Chapter 13 : Alone
When the bunk that concealed the tunnel entrance lifted, all the prisoners in Barracks 2 gave a sigh of relief, thinking that Newkirk had returned. Until they realized that it was much too early, and that they were seeing not the expected Englishman, but the RAF captain who should have been with the Underground, on his way to England.
Nobody breathed a word, and the surprise of seeing the English officer again quickly turned to worry when it became obvious that the corporal wasn’t with him.
“Where’s Newkirk?” Carter asked hesitantly, knowing very well that he wasn’t going to like the answer at all.
Lackey had run all the way. His clothes were soaked, his breathing ragged. He tried to catch his breath enough to allow him to reply, inhaling and exhaling deeply. Hogan stood up and went over to him. He stopped a few inches away from the officer, his questioning gaze cutting through the shadows, then took him by the arm and led him to the nearest bunk.
The Englishman sat on Carter’s bunk, ill at ease under the looks of the prisoners who were all now wide awake.
The colonel’s tone was direct. He wanted the truth. Now. He wanted to know the reason for the obvious failure of the mission. But more than anything else, he wanted to know where Newkirk was.
The captain kept his eyes lowered. He accepted the glass of water Lebeau held out to him and took a long swallow before finally replying.
“We were surrounded by German soldiers. Eberhart was… shot.”
Hogan noticed the Englishman’s hesitation but didn’t say anything, just let him continue.
“The Germans were coming and Corporal Newkirk and I separated… He led them in another direction so I could get back to camp. I don’t know what could have happened to him after that.”
“You let him do that?” The colonel’s glacial tone made all the men shiver, the captain included.
The colonel had never anticipated that. That Newkirk would put his own life in danger to protect an officer, especially that one, was surprising, but not as much as all that. He always acted instinctively. But that an RAF captain, considered a hero, would be all right with running away and leaving one of his men behind him, that Hogan simply couldn’t conceive of.
“Newkirk told me to go back to the camp and that’s what I did.”
That was the last straw. Nearly beside himself, Hogan took hold of the Englishman’s collar, grabbing it with all his might and forcing the man to look him in the eye for the first time since he’d returned.
“You obeyed him? And you claim to be worthy of your rank, Captain? What’s the job of an officer in your opinion? Tell me!”
“Colonel!” Kinch intervened, trying to get him away from the Englishman, convinced he was about to strike Lackey.
He stepped up behind him to get his arms around him, but he hadn’t counted on the strength of the American colonel who refused to budge an inch. Nobody came to help Kinch. Carter, like most of the other prisoners, was much too shocked by what they had just learned from Lackey and by the violent reaction of his superior officer. Lebeau was satisfied just to observe the scenario, not coming up with anything to say regarding the colonel’s anger, which was completely justified in his opinion. If Newkirk got himself killed because this coward had abandoned him, then he’d deserve the worst.
In any case, he was finally convinced that Hogan wasn’t going to go so far as to actually strike the English captain, in spite of the fury that raged at the depth of his gaze.
“Tell me!” Hogan repeated, completely forgetting to lower his voice, clutching his fingers so tightly on the Englishman’s clothing that he was beginning to suffocate.
“Colonel! You’re going to wake the whole camp,” Kinch tried to calm him, redoubling his efforts to get the colonel away from Lackey.
The statement had its desired effect. Kinch felt his superior’s muscles relax a bit, as if Hogan had finally realized what he was doing.
As soon as the American’s hands were off him, Lackey took a step backwards. He smoothed his shirt and gently rubbed his throat, without taking his eyes off the colonel, afraid he might come at him again. What could he say? He didn’t even understand why Hogan was in such a state to begin with. For Newkirk? A mere corporal. It was unthinkable.
Colonel Hogan’s voice pulled him out of those thoughts; it was calmer now, but oh how much sharper.
“An officer only exists to protect his men.”
To protect his men. Newkirk had told him the same thing. Out there, in the forest, before everything had fallen apart. You were his captain, it was your job to protect him, not mine! And you abandoned him… He hadn’t understood. He hadn’t understood the hidden meaning in those words. He hadn’t understood that it wasn’t just the question of student officer Mason anymore.
You were my captain, it was your job to protect me… you abandoned me.
An officer’s job…
For more than a quarter of an hour now the rain had been beating down viciously, with the welcome effect of erasing all traces of the blood that soaked the ground. Newkirk had tried to eradicate them, more or less, as he walked, but he had quickly given up on that. It didn’t do any good and only wasted his energy. All he could do was to keep walking and get as far away as possible from the German patrols.
Or at least try, because the Englishman had no idea where he was. He might have been able to retrace his steps if he had thought of that. But he kept walking, dragging his injured leg behind him, trying not to let the pain and loss of blood stop him. He had lost his crutch. Where? He didn’t remember, walking forward in the shadows, straight ahead, hardly conscious. Several times he had almost given in to the temptation to let himself slip down against a tree trunk and close his eyes. Just for a moment.
