
Vin took a sniff - brandy.
As he watched, Ezra carefully swabbed a small patch on Buck's lower chest.
"Buck, I'm ready to start now. I have no anaesthetic, so I can only apologise for any discomfort you may feel. I will be as swift as possible. It is imperative that you don't move."
Buck's only response was to nod weakly. From what Vin could see, it would be hard for Ezra to inflict more pain than he already seemed to be in.
Ezra picked up the scalpel and dipped the end in the flask of brandy.
"Okay, think...seventh intercostal space." Speaking to himself, Ezra ran his finger gently down Buck's ribs below the wound. Vin couldn't see what he was actually doing, but he saw Buck, weak as he was, in as much pain as he clearly was, stiffen.
"Vin, take that tubing I cut holes into, and feed as much of the cut end into the flask as you can."
Vin didn't hesitate, he did as instructed. "Done it."
"Hold it by the dry end and pour some of the brandy onto my hand." Vin did this. "Right, now pass me the tube, don't touch the wet end."
What he did with it, Vin couldn't see, but the next thing he was asked to do was clean the needle and thread with the brandy and pass them to Ezra. By the time it was all done, the tube ran from Buck's chest, as he lay on his side on the bench, to the bucket of water below on the deck. Dawn had broken and Vin could clearly see a dark trail of something flowing out of the tube into the water.
"Blood, just as I thought," Ezra commented. He then spread the Vaseline around the tube, were he had stitched the wound around it and covered the whole thing with the dressing. "Whatever happens, Buck must stay on the bench and the tube must, come what may, stay in the water - that will be your job Mr Tanner."
Vin understood, the water was an air tight seal. If the end of the tube came out of the water, air would rush back in, undoing all their hard work.
"Count on me doc," he assured.
Ezra moved around to speak to Buck. "I'm all done, it should feel better soon." Buck nodded weakly. "Just stay as you are and it will be alright," he assured.
Finally the doctor turned back to Chris. "I am done, all we can do now is get them to a hospital as soon as possible."
Chris lowered the light and was about to switch it off when he saw something. An ominously dark and damp patch was spreading across the bandage around Ezra's leg.
"You're bleeding," he commented.
Ezra looked down. "I know, I have been for some time. There's nothing anyone can do, I just used the last of the thread on Buck." He glanced back to Buck. "I just wish I'd checked him more carefully the first time, I should have known, I should have..."
"Hold it, don't go beating your self up over this doc."
"It's my job, I should have..."
"Should have what? You told us you couldn't do...whatever you just did...while we were at sea - right?"
"That is true."
"So even if you had known then what was wrong, there is still nothing you could have done about it, until we got here - right?"
Ezra thought for a moment. "That is true, but still..."
"Still nothing. How old are you?"
Ezra seemed wrong footed a little. "Oh, um, twenty-six."
"And you've been a doctor how long?"
"A little under a year."
"Right. Don't go beating yourself up. You saved his life, you did your job."
Ezra realised this was possibly the most he'd ever heard Larabee say at one time. He was a man who had an aura of power, a man you obeyed, even when you didn't want to. Yet now he saw something deeper. Captain Larabee actually cared, not just about Buck, but about all of them. He'd assumed command of their strange little group and with that came the responsibility for the wellbeing of them all; irrespective of how long he'd known them, their nationality, or military status - or lack thereof.
"Yes Sir," Ezra finally responded.
"See that you remember it, Lieutenant."
There was now little they could do until the tide rose again and floated them off the sand. Going around the sands would take about another hour and a half, and with luck, the tide would rise high enough for them to sail across the sandbanks and straight into Deal in about the same time. JD and Josiah had quietly returned to the stern.
"Can I sit with Buck?" JD asked.
Ezra looked over at his patient again. Blood loss and fatigue had finally won out and the big Sergeant had lost consciousness. Beside him, Nathan was holding his own, more or less. While the boat was still he was safe enough on the seat.
"Certainly you may."
JD sat down on the deck as close as he could get to his new friend. He didn't say anything to him, it was clear Buck couldn't hear him, but it was enough to be close to him. Why he felt a need to be close to this man, JD couldn't explain. All he knew was that it was very important to him that Buck, more than any of the others, lived through this with him. Ahead of him, dawn was colouring the sky. After everything they'd been though, it seemed incongruous, somehow, that the dawn should be so beautiful. He decided it was a good omen.
"Umm..." he began, "I was thinking."
"Yes?" Josiah prompted.
