Fateful Laughter

Fate leads the willing, and drags along the reluctant.

~ Seneca ~



Mid-October, 1942

"I can just imagine it," Corporal Peter Newkirk grumbled. "Daddy, what did you do in the war? Well, dearie, Daddy used to go around wearing women's clothing in public, 'e did!" Newkirk yanked the ugly print dress over his head and carelessly threw it down on the table next to his gray wig. Next off were his baggy nylon stockings, which he removed with a bit more force than was necessary.

Colonel Robert E. Hogan leaned back in his chair and shook his head in amusement, while Newkirk removed the last of the matronly disguise. Arms folded loosely across his chest, Hogan listened to the Englishman's complaints of having to portray an elderly German woman to meet Rapunzel, their underground contact, in Hammelburg. When several minutes passed with no sign of the diatribe slowing, Hogan decided he'd listened long enough.

"Newkirk, quit being so melodramatic, will ya? You know as well as I do this was only the second time in three and a half months that you've had to use this disguise."

Newkirk's shoulders hunched in a meek shrug. "Ah, blimey, Colonel 'ogan, you don't know what it's like."

"Enlighten me."

"Well, when I get all dolled up in me wig and all, the gents, they go balmy over me! I 'ave to fight 'em off tooth and nail." Newkirk's eyes widened when Hogan burst into laughter. "It's dangerous out there, guv'nor! There were desperate little ol' Kraut men fairly droolin' all over me! I think I gave one of the ruddy blighters a concussion when I 'it 'im with me 'andbag."

Hogan blinked away tears. Newkirk, I can always count on you for comedy relief! "All right. I apologize for making you endure that traumatic ordeal alone." He paused thoughtfully. "Next time, I'll send Carter along as your chaperone. How's that?"

Newkirk shoved the disguise into a metal locker, then slumped against it and wearily rolled his eyes. "Oh, bloody marvelous. I'll feel ever so much safer with Andrew along to protect me."

Hogan stood and draped an arm around Newkirk's shoulders. "Now don't underestimate Carter. He can be quite a tiger when he has to be." He steered the snickering Englishman down the tunnel toward the ladder leading to their barracks. "C'mon, gnädige Frau, let's go and tell the others what we've learned from the information you nearly had to sacrifice your virtue for."



*********

Hogan turned away from the barracks wood stove, cradling a fresh cup of coffee in his hand. "So, that's it. Rapunzel told Newkirk there's a rocket assembly plant operating out of what we thought was an abandoned warehouse near Düsseldorf." Hogan sat next to Sergeant Ivan Kinchloe at the barracks table and drummed his fingers on its worn wooden boards. "The Krauts have been really clever with this one. We checked that warehouse ourselves just two months ago and we didn't see any activity. Nothing to indicate that they were already fully operational."

"Hey, that's not fair!" yelped Sergeant Andrew Carter. "They're not supposed to be sneakier than us!"

Newkirk let out a growl and batted the young man's hat from his head.

Hogan slanted a long-suffering look at Carter. "I'll be sure to let 'em know of your displeasure." Looking down at the tabletop, Hogan muttered aloud, "How did we miss this one?"

"Mon colonel, we can't be everywhere! And you were not yet . . ." Louis LeBeau's explanation trailed off when the others glared at him in warning.

Closing his eyes, Hogan sighed heavily and rubbed at the side of his nose with one finger. "Go ahead, LeBeau . . .say it. I wasn't yet completely recovered and probably shouldn't have been out there in the first place."

Kinch shifted on the bench. "We were out there, too, Colonel, and we didn't see anything either."

"Let's be honest here, Kinch. The reason you probably didn't see anything is because you all were too busy watching out for me!" Hogan stood up from the table and paced a few steps away, then turned to face them again. He waved his hand in dismissal. "Look, it doesn't matter now why we missed it, the point is that we've got to take that plant out now that we know about it. Rapunzel said that she'd get us the plans for the plant's security in a few days. Once we get those, we'll figure out the best way to take it out."

"Colonel," Carter began, "why can't London just have a squadron of bombers take out that factory?"

Hogan patted Kinch on the shoulder. "Tell 'em why we have the honors."

Kinch reached withdrew a small notebook from his jacket pocket. "This is London's schedule for the next few weeks: airfields, missile sites, troop support, power stations . . ." He cut off the recitation and looked up, a wry smile appearing on his face. "You want me to continue?"

Hogan casually rested his hip on the table. "We're it, fellas."



*********

Later that night in his darkened quarters, Hogan lay angrily lecturing himself. Despite what he'd told his men, he considered it a personal failure not to have detected the presence of the rocket plant during their earlier reconnaissance mission. He prided himself on being thorough and in his opinion, his less than perfect condition at the time was a poor excuse for his oversight. Twitching his crossed feet in agitation, he grudgingly admitted that in retrospect, he'd been neither mentally nor physically recovered from the severe injuries he'd received during an underground mission just one month prior to the recon mission. He smiled into the darkness. Well, Rob, everyone did try to tell you that you were pushing it.

Settling himself more comfortably on his bunk, he let his thoughts drift to the night he'd nearly been killed when he'd detonated explosives secured to the Hammelburg Bridge with one well-placed rifle shot. What he knew of the disastrous mission was only what his men had told him after he'd regained consciousness almost a week later.

The bridge and munitions convoy were to have been destroyed with explosives detonated by timers set to coincide with the convoy's crossing. But the convoy's early arrival at the bridge had necessitated a quick adjustment in the plan, and Hogan had used the only means possible by shooting the explosives to set off a chain reaction. Their mission had been successfully fulfilled that night and the bridge and munitions convoy completely destroyed. But Hogan had been too close to the destruction from his position on the nearby rocks and had been critically wounded by metal and wood shrapnel.

The explosion had left him with permanent physical scars, but little else. His shoulder, leg, side and broken arm were completely healed and pain-free. Long hours of physical therapy and weight training under his men's strict and watchful care had restored his body's former strength and agility. But the severe concussion he'd sustained when he was thrown backward onto rocks from the force of the explosion had wiped his memory clear of the entire mission, as well as the three weeks prior to it.

During the time he'd lain unconscious, his men had continued their unit's underground operation under Kinchloe's careful guidance. And later, still without Hogan's leadership, they'd successfully completed a vital mission for the underground by obtaining plans for German troop movements from a visiting general's booby-trapped briefcase.

Hogan was justifiably proud of his men; Kinch, in particular. The sergeant had not only kept the unit functioning smoothly and efficiently, he'd risen to the challenge and had even skillfully manipulated Stalag 13's kommandant into securing the services of a local doctor for Hogan's care. The quick-thinking resourcefulness had most likely saved Hogan's life and still had him shaking his head in admiration. I couldn't have done any better myself. Kinch really deserves a promotion and a command of his own.

Shifting positions in the bunk to place his arm beneath his head, Hogan smiled as he remembered Kinch's reaction when he'd first mentioned the idea of promotion and command. The sergeant's dark eyes had widened in horror, and he'd made Hogan swear that he'd not approach command headquarters with the suggestion. Kinch had made it quite clear that he was more than happy with his present rank and wanted nothing more to do with command responsibilities. Apparently, his experience while Hogan had been out of commission had led him to believe he didn't have the temperament for command. You may not want command, my friend, but you are definitely capable of it. And sometimes, Kinch, fate has a way of laughing in our face.



*********

Hogan was deeply asleep when he felt a hand gently shaking him. Blinking the sleep from his eyes, he propped himself on one elbow and focused upon Kinch's concerned face.

"What is it?"

Kinch crouched next to the bunk and handed over the message he'd received only moments before by radio from London headquarters. He watched his commander quickly scan the message, glance at his watch, and then look up, his eyes widened in disbelief.

"They want us to check out a fuel depot tonight? Are they crazy? It's already nearly 0100!"

Kinch nodded. "When I pointed out that little fact to them, they made it a strict order." He shrugged unhappily and held out a bundle of black clothing. "You know London, they don't always go into the reasons, they just say do it."

"Yeah, yeah, I know the routine." Hogan threw off his blankets and quickly began changing. Pulling the heavy turtleneck over his head, he instructed Kinch to wake Carter and Newkirk, and inform them of the mission. He grabbed his jacket and gloves and started to follow Kinch, but suddenly stopped, shuddering slightly as a chill ghosted its way down his spine. What the hell? He remained rooted in place as his arms goosefleshed and the hairs on the back of his neck stiffened to attention. Twisting and shrugging his neck and shoulders uneasily in an effort to be rid of the unpleasant sensation, he joined his men.



*********

The trip to the fuel depot was made in silence. None of them liked the short-notice assignment. Nor did they like the area they had to travel. The terrain was hilly and liberally strewn with rocks, which considerably slowed their progress. The patrol they encountered delayed them even further. With a sharp, downward slicing motion of his hand, Hogan signaled Newkirk and Carter to drop and flatten themselves to the ground. An instant later, he joined them.

Tension curled his fingers in the dirt while the patrol slowly moved past their position. The time it took for the patrol to finally leave the area felt endless. But finally, he was able to signal that they could continue onward. Not long after, they arrived at the fuel depot , nestled cozily in an isolated valley. As they moved cautiously down the hillside for a better look, Hogan motioned Carter and Newkirk closer to his side.

The apprehension he had felt since leaving camp intensified as he crouched next to Carter on the wooded hillside and stared at the fueling station. Restlessly, his eyes traced over the depot's wire mesh fencing, noting the men stationed at the gates and high in the guard towers. Newkirk shifted his weight and Carter softly cleared his throat. Hogan knew they were waiting for the order to skirt the perimeter and complete their check of the depot and its buildings. For some reason, he was loath for them to leave his sight.

Feeling time slipping away, he nodded and with a wave of his arm, silently directed Carter to the left side of the depot and Newkirk to the right. They disappeared into the undergrowth, leaving no visible sign to mark their passing.

Hogan rested one knee on the damp ground and raked a hand through his hair. Nervousness about sending his men out of his sight during a dangerous mission was normal, but the foreboding shrouding his mind was not. It had taken real effort not to call Newkirk and Carter back.

He breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief when they reappeared twenty minutes later, their examination of the fuel depot and its defenses complete. He'd just started to rise and motion them back to camp when he spotted a large, gray paneled truck moving slowly between the depot buildings toward the gate. He followed its progress, feeling a growing sense of suspicion. A floodlight cast by one of the guard towers swept across the truck, clearly illuminating the vehicle's purpose.

"Radio detection truck!" He bolted to his feet and spun back toward Stalag 13. "C'mon! We've got to get back to camp and warn Kinch to shut down the radio!"

Moving quickly, they pushed through the underbrush and back up the hillside. Hogan paused briefly at the top of the hill long enough to check the truck's progress, then loped forward to rejoin his men. They'd traveled only a short distance from the depot when he suddenly realized he'd lost sight of Carter. He grabbed the back of Newkirk's black sweater and yanked the Englishman to a stop.

"Where's Carter?"

Newkirk's head jerked from side to side as he scanned the immediate area. "I thought 'e was right 'ere!"

Hogan gritted his teeth, acutely aware of the danger of the mobile detection truck and its nearness to their base. We don't have time for this! That truck is too close!

"Get back to camp. I'll find Carter."

Newkirk frowned. "Colonel --- !"

Hogan shoved him in the direction of Stalag 13. "Move, Newkirk! That's an order! If that truck picks up our signal our whole operation could be jeopordized! NOW MOVE!" He emphasized the fiercely whispered order by shoving Newkirk again and then started retracing their steps to search for Carter.

Newkirk watched Hogan disappear from sight. You'd better be all right, Andrew!

Carter had easily been keeping pace with Hogan and Newkirk. He had been, at least, until his foot had suddenly become wedged between two gnarled tree roots, bringing him to a sudden, painful halt. He was still frantically trying to free his foot when Hogan discovered him.

"Carter!" Hogan rolled his eyes upon seeing the young man's predicament. Sighing heavily, he knelt and concentrated on gently working Carter's foot free.

The roots had nearly given way when a low, malicious chuckle sounded from close behind them.

"Well, well, well. What have we here?"

Giving Carter a reassuring glance, Hogan slowly pushed to his feet. Raising his hands away from his sides, he turned around. A Gestapo major and two guards stood a short distance away.

"Your young friend seems to have something of a problem." The German officer indicated Carter's trapped foot with a nod of his head. "Perhaps we may be of assistance."

Hogan smiled tightly. "Thanks, but no thanks. We can handle it just fine by ourselves." He kept his gaze locked on the officer. The other man's eyes were cold and held an unnatural hostility.

The German's expression stilled. "Oh, but I insist." Without warning, he shot Carter in the right shoulder. "Perhaps now, you'll accept our assistance?"

Hogan's instinctive reaction was to attack the Gestapo officer standing just out of his reach. Somehow, he managed to restrain the urge and instead glanced down at Carter. The young man was writhing on the ground, one hand clutching the wound. Hogan closed his eyes, rage making him tremble in reaction. Ruthlessly shoving the emotion away, he turned back to the silently waiting Germans.

"Well, when you put it that way."



*********

Newkirk stumbled to a gasping halt and whirled toward the sound of a distant gunshot. That came from behind me! Oh, bloody 'ell!

For a few moments, he remained completely motionless with indecision. Finally, he forced himself to accept that he had to obey Hogan's order and warn Kinch of the approaching radio detection truck. Regardless of his personal feelings, his first duty lay with the safety of their unit. Pivoting sharply, he continued his headlong flight back to camp.

A short time later, he fairly flew down the ladder of their emergency tunnel entrance. As soon as his feet landed on the hard-packed dirt floor, he raced up the tunnel until he reached Kinch, who was seated at the radio writing down a message. Slamming into the edge of the table supporting the radio, Newkirk reached behind the startled sergeant and yanked the radio's cables from their power connections, then collapsed into a gasping heap on the floor.

"Newkirk!" Kinch pulled off his headphones and knelt next to Newkirk. The Englishman's breath was coming in quick, hard wheezes. "What's goin' on? Where are Colonel Hogan and Carter?" Newkirk mutely shook his head and continued gulping heaving breaths. Helping him into a sitting position, Kinch waited impatiently for him to bring his breathing under control.

Finally, Newkirk lifted his head and stared bleakly at Kinch. "We spotted a radio detection truck at the fuel depot; it was comin' this way. Colonel 'ogan sent me ahead to warn you."

"What do you mean, he sent you ahead? Where are they?"

"I don't know, Kinch! Carter was with us when we left the fuel depot and then 'e wasn't! The guv'nor sent me back here while 'e went back to find 'im." Newkirk bowed his head, unable to bring himself to look Kinch in the eyes. "That ain't all; I 'eard a shot after I left 'em." He looked up, his eyes wide and pleading. "I wanted to go back, Kinch, really I did! But Colonel 'ogan's orders . . . I 'ad to . . ."

"It's okay, Newkirk," Kinch said softly. "I understand." Returning to his chair, Kinch slumped in misery and stared at the far wall of the tunnel.

Oh, no. Oh, no.

*********



At that very moment, Hogan and Carter were sitting in the back of a canvas-covered truck, headed for what would undoubtedly be an unpleasant interrogation by the Gestapo. Hogan unobtrusively slanted a quick look out the back of the moving truck, keenly aware of the distance growing between them and the safety of their base. Redirecting his gaze to the guard seated directly across from him, he considered possible options. Whatever he was going to do, he needed to do it soon. Once the truck stopped, he seriously doubted they would be leaving their destination alive.

Beside him, Carter painfully clutched his bloody shoulder and tried to remain alert enough to help Hogan if necessary. He felt oddly disconnected from himself, as though he was watching everything from a distance.

He'd never been shot before. As the unexpected shock of the pain had slammed into him, he remembered vaguely wondering if he'd been hit by a truck. From his prone position on the forest floor, he'd remained aware enough to marvel at the thinly veiled hatred smoldering within Hogan's eyes. For a few moments, the officer appeared to literally radiate waves of the dangerous emotion.

Carter carefully shifted his position on the bench and studied Hogan. At first glance, the officer seemed to be completely indifferent to the armed guard seated on the bench across the truck from them. But closer inspection told Carter that Hogan was far from indifferent. He was leaning slightly forward on the bench; his hands dangling loosely between his spread knees. As Carter watched, Hogan's right hand gradually slid lower between his legs. The movement was so very slight, Carter wasn't sure he was actually seeing it. He blinked several times and checked again. Yep, that hand is definitely closer to his calf now. He took another quick glance at Hogan's face. The officer was completely focused upon the guard. What are you doin', Colonel?

Suddenly, the truck hit a large pothole in the uneven dirt road and all hell broke loose. Before Carter's amazed eyes, Hogan lunged across the narrow width of the truck, a knife magically appearing in his right hand. The startled guard was propelled backward against the canvas wall at his back by a black-clad arm to his throat. Before he could even begin to retaliate, Hogan's knife thrust deeply into his heart, killing him instantly.

Carter watched in stunned silence while Hogan quickly re-sheathed his bloody knife in a leather scabbard at his right ankle, gathered up the fallen guard's rifle, and without another look at the lifeless body, turned to face him.

"Time to hit the road, Carter . . . literally."

Carter held out a hand and allowed Hogan to pull him into a standing position. With the officer's help, he moved to the back of the truck and looked out at the dirt road passing quickly from beneath the bed of the truck.

"We're gonna jump?"

Hogan smiled grimly. "Can you think of a better way?"

Carter hesitated, then took a shaky breath and shook his head.

"Nope."

"Okay, then." Hogan placed his arm around Carter's waist in gentle support. "Look, Carter, try not to land on your bad shoulder when you hit, okay? I'll be right behind you."

