I do not own any of the characters from the series Hogan's Heroes. However, I claim ownership of any original characters appearing in this story.
The geographical details are entirely imaginary.
Cover image: Georg Primavesi (1774-1855), Moonlight landscape (detail)
The rain had not seemed so heavy when the car set out for Bernsdorf, but by the time it reached the bridge across the Aalenau River, the water streaming down the windscreen was making the driver's job very difficult indeed.
"I can't see a blessed thing," he said. "We'll have to pull over."
The passenger in the back disagreed. "Newkirk, we're already running late. And it has to be done tonight. London wants that train stopped. Colonel Hogan wants that train stopped. And I haven't blown anything up for nearly a month."
"That's all very well, Carter, but running off the road won't get us there any sooner," Newkirk replied irritably.
LeBeau, who was sitting beside him in the front passenger seat, gazed out of the window. He was in unusually low spirits. "The river's very high," he murmured, as they crossed the bridge.
Newkirk didn't hear him. The noise of the rain battering the roof and sides of the vehicle, added to the hissing of water thrown from the road surface by the wheels, was too loud.
The road dipped, and the rushing sound below the wheels deepened. LeBeau tensed, and looked at the driver. "Newkirk..." he said, his voice tight with anxiety.
"I know. As soon as we're through this puddle, we'll stop for a bit, see what the road's like. No, Carter, don't start with me."
The car drew to the edge of the road, and came to a halt. There was a long silence, then a squeaking noise as Carter tried to rub the condensation from the window. "I think it's easing off," he said, with his usual misplaced optimism. Neither of the others replied, and he subsided with a sigh, and a wistful glance at the package on the seat beside him.
Newkirk glanced over his shoulder. Whether it was an effect of the diffuse light, or the blue Luftwaffe uniform he was wearing, Carter certainly looked washed out.
He's still not a hundred per cent, thought Newkirk.
It was an added anxiety he didn't need. Carter was hardly ever sick; most infectious diseases that entered the camp seemed to pass him by. He wasn't proof, however, against injury. And it was a particular irritant to him that the explosion which had laid him up for the past four weeks hadn't even been one of his own.
LeBeau had taken the worst of it; he'd actually been in the kitchen of the Kommandant's private quarters when the newly-installed gas cooker blew up. Carter, waiting at table as usual, had just left the room. But he'd been badly concussed, and had remained hors de combat for some time afterwards.
Not that he would admit it; like most people who never ailed, he had no grasp of what was involved in convalescence. In fact, he'd been quite put out at being told that, until he could stand up for more than two minutes without falling over, he was not allowed to go out on assignments. This was his first excursion since his recovery; LeBeau's, as well. The Frenchman had suffered some pretty serious burns, and had been even slower to recuperate than Carter.
"I'm starting to worry about this caper," Newkirk said at length. "Perhaps we ought to give it a miss. Quiet, Carter. Let me think for a minute."
He gazed out at the falling rain, which in spite of Carter's hopeful utterance showed no sign of letting up.
They only had one chance at this train, and its cargo of heavy armaments. Perhaps it wasn't a case of changing the course of the war, but it would certainly make a difference in terms of lives lost on the battlefields of Normandy. The designated sabotage point was not much further.
"Okay." Newkirk came to a decision. "We keep going. But if the road gets any worse, we'll have to have a rethink."
He put the car in motion, and proceeded cautiously through the downpour, which became heavier over the next few minutes. It took all of his concentration to keep the vehicle steady; and he remained on the alert, which was lucky. When the headlights of the oncoming vehicle suddenly veered into their path, he reacted almost instantly, hit the brakes and swung the steering wheel hard left.
The wheels skidded on the wet road surface; the steering locked, and the front end slewed into the ditch along the side of the road, while the truck which had caused the disaster swerved violently back onto its own side of the road, and careered off without stopping.
"You ignorant bloody great tosser!" Newkirk flung the door open, and stepped out into knee-deep, icy water. His next few utterances, as he scrambled from the ditch, were somewhat less polite. After that, however, he remembered his passengers, and turned back to the car to check on them. He could hear Carter complaining vehemently from the back seat.
"You all right, Andrew?" he demanded sharply.
"I think I broke my nose." Carter's voice was muffled; he was trying to stem the flow of blood with a handkerchief, and failing completely. Even by the feeble illumination of the headlights reflected back from the ditchwater, he was a gruesome sight.
The Frenchman didn't answer. He'd taken one look at Carter, and passed out.
"Oh, that's just brilliant!" muttered Newkirk.
Carter was making ineffectual attempts to open the door with his left hand, while clutching the handkerchief against his nose with his right. Newkirk yanked at the handle, hauled him out and sat him on the edge of the road.
