Newkirk kept his thoughts to himself as he followed the Frenchman through the forest. Since outwitting the two guards with the cookware lid, they had been forced to rapidly change course to avoid more of them, resulting in a zigzagging escape route that would, if all went well, eventually lead them to Paris. The Englishman was proceeding to glare daggers at his guide, who merely countered with icy glares over his shoulder. Neither of them said a word to each other.
But just as Newkirk had been waiting and hoping for a chance to leave LeBeau behind, the Frenchman, too, had been harboring similar thoughts earlier, particularly when he had come across the two guards approaching the Englishman. Newkirk didn't realize how fortuitous the rescue had been; the Frenchman had almost not even noticed him hiding in the shrubbery, the only clue being the moonlight that had briefly reflected off of his knife.
In a matter of seconds, LeBeau had processed several thoughts, mainly that Newkirk had been armed (seemingly for a while, at that) and that he probably had been intending to use that very knife on Burkhalter, as well as the fact that Newkirk was on the verge of being recaptured. LeBeau had considered letting it happen; he had even turned away, planning to slip past the two guards as they busied themselves with Newkirk.
But one second was all that it had taken to recall something that his grandmother had once told him in his younger years. He had been no more than eight at the time, tagging after Jean-Philippe and his gang of friends after his family had moved from Èpernay to Paris. None too happy to have a shadow following them, they would always proceed to find a way to lose him. On one such occasion, it had ended up that his elder brother's flunkies had set the boy up to fall gracelessly into the Seine as Jean-Philippe looked the other way. Soaking wet, cold, and humiliated, the young Louis had retreated to the closest shelter he could find—his grandparents' home. His grandmother had taken one look at him and had immediately swooped down on him with her mustard plaster in hand, in spite of his protests. She had listened patiently to his complaints and vows to knock the daylights out of Jean-Philippe and how he now considered him his worst enemy before saying her piece.
"Do you really hate him so, Louis? An enemy is one you wish great ill towards because they, in turn, wish great ill upon you; do not wish great ill on one who does not deserve it, and do not let them suffer needlessly."
Grudgingly, he listened to her and decided to let the matter drop, even if, at the time, he had been unable to fully grasp what she had meant. Now, of course, he knew who his enemies were, and recalling her words in the forest had tugged on his conscience. As much as he disliked this Englishman, LeBeau had to admit that he was not an enemy; most of the Germans fit his grandmother's description of that. More for her sake than Newkirk's, he had tossed the cookware lid against a tree to distract the guards long enough for Newkirk to get away. And it was for her sake that he had agreed to lead him to Paris.
LeBeau glared back at Newkirk once more before scouting ahead again.
I hope you are happy, grand-mère. I cannot even stand him, yet I am helping him.
For two hours, the corporals kept up this method of scouting ahead and running. Newkirk was a bit disconcerted to find out that LeBeau seemed to have an endless supply of stamina; he showed no signs of slowing down or tiring, as Newkirk had expected. As LeBeau ran on and on, Newkirk found it more and more of a challenge to keep up. But the Englishman pressed on, pushing himself to his limits just to keep up. It bothered him to realize that, after a while, LeBeau was stopping at points solely for Newkirk to catch up. Newkirk refused to acknowledge it, however; as far as he was concerned, he had swallowed his pride enough times that night.
It was only after he arrived at another small clearing that LeBeau stopped. Newkirk opened his mouth to ask something, but the Frenchman held up a hand to silence him, indicating a ring of mushrooms in the clearing.
"Are you barmy?" Newkirk hissed. "We're on the run, and you want to stop for a bunch of ruddy mushrooms?"
"Take a closer look," LeBeau responded, kneeling beside the mushroom ring. "See? These caps have been separated from their stalks. And these ones are crushed—from boots, no doubt." He picked up one of the damaged mushrooms. "These were broken recently—very recently. Soldiers have come through this area; they are still probably close by."
He figured that out from mushrooms? Newkirk asked himself, unable to stop the hint of admiration from creeping in his thoughts. I wouldn't have given those a second thought…
"Judging from the way the caps fell, it seems that the soldiers went in this direction," LeBeau went on, pointing towards the northwest. "Just as I thought; they are trying to head us off along the way towards London. I wish to try banking towards the southwest again, but it is possible that the soldiers I saw earlier are also staying in that direction."
He placed his chin in his hands, beginning to think.
