Chapter 12 : Blood under the moon
Blood Under the Moon
The next day was much calmer in comparison to the past few days. The prisoners were still confined to the barracks, but given the torrents of rain that had been falling on the stalag since morning, nobody was complaining.
As expected, Colonel Klink had called most of his troops back to the camp to reinforce security and to clean up the compound, which was still strewn with debris from the cooler. He had even thought about having the prisoners clean up the damage caused by the explosion, but using his own men gave him one more excuse to have them call off their search. As for Eberhart’s men, they continued to scour the forest. With a little luck, their search wouldn’t lead them directly to the rendez-vous point with the Underground.
If the Gestapo general didn’t leave the camp this evening, he would miss the submarine. That was unacceptable. Hogan couldn’t run the risk of keeping a German general in the tunnel any longer. Most of all this one. He was the kind of man who would take any crazy risk to try and escape.
But, for the moment, he was under the watchful guard of Captain Lackey. They were going to have to cover a lot of ground together to get to England, so it made sense for them to start getting to know each other right away. And also, keeping the RAF captain busy prevented him from going up into the barracks to run across a certain British corporal.
Hogan would have liked Newkirk to make up his mind to speak to his former instructor, that he might tell him how he felt, that he might tell him the truth about the theft which he had been wrongly accused of. He would have liked him to talk about it, yes, but he didn’t want to force his hand. Not so long as there remained a possibility that Newkirk might take the first step, in any case. Which was, and the American wasn’t kidding himself about this, very unlikely. When he wanted to, the corporal could be extremely stubborn.
The colonel was convinced that Newkirk hadn’t told him the whole story. When he had decided to cover for his young friend, the Englishman had certainly realized that he would appear to be the one responsible. He already knew Lackey’s feelings on the matter, and he had done everything to avoid any suspicion falling on the boy. But the resentment that he felt regarding his captain couldn’t just be because of that unfounded accusation. It wasn’t his honor that had been hurt. No. Hogan didn’t know what Lackey had done in his belief that Newkirk was the thief, but he knew one thing: he had broken something in Newkirk, and that invisible break had not yet closed over.
At that hour, in spite of the dark circles that attested to how little sleep he had managed to get that night, Newkirk shamelessly gathered up the bills that his comrades had just lost to him. At poker, he was almost unbeatable. The Englishman shuffled the cards and dealt them out again under the watchful eye of the other players, who couldn’t help but suspect that something not quite right was going on. And yet, even if cheating wouldn’t have been very difficult for him, he never would have used his talents in that area to steal money from his friends.
Sitting with his back to the wall near the door, watching the game unfold, Hogan couldn’t help but notice that the Englishman was dealing the cards much slower than he normally did. His hand must still be hurting him, and judging by the vivid mark that covered it, he had probably not done anything to improve matters any. From his position behind the Englishman, the colonel allowed his gaze to rest on the cards that he held. With that hand, he didn’t risk missing much if he left the game for a while. Two clubs, a two and a five. A three of hearts and a jack of diamonds. Besides that, most of the players had already fold, doubtless tired of losing but also confused about the game Newkirk was playing, always dealing the next card with the same sparkle in his eyes and the same smile as if he was sure of winning. It was impossible to read anything in his game, and as the Englishman had already collected most of the previous pots, he was probably going to get his hands on this one too.
Even before the last play had been made, all the cards were face-down on the table with the exception of Newkirk’s. Once more he collected the pot without showing his hand. Hogan suppressed a smile, so as not to give away to the others that they could have easily won that hand. They had all been so convinced that Newkirk would win that their chances had all been cancelled out by their doubts.
“I give up,” Olsen groaned as he got up to go to bed, still sulking.
“I think I’ll do the same,” Kinch sighed. “I’m not rich enough to keep this up anyway.”
The game was over. Newkirk carefully replaced the cards in their box and collected the fistful of bills that he had just won, slipping them into his pants pocket.
