Kits, Cats, Sacks, and Lies

Kits, Cats, Sacks, and Lies...

Colonel Wilhelm Klink stood in the muddy compound yard of the prisoner of war camp he administered. Despite his overcoat, he shivered, breath smoking in the morning air as he blew on his gloved hands to warm them. That just fogged up his monocle, forcing him to remove it and rub it off with his scarf. The overcoat, as well as the uniform, were summer issue of course, now that the Third Reich had finally gotten around to commandeering all winter uniforms for the Eastern Front.

I'm getting too old for these German winters. Maybe the Führer will need administrators when he conquers Barcelona...or Los Angeles. Then again, the way the war looked to be going--Herr Doktor Goebbels never actually admitted to lost battles; instead there were far too many news reports of men who had 'fought heroically for the Vaterland', past tense being the optimum term--perhaps he should take an extended leave in Argentina. Anywhere that didn't have snow! He wanted to jump up and down to warm himself, as he often saw the prisoners doing, but restrained the urge, reminding himself of the need for dignity in an officer. So he just bore it instead.

Sergeant Major Schultz showed no such compunctions towards dignity. Klink could hear him bellowing distantly, blowing his shrill little police whistle as he tried to get the prisoners outside for Appel. Eventually, the door to Baracke 2 opened, Schultz' volume increasing, and Allied prisoners began to trickle out into the brisk winter morning. They lined up there, Americans, British, French, even one or two Russians, heads hunched down into their furry collars, hands thrust deep into wool-lined pockets. An odd juxtaposition, Klink reflected, ensured that Allied fliers shot down from the bitter cold of 'Angels Twenty' had warmer clothes than those who held them captive.

As the senior POW officer, an annoyingly clever American colonel named Robert Hogan, emerged at last, right in front of the fat sergeant and his whistle, Klink stared again with not a little longing at the heavily-padded leather flight jacket he wore. The commandant might have confiscated all the Allies' warm winter clothes for use by his own men if he hadn't feared being shot for treason.

Cold and misery sparked anger in Klink. Sour-faced, he marched up to the American.

"So nice of you to join us, Colonel Hogan," he snarled.

"Sorry, Commandant," Hogan returned without real remorse, "It was a little tough to drag my men from their lumpy mattresses and moth-eaten blankets out into this lovely morning." He grinned, rubbing his palms together to warm them. "I bet those boys at the Russian Front would call this sunbathing weather!" That earned a few chuckles up and down the ranks, which did nothing to improve Klink's mood.

"Hogan! It is your duty as senior officer to maintain discipline--I warn you, if your men are ever late again, you will find yourself in the Cooler with them!" The German colonel wheeled on his portly sergeant. "Schultz!" he barked, "report!"

Sergeant Schultz saluted grandly, seemingly not feeling the cold at all. How could he, under all that blubber? "Herr Kommandant, I am happy to report all present and accounted for!"

"I don't care if you're happy," Klink muttered under his breath. He turned back to the prisoners. "The glorious armies of the Third Reich continue to advance," he lied. "Today is also Christmas Eve. Dismissed!" With that, he turned on his heel and marched back towards his office and a waiting bottle of Schnapps. Before he could get to the door, though, Colonel Hogan jogged up and headed him off.

"Hogan! What do you want?" The way the officer grinned, all he was missing were a few tell-tale canary feathers on his chin.

"Merely to wish you 'peace on earth and good will toward men'...and women."

"For the last time, Hogan, I will not let you invite Fräulein Helga's girl-friends to your Christmas party! You're lucky I'm even letting you have your little celebration!"

"How could we not celebrate your generosity? A Christmas delousing with warm water--it's enough to make Lazarus get up and Jitterbug!"

Klink sighed wearily. "What are you up to, Colonel Hogan?"

The American blinked innocently. "Me? Why, Colonel! I--"

"Don't bother denying it," Klink interrupted. "Whatever it is, I'm not listening, and I won't be led into it--dismissed!"

With a salute that was more a curt cut-off, Klink stalked back into the heated seclusion of the camp office, leaving Hogan standing in the light snowfall, staring thoughtfully after him.

With a huge yawn, Corporal Peter Newkirk began dealing cards across the table to fellow-prisoners Sergeant Ivan Kinchloe and Corporal Louis LeBeau. The black sergeant picked up his cards and grimaced. "Can I fold right now?"

"What, and leave me alone with him?" LeBeau retorted, gesturing towards their well-known card sharp. Newkirk yawned again, loudly.

Kinchloe raised an eyebrow. "Tired, Sleeping Beauty?"

The Englishman snorted. "I'll say--I didn't get a ruddy wink o'sleep last night."

"Carter snoring again?" LeBeau chuckled, arranging the cards in his hand.

"Hey!" Sergeant Andrew Carter protested from across the room. "I don't snore!"

"He's right," Newkirk quipped. He leaned closer to Kinchloe. "He mews in 'is sleep."

The Frenchman grinned. "Quoi? Il miaule--comme un chat?" He snickered and turned to stare at Carter.

"Like a whole peck a'cats! Darndest thing I ever 'eard."

Kinchloe grinned even wider. "That must've been some dream, Carter!" He added his own teasing 'meow' to punctuate that remark.

"Yeah," Newkirk growled. "Wish I could've 'ad a few of me own instead. Andrew, old chap, did anybody ever tell you you're one odd duck?"

Carter considered. "Actually, my last girlfriend said something like that just before she ran off to join that cult." Newkirk shook his head and shrugged, then proceeded to whip the pants off of his comrades at cards. As if suddenly reminded of something, Carter crossed the room to his bunk and pulled his footlocker out from under it. Just then, the door opened and Colonel Hogan entered, banging the snow off of his shoes. He stared at the card players.

"Don't all salute at once!"

Kinchloe grinned, recognising the old joke--the down-to-earth flight leader couldn't stand formality any more than his mélange of troops. "Welcome back, Colonel. Did you talk Klink into letting us have the stuff to make Christmas wreaths?"

Newkirk threw down a card in disgust. "Who would've guessed I'd be spending me 'oliday leave in a prison camp weaving branches together with ribbons!"

LeBeau grinned. "Ah, but what a nice cadeau de Noël for the Underground agent Pelican waiting to receive the contents of that diplomatic pouch--all tied up in a pretty holiday wreath!"

"I bet the Führer's envoy whose arm that bag was handcuffed to when he went into a certain Paris nightclub last week won't have a very merry Christmas," Kinchloe chuckled.

"You never know," Newkirk shrugged, straight-faced. "The Gestapo might just be cooking his Christmas goose right now!"

"D'accord! And we will hang a wreath on Klink's car that is so voyant...so gaudy our beloved commandant will be delirious with joy when it gets 'stolen' during his Christmas drinking binge in Hammelburg!"

"I didn't get the supplies," Hogan muttered unhappily.

"Excuse me, colonel," Kinchloe broke in, "but did I hear you say you didn't get our wreath supplies?"

"I didn't get the supplies!" Hogan sighed, leaning on the table. Carter started to slide his footlocker back under the bunk, obviously not having found what he was looking for, but hesitated. Instead, he pulled out Newkirk's trunk and stuck his head underneath his bed. Hogan watched him, only half paying attention. "I felt sure Klink would go for it after not letting us have girls in camp."

"I would've gone for that one me-self," Newkirk remarked.

Hogan wasn't listening. "I mean, it's classic reverse psychology--the stuff they teach you in psy-ops classes." There was a loud scrape as Carter shoved both footlockers back under the bed. "Give your opponent something big to target, and he'll ignore the little things. But Klink didn't even let me get that far. I think something's eating him, and...Carter, can I help you?"

Carter, peering around from all fours by Hogan's feet, sat up so fast he banged his head on the tabletop. "Ow," he complained, rubbing the soon-to-be goose-egg. "No, thanks, I'm fine." He got up and hastily retreated to the other end of the room, where he started lifting up mattress corners while pretending not to be doing anything out-of-the-ordinary. Of course, with Carter, there wasn't much that could be listed as out-of-the-ordinary.

One by one, every man in the barrack turned to watch the eccentric demolitions expert, who didn't seem to be aware that he had an audience. Carter poked into every corner of the main room, peeking under bunks and blanket rolls, feeling inside the boots drying around the stove, even ruffling through the dirty-laundry pile.

"Well, that's it, ain't it?" Newkirk said with quiet puzzlement. "Andrew's gone 'round the bend, he 'as."

Kinchloe nodded solemnly. "They say a man can get cabin fever in prison too."

"But we just went out last night!" LeBeau exclaimed. "We burned down that belle petite barn where the Gestapo men were hiding captured Allied munitions!"

" 'Cept we didn't let the ammo burn down with the barn," Newkirk pointed out. The Frenchman laughed.

"Carter!" Hogan called.

The chemist stood up, looking vaguely sheepish. "Yes, colonel?"

"What are you looking for?"

"Nothing much." Hogan gave him a measured stare, and Carter's expression suddenly turned from sheepish to guilty. "Well...colonel...um..." He wrung his hands, staring at the floor rather than meeting the commander's eyes.

"Carter!" Hogan's tone was warning. "What did you do?"

"I...I...you know that barn?"

Hogan nodded.

"The one we burned down last night?"

Hogan nodded again.

"The one with--"

"I get the picture!"

Carter studied his hands. "Well...um...you know how you sent me up into the hayloft? To set the explosives?" Everyone was leaning towards Carter with anticipation, now. "Well..." He was interrupted by a tiny sound from the lockers. All faces turned towards the row of metal cabinets by the door.

