Chapter 14 : Fear, Hope, Shame and Duty
Fear, Hope, Shame, and Duty
“Wolfgang?” Lebeau called softly, not daring to raise his voice.
He and Kinch had run across a small group of German soldiers standing only a few meters away, and had hidden themselves in the bushes waiting for them to disperse. The good news was that they were going in the opposite direction from the one the German shepherd had indicated, and that they had obviously not yet found their prey. The bad news was that during that time, the dark-furred dog had also vanished.
“Wolfgang?” the Frenchman tried again, sweeping the area with his flashlight. A crackling on his right made him jump, and he pointed his gun nervously in the direction of the sound.
Completely ignoring the threat of the gun and the light that illuminated his steps, a small hedgehog left his hiding place, passing casually in front of the two prisoners.
“Are you planning to shoot him for scaring you?” Kinch kidded.
Lebeau threw him a glower devoid of any humor and lowered his weapon, setting it back in his belt.
“I wasn’t scared,” he replied, a little ashamed to have almost filled such a harmless little creature with lead.
Kinch ignored the bad mood of his companion, bending down to examine the ground, still wet from the recent downpour. A clear pawprint showed in the mud, indicating which way the dog had gone.
They advanced slowly in that direction, calling the German shepherd from time to time, until finally a yelp answered them.
A light bark reassured them of the identity of the animal that they’d just heard.
“Over here,” Kinch gestured, stepping over some branches.
He had spied some traces of blood that still glistened on the ground under their feet, but had preferred not to mention them to Lebeau. He was already worried enough. Who wasn’t?
As they approached an incredibly large tree, the two prisoners heard, more and more distinctly, some small growls interspersed with whining.
“Wolfgang?” Lebeau called once more.
The dog’s large head appeared as if by magic a few meters away from their position, sticking out of a small hollow dug out between the roots of the gigantic oak. Wolfgang called to his two human companions with an impatient yelp and then disappeared again amongst the roots.
He had found him.
Lebeau ran towards the hollow, dropping to his knees in front of it, shining his light inside. He was there. Newkirk was there.
For an instant, Lebeau thought they were too late. The Englishman was as pale as death. His eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving.
Wolfgang was stretched out across Newkirk’s stomach, sharing with him the heat of his own body. He licked the Englishman’s face and neck, growling softly as if trying to wake him.
A groan answered, and Lebeau released the breath he’d been holding while waiting for some sign of life from his friend.
Kinch joined the Frenchman, kneeling at his side.
“Wolf! Get out of there,” he ordered the German shepherd, who instantly obeyed, sitting next to the big tree, watching his companions, ready to protect his humans from any threat.
By crawling, Lebeau was more or less able to make his way up to their unconscious friend, trying as much as he could to avoid letting his gaze rest on his companion’s blood-stained leg. This was no time to faint.
The Frenchman squeezed himself up against the earthen wall, his shoulder against the unconscious Englishman’s. He didn’t have enough room to sit up even a little bit, to get a better look at his friend’s condition. All he could do was try to wake him.
He bent over Newkirk and was seized by a moment of panic when he realized that he was barely breathing.
“Newkirk, wake up!” he pleaded, lightly patting his cheeks.
At his first touch of the Englishman’s skin, Lebeau froze. He was burning up. But he wasn’t flushed. He must have lost so much blood…
“Louis,” Kinch called, concerned that the Frenchman wasn’t moving. “What’s going on? Is Newkirk…”
The American couldn’t finish his sentence, his throat growing tight at the thought that they must have gotten there too late to save their friend.
Lebeau wiped at his damp eyes with the back of his sleeve.
“It’s going to be all right,” he said, as much to reassure the sergeant as himself. “Take his legs, we have to get him out of here. And be careful of his wound.”
Kinch acknowledged, although the Frenchman couldn’t see his nod, and slipped into the hollow, passing his arms around Newkirk’s knees. It would have been easier to pull him out by the ankles, but he couldn’t risk reopening the pickpocket’s wound. Without even considering the pain that would certainly cause him.
If he woke up…
Twisting himself around as best he could in the narrow space, Lebeau managed to get behind Newkirk and to get on his knees, his back against the wall of the small cavern. The Englishman’s head rested on his shoulder, his ineffective breaths tickling his throat. Encircling the wounded man’s body with both arms, Lebeau waited for Kinch’s signal.