When he got to his feet, he was startled to find himself face to face with Colonel Hogan. He hadn’t seen that the colonel was behind him. Hogan gently took him by the arm and gestured to his office with a nod of his head. Newkirk complied slowly, concerned about what the American might want with him. Nevertheless, he followed him into his quarters, swallowing hard when he heard the door close behind him.
“Sit down,” the American told him simply.
Never even considering the idea of disobeying an order from his superior, Newkirk let himself drop into a chair, watching Hogan as he took something out of his locker. A first aid kit.
The Englishman’s first reaction was to hide his hand behind his back, but he quickly realized that that was stupid. The colonel had obviously already had a good look at his injury.
“It doesn’t hurt,” he claimed as he held out his hand.
Absolutely certain of the contrary, the colonel gave him a little tap on the back of his hand.
Then, he actually did hide his hand behind his back…
Newkirk gave it to him, unwillingly, giving him a dour look. Maybe he’d been asking for it a little bit, but that still wasn’t a good reason.
This time, the colonel took his hand very carefully to take a look at the bruise.
“It’s swollen since yesterday. Can you close your fist?”
He could close it, but not tightly, the pain radiating through his arm with any attempt.
“You must have hit him pretty hard…”
“You can say that again, guv’nor!”
Hogan pretended not to notice the corporal’s proud attitude and contented himself by spreading some salve on the bruise. Newkirk’s satisfied smile disappeared as soon as he did so; the colonel’s fingers pressing on his injury were anything but pleasant. Nevertheless, he didn’t pull his hand away and waited for the salve to begin to have some effect.
When the color began to return to the corporal’s face, Hogan stopped what he was doing. He prepared a compress of the same ointment and laid it on the wound, surrounding it with a bandage to keep it in place.
Newkirk felt a little bit like an idiot being babied like that by his superior officer but let him proceed without a word, avoiding the colonel’s gaze.
“There. It’s nothing fancy but it should do the trick.”
Convinced that Hogan was finished with him, Newkirk began to get to his feet, but the colonel’s meaningful look told him otherwise.
“Newkirk. Do you think you could escort Captain Lackey and Eberhart to the rendez-vous point with the Underground?”
The Englishman’s face grew darker. He knew very well that the colonel wasn’t talking about the little boo-boo on his hand.
“Why me? I’ve already done enough for this mission.” His tone was colder than he might have wanted it to be, but Colonel Hogan shouldn’t be getting involved in things that were none of his business. Yes, he had confided in him, but that didn’t give him the right to force him to confront Lackey. Most definitely when one considered the results of the last confrontation between the two Englishmen.
The American didn’t answer but his expression was severe and not to be questioned.
“Is it an order?” Newkirk muttered, lowering his head, realizing he was beaten.
The English corporal gritted his teeth, and his fingers clutched compulsively at his pants. If it was an order, he would obey it.
Night had fallen on the stalag a little while ago. A stressed silence had come over Barracks 2 although Newkirk, Lackey and their prisoner had already taken off into the forest, and were now at the mercy of the Gestapo patrols.
The rest of Hogan’s team couldn’t manage to go to bed and wait for the British corporal’s return. They were all sitting around the table, in the dark, lit up from time to time by the searchlights that regularly swept over their barracks. They spoke in low voices, sipping coffee whose calming warmth still wasn’t enough to ease their concern.
They had sent just one man to escort the English captain and the German general in the hopes that their reduced numbers would permit them to make it past the patrols more easily, if by some stroke of bad luck they happened to encounter any. As for having chosen Newkirk, everyone already knew the reason.
“I’m not sure you had such a good idea this time, mon colonel”, Lebeau could no longer resist saying out loud. “The situation is risky enough as it is…”
“I know,” Hogan agreed somberly. “The mission comes first, but it’s the last chance for Newkirk to avoid a court martial.”
“You think he’s gonna kill the captain and bury him in the forest so his body will never be found?”