"That sounded like...a cat," Newkirk said slowly.

Carter brightened. "Actually, it was a kitten!" Hogan turned his gaze back to the chemist--his eyebrows had disappeared up into his dark hair. Carter quickly set about digging the lint out from under his nails.

Yanking open the door to his locker, Colonel Hogan stared down into it. The rest of the men pushed in behind him for a glimpse.

There, in the bottom of the cabinet, curled up on the colonel's spare bath towel, a mother cat blinked innocently up at the Heroes as she nursed her litter. There were six kittens in all--six fuzzy, blue-eyed, extremely cute kittens. Not a man in the barracks didn't feel his heart melt--not a man, except the colonel, that is.

Hogan's tone was flat. "You saved the cats." It was almost an accusation.

"You think I'd just leave them there? What kind of a guy do you think I am?" He picked up one of the kittens, cuddling it in his flight jacket, as if to keep it away from Hogan.

"But did you have to bring them here?"

"I knew it! I knew it! I knew you weren't gonna like it!"

"So why did you do it?"

"It's cold out there! Why if Mamie couldn't get away to hunt..."

"Mamie?" Newkirk broke in. "You named that poor cat Mamie?"

"I have an aunt named Mamie!" Carter snapped back.

Hogan held up his hands for order. "Whoa, whoa! Hold it!" The kittens being passed around paused in their progression.

"Es-tu joli, mon 'ti-chou? Es-tu?" LeBeau cooed softly to the kitten nestled in the crook of his arm. "I like cats," he sighed. "They are so like French women--won't even give you the time of day until you feed them! I vote we keep them!"

"Hear hear!" Newkirk shouted. The rest of the prisoners took up their own cries of assent.

Hogan's voice rose above the assembly. "Now wait just a cotton-pickin' minute!" he cried. "We can't have a bunch of cats in the barracks!"

"Aileurophobe!" Carter cried accusingly.

Newkirk stared, surprised. "What'd you call 'im?"

"Aileurophobe!--a cat-hater!" Hogan turned to glare at them.

Newkirk's eyebrows rose. "Yeah! Al--what he said!"

"Why can't we keep 'em?" someone else called.

Kinchloe spoke up. "Let's take a vote!"

Hogan scoffed. "What do you think this is--a democracy? Now Carter, I want you to get those cats out of my sight, and pronto! That is a direct order from your commanding officer!"

The chemist looked about ready to break into tears. "Yes, sir," he sighed meekly.

Feeling like the big heavy for coming down hard on a team member, but determined not to let a litter of cute, furry kittens lose him the war, Hogan quietly retreated out the door, heading for Klink's office.

As soon as the door shut, Newkirk shouldered his way over to the long-faced Carter.

" 'Ere, Andrew, give me the cat."

The chemist hugged the squirming kitten protectively. "Why?" he asked, suspiciously.

"Look, ol' chap, if we're gonna save 'em, we've got to 'ide them." Across the room, Kinchloe was already gathering the other kittens. Mamie dogged his heels, meowing querulously.

"But the colonel said..."

"Exactly what did the colonel say?"

"Well, to get them out of his sight, but he meant--"

"Out of sight, out of mind, hein?" LeBeau chimed in conspiratorially. "Do you want to keep these cats or not?"

"I sure do! But--"

"Then don't argue!" Newkirk retorted, thumping him fondly on the shoulder. Neatly clipping the kitten from Carter's arms, Newkirk waved a hand over it mystically and made as if to throw it in the air. When his hand came down again, poof!, the kitten had vanished! The Englishman displayed his empty hands with pride. "Just leave it to us!"

Carter grinned too when he noticed that one of Newkirk's pockets had grown a tail.

***

Hogan walked into Klink's office, slamming the door and making Klink jump.

"Hogan! What do you want?" Klink was pretending to be deeply involved with his paperwork, but Hogan noticed the open bottle of Schnapps on the colonel's desk.

The American grinned amiably. "Just came to see what I could do to cheer ya up!"

"But I'm not depressed!"

Hogan blinked innocently. "Now did I say that?"

"What're you up to?"

"Absolutely nothing! The boys wanted me to ask you how your mother's doing."

Klink drooped in his chair. "She sent me a lovely Christmas card."

Hogan frowned. "How about your brother? He found work yet?"

Klink slid lower. "No. He never could hold a job for more than a month anyway."

"Why doesn't he enter the army then? That way, the war'll be over by Valentine's Day!" When Klink failed to find the humour in that, Hogan quickly turned his laugh into a coughing spell.

"Hogan--why are you so interested in my family?"

"It's not me, sir, it's the boys--you of all people should know how much soldiers just love to gossip about civilian life! You should've heard the story LeBeau told me the other day about his cousin's milkman--"

"Hogan."

"Yessir?"

"Go away. You are dismissed."

"But sir--"

"Dismissed!"

Hogan saluted reluctantly. "Yessir."

***

"So what're we supposed to do with all these kittens?" LeBeau asked, absently running a ladle through the pot of stew he had just set on the stove to re-heat.

"LeBeau's right," Newkirk nodded, stroking one tiny kitten with the flat of his palm. "I mean, we can't keep all of 'em 'ere--not without the Colonel finding out, anyways."

Carter cuddled Mamie close to him. "And I thought you guys were on our side!"

"We are, Carter," Kinchloe sighed, tickling his own kitten under the chin. "We don't want to see them thrown out in the cold any more than you do!"

"The Colonel sure seems to hate cats!" Carter protested bitterly.

"He's only thinking of the good of the unit, of our mission," the black sergeant explained, leaning against a bunk next to LeBeau. "You know that's his job as an officer--and that's why it's up to us to make sure the little guys don't get left in the lurch."

LeBeau nodded, hanging the ladle back over the edge of the pot and closing the lid. "Which means somehow we find homes for them, the mother too."

"It's not like we 'ave too much else to do," Newkirk snorted. "We've blown up every bridge from 'ere to Munich, the ground's too frozen for digging more tunnels, and the Colonel 'asn't nipped those wreath supplies yet."

"Carter--"

"Yeah, Kinch?"

"Why don't you take cleaning detail today? Maybe Fräulein Helga wants a cat, or knows somebody else who might."

"Bon idée! We can also ask Schnitzer, the veterinarian, when he changes the dogs tonight."

Kinchloe nodded approvingly. Just then, Colonel Hogan walked in.

The kittens abruptly vanished from the room. Newkirk popped his into the 'Butt Can' tacked onto the bunk behind him (the can was currently empty, as the prisoners had no cigarettes). The senior POW glanced at him suspiciously, perhaps instinctively sensing something was going on behind his back.

"Hi, fellas," he tried tentatively. The other prisoners smiled innocently, making him even more suspicious. He squinted at the barracks cook. "LeBeau!"

The Frenchman jumped as if stung. "Oui, mon colonel?"

"What are you doing?"

LeBeau rushed back over to the stove. "I was just now warming some stew!"

Hogan nodded absently and turned towards the rest of the barrack. "Okay, fellas, I spoke to Klink just now." Behind the colonel's back, Kinchloe was urgently gesturing something at a mystified LeBeau, drawing Carter's attention as well. The officer caught his distracted expression and turned to see what he was looking at. The black sergeant dropped his hands and grinned innocently. Hogan squinted again in confusion, but went on with his lecture.

"It's pretty clear he's depressed," he continued slowly. "Christmas Eve, he's getting older, no one close enough to spend time with..."

" 'E always struck me as a real ladies' man, 'e did," Newkirk quipped, holding his hands behind him over the can and smiling his best as the kitten tried to claw its way up his shirtsleeves.

"I guess that means we need to cheer him up!" Carter exclaimed, punctuating the remark with a coughing spell to mask the muffled meows issuing from his footlocker.

"Right," Hogan began again. "And I have an idea as to how to do it."

LeBeau, still not understanding what Kinchloe was so upset about, lifted the lid off his pot...and stared.

"Mon Dieu! Mon ragoût a poussé un chaton!"

"Chut!" Kinchloe hissed, warning LeBeau to be quiet. But Colonel Hogan, who had never scored highly in high-school French, didn't seem to have followed the conversation.

"Keep it down!" he snapped, miffed at being repeatedly interrupted.

LeBeau slammed the lid back down on the stewpot. Once the colonel's back was turned, he and Kinchloe hastily tossed a bucket of sand into the fire to put it out.

But before Hogan could further expound upon 'Operation Cheer-Up Klink', the door to the barracks opened and Sergeant Schultz lumbered in.

"Mein Gott, but it is cold out there!" he rumbled, taking off his coal-scuttle helmet with a relieved sigh.

"What can we do for you, Schultz?" Hogan said a little impatiently as Schultz sat himself down at the prisoners' table. Carter suddenly started coughing again, sounding like an entire cavalry division come down with the flu.

"Carter?" Schultz asked, sounding concerned. "Are you all right? Is it contagious?"

"Just peachy, thanks!" Carter hawked, keeping his feet firmly on the bucking lid of the footlocker.

Schultz shrugged. "Colonel Hogan, I thought you might like to know that the Big Shot does not want to see you any more today."

"Thanks Schultz, really," Hogan said, trying to hurry him back out.

"Ach ja! And--Newkirk...was ist los?"

The Englishman bared his teeth in a pained grin, trying not to squirm. The kitten had wormed its way up the sleeves of his jacket and now seemed to be playing naughts and crosses on his back...with its claws. "Nothing...Schultz," he gasped.

