Our timing has to be perfect.
Baker shifted, trying to relieve a cramp that had set into his foot. Music from the German's radio broadcast played in his earphones. So far, all had gone according to Kinch's plan. They had tapped into Stalag 13's PA system, Maddux had managed to 'borrow' Klink's record collection and Jones had brought the phonograph from the rec hall.
Now comes the really tricky part.
Baker caught himself nibbling at his thumbnail and stuffed his hand into his trouser pocket. Distracted by the movement, Kinch glanced up, his eyes slightly pinched in pain. Baker reached into his shirt pocket for the aspirin he had put there earlier.
"Here," he said quietly, dumping the tablets onto his friend's palm. "They'll help with that headache."
Kinch did not dispute the observation. He tossed the aspirin back, chasing them down with a sip of lukewarm coffee. Baker released a long sigh, lifted and flexed his cramping foot. The aspirin had served a double purpose: to take the edge off of Kinch's headache and to possibly ease his friend's sore throat. Baker had seen the winces and heard the soft throat clearing. The prolonged time in the damp tunnel and the lack of rest had done their damage. Kinch's illness was on the rebound, just as O'Malley had feared. As if hearing his thoughts, Kinch looked up again, a faint smile tugging at his mouth.
"I promise to go right to bed as soon as we have them back safe."
"You promise," Baker echoed, unable to hide the doubt in his voice.
Kinch nodded and went back to reading the script he had written in record time. His lips moved, mouthing the words, preparing for his performance.
"You sure you can do this?" Baker asked him, worried by the growing rasp in his friend's voice.
"I could have," Carter interrupted in mild protest. He stood with LeBeau, the phonograph on the table before them. In the light cast by the bare bulb, both showed the ravages of their recent illness. LeBeau looked the worst, but had that stubborn jut to his jaw that boded ill for anyone who dared try and get him to leave. Carter's face was still drawn, but to Baker's relief, his blue eyes were bright and clear again. Olsen hung off to one side, uncharacteristically quiet and still, ready to fulfill his part of the charade.
"Your German is good, but not enough for a sustained performance like this, Carter," Kinch countered, softening his argument with a smile.
"But will your voice hold out?" Baker worried aloud, unable to let go his fears. Kinch's gaze shifted to him, filled with understanding.
Maddux skidded into the room, breathless from his rush from the barracks. "Paxton just saw the dog-guy's truck go by the front gate!" He whirled about, headed back into the tunnels at a run.
"His name's Schnitzer!" Carter called after him.
Baker and Kinch locked eyes. "They're in the woods."
"Show time," Olsen muttered, nervously fiddling with the microphone in his hand.
Kinch clutched the script a little tighter. "Are Jones and Lyons in position?"
"They'd better be," Baker shot back. His focus shifted, one hand rising to his earphones. "The song's almost over." He held up a finger, threw a warning glance at LeBeau, Carter and Olsen. "Get ready to segue."
Carter gave a sharp nod and put his hand on the lever that would allow them to cut into the broadcast. LeBeau switched the phonograph on and positioned its arm over Klink's copy of Deutchsland Über Alles.
Kinch coughed, grabbed for his coffee and took another drink. Stifling a sigh, Baker waggled his finger in the air, then added a second finger. Olsen brought the microphone to his lips. Baker extended a third finger. As all three fingers cut a downward slash through the air, Carter threw the lever.
"This is Radio Berlin – the Voice of the Vaterland," Olsen spoke in clear, precise German. "Stay tuned for a speech from the savior of Germany and leader of the Reich, our beloved Fuehrer. Heil Hitler!"
LeBeau gently lowered the needle to the vinyl disk. Olsen dipped his microphone toward it.
Outside, the camp's guards snapped to attention as Deutchsland Über Alles blared from the camp's loudspeakers.
HH HH HH HH HH
Just a little further. Almost there. Just keep moving. Almost home.
Newkirk pushed himself, dragging feet that felt like lead weights over the uneven ground, trying not to fall. It felt like years since Schnitzer had left them on the roadside, as close to Stalag 13 as they had dared. The process of getting everyone out of the truck and into the cover of the trees had felt never-ending. Newkirk's heart had been in his throat the whole time, his ears straining to catch any sound that might indicate an approaching vehicle. Finally, they were all out. Schnitzer tossed a wave out of the driver's window and drove away, leaving them to make the last leg of their journey on their own.
