The counter-offensive began that night, which meant that for the next forty-eight hours the 4077th was inundated with casualties. Margaret divided her time between the tables with the new doctors. Typically they put one of the new men on the table between Charles and the colonel, with the second man assisting one of the other doctors. That way the new surgeons could get up to speed more quickly on the emergency procedures used at a MASH.
It wasn't pretty. Despite everyone's best efforts, the new men were new, and simply didn't have the speed or the training to move quickly through this volume of casualties. Colonel Potter was a rock of calm in the chaos of the OR. His dedication and sense of perspective did more than anything else to keep the dangerously emotion-laden situation under control. However, much as Margaret admired him, she had to admit that he simply didn't have the strength or dexterity of the younger doctors. On very difficult procedures, he had to call in Charles or BJ to assist. He was a truly great man, who understood his own limitations, and worked to bolster the strengths and accommodate the weaknesses of the people under his command. His steadiness and consistency were a tremendous source of comfort.
Charles, on the other hand, was trying to fill in for Hawkeye. Apparently he'd taken it upon himself to guide the new surgeons through their baptism by fire. This was all the more important, as BJ was a virtual zombie. But Charles didn't have Pierce's style. Whereas Hawkeye would have explained a new procedure in just a few words (or BJ would have, had his brain been functioning), Charles was too much in love with his own voice. He'd get carried away with the history of an operation, or recite possible complications that could have no bearing on the present need. Margaret tried to hurry him along by handing him instruments before he called for them, but if she rushed him too much he'd bark at her and she'd have to back off. Colonel Potter rarely corrected him. He understood the precariousness of their situation all too well. Keeping Charles happy was the only way they could get through this horrendous deluge.
BJ worked in almost complete silence at the table at the far end. Margaret knew him to be a strong surgeon, so at first let him alone. But she noticed him making mistakes. He'd discover some damage, and then forget to repair it. He'd forget to check x-rays, or checked them so repeatedly it seemed as if he didn't remember what he'd seen. Sometimes he'd pause as if he'd forgotten what procedure he was performing. From being one of their fastest surgeons, he was now barely keeping up with Winchester, who frequently interrupted his work to give explanations and asides. Margaret assigned her sharpest nurses to BJ so she could concentrate on following up on Tuck and Langley. She held nightly briefings with her staff, discussing ways that they could best support the surgeons without being confrontational. Not that Colonel Potter would object to a suggestion, or BJ, but Charles would hit the roof over a mere woman criticizing him, and she didn't know the new doctors well enough to anticipate their reactions. Plus, she was afraid that too much criticism coming in at once might damage their ability to perform.
So Margaret did what she could to keep the OR running, but it wasn't enough. They were up to six hours slower getting some of the critical cases into surgery, and it was costing lives. Sometimes Margaret was almost frantic with anxiety, watching the steady progression of one of Charles's ponderous routines, or the hesitant fingers of the new doctors. How she missed Hawkeye's deft strokes, how he could dive into the wretched jumble of a severe injury and, like magic, assemble it into something resembling human again. She'd been watching him for over two years, and it struck her with something close to amazement what a talented surgeon he truly was. Could she really have taken that level of skill for granted? And it wasn't just his speed, it was his judgment. He knew when a procedure should be performed, and which technique to use, and when to hand off work for Tokyo General or the 121st to handle for them. She missed his jokes. With Charles performing a nonstop rendition of the Major Winchester show, the only one with a decent sense of humor any more was the colonel. And he was far too preoccupied with their current difficulties to let out his folksy sense of fun for long.
At last the long second night's session concluded. Margaret stripped off her bloodstained whites, then bundled up in her fatigues and jacket. Though it was the tail end of winter, the nights were still bitter, so she wrapped herself in a scarf and earmuffs before stepping outside.
The night breeze bit her nose and cheeks. Margaret hunched her shoulders and walked quickly. Dawn was a lightening of the darkness, silhouetting the eastern ridge. A white sliver of moon had just climbed above the rugged spine of the mountains, hanging faintly in the paling sky. It was a pretty view, but bleak. Margaret broke into a jog, eager to get out of the wind.
She was almost to her door when her neighbor, Sidney, stepped out of the VIP tent almost at her elbow. "Major Houlihan, good morning."