"Mr.Vernon, Edward, one of the last things he told me was..." He took a deep breath. Talking about his late guardian was still hard. "He said that he left everything to me, the houses, the money, all of it. So...I was thinking... it's a big house and we've got a big garden and chickens and stuff, so there is always food and maybe if you guys ever needed a place to stay, when you're on leave...?"
"Where do you live JD?" Chris asked.
"It's little place you never heard of on the Beaulieu River in Hampshire."
"Never heard of it," Chris admitted.
"It's great. The river runs past the back of the garden. We have our own moorings, the garden and two big paddocks for the horses. There's lots of room downstairs and the village is just outside the gate," JD enthused.
"Well, it sounds great. Can't speak for Buck, but I have to admit there are times I'd like to spend my leave relaxing by a river," Chris admitted.
"My aunt lives in Scotland, way up in the Highlands, takes me two days just to get there, so unless I get a week off it's not worth me even trying to get to her," Vin pointed out. "Hampshire's a lot closer."
"I don't have any family in Britain. I don't even know if I still have a job, but I'd like to see your river," Josiah told him.
JD beamed. "That'd be great. Even when I join the Navy you guys can come. I'll show you all where we keep the key, not that we ever lock it. Mrs. Potter keeps it clean and looks after the garden. She'll cook for us. I can get her son to take care of the horses and chickens."
"It sounds like an excellent plan to me," Ezra added. "I have no idea what will happen to me when we reach England, but whereever the French army sends me, I will endeavour to come and visit."
"Don't let me forget to write the address, but it's easy to remember: Ivy Cottage, Beckett's Reach, Hampshire, it's near Beaulieu."
"Don't worry kid, we'll remember," Chris assured him.
The sun was fully up now, and they could clearly see the coast, the towns of Deal and Walmer with their castles clearly visible on the horizon. It was frustrating waiting for the tide, but with no way to reverse the engines it was all they could do. Behind them the sea was dotted with other boats and a few larger ships. Most of them were skirting the Goodwin sands to the north. Then, a single trawler approached them.
"Ahoy!" someone shouted as she came closer.
"Hello!" Chris responded, twisting around to see who it was.
"Need a tow?"
Chris looked at Josiah and JD, who both nodded.
"Reckon so," he called back to the trawler's skipper.
The trawler was small and heavily overloaded with men, but she was strong and manoeuvrable. Nonetheless, it took some doing to get a line from her over to Storm. Once that was accomplished and secured, it took no time at all to pull them off the sand. Josiah explained their reason for beaching and their lack of reverse.
"No problem mate, we'll stand by until you get her started, just in case."
"Much appreciated." Josiah turned to JD. "Alright, it's time to give it a go."
JD crouched down on the deck and prayed he could remember what Buck had shown him about restarting the engine. It coughed a few time and then burst into life.
JD knelt up. "Damn, she's a good boat," he exclaimed with pride.
"That she is," Chris agreed.
"Follow me," the trawler captain called as he set out again.
With an experienced guide ahead of them they made short work of navigating the passage between the sandbanks, and safely out into the stretch of water between the sandbanks and the town, known as the 'Downs.' Their escort told them to make for the town pier.
Though most of the evacuation craft had made for the harbours of Dover, Folkestone and Ramsgate, the beaches between Dover and Walmer, were dark with boats. More crowded around the lower platforms of the pier.
"Hey Burt!" the trawler captain shouted.
"That you Freddie?" came the response from one of the men on the platforms.
"Make space for this boat behind us, she's got seriously wounded men on board."
In no time at all a space was made so that Josiah could draw up the pier, rather than tie up next to another boat. Getting Buck off took some doing, but a stretcher was called for and once it arrived there were plenty of willing hands to carry it. While they waited for the stretcher to arrive, Ezra sealed off the chest drain tube. From the look of the men carefully lifting Buck up the slippery steps to the deck, they were just ordinary people who'd turned up to lend a hand. Once Buck was off the boat it was time for the others to leave. Climbing the steps to the deck of the pier wasn't easy for Chris or Ezra, but with help they managed it. Josiah all but carried Nathan up.
At the top a cart, which according to the paintwork on the side belonged to the local greengrocer, was waiting to take those who couldn't walk down the long pier and onto dry land - finally. There was room for Buck, Chris, Ezra and Nathan. It was pulled and pushed by several local men, while the others walked beside it. At the end of the pier were two ambulances waiting to take the most seriously injured men to the hospital.
"We don't have room to take anyone who can walk, sorry," the driver told Josiah, Vin and JD.