And speaking of legs, Newkirk thought, wincing. His were growing shakier by the minute. His body, apparently fed up with his continuing lack of sympathy, was ready to give out on him. The tickle in his throat had become a burn, and swallowing was something he was trying to avoid. The cough – when he lost the battle to contain it in Schnitzer's truck – had deepened to a barking sound. In the quiet woods, it would sound more like a foghorn, alerting the guards in Stalag 13's towers, "Escaped prisoners over here! Come and get 'em!"
A twig snapped under Tivoli's foot. They all flinched and froze in place. At the rate they were going and they noise they were making, the guards would have to be deaf not to hear them. They waited, but the sirens remained silent and no guards came crashing through the woods to surround them. With a collective sigh of relief, they pushed onward.
Tivoli and Hogan were laboring badly. The only reason the Italian was still on his feet was because Benson was keeping him there. Newkirk saw Benson's head tip toward Tivoli's, his mouth moving, probably offering a variation of the same words still running through Newkirk's mind.
Just a little further. Almost there. Just keep moving. Almost home.
Over the noise of his own raspy breathing, Newkirk heard Hogan's breath coming short and fast. His CO's profile was ashen and tense, his posture hunched, his footsteps dragging as much as Newkirk's.
"Almost there," Newkirk whispered aloud, as much for Hogan's benefit as his own.
"Yeah," Hogan whispered back. The place where he had bitten his lip had split open again, spilling fresh blood. Sweat darkened the collar of the shirt Josef had given him to replace the one Kurt had cut apart. Watching Hogan's eyes squeeze shut and his teeth clench in pain, Newkirk wondered if he would have to endure the sight of him collapsing again.
Hogan's eyes flew open and he pulled up, his head cocking in a listening pose.
"Do you hear that?"
Newkirk strained to hear. Faintly, through the trees came the sound of . . .
Benson and Tivoli had stopped and were listening, too. Benson looked back at Hogan and Newkirk, mouthing, "You hear it, too?"
"How ruddy marvelous," Newkirk muttered sarcastically, having suddenly recognized the tune. "It's the bloody Über Alles."
A grin briefly wiped the exhaustion from Hogan's face. "It's the guys. They're covering for us. Come on. Fast as you can."
Doggedly and with painful slowness, they moved on, toward the hidden entrance, their friends, safety – and sleep. The music grew louder as they approached, Newkirk fighting back cutting words in response to the German anthem.
HH HH HH HH HH
"Our mates had provided the perfect diversion for us. See, none of the guards could move lest someone see them and report them. Well, 'cause it was treason to be caught not hanging on every blee – every word that came out of ol' Hitler's mouth, Katie.You're right, Teddy,it wasn't Hitler giving that speech. It was our mate, Kinch. But the Krauts didn't know that. Kinch always could do a beautiful imitation of that frog-stepping, filthy-mouthed Kraut. Andrew could, too."
"See, with the Krauts standing like statues listening to Kinch rather than us stumbling and bumbling our way around, we had a good shot at getting into the tunnel without being seen or heard. Still, getting two badly injured, one-armed men down that hollowed out tree stump wouldn't be an easy task by far."
"But our mates had seen to that, too."
HH HH HH HH HH
There it was. The emergency entrance was directly ahead, bathed in sunlight.
Breathing heavily, sweat running down their faces, Hogan and Newkirk looked across the short distance separating them from Benson and Tivoli. Benson barely flicked a glance in their direction. His primary focus was upon Tivoli. The Italian was panting in pain, nearly out on his feet.
Hogan gritted his teeth, fighting not to make any sound and give away their position. His back and shoulder were on fire from unending, searing lances of pain. He was as close to collapse as Tivoli. Newkirk's assistance and whispered encouragement had helped keep him on his feet, but the Englishman was exhausted, too. Hogan was determined that the last of Newkirk's strength would not be used getting him into the tunnel. He would make it on his own if he had to drag himself there by his one good arm.
"Colonel?" Newkirk whispered, laying a hand on Hogan's arm and peering into his eyes. He nodded, offered a grin that probably looked more like a grimace.