Then the rain had started to fall. He hadn’t noticed right away, his mind foggy and his vision blurred. Only the icy wind on his wet clothing had managed to pull him out of his half-conscious state, making him realize that he needed to find some shelter. Anyway, he couldn’t keep walking like this for long. His wound was still bleeding, slowly, the red liquid taking away with it the small amount of strength he had left.
He hadn’t fallen, not once, knowing very well that he would never be able to get up again. But when he spied a hollowed-out spot on the ground, between the roots of a tree bigger than any he had ever seen before, Newkirk finally let his exhausted body have its way. He let himself fall to his knees, ignoring the pain that shot through his left leg. He was tired. So tired.
With one last effort, the Englishman crawled between the gigantic roots. He turned onto his side, pulling his legs up to his chest, looking for some way to get warm. He knew that he shouldn’t fall asleep, but couldn’t fight any longer against the peaceful darkness that was beginning to wrap itself around him. Letting his eyes close, Newkirk spared a thought for the animal that must have dug out this hollow, thanking it for the welcome shelter but most of all hoping that it had abandoned this refuge a long time ago. Considering the size of the hollow, there was little chance that it had been a rabbit…
He didn’t have long to imagine himself being devoured by a bear or a wolf, since the darkness had already swallowed him up, driving away the pain and the fear.
In Barracks 2, there was no time for sleep. While Jones posted himself as lookout at the window, Hogan, Lackey, Lebeau and Carter stood around the table, the faint flame of a candle lighting the immediate vicinity.
“You were halfway. If Newkirk followed the plan to the letter, that should be right about here,” the colonel indicating, pointing to a spot on the map with one finger.
“Probably,” Lackey hesitated. “I really don’t know the area…”
“Which direction did Newkirk take?” Hogan asked.
“Well, if we were really right here,” the English captain thought, gesturing vaguely with his hand over the map, “then he must have gone this way. But he might well have changed direction after that.”
“Or gotten himself caught,” Lebeau added, throwing a venomous look in the Englishman’s direction.
“Assuming that the captain’s not mistaken, Newkirk could only have gone in one of two directions.”
“Two, Colonel?” the Frenchman failed to understand.
“He wouldn’t have turned around knowing he was being followed, for fear of leading the Gestapo right back here. For the same reason, he must have gotten as far away as possible from the rendez-vous point with the Underground.”
“That’s logical,” Lackey agreed.
“But even knowing all that, you think we’ll be able to find him before the Germans do?”
Carter’s question was a good one. Two directions, that was already too many. The forest was thick. To find anyone in there without any more clues was almost impossible. And the Gestapo had a good head start over them.
Andrew drew up a chair and dropped into it, his face grim. He had begun to think that he would never see his friend alive again. There was so little chance that he’d be able to get out of this. A hand on his shoulder made him lift his head.
“Newkirk won’t let himself get caught, Andrew,” Lebeau reassured him.
The Frenchman was convinced, but he was no less worried than the young American. Although Newkirk was only slightly wounded, that would make it harder to hide, and more than that, he would be easier to track.
An idea crossed the Frenchman’s mind and he moved away from the others to hoist himself up onto Newkirk’s bunk.
At that moment, the bunk covering the tunnel entrance lifted up. Olsen, who had been seated on the mattress before it almost threw him off, helped Sergeant Kinchloe climb up into the barracks.
“I was able to contact the Underground,” the American told them. “They were able to warn the guys who were supposed to meet Newkirk and the captain, but…”
“No sign of Newkirk,” Hogan finished, his expression somber.
Kinch nodded silently.
“They recovered the documents concerning the French Underground, the excerpts of the interrogations, the films. The sub will leave as soon as they receive them.”
“I can’t get back to England?” Lackey wanted to know.
“Not at the moment, sir. You need to wait.”
“Mon colonel, I have an idea.”
All the men present turned towards Lebeau, who, up on his English friend’s bunk, held Newkirk’s hat in his hands.
Let me out! Please… let me out…
Newkirk woke with a start, unable to remember where he was, panicked by the darkness that surrounded him. He sat up with difficulty, pressing his back against the earthen wall. He still felt the walls so close by, too close, but he couldn’t see the entrance, it was too dark. His heart, already so strained by the nightmare, began to beat harder and harder, his lungs felt squeezed, preventing him from breathing.
Where am I? I can’t breathe; let me out…
He didn’t know anymore if he was awake or asleep. He couldn’t see anything, feeling only the wall pressing against his back. Like in his nightmare, like in his memories. Peter tried to draw in a deep breath but not an ounce of oxygen entered his lungs. He felt so terrible, so weak… And he didn’t know why. The panic that engulfed him defied any logical thought or examination.
Peter tried to get up but his body wouldn’t respond. He couldn’t move, he was wedged in the small space and he couldn’t move a muscle.