Schultz shrugged again, and rolled his eyes heavenward, thinking how odd the prisoners were. It was a wonder Germany was losing the war! He sighed deeply, not wanting to return to walking his frigid post. "I also came in here to get warm. You are lucky you are prisoners!"

"That's the first time I've heard anyone say that," Hogan commented sarcastically.

"At least you have a fire going in here!" Schultz squinted at the stove. "No...you don't have a fire going! Bist du verrükt--are you crazy?" He heaved to his feet once more and waddled over to the single small stove. Handing Hogan his rifle, he bent over to peer into the grate. "Some Dummkopf dumped sand on the fire! Here, I will build it up again."

"No-no-no!" LeBeau cried, getting between him and the stove. "My stew--it is a special recipe! It cooks, and cools, and cooks and cools..." LeBeau gestured eloquently. "You must not disturb la chimie--the chemistry!"

The fat sergeant grinned and waggled his bushy eyebrows. "Ein Ragout, eh?" Playfully, he bent down beside the kettle and rapped his knuckles on it. "Hello, stew!"

A piteous cry answered him from the stewpot.

Sudden realisation crossed Hogan's face. He shot the Frenchman a look that might have killed a lesser man.

Schultz' eyebrows had retreated up his forehead. "LeBeau--your stew is talking!"

"That is just the sound of the juices simmering!" the Frenchman lied hastily. "Old family recipe, top secret, very hush-hush!"

The fat sergeant nodded sceptically, obviously not believing him. "You know what I think, Cockroach?"

"Schultz thinks!" Newkirk snorted, squirming. "This should be interesting."

The sergeant shook a thick finger under the diminutive cook's nose. "I think you are up to some monkey business!" He threw up his hands in disgust. "Ach! You boys, always plotting and scheming--if I didn't know better, I'd say you were Gestapo!" He sniffed in the direction of the stewpot. "That smells good! If you are not up to something, then you won't mind if I take a little taste, nicht wahr?"

The prisoners rushed to get between Schultz and the pot. "Non, non!" LeBeau protested as he and the others were shoved aside by the German sergeant. "It is not done yet! You will spoil la chimie!"

Swatting the little cook away as though he were a fly, Schultz rubbed his palms together in anticipation and delicately plucked the lid off the pot, so that he could peer inside. His face fell in amazement.

"LeBeau?"

"Oui?"

"What do you call this recipe?"

The Frenchman shrugged. "Le ragoût du chaton."

"Disgusting!" With a gentleness that betrayed the big man's true nature, Schultz lifted the mewing kitten out of the soup and wiped it off with a nearby towel. "Ach! Mein Kätzchen," he crooned, "did that nasty Cockroach try to make a soup out of you?" He smiled. "My oldest daughter, Elsa, loves cats. I will take this one home for her."

Delicately, for he could almost close one big hand entirely over the tiny animal, he tucked the kitten inside one of his huge coat pockets. Then he turned a hard gaze on LeBeau. "Hmmph! I will see what I can do about getting the Kommandant to improve your food rations--maybe get him to stop putting sawdust in the bread. And if I ever catch you trying to make soup out of small animals again, you will be very, very sorry!" With that, he snatched back his rifle and stalked out, slamming the door behind him.

"That's one down!" Carter chirruped cheerfully.

Colonel Hogan didn't look quite so pleased. "Carter!"

With a sudden distressed expression, Newkirk arched and wiggled. There was a soft rip!, and the kitten popped out into his hands like a rabbit out of a hat. The Englishman breathed a sigh of pure relief. Hogan stared, and Kinchloe rubbed his aching temples. The RAF flier grinned back sheepishly. "Aïe! We are in trouble now!" LeBeau groaned.

"All right! Now where are the rest of them?" Hogan demanded hotly.

One by one, the prisoners produced the rest of the litter, Carter joining them holding a very unhappy-sounding Mamie.

"I thought I told you to get rid of those cats!"

" 'Scuse me, sir, but as I recall, you told 'im to get those cats outta your sight."

"Newkirk!"

"Yessir?"

"Don't help!"

Angrily, Hogan emptied a wooden firewood crate and tossed the five remaining kittens rather indelicately in, followed by Mamie. Then he thrust the entire load at Carter's chest.

"Take them out through the tunnel and leave them in the forest--now!"

Carter's brows furrowed, and his face darkened. For one rare moment in his life, the easy-going, kind-hearted chemist got angry.

"No!" he shouted at Hogan.

Everyone turned shocked eyes on Carter. "What?" Hogan asked softly, stunned.

"I said 'NO'!" Carter snarled. "I don't care what you say, I refuse to let you throw these helpless little kittens out into the snow!"

"Carter!" LeBeau hissed, shooting a quick glance at Hogan. "He is the superior officer!"

"I don't care who he says he is! I won't obey that order!"

"But that's mutiny!" Newkirk whispered urgently. "Come on, Carter--just do what the Colonel says!"

"No!" Carter yelled, shaking his head. "I won't, he can't make me!"

"It means a court-martial!" Kinchloe added in a low voice.

"Yeah?" the chemist sneered. "What's he gonna do--throw me in prison? Give me over to the Gestapo? If the cats go, I go too." He wheeled on the colonel. "Explain that to your buddy Klink!" He stared around at the sea of stunned eyes. When no one moved either to help or arrest him, he gathered up his crate of kittens with a scornful face. "Goodbye then!" He turned to Hogan and gave a mock-salute...straight-armed. "And sieg heil, mein Führer!" With that, he pounded up the bunk ladder and vanished into the tunnel.

The remaining prisoners stared after him, then turned slowly to look at Hogan. The colonel straightened under their scrutiny, turned on his heel, and marched back into his private quarters, slamming the door behind him.

Newkirk turned to Kinchloe, white-faced. The black sergeant looked a little pale as well.

"I think we have a bit of a problem," the Englishman observed, with typical British understatement.

The prisoners hunched within their jackets, breath misting the frigid early air. A fresh blanket of snow lay over the shabby wooden buildings of Stalag 13, making the prison camp look almost picturesque...almost.

Schultz trundled along the double-line standing in front of Baracke 2, tic-ing off noses on a little clipboard he held. When he got to the end of the lines, he came up two short. The big man's eyebrows rose, and he glanced around to see who was gone.

"Newkirk!" he asked the immediately-available Englishman, "where are Colonel Hogan and Sergeant Carter?"

"I dunno, Schultz!" he replied smugly. "Why don't you go look for them?"

The threat behind that was one familiar to Schultz--it meant they weren't anywhere to be had, and if he admitted that he'd lost them, it was off to build snow-soldiers on the Russian Front.

"Nope, nope! That is not necessary!" He turned to the Commandant. "All present and accounted for!" he called, blocking Klink's view of Hogan's empty spot.

"Thank you, Schultz," Klink said. "As many of you know, today is Christmas--" He was drowned out by an enthusiastic cheer from the prisoners.

"Quiet! Quiet!" Schultz roared, eventually getting some cooperation.

"--So as a special treat," Klink continued, "any man who wishes has special permission to go to the Rec Hall to listen to our beloved Führer's Christmas broadcast--"

"He ain't my Führer!" Newkirk jeered.

"How about 'Merry Christmas from Free France' instead?" LeBeau added. Several others whistled and heckled insultingly until Klink, in disgust, dismissed them and stomped back to his office.

Newkirk edged over to LeBeau, wool greatcoat wrapped tightly around him. "Where is Colonel Hogan, anyway?"

The Frenchman shrugged, busily wrapping his freezing fingers in his scarf. "In his room, I guess. I wonder if he feels guilty or something."

"I'm worried about Andrew," Newkirk said.

"Oui--moi aussi," agreed LeBeau. "He has been gone all night!"

Kinchloe walked up, hands in his pockets, catching the last part of the conversation. "All right," the black man sighed, "I'll play Devil's Advocate--did anybody really expect him to come back here after what he did?"

"Any other man, maybe--but not Andrew! It's forgive and forget."

"And he knows our orders as well as anyone."

"That was, of course, before he stopped obeying orders." That sent them into a pensive silence as the three men paced back towards Baracke 2.

The hut was a buzz of frantic motion as men rushed here and there with packs and equipment--at least until the harried prisoners noticed the bewildered trio in the doorway. Then all activity screeched to a halt, and the men turned to stare at them, their eyes reflecting guilty defiance.

"Baker! Foster! Billett!" Kinchloe said. "What's going on?"

"We're goin' ta look fer Carter!" the Scotsman, Billett, blurted.

Richard Baker, a black sergeant in the same field as Kinchloe, shot Billett a nasty look. "The rest of us were worried about him," he quickly added. "I mean, there's no telling what could have happened to him! Shot by a patrol..."

"Lost in the woods!"

"Fell through the river ice!"

"Or caught by the Gestapo!" The men shuddered.

Thomas Foster, a wiry blond Englishman, spoke up. "Carter knows a few phrases of good German, but that's it! There's no way he could get fake papers and bluff his way across the border!"

Baker nodded. "We want to bring him back--even if Colonel Hogan holds a court-martial, it'll be better for Carter in the long run. And isn't it what you'd do for any friend?" The three men in the doorway cringed mentally.

"But Carter disobeyed Colonel Hogan's orders!" Kinchloe said, arguing against his own desire to go. "It's not like he told Carter to abandon a baby--kittens aren't like human children."