The last bars of Deutschland Über Alles faded away and silence fell over the woods once more. A few seconds passed and then a raspy, strained voice floated through the trees.
Newkirk turned wide eyes to Hogan, mouthing, "That's Kinch!"
Hogan listened a few moments. Kinch was doing a good job of imitating Hitler – good enough, he hoped, to fool the Germans long enough for them to get inside.
Looking over at Benson and Tivoli, he signaled them to go for the tunnel. They had taken only a few steps when he frantically signaled them to stop, then made a sharp, palms down motion. Benson and Tivoli immediately went to their knees.
Hogan tugged on Newkirk's sleeve, then pointed into the trees off to their left. Newkirk looked that way, craning his neck to see without moving the rest of his body. His head whipped back toward Hogan, his eyes wide with alarm.
They were not alone.
One of Stalag 13's guards stood only a short distance away. He was at attention, facing away from them, but close enough to hear should they make too much noise.
Still keeping Tivoli relatively upright, Benson thrust his head toward Hogan, mouthing, "What do we do now?"
Hogan turned toward Newkirk, only to utter a fervent curse under his breath. The Englishman had left his side and was inching his way through the trees toward the guard.
What the --!
Hogan could only watch and worry while Newkirk silently slipped between two bushes and disappeared. He held his breath. And then, to his complete astonishment, he saw the guard suddenly jerk to one side with a startled squawk and disappear from view behind a thick copse of trees. Furious barking erupted followed by crashing and rustling that grew fainter as it moved further away from their position. Newkirk reappeared a few seconds later, wearing a triumphant grin.
"We owe Heidi a big, juicy bone," he whispered, returning to Hogan's side. "She's taken the guard for a long romp."
Hogan slapped him on the back. "Good job." He paused, listening. 'Hitler' was still speaking, his words coming faster, his voice growing more strident. Hogan turned and motioned to Benson, signaling him to proceed.
While Hogan and Newkirk watched, Benson half led, half carried Tivoli to the entrance and flipped the stump's lid open. Lyons head popped above the edge, startling everyone. Hogan saw him say something to Benson and Tivoli and then disappear below again. With Benson steadying him, Tivoli lifted his foot over the edge of the stump and eased it onto the ladder. Hogan held his breath while the Italian descended, hoping he would not hear the sound of a body hitting the ground. It did not come and he blew out a slow breath of relief. Lyons popped back into view moments later. After a quick, nervous check around, Benson urgently beckoned Hogan and Newkirk forward.
Hogan put his hand to the small of Newkirk's back and gently nudged him. "Go on."
Newkirk's expression hardened. "No, sir. You first."
"Go. That's an order." Hogan waved again to Benson, who was hovering anxiously over the entrance, eyes constantly sweeping their surroundings. "The sooner you get down there, the sooner I will, too."
Newkirk gave him a searching look. His mouth slowly relaxed into a smile. "See you below, Guv'nor."
Hogan's eyes followed his slow descent until he had passed below the stump's lip. By the time Lyons reappeared to let them know that Newkirk had gotten down safely, Hogandiscovered he could hardly move. His legs felt weaker than everand any attempts to move stoked the fire in his back.
Benson was suddenly crouched before him, brow creased in concern. "How about I help you, sir."
Hogan chuckled under his breath. "That's an offer I'm not going to refuse."
With Benson's assistance – and he needed a lot of it – Hogan made it to the stump. Lyons was waiting on the ladder, ready to lend his help. Between Benson's support from above and Lyons' from below, Hogan finally set foot on the tunnel's dirt floor. Black spots danced across his vision, the fire in his shoulder and back threatening to bring him to his knees. He stumbled and immediately felt someone carefully brace him up.
He turned his headtoward them, blinking to drive away the spots. A fuzzy face swam into focus. He searched for a name, mentally cursing the pain fogging his thoughts. Finally, it came to him.
Jones' face lit up with a blinding smile. "You're welcome, sir."
Maddux slipped up beside Jones, slapped him on the shoulder and jerked his head toward the tunnel beyond. "Let's go let Kinch know he can stop with all the racket." Almost as an afterthought, his gaze swung to Hogan, and he offered a nod in greeting. "Sir. Good to have you back."