"Keep your head tipped forward," he said. "You don't want the blood going down the back of your throat." He shone his flashlight on Carter's face, and ran his fingers gently across the bridge of the afflicted feature. "I don't think it's broken," he added. "Just pinch it a bit, to stop the bleeding. And watch out for traffic. I'll go see to LeBeau."
"I'm getting rained on," Carter protested, but Newkirk was already on the other side of the car.
LeBeau was just coming round. "Ça va," he murmured in response to Newkirk's curt enquiries. "Is Carter okay?"
"Just a nosebleed. He'll do. But we're in a bit of trouble."
Newkirk turned his attention to the car. He'd managed to avoid ditching it completely, but the edge of the channel was extremely soft; getting out was going to be a problem, and the water below appeared to be rising.
"We better have you out of there, before I try to get back on the road," he said.
As LeBeau tottered onto dry land, he gave a stifled exclamation, and averted his eyes. Carter, still dabbing at his nose with the increasingly objectionable handkerchief, was approaching.
"Carter, just stop there," said Newkirk hastily. "LeBeau, don't look. He's fine. You go and wait over there while I sort this out."
"You'll never do it," replied LeBeau, holding his ground, though he didn't look at Carter. "Not without help."
Newkirk's eyes moved from him to Carter. Both were badly shaken, and probably not ready for the effort needed to get the car out of trouble. But LeBeau was right; and in spite of the nosebleed, Carter was the one in better shape. "LeBeau, you get behind the wheel. Carter, round that side, ready to give it a shove."
He slid down into the ditch, muttering under his breath, and braced himself against the front guard. "Okay, LeBeau," he called out. "Give it a bit - not too much."
The back wheels spun ineffectively against the road surface; the car moved a couple of inches, then slipped forward again. Newkirk, uttering a startled squawk, barely got clear.
"Well, that went well," he observed sourly. "All right, Carter?"
"Fine," replied Carter indistinctly, getting into position for another attempt.
The second try was no more successful than the first. "This isn't going to work," said Carter.
"Well, what do you suggest, Carter? It's another ten miles to Bernsdorf, then thirty miles back to Stalag 13 after the job's done. We can hardly walk it, even if you don't take the weather into account." Newkirk regarded him with exasperation.
Carter didn't answer him. He was holding the bloodstained handkerchief to his nose again. Newkirk swore softly. Then he turned his head. Another vehicle was approaching, a heavy one from the sound of the motor. Inwardly thanking the fates for the first bit of good luck that day, Newkirk stepped out to flag the army lorry down.
"Bitte, können Sie uns helfen?"
A tow from the truck soon got them back on the road. The driver, however, brought bad news.
"The road into Bernsdorf is impassable," he explained, as he removed the tow rope from the staff car's rear bumper. "We were turned back, and told to try to reach Hammelburg, and from there to take the north road through Gardheim. I suggest you do the same."
Newkirk passed this on, after the truck had set off. "It'd take us all night just to get there," he added. "Assuming the Gardheim road isn't cut off, as well. Sorry, Carter. We're going to have to let this one go."
Carter sighed, looking down the road towards Bernsdorf. He had to accept it, but he didn't have to be happy about it. Without a word he got back into the car.
They didn't get far. Long before they got within sight of the bridge, a subtle change in the reflection of the headlight beams alerted Newkirk to a danger he'd already half-expected. The river had risen since they'd passed this way.
He didn't dare brake too fast; the car came to a halt just inches short of a dark expanse of water covering the road ahead.
"Oh, bollocks," he murmured. Neither of the others answered him.
The tail-lights of the truck which had pulled them out of the ditch could be seen ahead, distorted by submersion. Apparently the driver had got some distance into the flood before realising just how deep it was, and how fast-moving. Now he was stuck, the lorry leaning slightly as the flood surge swept across the road surface.
"He won't make it," murmured Newkirk. Automatically, he got out of the car, trying to figure out how to reach the trapped men and get them to safety. Carter and LeBeau, with the same thought in mind, followed. Enemy soldiers or not, they couldn't be left to drown.
It was hopeless. There was no way to get to them. At the very limit of visibility, the dim lights of the lorry tilted sideways, then tipped altogether and vanished from sight.
"Did they get out of there?" asked Carter.
"Couldn't tell." Newkirk was pretty sure they hadn't. "Nothing we can do about it now, anyway. We've got plenty to worry about on our own account."
Vaguely puzzled that the water could have reached such a height in so short a time, he continued to stare at the glimmer of light on its rippling surface. Then he took a deep breath, and wiped the raindrops from his face with an impatient hand.
"This is serious," he said, in a low voice. "It looks like we're cut off in both directions. And if it doesn't stop..."
He didn't finish, but LeBeau and Carter both knew what he was thinking. Getting back to Stalag 13 was not their only problem. They were effectively stranded, and the river was still rising.
For once, the Germans were not the greatest danger. They were facing an enemy more implacable and much more unpredictable: the floodwaters of the Aalenau River.