“On three,” the American directed. “One, two, three…”
Kinch pulled gently on Newkirk’s legs, trying the best he could to lift him to avoid dragging him roughly across the ground, while Lebeau worked his way forward on his knees with some difficulty, the Englishman’s back against his chest. Dragging his legs along the ground that way would certainly leave him with some bad scrapes, but that would be nothing compared to the rest of Newkirk’s very worrisome condition.
When the pickpocket’s body was almost entirely out, Kinch relieved Lebeau of the weight, getting a good hold on the Englishman’s arms to get him all the way out of the hollow, then laying him down on the damp grass.
Kinch began to examine his companion’s condition while Lebeau climbed out of the hole. At first glance, he had certainly lost a lot of blood, which wasn’t surprising given the nature of his wound. The fever was probably because of his weakened condition, due either to infection or the fact that Newkirk had found himself caught in a cold rain. It could also be due to all of those things combined…
Kinch took a knife out of his belt and started to cut away the cloth that kept him from getting a better idea of the Englishman’s injury, but Lebeau caught his arm.
“The blood has dried over the wound; if you try to take the bandage off, it will start to bleed again.”
That was true. He couldn’t even remove the rudimentary tourniquet that Newkirk had put on in order to apply a better one, at the risk of making things worse. All that the two prisoners could do was to get their friend back to the stalag as quickly as possible.
“Do you think we’re very far from camp?” Louis asked with hestitation.
He had followed Wolfgang and Kinch without really looking around at where he was going, only thinking about finding Newkirk. And now, he was afraid they were too far away.
“No. I don’t think Newkirk did it on purpose, but the camp can’t be more than twenty minutes away. In the dark, he must not have realized that he got turned around… Knowing the Gestapo was after him, he wouldn’t have wanted to take the risk of knowingly coming back to camp.”
The relief that he saw on the Frenchman’s face relieved a little bit of his own worry. They were going to take their friend back to camp and take care of him.
That was the plan.
“Help me get him on my back.”
The motion made Newkirk groan with pain. That reaction almost reassured Lebeau. Newkirk was still unconscious, but if he was reacting to pain at least he was still with them, fighting not to slip any further into the darkness.
They were ready to get started back when Wolfgang began to growl, his fur and his ears standing on end, his teeth bared, in the direction of some trees in the deep shadows. There was only one thing that could make the dog act like that.
Lebeau took up his weapon, ready to attack any German who put his friends’ lives in jeopardy.
“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” Carter said all of a sudden, breaking the heavy silence which had reigned in Barracks 2 ever since Kinch and Lebeau had left to look for Newkirk.
Most of the prisoners had gone back to bed, by order of their superior officer. But Hogan hadn’t had any luck convincing Carter that staying up would bring his friends back any faster; Carter was only doing what he had to do. He was waiting until he was sure Newkirk was all right and that his three friends had returned safe and sound. And also, he didn’t want the colonel to have to wait up alone.
So as not to disturb their sleeping companions, Hogan had invited Carter and Lackey to join him in his quarters. The Englishman clearly wasn’t able to relax enough to be able to get to sleep.
Carter was sitting at the desk, silent, lost in his thoughts. The colonel was lying on the top bunk, trying to relax a little bit, without much success. His constant tossing and turning made the whole structure move, reminding Captain Lackey who was sitting on the lower bunk just how much the American colonel thought of his men. Hogan had the mark of a true leader, loved and respected. As for himself, he had nothing more than a few bars attached to his uniform. And for the first time since the start of his career, Lackey was ashamed of what he had become.
The results of the young sergeant’s long reflection pulled both officers out of their own thoughts.
“How did you get surrounded by the Gestapo? I mean, you didn’t run across the Germans before. Right? Then how did they manage to surprise you from behind? It’s weird. At least, I think so.”
Seeing the captain’s expression, which practically screamed ‘Shut up!’, Carter tried to correct what he now thought had been a mistake.
“But I wasn’t there, I can’t really know…” he stammered, his eyes riveted on his folded hands.
Hogan sat up slowly on the bunk, letting his legs hang in mid-air as he fixed his sergeant with a piercing look.