"Of course not,. We'll be fine."
Most of the other men who had disembarked at the pier were still resting on the deck. The men whose boats had pulled up directly on the beach had simply sat or lain down more or less the moment they reached the promenade. Some of them didn't even make it off the shingle, they had just sat down where they were. As tired as he was Josiah realised that they had been very lucky. Most of these men hadn't eaten for days, and they were so tired, they just fell asleep were they were. Volunteers and staff from the hotels, pubs and shops in the town were passing out sandwiches and mugs of tea. All three of them accepted the food, agreeing that nothing had ever tasted so good.
JD had fallen asleep almost as soon as he sat down. He hadn't meant to, but he couldn't stop it, his head resting on Josiah's lap. Vin would have fallen asleep if his burns, particularly the one on his hip, hadn't been aching so much.
Vin looked up at the pretty young WREN who appeared in front of them.
"Ma'am?" he responded, not sure what rank she was.
"Can you give me your name, serial number and regiment?" she asked, squatting down in front of them.
Vin gave her the information.
"Are you injured at all?" she asked.
"Not real..." Vin began.
"He's got some bad burns, they should be seen to," Josiah interjected.
"Ah man, they're not that bad," Vin protested.
"Well we better get you seen to anyway," she told him softly, before turning to Josiah, who provided all the information he could on himself and JD.
"The boy's only seventeen," he pointed out.
"Not the youngest I've met today," she told him. "And one of them was in uniform."
Josiah shook his head sadly. "Children shouldn't go to war."
"Sometimes the war comes to them. He was French. There'll be trucks to take everyone to the station for dispersal as soon as the next train pulls in. This is a travel pass for the boy." She handed the slip of paper to Josiah. "It should get him home. You two put these on." She handed them both luggage labels. One said 'Tanner V - burns' the other 'Sanchez J - hand injuries'. "The ambulances will be back, they'll pick you up on a medical need basis."
"JD needs to come with us to the hospital," Vin told her.
"Is he injured?"
"Not exactly, but he needs to see our friends who are already there, before we say good bye." He could see she was wavering. "It's important, ma'am?"
"Oh, very well."
"He almost drowned, if that helps," Josiah added.
The WREN scrawled something unreadable on a label and handed it to him and smiled. "Welcome home boys." With that she moved to the next group of men.
Ezra had refused to accept any help until he was sure the doctors understood how serious Buck's condition was. Then, as Buck was wheeled away to be prepared for surgery, he turned his attentions to Chris and Nathan.
"Mr. Jackson is suffering from exposure. I believe his body temperature is dangerously low. He is also dehydrated and needs a good meal."
The nurse beside Nathan smiled indulgently. "Yes Doctor, don't worry we're rapidly becoming experts with cases like this."
"See that you take good care of him. He's going to be a great doctor one day." With that , he turned to the doctor. "Captain Larabee has a serious ankle injury. It may only be a sprain, but I believe it most likely to be fractured."
"Don't worry, we'll take him down for an x-ray as soon as we can. Now, will you lie back and let me look at your leg?"
Ezra was about to say he wanted them to go and look for Vin and Josiah, but he didn't get the chance.
"Lieutenant, do as you are ordered," Chris snapped.
"Sir, I protest..."
Buck returned to the conscious world slowly and painfully. Everything hurt, or at least that was how it seemed, and breathing seemed to hurt the most. He tried to work out where he was, but it was just a sea of green.
"Well hello - finally," a female voice greeted him softly.
Painful as it was, he turned his head in the direction of the voice. She was a bit fuzzy and seemed to be moistly dressed in white.
"Who?" he managed to ask breathlessly.
"I'm Sister Bennett."
"You're a nun?"
She laughed. "No dear, I'm a nurse, you're in hospital."
He looked around again, the green turned out to be curtains. "Where?"
He frowned. Deal? Did she want to play cards?
"It's a place, in Kent." He was still frowning. "In England."
"Yes, you made it home."
"My friends? Where are..." He was already trying to push himself up.
"No, no don't do that, you have to rest and keep still, you still have a chest drain."
Buck didn't know what was but the sudden agonising pain in the side of his chest was enough to make him stop trying to move.
"Please, my friends, I have to know they are okay," he pleaded.
"Alright, let me get some paper and a pencil and I'll take some information."
The next time he woke Chris was sitting beside his bed. He was in a wheelchair with his injured leg in a plaster cast up to the knee, stretched out in front of him on a support.
"Hi," Chris greeted.
"Hi," Buck responded. "The others?"