Carter nodded and stepped out of the truck. Pain exploded through his body. Behind his tightly closed eyes, bright spots of color burst across his vision. Eventually, he came to a dusty, rolling stop and lay gasping in pain, while he used every ounce of determination he had to hold onto consciousness. Distantly, he was aware of gentle hands lifting him into a sitting position.

"Carter? You still with me?"

Carter opened eyes to find Hogan peering down at him anxiously. "Yeah, Colonel, I'm still here." Carter struggled to his feet, grateful for the support Hogan provided. "Whoo! I'm glad we don't have to do that again!"

Keeping a firm grip on Carter, Hogan glanced up the road. The truck was just disappearing from sight over a slight rise.

Quickly, he scanned their surroundings for familiar landmarks. His teeth ground together in frustration, when he realized that he had absolutely no idea how far they'd come from their earlier position. Everything was completely unfamiliar. Taking a small step away from Carter's side, he stared up at the night sky and its blanket of stars and tried to orient himself. There! The North Star. Returning to Carter's side, he guided the shaky man to their left and into the woods bordering the road. He risked another glance back over his shoulder, silently sending up a fervent prayer as they took their first steps in what promised to be a long and perilous journey.

*********



Back at Stalag 13, Kinch was trying hard to maintain a positive outlook on the entire unpleasant situation, but was finding it nearly impossible. Rubbing his forehead tiredly, he rejoined Newkirk and LeBeau at a small table in the main area of their tunnel. He noticed that the little Frenchman appeared to have withdrawn into himself. Sighing softly, Kinch thought back to LeBeau's violent reaction to Newkirk's news.

Kinch had to physically restrain LeBeau as he erupted into terrified French, and tried to leave the tunnels to search for his missing friends. Securely wrapping his arms around the wildly struggling Frenchman, Kinch had tried to reason with him.

"LeBeau! Louis, stop it! Stop it! Listen to me!" Kinch'd given LeBeau a hard shake when the little Frenchman tried again to escape his hold. "Louis, don't you think I want to go out there, too? But what good would it do, huh? We have no idea where they might be, or how many Germans might be running around out there now. We'd probably only make matters worse!" He'd relaxed his hold slightly when LeBeau had finally stopped struggling. Turning the little Frenchman around so that he could look into his eyes, he'd quietly stated, "We have to think about doing damage control, and we have to face some hard truths."

Seeing that LeBeau was ready to listen, Kinch had settled him at the table next to Newkirk. "First of all, we have to think of what the colonel would want us to do. Now, I know he wouldn't want us running around half-cocked and getting ourselves captured and possibly ruin the whole operation."

LeBeau and Newkirk had nodded miserably in agreement.

"And I know he'd want us to wait until we knew for sure what the lay of the land was. Right now, we don't know if they've been captured, and if they have been, where they've been taken, or if they're just late in getting back..." swallowing convulsively, he'd voiced their worst fears, "or if they've been killed."

Oh, Lord, please don't tell me we've lost them both! Placing his head on his arms, Kinch brought his thoughts back to the present and to the necessity of dealing with the harsh reality facing them.

He lifted his head slightly from the shelter of his arms to peek at his watch. They'd soon have to inform Schultz at morning roll call of two escapes. This, of course, wasn't true, but it was the only explanation he could come up with for Hogan and Carter's absence. He certainly couldn't tell Kommandant Klink that two of his prisoners had been out scouting a fuel depot for the underground and had run into trouble, and oh, yes, they might be a little late getting back to camp, if they ever came back at all.

Kinch knew Klink's immediate response would be to release Stalag 13's guard dogs and begin a thorough search for his two wayward prisoners. Kinch buried his face further into the concealing darkness of his crossed arms. If Hogan and Carter were still out there, this would only complicate their return to camp. Without help, it would be nearly impossible for them to get past the extra security undetected.

Red-hot rage burst into life within Kinch's seething mind. Damn London, and their unreasonable orders! This whole fiasco is their fault! If they hadn't ordered the colonel to check out that fuel depot this morning... We can't even alert London and our underground contacts to try to help us locate them, or find out what happened. Not until we know that radio detection truck has left the area!

He jumped to his feet, startling LeBeau and Newkirk. They watched as he angrily paced in the confined space, his clenched fists swinging at his sides as he muttered under his breath. Suddenly, he grabbed a nearby chair and heaved it with all of his strength at the metal locker against the far wall. Panting harshly, he glared at the dented locker as if it were entirely responsible for the unknown calamity that had befallen their missing comrades.

After a moment of stunned silence in reaction to their friend's uncharacteristic display of temper, Newkirk stood from his place at the table and moved to Kinch's side. "It'll be all right, mate." He tentatively patted Kinch's back. "You know our Colonel 'ogan's luck. 'E's gotten out of some mighty tight spots, 'e has, and come out smelling like a rose. 'E'll bring himself and Andrew back safely, you'll see." Newkirk's hand fell limply to his side as Kinch's anguished eyes searched his.

"What if he used up all of his luck at the Hammelburg Bridge, Newkirk? What if that shot you heard was his execution...or Carter's?" Kinch shook his head, and wordlessly climbed the ladder to fall in for morning roll call, leaving Newkirk and LeBeau to follow in morose silence.

*********



Major Stefan Schiller viciously kicked the dead guard again. Idiot! Imbecile! If you were not already dead, I would take tear you to shreds!

Arriving at Gestapo headquarters in Dusseldorf, Schiller had emerged from the front of the truck to discover that his prisoners had vanished, leaving only the dead guard. There was no doubt in his mind which of his two prisoners had killed the guard. Just as there was no doubt in his mind that for a brief time, he'd had within his grasp the prize he had hunted so long.

Damn you, Papa Bear!

He'd known the moment he'd seen the black-haired American, that he'd finally managed to capture the Resistance leader responsible for systematically decimating the Third Reich's strategic resources in the region. Instinctively, he'd recognized the intelligence and authority contained within the man's dark eyes. The fact that he'd captured Papa Bear by sheer happenstance was a moot point and one that would remain unknown to his superiors. Of course, now, he would have to inform them that not only had he captured Papa Bear, he'd lost him.

He gave the body another hard kick, then jumped out of the back of the truck past his remaining guard's carefully blank expression.

"Get rid of that!" Schiller snarled, pointing back at the body.

He marched into Gestapo headquarters, his mind seething with unrelieved fury.

I will not underestimate you again, Papa Bear. I promise you, we will meet again, and the outcome will be very different! Your life is mine!

*********



Hogan stared through the canopy of bare tree branches at the rosy glow signaling the fast-approaching dawn. The brightening sky provided both advantages and disadvantages. The soft light did allow them to see better, and therefore, make quicker progress through the woods. But it also allowed them to easily be seen by anyone who happened upon them. Their black camouflage clothing and grease-smeared faces sharply stood out in light they'd never been meant for.

Hogan tossed his head in agitation and huffed softly in the frosty morning air. He knew that they were headed in the correct direction to return to Stalag 13, but he still had no idea how far they had to travel to reach it. Though the landmarks were still unfamiliar, their first priority was to find cover until evening. They'd be easy prey if they remained outside, and he estimated they had only minutes before dawn and full daylight.

At his side, Carter was silent, his body hunched, his eyes tightly closed in pain. If not for Hogan's guidance and support, the younger man would have immediately collapsed where he stood.

"C'mon, Carter, we need to go just a little further before we can stop." Hogan gently prodded Carter forward; ready should the younger man stumble.

A faint sound snapped Hogan's head up and he became completely motionless. Absently bracing himself as Carter leaned heavily against him, he cocked his head, and listened carefully. A few seconds later, he heard it again; the crow of a rooster greeting a new day. Nudging Carter forward and slightly to their right, he attempted to quicken their pace.

Less than ten minutes later, they came upon a small farmstead, complete with barn, cows and chickens. Hogan smiled in relief. The large barn would provide them cover for the day and the farm animals, precious food. His broad smile quickly died when he realized that it also meant people and the possibility of capture. But it was a risk they had to take.

He carefully eased Carter to the ground, propping him against the base of a tree. "I'll be right back. I'm just going ahead to see if the coast is clear. You stay right here and don't make a sound."

"Are we back at camp, Colonel?"

"No, Carter, not yet. There's a farm up ahead, and I want to see if we can make it into the barn without being seen." Hogan frowned in concern when Carter looked around in obvious confusion.

"Did you understand what I said, Carter? You need to stay here."

Carter slowly nodded, his voice coming out weak and slurred. "Yep. I'll just stay right here."

Hogan lightly patted Carter on the leg in reassurance. Rising out of his crouch, he hesitated. He didn't like leaving the younger man unprotected, but he didn't have much choice. Despite his misgivings, he headed for the quiet barnyard.

Moving silently, his eyes constantly tracking between the farmhouse and barn, he finally reached the edge of the open area. After a few minutes and no sign of movement in the darkened house, he cautiously crept to the door that he'd spotted at the back of the barn. Taking a deep breath, he gently grasped the door's rough wooden handle and pulled it open, wincing in dismay at the loud squeal from its rusty hinges.

Once inside, he immediately flattened himself against the wall and scanned the barn's dimly lit interior. He quickly located what he'd been looking for; a wooden ladder leading to a loft full of loose, golden yellow straw. He nodded in satisfaction, briefly checked the interior of the barn again, then retraced his steps.

It was full daylight when he stepped outside. He frowned in displeasure, then jerked his head toward the farmhouse when he heard another creaking door, followed by the sound of a male voice. Cautiously, he peeked around the corner of the barn. An elderly man had appeared on the wrap around porch, and was stretching luxuriously. After a finishing, the man walked over to the porch rail and rested his hip against it in a comfortable pose. Hogan bit back a growl of frustration when the German pulled a large bowl pipe from his pocket, lit it, and started puffing contentedly.

Damn! Hogan's head swung toward the woods and Carter's hidden position, then back to the porch again. As if sensing he was causing his "guest" distress, the elderly German left the rail and disappeared inside once more. Hogan tipped his face heavenward. Thank you! Giving the house a last glance, he turned and headed back to Carter.

As Hogan neared Carter, he could see that the exhausted man had fallen asleep and was in immediate danger of tipping over onto his wounded shoulder. Leaping forward, he managed to catch Carter and pull him upright. Carter startled awake, but before he could cry out and possibly give away their presence, Hogan's hand clamped over his mouth.

Carter's blue eyes widened and filled with confusion above his C.O.'s hand. Hogan waited until the disorientation had faded, then softly asked, "Okay?"

Carter nodded.

Hogan removed his hand and hitched his thumb toward the barn. "That's where we're headed. Can you make it?"

Carter looked beyond Hogan's shoulder. A large red barn was just visible through the trees. He felt awful, but the distance didn't look that far. Surely he'd be able to make it. He looked up at Hogan, trying to appear confident. "Yeah, Colonel."

Hogan wasn't convinced, but carefully levered Carter to his feet. Once Carter had gotten his balance, Hogan guided him through the thinning woods to the barn. He kept a hand on the sergeant's elbow at all times as they traveled. Carter was shivering and every few feet would stagger alarmingly. The wound had stopped bleeding once it had been bound with a strip of cloth torn from Hogan's black turtleneck. But since it had bled heavily before their escape, Hogan figured that Carter was probably suffering from the blood loss as well as shock and was minutes from collapse.

They eventually reached the door at the back of the barn safely undetected. Hogan had nervously darted glances at the house and its front door as they traveled the last few yards. But the elderly German farmer remained within his warm farmhouse, completely unaware of his uninvited American guests just yards from his doorway. At least, that was what Hogan hoped.

Propping Carter against the wall of the barn with one hand, Hogan used the other to pull the creaky door open. Once inside, he led Carter to the gently sloped wooden ladder leading to their temporary sanctuary. Hogan glanced from the ladder to Carter. Getting Carter's attention with a tap on the chest, he pointed up the ladder and whispered, "Do you think you can climb it?"

Carter's gaze slowly tracked Hogan's finger upward to the loft looming far above their heads. Hogan was watching closely, so he was ready when Carter blanched to a translucent white and dizzily reeled backward. Hogan's hands shot out and supported him, feeling the young man tremble with weakness.

Hogan unslung the rifle from his shoulder and checked its safety, then carefully tossed the weapon up into the straw-filled loft. "Forget it, Carter," he whispered forcefully. "Just relax. You're goin' for a ride." Without any further warning, Hogan took a firm grip on Carter's good arm, bent down and lifted the startled young man onto his shoulder.

Carter's eyes bulged as everything literally turned upside down. One second he was standing beside Hogan and the next, he was watching the straw-littered barn floor recede in sharp jerks below him. From his position on Hogan's broad shoulder, he could feel the muscles beneath him rippling with the strain of carrying their combined weight up the sloped ladder. He remembered Hogan's own previously injured shoulder when he heard the officer grunt softly with each sharp jerk up the ladder. Before he could voice his concern, he was gently lowered into the fluffy straw.

Panting softly, Hogan knelt beside Carter and considered the burning pain deep within his shoulder and chest. Smart, Robert E.! Really smart! Why'd ya have to throw him over that shoulder? He shook his head at his carelessness, knowing that he'd re-injured the shoulder hit by shrapnel just three months before. A cautious shrug of that shoulder confirmed it. He flinched painfully, feeling the newly torn shoulder and chest muscles scream in objection. Wonderful! Just great!

Carter noticed the reaction. "Colonel?"

Hogan glanced up, hearing the concern in the hesitant call. "I'll be okay, Carter," he grumbled quietly. Rising to his feet, he carefully waded through the loose straw to the back wall of the barn.

Carter listened to the soft rustling sounds of Hogan moving about in the straw behind him. Turning his head, he tried to see what the other man was doing, but all he could see was occasional flashes of movement out of the corner of his eye. Hogan returned a few minutes later and easing Carter to his feet, led him to the rear barn wall. Carter saw that he'd rearranged the straw into a cozy nest near the wall. In front of that, Hogan had formed a large mound of straw which would block them from view of anyone looking into the loft from the ladder. Giving Hogan a smile of gratitude, Carter lowered himself into the makeshift depression.

Hogan's mouth twitched in amusement as he watched Carter fastidiously arrange himself in the bright straw. He looks just like a cat fixing a bed! With his good arm, Carter pushed clumps of straw here and there, until he finally seemed satisfied with the impromptu sleeping arrangements. Sighing contentedly, he closed his eyes and relaxed.

After a moment, Hogan decided Carter was well and truly settled. Retrieving the discarded rifle, he paused at the edge of the loft and listened for any sound from the direction of the house. Hearing nothing, he returned to their nest.

He placed the rifle within easy reach and joined Carter in the nest. He needed sleep, but his mind kept mulling over the worries he'd ignored earlier while concentrating on reaching cover before daylight. His jumbled thoughts were suddenly interrupted when he felt Carter shiver violently. Moments later, the young man's teeth started chattering.

"Carter?"

"Sorry, sir," Carter tried tightly clenching his teeth to stop the sporadic noise. "I can't seem to get warm."

Hogan's eyebrows lowered into a worried scowl.

Gingerly, he positioned himself so that he was spooned tightly against Carter's back. Wrapping his arm around Carter's chest and wincing as the movement pulled at his sore muscles, he closed his eyes.

Carter chuckled softly, his body vibrating against Hogan's solid, comforting warmth. "Gosh, colonel, we've never even gone on a date!"

Hogan's eyes shot open and rolled in fond exasperation. "Carter?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Go to sleep."

"Yes, sir."

*********



Hogan's men watched the extra guards pace outside Stalag 13's barbed wire fences, their booted feet raising small dust clouds in the dirt as they marched. Kommandant Wilhelm Klink had reacted to the news of his missing prisoners as they'd both expected and feared, immediately releasing guard dogs and doubling his perimeter sentries. Klink had raged at morning roll call about Hogan and Carter's audacity in thinking that they could successfully escape from his camp. Promising severe retribution for the missing men once they were recaptured, he had dismissed the silent prisoners and stomped back into his headquarters.

I wish he would catch them, Kinch thought, watching the guards outside the fence. He shifted his cold feet uncomfortably and leaned back against the barracks. At least then, we'd know they were safe...and alive. And here you are again, Kinch, exactly where you didn't want to be ... in command! Sighing heavily, he pondered his next move. He had yet to inform LeBeau and Newkirk of the message that he'd finished receiving just moments before Newkirk silenced their radio.

Jamming his hands deep into his coat pockets, Kinch regarded his numb toes and wondered why he continued to stand outside in the cold morning air when he could be inside their barracks where it was warm. Face it, old boy, you don't want to go inside and be reminded that two of your friends aren't in there waiting for you. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see LeBeau and Newkirk slumped against the barracks wall beside him. And, apparently, they feel the same way. Clearing his throat, Kinch shifted position so that he was facing the two men.

"Hey, fellas." Kinch waited until he was certain that he had their attention. "Last night, just before Newkirk pulled the plug, we got a message about a meeting with Rapunzel tonight to pick up the security plans for that rocket plant in Dusseldorf."

"Wot?" Newkirk straightened, his expression plainly reflecting his outrage. "And just 'ow are we supposed to meet 'er? We'd be bloody fools to try and get past those guards!" He viciously jerked his thumb toward the pacing sentries, while LeBeau nodded his headed emphatically in agreement.

"Look, I've already figured out how to get around the guards. Schnitzer is due tonight with a new load of dogs. Newkirk, you'll go out in his truck and meet with Rapunzel."

"That's ruddy marvelous, Kinch. And just 'ow am I to get back in?".