“Actually, it’s far from being stupid,” he frowned, not daring to add “for a change”. “Without even considering the incredible coincidence that all those patrols converged on your position at the same time,” he added, jumping down from the bunk and facing the RAF captain for the second time that night.
“We stopped. To… to talk,” the captain admitted, ill at ease.
The honesty of his admission wasn’t going any farther; he omitted the uncomfortable part of the story.
“The soldiers probably heard us, and as the corporal and I were in the process of… arguing rather loudly, we didn’t hear them in time.”
“And General Eberhart was shot,” Hogan continued, not missing the way the captain looked away at the mention of the Nazi’s death.
He knew he was lying, only he didn’t know what about.
“Colonel!” Jones came in to interrupt them, dressed in pajamas, opening the door without even knocking and running into a chair in his haste. “Ow!”
“Are they back?” Carter asked, getting to his feet, passing the English soldier who nodded his head in affirmation, gritting his teeth and rubbing the toes of his bare foot.
Hogan followed the young sergeant closely, silently praying that Kinch and Lebeau had found Newkirk. They wouldn’t have come back so soon if that wasn’t the case. Unless they were only bringing back some bad news instead of the corporal.
With difficulty, Kinch climbed the ladder that led to Barracks 2, using one hand to hold onto Newkirk’s arms which hung over his shoulder. Behind him, Lebeau supported the Englishman, as much to prevent him from falling as to reduce the weight supported by the American sergeant. A sergeant who was relieved when there came a surge of other arms to take hold of the wounded man.
Several prisoners got a hold on Newkirk, laying him carefully on Carter’s bunk. Carter ran up beside him.
“Newkirk,” he called, giving him a shake that was a little rough. “Newkirk!”
Kinch caught him by the shoulders to guide him away from his friend.
“Go get Wilson.”
Carter cast a worried look at Newkirk’s motionless body and dove into the tunnel Lebeau had only just exited. Fortunately, Sergeant Wilson’s barracks was linked to theirs by their underground network; that would avoid having to explain to the guards why he was walking around the camp in the middle of the night, provided that the guards would actually ask that question before firing.
Hogan’s gaze was fixed on the sight of his corporal. Was he dead?
The other prisoners backed away to give him room to approach and he was relieved to realize that the corporal’s chest was going up and down with the rhythm of his respiration. Barely, but it was there. At least he was alive. But the colonel’s relief didn’t last long. He then focused on Newkirk’s blood-soaked leg, and couldn’t help wincing at the sight of all that blood.
That explained why Lebeau had turned his head. The French corporal was in the habit of turning away whenever he saw blood. He must have had an incredibly good grip on himself not to have passed out on their way back to the camp. Adrenaline had probably helped a good deal.
“He stepped in a wolf trap,” Kinch explained, pinching his lip as the memory of those bloodied iron teeth came back to his memory.
Hogan’s eyes widened in horror, a sentiment shared by the other men, snatches of concern being murmured amongst them. Everyone knew what that kind of trap looked like, and some had already had occasion to see the damage they could cause. It was a cruel hunting technique, breaking the legs of the animals caught in the traps and inflicting terrible suffering before death finally claimed them.
Unconsciously shaking his head to avoid thinking about the state of the Englishman’s leg, Hogan knelt next to his man and laid a hand on his forehead. He was as surprised as Lebeau at the contrast between the pallor of the wounded man’s skin and the heat that was emanating from it. He smoothed the Englishman’s hair with a paternal gesture, to reassure him. To reassure himself.
“Is he going to come out of this?” asked Jones, who had finally rejoined them, followed by Lackey whose expression was halfway between relief and horror.
Hogan looked, one by one, at the faces of each one of his men. They were all waiting for an answer. Only he didn’t have a single one.
At that instant, Sergeant Wilson burst from the tunnel. With the very first glance at his patient, he understood the seriousness of the situation.
“Colonel, we need to get him into your quarters.”
Hogan agreed silently.
The sergeant got his arms around the Englishman to lift him up. He wasn’t heavy; not heavy enough, actually.
Only Hogan’s team was authorized to follow them into the colonel’s quarters. It would have been impossible to keep them from entering anyway. Nevertheless, they remained at a certain distance, leaving Wilson enough room to do his work.