Jones hesitated, his mouth opening to say something more, but another slap and pointed look from Maddux made him shut it. Together, they jogged back along the emergency tunnel.
Hogan suddenly realized that he had not heard Newkirk's distinctive voice among the others.
"Here, sir," came the Englishman's quick reply. He edged past Lyons, who backed past Benson and Tivoli and further along the tunnel, giving them more room. "Battered, bruised but bloody glad to be alive," Newkirk quipped, doffing an imaginary hat in Hogan's direction.
"I'm glad that's over," Benson muttered, keeping a sweating, white-lipped Tivoli upright against the tunnel wall.
"We made it," Hogan said, meeting and holding Tivoli's gaze. A chuckle slipped from the Italian's mouth as he laid his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. Even weak, his voice carried a rich undertone of satisfaction.
"We sure did." He opened heavy-lidded eyes to look back at Hogan. "Sir."
Newkirk slumped against the wall, suddenly feeling like the weight of the world had fallen from his shoulders. He looked around the tunnel and then back at Hogan, Benson and Tivoli, drinking in one fact, wishing he could shout it to the heavens.
"Yes, you are!" came Kinch's hoarse cry from further up the tunnel. Within seconds, the small space was crammed with bodies. Newkirk, Benson, Tivoli and Hogan could only stand and soak up their friends' happiness, letting their own smiles speak for them. Finally, Hogan lifted his good hand, feebly waved over their heads to get everyone's attention. Kinch shushed those who had not seen the signal and quiet descended. Blinking owlishly, Hogan took a step toward them and heaved a heart-felt sigh.
"Fellas," he said quietly. "It's great to be back. But . . . " he swallowed, swaying on his feet. "We really need to lie down."
HH HH HH HH HH
Baker sat propped at the common room table, smiling and totally at ease, enjoying the peace and almost quiet of Barracks Two. Braveheart's soft, intermittent snoring and O'Malley's deeper, rumbles and snorts were music to his ears. To Olsen and Carter's, too, judging by their sleepy smiles. He caught Paxton's attention, and with a back-handed shooing motion, signaled the other man to stop folding towels and go to bed. With a wave and a jaw-cracking yawn, Paxton followed the directive. Within moments, he lay fast asleep.
Echoing Paxton's yawn, Baker turned his head to check on Kinch. His fellow sergeant was burrowed into his pillow, breathing deeply in dreamless sleep. With a sigh of perfect contentment, Baker slowly slumped forward, braced his elbows on the table and propped his head in his hands. He tilted his head, sliding his gaze sideways far enough to see LeBeau. The little Frenchman was back in his own bunk, huddled under the blankets, finally, peacefully asleep. Grinning, Baker let his eyelids slide shut. Time to take his own advice.
Sleep sounded good. Really, really good.
Fighting to stay awake long enough to find his bunk, Baker braced his hands on the table and pushed himself to his feet.
The barracks door suddenly opened and Schultz marched inside, a determined look in his eyes. Somehow, Baker managed not to stumble over the bench in his hurry to intercept him near the woodstove. Putting a finger to his lips, Baker turned in place and swept his arm wide, directing Schultz's attention to all the men sound asleep in their bunks. Schultz's eyes went comically wide. He pantomimed Baker's finger to the lips shushing, then crooked that same finger, silently asking Baker to join him outside.
Once there, Schultz's determined look returned. He glared into Baker's face, chin lifting, shoulders pulling back in what was meant to be an intimidating posture.
"No more Mr. Nice Guy," Schultz proclaimed. "I am here to see Colonel Hogan and Newkirk with my two, very own eyes." Said eyes narrowed to slits. "I have already checked the rec hall, the latrine, the showers, Barracks Nine, Ten, Twelve –"
"All right, all right," Baker soothed, putting his hands to Schultz's shoulders. "You win. But before you check on them, I should tell you that they're both hurt."
Schultz stared at him in surprise. "How were they hurt?"
"The colonel strained some muscles in his back and shoulder helping Paxton lift Braveheart back into his bunk. And Newkirk woke up disoriented, fell over the wood box and banged his head on the floor."