All eyes turned toward Carter whose smile, in the shadows, was particularly unsettling at that moment. There was no reply to that…
“He’s not completely off base, Colonel,” Kinch finally admitted. “If you’d seen Newkirk… he really could have killed him.”
“You’re just saying that,” Lebeau insisted, forgetting to lower his voice. “He wouldn’t kill in cold blood. Not an Ally!”
He had arrived at Stalag 13 a little while after Newkirk. The only Frenchman in the entire camp. He had been cast to the sidelines and hadn’t said anything about it, becoming more and more withdrawn with each verbal duel or fight with the English. He had been convinced at the time that he was the only one who didn’t fit in, until he’d been transferred to a new barracks and had met THE black sheep of the camp. At the time, Newkirk already had a good number of escape attempts to his credit, but his long stays in the cooler weren’t just due to his quasi-suicidal persistence in that area. He attracted trouble with a perverse kind of pleasure. Trouble from the Germans but also from the English soldiers who had to deal with the consequences of Newkirk’s actions. And his so called Allies were prompt to make him pay for that… Yet in spite of that, Lebeau had never seen Newkirk start anything with any of the other prisoners, only ever raising his hand in self-defense.
It had taken a long time for the Frenchman to understand that the British corporal with the icy stare was anything but crazy.
“Calm down,” Hogan intervened. “I don’t think he’ll go that far either. But if Newkirk doesn’t talk to Lackey, his stay at this stalag will look like a vacation in comparison to what’ll be waiting for him in England.”
“I talked to the captain,” Carter put in. “Maybe that’ll help…”
Hogan had to smile at the optimism of the sergeant seated nearby and took a sip of coffee, his gaze lost in the dark liquid that filled the cup.
Corporal Peter Newkirk hadn’t killed his captain, at least not yet. But neither had he said one word to him since they had left the emergency tunnel. As for General Eberhart, he wasn’t likely to speak, gagged as he was.
The German’s hands had been tied behind his back, his arm tightly gripped by Newkirk to force him to keep going in the right direction. The pistol that the Englishman held with the other hand was close by in order to cut short any escape attempts on the German’s part.
Lackey followed Newkirk closely, listening carefully, his weapon pressed against his chest.
They had been walking for almost three quarters of an hour now, and they were about halfway between Stalag 13 and the rendez-vous point, without making a sound. The captain was the first one to break the heavy silence:
“I had a chance to talk with Sergeant Carter. He’s a nice kid.”
Newkirk started a bit at the sound of his voice, surprised.
“Don’t talk. There might be Germans around.”
Lackey didn’t remark on the order he had just received from a subordinate, but continued:
He never had the chance to say what he had to say. Newkirk turned towards him, an unquenchable fire in his eyes.
“I’m not going to apologize, if that’s what you’re after.”
The RAF captain took a step backwards. That rage in the corporal’s eyes… that was the last thing he’d seen before falling unconscious when this man had attacked him. Sergeant Carter had no doubt been right about the corporal’s good qualities and the usefulness of his ‘talents’ on their different missions, but Newkirk’s character remained what it had always been: stubborn, disrespectful and dangerous. If the corporal didn’t want to explain himself, too bad; he would suffer the consequences.
Newkirk, on the other hand, couldn’t rein in his feelings for much longer. Now that he had started, nothing could keep him from venting his hatred on the captain:
“You killed him. He was just a kid, and you killed him. You were his captain; it was your job to protect him, not mine! And you abandoned him… I never laid a hand on that damn money, never!”
His thoughts were even less coherent than the words that passed his lips, but Lackey couldn’t help but listen.
Eberhart was surprised at this turn of events. Obviously, he had other things to think about, but he couldn’t help but pay attention to the British corporal who, it seemed, hadn’t objected to hitting his superior officer. And more than once, given the state of the man’s face.
But the attention he was paying to Newkirk’s words didn’t prevent him from noticing that the Englishman’s hold on his arm wasn’t as tight, and that his personal escort’s attention was no longer directed at him. He might get himself shot, but that was a risk he was willing to take. He knew that the Allies wanted him alive and he also knew that a gunshot would alert any German soldiers on patrol in the area. So he had every chance of getting out of this alive.
