Disclaimer: I do not own any of the Hogan's Heroes characters. No copyright infringement is intended.
A chilly breeze swept across the compound of Stalag thirteen; the mid-September sun just beginning to set, turning the sky a brilliant mixture of red and orange. RAF Corporal Peter Newkirk stood outside, leaning against the wall of Barracks two, taking one last drag off his cigarette before he had to go back inside and finish the repairs on his uniform overcoat. The days were becoming markedly cooler; the heat of the summer fading as fall took over. Soon the cold winds would start blowing, eventually bringing the snow with them, and he wanted to be prepared.
He glanced up at the sky, momentarily allowing himself to appreciate the beauty of the fiery display stretching out across the horizon. Then he let out a sigh, flicked his cigarette butt onto the ground and, pushing himself away from the wall, turned and headed toward the barracks door.
Upon entering, his attention was immediately drawn to the two men seated at the long table in the middle of the common room; Sergeant Andrew Carter and Corporal Louis LeBeau. Carter was hovering over several vertical rows of cards that were spread out on the table before him – an obvious game of solitaire – and his glance was darting between the black five in his hand and the upturned cards on the table, no doubt looking for a red six to place it on. LeBeau was hard at work writing a letter; his brow furrowed in concentration as he scribbled something down on the paper in front of him. Both men raised their heads when they noticed Newkirk standing in the doorway.
"Hey, Newkirk, when I finish this game, you want to play some Gin?" Carter asked, hoping to enlist a little company; he was growing tired of playing cards by himself.
"Sorry, Andrew, I've got to get back to fixin' me coat. Why don't you ask Louis, 'ere?" Newkirk said, gesturing to LeBeau.
LeBeau frowned. "Can't you see I'm busy writing a letter? Why don't you play cards with Carter? Your coat can wait."
"So can your girlfriends," Newkirk retorted.
LeBeau smirked at him. "At least I have girlfriends," he replied smugly.
"LeBeau, I'm warning you…"
Just then the door to the private quarters opened, and Colonel Robert E. Hogan came striding out, coffee mug in hand; his destination the coffee pot that was warming on the stove. He instantly noticed the tense expressions on Newkirk and LeBeau's faces, and knew he better intervene. "What's up, fellas?" he asked as he lifted the coffee pot and proceeded to fill his cup.
"Nothin', Colonel," Newkirk answered, quickly masking his irritation.
Hogan set the coffee pot back on the stove and glanced from one corporal to the other; unconvinced. As his gaze landed on Carter, the sergeant's mouth opened and he began to speak; the compulsion he felt to explain the situation obviously too great for him to resist.
"Well, sir, I was asking Newkirk if he wanted to play Gin with me, but he said he had to work on his coat, so he told Louis to play cards with me, instead. Then Louis said he was busy writing to his girlfriends, and told Newkirk that at least he had some girlfriends to write to…"
"All right, Carter, I get the picture," Hogan interrupted, holding up his hand with his palm facing the sergeant, indicating for him to stop. With supreme effort, he kept the smirk from appearing on his face as he addressed his English corporal. "Newkirk, why don't you go and finish fixing your coat, and LeBeau," he turned to the Frenchman, "You can go back to writing your letters. I'll play a few games of Gin with Carter."
Carter's eyes lit up. "Really, Colonel?"
Hogan smiled. "Sure, I could use a break." He walked around the table and, just as he sat down opposite of Carter, the false-bottom bunk to his left suddenly banged up and Sergeant James Kinchloe's head poked through.
The radioman spotted Hogan immediately. "Message from the Underground, Colonel," Kinch stated as he climbed over the side of the bunk and went to join his teammates at the table. He passed the piece of paper he was carrying over to Hogan and took a seat.
Hogan took the message and quickly scanned it. "Looks like there was an escape from Stalag four," he muttered as his eyes moved rapidly back and forth across the paper, "We've got four prisoners headed in our direction. We'll need to send someone out tonight to meet up with them and bring 'em back to camp." He finished studying the message and looked up at his men expectantly. "Okay, who wants to volunteer?"
Everyone's attention suddenly shifted away from Hogan; the men becoming engrossed in their own individual tasks. Carter scooped up the cards from the table and began to shuffle them repeatedly. LeBeau stared intently down at the letter he'd been working on, scrutinizing it like it was an Allied plan to retake Paris, and Newkirk had snatched his overcoat from his bunk where he'd tossed it earlier, and was running it through his hands, looking for the spot where he had left off on the repairs that he'd started that morning.
Hogan glanced at each of them; a mixture of amusement and irritation on his face. "Oh, c'mon, fellas, this should be an easy assignment. Besides, tonight may be the last nice night we're gonna get for a while. In case you haven't noticed, it's starting to get colder."
Hogan's words were met by silence. His gaze shifted to each man once again, and as his eyes lighted on his English corporal who was fastidiously inspecting the coat in his hands, he said, "Newkirk, I bet you could use a little fresh air."
