Note: This story first appeared in the fanzine Of Dreams and Schemes #25. Original edits were by C. Schlein.
I want to thank everyone who voted for my story, The Art Of Knowing Nothing, back in 2017. It won a share of the bronze for best long drama from the Papa Bear Awards. I was really surprised and pleased by this. Many thanks.
Lastly, a big thank you to everyone who has read/reviewed or favorited my previous stories. It is appreciated.
One of the many drawbacks to barracks living was the fact that no one had any privacy, Corporal Peter Newkirk decided. Of course, living as a prisoner in the middle of an enemy country in wartime made it all a bit worse. Most terrible of all however was hearing your commanding officer be ill and not being able to do a bloody thing about it.
Colonel Robert Hogan had been unable to eat anything for nearly two days. It had started after a midnight meeting with a local underground leader. Hogan had gone alone and that was a mistake in Newkirk's opinion. The governor had already been tired before this and the English corporal had volunteered to meet with the agent instead. But the man was fearful and would only speak with Papa Bear himself, so Hogan went. A nice, long, cold walk back to camp through a snowstorm later, Hogan was thoroughly chilled on his return. The next morning however, he was up bright and early for roll call. He ate a hearty breakfast and went about camp business as usual. Then, Sergeant James Kinchloe had discovered the Colonel being thoroughly sick before dinner that night. Newkirk had been sure to blame it on Corporal Louis LeBeau's lousy French cooking. By morning however, it was clear that this was much more serious than acute indigestion.
Colonel Hogan had ruffled LeBeau's sensitive feathers by refusing all food that morning. He had hurt Schultz and Carter's feelings by snapping at both of them. He had gotten into an uncharacteristic shouting match with Klink before stomping off to his quarters with orders that everyone stay out. Everyone had but concern continued to mount. Hogan skipped lunch and dinner and basically closed the door on Kinch, who was trying to slip in unobtrusively. The sergeant met the worried looks at the table with one of his own as he sat down to join the ever present card game that nobody was really interested in.
After lights out, Newkirk lay on his bunk, hearing Hogan moving around in his quarters. Sergeant Kinchloe had gone down into the tunnels with the radio. The rest of the group lay on their bunks like ruddy children hoping everything would be all right by morning.
Newkirk resolved to go in after he heard Hogan being sick again, orders or not, when the trick bottom bunk flew up and Kinchloe emerged from the tunnel.
"What is it, Kinch?" LeBeau asked from his bunk, wide awake.
Newkirk heard Sergeant Andrew Carter stir beneath him in his bunk. Andrew hadn't spoken a word since Hogan had told him off earlier. But he jumped up now, eager to have something to do.
Flinging off his thin blanket, Newkirk hopped off the top bunk. "What's the news, Kinch?"
Kinchloe looked as serious as Newkirk could ever remember. "We've got trouble. Bad trouble."
HH HH HH
Robert Hogan leaned his forehead against the wooden window shutters of his quarters. He felt miserable. Alternately chilled, fevered and still sick to his stomach.
This was one of the hot times and on impulse, he opened the window and let the blessedly cold air rush in. A little bit of snow had collected at the bottom of the window sill and reaching down, Hogan rubbed some of it on his sweating, flushed face. It melted instantly and he leaned outside, seeking some relief.
Behind him, the door opened and he heard Kinchloe say, "Colonel Hogan! It's freezing out there!"
Turning, Hogan saw to his immense irritation all of his main guys coming into his room. "Keep back all of you!" He held up a hand to forestall the protests. "I don't know what this is but I don't want anybody else catching this. And that's an order!"
"That's what I've come to tell you, Colonel. I've just heard from the underground. Your contact from last night is very ill. They think its influenza."
Hogan faced them with a stricken look. Influenza had killed millions after World War I. Although they had better medicines today than back then, it was still nothing to fool around with. There were also no guarantees that the Germans would cough up some of their increasingly scarce medicines for an enemy officer.
"I don't have time for this," Hogan whispered in a distracted voice. His mind raced along all the problems this would create; from handling Kommandant Klink and the Germans to coordinating with the Underground and planning sabotage missions. Hogan sank down on his bunk. He had to admit, he was scared. Being deathly ill in a foreign hostile country was not how he pictured it would end, if it had to.
Kinchloe took advantage of his commander's preoccupation to close the window, to the infinite relief of the others.