“I’m going to need some hot water, not boiling, and some dry clothes. His are soaked,” the medic called out.
Lebeau immediately left the room.
“Okay,” continued Sergeant Wilson, “I need some help to get his clothes off. How long has he been unconscious? Has he woken up at all?”
He gently lifted the Englishman’s eyelids to check the reactivity of his pupils. At least, he wasn’t in a coma.
“When we found him he was already unconscious. I thought that he woke up a few times when we were on our way back to camp. He murmured a few things that I couldn’t make out.”
“Did you have any trouble?” Hogan asked.
“A patrol almost had us,” the sergeant admitted. “Luckily, Wolfgang started to run the other way. They must have heard him and they followed him; we were able to get back to camp with no problem thanks to him.”
“I’m going to make him up a nice meal when he gets back to camp,” remarked Lebeau, who had just returned with some white pajamas and some clean sheets. “I thought it would be better to cover his wound than his… nightshirt,” he explained. “Olsen had two. Don’t ask me where he found this one.”
“Sergeant Carter, you can help me remove his things,” Wilson requested, welcoming with gratitude the clean clothes that the Frenchman held out to him.
He preferred not to ask Lebeau to help. He was already having enough trouble not turning away every time his gaze accidentally fell on Newkirk’s bloodied leg.
Sergeant Carter, who hadn’t yet breathed a single word and had stayed seated with his back to the wall ever since they’d come into Colonel Hogan’s quarters, nodded silently, and stepped up to the head of the bed, next to the doctor. Carefully, following Wilson’s instructions, he got an arm behind his unconscious friend to get his head and shoulders up a little bit, using his other hand for support.
The young man seemed completely disengaged from what he was doing. When he’d seen Newkirk lying on his bunk, he’d been afraid he was dead, and even now, it was hard for him to believe that he was really still alive. His respiration was so shallow, his skin so pale.
Hogan frowned at the sight of the conscientious yet cold expression on his young sergeant as he helped the medic get Newkirk’s clothes up over his head. The boy had been wracked by worry all evening and now that his friends had returned, his worry, instead of easing, had only grown worse. He was trying to hide his fear behind a mask of concentration, but, and Hogan knew this quite well, such a mask could never stay in place for very long.
It wasn’t long before he had the proof.
They all knew that the wound on Newkirk’s leg wouldn’t be pretty. But still, they hadn’t been expecting the mass of bruises that covered the corporal’s body. Everyone remained silent at the sight of the dark marks until an uncontrollable sob pulled them out of their shock.
Carter rubbed his sleeve across his eyes but it was too late; everyone had seen the tears.
“It’s not very pleasant to look at but there’s probably no more than one broken rib,” Wilson tried to reassure him gently, after having gently palpated the Englishman’s ribcage, where the tender spots reacted reflexively to the unwelcome touch.
Carter, still supporting his friend, was more reassured by that movement than by Wilson’s words. He swallowed his tears, trying to concentrate on Newkirk, sitting down on the bunk to let the Englishman’s head rest against him to let the doctor more easily examine the marks.
“How could this have happened?” Hogan was trying to understand while Wilson examined the bruises and the several cuts that covered the Englishman’s chest and arms.
“Oh mon dieu,” Lebeau suddenly realized, remembering the place where Kinch had prevented him from falling when they’d lost Wolfgang’s trail, and the German shepherd waiting for them down below. If he had really fallen down that hillside as the bruises suggested, he was lucky he hadn’t broken his neck.
“Louis?” The colonel wanted a few more details.
Kinch, who had realized the same thing as the Frenchman, answered instead. “When we were following Newkirk, the dog led us to a really steep slope. We nearly broke our necks getting down. He must have slipped… I never even thought about that…”
His sergeant looked angry at himself for not having realized the extent of Newkirk’s injuries, and Hogan reassured him with a pat on the shoulder.
“The important thing is that you’re all here. Alive,” he added, with particular attention to Carter who had turned his moist eyes away from his commanding officer.
At that moment, someone knocked on the door and Jones entered with a bowl of hot water. Lebeau took it from him and responded to his concerned look with a smile that he hoped was somewhat reassuring. The British soldier threw a quick look in the wounded corporal’s direction but didn’t stay, not wanting to disturb anyone.
