Chapter 7 : Like an unchained wolf
Like an Unchained Wolf
Until that point, everything had gone as planned. The Germans hadn’t been able to cross the road ravaged by the ‘bombing’, and had chosen to turn around and go East. Who would have been able to predict that the second route would also be impassable? With the exception of those responsible, of course.
Three of those responsible were concealing themselves next to the road, attentively watching the reactions of the German soldiers who were getting out of their trucks to evaluate the damage and their chances of getting through. Hogan smiled, satisfied at the turn of events. For once, everything was proceeding according to plan. He was a bit concerned about General Eberhart’s reaction. The man was unpredictable and intelligent. Dangerous combination.
At the moment, the Gestapo general was kneeling in front of one of his trucks, running his fingers over the ground that had been torn up by the explosions, his eyebrows drawn tightly together. He suspected something, that was for sure, but trying to figure it out prevented him from seeing the two men discreetly approaching him from behind one of the trucks.
Dressed in Gestapo uniforms, Hogan and Olsen had waited until most of the soldiers had left before they went into action. They approached the second truck nonchalantly, the last of the convoy, doing their best to conceal their faces, slipping their helmets down over their eyes and keeping their backs turned to the Germans as much as possible.
Casually, Hogan tapped the ground with his food. He stopped two meters away from the truck and gave a silent order to Olsen, staying close to the truck, who nodded before heading towards the front of it.
“Hey, mein Freund. Solltest du etwas zurückschieben. The other one might run into you when it’s turning around,” Olsen explained to the driver, hoping that the guy wouldn’t realize that he wasn’t actually one of their number and would agree to back up his truck a little bit.
While Olsen had the driver’s attention, Lebeau came forward, then disappeared underneath the truck’s canopy.
Following Olsen’s directions, the German driver backed up a few meters, and stopped right on the spot where Hogan had posted himself, thus involuntarily protecting the American’s actions from prying eyes, including his own.
Olsen stayed not far from the front of the truck to watch the actions and gestures of the Germans who were waiting for their general to make a decision. The American shuddered as he noticed that Eberhart had his eyes fixed on the truck that had just backed up. He was afraid for an instant that the man had realized that something funny was going on, but fortunately the German’s attention was diverted by one of his men. The soldier, standing watch, reported to his superior that they wouldn’t be able to get through on that road until it had been repaired.
Realizing how little time they had, Lebeau and Hogan got busy at their own task of recovering as much as they could. With one small movement of his heel on the ground, Hogan opened a small trapdoor hidden in the middle of the road. He tossed everything Lebeau handed him into that small underground cavity. They couldn’t allow themselves to take entire crates; the Germans would notice that immediately. The Frenchman opened a few of the cases to take some samples. Documents, mostly, but also two reels of film. He shivered at the thought of what those must contain. Interrogations of members of the French Resistance. Interrogations… a very nice word to describe the atrocities the Gestapo was capable of.
He didn’t allow himself to be distracted, and kept passing documents along to the colonel until Olsen rejoined them at the back of the truck to let them know that the Germans were turning around. In a few seconds, the three men had left the area, sliding back into the brush, invisible to the eyes of the Germans who were getting back into their trucks, completely unaware of the underground cache they were tramping over as they passed.
General Eberhart hesitated before getting back into the truck that Hogan and his men had just relieved of some of its cargo. He shifted his gaze towards the trees and brush that bordered the road, pausing at the very spot where Hogan, Lebeau and Olsen were hiding. All three instinctively held their breath, knowing without a doubt that that wouldn’t help them if the German had actually seen them.
To their great relief, that wasn’t the case, and the general finally got back into the truck, but without losing his suspicious demeanor.
The man was far from an idiot. Sooner or later, he would figure it out.
“That guy gives me the creeps,” admitted Corporal Lebeau in a low voice, although all trace of danger had passed.
“I feel exactly the same way,” Olsen muttered.
In the same motion, the two men, still lying flat on the grass, one to the left and one to the right of their colonel, turned towards the latter to ask him what he thought about Eberhart. They didn’t have to ask the question. The sparkle in their superior’s eyes, accented by his sly smile, was enough for them. The colonel liked a challenge. And this was a big one.