Schultz shook his head, face falling in sadness. "That is terrible. Langenscheidt reported that Tivoli has also injured himself. So many bad things have been happening lately."
Tell me about it, Baker sighed to himself, rubbing his beard-roughened jaw.
Schultz turned to go inside. Baker quickly grabbed him again, saying in a rush, "Before you check on them, you've got to promise me one thing."
"Just one?" Schultz cocked his head, surprised all over again. "What is this one thing?"
"That you won't wake them up."
Schultz blinked. "Won't—"
"Wake them up," Baker finished heavily, nodding.
"That is it?"
"Oh," Schultz said succinctly, mouth forming a perfect 'o'. Turning on his heel, he pushed the barracks' door open with the flat of one beefy hand and went back inside. Baker tucked his hands into his pockets and sauntered in to find Schultz already at the door to Hogan's quarters. Carefully cracking the door open, Schultz peeked inside the darkened room. Baker crowded up at his back, peering over his shoulder so that he could see. They could just make out Hogan and Newkirk's huddled forms in the bunks. With a quick peek over his shoulder at Baker, Schultz tiptoed into the room for a better look. Moments later, he tiptoed right back out.
"Satisfied?" Baker whispered, bracing his feet apart to keep from falling on his face. Wearing a happy smile, Schultz nodded, gave Baker a light, double pat on the chest, and tiptoed out of the barracks. Baker promptly found his bunk and collapsed into it. His last thought, as he drifted into the netherworld of dreams: Hold your calls, London, 'cause there ain't nobody home.
HH HH HH HH HH
"So that was it, pretty much. London got their coded papers after all and I lived to tell this tale to you three."
"The rest of my mates? Whooo. . . you want all the loose ends tied up, don't you? Well, all right then. Let me see . . ."
HH HH HH HH HH
Hogan woke from his nap and stretched in his bunk, luxuriating in being able to perform the act without pain. The month of physical therapy had paid off and he was back at top condition once again. Pleasantly sleep-drunk, he rolled out of bed, stretched again just for the simple joy of it, and wandered outside to see what was happening.
He paused a few feet from the door, giving his eyes time to recover from the blinding, afternoon sun. Heavy-limbed and content, he tipped his head back, enjoying the warmth of the sun's light. It bathed his face, created white spots behind his closed eyelids. Smiling and breathing deeply, he lowered his head and cracked his eyes open. The glare was tolerable now. A shadow flowed into his vision from the left, long and angular on the buff-colored ground. Hogan's smile widened.
"Colonel," came his second's rich voice, sounding as relaxed and content as Hogan felt.
By silent, mutual consent, they struck out for nowhere in particular, walking slow and easy, matching stride for stride. After taking a stroll around the camp, they returned to Barracks Two, content to simply lean against the wall and watch life go by.
LeBeau and Lyons ambled past, deep in conversation – in French. LeBeau's hands waved and sliced through the air, punctuating what appeared to be a very serious point. Lyons, hands loosely tucked behind his back, nodded, then answered in a thoughtful tone. LeBeau smiled up at him, nodding enthusiastically. The conversation continued in that vein as they passed out of earshot.
Hogan stared after them, mouth partially open in surprise.
"Were they . . .?"
"Yes, sir, they were." Kinch bent his knee, bracing his foot against the wall.
Hogan slowly nodded, then in the next second, jumped aside as a stray softball hurtled past him, thunked off the barracks wall and dropped between their feet. Jones hurried over, blushing and stammering apologies at missing the catch. Kinch bent down and tossed the ball back, putting enough mustard on the throw that it knocked Jones back a step. He laughed, tossed off a quick salute to both men, then ran back to the game. The other players yelled out catcalls at the blundered catch, which Jones easily fielded with a few razzes of his own. Newkirk picked himself off the ground after reaching base safely and yelled encouragement to Carter, who was standing at home plate, bat at the ready. A few moments later, the game was in full swing once more.
Hogan readjusted his crush cap, slumped back against the wall and loosely folded his arms. His gaze cut sideways to Kinch, a grin quirking his lips. "Not one word about my reflexes being back."
"Wouldn't dream of it, sir." Kinch's smile would have made Buddha proud.