"They would be t' Carter," Billet mumbled.

Kinchloe, LeBeau, and Newkirk looked at each other as the conspirators waited in tense silence...

"I know nothing!" Kinchloe shrugged at last.

"I see nothing!" Newkirk added.

"I say nothing!" LeBeau finished. The rest of the search party laughed in relief.

"Where is the colonel?" Kinchloe asked, understandably nervous about encountering an angry officer.

"You mean Captain Bligh, don't you, Kinch?" Newkirk quipped with a wink.

"As far as anyone knows," Baker spoke up, "he's still in his quarters. We figured it was safe as long as we knew where he was."

"He's not going to stay there forever, you know," Kinchloe pointed out. "Sooner or later Schultz is going to come looking for him, to see why he wasn't at Appel."

Newkirk and LeBeau grinned together. "Never you worry, guv'nor!"

"Mais oui! Distractions are our department!"

While the other prisoners continued with their preparations and Kinchloe began designating search parties, the Englishman and his French comrade knocked lightly on the colonel's door, then entered without waiting for a reply.

They were smiling when they walked in, but frowning when they returned a moment later.

"Wha's the matter, lads?" Billett asked upon seeing their expressions.

"Colonel Hogan," Newkirk said puzzledly. "He's gone!"

***

Robert, old hat, you're crazy.

Despite the nasty thoughts he threw at himself, Colonel Hogan plodded deliberately onwards through the snow. The fall had begun just before dawn, as the colonel slipped out between the bunks of sleeping men and out through the tunnel to look for his little lost lamb. He grinned to himself--wrong fairy tale. The white blanket swamped his knees now, clinging to his soaked socks and skinnying up his pants to bite his legs with icy teeth. By now, Carter's prints had been pretty much obliterated, and his empty stomach chided him for not bringing along even a brick-hard MRE. Worst of all, he was pretty sure he was lost.

C'mon, Hogan! This is Europe, not Alaska--you can't spit without hitting someone. He restrained himself from experimenting with the truth of that statement. Just great, Hogan--the way you're going, Carter's gonna have to come rescue you! All the images that had kept him awake last night came flooding back into his mind--only this time, he was their object, not Carter. He starved to death, and was later found a hundred yards off the Hammelburg road. A farmer caught him on his land and ran a pitchfork through his belly seven times before going to call the Polizei. A hunter shot at him, hitting him in the knee, but Hogan managed to escape, crawling as far as he could before bleeding to death. He fell through the ice on the river and drowned--his body was found the next spring by some children playing in the deadwood. And, of course, he simply froze to death lying under a fir with snow-laden boughs--his corpse was gnawed down to the bones by foxes.

Hogan stumbled to a stop, his legs simply refusing to obey him any further. He was cold, he was wet, he was tired, and he only wanted to sleep. His eyes drooped. Would five-minutes' rest really hurt? He stared miserably down at his buried feet, then up at the featureless wilderness around him. The pines loomed from the snow like dark gothic spires, creaking under the weight of the ice. The forest was silent but for the far-off whump! of a snowpack tumbling from the branches. Wind whistled down from the heights, dusting his dark hair with ice crystals and bringing to him...music?

He staggered a few steps, hardly believing his frozen ears. The sound faded in and out, barely recognisable as a tune, but a tune it was. Pulling his leaden legs from the snow, Hogan got them going again, lurching into the wind.

The sound got clearer as he neared its source. Eventually, he could discern the melody: Strauss' Kaiser-Walzer--the Emperor Waltz. Hogan managed to grin. Helluva thing to be playing out here, the Middle of Nowhere.

At last, he could see a faint lightening ahead, the soft glow of firelight filtering through the branches. In the clearing by a frozen stream sat a tiny fairy-tale farm cottage of stone and wood. Typical of old German houses, it stood on a foundation of river-stone, with dark boughs dividing its walls into angles. Several of the window-flowerboxes the Hausfrauen so loved hung empty beneath the shuttered windows, through the chinks of which the golden glow spilled out onto the snow. Too exhausted to care whether he could lie convincingly, Hogan stumbled over the little arched bridge and, with the last of his strength, pounded on the heavy oak door.

He collapsed before he could find out who answered it.

***

The Heroes fanned out through the woods, not caring that they left tracks like a herd of bison--only that they were far enough from Stalag 13 that the guards wouldn't care either. They split up into teams of two, with one out of each pair able to speak enough German--or, rather, 'Nazish' French in LeBeau's case--to lie their way out of capture. The two black sergeants went too--Kinchloe with Newkirk and Baker with Foster--but wearing their American uniforms instead of civilian clothes. In case of capture, two 'Untermenschen' in Allied uniform presumably wouldn't 'disappear' as easily.

The teams fanned out in all directions, keeping track of each other by a series of birdcalls unique to each pair. By now, Carter's tracks were all but gone, but not far past the emergency exit Kinchloe and Newkirk hit upon a fresh set of footprints. The Englishman and the American shot each other knowing glances, and Newkirk warbled to the other teams. He was answered by a trill and a whistle, one to each side.

The two men paralleled the tracks, still keeping an eye out for any proof-positive sign of either their missing sergeant or their missing colonel. Every once in awhile, Newkirk paused to call, cocking his head to catch the replies. Kinchloe had to keep from chuckling as he sipped hot coffee from his thermos--to him, this sounded more like a huge game of 'Marco-Polo', which he and his cousins had played in the back yard as kids.

As they followed the footprints, keeping track of their position with a compass, it began to snow again, soft crystal flakes drifting down from the patches of open sky. Newkirk lifted his face to it and sighed at the beauty of the German wood--he'd never even seen a proper forest until his teenage years, and the snowfalls in London always seemed rather grimy, as though the black clouds let loose just to spite the heads below. He exhaled, delighting as the fog of his breath melted the delicate flakes in mid-air.

"Hey--lookit that!" Kinchloe exclaimed, breaking the Englishman out of his thoughts. Before them stood a little farm...and the prints led right up to the front door.

"Blimey! D'you think we just followed a woodcutter home?"

The black man shook his head. "I don't think so--the prints are fresh, and they only go one way."

Still frowning, Newkirk gave an owl-like call which brought the others hurrying.

"What do you want us to do?" LeBeau asked Kinchloe who, as a staff-sergeant, officially outranked all of them.

Kinchloe shrugged, for once stumped. "I suppose we could..." Just then, he was interrupted by the sudden jolly strains of orchestra music--it took Foster a moment to identify it as one of his Strauss favourites, the overture to "Die Fledermaus". Klink had murdered that same piece often enough on his violin that, properly played, it sounded almost alien to the English music-lover's ears. There were also voices coming from the cottage, and a familiar carefree laugh.

The men rushed to the farmhouse and banged on the door. It was answered by a rather puzzled-looking old farmer. Pushing his glasses back up his straight nose, he turned his head and said, in clear if accented English "Look, Anna, more Americans!"

The European majority of the search party might have paused to correct him, had not a familiar voice grumbled "It's about time!", answered by another familiar voice saying "Well look how long it took you to get here!"

The allies rushed into the den, followed by the householder. Their eyes travelled as one first to Colonel Hogan, who sat hunched within a wool blanket, bare feet in a tub of steaming water, cradling a mug that smelled strongly of cocoa, then to Carter, who had managed to get the record player going again and was now guarding it faithfully, to Mamie, who sat before the fire with her feet curled up under her like a legless lump, secretly keeping one blue eye on the record player, to the dirt spilled all over the floor from the flowerpot Mamie had knocked over after taking out the record stand, to the kindly-looking old woman with a box of kittens on her lap, smiling up at her extra guests.

"Well by all means, Klaus," she joked with a twinkling grin, "don't hesitate to invite them in!" Klaus returned with a broom for the dirt, which Carter quickly commandeered.

The American colonel turned his eyes towards his troops, and a tiny smile tweaked his lips. "So..." he said conversationally, "what brings you fellas here?"

After several hours of swapping folksongs, dancing to the waltzes on the Strauss record, and engaging in good conversation--Herr Hoffer, who prided himself as a rural scholar, had started a good-natured debate with Sergeant Kinchloe over the symbolical aspects of Goethe's later poetical works; they had encouraged the others to jump in any time, but for some reason all had politely declined--and with a good, hot, home-cooked Bavarian Christmas dinner under their belts (complete with piping-hot Apfel Strudel, which LeBeau had enthusiastically complimented until Frau Hoffer blushed), the prisoners departed the home of Anna and Klaus Hoffer in good spirits. Carter carried the box of kittens, now minus Mamie and the runt of the litter, whom Frau Hoffer had taken a particular kin to. Hogan had reluctantly agreed to let the kittens retain their status as unofficial honorary prisoners, especially after the hurt looks he got from both Frau Hoffer and Mamie when the whole story was told.

Flipping the tail of his new hand-knitted scarf--which Frau Hoffer had insisted he wear 'lest you catch cold'--over his shoulder, Hogan led his men back into Stalag 13 in time for evening Appel. Schultz, for one, was ecstatic that the number of prisoners in the yard finally matched the number on his clipboard, commenting "it almost makes up for me having to go home and eat my wife's Christmas dinner."

Hogan, though, was still gloomy. His team had been restored, and he and Carter had come to an agreement--after each apologised to the other, Carter guiltily and Hogan sheepishly--that the sergeant had to find homes for all the kittens. It had brought him no closer to hanging his top-secret wreath on Klink's car.