Newkirk hardly felt the general’s arm slip through his fingers. He turned, his weapon in hand, to see the German running for the shelter of the shadows. He couldn’t shoot at him, not when they were surrounded by Germans ready to leap out at them if they made the slightest mistake.
Cursing himself for his inattention, Newkirk took off after the general. He was younger and much more agile than the German. His mistake would soon be rectified.
A shot resounded like an explosion in the midst of the night.
Eberhart didn’t immediately feel the bullet that passed through his body. It took him a second before realizing that ripples of life were ebbing from his chest, cutting off his breath, making him nauseous. He hesitated, took a step, two steps, his body going first, then he collapsed.
Newkirk didn’t have to turn around to figure out where the shot had come from. He kept going until he reached the trembling body of the Gestapo general, kneeling at his side in the hope that the wound wasn’t as serious as it looked. He turned him over, surprised to find Eberhart still conscious.
Instinctively, almost forgetting who he was dealing with, the Englishman pressed a hand on the German’s wound, trying to stop the flow of blood.
The German patrols, alerted by the gunshot, wouldn’t be far away; he couldn’t let the general be found alive. If he talked, they would all be in danger. Colonel Hogan, Lebeau, Carter, Kinch. They would all be in danger.
One hand still pressing against the entry wound, Newkirk put the barrel of his gun against Eberhart’s chest, right in the middle of his heart. His hand shook, but he had to do it.
He had expected the general to beg him not to, he had expected to see more terror in his victim’s eyes than in his own, but he hadn’t expected this.
Lifting his bound hands with difficulty, the general weakly grasped Newkirk’s arm. Not to push his gun away from his heart… no.
“If all our men were like you, Corporal, we would have won the war a long time ago,” he gasped.
His last breath. His arms fell back down; his eyes, devoid of any life, stayed fixed on Newkirk like a window into hell. Newkirk would never forget that look.
Ignoring the wave of sickness that gripped him and Captain Lackey who stood behind him, murmuring some unintelligible excuses, Newkirk pushed away the gun that he had never had to use and removed the handcuffs from the dead man. Hesitating to close the general’s eyes that held such an empty look, the corporal turned the body face down, as if he had never touched it.
Voices. Loud. Close.
That was all they needed. They were surrounded.
Newkirk stood and stared down his captain, the war hero who was shaking like a leaf.
Lackey seemed very far off and his lack of a reaction made Newkirk want to take a swing at him, but this was no time for that. The corporal slipped his pistol into his belt and planted both hands on the pilot’s shoulders, shaking him to get his attention.
“Captain! You remember the way back to camp? Captain?”
Lackey nodded, snapping out of his stupor. Newkirk released him and took up his pistol again.
“Get back to camp. Wait to be sure you’re not followed. Understand?”
Another hesitant nod of his head.
“Don’t worry. I’ll lead them in another direction.”
Lackey watched the corporal take off in the opposite direction from camp, frozen, incapable of doing anything else other than what Newkirk had told him to do. He went back the way they had come, keeping under cover as much as possible.
A shot rang out. All the patrols were headed in his direction. One of them passed very close to Lackey without seeing him. They were surely going to find the general’s body. As soon as the Germans were out of his line of sight, the RAF captain who had nothing more impressive than the title headed in the direction of the stalag.
Newkirk had never expected to end up like this, putting himself up as a decoy to save Lackey, after everything that he’d put him through… what could he have been thinking?
As soon as he was far enough away from the German general’s body, Newkirk fired a shot in the air to attract the Gestapo’s attention. He didn’t wait to see the result of his action, and ran as far as he could, praying that the darkness of the woods would shelter him from the flashlight beams that he could already see sweeping the trees.
With his right hand he gripped his revolver painfully, with his left he pushed aside the branches that came at him from all sides. Eberhart’s thick blood on his palm was turning his stomach. He would have liked to stop and wipe it off, but he couldn’t, forcing himself to run and ignore the unpleasant, sticky sensation.