A small grin briefly appeared on Kinch's face. "Easy. Tell Schnitzer to wait for you at a safe distance from the meet. When you've gotten the plans, go back to his truck and have him bring you back into camp." Kinch carelessly shrugged his shoulders. "He'll tell Schultz that he'd brought the wrong group of dogs and that he needs to switch 'em. Schultz is sure to argue, and while they're arguin', you slip out of the truck and back into the tunnel with the plans."

Kinch's expression turned grim as he stiffly straightened away from the barracks wall. "There's another reason I want you to make this meet, Newkirk. I want you to tell Rapunzel and Schnitzer about Colonel Hogan and Carter being missing and I want you to ask them for the underground's help in locating them. We may not be able to use the radio yet, but we can still get the word out to our contacts."

Newkirk slapped Kinch's shoulder. "You continue to amaze me, mate."

Kinch's eyes grew even more somber at the backhanded compliment. "I've been studying with a master, Newkirk."

Their attention was suddenly drawn to Stalag 13's entrance when a large, gray truck pulled up outside the wire fence to await admittance to the camp. Newkirk's fists clenched tightly at his sides as he watched the guards open the gate and the truck entered the camp, its radio detection equipment plainly visible on its flat roof.

"That must be the truck you saw at the fuel depot last night." Kinch commented needlessly, keeping one eye on the Englishman.

"Too right!" Newkirk flushed with anger as he watched Schultz escort three gray-coated Wehrmacht soldiers into Klink's headquarters. A few moments later, two more armed soldiers appeared and took up positions beside the truck.

"Do you suppose they're here because they picked up our signal?"

Kinch glanced at LeBeau's worried face and shrugged his shoulders fatalistically. "I guess we'll find out. At least now we know they're still in the area. C'mon, let's go listen in." Turning quickly, he led the way into the barracks and Hogan's quarters, where their listening equipment for the bug in Klink's office was located.

Thirty minutes later, Kinch pulled the cable from the coffeepot receiver. The conversation between Kommandant Klink and his unexpected guests had been very informative. They'd learned that the radio detection truck's equipment had briefly picked up their radio signal the night before. Luckily, the contact had been brief enough that the Germans had been unable to make a fix on the direction, let alone the source of the signal. The soldiers had been scanning continuously since they'd first detected the signal, but had heard nothing further. Their stop at Stalag 13 was merely to rest and eat. They mentioned to Klink that they would be leaving the area by the next day, if they were still unable to locate the signal's source.

LeBeau leaned forward over Hogan's desk. "Now what?"

Kinch glanced at the two men as he stored the coffeepot. "Now, we wait."



*********

The unmistakable sound of the barn door creaking open jerked Hogan out of his uneasy sleep. Soundlessly shifting his weight in the straw, he raised himself up far enough to see that Carter was still asleep.

He listened intently while the elderly farmer moved about the barn, softly humming to himself as he tended to his morning chores. Idly watching dust motes drift in the sunlight streaming through a crack in the wall, Hogan mentally followed the farmer's progress about the barn.

The cow received her ration of hay and corn first, then the farmer bent to the task of his morning milking. The tuneless humming gradually evolved into soft, melodic singing as the cow surrendered her milk to the farmer's gentle hands. A soft pinging sound accompanied each spray of her milk into a metal bucket.

Once finished with the milking, the farmer approached his laying chickens and quietly coaxed them into sharing their freshly laid eggs. Hogan's mouth was watering by this point. He estimated that it'd been nearly fourteen hours since he and Carter had eaten their evening meal at Stalag 13 the night before. Fresh eggs and milk were starting to sound like one of LeBeau's gourmet meals.

Finally, after a last grumbled conversation with one of his hens, the farmer left the barn and returned to his house. Hogan relaxed slightly, and let his attention drift to the softly breathing young man beside him.

Carter had stopped shivering and was sleeping peacefully. Hogan began to raise his hand from where it rested in front of Carter's chest, but firm resistance kept him from completing the movement. Peeking over Carter's shoulder, he discovered the reason why. His left thumb was tightly imprisoned within Carter's curled right fist. Fondly shaking his head, Hogan flexed and wiggled his captured hand until he was able to ease his thumb free.

He grimaced in pain when he again tried to raise his hand. YEOWCH! He'd forgotten about the re-injured muscles. Rolling his left shoulder carefully, he worked the stiff and painful muscles until the movement evoked nothing more than a dull, irritating throb.

He sat up and lightly laid his hand on Carter's forehead, finding it slightly warm to his touch. Well, it was bound to happen. Not much I can do about it, though. Frowning in concern, he stood and approached the edge of the loft. His gaze bounced between the barn door and the pile of straw concealing Carter as he debated with himself. Finally, he made his decision.

Mindful of the touchy shoulder, he quietly lowered himself down the ladder and crossed the barn floor to peek through a crack in the front wall. The only things moving within his line of sight were some scrawny chickens and a yellow tomcat rolling and sunning himself in the dirt. Shifting slightly to his right, he watched the door to the house for several minutes. He was about to turn away when the farmer and a slight elderly woman left the house and began walking toward the barn. His softly muttered curses cut off when the couple changed direction and walked toward their truck, parked a short distance from the front of the barn. The man helped his wife into the truck, but then turned his head to stare at the barn.

NO, NO, NO ! Hogan frantically chanted under his breath. Finally, the German walked to the driver's side, opened the truck door and levered himself into its cab. A few moments later, the engine ground into life, and the truck slowly rolled out of Hogan's sight.

He sprinted across the barn floor to a corner of the barn. Peeking through another crack, he saw the truck disappear up the narrow dirt lane. Trip to town, maybe? He waited, watching the lane for several minutes, but the truck didn't return and no one appeared on foot. Resting his forehead against the wall, he breathed a sigh of relief. Oh, boy.

The loud growling from his stomach suddenly reminded him why he'd left the loft in the first place. Smirking to himself, he started scouting the nearby sources of food.

The two white chickens still cozily sitting within their straw-lined nesting boxes caught his attention first. He and the birds eyed each other warily as he covered the last few feet to their roost.

"Okay, listen up, ya little feather dusters, here's the way it's gonna be," he whispered forcefully. "I'm really, really hungry right now and I'm not in a very forgiving mood. Now, I won't be greedy. All I want are a few eggs. But one wrong move from either of you and I'll have your scrawny necks twisted off so fast . . ." He rolled his eyes and laughed softly at himself. The two hens quizzically cocked their heads at the sound. Listen to me, I'm threatening chickens, for crying out loud!

Slowly, he extended an open hand toward the nearer of the two chickens. Clucking softly to itself, it grudgingly moved aside and allowed him to pluck its single small brown egg from its warm nest. He repeated the process with the other hen, then stepped back from the coop and politely inclined his head toward the two fussing chickens.

"Thanks very much, ladies!"

Once the two eggs had been safely deposited in a small pile of straw near the base of the ladder, he directed his attention to the milk cow. He ambled toward the doe-eyed jersey cow, taking a deep breath and gathering his courage firmly around him. Being a city-boy born and bred, the nearest he'd ever come to a live cow was at a small county fair that his parents had taken him and his siblings to when he was sixteen. He knew that jersey cows were one of the smaller breeds of cattle, but at the moment, the golden-brown cow looked the size of a tank. And tanks don't kick, either!

First things, first. He looked around for something to catch the milk and eventually spied a small, discarded metal pail lying next to the manger. When he picked it up, he noticed that besides being small, it was also quite dusty. With a slight grimace of distaste, he dunked the pail into the cow's water trough and swished it around in the tepid water for a few minutes. The pail was only slightly cleaner following the dunking. He frowned, then shrugged. Oh, well, what does it matter? After all, I just put it into water that a cow's been drinking from!

He approached the cow, determined to get some warm milk. He stared at the distended udder while he absently petted the cow on her bony hip. After several seconds of self-encouragement, he crouched next to the cow, placed the pail beneath her udder and hesitantly grasped the warm teats. Out of the corner of his eye, he nervously saw the cow turn her head to stare at him as she continued chewing her cud. You already know you're dealing with an amateur, don't ya! He snorted softly in amusement as he began gently milking the cow. It took him a few minutes to catch on to the correct "squeeze and pull" rhythm necessary to bring the warm milk squirting into the pail, but five minutes later, he'd collected enough for both Carter and himself. Giving the cow another friendly pat in parting, Hogan placed his half-full pail of milk next to the two eggs.

He hesitated as he straightened next to the wooden ladder and stared in the direction of the farmhouse. Do I dare? After a worried glance up at the loft, he decided it was worth the risks, and walked decisively toward the door.

Hogan cautiously pushed the barn door open wide enough to ease his body outside. Blinking painfully in the bright sunlight, he was aware of the tempting target he presented as he stood in front of the barn. He sprinted to the house, yanked open the front door and bolted inside. Panting slightly from the adrenaline surging through his body, he paused a few seconds as his eyes adjusted to the interior lighting. Blinking to finish clearing his vision, he crossed the sparse but comfortable gathering room, and entered the kitchen to look for food he could easily carry back to the barn.

The first thing he found was a homemade loaf of sliced brown bread. He took two fat slices out of the middle of the loaf, being particularly careful to replace the bread in the exact position that he'd found it. He critically studied the loaf, and decided that the missing slices hadn't made enough difference in its size to be noticeable.

Next, he found a large hunk of yellow cheese in the icebox. Reaching into the cool metal-lined box, he pulled out the cheese and carefully cut a small section from the end with a knife he'd found. Setting the wedge of cheese with the bread, he replaced the original hunk of cheese in the icebox. The cheese was clearly smaller. Well, hopefully, he'll think she took some, and she'll think he did. Hogan cleaned the knife off, and replaced it in the drawer he'd found it in.

He stood for a moment and carefully checked everything again. Other than the cheese, which probably wouldn't immediately be discovered, he was satisfied that he'd left no obvious trace of his small thefts.

Enough. Don't press your luck, Robert! Gathering the pilfered items against his stomach, he walked quickly toward the front door. He glanced to one side as he crossed the room and noticed a black draped picture on a small table near the rough stone fireplace. Ignoring his screaming instincts, he changed direction and moved toward the picture.

Staring back at him from the oval frame was a serious-looking blond man in full Luftwaffe uniform. He appeared to have been in his early thirties at the time the picture had been taken. Hogan stared at the black crepe carefully arranged around the wooden frame. It could mean only one thing; the man was dead. There was another, smaller picture located on the wall next to the fireplace. It was a sepia-toned photo of the couple and the blond man. Their son. His eyes closed as he felt his heart ache for the elderly couple's loss.

He shook himself hard as his eyes snapped open. Their loss made them only that much more dangerous to him and his wounded man. He couldn't afford to be sympathetic.

Turning his back on the picture, Hogan retraced his steps to the front of the house, and eased the creaky door open. Don't these people believe in grease? He hesitated, swiveling his head toward the dirt lane as he listened for any sound of the truck returning. After a moment, he moved onto the porch, closing the door firmly behind him. Darting another cautious glance at the lane, he jogged back to the barn.

It took two trips up the ladder, but he eventually had all of the precious food piled neatly near their nest. Carter was still sleeping; his haggard face slightly flushed with fever. Hogan knelt beside him reluctantly shook the young man's hip. Carter's eyes fluttered open.

"How about something to eat, Carter?"

Carter blinked slowly, obviously trying to orient himself to his unfamiliar surroundings. "Sure, Colonel."

Hogan helped him into a sitting position before handing him the cheese and bread. "Here, eat what you want. There's some milk in that pail." Deciding to save the eggs for later, Hogan casually tucked them out of sight.

Carter nodded his thanks and began picking at the offered food. Hogan settled nearby, thoughtfully chewing on a half slice of the bread and cheese as he considered their situation. Occasionally, he'd glance over at Carter, silently studying his pale appearance.

"Colonel Hogan?"

"Yeah?" Hogan waited patiently while Carter fidgeted with his half-eaten slice of cheese.

"Colonel, back there in the truck, you know, when we were on our way to wherever?" Carter shyly glanced sideways at his commander. "You, uh . . ." His voice faltered for a moment when Hogan inquisitively tipped his head to one side. Clearing his throat, Carter shifted in the straw until he faced Hogan squarely. "That guard. You killed him. Real quick, too! I mean, I've never seen anyone move so fast, and you had that knife, and . . well, I didn't know you could do that, you know?"

Hogan's lips tightened into a thin smile, but his eyes remained deadly serious as he returned Carter's stare. "There are a lot of things that you and the others don't know about me, Carter . . . and you probably never will."

A chill went up Carter's back. For a single, brief moment, the man staring back at him was a total stranger, his eyes dark with an emotion Carter couldn't even begin to identify.

Hogan's gaze shifted to some imaginary lint on the knee of his black trousers. "Understand something, Carter." His hand drifted and began playing with a piece of straw beside his thigh. "I don't enjoy killing and I do my best to avoid it whenever possible. But I'm more than capable of killing if my men, my command, or myself are threatened and there's no other choice, or if I'm ordered to."

His chin lifted and he met Carter's stunned eyes. "I couldn't leave that guard alive, Carter. If I'd only knocked him out, he could have told that Gestapo major approximately where we'd left the truck, and given him a good lead on finding us. Hopefully, they didn't discover his body and our escape until they reached their base and by then, they would have had no way of knowing where we got out, and so no way of knowing where to begin their search."

Carter nodded. "Good thinkin', Colonel."

Hogan chuckled softly and released some of the tension that had crept into his body. "I'm so glad you think so, Carter." He decided not to mention his belief that they'd probably be seeing the Gestapo officer again. His instincts were warning him that the major was not about to give up trying to recapture or even kill his escaped prisoners, especially after one of his men had been killed practically under his nose.

Hogan moved to Carter's side and untied the makeshift bandage at his shoulder. He nodded in satisfaction as he carefully inspected the wound. "You were lucky. The bullet passed clear through the muscle without hitting the bone."

"With all due respect, sir, I don't feel so lucky!" Carter complained.

Hogan laughed softly, but his laughter quickly died, his demeanor changing to open concern.

"The truth, Carter; how are you feeling? Do you think you'll be able to travel tonight?"

"I'm okay, sir, maybe a little shaky and tired. But I can make it. Just tell me when you're ready."

"Get some more rest. It's only about eleven hundred now. We've got plenty of time until full darkness falls and we can leave this rustic little hotel."

Finishing off the last bite of his cheese, Hogan sighed tiredly and carefully lowered himself into the straw beside Carter. Dust from the dry straw caused him to sneeze, wrenching his sore shoulder and chest muscles. Gasping quietly, he curled his body around the pain, vaguely hearing Carter's panicked voice asking if he was okay.

The stabbing pain gradually receded to a manageable ache. "Yeah, Carter, I'm okay. Just some torn muscles; nothing permanent." He softly repeated his reassurances when he noticed the younger man's distraught expression.

Carter anxiously stared down at Hogan, trying to decide if his commander was being honest about his own injury. He watched Hogan shift restlessly and settle deeper into the straw. I keep seein' him lying on those rocks, more dead than alive! He shook his head and tried to banish his memories of Hogan's near-death and the visions that had haunted his dreams for weeks following the incident. Finally, Carter lay down, closed his eyes and was soon asleep despite the unwelcome memories.

Hogan rolled over when he heard Carter drift into sleep. Opening his eyes, he stared at the dusty beams over his head and listened to the soft rhythm of Carter's breathing. It was a long time before his eyes finally fluttered closed and he slept.



*********

Kinch dropped his fork and shoved his plate away. "Sorry, Louis. I guess I'm just not very hungry." He leaned his elbows on the table and watched LeBeau and Newkirk push their food around on their plates, just as he'd been doing for the past ten minutes.

He just couldn't force any more of the meal LeBeau had fixed for their lunch down his throat, not when his eyes kept drifting around the sparsely occupied table. He knew that the two men seated across from him were just as conscious of the empty space at the table as he was. Space that would normally be occupied by their missing comrades.

They had discussed the likely possibility that Hogan and Carter had been captured and were undergoing questioning somewhere. They all knew that despite the best of intentions, there was always a chance that one or both of their friends would crack under some of the tortuous questioning techniques used by the Third Reich. Kinch had warned, "We may have to pull out of here. So I want everything ready if we need to leave at a moment's notice. Gather everything together, sort through it and have it ready. Plant charges in the tunnels. We don't want anything left behind that they could use if we have to leave!"

Damn, I miss them! Kinch stared at Carter's empty bunk and thought of the innumerable times he'd teased the young sergeant about his inane chatter and off-the-wall ideas. What I wouldn't give to hear him goin' on and on about some idiotic idea that he's come up with, or hear Newkirk tease him. His gaze wandered to the closed door to Hogan's quarters. And I keep expecting the colonel to come walking out of there any minute.

We're like a singing group that's missin' two important voices. You can't sing five-part harmony with a trio. Losing Carter and Hogan had vitally weakened their team. Even normal daily routines felt wrong, out of balance and discordant. Each man played an important role in keeping their underground unit functioning efficiently. Kinch was painfully aware that they'd need extra men to tackle the mission of destroying the rocket assembly plant. But any men he chose to help would be hastily trained and unfamiliar with a routine that was second nature to the rest of them. Why didn't I listen to you, Colonel?

In the time they'd worked side by side at Stalag 13, there had been only one serious argument between Kinchloe and his commanding officer. Shortly after Hogan had returned to full "active" duty status following his recovery from his injuries, he'd unexpectedly pulled Kinch into his quarters one evening.

"We need to talk." Hogan had begun without preamble. From there, he'd gone on to explain the need for Kinch to actively take part in leading and planning some of their missions, as well as picking the men who would participate in them. Over Kinch's building protests, he had continued to outline the need for training other men to handle vital duties such as demolitions, radio, etc.