He leaned on the table in his office, brooding, the rest of the Heroes--minus LeBeau, who was preparing the Christmas feast--gathered around him. Newkirk was playing with one of the kittens, swinging an old teabag for her to bat at. Hogan watched them with only half an eye--his mind scurried frantically over his scant options. In barracks all over camp, men were already hanging gaily-dyed rags and (unbeknownst to the Germans) ripped-up Nazi flags for decorations, preparing what special foods they could, ready to whip out the potato-peel moonshine as soon as Klink retreated to Hammelburg to celebrate the holidays alone at the Hausnerhof. Soon, Schultz and the Christmas-leave guards would depart for their homes and the New Years'-leave guards would come on duty. Though the camp would be only half-staffed, most of those would be bitter at having to spend Christmas out in the cold and aching for any kind of excitement--including target practise. If the prisoners couldn't get the microfilmed documents out by tonight, they would have to wait until next year.

There was a knock on the door...and LeBeau slipped in, still dressed in his immaculately white apron.

"What's the matter, Louis," Kinchloe joked, "did the mousse burn?"

"Feh!" LeBeau teased, "what do Americans know about cooking?"

"What's up, corporal?" Hogan asked.

"Baker just spotted two SS vultures going into Klink's office!"

Hogan's eyebrows rose. "The SS? Don't they ever take a vacation?"

"I don't think the Nazis recognise Christian 'olidays," Newkirk quipped.

"How could they?" LeBeau added. "They are not Christians!"

"Let's debate Nazi religion--or lack thereof--later, okay?" Hogan plugged in the special coffeepot that connected to the wiretap in the Commandant's office.

"I don't hear anything!" Carter exclaimed. "What's going on?"

Kinchloe reached over and tested the wires. "Connection's fine--we should be getting something!"

Just then, the Englishman Foster rushed in. "Nazis heading this way!" Hogan hurriedly restored the coffeepot to its innocent state as the men rushed to look busy. Newkirk hesitated, kitten in hand, glancing this way and that for a place to hide her. Finally, he popped the lid off the 'Communicoffee Pot' and slipped the tiny creature inside.

Klink stormed into Hogan's room, trailed closely by two equally stone-faced SS clones with a strange electronic gadget.

"Where is that radio!" the German colonel screamed.

Hogan dragged his eyes away from his book with obvious reluctance. "What radio?" he asked innocently. Behind them, Kinchloe and Newkirk smiled amiably at the SS twins, jockeying for a better look at their equipment.

"The radio Major Sauertopf and Major Krabbe detected with their detector!"

"Really?--a detecting detector that detects detections? Neat! Can I see?"

"No!" Klink shouted, getting between the colonel and the majors--and giving the prisoners a chance to sneak up from behind and sketch a diagram. "We clearly discovered radio equipment operating in this office! Now you know the rules, Colonel Hogan!--no radios for listening to enemy broadcasts!"

"Well they aren't our enemies, colonel!" Hogan protested. "Is it our fault your corporals didn't learn their lesson from the first war?"

"Hogan, our-- Never mind," he trailed off sourly. "You still have not answered my question; avoidance!--you do have a radio in here!" He shoved past the colonel. "Aha!" he cried, spying the coffeepot. "What is this?"

"Looks like a coffeepot." Kinchloe took the opportunity to slip quietly out.

"Nein!" one of the majors shouted--Crab or Crab, Hogan couldn't tell. "We have seen this trick before--you use it for communicating!"

"Hey!" Hogan retorted. "I know my men say I'm not a morning person, but saying they're communicating with the dead is really going too far!" Beneath his glib remarks, though, Hogan was beginning to get nervous.

Klink laughed triumphantly, pulling a string of wires out of the side--wires which appeared blatantly unnecessary, even to Klink, for the making of coffee.

Newkirk rushed to get between Klink and the radio. "Now look, ol' chap. I'm sure we can scrounge up a few radio parts for you!" He fell to his knees, hands clasped. "Just pleeeease don't make us face the colonel without 'is coffee! Please!" he cried, clutching Klink's overcoat. "It's in'uman! It--this is nice tailoring," he commented, fingering the stitches.

"Why thank you! I like to think of myself as a connoisseur--"

"Herr Colonel!" Crab 1 shouted.

Klink snapped back to the task at hand, shoving the Englishman away. With a triumphant grin plastered across his face, Klink popped the lid off of the coffeepot. Hogan covered his eyes and groaned. Klink's face fell. Using two fingers, he pulled the crying kitten out of the coffeepot.

"A domestic animal!" Crab 2 cried, stepping forwards. "Note the blue eyes and fair complexion--it is obviously of German descent! Therefore, this...this..."

"Kitten," Klink and Hogan supplied together.

"Vermin! ...is the property of the Reich and must be--"

"Wait!" Crab 1 interrupted excitedly, adjusting the dials on his machine. "There is another radio operating inside this camp!"

"Another radio?" Klink moaned, probably thinking of his heretofore flawless record.

Crab 2, distracted from his train of thought, snapped his fingers--or tried to, while wearing gloves. "Of course! This must be the same radio we heard before--it was Klonk who assumed it was in the senior POW's office!"

"No, that's Kl--I what?" Klink said, genuinely surprised.

"We all know what an idiot Colonel Klank is!" Hogan agreed, grinning from ear to ear.

"Hogan!" But the SS officers were already stalking off to hunt down their elusive prey. Klink and Hogan stared after them. "I merely said that the senior officer's quarters were--Hogaaan!"

"Yessir?"

"You know there are no animals allowed in the barracks!"

"Why didn't you tell the rats that?"

"We make an exception for rats."

"Yeah," Newkirk muttered under his breath, "so many of 'em wear officers' leaves."

Klink didn't hear the remark, or pretended not to. "Why was this animal in your coffeepot?"

Hogan thought fast. "I was hiding it," he admitted with a sigh. "It was a Christmas present..."

"Aha! You got it from Schnitzer!"

"No--it was for you."

Klink, ready to chew Hogan out, paused, mouth open. He blinked. "A Christmas present?" he asked almost humbly. "For me?"

"Well, you spoiled it now! Here, I'll get rid of her--"

"No!" Klink shouted, shocked, hugging the kitten close to him. Newkirk and LeBeau exchanged surprised glances. "I'll take care of this!" He turned and stalked out.

"Can you believe that?" Carter said.

"What a low trick--to 'ave the SS check to see if we're listening to the Christmas broadcasts!"

"No, I mean about Klink and the kitten--I think he actually likes her!"

"A shame," LeBeau said before returning to his stove. "We could have used a mouser around the barracks--those darn souris keep eating my cooking supplies!"

"Are you sure that wasn't Schultz?" Newkirk quipped.

"You know," Hogan remarked thoughtfully, "I think ol' Iron Britches did like that kitten!"

" 'Ow do you figure, colonel?"

"Because now he owes me a little cooperation!"

***

The kitten padded curiously across Klink's desk, managing to get her paws into everything. Klink watched the little animal and smiled for the first time in longer than he could remember. I have to hand it to Colonel Hogan--if this is some scheme of his, it has to be the most pleasant one I've ever encountered. I think I'll just stay home tonight...to spend Christmas with Brunnhilda. Brunnhilda--the name satisfied him, as though he himself could be part of some great opera or storyteller's fancy. Schnitzer, of course, would be happy to check up on Brunnhilda when he changed the dogs...or else.

Klink waggled his fingers tantalisingly on the blotter and Brunnhilda pounced for them. Overbalancing, she stumbled into his pencil jar, which went over with a clatter scaring her back into Klink's arms, where she stuck her head in his jacket and refused to come out.

"Ach, Brunnhilda, don't worry!" he told her. "It takes some time for every girl to grow up graceful and beautiful!"

Kitten in one arm, he bent down to retrieve the holder. As he began picking up pencils, Klink happened to look out the window to his left...to see General Burkhalter's staff car pulling through the gates. The commandant felt a chill run down his spine--the braggardly general usually preferred tooling around Germany in his open-backed parade car. If he was riding in his staff car, it could mean only one thing--his widowed sister, Frau Linkmeyer, was with him.

"Brunnhilda," he said, "I think we are in trouble." The kitten burrowed deeper into his uniform. What on earth could Burkhalter want now? A Christmas wedding? He shuddered at the thought--though marrying Frau Linkmeyer would have gotten him those hallowed General Staff stripes, the woman was thoroughly dominating and unpleasant. Her last husband, Otto, had volunteered for the Russian Front shortly after marrying her, where he was presumably missing in action--they still called him 'Lucky Otto'. Since then, there wasn't a bachelor colonel in Germany--and possibly quite a few majors and captains as well--that Burkhalter hadn't proposed his sister to. Most counted themselves lucky if the good Dame found them 'disagreeable' and they were sent to Russia. For some reason, though, she liked Klink.

As that Engländer, Dunne, once said, Klink thought, 'Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.' Had Frau Linkmeyer once told him she liked cats? He looked down at the kitten in his arms. "I'm sorry, Brunnhilda," he said, and quickly slipped her under the spike-tipped helmet on his desk.

Without so much as a knock on the door, Burkhalter barrelled in and commandeered the best seat--namely Klink's. He was smiling--not a good sign.

"Klink!" he shouted, making the word sound more like a name than a curse--another bad sign.

"Fröhliche Weihnachten, Herr General!" Klink said without much enthusiasm, taking a chair on the opposite side of his own desk.

"And a Merry Christmas to you too, my dear friend--the season to celebrate, nicht wahr?"