"How bad is Snow Cardinal?" Hogan asked his second quietly, referring to the Underground agent.
"Pretty bad. The underground has asked for penicillin," Kinch replied quietly.
"Give it to them," Hogan said instantly.
"After you've had a shot, sir," Kinch said firmly.
"Do we have enough?" Hogan's tone was bleak.
"Yes, sir, we do." Kinch did not volunteer that he had already requested London send more immediately.
"Don't worry, mon Colonel. We will take care of you," LeBeau insisted.
"You can't," Hogan said miserably. "This stuff must be highly contagious. It will spread through the whole camp like wildfire. There are enough guys here who aren't in good shape to begin with. I can't let anybody else catch this. Now, all of you get out."
From the look in the Colonel's eyes there would be no argument. Behind Hogan, Kinchloe nodded to the door significantly. Newkirk nodded back and herded LeBeau and stunned Carter out. Closing the door behind him, the RAF corporal leaned against it, suddenly very weary. "What ruddy bad luck."
LeBeau swore in French and Carter sat down at the table. "I don't know why we can't just take care of him. We don't need to let anybody else know," the young American sergeant declared.
Newkirk and LeBeau rolled their eyes.
In the other room, Robert Hogan sat on his bunk, looking down at the rough wooden floor. "God, Kinch. If I stay, I'll run the risk of infecting everybody. But I don't really want to go to some Kraut hospital." Hogan could not control of the tremor of fear in his voice.
"Maybe Klink will settle for a quarantine of these barracks," Kinch suggested.
Hogan met his gaze with fever bright eyes. "I'm not sure I can justify the risk, Kinch. I don't have the right to endanger everyone in camp."
"Let's not borrow trouble, sir. Take a shot of penicillin, get some rest and let's see what happens."
"Just for a short time, Kinch. In the meantime, keep everybody out of here. Including yourself. And be careful with any future meetings with Snow Cardinal's people; they might be infected as well. As for the operation, do what you can manage without too much risk. Klink will be suspicious enough when I'm not out there for roll call."
"Roger," Kinch said briskly. "I'll get the penicillin –"
"Not you, Kinch. You're in charge now, Sergeant. And after this, the rest of you keep out. I don't want to risk anybody else."
Kinchloe knew just how difficult it would be to enforce that order but he merely nodded. "Maybe we'll catch it early enough, Colonel. All these contingency plans won't be needed."
Hogan lay down wearily. "I hope so."
HH HH HH
Over some opposition, Peter Newkirk was elected to administer the shot to Colonel Hogan, having some previous experience subjecting an unwilling Sergeant Schultz to his medical skills for one of their capers.
The others waited in the large common room of the barracks until Newkirk came out of Hogan's room.
"How is he?" Andrew Carter asked eagerly.
Everyone groaned. "I've only just given him the shot, Andrew," Newkirk snapped. "I don't think it works that fast!"
"I just hope it works," Kinchloe said soberly. "You do realize that if you start feeling dicey, you're going to have to stay in there with him."
"It should be me," LeBeau put in flatly.
"You've got to cook the food that will make him strong again. You can't do it in his room," Kinch replied.
"It should be me," Carter said in a sulky tone. "I have nothing to do right now and I'm the most expendable."
"Blimey, you'd drive the governor batty with all your bloomin' natterin'!" Newkirk said irritably, lighting a cigarette.
"Well, at least I wouldn't poison him with smoke!" Carter shot back with uncharacteristic anger.
"Stop it!" Kinchloe was mad now and his glower stopped the arguing instantly. "Colonel Hogan is very ill and you all stand out here arguing like spoiled children! Now, listen up. I want this barracks cleared first thing in the morning."
A muted chorus of complaints died on the other guys' lips when they saw Kinch's look. "I'd move you tonight if I could for safety's sake but it would cause too much ruckus among the Krauts."
"What about Klink?" LeBeau asked quietly.
"I'll tell him the truth. Colonel Hogan is ill. But nobody mentions influenza. We don't know what it is. And we keep the Krauts out as well as everyone else."
"If we mention the mere possibility of the Colonel being contagious it should keep the Bosche out, no problem," LeBeau said bitterly.
They all fell silent when they heard the sound of intense coughing behind Hogan's door. "I think I'll just get me kit, gents," Newkirk said soberly, getting up on his bunk and grabbing some personal items. "If any fraulein comes looking for me, I'll be available later."