"Good morning, Doctor." She would have run on, but Sidney held out a hand as if to restrain her.
"Don't hurry off. I've got hot coffee in here, and breakfast for two."
Margaret hugged herself against the chill. "Are you expecting a guest?"
Sidney shrugged. He must have been cold, with only his jacket on. His breath came out in a white stream that dissipated on the wind. In spite of that he stood calmly on the threshold of his tent, propping open the door as if he had nowhere else to go. Damn him, anyway.
"Actually," said Sidney, "I was hoping that I might have a word with you, Major."
Margaret did a little tapping dance to warm her feet. "Dr. Freedman, I just spent fourteen hours in surgery. I really do need to get some sleep before my next shift."
"I understand, Major, which is why I procured breakfast. The mess tent won't be serving for another half hour. This way, I figure you can eat and sleep sooner that you would have been able to anyway. You do still eat, don't you?"
None of your damn business, Margaret thought. Not that she would ever say that to a psychiatrist. He'd probably read all sorts of things into it.
Unwillingly Margaret recalled one of the few conversations that she'd had with Colonel Potter outside of the hospital lately. They'd been sitting in the mess tent, with the colonel on her left and BJ on her right. BJ didn't say one word the entire meal, just pushed the food around the various compartments on his tray. Margaret wondered if he was under direct orders to be there, because he certainly couldn't use appetite as an excuse.
Potter had interrupted her reverie. "How are you holding up, Major?" he asked, softly enough that his words were drowned in the general rumble of the mess.
"I'm fine, sir." She took a bite to demonstrate this, only noticing at that moment how little of the food on her own tray had been eaten. She resolved to do better.
"You and Hawkeye were good friends," Potter said.
The food turned to a stone in Margaret's throat. She set her fork down hastily. Damn it, the tears threatened to burst forth again. She took calming breaths until the mood could pass.
"I know this period of uncertainty is hard on you," Potter continued. "Still, there's not a whole lot else we can do about it except wait."
I know that, Margaret thought, but couldn't get out the words. She was afraid she might lose control if she tried to speak.
"I see what you're doing in OR," said the colonel. "That's the kind of leadership and dedication that I can't admire enough. But you're human, too. You can't keep all this inside of you, Major, no matter how excellently you do your job. Sooner or later, it has to come out."
Margaret kept breathing in an attempt to rein back the tears. She wanted to deflect the colonel's comments, to get him onto another subject, but she didn't trust her voice.
"I want you to talk to Sidney," said Potter. "Just ... spend a few minutes with him. Maybe get a few things off your chest. Would you be willing to do that, Major?"
Margaret gave a jerky nod, then fled the table before Potter could say anything else. She'd barely made it to the sanctuary of the darkness outside before the tears broke, making her rush to her tent. Though the colonel had phrased the suggestion as a request, Margaret held it to be an order. Sooner or later, she would have to talk to Sidney Freedman. Fortunately the press of her duties made "later" extremely easy to come by.
But now she'd been caught. She was fully aware that Sidney must have her on his short list. She should surrender to the inevitable and get it over with. If only she wasn't so damn tired. It would make it hard to keep her defenses up. Maybe that's what Sidney had in mind.
The psychiatrist must have read the capitulation in her expression by the way he stepped back from the door, holding it wide for her to enter. With all the dignity she could muster, Margaret stepped inside.
Her stomach was churning with anxiety as Sidney poured the coffee. He had a pot of it warming on the tent stove, along with two trays of eggs and potatoes. He handed her the coffee -- black, the way she always took it.
"Draw up to the fire and warm yourself," he said in his gentle voice.
Margaret set a folding chair closer to the stove. Feeling like she was under a microscope, she perched on the chair and sipped her coffee. Less bitter than usual. Its warmth was soothing, despite her apprehension.
"I apologize for shanghaiing you so early in the day," he said.
"So late in my shift, you mean."
Sidney nodded, then passed her a tray. "Here, before it gets cold."
Fortunately he didn't say anything else. Despite her tiredness, or maybe because of it, Margaret found herself really hungry. She made short work of the eggs and polished off half the potatoes before sitting back. Beside her, the psychiatrist methodically worked his way through his own breakfast.