"We can't stay out 'ere in the open," Newkirk said, looking around. The guards from Stalag 13 were probably not too far behind them, and even if they had distanced themselves, the dogs were probably on the trail of their scent.
"True," LeBeau agreed, temporarily forgetting about his feud with Newkirk as he got up. "We must keep going due west and hope that the way is clear."
They continued on for some time through the woods beyond the mushroom-filled clearing. It was on one of their next scouting attempts that LeBeau froze.
"Guards," he hissed, his eyes narrowing. Anger turned to concern as he realized that the noises seemed to be growing in intensity. "They are coming this way!"
"Oh, Cor…" Newkirk murmured. "We can't go back, we can't go northwest… You reckon we can try the southwest now?"
"I do not know," the Frenchman responded, truthfully. "They might be coming from the southwest. We can try sneaking past, or find a place to hide and hope that they do not see us… But where? Most of these trees are too thin."
"But they still seem to 'ave their leaves," Newkirk said, beginning to climb up one of them. He had been fond of climbing trees in the London parks as a boy, often scaring his mother half-crazy with worry when she would look up and finally notice him amidst the thin branches. But Newkirk now stuck to the lower branches, hoping that the leaves would shield him from view in the dark of night.
LeBeau stared at the trees, despairing. Climbing trees was not something he had done in his youth, and most of the supporting branches would be beyond his reach, due to his height. Newkirk noticed this and was pleased that, at last, he could do something that the seemingly-perfect LeBeau could not.
"I will have to run," the Frenchman said, quietly.
The Englishman frowned, of two minds about the situation. On the one hand, he had been waiting for an opportunity like this—to see LeBeau be recaptured while he, Newkirk, made it to freedom. On the other hand… that normally-quiet conscience of his was starting to tug on him with more fervor than before.
"There's a fallen tree trunk down there," Newkirk said, at last. "And I do believe it's 'ollow. It's more than long enough for you to 'ide in."
LeBeau followed Newkirk's gaze to find the hollowed-out tree trunk and he knelt in front of the opening. Yes, it would hold him, but…
"What are you waiting for? They're coming!" And blimey, why am I worried for him?
LeBeau regarded the enclosed hiding space with a look of sheer horror, his claustrophobia beginning to set in.
No, there was no time for this!
He shut his eyes, proceeding to worm his way inside the hiding place just as the footsteps came crashing past them. Newkirk clung to his tree branch like a cat as LeBeau kept his eyes shut, praying as he struggled to keep his head clear. Sweat poured down the corporals' faces, but for different reasons.
The enemy soldiers stopped, conversing with each other in German. One was certain he had heard noises and voices here, while the others were a bit more skeptical. They seemed to be in agreement when it came to searching the area, however.
Minutes ticked by as the soldiers looked around the area. Newkirk hoped that they would not look up. LeBeau just hoped that he could hold himself together. But as the older corporal felt the familiar sensation of a tightening chest, he realized, in despair, that his hopes had been shattered.
The sound of rapid, pained gasps soon filled the area as he hyperventilated. Newkirk's head turned towards the hollow trunk in disbelief as the German soldiers quickly ran towards it and began yelling for the Frenchman to come out and place his hands behind his head.
The perfect escape plan, the perfect route to freedom, the perfect provisions, the perfect wilderness survival skills… and he was done in by blooming claustrophobia, Newkirk thought, hardly daring to believe it.
The younger corporal froze as the guards all started yelling at LeBeau once he was out.
"There were two of you who escaped from Stalag 13!" one barked, in English.
"Yes, where is the Englishman?" another demanded.
Newkirk sighed, mentally preparing himself to start climbing down the tree and surrender once LeBeau ratted him out.
"I… do not know… where he is; we… separated, as I wanted… to go to Paris… while he… headed to London," the older corporal lied, as he struggled to catch his breath. If I cannot make it home, let me at least ensure that those monsters do not get a full victory. It is what you would have wanted me to do, grand-mère…
Newkirk almost fell out of the tree in stunned surprise. He certainly had not expected that reply.
The soldiers grumbled, and forced LeBeau back towards the east—towards Stalag 13. After they had gone, Newkirk swung down from the branch he was on and leaped to the ground, recalling his earlier thoughts.
"Heaven give me one chance to abandon him…"
Newkirk sighed as he looked longingly towards the west.
Of all the prayers You could've answered, You had to choose this one?