"Yes of course, Herr General." Perhaps I need that drink after all...

"Of course, no German officer would wish to celebrate too much, richtig?"

"Richtig, Herr General."

The general's smile turned evil. "Sehr gut! I'm so glad we agree--that way, you won't mind foregoing your annual foray to Hammelburg to host myself and my lovely sister, Frau Linkmeyer."

Great, Klink, just great! a voice that sounded suspiciously like Colonel Hogan complained in his head. You walked right into that one, Dummkopf! Klink nodded solemnly to himself. He's right, of course, and...where did Hogan learn to speak German? "I would be thrilled, Herr General," Klink whimpered miserably. It was then, to his horror, he saw his helmet begin to move. The fat general's eyes bugged as he and Klink watched the helmet slide across the desk towards the commandant.

"It's possessed!" Burkhalter cried.

"I am sorry, Herr General, it is just Brunnhilda. Stop that, you naughty girl!" he scolded the helmet. Obediently, the movement ceased.

Burkhalter looked a little nervous--Klink couldn't figure why. "You can...ah...you can talk to this...Brunnhilda, and she does what you ask?"

Klink shrugged, thinking Burkhalter was taking this cat-thing very well. "Within reason--she doesn't always obey me, you see. She has a mind of her own and is very independent!"

The general rocked back in his--Klink's--chair. "I am sure the Führer would like to know about this!"

Klink started. "The Führer! But why? Does he like cats too?"

"Cats!" Burkhalter shouted. "Who said anything about cats?" With a speed defying his bulk, he swiped the helmet off the desk. Brunnhilda blinked up at the fat general and mewed, almost reprovingly. "Aagh! A cat!" the general spat. "Klink, you Schwachsinnige, get rid of it!"

"But why, Herr General? Brunnhilda is harmless."

"I hate cats--they never obey orders! And if you don't, I will!" Klink hastened to do as Burkhalter commanded, scooping up Brunnhilda with a quick apology and unceremoniously dumping her out the window onto the front porch. Unbeknownst to him, Frau Linkmeyer, having exhausted her criticism of the military chauffeur's driving and tired of waiting in the car, had decided to get a breath of fresh air.

What is keeping Albert? He never could get things done efficiently, even as a boy. Simply amazing he reached the rank of general when he can't even bully his inferiors with any expediency! As she grumbled further along that train of thought, she nearly stepped on the kitten.

"Ach! Rocks in the compound--oh, mein Kätzchen!" She hauled Brunnhilda aloft by the scruff of the neck, swinging the crying kitten around to inspect it. Frowning thoughtfully, she nodded, liking what she saw. "Hush!" The kitten immediately quieted. "Your name is Wolfgang!" she declared. "And you are mine!" Poor Brunnhilda began crying again with renewed verve.

When Klink rushed to the window to see what was so upsetting his Liebchen, he found a sight almost too horrible for the veteran of two wars to behold--Frau Linkmeyer trying to teach Brunnhilda to sit quietly on her arm.

"Frau Linkmeyer!" he cried.

The widow smiled up at him. "Ah, there you are, Wilhelm! See who I have found in your dank little prison camp--meet Wolfie!"

"Wolfie," Klink moaned, knees shaking under him. "She has my Brunnhilda!"

Burkhalter, coming up beside him, laughed sourly at Klink's distress. "Believe me, Klink, I don't want her to have that cat either." He stared the colonel up and down reprovingly. "But you are not exactly my idea of Siegfried!"

"She named my Brunnhilda Wolfie!"

The general shrugged. "Are you going to tell her?"

"No," Klink sighed, wishing he were more like the Wagnerian hero, Siegfried, to take on the monster and rescue fair Brunnhilda. Wilhelm, he told himself, you are an incurable, contemptible, snivelling coward. Why can't you even work up the courage to go and rescue her? He sighed miserably. What Brunnhilda needs is a hero, a Siegfried, someone like... An idea hit him with such force that he rocked back on his heels.

"Herr General," he said, the purposefulness in his voice actually surprising Burkhalter, "if you will excuse me for a few moments, I need to go make dinner arrangements with my chef."

"Chef? Is that why you always have such excellent food at Stalag 13?" The general rubbed his hands together greedily, and Klink was suddenly reminded about that old aphorism his mother had once told him--animals always come back to the person who feeds them. "Perhaps your chef would like a transfer closer to home..."

"I'm sure Corporal LeBeau would indeed," Klink said, enjoying the way the general's face fell. Still smiling, Klink clicked his heels in salute and left.

***

Without so much as knocking, Klink barged in to Baracke 2 and slammed it behind him, leaning heavily against it as though he were being chased by a raving tiger...or Frau Linkmeyer. LeBeau, stirring one of his culinary concoctions in a pot over the stove, looked up and groaned when he saw it was Klink. The colonel rushed over, trying to look friendly.

"Whatever it is," the chef cried, "it will cost you two kilos of cake flour, a kilo of sugar, and three dozen fresh eggs--non-negotiable!"

"Done!" Klink shouted.

The Frenchman, who had been willing to bargain down to half a kilo of flour, four cups of sugar, and four eggs, raised his dark eyebrows. "Who do I have to cook for?" he asked suspiciously.

"General Burkhalter and Frau Linkmeyer."

"Zut! I should have asked for more sugar!"

"Can you start immediately?"

LeBeau gestured disgustedly at the prisoners lounging around the room. "Do any of these men look like they have cooking ability? Sang de bois! They would burn my sauce! You will just have to wait in line, Monsieur Commandant."

"My mother was a good cook..."

LeBeau looked interested. "Oui?"

Klink straightened proudly. "She was once permitted to prepare her speciality--'Bavarian Cream with Raspberry Sauce'--for the Kaiser and the royal cousins from England!"

LeBeau clapped him enthusiastically on the back and handed him the spoon. "Bon appétit, Monsieur Commandant! I will go cook for you immediately!"

Klink stirred the sauce briskly, but gently, as Frau Klink had once instructed him. 'One down, one to go', as the Americans say, he thought. Sooner than he had hoped, Colonel Hogan emerged from his room. The prisoner started, blinking in confusion when he spotted Klink at the stove.

"Herr Commandant!" he said, glancing around for LeBeau. "What are you doing here?"

"Ah, Colonel Hogan! It's wonderful to see you!--you see, I have this little matter I wish to discuss with you..."

"Look, we just found those baskets of potatoes by the roadside! You can ask Schultz--"

"Of course, of course! That wasn't it--"

"This is fraternisation, Herr Commandant! You could get in big trouble!"

"If it doesn't bother you, it doesn't bother me!" Klink replied, managing to sound nonchalant. In truth, being so close to the prisoners--who outnumbered the 'Iron Colonel'--did make him just the slightest bit edgy. Well, okay--he was nervous.

Hogan considered--from all his experiences with the Commandant of Stalag 13, he had learned that Klink only got his courage from desperation. And when he was that desperate, he wouldn't dare try anything to aggravate the man with all the answers--namely, Hogan.

"All right," he said, taking a seat by the stove. The rest of the Heroes--again, except for LeBeau, and Kinchloe, who was in the Cooler for the radio stunt--gathered around them. "Start talking."

"Nazi cats!" Newkirk remarked disgustedly after Klink had left. "I just don't believe this!"

"You'd better!" Hogan said, not any happier. "We still have to get Klink to Hammelburg--tonight!"

"Which means we rescue Klink's kitten," Kinchloe, newly freed from his confinement, remarked. "Great, just great!"

"Blimey!" Billet exclaimed. "Exac'ly 'ow are we suppos' ta ge' the wee bannock awa' from the Dragon Lady?"

"A very good question!" Hogan remarked, turning several ideas over in his head and dismissing each one.

"Hey everybody!" Carter exclaimed happily, coming in and stomping the snow off his boots. "I just gave Fräulein Helga one of our kittens! I wrapped him up in a little red bow and said 'Merry Christmas!'--" Everyone ignored Carter.

"Can't we just radio Pelican and tell 'im to pick it up later?" Newkirk asked.

"No," Hogan said frustratedly, shaking his head. "We agreed to run silent until the rendez-vous. If Klink's car isn't outside the Hausnerhof tonight, he'll just head for the sub without the microfilm."

"What if we hid the film somewhere else," Baker spoke up, "then left a message on Klink's car telling the location?"

"That might work," Hogan admitted, "but it's riskier than I'd like--the Gestapo don't take holiday leave either. The visual code was a pattern of red, green, and blue--"

"Atrocious!" Foster broke in.

Hogan glared at the Englishman, annoyed at being interrupted. "Also, we don't know how much time Pelican has to spare."

"Coul' one of us take it ta 'im instea'?" Billet asked.

"Sure!" Newkirk chuckled. "Let's just stuff Louis in the trunk again and 'ang red, green, and blue ribbons off of it!" Everyone laughed except the colonel.

"The only problem is that LeBeau's committed to cooking for Klink!" Hogan sighed.

Newkirk stared. "Colonel, I was only joking!"

"I'm not!" Hogan snapped. "If I was any more desperate, I'd send--" He looked at Carter.

"Who, colonel?" Kinchloe asked.

"I'd send..." Hogan said again, still looking at Carter, who had started to fidget under his scrutiny. "...I'd send one of the kittens!" he finished with quiet triumph.

Everyone blinked. "Pardon?" Newkirk said.

"That's it!" Hogan cried.

"What's it?" Carter asked.

"I think I missed something," Kinchloe confided to Newkirk. The Englishman shrugged sympathetically.