Eberhart was both dangerous and brilliant. But Hogan was as well, even more so. Brilliant, he didn’t have to prove anymore. Dangerous, yes, he was. Mostly to the enemy, but also to his own men. One only had to look at how his plans sometimes turned out…
All that Lebeau and Olsen could hope for at that moment was that the plan that was forming in the colonel’s imagination would be more dangerous for the Germans than for them…
“Gin!” Carter exclaimed, proud of himself, placing his last cards on the table.
Kinch, who had several more cards in his hand, sighed and wrote the points down on a slip of paper.
“We could always play another game for a change,” he suggested. “Poker doesn’t appeal to you?”
“Nah, why?” asked the young sergeant, failing to understand. “I’m winning, let’s keep going.”
Right, thought Kinch. Right. Without a lot of conviction, he dealt the cards. Carter had incredible luck at this game. With the exception of when he played against Newkirk, but there was nothing so surprising about that. The British corporal rarely lost when it came to cards, no matter what the game.
“Hey! That’s funny,” Andrew remarked, observing the cards that had just been dealt to him by his opponent.
It didn’t take Kinch long to understand what was so funny when Carter laid all his cards out on the table one by one. Four twos and a run of six hearts…
Kinch’s face fell. To have that much luck was impossible. If his opponent had been Newkirk, he would have expected some kind of a trick. But Carter? Cheating? No. His innocent smile as he collected the cards confirmed it ; Andrew was quite simply incapable of cheating.
A barely perceptible cracking sound broke the silence that followed Carter’s incredible stroke of luck. The two sergeants turned around with the same motion towards the entrance of the tunnel, but the bunk that lifted remained motionless. Kinch frowned and asked his companion:
“How long ago did Newkirk go down?”
Taking in Kinch’s anxious gaze, Carter quickly understood where he was going, worry also washing over him in turn. They never should have let Newkirk go down into the tunnel alone.
“It’s been at least ten minutes,” the young sergeant said with hesitation.
Ten minutes was a long time. Long enough for something to go out of whack. And their Englishman was the king of putting things out of whack.
The two sergeants sprang up from their chairs, sending them crashing to the floor. They launched themselves towards the tunnel, a terrible presentiment gripping their throats and guts. They should have known. Newkirk wasn’t alone in the tunnel…
The muffled noises that reached them as soon as they set foot on the tunnel floor confirmed their fears. The sounds were coming from the section of the tunnel where they had set up guest quarters.
The two of them paused for an instant in front of the scene that unfolded in front of them. Debris that had once been a wooden chair lay strewn on the floor, leaving no doubt as to the origins of the crashing noise the two Americans had heard from upstairs.
The RAF captain was lying on his back, near his bunk, stunned and incapable of making the slightest motion as Newkirk, on top of his superior officer, punched him furiously in the face. Again and again, his fingers stained with red.
The sickening crunch of Lackey’s nose snapped Kinch and Carter out of their stunned state. Kinch caught the British corporal around the shoulders, lifting him up to get him off the captain, while Carter knelt next to the officer to reassure himself that the man was still alive. An unintelligible groan confirmed that was the case, and he sighed with relief.
“Carter!” Kinch called, unable to calm Newkirk who continued to struggle like a madman.
He tightened his hold on the Englishman as well as he could manage, taking without a flinch the blows that his friend was involuntarily inflicting upon him as he struggled to break the hold.
“Calm down, Peter. It’s me, Kinch. Good god, don’t you think you’ve done enough damage?”
At these words, the Englishman relaxed a little as if he had just realized the situation. He froze, shocked by the sight of his former instructor lying on the floor, his face bloodied.
“Newkirk?” Carter called, more worried by the sudden silence than by the excess of violence that had come before. “Newkirk?” he tried again, without any more success, cautiously approaching the Englishman who had lowered his eyes.