Chris cocked his head toward the end of the bed. Buck followed his gaze and found Ezra, one arm in a sling, perched on the corner of his bed, reading his clinical notes.
"What does it say?" he asked.
"That you had a small laceration of your left lung. That was where all the blood was coming from. You also have a slight fever, but so far no sign of pneumonia." Ezra looked up and smiled at him. "Which is very good, see that it remains that way."
"I'll do my best doc."
"You're going to be here for at least a week or two."
Buck groaned as dramatically as he could.
"Don't complain, you get to rest in bed and be fed and pampered. Some of us have to report back - on crutches," Chris pointed out.
"What about the guys?" Buck asked Ezra.
"Our fearless leader has a rather nasty ankle fracture, but he'll heal. I tore my stitches, and broke my collar bone - painful, but it too will heal."
Chris said nothing. While Ezra had been dealing with the emergencies on the boat he'd used both arms equally, which must have been hideously painful. He also overheard the doctor telling Ezra how much longer the shoulder would take to heal because he hadn't rested it.
"Mr. Jackson is recovering from the mal-de-mare and his dip in the sea. When we looked in on him, he was asleep under a mountain of blankets and quilts, which is what he needs."
Buck looked over at Chris. "What's mal-de what's it?"
"Sea sickness. The others are alright, too. Josiah got his hands seen to. Vin's gonna spend a day or two here while they make sure his burns are healing as well as they seem to be."
"What about JD?"
"He's fine, just tired. You'll see them when proper visiting starts at two. Ezra snuck us in early," Chris explained.
He was going to explain about JD's offer of a place to say when ever they wanted, but Buck was asleep again.
"Don't worry, it's what he needs," Ezra assured.
Chris nodded, rubbing at his knee in a vain attempt to ease the persistent ache.
"We were lucky," he commented as Ezra hung Buck's notes back on the end of his bed.
"I know it. Napoleon said that luck is what makes a good solider great."
"Well I don't know about that, but it's what you need to be a live solider."
"Amen to that."
It took JD and Josiah the best part of three days to make it back to Beckett's Reach. This was partly due to the disruption to the trains caused by the necessary movement of so many troops from the south coast to their various barracks, and partly because they went via Josiah's small rented rooms in Gravesend. It transpired that the ferry he had been working on had been lost somewhere in the Channel. With no job, he was free to accompany JD to Hampshire, where he hoped to settle and find work. Working on ships had always been a way for him to see the world, a means to an end, not an end in itself. For the time being he was happy to stay put and do his part to defeat the enemy.
Having taken the train as far as Beaulieu Road Station, they took the last bus to the village, arriving just after seven on a warm, fine, June evening.
"I'd... um, I'd better go and tell Mrs. Potter what happened," JD explained, turning toward a small, brick built terraced cottage on the far side of the village green.
"You want some company?" Josiah asked him.
"I wouldn't mind," the teen admitted.
A gangly boy of about twelve opened the door. "JD! You're back," he exclaimed. "You were over there - Dunkirk - weren't you? We heard about it on the radio and then when I saw the boat gone, I knew Mr. Vernon would want to help..."
"Steven," JD cut in, "can I speak to your mother?"
"Oh, sorry, of course." He turned his head away and yelled down the passage behind him. "Mother? It's JD!" He turned back. "We were up at the house this afternoon, you know, looking after things. I checked on the horses, Lucy fed the chickens, everything's alright."
"I'm sure it is," JD assured the boy as his mother approached, still wiping her hands on her apron.
"Oh my goodness! You're back and safe, oh thank Heavens." Without a moment's hesitation, she hugged JD then stepped back and took in the large man behind him. "And who is this?"
"Mrs. Potter, this is my friend, Mr. Josiah Sanchez."
Josiah extended his hand. "Pleased to meet you."
"Is Mr. Vernon at the house?" she asked JD.
Josiah was standing behind JD, but he could all but feel the colour drain from the boy's face. "Mr. Vernon, Edward that is, he, the thing his he..."
Gloria Potter's hand came up. She covered her mouth. "Oh no, not that."
JD's head dropped. "I'm sorry, there was..." His voice cracked, just as Josiah's big hand came to rest on his shoulder.
"There was nothing anyone could have done. We buried him on the beach," Josiah finished for him.
They spent a few more minutes with the Potters, and though a lot of tears were shed, little more was said or explained. That would come later. Ivy cottage was the bottom of the village. A driveway led down to an open area in front of the house, with a barn to one side. It was an unremarkable brick and flint built house, with a traditional symmetrical design. What it didn't have, was ivy.