"All right." Kinchloe was uneasy. Perhaps he should move these men out tonight. But if he did, the sense of urgency by this move would allow Klink to pack Hogan off to the hospital right away. And maybe that was the best? But, away from Stalag 13, he would be alone and unprotected.
LeBeau touched his arm. "He will be all right, mon ami. Mon Colonel will recover and then we'll lead the filthy Bosche on a merry chase again."
Kinch moved away from the others and LeBeau with him. "He's scared, Louis. And I'm scared too. Wondering what will happen to all of us, if something happens to him. And sitting here, listening to him suffer…. It just doesn't sit right. Makes me feel helpless." Kinchloe suddenly sat down, at the head of the table where Hogan usually sat. "The one time the Colonel needs me and I can't do a damn thing for him."
"You are doing something, Kinch. Something extremely important." Newkirk said from his locker where he had moved to get the rest of his stuff for the bedside vigil. "You're going to hold everything together until he gets back on his feet."
"I hope so," Kinch replied softly. Now he remembered why he never wanted to be an officer.
HH HH HH
"Sergeant Kinchloe! Please tell me I'm not seeing what I'm not seeing? Please Sgt. Kinchloe! Where is Colonel Hogan and the Englander? Please tell me they've not run off with some frauleins!" Sergeant Schultz waved a pudgy hand in the air, distraught and distracted. "No, don't tell me! But what do I tell the Kommandant? He will kill me for this!"
"Relax, Schultz." Kinch hoped his voice matched his words to the big German sergeant. They stood out in the exercise yard in the freshly fallen snow, awaiting Kommandant Klink's appearance for roll call. Schultz had nearly had a heart attack when he saw the first two places of the front line empty.
"Yeah, Schultzie, it's all right. Colonel Hogan is a little under the weather and Newkirk is keeping him company. It's no big deal," LeBeau said dismissively.
"Ha!" Schultz said sullenly. "When the Big Shot sees Colonel Hogan missing, it will be a HUGE deal."
"Repooooort!" On cue, Colonel Wilhelm Klink stomped off the porch of his office, monocle already steaming up as he approached Sergeant Schultz.
"Herr Kommandant, I beg to report-"
"Schultz!" Klink stopped in place, like he had hit a cement wall. "Where is Colonel Hogan?"
"Herr Kommandant, I beg to-"
"If Hogan has escaped it will go hard on the rest of you!" Klink erupted in a mixture of fear and anger. He shuddered to think of what his superior, General Albert Burkhalter, would say if Hogan were truly gone. Gestapo Major Wolfgang Hochstetter would have a stroke and then the Kommandant's health would suffer too. Abruptly, Klink took off his monocle, wiped it and stuck it back in his eye. "Where is the Englander?"
Schultz was about to burst. "Herr Kommandant, I beg-"
Kinchloe could see everything was going to escalate if something wasn't said to Klink immediately. "Kommandant, what Sergeant Schultz is trying to say is that Colonel Hogan is a little under the weather this morning and Corporal Newkirk stayed inside in case he needed any help. They're both here, sir." Kinchloe added soothingly or so he hoped.
"It's a trick; another one of Hogan's little games!" Klink said suspiciously.
"No sir, it isn't. They are both inside."
"Well," Klink stomped one foot in the snow, "they may be here but they are not here, if you take my meaning. Colonel Hogan knows better than this; he cannot dismiss himself from roll call because he has a sniffle or a tummy ache. Get him and that annoying Englander Newkirk out here immediately!"
"Er, Kommandant, may I have a quick word with you in private, sir?" Kinch asked, acutely aware of the worried looks on Carter and LeBeau's faces.
Klink looked like he was about to object but decided to give in with ill grace. He moved away from the assembled men and Kinchloe with him. "Now, Sergeant Kinchloe. Let's hear it."
Kinch stared at Schultz, who was openly eavesdropping. Schultz moved away a couple of steps but not for long.
"Kommandant, we're not exactly sure what Colonel Hogan has yet. He thought it wise not to risk exposing you to the illness, sir. After all, we depend on you, sir. No one wanted to take unnecessary chances with your health."
Klink was so alarmed he didn't even acknowledge how precious the prisoners thought he was. "Sergeant, if Hogan has something contagious he must be quarantined and hospitalized immediately! I cannot risk an epidemic. Corporal Newkirk too, if he has been exposed to this illness." Klink suddenly took two steps back. "Sergeant, you have probably all been exposed by now!"