"We've been ignoring this issue for far too long already, Kinch. It's been made only too clear that at any time, any one of us can be killed, captured, moved to another camp, etc., etc. Just as I'm going to train you to fill in for me, you need to train some men on the radio, Carter should show some men how to assemble explosives, and so on. We're not untouchable, Kinch, and we can't afford to be irreplaceable. Face it, if I'd died in that explosion, you know you couldn't have wasted time sitting around until headquarters sent you my replacement!"

In his mind, Kinch knew that Hogan was right. Their underground unit was a vital link in the resistance and had to survive. To do that, it had to have a surplus of men who could carry out the duties necessary for the missions they were given. But in his heart, he chose the role of procrastinator, much to Hogan's displeasure. Kinch knew that he was being completely unreasonable, but for some reason, he just didn't want to take that step. They'd heatedly debated the subject many times since that night, always remaining at polar opposites in their opinions. Hogan could have ordered Kinch to carry out the assignment, but didn't. Kinch knew his commander wanted his obedience to be willing as well as supportive.

You were right, Colonel. And I pray you make it back to tell me 'I told you so' to my face!

*********



The mood in Barracks two had changed very little by mid-afternoon. What little conversation was heard was brief and usually spoken in monotone voices. Olsen tried several times to entice some of the men into an impromptu game of volleyball, but eventually gave up when he was given pointed glares in response.

For the most part, Kinch kept pretty much to himself while he grappled with decisions that were normally handled by their C.O.. After wandering aimlessly around the barracks, both inside and out, he finally settled himself inside at the barracks table. He irritably scratched his chin and frowned at the paper he'd been carrying around with him. Every man he considered for the mission at Düsseldorf seemed to fall short of his expectations. Rolling his eyes in disgust, he realized that he wasn't being fair or objective. Setting aside his preconceptions, he soon made his choices.

He'd just neatly folded his paper and returned it to his shirt pocket when Schultz entered the barracks, his hands brimming with the prisoner's mail that arrived at the P.O.W. camp once a month. Moving to the stove, Kinch poured himself a cup of hot coffee and watched Shultz sort through the stack of personal letters. Calling out the prisoner's names, the German slowly shuffled about the room distributing the mail into their waiting hands.

Kinch moved aside and leaned against one of the bunks as he took another sip from his cup. He watched without interest as Schultz faltered to a stop beside him, fidgeting with the three letters that remained in his hands. After a moment, Schultz peeked from beneath the brim of his helmet, his forehead creased into an uneasy frown.

"These are for Colonel Hogan and Carter." Schultz held up the letters, conscious of the complete silence that had descended upon the room. "What should I do with them?"

Kinch stared at the innocent-looking letters. Taking a deep breath, he slowly held out his hand.

"I'll take them."

Schultz placed the letters in his hand and glanced around the room at the silent prisoners. He started to comment on the unnatural silence, but stopped when Kinch sternly shook his head in warning. Leaning toward Kinch, he offered in a soft whisper, "I miss them, too." Schultz shuffled out, glad to leave the morose atmosphere behind.

Kinch stared at the letters in his hand. Two were addressed to Hogan; one from his sister, Maggie and one from his brother, Ted. The remaining letter was to Carter from his girlfriend, Mady. Wrenching his eyes away from the letters, Kinch slowly walked into Hogan's quarters and placed them on his desk. He glanced quickly around the empty quarters, then turned and left, softly pulling the door closed behind him.

*********



The lone mourning dove perched high on a beam in the loft tilted her head from side to side, studying the men lying below her in the straw. She'd been watching them for some time. Their unfamiliar presence near her favorite roosting spot was making her uneasy. Strutting hesitantly along the beam, she listened to the sound of their quiet breathing. From even farther below her, came the sound of the cow's quiet but familiar movements, punctuated by an occasional rustle from the tomcat as he chased an elusive mouse. Cooing softly to herself, she finally decided the men presented no threat and settled contentedly on the beam to await her mate's return.

The loud rattle of the truck shattered the barn's peaceful serenity. Hogan and Carter startled awake as sound erupted around them. Hogan's eyes darted upward when a dove noisily took flight above their heads, while beneath them, the cow bellowed and the tomcat sounded off with an angry yowl. He gripped Carter's shoulder in reassurance when he felt the young man flinch. Gradually, the chaotic noise subsided. Listening carefully, they heard the faint sound of the truck doors opening and closing, followed by the quiet murmur of the elderly couple's voices. The conversation faded as the couple walked to their house.

Hogan and Carter relaxed and began to breathe a little easier.

"Sounds like they're back."

Hogan smiled to himself. "Carter, your powers of observation are just astounding."

"Really? You think so?"

"Carter?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Go back to sleep."

*********



"KINCHLOE!"

Schultz's strident bellow shattered the peace in Barracks Two, startling Kinch so badly he almost dropped his third cup of coffee. Carefully placing his cup on the table, he directed a formidable glare at the German entering their barracks.

"WHAT!?"

Schultz's round face took on a wounded appearance. "There is no need to be upset!" Placing his hand over his heart, Schultz humbly inclined his head. "After all, I am but a lowly sergeant, small potatoes, merely a messenger with very little authority…"

Kinch rolled his eyes. "Get to the point, Schultz!"

Schultz threw back his shoulders, pulling himself to attention. "Kommandant Klink wishes to see you in his office!"

"Klink wants to see me?" Kinch exchanged puzzled glances with LeBeau and Newkirk, his mind searching for an explanation for the unexpected summons.

It was Schultz's turn to roll his eyes. Speaking in a slow, mocking voice, he asked, "You are Sergeant Kinchloe, are you not?"

Kinch nodded wearily.

"Then you" Schultz pointed at Kinch, "are to go with me" he pointed at himself, "to see HIM!" he ended his long-suffering delivery by sternly pointing in the direction of Klink's office.

Schultz opened the barracks door and waved one arm at Kinch in his typical shooing gesture. "Schnell! Mach schnell!"

"Okay! Okay! I'm going, I'm going!"

Kinch sullenly followed Schultz across the prison compound and into Klink's outer office, mentally bracing himself for the unwanted encounter with Stalag 13's Kommandant. He was in no mood for Klink's blustering pompousness and his fierce expression clearly showed it.

Angling an eyebrow at Hilda, Kinch took a deep breath, gathered his ragged patience and shouldered past Schultz into Klink's office.

"Ah, Sergeant Kinchloe! Come in! Come in!" Klink stood behind his desk, his face bearing a wide smile as he gestured for Kinch to enter.

Kinch came to a halt in front of the desk and warily eyed Klink's smiling face. "You wanted to see me, kommandant?" Uh, oh. Colonel Hogan always said to 'watch out' if he comes at ya with that phony, toothy smile of his! Kinch physically winced when he realized that he'd just used the past tense to refer to his superior officer's advice. Misunderstanding the reaction, Klink hurriedly circled his desk and placed his hand on Kinch's back.

"No need to worry, sergeant! You are among friends here!"

Taking another deep breath, Kinch contained his seething emotions. "Why did you want to see me, kommandant?"

Klink beamed at Kinch, his hands briskly rubbing together as he perched on the corner of his desk. "I like a man who comes directly to the point." Pointing a finger at Kinch, he added, "I can see that we will get along just fine, sergeant!"

"Get along?" Kinch's eyebrows slowly rose toward his knit cap. What is he goin' on about?

"Yes, yes! Since Colonel Hogan is gone, we will be dealing directly with each other on a regular basis. At least, until we receive another officer."

Kinch's eyes grew cold, his face settling into a stony expression. "Kommandant," he began, "We…"

"Everything will be fine, sergeant!" Klink interrupted. "It is really very simple. Our relationship will be a smooth one as long as you obey my orders and see that your men do also. Colonel Hogan always seemed to have some trouble with that last part." Klink thoughtfully placed one finger on his chin and regarded the ceiling. "He also seemed to have a great deal of trouble with the first part."

Kinch was literally seeing red in reaction to Klink's tactless comments. Clenching his teeth together, he growled in warning, "Kommandant!"

Klink's eyes widened in alarm as he finally noticed the anger burning within the American's dark eyes. Realizing that he was losing control of the situation, he verbally back-pedaled. "Oh, but what am I saying? Of course, this whole conversation is really quite unnecessary!"

Kinch blinked, his face becoming totally blank.

"Really. Totally unnecessary, because we will soon find Colonel Hogan and Carter and bring them back to camp. It is inevitable. No one successfully escapes from Stalag 13, sergeant. No…one." Klink leaned forward and waved his finger at Kinch to emphasize his boast. Seeing that Kinch was unmoved by his declaration, Klink straightened primly on his desk. "You would be doing Carter and Hogan a great service, actually, sergeant, if you were to tell me of any plans that they might have mentioned to you?"

Is that what he brought me in here for? Kinch hid his smile, dropping his gaze to Klink's tapping foot. "Sorry, kommandant, the colonel and Carter never said a word to anyone about any escape."

"Come now, Sergeant Kinchloe!" Klink moved until he was standing nearly nose to nose with Kinch. "You and Colonel Hogan spent a great deal of time together. I have seen you myself! Surely he said something!" Klink leaned toward Kinch conspiratorially. "And I will make it worth your while if you tell me what it was!"

Kinch smiled grimly. "Like I said, kommandant. I can't help you." Watching Klink's eyes narrow in anger, Kinch calmly asked, "Is that all, sir?"

"DISMISSED!" Klink bellowed, shaking his fist in frustration.

Kinch snapped off a perfect salute, turned and headed for the door. He barely managed to avoid colliding with General Burkhalter as he left the building. Kinch quickly stepped backward, allowed the portly Luftwaffe general to enter.

Burkhalter pulled off his gloves and watched Kinch leave. Stuffing the leather gloves in his pocket, he directed a wolfish smile at Fraulein Hilda and opened the office door.

"General Burkhalter!" Klink shot to his feet, nervously tugging down the front of his uniform. "What a wonderful surprise!"

Burkhalter rolled his eyes, already wishing the visit was concluded. "Oh, shut up, Klink. Who was that man who was just here?"

"Oh, that was Sergeant Kinchloe. We were just discussing a few matters." Klink helped the general with his coat and ushered him into a chair beside the desk. He worriedly studied Burkhalter out of the corner of his eye while he hung the coat. What is he doing here now? I do not need for him to know that two of my prisoners have escaped!

"Why would you be discussing anything with him, Klink? And without the senior P.O.W.'s presence?" Burkhalter's eyes narrowed as he watched Klink seat himself behind the desk. "Where is Hogan? He seems to always be nearby whenever I visit."

Klink squirmed uncomfortably in his chair. "Oh, Hogan? He's....ill! Yes, Hogan is not feeling well and is resting in his barracks. He sent Sergeant Kinchloe to me with some requests." Klink smiled broadly, nervously spreading his hands in the air. "Of course, I turned them all down!"

Burkhalter's eyebrow slanted upward. Hmm. It is the phony smile. What is he up to now? Dismissing the thought, he began explaining the reason for his visit.

*********



Hours later, Kinch slouched in his bunk, frowning as he studied the men around him. The unnaturally quiet atmosphere in the barracks was really beginning to wear on his nerves. He watched Newkirk pick up his favorite deck of cards, only to disgustedly toss it back onto the table moments later. Sliding his gaze to his left, he saw Tom Benson irritably shove his bunkmate out of the way as he passed. To his right, the normally active Olsen was lounging in his bunk, idly fingering his shirt. Kinch's eyebrows rose and he breathed a heavy sigh. Oh, boy, do we have a morale problem building up here! His gaze drifted to LeBeau, who was checking something he'd been cooking on the stove. I think more than anything, the worst part is not knowing what happened to them.

"Merde!" LeBeau slammed the pot he'd been cooking with down on the wood stove's hot surface. Raising his hands to cover his face, he began muttering in French beneath his breath.

The loud bang and shouted French expletive startled Kinch out of his reverie. Briefly meeting Newkirk's concerned gaze, he rose to his feet and went to LeBeau.

"What is it, Louis?"

LeBeau swiped at his moist eyes and mumbled, "I burnt the sauce."

Burnt the sauce? Kinch frowned. This is about more than a ruined sauce. He lightly rubbed the back of LeBeau's neck. "Forget the sauce. Come on over here and sit down."

LeBeau's shoulder's drooped as he allowed Kinch to seat him at the table beside Newkirk.

"All right, now why don't you tell me what's really botherin' you."

Kinch was suddenly overwhelmed when LeBeau spewed rapid-fire French at him, his hands moving erratically in counterpoint.

"Whoa, lit'l mate!" Newkirk reached over and tapped LeBeau's shoulder. "'ow about tryin' that again, this time in the King's good English?"

LeBeau glared crossly at him. "Pah! D'accord!"

Newkirk gave him a puzzled grimace.

LeBeau rolled his eyes. "OKAY!"

"Take it easy, Louis," Kinch told him gently.

LeBeau took in a deep breath. "I was not thinking of what I was doing. I was not thinking of the sauce. I was thinking of the last time I spoke with Carter." He twisted his hands together upon the tabletop, the action heightening Kinch's concern. "I was very angry with him. I yelled at him for tearing another hole in the shirt that I'd just mended that morning." LeBeau sniffed disconsolately as he stared at Carter's empty bunk. "Such a small thing; a meaningless thing to yell about."

"Ah, Louis." Newkirk placed his arm around LeBeau's bowed shoulders. "Mate, Andrew knew you didn't mean anything by it! We all yell at 'im, me especially. 'E knows we're just blowin' off."

"Newkirk's right," Kinch agreed. "The only time I've ever seen Carter affected by anyone's yelling is when the colonel yells at him. He just kind of wilts, ya know?"

"That's right. Let me tell you, mate, I don't like to draw the guv'nor's fire either!" Newkirk nodded vigorously when a small smile appeared on LeBeau's face. "Now Andrew, well, 'e looks like a whipped puppy when 'e raises Colonel 'ogan's temper. Makes ya just want to cuddle 'im right up."

Kinch's full black mustache twitched with a smirk. "Now, wouldn't that be a sight!" They laughed, the shared amusement momentarily easing their dark mood.

"They'll be fine, Louis. We'll see them again," Kinch forcefully tapped the table's top with a finger to emphasize his words.

"You can count on it."

*********



Newkirk sighed softly as he lowered his himself down through the tunnel opening under one of Stalag 13's guard dog kennels later that night. His mission had been accomplished without complications, but his spirits remained as depressed as ever.

His meeting in Hammelburg with Rapunzel had been quick and to the point. Taking the security plans from her, he had gently restrained her when she immediately tried to rise from their table at the Hofbrau. Holding her hand while trying to convey the appearance of an elderly spinster passing on worldly advice to an innocent young woman, he had told her of Hogan and Carter's disappearance the night before. He'd told her of their mission at the fuel depot, the radio truck and getting separated from his comrades. Pleading with an eloquence he'd not known he was capable of, he'd begged Rapunzel for the underground's assistance in locating his missing friends.

Rapunzel had listened sympathetically, promising to pass along the information to her underground contacts. She'd told him that they would do their best to locate Papa Bear and Carter, but that she couldn't make any promises. Too many questions might arouse lethal suspicion. Schnitzer had also agreed to help, but with the same qualifications.

Newkirk slumped dejectedly against the damp tunnel wall and pulled off the wig that was part of his disguise. He patted the wig's coarse gray hair, remembering Hogan's laughter to his complaints about having to wear the disguise.

He closed his eyes and clenched the wig in his fists. Where are you, mates?

*********



Hogan stared at the farmhouse, angrily cursing under his breath. He slowly counted to ten, peeked through the crack in the barn wall again and added another ten.

Damn, damn, damn!! They're still there! I'm all for romance, but c'mon! His jaw ached from grinding his teeth while he watched the elderly couple quietly hold hands and rock in their porch swing.

Gently tapping his forehead against the wall, he growled under his breath in frustration. I'm gonna start screamin', I swear I am!!

Earlier that evening, just before dusk, Hogan had finally been able to coax his extremely reluctant sergeant into eating one of the raw chicken eggs (Think protein, Carter, protein!) and the last of their bread, cheese and milk. The covering darkness had arrived shortly afterward, and they'd slowly and in Carter's case, painfully, descended the wooden ladder to the barn floor. While Carter waited near the rear door, Hogan had gone to the front wall to check the house. That's when he'd discovered the romantic scene on the porch.

They'd been waiting for over ninety minutes for the elderly couple to grow cold from the night air and retreat into their warm and cozy house. Only then would Hogan leave the cover of the barn for the distant woods.

Finally, the couple stiffly rose from the swing and moved inside. Hogan felt like dancing in relief while he waited for the door to completely swing shut behind them.

Minutes later, he and Carter slipped from the barn and resumed their journey toward Stalag 13 and their waiting friends.



*********

Colonel Wilhelm Klink stared blankly at the darkness beyond the window in his quarters. Heidi is probably missing me. This is the first night in a week that I haven't been to see her. Not even the thought of visiting the beautiful singer he'd been courting at the Hauserhof brightened his spirits. Closing his eyes, he listened to the cuckoo clock's rhythmic ticking. He estimated that he'd been staring through his window at the night sky for the last thirty minutes, while his mind moved in tedious circles, always returning to the same thought: My perfect record is gone.

His initial reaction when he'd been informed of Carter and Hogan's escape had made him literally red with anger. The matter of Carter's escape was oddly secondary in his mind. It was Hogan's escape which had sent him into a black temper that lasted well into the morning, causing Schultz and his secretary, Hilda, to disappear from his headquarters in self-defense. In retrospect, Klink could well understand why. He laughed softly in the dim light cast by the single lamp next to his couch. I would have left, too!