He clenched a fist, thinking of how selflessly LeBeau had covered for him, even though he knew that the Frenchman hadn't thought much of him to begin with. He turned towards the east once before turning towards the west again and walking onward, trying to sort out the battling thoughts in his mind.
Once he had caught his breath, LeBeau's stamina was enough to allow him to regain his otherwise infallible stamina. He was silently berating himself for allowing his claustrophobia to be the reason for his failed escape. As much as he wanted to blame Newkirk for it, having waited at several points for the Englishman to catch up, he knew that he would not have been found had he not hyperventilated. And there was every chance that he would have had to hide in a small space at some point or another; it would have been inevitable.
His thoughts had turned already to a new plan. He still had the money he had received from Newkirk; if he could find another way past the wire, he could try again when the Germans once again let down their guard…
A Cockney accent jolted the Frenchman from his thoughts.
"Quoi…?" the older corporal murmured, his eyes widening.
The German soldiers leading LeBeau back all exchanged confused looks. One remained guarding the Frenchman as the others moved to follow the sound. LeBeau could only stare, stunned, as Newkirk emerged from the trees, his hands raised in surrender as a new guard prodded him forward at gunpoint; the other guards congratulated him for the capture.
"I found him, trying to head towards the west," the new guard said. "He froze in his tracks when he realized that I had seen him, the fool!"
LeBeau didn't know much German, but he could tell that they were laughing about something—the ease of the capture, perhaps. The Frenchman bit his lip, but he kept silent as they were forced back to Stalag 13.
Two hours later, the two corporals were in front of Klink's desk as the colonel glared at the two of them.
"So!" he exclaimed. "You two thought that the mice could play once the cat headed into town?"
"You can't blame us for trying, can you?" Newkirk asked, wryly.
"Silence!" Klink snapped, and he turned to Burkhalter. "You see, Colonel Burkhalter? Try as they might, nobody escapes from Stalag 13."
Burkhalter just grunted in response, unimpressed.
"Now, Newkirk… I must admit, I expected this from you," Klink said. "You have quite a record for yourself when it comes to failed escape attempts. This makes attempt number ten! Do you have anything to say for yourself?"
"I'll try me best for number eleven, too, Sir."
"Mmmmph! And you!" Klink turned to the silent Frenchman. "You were a fool to go along with him!"
"I am amazed that he did, Herr Kommandant," sighed Schultz, who was standing by with a small crate. "They are always fighting; perhaps you should send one of them to a different barracks?"
Klink's eyes narrowed.
"No… I don't think I shall," he said, with a smirk. If they got along so poorly, then forcing them to be in close quarters would be a fitting punishment. "Schultz, you will see to it that these two remain in the same barracks. But before that, they will both spend thirty days in the cooler!"
"But, Herr Kommandant, there is one thing to take into consideration," said Schultz. "They did, after all, help me capture the nasty rat."
He held up the crate he was holding, and something started squeaking and scratching at it from within.
Newkirk stared at the noisy crate for a moment, and then bit back a smirk; in spite of their situation, the fact there had been a real rat running around was, admittedly, amusing. Well, LeBeau didn't seem to think so, however; he stared unemotionally at the crate.
Klink looked at the crate with some amount of disdain, as well.
"I'll think it over," he said, not wanting to lighten the sentence in front of Burkhalter. "Schultz, take these two to the cooler."
"At once, Herr Kommandant! But… What do I do with the rat?"
The sergeant hastily led the corporals into the cooler, still carrying the crate under his arm.
"Just what do you intend to do the rat, Schultzie?" Newkirk asked.
Schultz gave a slight chuckle.
"I don't have the heart to do anything to him; I will release him in the woods. But no telling the Kommandant!"
"Wouldn't dream of it," Newkirk assured him, as Schultz left. "Oi, and do try to get us out of 'ere sooner!" He sighed and turned to the Frenchman, taking note that he hadn't said a word since seeing him again. "So, you're claustrophobic?"
LeBeau shot him a fiery glare. The cell itself was bothering him, though not to the extent that the hollow trunk had, of course.
"You were right, of course," Newkirk went on. "Couldn't last five ruddy minutes without you. I reckon I needed a guide more than I thought."
"Tais-toi, menteur!" LeBeau snapped. "You are a liar and a fool!"
"Right, you blew you first escape; it ain't as big of a disaster as your painting it out to be," Newkirk said, ignoring the insults. "You 'eard what Klink said—this is me tenth!"
"And now I know why," LeBeau said, dryly.