Hogan grinned. "We're gonna assassinate Frau Linkmeyer's new pet."

"What!?" Carter shouted. Newkirk and Kinchloe shot to their feet to restrain him.

"Now hold on, Carter!" Hogan shouted quickly. "We're not really gonna kill the kitten--only Frau Linkmeyer will think her beloved 'Wolfie' is dead!"

Carter narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but relaxed somewhat. "Keep talking!" he demanded.

"Okay," Hogan said, much relieved. "I'll have to work out the details, but here's the basic idea..."

***

Carter opened the cabinet door a crack and peered out. LeBeau stood above him at the stove stirring something delicious-smelling, Schultz hovering at his elbow with the rapt fascination every teacher might wish in a student. LeBeau, however, hadn't set out to teach the fat sergeant anything.

"Go away, Schultz!"

"Oh but please, LeBeau--how do you get the sauce so creamy and thick!"

"Why should I bother to tell you--you are not French. What good would the torture of knowing do you?"

"I could learn! Ich spreche English very much good, nicht wahr?"

"Isn't your wife expecting you?"

"Ja. She...and her mother."

"Oh," LeBeau said in an entirely different tone. The Frenchman shuddered sympathetically. "In that case, you may stay a little bit longer."

"Mer-see, Mon-sewer!" LeBeau groaned and rolled his eyes. "In that case, may I have a little cream for Elsa's kitten?"

"Me too!" Carter cried, scaring them both as he emerged from the kitchen cabinet-tunnel.

"Carter!" Schultz cried. "Where did you--never mind! I see nutzzzing! I will take my cream and leave!"

"Hey Louie," Carter said when LeBeau went to get a saucer, "could you get out two of those, sill-voo-play?"

As LeBeau grumbled something about hearing enough butchered French for one day, Carter brought his hands out of his pockets.

"Mein Gott!" Schultz shouted.

"Keep your voice down!" Carter hissed.

"What did you do to that poor kitten?"

"Ah, has my soup flavouring arrived?" LeBeau joked, returning with the saucers. His face fell when he saw Carter's kitten. "Mon Dieu!"

The kitten in Carter's arms looked terrible--using Hogan's electric razor, the Heroes had shaved off patches of the poor creature's fur coat, dyeing the remaining hair a stomach-turning motley of red and black. Except for looking as though he had gone through a cheese grater, the kitten was healthy and in good spirits, purring contentedly in Carter's warm hands.

"This is Wolfie!" Carter said.

Schultz furrowed his brows. "What? But I thought Frau Linkmeyer had poor little Wolfie outside with her!"

"Oui," LeBeau agreed. "The sight will give me nightmares for years to come!"

"And that's where you come in, big guy!" Hogan cried cheerfully, stepping out of the cabinet. Schultz' eyes rolled back like a frightened horse as he began to vehemently insist upon his continued ignorance in all things.

"Aw, come on, Schultz!" Carter said. "You don't want Frau Linkmeyer to keep that poor innocent little kitty, do you?"

Hogan nodded enthusiastically. "That comes under cruelty to animals!" He threw up his hands in disgust. "What am I arguing for, anyway? There's no touching the cold stone heart of the Iron Potato!"

"Nein, nein!" Schultz protested. "I am a nice potato--soft-boiled!"

"Then you'll help us get that kitten away from Burkhalter's sister?"

"Okay," he sighed.

"Terrific!" Hogan swiped the kitten from Carter, passing it to a mystified LeBeau. "Here--I'd like this one cream-filled!"

"You want me to give my gourmet sauce to the cats?"

"It's either them or the Germans."

"How full would you like him?"

"As much as he'll eat--get him fat and sleepy!"

Schultz held up a tentative finger. "And where do I come into this-which-is-not-happening?"

Hogan was about to answer when the cabinet opened again and Newkirk stepped out, followed by Kinchloe--Klink's tiny kitchen was getting awfully crowded by now, especially when Schultz tried to stampede and had to be restrained.

Outside, Klink rapped on the door. "Schultz! How is it going in there?"

"J-j-just fine, H-h-herr Kommandant!" Schultz gasped.

Hogan rubbed his hands together eagerly. "All right, Madame LaFarge! Hand those puppies over!"

"Puppies now?" Schultz whimpered.

The Englishman grinned proudly, holding up the two tiny sweaters he had knitted. One looked as though it had come out on the wrong end of a car wreck, with large, gaping burns in the frayed yarn. " 'Ere y'go, colonel! A pair a' masterpieces, if I do say so me-self!"

"And naturally, he doesn't hesitate to!" Kinchloe quipped.

"This one," Newkirk said, dangling the burnt one, "has the added extras you requested, guv'nor!"

" 'Added extras'?" Schultz parroted. "Never mind! I don't want to know!"

"Now, Schultz," Hogan chided, displaying the little sweater, "wouldn't this look just darling on Elsa's little kitty?"

"No! I think the colour is atrocious!"

"Let's see the man with ten thumbs do any better!" Newkirk protested bitterly.

Hogan grinned up at Schultz persuasively. "Don't worry--it's only for a few minutes! I promise! Just don't hide your kitten from Frau Linkmeyer!"

Schultz cuddled his kitten protectively. "But she might take it away from me!"

"I can tell you confidently that General Burkhalter wouldn't allow it," Hogan swore solemnly.

"But Colonel Klink!--"

"I'll take care of the colonel--you just go along with whatever I say."

"Ach!" Schultz whimpered. "I don't know..."

"You know, Schultzie," LeBeau spoke up, "Klink will be very happy if he gets his kitten back, and if he's happy, well..." He stirred his cream sauce slowly, almost seductively, taking it off the stove to hold under Schultz' nose. The smell rising from it was absolutely heavenly, filling the kitchen and making every mouth salivate. Schultz closed his eyes in ecstasy. LeBeau grinned. "You just never know what sort of good things might pop up!"

"I'll do it, I'll do it!" Schultz cried. "Just don't torture me any more!"

The Heroes exchanged satisfied grins. "Here Schultz," LeBeau said, holding out the spoon, "tell me if this needs more nutmeg."

Schultz opened the kitchen door a crack and peered out.

"See?" Hogan said, looking out from a lower level, "they're all at the table--go on!"

Reluctantly, Schultz opened the door all the way and trundled out into the main room. Elsa's kitten was tucked gently under one hammy arm, wearing the Engländer's awful little sweater.

"Ah, Schultz!" Burkhalter cried benevolently, having already put away two bottles of Klink's private-reserve Schnapps, "come join us--tell us how things are in the kitchen!"

"Ja!" Frau Linkmeyer snorted disapprovingly--Albert never could handle his liquor; some German! "We are famished!" She hefted the crying kitten Brunnhilda/Wolfie as an example. "See? He cries with hunger!"

Klink looked up, hoping perhaps Hogan had miraculously materialised in the kitchen with Schultz, ready to give Klink a brilliant idea as to how to rescue Brunnhilda. Instead, he caught sight of the sergeant's passenger. "Schultz! Was ist das?"

"A-a-a kitten, Herr Kommandant!" Schultz stammered, reluctantly holding it up for inspection. Frau Linkmeyer gave a little cry.

"Where did you get that kitten?" Klink demanded sharply.

"Forget the kitten!" Burkhalter's sister interrupted, "where did you get that adorable little sweater?"

"I-i-it was a gift, Frau Linkmeyer! From the prisoners!"

"Fraternising!" Klink shouted irritably, banging on the table and startling the drowsing general.

"Nonsense, Klink! It is Christmas, after all. Herr Sergeant Major..."

"Ja, Frau Linkmeyer?" Schultz asked, unused to such courtesy from the powers-that-be.

She batted her eyes, trying to be coquettish, but coming off as gruesome. "I don't suppose you could consider parting with that precious little sweater?"

"Of course he could!" Hogan shouted, bursting in through the front door before Schultz could answer. The fat sergeant, who had erroneously assumed that prisoners in the kitchen stayed in the kitchen, nearly fainted. Klink also felt like fainting--with relief.

"Colonel Hogan!" he said harshly--but not too harshly, "I don't recall inviting you!"

General Burkhalter grinned and rather tipsily toasted the newcomer. "Peace on Earth--good will t'ward Men!"

"Well, sergeant?" Frau Linkmeyer asked.

"No, I feel rather ill, actually." He sat down heavily, and the kitten mewed in protest.

"I mean the sweater!" She was beginning to lose her 'friendly' expression.

"Oh! Yes, of course!" He glanced over at Hogan, who nodded briefly. Gratefully, he stripped the sweater off of Elsa's kitten and, at her insistence, put it on Brunnhilda/Wolfie. He diplomatically decided not to point out the eye-aching pattern, but privately thought Frau Linkmeyer had to be colour-blind.

"How is your Christmas party going, Hogan?" Klink asked to be conversational.

"Fine, fine! We just brought out the Schnapps and--what is that wonderful smell?"

Burkhalter struggled to sit up. "You were sayin' 'bout Schnapps?"

"What? Oh, yes--we brew our own, out of the rotten potatoes the colonel so generously gives us! It's actually not bad according to our liquor connoisseurs and--that smells like Bavarian Cream!"

"Wha'?" Burkhalter slurred groggily. But his eyes drooped, and he nodded off then and there.

"Hey Schultz!" Hogan called.

"Ja, Herr Colonel?"

"Schultz," Klink groaned, "may I remind you that Colonel Hogan is not enlisted in the German Armed Forces?"