Carter and Hogan had both escaped before. Each time, they'd been returned to Stalag 13 and Klink's record of no escapes had remained unblemished. But for some reason, he truly believed that this time, he'd seen the last of the two men. Hogan is a clever man. If does not want to be found, he will not be. And if Carter is with Hogan, he will not be found either. Klink snorted derisively in the oppressive silence. With the likes of Schultz searching for them, it won't be hard to avoid being recaptured!

His head slowly lifted and his body straightened from its slouch as a rare feeling of bright courage filled his mind and heart.

I am a Luftwaffe officer with an exemplary record! My perfect record of no escapes may be gone, but what is the escape of a mere two prisoners? Other kommandants have escapes all of the time and lose entire groups of men and are not shipped off to the Russian Front because of it! That ugly thought did cause a momentary twinge of alarm to pierce his newly found courage, but not enough to banish it completely. I will be fine! Clenching his fist to his chest, he forcefully repeated aloud, "I WILL BE FINE!"

Rising resolutely from his couch, he switched off the lamp and moved toward the warmth of his waiting bed. Darting one brief glance at the darkness beyond his windows, he reminded himself yet again, I WILL BE FINE!

*********



Hogan stopped, retraced his last few steps and studied the boulder at the edge of the dirt road they'd been paralleling. I know that rock! We're only nine miles from camp! A broad grin broke upon his face at the welcome sight of a familiar landmark. They were entering known territory.

He hadn't immediately recognized their surroundings due to the melange of toppled trees along the road. Apparently, road crews were widening the road and the trees had been left where they'd fallen. It was by sheer luck that Hogan had caught sight of the boulder that he and his men used as a reference point in their frequent night-travels.

His happiness vanished when he turned back toward Carter to share the good news. Carter was slumped against a broad tree trunk; clearly exhausted from traveling three miles since leaving the barn. Hogan critically studied his haggard face in the dim light. He knew the younger man would not protest if he were urged on toward camp. But he also knew that Carter was still suffering from a fever and was probably still feeling weak as well. Sighing softly, Hogan walked over and gently guided Carter into a sitting position on the damp, leaf-littered ground.

"I'll be right back."

Carter blinked up at him with bleary eyes. "Where ya' goin'?"

"I'm going to scout around but I won't be long. Stay here, got it?" He patted Carter's chest, physically reinforcing the order.

"Got it."

Through heavy eyes, Carter watched Hogan disappear into the darkness. He was grateful for the respite from the hurried pace that Hogan had set since leaving the farm. Carter had barely been able to keep up. Occasionally, Hogan's stride had slowed to match Carter's and he'd lent his right shoulder as support. Despite the assistance, Carter had he'd reached his limit. Only sheer determination had kept him on his feet.

Gingerly rubbing his shoulder, he shifted against the tree. I wonder if the colonel knows we're nearly at the Hammelburg Bridge? He snorted softly. Of course, he knows! He's been this way hundreds of times. Probably could move around here in his sleep. The thought finally sank in, jerking his head up and sending alarms blaring through his mind. Oh, no! The Hammelburg Bridge! It'll be the first time that he's been at the bridge, or what's left of it, anyway, since the night he almost died!

Carter leaned heavily against the tree and struggled to his feet. He's taken only a few steps, when Hogan suddenly appeared without warning at his side. Carter startled, barely holding back a yelp of surprise.

"What are ya doin'?" Hogan whispered forcefully into Carter's ear. "I told you to stay put!" He clamped his hand over Carter's mouth, muffling the younger man's protests. "Not a sound! There's a patrol just four hundred yards from our position and they're moving this way! Follow me!"

Leading Carter by his uninjured arm, Hogan quickly led him to a nearby windfall of fallen evergreen trees. He guided Carter into an open space deep within the heap of trees, then immediately followed. Carter crawled forward until he could go no further and then turned so that he was facing toward the entrance to the windfall. His head bumped painfully into Hogan's before the officer also turned, positioning himself between Carter and the entrance. They lay within the complete darkness created by the dense branches, listening for the patrol moving toward them.

Hogan could feel Carter shivering against his back while they waited. He pushed his concern for the low-grade fever still burning in the younger man's body away and focused on the more pressing problem of the patrol now less than thirty feet away.

He'd spotted five men in the Wehrmacht patrol. Listening closely, he heard them pass by on either side of the windfall. One soldier slowly walked toward their hiding place and stopped at the edge of the windfall, less than twelve feet from Hogan and Carter.

Hogan's grip tightened on the rifle lying in front of his body. Despite the stolen weapon, they were basically helpless should their presence be discovered. He'd found them cover and gotten them out of sight, but he'd also left them no avenues of escape. They were quite effectively trapped. If there's just one man with a brain in this bunch, he'll realize that this heap of trees provides perfect cover! We're pinned like a couple of scared rabbits! Vaguely, Hogan felt Carter's fingers curling tightly against his back, in the material of his coat.

Hogan heard the lagging soldier mutter sullenly under his breath before moving off after his patrol. They went toward the road, leaving two very relieved men in their wake. Hogan took a few minutes to calm his ragged nerves, then carefully rolled over on the bed of pine needles until he was facing Carter and the back of the windfall. The impenetrable darkness hid Carter's face, but Hogan felt the warmth of his breath gusting softly against his cheek.

Whispering reassurances, he gently eased Carter over so that they were both facing away from the entrance. As he'd done in the loft, Hogan wrapped himself tightly around Carter's shivering body and tried to provide a small measure of warmth in the cold and dampness. They'd only just gotten settled, when Carter suddenly stiffened and shoved backward against Hogan's chest.

"Colonel!" His panicked whisper immediately returned Hogan to full alert.

"What is it, Carter?"

"There's somethin' in here!"

"Something?" Hogan frowned. "Like what?"

"Somethin' furry!"

Hogan's mouth quirked into a smile. Well, that narrows it down some. "Carter, it's probably just ----- "

Carter violently shoved himself backward, away from the back of the windfall. Hogan found himself on his back, his arms full of struggling sergeant and something that felt like a ball of fur with legs.

Near-silent panic ensued within the windfall as Hogan grappled with Carter and whatever was sharing their hiding place. One of Carter's elbows punched into Hogan's ribs, driving the breath from his body. Another elbow grazed his jaw. Carter's breath was coming faster and faster, and Hogan knew the young man was quickly losing any semblance of control. With a massive heave, he dislodged Carter toward the back of the windfall, simultaneously grabbing their furry visitor and pulling it in the opposite direction.

Panting harshly from pain and adrenaline, Hogan reached up and carefully ran a hand over the wriggling animal clutched in his fist. His fingers cautiously wandered over the long body, tail, ears, and kicking legs. When he realized what he held, he choked, fighting to stifle the hysterical laughter rising in his throat.

"Carter." His voice came out in a strangled whisper.

"What is it, Colonel?" Carter still sounded shaky and breathless with fear, as though thinking they were about to be eaten by a bear.

"It's a rabbit, Carter." Hogan closed his eyes in exhausted amusement. Robert Hogan, Great Conqueror of killer rabbits! He released the terrified animal and listened to it scuttle out of the windfall. Sorry, little guy!

"A RABBIT!" The shocked whisper was as loud as a shout to Hogan's frazzled nerves.

"SHH!" Oh, thank you, thank you, for not letting this little fiasco happen while that patrol was out there!! "What did you think it was, Carter?"

There was a moment of silence. "Well, I don't know.....But....a RABBIT, for crying out loud?"

Hogan had a flash of memory of his youngest brother pleading at his bedtime for big brother Robert to get rid of the troll that he insisted lived in his closet.

"Carter, you and the guys haven't been telling ghost stories again lately, have you?"

"Yeah! And boy, Olsen had a really scary one about...." Carter's excited whisper faded away. "Wait-a-minute. How did you know, Colonel?"

Hogan laughed softly. "Come here, Carter." Turning back on his side, he waited while Carter cautiously re-settled against him in the darkness.

Shoving the rabbit incident out of his mind, Hogan refocused on their predicament. They would have to remain in the windfall until Carter regained enough strength to continue traveling. But even if he felt stronger by morning, traveling during the daylight was out of the question. That meant spending the rest of the night and the following day within the windfall. And they were without food or water. And the time within the cold dampness of their shelter would certainly not improve Carter's health. Not to mention my own!

Resigning himself to the inevitable delay and discomfort, Hogan eventually drifted into another uneasy slumber, his arm wrapped tightly around Carter, protecting him against any more killer rabbits.



*********

Newkirk stared blankly into the empty coffee cup he was swirling in sloppy circles on the table between his palms. A hand darted over from his right side and tightly gripped his wrists, stopping the repetitive motion. Newkirk smiled sheepishly at the hand's owner.

"Sorry, Kinch."

Kinch gently returned the smile. "It's okay, Newkirk. It's just that ten minutes of that was beginning to get to me, you know?"

Newkirk snorted softly.

LeBeau listened to the exchange from his seat at the other end of the table, his back resolutely facing the door to Hogan's empty quarters. The only problem with the position was that it left Carter's empty bunk squarely within his line of sight.

"Surely London has heard something by now?"

Kinch rubbed his eyes. With the radio truck's departure from the area, he'd been able to repeatedly check with headquarters on the status of the underground's search for Hogan and Carter. After his third contact, he'd essentially been given a terse "Don't call us, we'll call you" reply.

"They said they'd contact us if they heard anything, Louis. Last time I checked, London told me there'd been no word from anyone. It's like Carter and the colonel have disappeared from the face of the earth somehow."

"The guvnor's good, but 'e's not that good, mate!" Newkirk chuckled.

"London also mentioned the rocket plant. We're to carry on with the mission, and destroy it as soon as possible." Sternly shaking his head, Kinch gestured for LeBeau and Newkirk to silence their protests.

"We've discussed this." He directed an annoyed glare at the two men. "We can do it. I've talked with Parker and Baldwin, and they've agreed to take part in the mission. Now, I know that they're not the colonel and Carter, but they've been briefed on the mission and they know what to do. There's no point in waiting around."

Kinch took a deep breath. "Listen ..." He paused, trying to contain the emotion that suddenly threatened to overwhelm him. His earlier optimism had deserted him, leaving him in a well of depression. Bowing his head over his tightly clenched hands, he avoided looking at the two men as he spoke in a low, pain-filled voice. "As unpleasant as it may be, we have to consider the possibility that Andrew and Colonel Hogan may be gone for good."

"We don't know that!" Newkirk leaped to his feet, knocking over the bench he'd been sitting on. "It 'asn't been that long! We can't give up on 'em, Kinch! Colonel 'ogan wouldn't give up on us!"

Kinch stared at the Englishman's stricken expression. "Face it, Newkirk. We don't know where they are. We don't know what's happened to them. Our Underground agents have found no trace of them anywhere. They could be at some Gestapo base undergoing questioning and we all know what that's like! Or maybe, they were killed near that damned fuel depot."

LeBeau vehemently shook his head, pounding his fist on the table. "Non! I do not believe it!"

Kinch wearily shrugged his shoulders. "Okay, okay, I don't want to believe it, either. And just to set the record straight, I'm not givin' up on Carter and the colonel. But I am a realist. We all know what their chances are if by some miracle, they did manage to avoid capture and they're still out there. You know as well as I do, that between the guards, patrols, Gestapo and the cold, they don't have much of a chance." Kinch rose from the table and got himself another cup of coffee from the pot warming on the stove. Absently sipping from his cup, he faced them again.

"We still have to take out that rocket plant, with or without them. And London also wants that fuel depot blown. But we can't do either one until Klink pulls in the guards from their search. And that might not be for some time." His shoulders drooped dispiritedly as he righted the bench and sat down at the table. "I told London about the reason for the delay. We'll go when we can."

Newkirk hesitantly spoke as he sat next to Kinch again. "Andrew showed me how 'e made…" He grimaced. "'ow 'e makes 'is explosive packs. I can do it. We 'ave plenty of supplies even though we made up charges for the tunnels. I'll make 'em up so we'll be ready to go whenever you give the 'go ahead.'"

"All right." Kinch sighed heavily. "Now all we can do is wait until Klink decides to pull the extra guards."

*********



"Bless you," Carter whispered.

"Thanks," Hogan sniffled. The sneeze had erupted without warning, startling them out of their restless sleep.

A few minutes passed in companionable silence, then Carter shifted and said softly, "I'm really sorry about all this, Colonel. I need to change my name."

"Huh? Change your name?" Once again, Carter's quirky logic had Hogan mystified. "Carter, what are you talking about?"

"I'm definitely not a 'Little Deer Running Swift and Sure Through Forest.'"

The reference to Carter's Indian name made Hogan shake with silent laughter. After a moment, he whispered firmly, "Your name is just fine, Carter. None of it is your fault. You didn't ask for your foot to get caught in those roots. It could've just as easily happened to Newkirk, or to me."

"But it happened to me, Colonel."

Hogan frowned at the raw emotion in Carter's quavering voice. "Let it go, Carter. I don't blame you, the guys wouldn't blame you, and neither should you."

Silence reigned within the windfall.

"Listen to me, Andrew."

That got Carter's attention. Hogan rarely, if ever, called him by his given name like the other men did.

"Leave your name alone. Don't you dare change anything about yourself, because if you did, you wouldn't be the Andrew Carter that I've come to count on. You may be a little more 'off-the-wall' than the other guys, but you're also the best demolitions man I've ever met. And sometimes, your slightly skewed perception of things leads to some very good ideas; ones that we might never have come up with, otherwise." Hogan briefly tightened his arm around Carter. "I value each of you not only for the skills you bring to our operation, but also because of the people that you are. I wouldn't change any of you, so just stop that whole line of thinking, okay?"

The tension in Carter's body slowly ebbed.

"Yes, sir."

"Good," Hogan sighed. "Now there may be more out here with us than just birds and killer rabbits, Carter, so we better cut this conversation short."

"Yes sir."

*********



"I see it, but I don't believe it," Newkirk muttered, watching Schultz wave the guards back through Stalag 13's open gates.

"He's pulling the search parties! He's never pulled them this quickly before!" LeBeau squeaked.

Kinch shook his head in wonderment at the unexpected turn for the better in their recent bad luck. Now we're in business! He turned toward the two men still staring with wide eyes at the returning guards. "We're going out tonight. We'll take out that factory and then we'll look for Colonel Hogan and Carter."

"Look for Colonel 'ogan and Carter? 'ow do you expect to find 'em when the whole bloody Underground and Klink's guards couldn't find 'em?"

"I have a few ideas." Kinch opted not to share the fact that Hogan had once described to him a few of the hiding places that he'd scouted out during previous missions. Privately, he'd told Kinch that if worse came to worse, he could conceal himself for any length of time within one of them. Using Hogan's directions, Kinch believed that he'd be able to locate some of the officer's hiding places. Hopefully, they'd find their missing friends in one of them.

Unfortunately, Kinch's well-planned schedule for the night was thrown off by Klink's unexpected bed check. Kinch, LeBeau and Newkirk were just ready to descend into the tunnels when Olsen's shouted warning sent them racing for their bunks. They barely had enough time to dive under their blankets, pull them up to their chins, and assume positions of sleep before Klink and Schultz burst into the barracks.

By the time they'd endured the bed check and Klink's pompous speech, there was barely enough time left before morning roll call to travel to Düsseldorf to take out the rocket plant and return to camp. The search for Hogan and Carter would have to wait. Why did I assume that just because he'd pulled the extra guards, he'd relax his other security? The colonel told me the worst mistake I could make is to assume anything! Of all the nights for Klink to pull this, it had to be tonight! Of course, because he'd pulled the guards, he would throw a bed check. Kinch shook his head in disgust as he hastily changed into his black clothing for the mission. Now, I'm beginning to double-think!

He cursed the fate that had managed to throw him yet again into command of their underground operation. The burden was beginning to feel suspiciously permanent.

Shoving his gloomy thoughts to the back of his mind, Kinch helped Newkirk, LeBeau and Parker and Baldwin, their two new men, gather their equipment and explosives. Leading the way to the emergency exit, he sent up a silent, heartfelt prayer for a successful mission with no loss of life.

*********



As Kinch and his men traveled toward Düsseldorf and the rocket assembly plant, Hogan and Carter were vainly trying to ease the assorted kinks and aches out of their stiff bodies. Their time within the windfall had been uneventful after their encounter with the rabbit, but they'd emerged under the cover of darkness ravenously hungry, thirsty and chilled to the bone. They'd both developed coughs and congested sinuses from the cold and damp conditions, and whispered longingly of hot, black coffee and some of the delicious soups that LeBeau often prepared.

While Carter finished brushing pine needles from his clothing, Hogan studied the surrounding woods and pondered the distance they had to travel if they were to make camp before daybreak. His gaze eventually drifted back to Carter. Normally, the remaining nine miles would be a minor consideration, but in light of Carter's weakened condition, it might as well have been ninety miles.

Carter was aware of his C.O.'s silent scrutiny. No matter how terrible he might feel, he was determined not to slow them down any longer if he could help it. Flashing a "thumbs-up", he pulled even with Hogan and smiled in the dim light.

"Let's go home, Colonel."

*********



I hate this, I hate this, I hate this, I HATE THIS!!

Kinch muttered in disgust and wiped sweat out of his eyes for the third time. More than twenty-five minutes had passed since he'd sent his men to plant charges at strategic locations around the seemingly deserted warehouse.

So far, no alarm had been sounded, so he felt reasonably certain that all was going according to plan. It was just the idea that his men were out of his sight and out of his protection, that was nearly making him frantic. All sorts of unpleasant ideas kept creeping into his mind while he waited for them to return.