Benson and Tivoli sauntered by at that moment, hands in back pockets, shoulders swinging freely with each stride. They broke off their conversation to offer greetings to Hogan and Kinch, and then continued their stroll. Benson's voice, tinged with confusion, floated back to them.
"You just don't strike me as a sculler."
"I'm not," came Tivoli's nonchalant reply.
Benson stopped dead. "But . . . but . . . at the river you said--"
Tivoli smoothly pivoted to face him, but kept walking - backwards. With a distinct gleam of devilry in his gaze and smug satisfaction in his voice, he explained, "What I said was that my school had the best sculling squad in the state. I never said anything about being on the squad."
A second or two went by while Benson sputtered and Tivoli kept putting distance between them. Breaking free of the surprise, Benson let out a yell of outrage, jerked the cap from his head and lunged after Tivoli. The Italian whooped in laughter, spun and ran off, Benson hot on his heels. Hogan and Kinch leaned out from the wall, avidly watched them go sliding around the corner of Barracks Three in a cloud of dust, then slowly leaned back against the wall and faced forward again.
Staring out at the on-going softball game, Hogan pondered aloud, "You learn all sorts of interesting tidbits of information hanging out around here."
Kinch nodded serenely. "Yes, sir. You do indeed."
They remained in quiet contemplation for a while longer, and then Hogan yawned, straightened away from the wall and stretched.
"You up for a game of chess?"
The afternoon sun added an extra sparkle to Kinch's wide smile. "Are you ready to lose again?"
Hogan's expression turned decidedly wolfish. "Them there's fightin' words, buddy."
Kinch laughed. "You know me, sir. I love to live dangerously."
"So do, I," Hogan chuckled, throwing a companionable arm around Kinch's shoulders and leading him onward. "So do I."
HH HH HH HH HH
"And that was that. We all had – "
"Why, look who's here! It's your namesake, little mate. Namesake . . . the one you were named after is right, poppet. Got it before Teddy on that one."
"Ben, old man. You're out for your late afternoon constitutional, then? Going to make an Englishman out of you yet, we are. Sit right down with us here on this bench. There's still room enough to squeeze in. Look here. We've got us a granddad sandwich. Three giggling little ones between two crusty old warhorses. What? Who are you trying to pull the wool over on? You've only a few years less crust than me, Ben O'Malley."
"Where's Sarah off to today that she's left you to your own devices? Ah. No wonder you've joined us in the park. That shopping's not for me, either. What's that? Lean over a bit. I can't hear you over all this giggling what's going on. Oh, I've just finished up with a bit of storytelling. Well, they asked for one and I certainly couldn't turn down such beautiful grandchildren as we – what Teddy? Oh, most definitely. Beautiful, handsome and clever grandchildren."
"Did you see that, Ben? That lady just whalloped that gent with her purse! She most certainly did so. She needs a little work on her back swing, but good form, otherwise. Could give her a few pointers, what with all my experience with –"
"What tale did I tell this time? You remember the time everyone got so bluh—I know, I know. I'm working on it, Ben." Anyroad, everyone was so sick, and the camp was quarantined and there were those coded papers and Louis, the guv'nor and I – Yes, that's the one. No, I'll not forget it either. Sometimes wish I could, though. That was a right nightmare, even if it did turn out all . . ."
"What's all the fussing and sleeve yanking about this time, little mate? Slow down, slow down. My ears can't listen as fast as you can talk anymore. What's wrong, then?"
"The tale's finished, Benjamin. I've told all there is to tell. Forgotten something? No, I don't think – Ah! Why, you're so right, little mate! I have forgotten something. Why don't we all say it together, then? Ready, Katie? Teddy? How about our Benjamins? All together, now. On the count of three, give it all you got. One . . . two . . . three."
Thank you for reading - and listening! ;-)
Author's note and dedication:
I cannot thank Marilyn Penner enough for her contribution to this tale. She was the mastermind behind Kinch's diversion and generously allowed me to adapt and change her version to fit my own vision. I can only hope it came out as well.
She blesses me with her friendship, provides the spark for my muse, and teaches me through her gentle nature and creativity. Above all else, she is a solid, comforting, loving and gracious friend. I will always be thankful for the fandom and characters that brought her and others into my life.