Newkirk's head snapped up, his eyes meeting Hogan's gaze. "To be honest, sir, I was hopin' to finish me coat, 'ere…"
"Oh, you've got plenty of time for that," Hogan replied, resisting the urge to smile, "And thanks for volunteering."
Newkirk's expression took on a look of resignation. "Yes, sir," he said, letting out a small sigh.
Hogan couldn't stop the lopsided grin from appearing on his face. Then he glanced at his men again. "I want someone to go with Newkirk; who's game?"
Again there was silence. Hogan was just about to make his own choice, when Kinch suddenly spoke up.
"I'll go, Colonel."
"You, Kinch?" Hogan looked surprised.
"Yes, sir. I could use a little fresh air, myself." Kinch grinned at him.
Hogan knew that Kinch didn't get to go out on missions very often. Being a black man didn't lend itself very well to passing as a German. But he also knew that Kinch must get tired of being stuck in the tunnel, manning the radio on an almost constant basis. As he mulled it over, he realized that there was no reason not to let him go with Newkirk. They only had to meet some escaped prisoners and bring them back to the Stalag. If they were caught, they could claim to be escaping, themselves. Besides, they'd done this so many times, it was beginning to become routine. What could possibly go wrong?
"Okay, Kinch," Hogan answered at last, "You and Newkirk can go."
"Thanks, Colonel," Kinch said.
"Where will they be waitin' for us, sir?" Newkirk asked.
Hogan's head swiveled to look at Newkirk. "At the usual rendezvous point. You two can take off after evening roll call. Oh, and according to the message, one of them is an American officer."
Newkirk impulsively rolled his eyes. "Oh, joy," he mumbled, then, noticing the frown forming on Hogan's face, quickly added, "Understood, Colonel."
Hogan nodded slightly, his frown disappearing. He knew how Newkirk felt about officers – the corporal had made no secret about it – but he also knew that Newkirk could be trusted to follow orders. Hogan briefly thought back to how long it had personally taken him to gain Newkirk's respect and loyalty, and he inwardly smiled. The Englishman had a suspicious nature, to be sure, but, considering their current assignment, that particular quality of his had come in handy many times. It was just one of the many reasons that made him invaluable to the operation.
Hogan brought his arm up and glanced at his watch. "And since we've got a few more hours until roll call," he said, still addressing Newkirk, "You've got some time to work on your coat." He turned back to Carter and, grinning wide, plopped his hands on the table. "And we've got time to play some Gin."
"Yes, sir!" Carter replied happily, and began to deal.
* * * * * * *
After roll call Kinch and Newkirk headed down into the tunnel through the false-bottom bunk at the far end of the barracks. They made their way to the emergency exit, and just before climbing up through the hollow tree stump above, they each grabbed a pistol from the small cache of weapons that were kept nearby. Then Newkirk ascended the ladder, and when he was clear of the exit, Kinch followed. The two men melted into the woods, setting their course for the rendezvous point; about two and a half kilometers northeast of their current position.
The night was clear, and the moon cast a welcome glow across their path, allowing them to step a little more quickly along the forest floor. A few minutes into their trek, Newkirk, who was slightly ahead, turned his head and said quietly, "I still can't believe you volunteered for this, mate. Stumblin' about in the woods just to meet up with a few blokes, what escaped from Stalag four. Why, you could be back at camp right now, catchin' up on your sleep."
"Is that what you'd be doing, Newkirk?" Kinch asked, keeping his voice low, "Catching up on your sleep?"
"You know me too well," Newkirk answered, chuckling softly.
Kinch grinned in the darkness. He did indeed know Newkirk well, as he did the other members of his team. He'd never been a big talker, preferring to hang back a little and observe the people around him; discovering early on that he could learn a lot more about them that way. Newkirk hadn't been too difficult to figure out; a loner at first glance, a bit of a rebel, seemingly more interested in saving his own skin. But underneath the surface, a heart of gold lay hidden, and once tapped, Newkirk's true nature was evident; compassion for those who suffered, concern for those who put themselves in danger to confront the evil spreading across the country, and a loyalty to his friends that ran deeper than most men could fathom. Whatever sordid past Newkirk may have had to survive to acquire the skills he now possessed, he had adjusted to a life of honor and courage very quickly once given the chance; proving to Kinch, at least, that those qualities had been tucked away inside the Englishman all along.
They continued to pick their way through the forest, making good time in the cool, still darkness. Several more minutes passed, when Newkirk abruptly stopped in his tracks without warning, causing Kinch, who was still following closely behind, to run right into him, nearly knocking him over. The sergeant quickly took a step back and grabbed Newkirk's arm to help steady him.
"Newkirk, why did you stop?" Kinch whispered fiercely at him once the Englishman had regained his footing and turned around to face him.
"Thought I 'eard somethin', mate," Newkirk whispered back, his eyes darting to the clump of trees just off to his right.