Please, Lord. Please bring them back safe.

Suddenly, he spotted movement where there'd been none before. Squinting, he could just make out Parker slowly working his way back, with Newkirk following directly behind him. There was no sign of LeBeau or Baldwin.

Kinch inhaled sharply, involuntarily taking a step forward when a guard appeared from the other corner of the warehouse and walked in Newkirk and Parker's direction. NO!

The guard abruptly changed directions, turning toward the door of the warehouse. Darting a glance that way, Kinch picked out the presence of a second guard. Oh, no! Have they caught LeBeau and Baldwin? He watched the first guard stop at the doorway. A moment later, a flame flickered into view as the first guard held out a lighter for the other's cigarette. Kinch wilted in relief while the two Germans stood together, apparently passing pleasantries.

They've gotten careless! We would've spotted them easily if they'd been this careless two months ago!

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Parker and Newkirk had nearly reached his position. But his primary focus was upon LeBeau and Baldwin's shadowy, hunched figures at the far corner of the building. Kinch quickly checked the two guards still standing near the entrance to the warehouse. They showed no signs of moving. LeBeau and Baldwin were pinned down, unable to move without being seen.

Newkirk and Parker finally arrived and immediately looked back toward the warehouse.

"How much time is left before those explosives go up, Newkirk?" Kinch asked without looking away from the guards now leisurely walking a few yards away from the building.

"Less than ten minutes."

Kinch's eyes closed. They've got to get out of there!

A clipped shout came from the building. Kinch's eyes flew open. Another man had appeared in the doorway to the warehouse. LeBeau and Baldwin were nowhere to be seen. At his side, Kinch heard Newkirk and Parker curse beneath their breath.

The guards snapped to rigid attention. Apparently, the third German was an officer. An officer who just caught two of his men slacking off in their duty!

Kinch tensed when he noticed slight movement at the corner of the building where he'd last seen LeBeau and Baldwin. The two men were trying for the woods under cover of the officer's tongue-lashing of the guards.

He held his breath, his gaze anxiously jumping back and forth between his men and the three Germans.

"Time, Newkirk?"

"Five minutes."

Oh, Lord. Kinch stared at LeBeau and Baldwin's slowly moving figures.

It's gonna be close!

The two men had almost reached the edge of the woods bordering the warehouse's open lot. Looking back toward the doorway, Kinch saw the officer dismiss his guards and re-enter the building. The guards immediately marched toward the opposite corner of the warehouse, angling away from LeBeau and Baldwin's retreating figures.

They're gonna make it!

LeBeau and Baldwin arrived, softly calling out to their friends. Kinch had barely begun to greet them, when the night was ripped apart by flames and the deep, roaring sound of their dynamite doing its job.

The force of the explosions threw them to the ground. Raising their heads from the protective cover of their arms, they watched the warehouse disintegrate under the onslaught of the successive explosions that echoed through the night. When the destruction ended, little remained of the building that had so recently housed one of the Führer's rocket assembly plants. Piles of smoking rubble, twisted girders and an empty lot were all that remained to mark its former existence.

Kinch pushed himself to his feet, feeling strangely hollow despite the success of their mission. "Let's go home."



*********

Carter thought he was doing amazingly well in keeping pace with Hogan as they threaded a path through the maze of trees and undergrowth. His shoulder wound was stiff and painful, causing his stride to be uneven and slightly off-balance, but he was quite proud of the way he stayed directly behind his commander's back. Less than two strides separated them. He was so close, in fact, that when Hogan came to an abrupt halt, he had no chance of reacting in time and slammed painfully into Hogan's back, throwing them both off balance.

Doubled over from the pain searing through his shoulder, Carter was aware of little other than his need to breathe. When he finally caught his breath, he slowly got to his feet and looked around. The reason for their unscheduled stop was immediately apparent. They'd arrived at the wreckage of the Hammelburg Bridge.

Alarmed, he turned to his commander. Hogan was completely motionless; his eyes locked on the wooden remains and twisted metal of the bridge and munitions convoy that had been destroyed by their explosives three months before. Hogan shook with violent shudders, panting in short, labored breaths.

"Colonel?" Carter called softly, taking a hesitant step forward.

Hogan's head slowly swung toward him. Carter winced in sympathy. The brown eyes were wide to the point of showing a complete ring of white around their irises. He'd seen his C.O.'s face reflect many emotions, but the wild panic glittering within Hogan's eyes now was completely foreign. Holy cow! Does he even see me?

"It's okay, Colonel." Carter slowly reached out and gently laid his hand upon Hogan's trembling shoulder. "It's over. It's over."

A booming roar echoed through the woods. The muscles beneath Carter's hand literally galvanized with tension. Hogan leapt straight up and back, wildly lunging away from Carter. He kept retreating until his back connected forcefully with a large tree. Hogan grunted from the impact. Carter started toward him, then thought better of it and stayed where he was.

Jeez, Loueez! What am I gonna do now? He watched Hogan cower against the tree, close to hyperventilating from his reaction to the thunderous sound just fading away. If he doesn't calm down, he's gonna pass out! On second thought, maybe it might be better if he did!

Still uncertain, but unable to think of any other course of action, Carter started voicing soothing reassurances, verbally trying to reach through the panic clouding Hogan's mind. After a few moments, Hogan's erratic breathing slowed and he gradually relaxed and looked around with growing awareness.

Let's try this again. "Colonel Hogan?"

Carter held his breath while Hogan blankly returned his stare. Finally, Hogan's eyes closed and he slumped to the ground against the base of the tree.

Carter raced forward. Speaking soft words of encouragement, he crouched next to Hogan and once again gripped his shoulder in support. Hogan shuddered, but didn't open his eyes.

"Carter?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Sorry about that." Hogan's eyes snapped open. "I…." He couldn't find words to adequately describe the horrific visions that had sprung to life his mind faster than he could comprehend. One moment he was leading Carter through the woods and the next, he was lost in the sea of fire, sound and pain that had suddenly been reawakened within his memory.

"You feelin' better, now, sir?" Carter felt completely useless as Hogan raised a shaky hand and wiped at the sweat beading his face.

"Yeah. I'm okay." Hogan drew in a ragged breath and reached over and lightly patted the younger man's arm. "Everything just took me by surprise comin' out of nowhere so fast. Kurt had warned me that it might happen like that."

Hogan stood and hesitantly moved forward until he had a clear view of the wreckage in the stream. He grew motionless again, and stared at the destruction they'd created that night three months before. Finally, he blinked and gave his head a hard shake. The reason for the jumble of visions had just dawned on him.

"That explosion must have been the guys taking out the rocket plant in Düsseldorf."

Carter nodded and moved to stand beside him. "Yeah. That's what I figure." He frowned as a thought struck. "I sure hope Newkirk used the right detonators! I showed him everything, but you know how he is, and that stuff is so delicate, one wrong move…."

Hogan threw back his head and laughed in relief at the typical chatter. "Why don't we go and ask him, Carter?"



*********

Kinch watched LeBeau and Newkirk drop into seats at the small table in their main tunnel. The three of them were alone in the room. Following their arrival back at Stalag 13, Parker and Baldwin had quickly stored their guns, changed back into their uniforms and returned to their barracks through the extensive tunnel system. Their first-time experience at being part of a successful mission had left them exuberant, and eager to share their success with their friends. It had left Kinch emotionally drained.

He admitted to himself as he reflected on the night's events, that Parker and Baldwin had performed admirably in light of their hasty training. They'd followed his instructions quickly and efficiently and had worked well with Newkirk and LeBeau. Still, he couldn't help comparing them to Carter and Hogan. Probably be a long time before I quit doin' that.

He ought to be quite happy they'd accomplished their mission successfully, despite the complication with the guards. Instead, he was more depressed than ever. It's really beginning to feel like we'll never see them again.

He'd taken a slight detour on their return trip to camp so that he might check one of Hogan's nearby hiding places. His hopeful expectation had transformed into black despair when the location revealed not the smallest sign of their friends.

Kinch glanced at LeBeau and Newkirk. The two men had been subdued ever since they'd left the remains of the warehouse; not even responding to Parker and Baldwin's happy congratulations when they'd reached the safety of their tunnel. I think it's hittin' them, too.

His heart heavy with grief, Kinch sat, wearily braced his elbows on his knees and lowered his face into his hands.

A loud sneeze broke the silence.

"Bless you." Newkirk said in a flat voice from the other side of the table.

"Huh?"

Kinch raised his head as LeBeau's puzzled response finally made an impression.

"I said," Newkirk patiently repeated, "Bless you.".

LeBeau stared at him in confusion. "I didn't sneeze."

Newkirk's eyes widened and he glanced from LeBeau to Kinch.

Kinch could barely speak past the tightness gripping his throat. "If you didn't sneeze, then who did?"

"I did."

They jumped to their feet at the sound of their commander's raspy voice.

Hogan and Carter stood in the tunnel leading to the emergency exit. Hogan was braced against the wall, a rifle held loosely in his hands. Carter slouched beside him, his left hand tightly gripping Hogan's shoulder for support.

Kinch, Newkirk and LeBeau erupted into loud yells of joy and ran to their exhausted friends. Newkirk reached them first, nearly bowling them over as he tried to simultaneously grab both of them in a bear hug. LeBeau and Kinch were right behind him, each trying to get as physically close as possible to Carter and Hogan.

"Whoa! Take it easy, fellas!" Hogan positioned himself protectively in front of Carter. "Carter's hurt."

Kinch immediately pulled Newkirk and LeBeau backward. His gaze swept over Carter's body, eventually discerning the nearly invisible, makeshift black cloth bandage tied high around Carter's right shoulder.

"What happened, Andrew?" Newkirk slipped from Kinch's loosened grip, taking in Carter's pallor and hunched posture. As he watched, Carter coughed, the reflex shaking his thin body.

Hogan slung the rifle back over his shoulder and helped Carter to the table, lightly patting LeBeau's shoulder as he passed by the Frenchman's side. Settling Carter at the table, he hoarsely informed them, "A Gestapo major decided to use him as an example."

"Gestapo?!" Newkirk shot an anguished glance toward Kinch and took a seat next to Carter.

"Yeah, a Gestapo major with two pet goons. Look, we can fill you in on the details of our little adventure later." Hogan locked eyes with Kinch. "What's been happening?"

"Not much," Kinch shrugged. "Just the usual."

Hogan's eyebrows rose into the black hair draped in disarray over his forehead. "Uh, huh."

"Okay, okay." Kinch held up a finger. "First, Newkirk was able to reach me in time and pull the plug on our radio. That radio detection truck did briefly pick up our signal, but not enough of it to cause us any danger. It was just a major inconvenience to have them hangin' around the area and not be able to use the radio, especially when we didn't know what happened to you." He paused as Hogan's head drooped in relief. He held up another finger, adding, "And then there was the little matter of your being missin' from camp. Your escape really put Klink on the warpath."

"Our escape." Hogan nodded. "Okay."

Kinch held up a third finger. "Burkhalter showed up and grilled Klink about his expense report."

"I'm sure he was overjoyed. Anything else?"

"Oh, yeah!" Up went a fourth finger. "I don't want to forget that terrible explosion at the rocket assembly plant in Dusseldorf tonight." He shook his head regretfully. "Just awful. It seems it was completely destroyed."

Hogan's eyes lit with pleasure. "You don't say!"

"You did it!" Carter perked up at the news; his face wreathed in a wide smile as he beamed at Newkirk. His smile suddenly disappeared, his forehead furrowing into a suspicious frown. "Which detonators did you use, Newkirk?"

"Andrew!" Newkirk playfully smacked his friend's good arm. "The ones you showed me, mate!" Carter grinned happily again.

LeBeau laughed. "He did a good job putting the packs together, mon ami. You would have been proud of him."

"Yeah, Colonel." Kinch agreed, "They all did a good job. Parker and Baldwin, too."

Hogan studied Kinch. "Parker and Baldwin."

"Yeah, Parker and Baldwin."

"Good." Hogan's serious expression lightened into a smile. "Funny thing. Parker and Baldwin would've been my choice, too." Cocking his head, Hogan's smile widened at Kinch's bemused expression. "That was a pretty good command decision, wouldn't you say?"

"Yeah," Kinch chuckled, acknowledging the point in their running argument.

"Mon colonel," LeBeau interrupted. "What are you going to do about explaining your absence to le kommandant?"

"Oh, yeah, our 'escape.'" Hogan leaned an elbow on the table and rubbed at the black grease on his face. "Well, first, Carter and I are going to get cleaned up, then we're going to eat, and then we're going up to my quarters and get some sleep. No one will think to look for us in there since we're supposed to have escaped."

Hogan suddenly looked up at Kinch. "Speaking of escapes, what happened to the extra sentries? I didn't think we'd be able to get back into camp so easily."

Kinch shrugged. "We don't know. Klink had Schultz pull the extra guards earlier today. That's how we were able to get out and blow the plant." He wiggled his hand in a gimmee gesture. "Go on. Finish tellin' us about how you're going to explain everything to Klink."

Hogan's fingers lightly tapped the table's top as he stared over at Carter. "Well, after we've slept and when Carter feels up to it, we'll change into our everyday clothing, and go back out the emergency tunnel. From there, we'll simply walk up to the gate and surrender."

"Just like that?" Newkirk asked.

"Sure. Why not?" Hogan absently shrugged his shoulders, grimacing when the movement pulled at his stiffened muscles. "We escaped and then we changed our minds."

Kinch snorted. "Changed your minds. Homesick for Stalag 13?"

Hogan sneezed twice in rapid succession, the sound punctuated by a deep racking cough. Catching his breath, he smiled broadly around the table at his men. "Well, I for one, am definitely glad to be back."

Carter nodded emphatically after delivering a few sneezes of his own. "You can sure say that again, boy! Uh...sir."

Kinch's smile disappeared, his face settling into a serious expression. "Welcome home, guys."

*********



Morning roll call found a much happier group of prisoners standing in front of Barracks 2, blissfully ignoring the cold, brisk wind swirling across the prison compound. Newkirk smiled up at the thick clouds scudding across the sky while LeBeau sang softly under his breath beside him. Behind them, Olson was playfully jumping up and down in rank beside Tom Benson.

One by one, they cheerfully answered Schultz's droning voice as he read their names off the barracks roster. After a few moments, Schultz approached Kinch, his face clearly reflecting his confusion at their exuberant morale after days of quiet depression.

Nervously darting suspicious glances at the prisoners, Schultz asked, "Why are they so happy?"

Kinch grinned when LeBeau's loud laughter startled the German. "It's a beautiful morning, Schultzie! What other reason do we need?"

Schultz's eyes rolled heavenward to consider the dark, overcast sky, and the cold wind tugging at the hem of his uniform coat. He slanted a disbelieving look at Kinch. "This is your idea of a beautiful morning?"

Kinch laughed, feeling euphoric. Everything seemed brighter with the return of his friends. "You know what they say, Schultz! 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder'!"

Schultz started to reply, but hearing Kommandant Klink's office door open, he quickly whirled and lumbered toward the German officer.

"REPORT!"

Schultz saluted and tossed another suspicious glance over his shoulder at the prisoners. "All are present and accounted for, Herr Kommandant."

"Good. Good." Klink nodded absently, his eyes drifting to the two empty spaces normally occupied by Carter and Hogan. Looking over the ranks of men, he noticed they seemed unusually cheerful for the early hour, when normally they would be sullen and uncooperative. He leaned toward Schultz and asked suspiciously, "Why are they so happy?"

Schultz dramatically threw his arms wide in puzzled exasperation. "They say it is because it is a beautiful morning, Herr Kommandant."

Klink's eyes grew round as he did a double-take at the laughing prisoners. Throwing up his hands, he commented, "Sometimes, I believe that I am the only sane man in this prison camp!" He turned sharply on his heel and retreated into his office, leaving the prisoners to their laughter as Schultz dismissed them.

Kinch led the way back into their barracks, still chuckling to himself at the exchange. As he opened the door, he put a finger to his lips in warning to the men following. They immediately grew quiet and tip-toed into their barracks. When they were all inside, Kinch slowly opened the door to Hogan's quarters and peeked in at the two men in the bunks. After a moment, he nodded in satisfaction, pulled the door closed, and turned to the expectant group gathered behind him.

"They're sleepin' like babies."

The words had no sooner left his mouth than the sound of raspy coughing came from behind the closed door. Frowning worriedly, he turned to stare at the door.

"Sounded like the guv'nor," Newkirk offered.

A rapid succession of sneezes came next.

"And that sounded like Carter," LeBeau added.

Kinch's frown deepened. "Well, I think it's high time I did something about this." Shouldering his way through the crowd, he strode decisively to the bunk entrance of their tunnel system.

"What are you gonna do, mate?" Newkirk asked, watching Kinch open the entrance.

Kinch smiled at the Englishman and began descending the ladder into the tunnel. "You forget, Newkirk, we know a doctor who makes barracks calls!"

*********



London contacted Doktor Kurt Metzger that morning and briefly informed him without explanation that he was needed at Stalag 13 as soon as possible. All day, Metzger's thoughts vacillated between concern and anticipation. He'd made many friends among the prisoners at the P.O.W. camp, particularly in Barracks two. Being involved in the Resistance, he tried to avoid establishing close personal relationships. He felt it only prudent. But the prisoners had easily included him into their friendly group and before he knew it, had somehow worked their way past his defenses. The thought of one of his friends being injured caused him to impatiently fret away the hours until he was able to leave the hospital without arousing suspicion.