JD looked at Josiah, who was frowning slightly as he viewed building.
"It's at the back," he said simply.
"The ivy, it's at the back of the house."
Inside, the place was the very epitome of an English county gentleman's bachelor retreat, with sturdy oak and mahogany furniture and deep leather Chesterfields. There was a background smell of tobacco and beeswax. Josiah stood quietly in the hallway while JD wandered into the big room to the right of the front door. A little later he returned, carrying something.
"He left me a letter - on his desk." He showed the envelope to Josiah. "Could you read it for me?" he asked.
"Are you sure? It's a very personal thing."
"I don't think I can." His hands were shaking.
"Very well." Josiah opened it and began to read.
"My Dear JD
I am not, as you know, your father. That people think I am is a constant source of pride to me. You are the best son any man ever had. I only wish your mother was still here with you. Since you are reading this, I must be dead. I have no family other than you. This house, the big house in Cornwall, and all my assets are yours. Take them; enjoy them, that would make me happy - that you are happy and secure. I know I cannot stop you joining the Navy. Please be careful. I don't need to tell you to make me proud, you already did that, you always will.
With all my love.
Josiah looked up; JD was just standing there, tears streaming down his cheeks.
"Come here." With that Josiah engulfed him in a bear hug, not letting go for a long time. "Life goes on, all we can do is live it one day at a time - now more than ever."
It didn't take long to get the house ready to receive guests. There were five bedrooms with seven beds in all, if you counted the day bed in the study. They put fresh linen on all the beds. JD hesitated as he entered Edward's room.
"You know we don't need to use this room, we can work something out," Josiah assured him.
"No, he'd want to help someone. This room has its own bathroom. I thought Buck could have it, when he's able to travel."
"I'm sure he'll appreciate the gesture."
"I was going to say that Chris can have the day bed, but he'll have to go upstairs to use the bathroom, so I thought Vin would like it, 'cause it's got the big doors into the conservatory and out to the garden and I thought..."
"You, young JD, are very perceptive. I think he'd like that."
"Someone has to share the front guest room, the one with two beds." Josiah opened his mouth, but JD kept talking. "And I was thinking that you should have the other big room at the back, with the view, if you're going to stay - and you don't have to, it's up to you. So, if you do stay, then I think that Doctor Standish, he's sort of the kind of person who likes his privacy, so do you think that if he had my mother's old room Chris and Nathan would mind sharing?"
"I think that you have thought a lot about this, and if all seven of us are here together at any time, that would work out very well and if it doesn't, well I'm sure we can work out some way around it - alright?"
JD smiled. "Alright."
"And if I can find a job locally, then I would love to spend some time living in your lovely house."
"It's not mine."
"Yes it is, and you need to start thinking about it that way." Josiah turned around and began to pull sheets from the bed. "Tell me something, how come there's no dog? You have horses but no dog?"
"We used to have a spaniel, Max, but he died, just after Easter."
JD shrugged. "He was very old, just didn't wake up one day. We buried him in the garden. Mr ...Edward was waiting for Mr. Peaks' black lab to have puppies. He promised one to us." JD suddenly looked up. "She may have had them by now, she was due."
"Something to look forward to."
Josiah was please to see the young man grinning at him.
Nathan was the first one to be released from hospital. He reluctantly exchanged contact information with the others and then collected his travel papers before heading back to the big Military hospital at Netley, where he had been posted before being sent to Dunkirk to tend the wounded there. After being debriefed, he was given a week's leave.
"This place is wonderful," he told JD.
"Glad you like it. I was thinking..."
"Well, Netley, it's not that far from here."
"As the crow flies across Southampton Water, otherwise it's nearly twenty miles."
"But you got here in less than two hours."
"Sure, it's an easy trip on the train."
"If you'd like, you could come here anytime you liked whenever you get leave."
Nathan smiled. "That would be wonderful. I don't have any family here in England, so I never have anywhere to go - thanks JD."
Nathan was even more delighted when he discovered the huge kitchen garden and the chickens. A home in the Caribbean, his family had a substantial plot of land on which to grow food and keep chickens and even a pig. Working in the garden, getting his hands dirty and watching things grow was one of the things he had missed the most while studying in England.
Chris was reluctant to leave Buck in the hospital, but he had orders and couldn't put off leaving any longer. Still not allowed to put any weight on his ankle, he was balanced on his crutches at the end of the bed.
"They're going to drive me to the station," he explained to Buck.
