:: :: Indicates spoken German this time since I can't get anything else to work.
The geography has been made up.
Later that evening, Hogan's door flew open and his men poured into his quarters. The unexpected intrusion startled him, causing him to inadvertently scrawl a jagged line across the letter he was writing to his mother.
"You've got to . . ."
Their voices trailed off as his scowl registered upon them. With a slow, deep breath, Hogan sat back, put down his pencil and wordlessly beckoned them all the way inside. Carter surged forward first, unable to contain his excitement.
"We know who he is! We know his name and how he got so beat up and how he got where we found him and --"
"Whoa, Carter!" Hogan stood, his irritation already forgotten. "How did you get him to talk?"
"Oh, he's still not talking, Guv'nor." Newkirk's blue eyes were dancing with good humor.
Hogan made eye contact with Kinch over Newkirk's shoulder. Kinch grinned back at him, while LeBeau practically bounced from foot to foot beside Carter.
"All right," Hogan chuckled. "Quit dragging out the suspense, fellas. Start at the beginning."
"Sorry, sir," Kinch said, still grinning. "Hochstetter called Klink to add a widow's name to the list for the Widows and Orphans Fund--"
"Jack's, I assume."
"His name's Colonel Niklas Cullen," Carter blurted. "His wife's name is Lea and his kids' names are Paul, Lukas, and Maria."
"He wasn't beaten up," LeBeau said, picking up the story next. "Hochstetter told Klink that Cullen's staff car went over the side of the Reinhard bridge into the river. It looked like the driver lost control for some reason."
"The car ended up on its roof, with only the tires peeking out of the water," Newkirk went on. "They found the driver's body downstream, hung up in some tree roots. Hochstetter thought he must have died in the accident and the current washed him out of the car."
"They think Cullen died in the accident, too, and that his body was taken further downstream because they never found it. Hochstetter doubts they ever will." Kinch's smile was gone now. The other men were just as serious, their mood a sharp contrast to their earlier jubilation. Hogan waited, already knowing what was coming.
"Colonel," Carter hesitantly began. "Jack's car fell off that bridge and then he almost drowned. But he survived them both and even as smashed up as he was –as he is – he made it out of the river and nearly two whole clicks before he passed out where we found him."
"Blind," Kinch murmured. "He got that far totally blind."
Newkirk's gaze lost focus, as if he were visualizing the laborious journey. "Can't imagine it," he muttered, shaking his head. His gaze sharpened and lifted to meet Hogan's. "Can't imagine after all that turning him over to London, either. There's got to be a way to get him back to his wife and little ones, Guv'nor."
LeBeau softly cleared his throat. "I agree, mon colonel."
Kinch said nothing, simply cast his vote with a nod.
With an arched eyebrow and the faintest of grins, Hogan quoted, " 'In that whole woods, with all the paths we could have taken to get back here, we walked by that exact spot.' "
Carter's smile could have lit all of Hammelburg. "And we found him."
Hogan suddenly went to his bunk and pulled off the false top to one the bunk's posts. He reached inside, pulled out a rolled up map and spread it upon his desk. The men joined him, pressing close around the desk.
"Okay," Hogan said, skimming his finger over the map's surface to a particular spot. "the accident happened here, right?"
LeBeau folded his arms upon the desk and leaned in. "Oui."
Carter slid his finger from that spot across the map to another. "We found Jack – Colonel Cullen -- right here. Or thereabouts."
Kinch shook his head as he stared down at the map. "Lucky son of a gun."
Newkirk gauged the distance between Hogan's finger and Carter's. "Probably his middle name."
Carter's nose wrinkled. "Niklas 'Lucky' Cullen? Doesn't sound like something a German would name their kid."
Newkirk reached over and cuffed Carter on the back of the head.
Hogan braced his elbow on the desk and rested his chin in his hand. Only his eyes moved as he studied the map, his gaze sweeping back and forth from one spot to another. He brought his finger to rest over a dark spot on the map. "Look at this."
Kinch cocked his head to get a better look. "The cave we found a couple of months ago?"
"Yeah. We knock Cullen out, take him there and leave him. We make it look like the cave had been our temporary base, and that we abandoned it in a hurry. When he wakes up, he'll think that's where he's been the whole time."
"It's perfect!" Carter cried, grinning ear to ear.
Newkirk slapped him on the back. "Made to order, mate."
Kinch took a deep breath and rocked back on his heels. "It'll take quite a bit of stuff to pull it off."
