Chapter 10 : When the rabbit becomes the wolf
When the Rabbit Becomes the Wolf
Why me? Newkirk sighed to himself as he stuck the shovel into the ground, then tossed the dirt into one of the big holes that lined the road. Of course he knew very well why the colonel had chosen him for this detail, and he hadn’t dared to contradict that decision. The colonel was understanding but not to an excessive degree, and he himself was not suicidal.
Although his role in this mission was just as likely to take him straight to heaven. In the best-case scenario…
Bait… I knew it would turn out to mean something like that.
“Schnell!” shouted one of the guards who was overseeing the work of the prisoners.
Newkirk dug into the dirt a bit more quickly to show his cooperation. Until the guard who had spoken to him turned his back. Then he stuck the shovel into the ground to lean his arm on it while he looked around at the scenery.
Three Gestapo guards, two from the Luftwaffe, and that entire group watched over by Schultz and Eberhart.
All that just to keep an eye on Colonel Hogan and the seven men he had chosen to repair the damage to the road. The American had wanted to exclude all the soldiers, apart from himself, who had dug up the road the night before to make it impassable. Except that when he had described his plan and particularly the role to be played by Newkirk, Lebeau had immediately volunteered to come along.
“I don’t want an Englishman taking the credit for this success of this mission,” the Frenchman had claimed, but nobody was fooled; what he wanted was to keep an eye on his friend. Nobody could blame him for that.
As for Hogan, he had other concerns. There was only a fifty percent chance that the Gestapo general would decide to supervise their work rather than stay in camp to watch over his cargo. His presence was vital to the success of Hogan’s mission. Of course he had a few arguments in reserve to convince the general to survey them himself to make sure the work went smoothly, but that wouldn’t necessarily have guaranteed success. However, he hadn’t needed to resort to that.
In the end, two things had convinced the general to accompany the prisoners outside the camp: his desire to leave Stalag 13 as soon as possible, and Newkirk’s presence among the ‘volunteers’. The interest the German had in the British corporal hadn’t escaped Hogan’s notice, and he was counting on making the most of it.
“You think it will be all right, mon colonel?”
“Don’t worry, Louis. Newkirk knows exactly what he has to do.”
“It’s not Newkirk that worries me, but the plan…” murmured Lebeau so that only his superior officer could hear.
“What have you got against my plans? Except for one or two details, it’s perfect.” The colonel’s exaggerated self-assurance earned him a dour look from the French corporal. ‘Except for one or two details’; that was far from reassuring.
Sergeants Kinchloe and Carter had stayed at the stalag and were both waiting in the tunnel, near the radio, for news from their companions. Kinch sat in front of the radio, concentrating on the crackling from his headset. Carter stood right behind him, fidgeting with both impatience and worry. He was nervously thumping on a stick of dynamite without realizing that it was a pretty unstable explosive and that by handling it like that he risked blowing the whole place sky high.
“You want to put that down before you kill us all, Sergeant?” suggested a voice coming from nearby in the tunnel.
Following the gaze of Captain Lackey, who had just joined them, Kinch nearly had a heart attack when he saw what Carter was playing with and tore it from his hands to place it very gently on the desk.
“Carter!” he berated him. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Oh,” was all the sergeant said. “You know, that won’t make it explode.”
“Oh yeah? You’ve already tried it?”
“Any news from Colonel Hogan?” asked Lackey as he approached the two Americans, cutting their argument short.
“Not yet,” Kinch responded, adding a negative shake of his head, and avoiding actually looking the Englishman in the eye.
“They’ll do it, all right,” Carter assured him. “Newkirk’s the best.” He punctuated those last words with a look of defiance in the captain’s direction.
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
The words weren’t very convincing, and that was further confirmed when the English captain added:
“His actions to this point are far from exemplary.”
His swollen face bore witness to that. Although he might have been asking for it, the corporal should never have laid a hand on him. And nothing could change Lackey’s opinion of Newkirk. In his eyes, he would never be a soldier of the Royal Air Force.
The young sergeant’s reaction surprised him almost as much as it surprised Kinch.
Carter looked him square in the eye and clenched his fists.
“That’s not true!” he shouted. “If you knew about everything he’s done, everything we’ve done, you’d never say that.”
He bit at his lip and lowered his head as he realized that he was talking to a captain.
Kinch threw a worried look in the English officer’s direction, but his reaction was far from being anything to worry about. Actually, Lackey was smiling, seemingly understanding of the young American’s sudden brusqueness. The first time he’d seen Carter, when his plane had been shot down two nights ago, he never would have thought that the boy would raise his voice against a superior officer. He’d been wrong. And if he was wrong about the young American, then maybe he wasn’t entirely right about Newkirk.
The Englishman took a chair and set it near the desk where the radio was, taking a seat. At the surprise of the two Americans, keeping his eyes fixed on Carter, he said:
“I’ve got plenty of time. Tell me.”
Newkirk must have hit him really hard, Kinch said to himself, more than astonished that the captain was really interested in their Englishman’s accomplishments in battle.
Carter had a moment of hesitation, but determination quickly replaced the doubt in his eyes and he began to talk about all the times that Newkirk had gotten them out of bad situations.