"I would have brought toast," Sidney said, "but I didn't like the idea of what it would do to my bridgework."
Margaret chuckled. To hear a joke, any joke, was a rare gift these days. "I guess I didn't know how starved I was. Thanks, Sidney."
"I wondered when we'd get back on a first-name basis."
Suddenly nervous again, Margaret took another sip of coffee. When she finished, Sidney refilled her cup.
"The colonel ordered me to see you," she blurted out.
"Did he?" Sidney languidly returned the pot to the stove. "I was under the impression it was more of a suggestion."
"You know what I mean."
Sidney pulled his chair around to better face her. "Margaret, is there anything I can do to help?"
There it came, the flood. All anyone had to do was confront the issue directly, and these damn tears leaped in out of absolutely nowhere. She put a knitted glove to her nose, but Sidney rescued her, handing her a handkerchief instead. She made thorough use of it. Finally she collected herself enough to answer him. "There's nothing anyone can do."
"How about understanding?" said Sidney. "How about sharing the pain with other people who also knew and loved Hawkeye?"
The pain in her chest was like a spear through her heart. "You make it sound like he's dead," she lashed out. "He's just missing, that's all!"
"And in some ways that makes his loss harder to bear, doesn't it? Not knowing whether to mourn him and move on, or to keep hoping for a miracle."
Margaret covered her face. This session was as horrible as she'd thought it would be. She longed to refute him, to counter that it wasn't a miracle for Hawkeye to be alive. Any number of things could have happened. But when she tried to picture it, her sense of reason jeered at her. How could Hawkeye possibly have escaped detection in an area overrun by the enemy? At best he would have been marched off to a prison camp. At worst -- her mind so rebelled at her thoughts, she had to banish thinking altogether.
"You're a tough lady, Margaret. One of the toughest I've seen. But you're not indestructible. No one is."
She thought he was making an oblique reference to Hawkeye, and hated him for it. "If you're trying to comfort me, Major," she snapped, "you're doing a rotten job."
"I'm not trying to comfort you. There isn't any comfort in what happened, for any of us. The fact is that we may have to live with this uncertainty for a long, long time. Do you think BJ is comfortable, or Colonel Potter, or your nurses?"
Margaret looked away. Just like a psychiatrist. Pick out the three areas where she was the most vulnerable and throw them in her face. "You think I'm being selfish."
"Everyone's entitled to a little selfishness from time to time."
The crassness of the statement brought Margaret's head up in amazement. "You think I'm selfish?"
"Actually, I don't," said Sidney blandly. "I just said that you'd be entitled. All I was trying to do was remind you that you aren't alone. Don't hold yourself so relentlessly to that self-imposed Margaret Houlihan measure of perfection. The people around you aren't perfect. They feel pain, physically and emotionally. The irony of reaching out is that you can ease your own pain by sharing someone else's."
Margaret blotted her eyes with the soggy handkerchief. "I hate it when I get like this."
"Your grief is part of who you are. The part of you that loves and misses Hawkeye is every bit as important as the part that's a major and an excellent nurse. Don't try to bury part of who you are because it's painful or inconvenient. Your friends, the people who really know you, value and appreciate all those aspects about you, not just the ones you consciously try to portray. They're more in your corner than I think you realize."
Margaret reflected a moment. Certainly Colonel Potter was in her corner. Margaret felt so comfortable with him. She wasn't sure how much he knew about her relationship with Hawkeye, but when it came right down to it, it didn't matter. Maybe that's what Dr. Freedman was trying to tell her about friendship.
Sidney touched her arm. "I've kept you up long enough. May I escort you next door, Major?"
"No." Margaret rose as he assisted her. "I think I'll take a little walk first."
"You'll freeze your tuckus!" Sidney warned.
Margaret laughed and stepped out the door. The sky had paled. A strip of molten red outlined the top of the ridge. More people crossed the compound, although it still wasn't oh-five-thirty. Margaret knew that they were getting ready for the first shift, and the possible arrival of the 6:00 choppers, the ones that would be carrying the most critical cases from last night's battle as soon as it was light enough to fly.
She spotted a lone figure standing like a sentinel at the far edge of camp. Only one person was that tall. She began walking toward him.