"We'll need Schnitzer's truck." Hogan started rolling up the map. "Let's get going. We need to do this fast and we need to do it right. But our first order of business . . ." Hogan shared a smile with his men. "is to tell London the pick up is off."
HH HH HH HH
Hogan unfolded the cot and set it up near a slight depression in the cave wall. Satisfied that the cot was level and steady, he looked back and nodded. "Bring him on over."
Kinch and Newkirk, carrying Cullen's limp body between them, came forward and carefully laid him on the cot. Hogan tied him down, making certain the ropes were tight, but not so tight that Cullen couldn't free himself with a few hours of work. Once he was done, Carter covered Cullen with several blankets and tucked a pillow beneath his head. Under the influence of O'Malley's sedative, Cullen slept through the whole process, as he had during the trip from Stalag 13 to the cave.
Carter stared down at him, worry wrinkling his brow. "You're sure he'll be okay?"
"He'll be right as rain," Newkirk sighed, not hiding his irritation at hearing the question for the fourth time.
Carter glanced around, chewed at his lower lip. The cave was, as Newkirk had said, 'made to order'. The entrance was a low, shallow cut in the rockface, hidden by a thick screen of carefully woven branches. Once past the narrow opening, the cave widened into a chamber big enough to hold a tank. Beyond that, the ceiling gradually lowered while the floor dropped in a series of natural terraces, creating a stair-case effect. At the base of the rock stairs, the cave sent out three fingers of varying sizes. The largest finger was the first from the right. It was approximately ten feet wide, with a generous seven foot ceiling, and traveled over one hundred feet before ending in a small, oval-shaped cavern. This was where they had brought Cullen. The middle finger was the smallest. Only three feet wide by four feet tall at its mouth, it rapidly narrowed down to a claustrophobic two feet wide by foot and a half tall. No one knew how far it went from that point or if it got any larger, since no one had the desire to explore it any further to find out. The remaining finger was only twenty feet long, but it was four feet wide and boasted a fairly comfortable six foot ceiling.
"Get to work, fellas," Hogan ordered. "Remember, make it look like we got spooked and didn't have a chance to take everything." He placed a small stool next to the cot, then kicked it over and let it roll to rest against the cot.
Carter put a wooden bucket against the wall and pulled a canteen from his jacket. The water went into the bucket. A dampened rag draped over the bucket's edge completed the illusion.
Kinch soon returned from another part of the cave. Cobwebs adorned his shoulders and clung to his knit cap like a fine, gray mist. "We cleared out everything important and scattered some false papers all along this passage. It looks like we dropped them as we ran out. Newkirk's leaving some of broken ammo cases around and LeBeau's setting up the food and water cache."
Hogan finished his final task by dumping a cup, plate and some food just inside the room's entrance. "Good."
Kinch sneezed and brushed the cobwebs from his shoulders. "Seems kind of a shame we won't be able to use this place like we'd planned."
"Yeah," Hogan agreed, then looked across the area at Carter, keeping watch over Cullen. "But it's worth it." He turned as Newkirk and LeBeau walked back into the room. Both were empty-handed and wore self-satisfied expressions.
"Done," Newkirk proclaimed, slapping dirt from his clothing. LeBeau coughed, waved at the dust.
"All right, then." Hogan nodded toward the tunnel beyond. "Let's get out of here."
Carter slowly brought up the rear. Hogan fell back and gently pushed him onward.
"Our work's done here, Carter. Time for his other guardian angel to pick up the reins again."
A grin erased the tension from Carter's face. "Yes, sir."
HH HH HH HH
One month later.
"I don't think this is a good idea," Carter protested. Newkirk merely gave him one of his sunnier smiles, winked, and pushed open the door to the Hofbrau. "This isn't a good idea." Carter repeated in a weary tone to the stars. Pulling his cap down tighter on his head, he followed his friend inside.
Loud accordion music battered at Carter's ears, making him wince. Squinting from both the noise and the smoke making his eyes burn, he sought out Newkirk's distinct brown cap. The crowd a smoke made it hard to see. He moved further into the crowd and breathed a sigh of relief when Newkirk leaned out of a booth and waved to get his attention. Carter wondered how Newkirk had managed to get one of the booths. With their high-backed benches, each one formed a cozy little nook, offering a semblance of privacy. Carter waved back and gingerly started moving again, taking care not to step on any toes along the way.
"This is NOT a good idea!" Carter huffed, sliding across the bench and into the booth.