General Eberhart was inwardly boiling mad. To watch over these stupid prisoners of war was not his job. And from his point of view the simple act of taking prisoners was an aberration, wasting the supplies as well as the human resources of the German army. All these soldiers chained to their guard posts, instead of fighting on the front…
But, when he had seen that Englishman get into the truck that was supposed to bring the prisoners to the road, he had been gripped by a very bad feeling. He had replaced some of Klink’s men with his own, to reassure himself that no attempt at escape would take place once they were outside the camp. Strangely, nothing that came anywhere near Klink seemed to merit his confidence. And this Sergeant Schultz wasn’t helping to raise the level of confidence. The only camp that had never had an escape? The prisoners must really like it here… Or, that fact was concealing something else. Because, as far as Eberhart could see, there shouldn’t be anything difficult about escaping from Stalag 13.
He had heard about this stalag and about Colonel Klink before, and also about this Colonel Hogan who seemed, and this was very disconcerting, to be running the camp instead of the Germans. A Major Hochstetter who he had met once in Berlin was completely obsessed by this stalag that, to hear him tell it, was at the root of everything that went wrong in Germany. Maybe there was some truth to his wild claims after all.
And here he was with all these questions, having to reprimand Sergeant Schultz who had fallen asleep in the back of the truck instead of watching the prisoners.
“I won’t even threaten you with the Russian Front! You might lose the war for us singlehandedly!”
“I swear, General, that I was only resting my eyes. To keep them open longer and to prevent any attempt at escape!”
He was almost convincing. But to be almost convincing wasn’t going to work on someone who had spent the last few years of his life perfecting and adding to his ‘interrogation techniques’. Except for this time.
“Der Engländer! Wo ist der Engländer?” the general suddenly roared at the top of his lungs, making all the men around him jump.
“Der Engländer?” You mean Newkirk? He’s right there,” Schultz confirmed, pointing his finger to a spot that was devoid of any human life whatsoever.
There were guards around, and prisoners, but in that exact spot, there was nothing but a shovel planted in the churned-up ground.
A branch struck Newkirk full in the face, lightly cutting his cheek as he ran breathlessly between the trees. His long experience in matters of sabotaging roadways and blowing up German convoys had given him a definite advantage. Without a doubt, he knew the area much better than his pursuers did.
On the other hand, the Germans were armed. He hadn’t dared to point out that small flaw in Colonel Hogan’s plan, and he was beginning to bite his nails over it.
The Englishman tripped over a root and regained his balance just in time to see the bark of a nearby tree blown to bits. He was too far away for his pursuers to see him, which told him only one thing: the guards were firing blindly!
Newkirk felt the hair at the back of his neck stand on end at the idea that the next bullet could very well be for him.
Okay, the game’s over. I’m far enough away now.
He wasn’t worried about not leaving any tracks; on the other hand, the English corporal was carelessly crushing the brush that lay in his path and, after being reassured that the Germans weren’t about to emerge from the surrounding thickets, he made a sharp about-face.
At the fleeting sight of a black cloth between the branches, he dropped to the ground, far enough away from his starting point, or at least he hoped he was, that the Gestapo guards would keep right on going without seeing him. Fortunately, they didn’t have any dogs and were trusting only in the traces left by the fugitive, never suspecting for a single moment that they had been left there intentionally. Getting away from German patrols was like a game for them, a game at which they were all beginning to excel. And running through the woods without leaving any traces of their passage had become second nature.
Newkirk caught his breath as he watched one of the men dressed in black look in his direction and take a few paces towards him. Fortunately, at that moment another German called out something to him, and the guard kept moving. They had probably found the ‘tracks’ left by the Englishman, or perhaps of some animal who might have made them.
Exhaling the air he had been holding in his lungs up to that point, Newkirk headed away from the Germans on all fours, first assuring himself that he would be able to recover and run without finding himself turned into a human sieve.
Seeing that his fears with regard to the English corporal had been well-founded, the Gestapo general had immediately set his guards as well as Klink’s in pursuit of the fugitive. As for the other prisoners, they had been loaded back onto the truck for Schultz to keep an eye, as well as a rifle, trained on them.
Assessing the panic caused by Newkirk’s disappearance, Colonel Hogan had first thought that his plan was going without a hitch. Except, since nothing ever went exactly as planned, General Eberhart had decided to follow his men, armed to the teeth. That hadn’t been anticipated. Generals gave orders; they stayed in the rear. Except, and Hogan knew he should have taken this into account, this general was different.
The colonel didn’t respond to the panicked expression on Lebeau’s face when the general plunged into the woods. He knew very well what the Frenchman was thinking. Eberhart might encounter Newkirk when he headed back towards their position. The Englishman wouldn’t be expecting to find himself face to face with the general, and that surprise risked giving Eberhart the advantage, in addition to the fact that Newkirk was unarmed. Faced with Schultz or any other Luftwaffe soldier, Newkirk would only have to give himself up. Faced with a Gestapo general, he wouldn’t even have the time…
Very quickly, Hogan decided that there was only one thing to do.