Schultz abruptly stepped back as well, looking at Kinch and the others like they were spewing germs by standing there.
LeBeau gave Schultz a glare and mouthed, 'No more strudel.' Schultz made a face back, from a safe distance, he hoped.
Kinchloe, however, could see everything slipping away and fast. "Sir, we don't know if this illness is catching. It may just be a severe cold." He took a huge chance and played his ace. "You could always take a look for yourself."
Klink blanched at the idea. "Well, I don't know. My safety, you know, is paramount to this camp."
"You're right, sir. We can't risk your health. Perhaps, Sgt. Schultz?"
"Yes, yes, that's right. Schultz!" Klink bellowed at the heavy set sergeant. "You go and check on Hogan and Newkirk."
"But, Herr Kommandant, then I will be exposed and then you will be exposed. You know me, I will spread it around everywhere I go. The whole camp will catch it." Schultz made his plea, complete with dramatic gestures.
"Very Wagnerian; next stop Valhalla." LeBeau grumbled, tired of standing around in the snow.
"What a Vagerian?" Carter asked, confused.
LeBeau rolled his eyes while Klink and Schultz argued. Again, Kinchloe interceded. "Kommandant, how about if Schultz just looks in from the doorway?"
Klink did not look happy but finally relented. "Oh all right. But Hogan must be better by tomorrow, Sergeant Kinchloe. No exceptions, no excuses."
"Of course, sir." Outside he tried to be impassive but inside Kinch nearly collapsed with relief. He exchanged salutes with Klink and the latter stomped off to his office. Now it was up to the Colonel and Newkirk.
HH HH HH
"Here comes Schultz," Peter Newkirk shouted as he raced into Hogan's room. He stripped the extra blanket off the bunk and hurriedly thrust some cards in Hogan's hand.
Newkirk had barely sat down on a chair next to the bunk when the door cracked open. First the steel top of a German helmet appeared, then two bright blue eyes.
"Och, you boys are here," Schultz's voice came from behind the door.
"Schultzie, where did you think we were?" Newkirk asked irritably, while playing another card.
"Hi, Schultz," Hogan said a hoarse voice. He was lying down, studying his cards.
"Oh, Colonel Hogan, I can see you really are sick!" Schultz exclaimed, still hiding behind the door, taking care not to come into the room.
"Thanks, Schultz, I wasn't sure myself. Needed the confirmation." Hogan did indeed look awful; his face was flushed and he looked very ill.
"Is the Kommandant joining us, Schultz?" Newkirk asked pointedly.
Already they could hear Klink bellowing outside from his porch. "Repoooort, Schultz!"
"Nein. The big shot is too frightened to come in. I will tell him you boys are not up to any monkey business. This time at least. He will be pleased."
"Yeah, yeah. Well, you'd better go before the old Iron Eagle busts something yelling his bloomin' lungs out!"
"Yeah, yeah," Schultz rumbled. "I hope you feel better soon, Col. Hogan." He closed the door.
Newkirk made sure he was gone. Hogan dropped the cards and groaned, his teeth chattering and his body shivering violently. Newkirk put the extra blanket back on his commanding offer. While picking up the cards, he heard a soft knock at the door.
"Peter? It's Kinch. Everything all right?"
Newkirk cracked open the door, revealing the worried faces of Kinch, LeBeau and Carter. "How'd it go with ol' Klink?"
"Kinch was magnifique!" LeBeau said happily.
Kinchloe was more down to earth. "We've got another twenty four hours. After that we'll probably have to give him up."
Newkirk sighed. "I don't think we'll make that, Kinch. I've got Wilson's thermometer; the Colonel's temperature is 102. And we need some blankets; now he's freezing to death. Take the one off me bunk there."
"Oh, I'll get the blankets," LeBeau volunteered. "I'll make my nice chicken broth; it will soon warm mon Colonel up." The small man bustled off.
"Silly Frenchie; right now the governor can't even swallow water," Newkirk said acidly.
Kinchloe, watching LeBeau and Carter round up blankets, sighed. "It gives him something to do. God, I wish Wilson were here," he said referring to the captured American medic who was usually present to serve their medical needs. But he was rushed over to Stalag 11, where a high ranking French officer needed immediate medical care. The Germans were short on medics themselves, due to the high causalities from the front.
"So do I, mate. So do I."