Hogan didn't lose a beat. "Did your little buddy enjoy LeBeau's special cream sauce? You did ask for some, didn't you?"

"Ja, ja, of course!" Schultz agreed readily.

"Of course!" Hogan echoed. "You know how touchy LeBeau is about his cream sauces! He only gave you some 'cause you pushed him around!"

"Natürlich!"

"Sergeant!"

"Ja, Frau Linkmeyer?"

"Go get Wolfie some of that cream sauce!"

"Right away, Frau Linkmeyer!" he cried, heading for the kitchen.

"Aw c'mon, Schultz!" Hogan said, hastily slipping between him and the door. "You know that sauce'll get cold before you bring it back here! Wouldn't Wolfie enjoy it so much better warm?"

"Sergeant!"

"J-j-ja, Frau Linkmeyer?"

"Here--take Wolfie with you!" Obediently, he scooped the kitten out of her lap. Strangely enough, Brunnhilda/Wolfie stopped crying immediately. "Now you be good!" the snoring general's sister said, tickling her under the chin. "And tell that nasty Frenchman to hurry up!" Schultz quickly retreated for the kitchen.

Seconds later, there was a cry and a loud splash.

"Sacrebleu!" someone cried. "Save him, save him!" There was more commotion, followed by a dramatic wail. "Non, non!" LeBeau howled, rushing out of the kitchen cradling a soggy kitten. Schultz followed close behind, streamers of tears rolling down both men's cheeks (not surprising--LeBeau had been chopping onions for the occasion).

"He's dead, he's dead!" Schultz wailed enthusiastically, as he had been instructed.

LeBeau held up the limp kitten. "He fell into the creame, and he has become brulee!"

"He's dead, he's dead!"

"No, not quite!" Hogan snatched the kitten up and set him down on the table, dramatically pretending to inspect his 'wounds'. The full-to-bursting kitten burped, his stomach gurgling contentedly.

"Aïe, aïe, aïe!" LeBeau wailed, throwing an arm over his eyes. "It is worse than I thought! Oh, how can I live with myself?"

"We have to get this kitten to a doctor immediately!" Hogan shouted. "Klink!"

The colonel jumped as if stung. Cold horror at seeing his beloved Brunnhilda in such a state had frozen his limbs.

"Klink!" Hogan shouted again. "Snap out of it! You can still save Wolfie's life!"

"Yes," Klink stammered, leaping to his feet, "yes of course!" Without waiting for Schultz--who appeared to be a nervous wreck, crying ceaselessly and still howling that the kitten was dead--he ran to get the car.

Frau Linkmeyer hadn't moved from her seat. She watched dispassionately as Hogan and LeBeau rushed about, fetching towels to wrap the 'patient' in. "That oaf Schultz!" she grumbled to herself. "I will have Albert send him to the Russian Front for this!" Hearing that, Schultz trembled in his jackboots, and began weeping with renewed vigour. Burkhalter was still snoring gustily, having slept through all the excitement. Irritably, his sister poked him with a fork. "Albert! Albert!" He grumbled in his sleep and slid further down into his chair, to take up his snores again.

Klink rushed back in. "Am I too late?" he wailed.

"No! Here--" Hogan handed him the wrapped bundle of snoozing kitten.

Klink rushed back to the car and rocketed through the hastily-opened gates, narrowly missing the guards. The Mercedes tore down the dark, winding dirt road, Klink fighting the huge car for control.

Calm down, Wilhelm, he told himself, shooting a few brief glances at the cosily-bundled kitten. So you haven't driven yourself in fifteen years--how much can a car change in that time? It's just like riding a bicycle--too bad I never learned to that well either...

He screeched to a halt before Oscar Schnitzer's darkened veterinary clinic, and pounded on the door without much hope. He realised he had no idea where Schnitzer, the only veterinarian in Hammelburg, lived, and it was too late to find a doctor of any kind open on Christmas. With a heavy heart, he got back into his car and stared down at the sleeping kitten, feeling hopeless tears well up in his eyes. Here he was, the absolute ruler of three thousand Allied prisoners, and he couldn't save the life of one little kitten. Ach, Brunnhilda, it looks like you got a peasant after all, instead of the mighty hero you deserved.

"Pardon, mein Herr, do you need help?"

Klink glanced up, startled. A man was bending down over his car, the cheerful Christmas lights from the Hausnerhof across the street making a shadow of his face.

"Oh, I am sorry!" the man exclaimed. "I didn't see your uniform, Herr Colonel! Luftwaffe? You must be from Stalag 13! My name is Herr Pelikan--may I be allowed to buy a soldier of the Reich a drink on such a cold night?"

"No, thank you," Klink moaned. He glanced up again. "You wouldn't happen to know of a doctor open tonight?"

"Are you wounded?" the man said, radiating concern.

"No--you see, I have this kitten here..."

"Let me look at her." Gently, he took the kitten from Klink's arms and opened the bundle of towels enough to see the red-green-and-blue sweater. "Ah!" he exclaimed softly, fingering the charred holes. "She has been burned?" Klink nodded miserably, and the man tickled the shaved kitten on the belly. The kitten mewed sleepily and began to purr. "They do that when they are happy...or hurt as badly as this one," he said to Klink's questioning look.

"Are you a doctor?" Klink asked, hardly daring to hope.

"No--my brother Friedrich is a farm-animal veterinarian though. I am going to visit him just now. If you would like me to take this little one..."

"Yes, yes!" Klink cried. "By all means! Any bill--I will pay it! Just please save my Brunnhilda--" He caught himself, and sighed. "No, her name is 'Wolfgang' now," he said bitterly, "and he no longer belongs to me."

Though he couldn't see it in the darkness, he thought the man smiled. "We'll see, we'll see..."

***

The gates of Stalag 13 parted before a lone courier astride a dusty motorcycle. A box with holes rode strapped down in his sidecar.

Sergeant Schultz trundled up to meet the private as he parked in front of the main office. The man in the Luftwaffe uniform pulled his dirty goggles up onto his forehead.

"Hiya, Schultz!" Carter chirruped.

The big man was not fazed a bit. He pointed towards the box. "Is that...?"

"Yep! Special delivery to Colonel Klink!"

Schultz bent down and waggled a thick finger through one of the holes. "Hallo, Brunnhilda!" the big man crooned. "It is nice to see you again!"

"Hey, Schultz!" Carter said. "I thought you saw nothing!"

Schultz sniffed. "I see small animals and children--you are not here! And since you are back in the barracks, I will take this to the Kommandant!"

"Thanks, pal!" Carter called, gunning the engine and roaring away, leaving Schultz holding the box. The sergeant twitched his mustache and took the box inside.

Fräulein Helga was at her desk, trying to type around Baron Munchausen--more fondly known as 'der Baron'--who insisted on getting in her way. Klink's secretary didn't seem to mind, though.

She looked up at the box. "Is that...?

"Yep!"

She smiled broadly. "Go right on in, Herr Sergeant Major!"

Schultz gave her a gallant little bow. "Verbindlichsten Dank, Fräulein!"

Klink was brooding at his desk, a mountain of paperwork strewn before him. He looked terrible, with his unshaven face and mussy uniform. Schultz boldly sat the box down right under his nose. "A package for you, Herr Kommandant! Just arrived by special courier!"

"Probably another bomb from Frau Linkmeyer. If General Burkhalter hadn't been too drunk to remember anything, I'll bet he would be sending me bombs too!"

"I think you will want to look inside this package!" Schultz chuckled, leaving the colonel to his box without even waiting for a dismissal. Outside, a work team of prisoners had magically appeared to weed the garden--Carter among them. They just happened to be standing right outside Klink's office window. Schultz hurried to join them.

"Is he opening it yet?" he whispered excitedly. Giving presents was one of the former toymaker's favourite hobbies.

"Not yet!" LeBeau cried.

"Colonel Hogan..."

"Yes, Schultz?"

"If I may ask, what happened to the other kitten?"

Hogan blinked innocently. "What 'other kitten'?"

"The one the Kommandant took to the veterinarian."

"You mean Wolfie? Oh, didn't you hear?--Frau Linkmeyer got a call that her kitten died in the night."

Kinchloe nodded. "Why else would she be sending Klink letter bombs?"

"Maybe they are German love letters!" LeBeau snickered.

Schultz looked puzzled. "But Brunnhilda is alive!--I just saw her!"

Hogan nodded, as if it made perfect sense. "Of course!"

"But you just said Wolfie was dead..."

"Yep!"

That gave Schultz a pause. "Now wait a minute... Where did Wolfie go?"

Carter grinned. "England!"

"England?" Schultz asked dubiously.

"Sure, Schultz," Kinchloe added reasonably. "Didn't you know that all cats, when they die, go to England?"

"To a hero's welcome!" LeBeau added.

"Yeah," Newkirk said, leaning casually on his shovel. "Why d'ya think we 'ave so many over there? They don't grow native, that's for sure!"

Schultz was about to protest when they heard a cry from Klink's office. "Brunnhilda!" It was followed by that rarely-heard sound of a man weeping.

Grinning from ear to ear, the Heroes moved off to leave Klink to his happy reunion.

"I don't care if he is the enemy," Newkirk sighed in satisfaction. "I feel good all over!"

"I'll say!" Kinchloe grinned, "makes you think we still have a chance for peace, doesn't it?"

"Yeah," Hogan said, gazing up into the bright blue winter sky. "Makes you think..."