"How will you manage when you get to London?"
"I'll manage. You behave yourself while I'm not here, don't chase any nurses."
"I don't do the chasing, they chase me!"
"So you are always telling me."
"And since I'm laid up here, how can I get away?"
Buck was trying to be positive, but he looked terrible. Though his lungs were clear and he was, according to the hospital doctors and Ezra, improving, he hadn't been able to shake off the low-grade infection he'd picked up.
"Stop looking so worried, Ezra's still here - right?"
No one seemed to know what to do with a doctor who was technically part of the French army, so Ezra was still in the hospital as a patient. He could have been discharged, although the doctors were concerned that with both a leg and an arm injury he would have difficulty taking care of himself.
"Right, well, as soon as they give me leave I'll be back, okay?"
Buck shook his head. "I'm fine, doc even said they might take the damn tube out of my chest tomorrow."
"You look horrible."
"Now Cowboy, you know that ain't hardly possible."
Chris shook his head, Buck would never change.
Two days after Chris left, Ezra was reading on his bed, trying to ignore the snores of the man beside him and the glare the night sister was giving him, when Sister Bennett came in to his ward.
"Doctor Standish, can you come?"
"Come where? It's..." He looked at the clock on the wall. "one in the morning."
"Sergeant Wilmington, Buck, his fever is raising rapidly. We had to move him to a side ward, he was getting," she searched for the right phrase, "restless. I thought you could get him to rest."
The chest tube had been removed, which was a blessing as he was now trying very determinedly to leave the bed.
"Buck what are you doing?" Ezra demanded as he hobbled in.
"Oh hi doc, I got the damn tube out, so now I can go home, but these tight-assed Brits won't let me go."
Buck glared up at the two nurses holding on to his arms and pinning him to the bed. That it only took two women to hold him down spoke volumes for how weak he still was. His nightclothes were drenched in sweat and there was an unhealthy flush to his cheeks.
Ezra moved close enough to make eye contact. Buck's fever bright eyes locked onto him.
"Tell them to let me go," he all but pleaded.
"I am sorry my friend, but I have to concur with them. You need to rest."
"No, I'm fine now, no tube."
"Buck, listen to me. You have a fever and you are on a strong pain killer. You're not thinking straight. Besides, it's one in the morning, where are you going?"
Buck frowned at him. "It's night?" he asked, disappointment clear in his voice.
"Yes it is. How about you lie down and get some sleep and we'll talk about both of us getting out of here in the morning - okay?"
"You're gonna come too?"
"Yes, I'm going to come too."
"Cross my heart and hope to die."
"I wish it wasn't night."
Ezra tried not to laugh, Buck had gone from belligerent solider to whining five-year-old in less than two minutes.
"Go to sleep. Morning will come much quicker if you're asleep."
Finally Buck relaxed. Ezra stepped back and sank gratefully into the chair beside the bed.
"Will you stay until I'm asleep?" Buck muttered softly.
He was asleep in less than half an hour.
"Just how much morphine is he on?" Ezra whispered to the doctor who had come in.
"Not that much. It's the fever. Let's hope this is a crisis and it burns itself out."
Ezra nodded. "I'd like to stay with him, until it breaks at least."
"I'll find you a more comfortable chair," the second nurse told him as she headed out.
Buck tossed and turned and sweated, he muttered and even talked in his sleep, but he didn't wake. Piecing together some of what he'd said, Ezra discovered some things about his new friend, about his mother, about his love for a little boy who would never grow up and most interestingly, about his feelings of kinship for, and need to protect, a certain seventeen-year-old. These things he discovered made him look at the man sleeping before him with fresh eyes, and would go with him to the grave, even if they were not protected by doctor/patient confidentiality.
Ezra had dozed off some time after dawn, but was awake when Buck finally opened his eyes some nine hours after Ezra was called to him.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
The flush from his cheeks had gone, his eyes no longer shone with an unhealthy brightness.
"You don't remember?"
Buck frowned. "No, should I?"
"Not really. You've had a rough night."
"That why I've got a killer headache?"
"Yes, I'll call the nurse."
Buck looked around at his new surroundings. "Where the hell am I?"
"You were distracting the nurses with your 'animal magnetism'? Isn't that what you told JD it was?"
"Got it in one, Slick!"
By the time Chris made it back to Kent, Buck was almost ready to travel. He'd taken longer than intended because he wanted to secure Buck's leave without him having to travel all the way back to the barracks to be assessed by the MO and be debriefed. After all, they'd been together practically the whole time, there was nothing new of any significance that Buck could tell them. It hadn't been easy, but having assured the CO that they would be at the address provided - JD's address - and that a medical report from a French military doctor, the one Ezra wrote before he left, was acceptable, he had secured two months leave for the pair of them.