He arrived at Stalag 13 early that night, using the emergency tunnel entrance to sneak into camp. He was quite familiar with the unit's tunnel system, having traveled it many times before when he was treating Hogan's injuries from the explosion. He glanced with wry amusement at the dirt walls as he moved through the maze of tunnels. Ah, and here you are again, Kurt. All you need to feel more like a mole is fur, bad eyesight and a twitching nose!

Climbing the wooden ladder to the barracks, he signaled to the men above and waited while the entrance opened, revealing Kinch's smiling face.

"They're in his quarters." Kinch leaned over the wooden frame of the bunk and helpfully offered his hand to the German.

Accepting the assistance, Metzger finished pulling himself up the ladder and into the barracks. "And just who is they?" He glanced around the room as he unfastened his coat, secretly pleased to be with his new friends again, regardless of the circumstances.

Kinch's dark eyes twinkled merrily above his smile. "Oh, they would be Carter …" pausing dramatically, he added, "and Colonel Hogan."

Metzger's eyebrows darted into his blond hair. Looking beyond Kinch, he could see LeBeau, Newkirk and several of the other prisoners smiling, their eyes bright with delighted anticipation. They have all either turned into sadists or the injuries are not serious.

"And just what is wrong with Carter and the colonel?"

Kinch's amusement disappeared. "Carter got shot in the shoulder, but the bullet passed clear through the muscle. And he told me that Colonel Hogan's re-injured the shoulder that got hit by the shrapnel, and they've both got bad colds." As he took Metzger's coat, he added, "O'Malley cleaned up Carter's wound, but he said he'd feel better if you'd look at it, too."

Metzger nodded thoughtfully. He was about to reply when the door to Hogan's quarters opened, and the officer walked out.

Hogan stopped in his tracks. "What's he doin' here?!"

Kinch gave Hogan a cocky smile and rocked on the balls of his feet. "I had London contact him. Call it another 'command decision.'"

Hogan's eyes narrowed, unamused by Kinch's smugness. Directing the full force of his glare from Kinch to Metzger, he hoarsely snarled, "Take one more step toward me with that black bag and I won't be held responsible for my actions!"

Metzger pointed his finger at him. "Robert Edward Hogan, you will behave yourself! Remember that I have ways of dealing with you!"

Hogan's brown eyes widened in reaction to the thinly veiled threat and patronizing tone. Pivoting sharply on his heel, he marched into his quarters, angrily muttering to himself under his breath.

Kinch watched the hasty retreat in complete amazement. Turning an inquiring look upon Metzger, he asked, "What ways are you talking about, and please, please, please, would you share them with me?"

Metzger walked toward Hogan's quarters, but looked back over his shoulder at Kinch, his blue eyes sparkling mischievously. "It is a professional secret."

Without warning, a pillow flew out of Hogan's quarters, accurately and firmly connecting with the back of Metzger's blond head with a loud thud. The men burst into laughter at the officer's retaliatory attack upon his tormentor.

Metzger's eyes narrowed dangerously. Slanting a look at Kinch, he remarked through clenched teeth, "Perhaps, we will talk later after all, yes?" Kinch nodded. Metzger squared his shoulders and turned stiffly toward Hogan's quarters.

"Colonel Hogan," he called out in a casual tone as he stalked toward the officer's open door, "you do realize that THIS MEANS WAR!"

*********



Not long afterward, Metzger emerged from Hogan's quarters, a mischievous expression planted firmly on his face. Walking toward the men gathered at the barracks table, he commented, "That man hates needles with a passion."

Kinch laughed and scooted over on the bench so that the doctor could sit next to him. "Which one?"

"Colonel Hogan." Metzger shook his head, chuckling softly. "Imagine. Here is a grown man, who actually has quite a very high threshold for pain, but he cowers at the sight of a mere needle. I actually believed he was going to put the blanket over his head when I gave young Carter the antibiotic shot. Carter, on the other hand, did not mind it at all." He glanced hopefully over his shoulder toward the stove. "Would there perhaps be any coffee?"

"What about Andrew?" Newkirk leaned forward, his hands restlessly playing with a deck of cards on the table. LeBeau rose to get the doctor's coffee.

"Oh, Carter will be just fine." Metzger grew thoughtful. "His wound should heal nicely. O'Malley did well cleaning it, but I have cleaned it thoroughly also and the antibiotics will help."

LeBeau placed a cup of coffee in front of him. "What about their colds?"

"Danke." Metzger reached for the coffee, but his hand halted mere inches from the cup. Looking suspiciously around the table, he asked, "Who made the coffee?"

"I did." Newkirk answered, absently setting up a game of solitaire.

Metzger's hand immediately retreated from the cup. "In that case, I believe that I will pass."

"Wot? There's nothing wrong with the way I make coffee," Newkirk protested.

"I mean no disrespect, Newkirk," Metzger said with an innocent smile, "but the last time I drank your coffee, I had a terrible case of heartburn for two days."

Newkirk sputtered in outrage at the laughter that erupted around the room. Kinch eventually stopped chuckling long enough to repeat LeBeau's earlier question. "Doc, what about their colds? Nothing serious, right?"

Metzger rose from the table. "They will be fine. Considering the circumstances they endured, they are actually doing much better than I would have expected. See that they get plenty of rest, liquids and hot food."

He patted Kinch's shoulder and turned to leave, giving him a broad smile. "If the good colonel refuses to behave, threaten him with my return, yes?"



*********

Hogan and Carter's appearance outside Stalag 13's gates two days later at morning roll call caused Colonel Klink to rigidly gape in speechless amazement. Never would he have believed that he would ever see the two prisoners again, despite his repeated assurances to the contrary. He regained his dignity long enough to order Schultz to take the two absentees to his office. There, he launched into a strident tirade, pausing only to take a breath. It was during one of these pauses that Hogan jumped in to plead their case.

"He was homesick, kommandant!" Hogan told the German seated across the desk from them. "He missed his mother. Colonel, you understand what that's like, don't ya?" Klink visibly wilted in his chair, his gaze firmly fixed to the riding crop that he was fidgeting with in his hands. With an inward crow of triumph, Hogan hurried to take advantage of the show of sympathy.

"I knew you'd be upset, so I followed him and I got him to see that he'd be letting you down by leaving like that. He really respects you, colonel and he didn't want you to be disappointed in him. That's why he agreed to come back."

Hogan held back a smile when Klink squirmed in his chair. "He picked you over his mother, and now you're going to reward his thoughtfulness and affection by punishin' him with thirty days in the cooler? Not to mention me! I brought him back! No disrespect, sir, but that's downright cruel, even for you!"

"All right! All right!" Klink threw his hands into the air in surrender. Pointing his riding crop at the two men, he barked, "But I will not let this matter go without punishment, Hogan! You both will spend one week in the cooler and have extra duties afterward!" Rising from his desk, Klink approached the American officer. "And I warn you, Hogan, if this ever happens again, I will throw you both in the cooler and then I will ship the key to the Russian Front! Is that understood?"

Hogan nodded contritely. "Perfectly, sir. And may I say that you have restored my faith in you, kommandant."

Klink glowered down his nose at the senior P.O.W. "I'm so very glad that I haven't disappointed you, Hogan! DISMISSED!"

Hogan returned the salute and swiftly escorted Carter from the office.



*********

The week long sentence was only a minor inconvenience. The extensive tunnel system beneath Stalag 13 had several entry points within the building housing the cooler. Hogan and Carter were thus able to occasionally venture out of their cell via the access tunnel conveniently hidden behind a large block in their cell wall.

On the third night of their sentence, Hogan eased the cinder block aside and slipped from their cell into the tunnel system.

"Bon soir, mon colonel!" LeBeau cheerily called out when Hogan strolled into the main area of their system.

"LeBeau," Hogan nodded. "Kinch, any word from London?"

Kinch looked up from his scribbled notes. "They want us to move on that fuel depot as soon as possible, colonel. And there's a large ordnance depot at Essen that they want taken care of, too."

Hogan rolled his eyes. "Anything else?"

Kinch laughed at the sarcastic retort. "Nope. I think that about covers it. How's Carter?"

Hogan slouched against the table and playfully flipped LeBeau's ear when the Frenchman tried to make a surreptitious check of his shoulder. "Stop that. I'm fine, mom." LeBeau snatched his hands away and tucked them behind his back. Hogan gave him a warning twitch of his finger, then looked over at Kinch. "Carter's fine, too. He was sleeping pretty soundly, so I left him in the cooler." He smirked. "He'll let me know about it later, I'm sure."

As if by cue, Carter bustled out of the tunnel. "You should have woke me up!" He wilted slightly under Hogan's glare. "Sir."

Newkirk's face appeared over Carter's shoulder. "'Ey, we've got company gents! Gestapo major, by the looks of it!"

Hogan's playfulness vanished. Striding quickly to the ladder, he followed Newkirk up to their barracks. Kinch, LeBeau and Carter were barely out of the tunnel before he was in his quarters hooking up the receiver.

Kinch angled a worried glance at Hogan as he entered the officer's quarters. "The same Gestapo major you and Carter tangled with?"

"I'd bet on it." Hogan listened intently as Klink greeted his visitor.

"Major Schiller, this is indeed a great honor to have you visit us here at Stalag 13! Though I must say, isn't this a late hour to be doing official business?" Klink's voice was full of nervous energy.

"Kommandant Klink." Hogan stiffened, easily recognizing the low, mocking voice of the man who'd shot Carter. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Carter pale. "The Gestapo is always on duty. And as far as this being an honor for you," there was a pause, "well, I assure you, it is not mutual."

Klink laughed nervously. "Not an honor..... Well, let me assure you, we are always happy to....."

"I am hunting, Klink," Schiller interrupted. If possible, Hogan grew even more still and Carter, more pale.

"Hunting?" Puzzlement was clear in Klink's voice.

The prisoners glanced uneasily at the maelstrom of emotion in their commander's narrowed eyes.

"Ja. I am hunting two men, but one in particular. I believe that this man is the leader of a Resistance group that has been operating out of this area for some time now. His codename is 'Papa Bear.' He and his pack of saboteurs strike in the night with vicious regularity. This man is like a marauding wolf, Klink. He views a target, he seeks out weakness and then he attacks where he sees vulnerability."

"Oh, that's very interesting! A wolf in bear's clothing!" The prisoners rolled their eyes at the lame attempt at humor. There was a moment of silence, followed by Klink nervously clearing his throat. Apparently, Schiller was just as unimpressed as they were.

"But what has this to do with Stalag 13, major?"

"Nothing. I am here only to warn you to stay out of my way. My men and I will be in the area for the next few weeks, or until I catch this man and his band of saboteurs and I want no interference from you or any of your guards. I very nearly had him at a fuel depot not far from here, but he killed one of my guards, and he and his man escaped. I have intensified my hunt ever since then. We extended our search backward from just a few miles from our headquarters, and have determined that they were at one time at a farm just twelve miles from here. And of course, we know that he was at the fuel depot. I have tightened security there. If he tries for it, I will be ready."

Booted feet could be heard pacing the floor.

"My superiors are most displeased with the amount of sabotage being committed by just this one man and his men. I have been given the duty of tracking them down and capturing them. I will comb this area until I find him and destroy his Resistance group. Every man, no matter how cunning, Klink, eventually makes a mistake."

"Oh, I'm certain that the Gestapo does not make mistakes, major! Maybe others, but not . . ."

"I have seen this man's weakness," Schiller interrupted again. "He cares, and that is a vulnerability that I can exploit. If I'm not able to trap the Papa Bear, then I will capture one or more of the cubs and use them to draw him in."

A loud bang sounded in the office, startling the listening men.

"Eliminate the leader and the group will fall apart. I will destroy this group, Klink, no matter how long it takes."



*********

Kinch glanced again toward the bunk entrance. Immediately following the conversation between Klink and Schiller, Hogan had retreated into the tunnels, curtly stating he was to be left alone.

The atmosphere in the barracks was quiet and uneasy. This wasn't the first time that Hogan had been directly threatened by the German military, but it was the first time that it had felt decidedly personal. Newkirk had pointed out that Hogan had not only killed one of Schiller's guards and escaped out from under his nose, he'd probably caused the Gestapo officer to lose face with his superiors. Kinch had agreed, commenting that Schiller didn't sound like the type of man who took kindly to embarrassment, either personally or professionally. All factors taken into account, Schiller made for a very formidable and dangerous threat, not only to their operation, but also to their commander himself.

After three hours, Hogan finally emerged from the tunnels.

"Kinch, I want to you contact London. Tell them we'll move on the fuel depot when we have a chance, and have them find out if Schiller's staying in Hammelburg or at Gestapo headquarters in Dusseldorf. If it's in town at the Hauserhof, I want the room number." Hogan paced over to the table. "One more thing. Klink mentioned a new singer that he's been seeing at the Ratskeller. Her name's Heidi Meyer. I want to know her performance schedule, including what time her act begins and ends." Hogan took a seat at the table and folded his hands before him, his body stiff with tension.

"You have a plan, colonel?" Kinch asked in a somber tone.

Hogan slowly looked up. Staring steadily into Kinch's eyes, he uncurled his fingers and spread his hands flat on the table's top. "Just get the information, Kinch."

End of discussion. Kinch nodded.

"Colonel," Newkirk began, "Why don't we just tell London we 'ave to stop all activity until Schiller and his men leave? 'E did say that 'e'd be leaving the area within a few weeks."

Hogan sighed heavily and lowered his gaze to his hands. "As soon as we'd start back up, Newkirk, he'd be back." Glancing up from beneath lowered brows, Hogan asked, "And just what makes you think that he'd actually leave? Just because he told Klink that he'll only be here a few weeks, doesn't mean that he won't be staying longer. I believe his exact words were 'as long as it takes.' And London isn't going to want us just sitting around on our thumbs doin' nothing, I can assure you."

He stood, and gesturing for Carter to follow, walked to the tunnel entrance. Before disappearing below, he glanced back over his shoulder, his voice low and hard. "And I will not, and I mean, will not, take the chance that he might grab any of you. Not if I can help it."

*********



In the days that followed, Hogan rarely left the cooler, preferring the seclusion while he worked through whatever was occupying his thoughts. Carter would ccasionally appear in the tunnels and when questioned, would offer little information other than "He's doin' okay."

Carter understood his friends' frustration at the lack of information, but he wasn't about to say more, even if there were more to tell. His time in their cell was spent in quiet introspection and observation of his commander. He knew Hogan was aware of the oblique stares. And he sensed that Hogan was grateful for his silence.

Normally, Carter was talkative to the point of being irritating. But since overhearing Schiller's conversation with Klink, he'd never felt less like talking.

It isn't over.

He could sense the turmoil boiling beneath Hogan's calm exterior. Hogan offered nothing, but Carter remembered his earlier comments in the barn. Schiller had effectively addressed all three points he had mentioned. He'd threatened not only Hogan and their underground operation; he'd threatened Hogan's men. And Carter reasoned that in Hogan's mind; that was the most damning threat of all.

Carter shuddered, recalling the moment Schiller had shot him and the hatred that had blazed within Hogan's eyes. It was the only time he could ever remember seeing Hogan completely ready and more than willing to kill. Regardless of that, he knew from their conversation in the barn that Hogan truly tried to avoid killing. Though capable of it, the officer clearly wasn't comfortable with it. Watching Hogan, Carter realized there was little he could do to help lessen the burden, other than lend his silent support. He remained as close as Hogan would allow, and waited until he could do more.



*********

Events in the camp remained blessedly uneventful. The only item of note was Burkhalter's visit with Schiller. Kinch personally informed Hogan of the meeting, relaying that Burkhalter had reinforced Schiller's demand for additional guards from Stalag 13 to assist in the search for Papa Bear and his men. It seemed that the Gestapo officer had decided he could use the extra help, as long as it was under his directive and that the men followed his orders exclusively.

Kinch also told Hogan that Schiller himself had mentioned during the meeting that he was staying in Hammelburg at the Hauserhof. London had ascertained which room he was staying in, as well as learning Heidi Meyer's performance schedule. Hogan had little reaction to the news, merely nodding soberly when Kinch finished his report.

Kinch retreated into the tunnel, worried about the weary resignation he'd glimpsed within Hogan's eyes.



*********

Hogan alertly glanced up from his seat when he heard Klink's distinctive clipped steps approaching their cell. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Carter sit up and turn toward the door. The footsteps stopped outside their door and a moment later, Klink's face appeared in the door's small barred window.

Now what? Hogan wondered, noting the kommandant's scowl.

"So, Hogan," Klink casually began, "are you and Carter quite comfortable in our little cooler?"

Hogan smiled serenely. "Oh, yeah, colonel. We're fine." Turning toward Carter, Hogan asked him, "Aren't we, Carter?"

"Yup. Pretty restful, actually." Carter's face lit up in a bright smile. "I don't mind missin' my turn at laundry detail, let me tell you!"

Klink's frown deepened. "I'm glad we could be of service!"

"My, aren't we testy. What's the problem?" One of Hogan's eyebrows canted upward when Klink fidgeted irritably outside the window. It was obvious that the German hadn't come to see if they were comfortable, and he was in no mood to wait for the true reason to be revealed.

"It's that despicable Major Schiller!" Klink whined with a stamp of his foot. "You should count it as a blessing, Hogan, that you do not to have to deal with him. He has completely disrupted this camp. He had the unmitigated gall to tell me to stay out of his way and then he returned with General Burkhalter and took my guards." Klink visibly shuddered. "Hogan, I never thought I'd ever say this.....but I would actually prefer dealing with Major Hochstetter!"

"Why don't you just tell him to buzz off?" Hogan waited for the inevitable explosion.