His own blood didn’t bother him, and the death of a Gestapo general was hardly a catastrophe in itself, but the crimson liquid on his hand was proof that the mission that Colonel Hogan had entrusted to him had turned into a nightmare. Eberhart’s dead stare still haunted him while he ran breathlessly, without even looking where he was going, silently berating himself.
I’m sorry, guv’nor. I messed everything up again.
And suddenly, without warning, the ground disappeared from under his feet. The Englishman tripped and even before he understood what had happened, he fell down a steep hill strewn with sharp rocks. Newkirk covered his head as best he could, letting his back and his ribs take most of the impact.
His fall wasn’t too far, and to his great surprise, he was able to get up again, a little out of breath but without any serious damage. Waking up tomorrow morning, after the adrenalin had subsided, was probably going to be a lot more unpleasant. That was supposing that he could manage to get back to camp before morning. And he had no idea where he was at the moment.
Hearing sounds coming from the spot where he’d fallen, Newkirk decided to move more quickly. With a little luck the Germans would lose his trail up there and never suspect he was down below, but it would be better not to count on that. Moreover, he had lost his gun during his fall and couldn’t even defend himself if the Gestapo found him.
In spite of his desire to get away from that spot as quickly as possible, the English corporal didn’t get very far.
The pain was excruciating. Newkirk barely had time to force his hand between his teeth to muffle the cry that tore from his throat, biting down as hard as he could on the bandage the colonel had put on. The Englishman collapsed on the ground without worrying about the fresh blood that passed his lips as his teeth were still clamped on his hand. His breath had been cut off by the intense pain that radiated all through his left leg. It took him some time to realize, finally letting go of his hand in order to take a deep breath.
When he could breathe a bit more normally, he tried to pull his left leg up to his chest, regretting it immediately. The feeling of having been seized in the jaws of a giant predator with metal fangs and the click caused by the motion finally made him realize what had just happened.
A wolf trap with steel teeth. It was so dark, he had stepped right into it. For the very few wolves that might live in this forest, someone had had to put a trap right in that exact spot…
Letting his eyes silently weep the pain that he didn’t dare cry out, Newkirk pulled himself together as best he could and felt around in the darkness for the metal teeth. They were deeply embedded in his calf. Newkirk was no doctor, but he could safely surmise that the trap’s teeth had reached the bone.
He knew that if he opened the iron jaws he risked a serious hemorrhage, but he couldn’t stay where he was. He was much too exposed.
He began by taking off his belt to make a tourniquet, hoping to minimize the damage. He pulled with all his strength on the leather strap below his knee before starting to work on the trap that held him.
He placed his hands on either side of the jaws, took a deep breath, and, not having the luxury of taking his time, pushed the heavy teeth away from his trapped leg with one swift motion. The pain nearly made him give up, but he succeeded in getting his leg out from between the teeth before letting the trap spring shut again. On emptiness this time.
Blood flowed copiously from the wound in spite of the tourniquet.
“Don’t worry, Peter. It’s only a little blood; you still have a few quarts left…” the Englishman tried to reassure himself.
Taking the bandage from his right hand, already stained with the blood that had resulted from the bite, Newkirk tried to wrap it around his leg. That didn’t make much difference; the noticeable slowing of the blood flow was probably the result of the tourniquet.
Newkirk would have liked to rest for a while before moving on, but that was impossible; he had to get to some shelter. Getting himself on his feet, he barely avoided passing out when he carelessly set his left foot on the ground. Spotting a nearby branch, he took hold of it to use as a crutch. He wouldn’t be going very fast or very far like that, but it was all that he had. And to make things worse, he was beginning to feel the effects of the blood loss. He was so tired, his head was spinning and his vision was blurring. As if the persistent darkness wasn’t enough to disorient him…
For the first time since things had begun to go badly, Newkirk imagined the worst. He was going to die in this German forest, all alone.