"Oh, and by the way Lieutenant Standish," Chris pulled a second envelope out, "I stopped off in London, picked up these."
Ezra frowned, and then opened it.
"Orders, how...interesting." He read further, a smile building as he reached the end of the document. "Two weeks leave, then I report to the Royal Victoria Military Hospital for assessment, with a view to taking up my new posting, in said hospital."
Chris smiled. "It's in Hampshire, not far from JD's place and it's where Nathan works. It's also were Buck and I have to report."
"So the question is," Buck began, "how fast can we get there?"
"Hospital train, leaving this afternoon."
"About damn time!"
Once Ezra had left them, Chris turned back to his oldest friend. "I heard you had a rough time?"
"Nah, it was nothing really, don't even remember it." There was a pause, then Buck smiled. "We're not gonna die you know, not in this war."
"What makes you so sure of that? 'Cause frankly, the odds don't look too good right now."
"Because they had their chance, Hitler and his bully boys. They had their chance to kill us, had us in their sights, more than once, and missed. You don't get a second chance at things like that. We're - all of us - we're gonna make it through, no matter how long it takes."
"Damn I hope you're right."
"I'm always right, you know that."
Vin had been released just after Nathan. After reporting back to Chard, where he'd been debriefed - a harrowing experience in which he'd had to recount the slaughter in the barn - he travelled up to Scotland for the first two weeks of his three weeks leave. Nettie Wells was a widow and tough old bird at that - as she liked to say. Her husband had been the agent on a big estate; after he died the Laird had let her stay on in one of the estate cottages. He'd offered her one in the village, but she refused.
"I've been living on these moors most of my life. I'm not sure I could live in a town again if I tried," she told him.
There was no electricity or gas, and the running water came directly from a spring on the mountainside behind the house. When you took a bath you had to hang a tea strainer under the cold tap, to catch the little clumps of peat that came out with the water. The water was so deeply stained by the peat; Vin said it was like bathing in tea. The other thing the house didn't have was a phone. He sent her a telegram, telling her he was coming, but couldn't say when. Thus, he was very surprised, as he walked out of Fort William station early one morning, having travelled up on the sleeper, to see her sitting in her little horse drawn brake outside the station.
"How did you know?" he asked, climbing in.
Vin turned around to see a man in railway company uniform. "Pardon?"
"She's been here to meet every London train for the past two days," he informed Vin with a smile.
"You shouldn't have, I could have got the bus," he admonished his aunt.
"Nonsense, besides the pony is getting fat, needs the exercise. Well come on, climb on up. That breakfast isn't going to make itself."
"I had breakfast on the train," he pointed out.
Nettie snorted, showing what she thought of railway food. "Why you had to go and join a regiment all the way down there I don't know," she muttered.
"You know why."
"Aye, I do." The Wessex Rangers had been his father's regiment in the Great War. "I should be blaming my neice for marring a Sassenach!"
As ever, Vin didn't bother to respond, he just smiled. Nettie looked over at him. "What is it?"
"What is what?"
"What happened over there - something happened, I can see it in your eyes, they always were the windows to your soul Vin Tanner."
He looked way. "Maybe I'll tell you - later."
She said nothing more. He would tell her when he was ready.
Over the next two weeks, he did chores, took his rifle out and poached one of the Laird's deer, butchered it for Nettie and hung what they couldn't eat in the chimney to smoke. The same thing happened to the half dozen or so salmon he caught.
"You'll get arrested or I'll get evicted," Nettie scolded, as they feasted on roast venison.
"They wouldn't dare. How's Casey?"
Vin's young cousin Casey was training to be a nurse in Inverness.
"Tired, hungry, but enjoying herself - last I heard. Are you really going tomorrow?"
"Ya, I need to see my friends, before I report back."
"Are you ready?" She'd seen the livid, but thankfully now healing, burns.
"You want to know what happened."
"Only if you want to tell me."
He took a deep breath. "I guess now is as good a time as any."
It was the third time he'd told it, and it didn't get any easier, but it did feel better to tell someone who really knew him. As he said goodbye the following evening before boarding the London sleeper, he felt better and more at peace with what had happened than he ever had.