The two men stood there, motionless, their ears straining to pick up any sound coming from the indicated direction. The seconds ticked by, and Kinch was about to tell Newkirk that he must have imagined it, when they heard a rustling, and the underbrush started moving. Before either man could react, a big, fat rabbit sprinted out from underneath the bushes, followed instantly by a red fox; hot on its trail. Startled, Kinch and Newkirk gasped in surprise, but the animals were already gone.
Newkirk forcibly exhaled. "Blimey, I wasn't expectin' that!"
"Me, neither," Kinch replied, a little more calmly. "Well, at least it wasn't a German patrol."
"You got that right, mate! I'll take a fox chasin' a rabbit over a bunch of German soldiers any day!"
Kinch smiled. "Me too, Peter." Then he stared out in the direction they were headed and raised his chin; gesturing with his head. "We better get going."
Newkirk smirked at him. "Right-o," he replied. He turned around and started to once again step carefully along the path toward their destination. He could feel as well as hear Kinch following him, and his confidence grew; the sergeant's presence making him feel a little safer, a little calmer, a little more sure of himself. Kinch was a man of few words, but when he spoke, there was a subtle power to his words; an understanding borne of patience, intelligence and observation. He always seemed to say the right thing at the right time, and in all the time Newkirk had known him, Kinch had never had a single emotional outburst, much less panic or lose his cool in any situation they'd faced. As far as Newkirk was concerned, the colonel couldn't have picked a better right-hand man, and he had no hesitation trusting Kinch with his life.
The rest of their journey was traveled in silence; their concentration focused on listening for any signs of danger. At last they made it to the coordinates where they were to meet up with the escaped prisoners, and stopped. Newkirk cupped his hands around his mouth and, as he'd done so many times before, let loose a few rounds of throaty, bird-like noises; pausing in between each one to listen for a response. After a few minutes of sporadic warbling, both men became convinced that the group they were to rendezvous with wasn't there. Kinch tapped Newkirk's shoulder and pointed over to a group of bushes, and, after nodding in understanding, the corporal moved quietly over to the dense foliage and crouched down, followed by the tall sergeant.
"Where could they be?" Newkirk asked, keeping his voice low.
"I don't know," Kinch whispered back, "They should have been here waiting for us."
"Well, mate, what do we do now?"
"I guess all we can do is wait."
Newkirk sighed. "I 'ad a feelin' you were goin' to say that."
Several minutes passed, and still there was no sign of the four men. Newkirk was just about to suggest to Kinch that maybe they should go look for them, when they heard the sound of rustling coming from the trees to their right. Suddenly a man stumbled into view, wearing a U.S. Army Air Corps sergeant's uniform, and he was quickly followed by a lieutenant and a corporal; also apparently members of the USAAF.
Newkirk and Kinch glanced at each other, then rose up from their hiding place and slowly approached the men. The sergeant noticed them first, and shouted out in a startled voice, ""All right, that's far enough!"
The two men from Stalag thirteen stopped in their tracks. They'd encountered this kind of reaction before, and didn't want to do anything to aggravate the situation.
The lieutenant stepped up and placed a hand on the sergeant's shoulder. "Easy there, Sergeant Thompson, I think these are the men who were sent to meet us," he said, glancing back and forth between Newkirk and Kinch, "Aren't you?"
"Yes, sir," Newkirk answered, relieved that the lieutenant seemed to know what was going on, "We're 'ere to 'elp you get out of Germany. Just follow us, sir, and we'll take you to…"
"Oh, I'm afraid we can't do that, Corporal," the lieutenant interrupted, "You see, we're missing a man at the moment. We need to find him first, and then we can follow you to wherever it is you're taking us."
Newkirk threw a glance at Kinch, and then looked back at the lieutenant. "Beggin' your pardon, lieutenant…"
"Brown," the officer informed him.
"Lieutenant Brown," Newkirk said, "But our orders are to get you back as quick as we can. But I'm sure the colonel will let us go searchin' for your missin' man, once the three of you are safe."
Lieutenant Brown gazed at Newkirk, his eyes narrowing. "I don't think you understand, Corporal; we're not going anywhere until we find our missing man."
"But, sir, we need to get you out of 'ere…"
"This isn't a request, it's an order, Corporal…?"
"Corporal Newkirk… R.A.F., obviously." Brown replied condescendingly. "Well, Newkirk, in case you haven't noticed, I'm an American officer, and we do things differently. For example, our enlisted personnel know how to follow orders…"
"That's true, sir," Kinch finally spoke up, "But our orders come from a U.S. Army Air Corp Colonel, and he wants us to bring you back right away."
Brown turned his attention to Kinch. "And you are…?"
"Staff Sergeant James Kinchloe."
Brown nodded slightly. "Well, Sergeant Kinchloe, since you're obviously American, you should know how to follow orders. Now, I'm not asking you, I'm telling you… We're not going anywhere until we find our missing man." He glanced between Kinch and Newkirk. "Is that clear?"
Newkirk and Kinch quickly looked at each other and, realizing they had no choice, looked back at the lieutenant. "Yes, sir," They replied, resignedly.
"Very well," Brown said, smiling victoriously at them. "Let's go."