Tears began to stream down his frozen cheeks, then a beat of his heart that was more violent than the others turned his stomach. Newkirk didn’t even have time to bend down before vomiting. Bile. He hadn’t eaten anything this evening before leaving on the mission.
The mission… Images from the evening came back into his memory, reconnecting him with reality. He had found this shelter while he was being chased by the Gestapo. He was safe for the moment, but he was going to die here, alone.
Finding some semblance of control over his breathing and his heart rate, Newkirk wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve and tried to consider the situation he found himself in, in spite of the fogginess that overwhelmed his brain. He had lost a lot of blood, but the flow must have stopped by now: if not, he’d already be dead.
The Englishman shivered. He was cold. His wet clothes probably accounted for some of that, but he wasn’t so disoriented that he didn’t realize he probably had a fever. If his wound was infected, he wouldn’t get out of this. Not after all the blood he’d lost.
Keeping his back to the wall, Peter closed his eyes to keep the world from spinning around. Even the darkness seemed to dance, and it was making him sick.
As he fell again into unconsciousness, Newkirk’s thoughts turned toward the people he loved. His sister who waited there at home; his friends who would move heaven and earth to find him. They would, eventually. He only hoped that it wouldn’t be too late.
The rain had finally stopped, easing Kinch and Lebeau’s progress through the woods. Colonel Hogan had decided to send only two of his men out to look for Newkirk. The fewer they were, the greater their chances of avoiding the Gestapo. On top of that, it was already hard enough to cover up the absence of three men at roll call. Their orders were to return for the five o’clock formation, but Hogan knew that neither Lebeau nor Kinch would ever give up before they’d found Newkirk.
A nearby bark attracted the attention of the two prisoners, who then headed in that direction.
Suddenly Kinch reached out and caught Lebeau, pulling him back. The Frenchman gave him a quizzical look and the American replied by shining his flashlight on the ground. Or rather, the emptiness that was there instead of the ground. One more step and the cook would have tumbled down there head over heels.
“Wolfgang?” the Frenchman called softly, looking carefully all around him.
The yelp that answered him was coming from below.
Carefully, the two prisoners began to make their way down the steep hill, hanging onto a few protruding rocks and bushes that they could reach. More than once one or the other of them nearly slipped, but they were finally able to make it down all right. Until an enormous creature sprang from the darkness to jump onto Lebeau, covering the French corporal with licks.
“Wolf!” Lebeau protested, smiling all the same at the obvious affection the animal had for him.
The German shepherd sat, frantically wagging his tail, then, when he was sure that the humans were going to follow him, he led them through the brush.
Lebeau and Kinch stopped short before the dog barked to announce his find. Blood. Fresh. There had to have been a lot, since the rain hadn’t been able to erase all of it. As for the owner of the blood, the dog’s behavior left no doubt.
Kinch cautiously approached the metal trap in case any others were in the area. The teeth were sharp and long, covered with dark stains. Newkirk’s leg must be in shreds…
“We need to find him.”
Kinch turned towards his companion, nodding in agreement. He had faith in the Englishman’s strength, but with a wound like that, nobody could survive very long without any treatment.
Turning his gaze away from the horrible trap, Lebeau moved up next to Wolfgang, taking Newkirk’s hat out of his pocket to let the dog have another sniff, and then Wolfgang took off like an arrow. Lebeau and Kinch took off after him. They didn’t have a minute to lose.
Newkirk felt as if he were floating in a world of darkness. His spirit seemed to want to let go of the pain that his body was forcing him to feel, and Peter gratefully welcomed the sense of peace. He didn’t feel his leg anymore; soon he wouldn’t feel anything anymore.
Only the cold continued to torture him, burning him with each breeze, tearing the peaceful fog away from his unconscious. He was frozen, but that didn’t keep him from sweating profusely. Now he was sure he had a fever, and more than a little.
While his brain was busy wondering if his body was hot or cold, a blinding light made the Englishman close his eyes. The pain in his head that had given him so much trouble up to this point returned with a vengeance, bringing burning and nausea along with it. Newkirk groaned with the agony it caused, but he forced himself to open his eyes.
Surrounded by a halo of golden light stood before him something that he thought was a wolf, his blurred vision not allowing him to distinguish any more detail in the animal. So he was going to wind up as dog food… There were better ways to end up.
The Englishman didn’t even have the strength to lift his arm to protect himself when the beast advanced towards him, content to watch with his fevered gaze as death approached.
“How did you know my name?” Newkirk succeeded in asking, speaking to the animal that stood in front of him, without understanding for an instant the absurdity of the question. In his current weakened condition, in both mind and body, the fact that a wolf knew his name appeared even stranger to him than the fact that a wolf could speak.
Once again, Newkirk let himself slip into unconsciousness, ignoring the warm wetness of the muzzle nestled at the nape of his neck.