Vin hadn't bothered to tell anyone he was arriving. It was a blazing hot Saturday morning in June as - dressed in civvies - he strolled though the village. He didn't bother to ask directions. It was, after all, a small village, and he knew it was a house overlooking the river, so it didn't take long to find the gates. There was no response to his knock at the door so he opened the side gate between the house and the barn. Behind the gate there was a yard, with stables. The stables were empty; no doubt the horses were out in the paddocks JD had spoken of. As he rounded the house he found a terrace and a lawn. Beyond the lawn the garden dropped down out of sight through some low trees. He could clearly see over the trees to the river, glistening in the sun. His friends were all there in the garden. Buck was sprawled out on a deck chair, fast asleep. JD and Nathan were sitting on a bench playing chess, and, sitting around a wrought iron table, on wicker chairs, under a striped sun shade, Chris, Ezra and Josiah were playing cards, Chris had his cast propped up on a fourth chair.
"Hello!" Vin called as he approached.
"Will you look at that, the prodigal has returned," Josiah exclaimed.
"Did you bring party favours?" Ezra asked, eyeing the bulging bag Vin was carrying.
He put down the kit bag he was carrying, and then opened the second canvas bag he had slung over his shoulder.
Inside the second bag were two newspaper wrapped parcels. One was bulky and clearly heavy, the second was long and thin.
"It's like 'pass the parcel'," JD commented.
"What the hell are they?" Chris asked.
"A side of smoked salmon and a haunch of Venison, it's been hung for a few days, plus a day and a half on the train with me, should be perfect by now. Nice and tender."
"You sir, are a prince among men," Ezra exclaimed.
"A true humanitarian," Nathan agreed.
"JD," Buck called sleepily.
"How fast can the wonderful Gloria get here and get cooking?"
"No idea, I'll go and ask her."
JD stood and walked up to Vin. "Welcome home." Then he looked around. "Seven always is a lucky number - right?"
To this they all agreed.
Between the 28th of May 1940 and June 1st 1940 the city of Lille held out against the invading troops, holding up seven Nazi divisions. When they finally surrendered - because they ran out of ammunition - the Germans let the troops parade thought the streets in recognition of their courage.
During their advance across northern France the Nazis did use civilians as human shields and were taken out by a sharp shooting British solider. Captured British troops were massacred in a barn.
Between May 26th and June the 3rd 1940 Operation Dynamo evacuated 350,000 British, French and Belgian troops from the port and beaches of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) in northern France. The operation ran day and night. In the later stages the wounded were left behind, they took up too much space and took too long to load. Half-starved, dehydrated men stood patiently in lines for hours, waiting for their turn to be evacuated, often chest deep in water. Some were so tired they fell asleep as soon as they were in a boat. Other than small arms, no equipment was saved, only men.
The town, harbour and beaches were under constant bombardment, and fire was returned by the Navy, RAF and by a tenacious rear guard action by the French and British army. Six destroyers were sunk, along with eight personnel ships and around 200 small craft, from a total of around 860 vessels of all sizes.
800 of these were the famous 'Little Ships' - the smallest was an 18-foot open rowing boat. Among them were ferries, Thames barges, coasters, trawlers, lifeboats and pleasure boats, if owners couldn't be contacted, the vessels were just commandeered. Contrary to popular belief, very few owners took their own boats across the channel. For the most part, only professional seaman crewed the boats. Some retired naval personnel did take their own boats across, including Herbert Charles Lightoller, a decorated WW1 veteran and 2nd officer on the Titanic.
Even when the men made it into a boat, there were more perils. There were, in theory, three 'safe' routes access the channel through the mines, X, Y and Z. Most of the time only two or one of these were open. As fast as the Navy cleared the mines, the Nazis laid more. Not all the mines could be cleared or marked. There were U-boats, and boats collided in the blackout conditions. Men were lost overboard from over crowded craft, and some smaller boats were swamped.
The Royal Victoria Military Hospital was a quarter of a mile long, had over 1000 beds, and was served by its own boat jetty and its own railway line. Many Dunkirk causalities were treated there. Between 1944 and 1945 it was turned over to the American Forces during which time it treated over 68,000 casualties.
Although technically a defeat, the miracle of Dunkirk was a huge morale boost to the beleaguered British people, who now faced Hitler alone.
The battle for France was over. The battle for Britain was just beginning.
| "My Luftwaffe is invincible...And so now we turn to England. How
long will this one last - two, three weeks?"
- Hermann Goring, June 1940
| "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing
grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight
in the hills; we shall never surrender."
- Winston Churchill, June 1940, following the Dunkirk evacuation
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