Without even reminding himself that there was a good chance Newkirk wouldn’t appreciate the gesture, the young sergeant rested a hand under his chin to force him to look him in the eye. He immediately bit down on his lip, his heart rending at the lost expression of the man he had always looked up to as a role model. Those eyes had lost all their fight, and Carter realized that they were abnormally red. Had he been crying?
The look lasted no more than a fraction of a second; Newkirk regained his senses at the same moment that Kinch relaxed his hold. His demeanor changed completely, more closely resembling the one that his friends knew. But it was nothing but an awkward mask, an imaginary barrier set up between him and the rest of the world.
The gaze that met Carter’s then had become calm again, too calm, and that made the young American shiver.
“I think I did something stupid,” the Englishman said simply, looking again in the direction of his superior officer sprawled on the ground.
There was no trace of regret in his tone and what he said next nailed his companions to the spot.
“The guv’nor isn’t gonna like this…”
And he smiled, as if what had just happened was nothing but one more joke to add to his repertoire.
When Captain Lackey of the RAF regained consciousness, he was still lying on the ground. Alone. He raised himself up with difficulty, the pain making his head spin. Gently, he probed his face to evaluate the damage.
To the back of his head, the sticky blood that clung to his fingers indicated to him that he must have struck a rock when the corporal had jumped on top of him. Considering the pain that spread through his jaw and his apparently broken nose, his loss of consciousness hadn’t stopped the cockney from continuing.
To lose it like that with a superior officer. That only served to confirm what Lackey had always thought of Newkirk. He didn’t belong in the army. He was aware of having provoked him but that didn’t excuse his violent reaction in any way. He would pay for that.
Lackey stood up painfully to then sit down on his mattress, reeling with nausea that he fought to control. That was a sign of a probable concussion.
The voice made him jump a bit. He hadn’t seen Sergeant Kinchloe approaching. He was happy to see that his visitor had brought along a first aid kit. The American seemed concerned, but Lackey figured that that concern had less to do with his wounds than his aggressor. In a way, the RAF captain admired the incredible bond that seemed to exist between the men of this stalag, but that didn’t change anything about his feelings toward Newkirk. Especially not after what had just happened.
“I hope you’re going to take the necessary measures, Sergeant,” he said while Kinch blotted carefully at his wounds with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball.
“That’s not my job. Colonel Hogan is responsible for the men in this camp,” the American replied in a neutral tone.
In spite of Kinchloe’s detached demeanor, it wasn’t difficult to decode his thoughts. As far as he was concerned, Lackey wasn’t the victim. And that was in spite of the fact that he knew nothing of his shared past with Newkirk.
That idea made the captain sigh in spite of himself. He didn’t understand the faith that everyone seemed to have in Newkirk. Even before, when he’d been under his command, he had always seemed to be able to draw others to him, and still, Lackey couldn’t understand the reason. To him, the corporal had always been nothing but a liar and a goldbrick. An insolent thief, who had just added violence to his resumé.
In spite of the sun that was already quite high in the sky, and thanks to the inattention caused by the Gestapo’s return to Stalag 13, Hogan, Lebeau and Olsen could use the emergency tunnel without a problem. The guards were too busy watching the Gestapo trucks that were passing through the gates to be concerned with what could be happened just a few feet away from the barbed wire.
Everything had gone as Hogan had planned, right down to the minute, which had put him in a particularly good mood. That wasn’t going to last long. The three men had barely had time to exchange their German uniforms for those of their own respective armies when an RAF captain stormed in,, his face badly swollen and his nose in lamentable condition. Behind the Englishman, an extremely ill-at-ease Kinch shifted from one foot to the other with his gaze fixed firmly on his feet.
“The best man you’ve got, eh?” the captain remarked snidely, recalling the conversation he and Hogan had had earlier in the day.
The U.S. Air Corps colonel didn’t answer, but turned towards his sergeant, who was avoiding having to make any eye contact with his superior officer as much as possible. The colonel rarely got angry, but when it did happen…
“Where is he?” Hogan demanded coldly, snapping out each word, the tone of his voice making each one of his men shudder with apprehension.