"It's only one beer." Newkirk drank deeply from his stein and came up with a foamy mustache. He licked the foam away with obvious enjoyment and lightly thumped his chest with his fist, releasing a belch. "That's the trouble with you lately. You haven't had any fun. Not a smidge. Just work, work, work. Got to take some time off to unwind, Andrew." He looked toward the bar, got the buxom barmaid's attention, and raised his stein into the air. Her eyes flicked to Carter, noting the additional customer. A few moments later, she set a stein down in front of Carter.
:: I didn't ask for this, :: Carter called after her, pointing to the frothy beer.
"Have at it." Newkirk pushed the stein closer to Carter, leaving a trail of moisture on the table. "Do you some good."
There was no dealing with Newkirk when he set his mind to something. Carter carefully picked up the overly full stein and slurped off the foam. Newkirk beamed at him from across the table, produced another wet belch.
"It's a marvelous thing, isn't it?"
"What --" Carter coughed into his fist as some of the foam went down the wrong way. "What's marvelous?"
Newkirk waved his stein through the air. "This. It's nice getting away for a time."
Carter gave the room a quick glance. "It'd be nicer if the fellas were here, too."
Newkirk's happy smile fell away. "Ah, now don't go ruining the mood."
Carter drank his beer, kept a wary eye on the part of the crowd that he could see. Newkirk settled down to his own beer and a comfortable silence fell between them. A few minutes went by and then Newkirk set his empty stein down on the table with a thump and gave Carter a narrow look.
"What's going on in that head of yours?"
"Nothing." Carter finished off his beer, grimaced as a belch snuck past his manners. "S'cuse me."
"Don't be telling me 'nothing.' You've been moping about for the last week now, quiet as a church mouse."
"I have not," Carter shot back, absently toying with his stein's handle.
They glared at each other across the table and burst into laughter at the exact same moment.
"Couple of adults, we are," Newkirk chuckled, absently tracing water rings on the table.
Carter studied the table's top. "You're right."
Newkirk looked up, one eyebrow raised, silently encouraging him on. His finger continued tracing the water rings, spreading the moisture into fat, donut shapes.
"I can't help wondering . . ." Carter shook his head and sighed. "I hope he's okay and that he got back to his family."
"Bank on both." Newkirk smiled. "Had an iron will to live, that one did."
Carter grinned, feeling almost proud of all Cullen had overcome to survive. "He did, didn't he?"
Newkirk's expression suddenly went blank, his gaze fixing upon something behind and to Carter's right. A black sleeve slid into in Carter's side vision and he nervously licked his lips. There was no mistaking that particular uniform. His gaze traveled slowly up the arm and past the shoulder to the face above. A pair of brown eyes locked with his and the Gestapo colonel nodded politely.
:: Gentlemen. :: The smooth, cultured voice gave away no hint of emotion.
Something in the way the German was staring at him made Carter take a hard look at the man's face. With dawning hope, he tried picturing the youthful features swollen and bruised. His gaze suddenly fixed upon a scar running along one of the officer's cheekbones. It was slightly shiny, leading Carter to believe it was fairly new.
Newkirk respectfully tipped his cap. Good evening, Colonel. ::
A hard kick to Carter's shin broke his focus; Newkirk's warning to say something or risk offending the Gestapo officer.
:: Sir, :: Carter nodded, going so far as to remove his cap.
:: Would you like this booth, Colonel? :: Newkirk started to get out.
The officer's hand went up in a halting gesture. :: Stay and enjoy yourselves. :: He hesitated, adding, : Everyone should have the chance to relax. ::
Carter and Newkirk clearly heard the slight emphasis the German put upon the last word. Stunned, they watched a faint smile warm his expression. Carter's gaze fastened upon a second, thinner scar. It bisected one of the officer's dark eyebrows, very near the bridge of his slightly crooked nose.
:: I was also enjoying a beer, :: the colonel continued, indicating the booth behind Carter. when I overheard your voices and thought you were someone I knew. I see now that I was wrong. I'll leave you to your business and return home to my family. I apologize for interrupting. Good evening. :: He took a few steps away from the table, halted, and looked back over his shoulder. Carter's breath caught as the brown eyes bore into his own with startling intensity.
:: It was a pleasure visiting with you. Should we ever have the chance to meet again. . . :: a brilliant smile broke upon the German's face and Carter found himself returning it in full. :: My friends call me . . . Jack. ::
"No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted."
--Aesop (620 BC), The Lion and the Mouse
Thank you for reading.
Written in memory of Larry Hovis (Feb. 20, 1936 - Sept. 9, 2003), and for Marilyn Penner, one of his many, many fans.