He was the one seated closest to Schultz. The guard was on his feet, in the back of the truck, resting his large body against the stock of his rifle.
“Newkirk!” the American exclaimed, feigning surprise.
Schultz was startled and, awkwardly lifting his rifle, turned in the direction Hogan was looking. Hogan made good use of that moment of inattention to give him a quick, brutal blow to the back of the head with the shovel, and he sank to the ground without even having the time to see that Newkirk was nowhere in sight.
The Englishman’s blood froze instantaneously as he stopped short, instinctively raising his hands towards the sky. Less than two meters away, General Eberhart, a triumphant smile on his face, had him in his sights, his finger ready to pull the trigger.
The click of the gun’s hammer exploded in his skull, a forerunner of the bullet that wasn’t going to be long in lodging there.
What’s he doing here? The colonel was supposed to keep him busy. Keep him close to the truck and…
“You’ve got me, I give up,” Newkirk tried in a voice that he would have liked to be a little calmer, having already realized that Eberhart wasn’t planning to bring him back to the camp. Not alive.
The sinister smile on the German’s face got broader, and the Englishman closed his eyes in spite of himself, ready to hear the last explosion of his life.
The noise made Newkirk jump. He needed a few seconds to realize that it hadn’t been an explosion, and, more importantly, that he wasn’t dead. He opened his eyes to find himself face to face with the mocking expression of Corporal Louis Lebeau, who seemed quite proud to have frightened his friend that way.
The Englishman’s expression rested first on General Eberhart, sprawled on the ground, unconscious, and surrounded by Colonel Hogan and two other men. The colonel had recovered the German’s weapon and checked his pulse. They had arrived just in the nick of time, overcoming the German with a blow to the head from the revolver. A revolver borrowed from poor Sergeant Schultz.
“Did I scare you?” joked the Frenchman, giving his friend a light backhand to the stomach.
“Why, you little…” Newkirk began, putting his arm around the cook’s shoulders. He didn’t make it to the end of his thought, too happy to still be alive, and smiled as Lebeau gave him a pat on the back. Lebeau was relieved, as well. If they’d been just a few moments later, he wouldn’t have had an Englishman to squabble with anymore.
The two friends approached the unconscious general, each taking him under one of his armpits in order to drag him to the road. Hogan took care of covering the rear in case the soldiers who had chased after Newkirk were coming their way.
“Schultz, wake up. Schultzie, there’s no more strudel.”
The last few words murmured in his ear by Corporal Lebeau had the hoped-for effect, and the Geman sergeant lying on the ground sat up briskly, his eyes wide open.
“Sorry, Schultz, it was the only way to wake you up,” the corporal apologized, kneeling next to the sergeant.
He helped him, not without difficulty, to get up, and then handed him his rifle. Then Hogan came up to him, effecting a concerned manner, and examined his eyes as a doctor might have done. Then he held up two fingers in his field of vision and asked:
“How many fingers?”
“Two,” the sergeant replied without hesitation, before realizing something important and pointing his weapon at the prisoners.
“Someone attacked me! Colonel Hogan, you said that Newkirk was there but…”
“Hey there, Schultzie,” the Englishman in question spoke up, sticking his head into the truck to give him a little wave of his hand.
“New… Newkirk? But… but...”
Coming to poor Schultz’s assistance with the necessary words, Hogan gave him his own explanation of the facts:
“Nobody attacked you, Schultz. You fainted. You need to be more careful, Sergeant, you’re under way too much stress.”
“But…” the fat German tried to protest, until he was quickly cut off by Lebeau:
“The colonel’s right. You’re under stress so you’re not eating as much, and you’ll end up having a breakdown.”
“Oh,” thought the German, and obviously he had just done exactly that, as predicted. “I haven’t had the time to eat this noontime, with the General having us watch the cooler… I’ve only eaten two of my sandwiches.”
Colonel Hogan shook his head from side to side, overwhelmed.
“For a man your size, that’s not even close to being enough. You’re lucky that none of your little friends saw you… If General Eberhart had been here, you would have earned a one-way ticket to Moscow.”
“Colonel Hogan, can we keep this between us?” Schultz asked with concern.
To reassure him, the American patted his shoulder and smiled.
“Of course. And then there’s no reason at all for you to be reprimanded. After all, you found Newkirk.”
“I did that?”
“I came back on my own, mate,” Newkirk clarified, “but nobody has to know the details. It’s true, and after all, it was stupid. Without any supplies or a plan, I wouldn’t have made it very far… And as you were the only guard around, even flat on your face… Well, anyway, I deserve to be taken to the cooler. So if it can be useful to someone, I am glad to help.”
The guards who had left in pursuit of the vanished Englishman returned to the truck a short while later with the intention of contacting Stalag 13 to ask for them to send some reinforcements. Which turned out to be unnecessary, when the Germans realized that their prey was already waiting for them in the back of the truck. Colonel Hogan didn’t leave them any time to ask any questions.
“We’re still missing somebody, aren’t we?” he remarked in all innocence.
The soldiers exchanged looks, visibly paling as soon as they realized who the American had been referring to.
“Wo ist der Général?”