“A broken rib. No internal bleeding,” Wilson stated, thanking God for that much. The corporal had obviously already lost enough blood without that complication. “I’ll get a bandage on it later. The important thing to get him warm and take care of that leg. Colonel?”
Hogan approached at the medic’s request, waiting for him to finish getting the Englishman’s shoes off before kneeling beside him, his eyes fixed on the blood that soaked the dark fabric of his pants. It took a whole lot of blood for black pants to take on that shade of red.
“Good. I’m going to keep pressure under his knee to avoid any more bleeding. We’ll have to cut his pants off to expose the wound,” the sergeant said as he removed the bandage that Newkirk had wrapped around his leg as a tourniquet.
The American colonel took the knife Kinch held out to him and began to cut the fabric. Meticulously, trying to ignore the damp stickiness of blood on his fingers. The blood clung to the folds of cloth. Hogan tried to pull it away but regretted it immediately; the motion made Newkirk writhe in pain.
Carter held the Englishman’s arms to prevent him from moving around. It wouldn’t really be the best moment to wake up. He felt his friend’s body tremble against his own and put his arms around the Englishman’s chest to try and reassure him, being careful not to press against his ribs. Newkirk groaned in his sleep, unconsciously trying to get himself out of the young sergeant’s grasp.
Lebeau stepped forward to help him calm their friend, passing a damp cloth over the Englishman’s forehead, gently wiping away the sweat that beaded on his pale skin, smoothing his hair with his free hand. The gesture seemed to calm Newkirk down and he finally relaxed, letting the colonel and the doctor to keep doing what they had to do.
“Soak a cloth in some water; that should help,” Wilson suggested to his superior, who did so, not without a bit of hesitation.
He didn’t want to hurt Newkirk any more than he was hurt already.
The effect of the hot water made it easier to get the cloth away from his skin, giving them all a painfully clear look at the bleeding gash.
Kinch caught Lebeau, who seemed to have forgotten that he couldn’t stand the sight of blood, in mid-faint. The American helped the Frenchman sit down and laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder. It was hard to blame him; that gash was really difficult to look at. Even Hogan had broken into a cold sweat, but he kept carefully running the wet cloth over the deep, bloody marks, looking away only as much as he dared.
In spite of Newkirk’s attempts to limit the damage, the steel teeth had literally shredded the flesh. The wound was very deep; the jaws had surely reached the bone and the pain that had resulted had to have been incredible.
After having removed the black pants that the Englishman habitually wore on missions and which were definitely ruined, Wilson cleaned the wound with water first, then with a little disinfectant that he had on hand. There was finally at least a little good news: the wound didn’t appear to be infected. At the moment.
The corporal’s fever was probably due mostly to his state of shock and to have had to stay in those wet clothes in such an icy wind. Nothing they couldn’t handle. No. What really concerned Wilson, other than the leg, was the considerable loss of blood caused by the deep gash.
“I’m going to have to stitch up the wounds to make sure he doesn’t lose any more blood,” Wilson explained. “You might want to wait outside.”
His advice was directly addressed to Lebeau, who seemed to be so dizzy that he was having trouble not sliding out of his chair. But the Frenchman wasn’t his only concern; Wilson mostly wanted a little calm in order to care for his patient, and with all these fellows half-dead with worry around him, that wasn’t going to be easy.
“I want to stay,” Carter said in a small voice that even Wilson, who was sitting right next to him, had trouble hearing.
Hogan didn’t have the heart to refuse. The young man was probably sure Newkirk could die if he even took his eyes off him for a second. Did he feel guilty over something? Because he had absolutely nothing to reproach himself about.
At any rate, Wilson was going to need some help, and Carter could probably handle that.
“Colonel. Roll call’s in an hour,” Kinch intervened, while helping Lebeau get on his feet. “We’ll need to do something about Newkirk.”
With all that, Hogan had nearly forgotten that they were in a POW camp. He nodded and opened the door that separated his quarters from the rest of the barracks. Kinch led Lebeau out of the room and Hogan followed. He would have preferred to stay by his corporal, but he had some thinking to do.
Newkirk was critically injured, and what Wilson could do for him wasn’t going to be enough. Without even considering the total failure of the mission. With Eberhart dead, he was going to have to manipulate Klink and maybe even the Gestapo.
What more could be asked of him?