Klink's jaw fell open. "BUZZ OFF?? Hogan, contrary to popular belief, I am not a stupid man, nor am I suicidal. You do not tell the Gestapo to buzz off. Particularly this man." Klink pointed a finger at Hogan through the bars. "No wonder you Americans are losing the war."

Hogan slowly got to his feet and ambled over to the door. "I have an idea."

Klink's eyes bulged, horror crossing his expression. "No! None of your ideas, Hogan!" Waving his hand in dismissal, he walked away.

Hogan leaned his shoulder against the door, his chin lifting so that he might speak clearly through the bars. "Okay. I guess then that you'd rather not get on Schiller's good side. I mean, after all, why would you want to be on a friendly basis with the Gestapo?"

Klink froze in his tracks. Pivoting on his heel, he quickly approached the door again. "Perhaps I should not be too hasty about this. One can never have too many friends, Hogan." Leaning closer to the door, Klink smiled winningly. "What's your idea?"

Hogan folded his arms. "I'll tell you, but only if you agree to release Carter and me from the rest of our sentence."

"Impossible!" Klink's jaw thrust forward as he glared at the officer. "You've only served three days out of the seven."

Hogan carelessly shrugged his shoulders and walked back to the metal ledge he'd been sitting on. "Okay." He calmly leaned back against the wall, clasping his hands behind his head.

Twitching with indecision, Klink fumed when Hogan closed his eyes and appeared to relax bonelessly against the block wall.

"All right! All right! You'll be released from the cooler, but you will still have extra duties!"

Hogan jumped to his feet and walked back to the door. "Fair enough." Placing his hand against the metal door, he eyed Klink suspiciously. "Your word . . . you'll let us out as soon as I tell you?"

Klink huffed and rolled his eyes. "Yes, Hogan. My word."

Hogan relaxed. "Okay." Smiling cagily, he leaned in close to the window. "Here's what you do. The next time Schiller comes, tell him about that beautiful singer at the Ratskeller."

"That's it?" Klink stared at Hogan incredulously. "I simply tell him about Heidi, and that's helpful?"

"Kommandant," Hogan sighed. "Think about it. What kind of man wouldn't appreciate a night with a beautiful woman?" Klink thoughtfully waggled his head. Through clenched teeth, Hogan snapped, "Look, you told me that you've been seeing her, right? Had her eatin' out of your hand, I believe you said." The German seemed to swell with ego before Hogan's eyes. "You offer to take him to the Ratskeller and introduce him to her. He'll be sure to be impressed by your magnanimous gesture and remember the favor, don't you think?"

Klink's face lit up with a gleeful smile. Turning toward the entrance of the cooler, he bellowed for Schultz.

Within moments, Hogan and Carter were standing outside the building, blinking painfully in the bright afternoon sunlight.

"Hogan, you're the best enemy a man could ever have!" Klink reached over and vigorously shook Hogan's hand.

Hogan's polite smile immediately died as soon as Klink released his hand and marched away. With a heavy sigh, he walked slowly to their barracks, Carter by his side.



*********

A few days later, Hogan and Carter were standing outside their barracks when Schiller's black staff car pulled up outside the gates. Grabbing Carter by the collar, Hogan pulled him backward until they were directly behind a group of prisoners. Pushing their caps lower on their heads, Carter and Hogan slouched against the barracks and hid their faces. When Schiller had disappeared into Klink's headquarters, they bolted for Hogan's quarters. Kinch joined them as they plugged in the receiver.

Hogan tersely instructed Newkirk to listen carefully to Schiller's voice as the German imperiously demanded fresh guards for his search. Throughout the conversation between the two Germans, Newkirk concentrated on absorbing the major's tone and speech patterns. At the end of the conversation, he cheerfully informed Hogan he could easily impersonate Schiller's voice.

Hogan ran the details of the conversation through his mind. As he'd wanted, Klink had invited Schiller for dinner in town. At first reluctant, Schiller had quickly changed his mind when Klink mentioned that his latest paramour, the beautiful and talented Heidi Meyer, would be joining them. The two officers would meet that very night for a light supper with her, followed by her performance.

Hogan nodded in satisfaction. "We take the fuel depot out tonight."

"What about the extra security Schiller's put on the fuel depot?" Kinch asked.

Hogan jabbed a finger at Newkirk. "That's where you come in." Rising to his feet, Hogan began pacing in front of his bunk. "Klink's meeting Schiller at eight o'clock for supper with Heidi Meyer. Newkirk, at eight-thirty, you call the fuel depot as Schiller, and tell them there's been a change in plan. The guards are to go to the ordnance depot in Essen, where Papa Bear is supposed to strike tonight."

The men darted perplexed looks at each other.

"Okay," Kinch drawled, "but we're not going to Essen, right?"

"Right. Heidi's act ends at eleven. That's when I want you to hit the fuel depot and not a moment before."

Kinch's face reflected his confusion. "You're not goin'?"

Hogan's expression became even grimmer, his eyes darkening in reaction. He dropped onto his bunk and leaned his elbows on his knees. "I've got other plans."

"Colonel," LeBeau protested, "We do not all of us need to go to the fuel depot. Parker and Baldwin can go with Kinch and Carter while Newkirk and I go with you."

"Absolutely not," Hogan barked. "What I've got to do is something that I, and I alone, will take care of. Did you catch that one particular word? Let me point it out just in case it didn't sink in. It was 'ALONE'." He sternly pointed a finger at each of them. "If I so much as catch a glimpse of any of you following me, I will personally see to it that you're court-martialed. Is that understood?"

They nodded miserably.

Not satisfied, Hogan demanded, "I didn't hear you. Is that understood?"

This time, they met his eyes and chorused, "YES, SIR!"

Hogan silently got to his feet and left his quarters. Watching through the door, they saw him open the entrance to the tunnels and disappear from sight.

For a moment, no one said a word. Newkirk glanced around and remarked, "Well, blokes, I don't know about you, but my memory seems to 'ave deserted me. Do you remember the guv'nor saying anything about not needing any 'elp?"

"You're not going after him, Newkirk. None of us are."

Carter's terse, authoritative voice caused the others to literally gape in astonishment. "Leave him alone. The last thing he needs is one of us gettin' in the way."

"What are you talking about, Carter?" Kinch stared at Carter's pale face and set expression.

"The colonel gave us an order. I just think we should obey it, that's all." Carter's blue eyes were nearly cobalt from suppressed emotion.

"Andrew --- " Newkirk extended his hand toward his friend.

"NO!" Carter jerked away, his fists clenched at his sides.

"Listen to me! The colonel is counting on us to make that call and take out that fuel depot. That's all he wants us to do. He has his reasons and I think we should respect those reasons! We've been lucky in the past when we've gone against his orders. But did you ever consider that we might actually screw things up and get him captured, or killed, if we didn't obey him?" He glared at them, his breathing ragged from the force of his anger.

They stared at Carter in shock. As they watched, he took a deep, shaky breath and scrubbed at his face. Unable to meet their eyes any longer, he turned away from them, his shoulders slumping.

Kinch cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Carter's right. We do as the colonel asked, and nothing more."

Carter slumped in relief as his friends silently gathered around him. Gently rubbing the young man's back, Newkirk commented, "The guv'nor's right. You're a tiger when you need to be."



*********

The night clerk at the Hauserhof peeked at the time again. Irritably, he closed the accounting ledger he'd been working on. It is nearly eleven o'clock! Ach! He is almost an hour late! When I see him, if he ever has the nerve to show his face here again . . . Shoving the ledger back into its slot beneath the desk, the clerk grumbled beneath his breath. The lobby door swung open. He glanced up expectantly, but it was only a late-returning couple and not the tardy clerk he'd been hoping to see.

They have probably been to hear Heidi Meyer at the Ratskeller, which is where I should've been also! He nodded politely to the couple as they strolled by the desk and across the lobby to the elevator. Once they were out of sight, he started sorting messages into the hotel patrons' mail slots, still fuming quietly to himself.

He had been eagerly anticipating the chance to hear one of Heidi Meyer's popular performances at the local club. He'd heard only complimentary remarks regarding the beautiful blonde singer's lyrical voice and repertory of songs, and had arranged with the other night clerk to leave at ten o'clock instead of at midnight, his usual shift's end. This way, he would be able to catch the last hour of her performance. Apparently, the other clerk had forgotten their arrangement.

He turned around when the lobby door swung open again. His face broke into a friendly smile as a beautiful fraulein entered and approached the desk. Perhaps this night will not be completely wasted after all!

Removing her scarf, the young woman explained she was in need of a room for the night. The clerk happily spent the next few minutes in conversation with her as he went through the necessary check-in procedures. He didn't notice the lobby door quietly open a third time.

Nor did he see the handsome black-haired man in a tan trench coat silently cross the lobby past the elevator and disappear up the stairs to the floors housing the patrons' rooms. Talking animatedly, the clerk handed the fraulein her room key and directed her to the elevator. The fraulein, an underground agent code-named Rapunzel, casually offered her thanks and entered the elevator, waving cheerily as the doors slid closed.

The lobby door opened once again. The clerk stiffened involuntarily when Major Stefan Schiller entered and walked toward him.

He had tried to avoid the Gestapo officer as much as politely possible during his stay at the hotel. Something about the man's cold blue eyes and icy demeanor caused every moment in his presence to be extremely uncomfortable, and invariably left the clerk longing for a hot, cleansing shower afterward. Trembling slightly in aversion, he stepped behind the lobby desk, feeling oddly comforted by the barrier.

"Guten Abend, Herr Major Schiller."

"Do I have any messages?" Schiller asked in a bored tone, ignoring the polite greeting.

"Nein, Herr Major."

Schiller turned away and moved toward the elevator. As he waited for the elevator to descend to the lobby, he angled his head so that he might blatantly observe the clerk. There was no particular reason for doing so. He simply enjoyed watching the clerk fidget uncomfortably under the scrutiny.

Smirking to himself, he broke off his stare as the elevator doors opened. He entered and allowed his thoughts to drift to the pleasant evening he'd enjoyed in the company of the beautiful singer.

Schiller had attended one of the singer's previous performances, but had been unable to gain a personal audience with the petite blonde. Her eyes had fascinated him while he watched her move seductively across the small stage. The soft stage lights revealed her eyes were deep violet in color. Since that night, he'd been determined to somehow find a way to be alone with her. Klink's invitation had provided the perfect opportunity.

Schiller smiled maliciously as the doors opened onto his floor and he walked out of the elevator. Shortly after their meal ended, Klink had begged off and returned to Stalag 13. There was no doubt in Schiller's mind as to the reason for the hasty departure, since it was he who had pointedly suggested it. He'd had no intention of allowing Klink to stay once he'd performed the introduction to the lovely young woman. As a rare courtesy, he had allowed the nervous kommandant to finish his meal before firmly suggesting that he leave.

The phone in his room began ringing. Schiller hurriedly took out his room key and inserted it into the lock, cursing beneath his breath. Rushing into the room, he yanked the phone from its cradle, silencing the strident noise.

The voice at the other end of the line informed him of the fuel depot's destruction, undoubtedly at the hands of Papa Bear and his men. Grenades thrown over the wire fences had effectively eliminated one of their prime fueling stations. The voice also reminded him that just less than a week before, the secret rocket assembly plant in Dusseldorf had been completely destroyed, shortly after he had allowed the dangerous underground leader to slip through his fingers.

He was ordered to present himself at headquarters in Berlin the next morning. There, he would explain why he'd ordered the guards from the fuel depot to the ordnance depot at Essen, leaving the fueling station vulnerable to attack after having earlier determined Papa Bear clearly knew of its location. He would also explain why he'd spent the evening in the company of a woman instead of seeing to his duty in re-capturing the resistance leader. The voice silkily concluded by suggesting he make preparations for a long visit to the Russian Front.

Schiller slowly replaced the telephone receiver in its cradle, his mind completely blank with shock. The shock quickly transformed into rage.

It was HIM! He arranged this whole evening somehow! How else would he be able to order my guards to Essen, unless he knew where I'd be? I swear Papa Bear, I will have you, and once I do, I will gut you alive and dance on your entrails! Schiller's fists clenched so tightly that his nails tore into them, sending blood trickling down his palms.

KLINK! He must be involved also!

Schiller angrily stalked across the room to the small bedside table. Jerking open one of its drawers, he pulled out a large bottle of schnapps and a glass tumbler. His hand shook as he poured a generous amount of the liquor into the glass, drained it, refilled it, and drained it again. Bottle and glass in hand, he settled back against the bed's headboard to contemplate the many ways he would kill Papa Bear.



*********

Hogan silently moved into the light when Schiller's chin dropped onto his chest. For a moment, he simply stood and stared at the Gestapo officer, reliving the moment Carter had been shot. His gaze traveled slowly down Schiller's unconscious body, taking in the German's slack expression and rumpled uniform. He'd intended to confront Schiller face to face, but Schiller, himself, had presented him with an even better solution.

From behind the room's heavy drapes, he'd watched Schiller enter the room and answer his phone. Judging by the German's reactions, Hogan could well imagine the content of the one-sided conversation. He'd watched in cold amusement as Schiller pulled out the bottle of potent liquor. It was a simple matter to remain hidden and wait while the man obligingly drank himself into a stupor.

Hogan shook his head in disgust. Walking to the bedside, he reached down and cautiously withdrew Schiller's handgun from its holster. Tucking the weapon into the waist of his trousers, he stepped lightly to the door and flipped the lock. He paused and listened intently for any movement outside the door before returning to the window.

Sliding his hand between the closed drapes to the window casement, he lifted the catch and eased the window open. Pulling a thin piece of wire from his pocket, he loosely looped it around the catch, being careful to leave a generous length hanging below it. He looked out the window and studied the darkened street in both directions, then checked the walk below. There was no one in sight at this late hour of the night.

He quickly returned to Schiller and removed the empty liquor bottle from the officer's lax hand and laid it on the bed. He pulled the gun from his waist. I was ironic that the very weapon Schiller had used to shoot Carter would now bring his own death. Carefully, Hogan placed the gun in Schiller's right hand and curled the limp fingers around the weapon's grip and trigger. Grasping both Schiller's hand and the weapon, he lifted them and placed the gun firmly against Schiller's temple.

The hand within his own twitched. Schiller's eyes fluttered open and he looked up. A gamut of emotions flashed across his face when he realized who was standing over him holding a gun to his temple: recognition . . . anger . . . horror . . .

The gun went off.

Schiller's body slumped to one side against the headboard and Hogan let gravity pull the hand still holding the gun onto the bed. Without a backward glance, he slipped through the window and out onto the narrow ledge just below it. He pulled the window closed behind him, making certain that he pulled out and down on the thin wire as he did so. The latch fell neatly back into place as the wire pulled free outside the window.

Cautiously, he worked his way along the ledge to the next room and the window he'd purposely left unlatched there earlier. He vaguely heard shouts and pounding coming from Schiller's room as he levered himself into the empty room next door. He closed and latched the window behind him as the men in the hallway finally broke open Schiller's door. Moving silently across the room, he pulled the tan trench coat he'd worn into the hotel over his black clothing. He belted the coat tightly around his waist and then stuffed a white scarf around his neck and into the coat's open neck. He studied himself in a mirror in the dim light, checking to see that no trace of his black turtleneck showed beneath the scarf. Satisfied that all was in order, he took a deep breath and went to the door.

When he eased the door open just far enough to see, he found a substantial crowd gathering in the hall outside. He waited until the right moment, then blended unnoticed into the milling confusion. It didn't take long for him to unobtrusively work his way through the crowd and down the stairs. As he'd hoped, the pandemonium created by the discovery of Schiller's apparent suicide diverted everyone's attention, giving him the perfect opportunity to disappear into the night.



*********

Kinch, LeBeau and Newkirk placed themselves safely out of Carter's path as he paced the small room in the tunnel. Kinch frowned as he took note of Carter's closed expression. The young sergeant seemed almost as driven as when he'd taken point during their trip to the fuel depot. Kinch had stayed close behind him while they'd traveled, occasionally checking to see that Newkirk and LeBeau remained close. He most definitely did not want to have a repeat of Hogan and Carter's experience.

They'd reached the fuel depot without incident. Quickly and efficiently spreading out around its perimeter fencing, they'd lobbed grenades into the compound and retreated as explosions filled the air. Success.

Everything went off without a hitch. So why, Kinch wondered, watching Carter pace away again, are we all more keyed up now than before we left?

He sighed when Carter glanced again at the tunnel leading to the emergency exit. His fellow sergeant had said less than ten words to anyone since leaving Stalag 13 for the fuel depot. Since delivering his impassioned speech, Carter's buoyant personality had vanished.

Kinch snuck a sideways peek at Newkirk and LeBeau and saw them return the look. This silent, serious Carter was a complete unknown to all of them.

Newkirk glanced at his watch. They'd hit the fuel depot at eleven, just as ordered. It was now half past two and Hogan still hadn't returned. Newkirk threw his third cigarette to the dirt floor and ground it out beneath his boot heel. Blimey, I 'ate waitin'!

Carter stopped pacing. "It's been too long." He stepped in front of Kinch. "Something's wrong. He's been gone too long."

"I'm back, Carter." Hogan stepped out of the shadows.

Carter whirled toward his commander, but remained where he was when the others moved forward to greet Hogan. Nor did he move while Hogan shucked off his coat and handed it to LeBeau. He waited, stock still, when Hogan stopped directly in front of him.

For long seconds, they regarded each other silently. Finally, Hogan gave a slight, imperceptible nod, then turned away and climbed the ladder to their barracks.

Carter released a long, ragged breath.

Now it's over.




May, 1999