"So, the next one might go better," Newkirk went on. "Once we get out of 'ere, all we need is to come up with another plan." He smirked, pulling out his pencil sharpener. "Once again, they missed it."
"Never mind about that!" LeBeau hissed. "Why didn't you escape? I covered for you so that at least one of us would do so!"
"First of all, I was debating with meself on what to do. I know you covered for me for that reason, and I did continue, at first. I'll be honest; I 'ad been 'oping for a chance to do that, but when it actually came, I didn't find it as pleasant as I thought I would. I thought about trying to free you from those goons, but I knew I wouldn't 'ave 'ad a chance. I kept going west, but that bloke saw me eventually. That was when I froze; running wouldn't work, since 'e would get backup from other nearby soldiers. So, in reality, it wasn't any sort of noble sacrifice that made me come back, if that was what you were thinking. But I'll be 'onest again and say that maybe this was for the better; I don't know a word of French, which would've made communicating with those Underground blokes difficult. And seeing as though that you're the only Frenchman 'ere, it means that if I escape, I'm going to 'ave to take you along as a ruddy translator and mushroom reader."
"I am touched beyond belief," LeBeau replied, only being half-sarcastic, as he sensed the hidden message in the East Ender's otherwise snarky words.
Newkirk, in turn, sensed that. There was more to Louis LeBeau than "La Marseillaise" and cooking, he realized. He was no pawn, as Newkirk had first thought; he was a knight, like himself. Perhaps together, they could someday achieve the coveted Checkmate.
The capture of the dreaded rat, in all of its irony, caused Klink to eventually relent and release the two corporals after two weeks in the cooler. Their recreation privileges, however, would continue to be suspended for two more weeks. Klink was convinced that forcing the two corporals to remain in close quarters would be a continued punishment for the both of them.
But Klink was to be disappointed. As life slowly returned to normal in Barracks Two, Schultz observed that the fighting between Newkirk and LeBeau had stopped; in fact, the two corporals seemed to be acting much more cordially towards each other. LeBeau's relations with the other Englishmen, however, were as cold as they had been before, and the Englishmen treated him the same way, while ignoring Newkirk as they had always been doing.
One evening, several weeks after the failed escape attempt, LeBeau was busy making ratatouille for his dinner, a new letter from his mother tucked fondly in his pocket. Newkirk was busying himself with a letter that had arrived from Mavis. It was much more hopeful than her last letter; according to her, Newkirk's friend Roger had visited London while on furlough, bringing her the news that James and Phillip were both alive and well. She was still in a shelter, but seemed to be feeling better at the news that Newkirk was not the only surviving member of the Dartboard Six, as he had first feared.
The other Englishmen were looking over their own mail, but now looking towards LeBeau as the ratatouille neared completion. Not about to stand for eating mere rations while LeBeau feasted on it, they proceeded to give him a hard time about it.
LeBeau found himself surrounded by the group of hungry and annoyed Englishmen as they shoved him around, trying to grab at the food. LeBeau fought back; Newkirk looked up from his letter in time to see the short corporal knocked to the ground.
LeBeau cursed the others, moving to get up, but before he could even get to his feet, he paused as he noticed a figure leaping from a top bunk, jumping into the fray and dealing a few punches to the other Englishmen, who seemed too stunned to counter at first. By the time they were ready to grasp the idea of a fellow Englishman defending the Frenchman, LeBeau was back on his feet, standing beside Newkirk. The twin glares from the both of them didn't really intimidate the others in the barracks, but they all backed off, deciding that it wasn't worth the bother.
After they had dispersed, LeBeau sighed and cast a glance at the younger corporal.
"They are your own kind," he reminded him.
"Maybe, but can they read mushrooms?" Newkirk mused.
LeBeau managed a smile, and held up the ratatouille to him.
"Dinner, mon pote?"
Newkirk took a look at the ratatouille, not quite familiar with it. It smelled good, however, and it did not escape him that LeBeau was offering to share his food for the first time.
"Ta, little mate," he said, with a smile.
The corporals soon devoured the ratatouille, talking and exchanging stories about the lives they left behind, which ended in a friendly argument as to whether or not the bells of Notre Dame sounded better than those of Westminster Abbey.
They may not have achieved their freedom in the quest they had previously undertaken, but Louis LeBeau and Peter Newkirk hadn't come away from it without gaining something else in return—something that, in the long run, would prove to be more valuable than they could ever have imagined.