BJ stood facing the dawn. His hands were thrust in his jacket pockets and his chin was tucked into his scarf, but his head was hatless and his hair lifted in the breeze. When she got close enough for him to hear the gravel crunch under her boots, he looked over as if startled. He continued to watch her as she walked up.
"Margaret." He turned back towards the brightening sky.
It really was chilly. Margaret stepped closer, and linked her arm through his. BJ looked down, surprised. "Something up?"
"No, down. The temperature." Margaret did a little jog in place. "I'm using you as a wind screen."
BJ smiled gently, then returned to his scrutiny of the mountains. Margaret followed his gaze, but couldn't see anything different from what she'd seen countless times before. "What are you looking at?"
Margaret looked again. Now she saw it. The pale crescent she'd noticed earlier had risen higher. It was all but invisible against the encroaching light. "Not much of a moon," she commented.
She paused, then couldn't help herself. "So why are you watching it?"
He shrugged. "It's all the moon we have left."
The statement, coupled with his expression, struck her as inexpressibly sad. Poor BJ. She leaned her head against his shoulder.
One of those traitor tears trickled down her cheek. At the first loss of control, she disengaged her arm. But instead of turning away, she buried her face against BJ's chest. His arms went around her. She returned the embrace fiercely, letting his coat muffle the sound of her sobs. BJ rested his head against hers. One of his warm tears splashed into her hair, where it slowly cooled in the breeze.
BJ felt the bite of anxiety when the announcement summoned him to the colonel's office. The day before yesterday, UN forces had succeeded in beating back the enemy advance and reestablishing the former front line. All the next day BJ had been a bundle of nerves. This was the breakthrough they'd been waiting for, the opportunity for their own troops to go in and look for signs of what might have happened to Hawkeye and any others who were missing from the battle five nights ago. Potter had assured him that the search and recovery mission was second in priority only to securing the reestablished front line.
It was shortly after ten in the morning. BJ was working in the post-op ward when he heard Klinger make the announcement: "All officers, report to Colonel Potter's office for a briefing from the general's office. Staff briefing in five minutes."
BJ was off his stool and out the door before the echoes of the first sentence had faded. He crashed into Klinger's office, making the clerk jump, before hurtling straight through to Potter's without stopping.
Potter was there, facing a tall, sturdily built man in his forties. He wore a Class A uniform with insignia identifying him as a lieutenant colonel. He turned at BJ's tumultuous entrance.
Potter began the amenities. "Captain Hunnicutt, this is Colonel Marvin Stockhelm --"
BJ seized his hand and pumped it. "Any word of Hawkeye, Colonel? Captain Pierce, I mean."
The colonel looked uncomfortable. "Not directly, no."
BJ froze, still gripping the colonel's hand. "What does that mean?"
Potter indicated a chair. "Sit down, Captain, and we'll all get caught up together --"
BJ felt a surge of rage that surprised him with its intensity. He whirled on his CO. "Colonel, I've been waiting for five days now to find out what happened to my best friend. I don't need any more suspense. Just tell me the bottom line now."
The door swung open. Margaret entered, with Father Mulcahy at her heels. Seeing the tableau before them, they halted.
Colonel Stockhelm shifted. "Unfortunately, we don't know what the bottom line is at this point. The best information we have at present is that Captain Pierce is missing."
"But that's what you said five days ago!" BJ was nearly frantic. "Are you telling me that you've found nothing?"
"We've found out several things, Captain, but no direct evidence to suggest what happened to Captain Pierce." Stockhelm paused. "I know you want a better answer, but I don't have one to give you. I'm sorry."
The rage deserted BJ as suddenly as it had appeared. His shoulders sagged.
A gentle touch startled him. It was Margaret. She led him to a chair, then sat beside him, holding his hand. BJ had half a mind to walk out. Still, maybe this colonel could tell them something. His disappointment made him so furious he didn't know what to do.
The room filled behind him. It was the same crowd as before, Sidney and Charles, with Klinger once again in the rear. Then the door opened again, and Tuck and Langley came in. BJ was momentarily bewildered, before it hit him. The call had been for "all officers." Of course Tuck and Langley would answer it, too.
Potter handled the introductions. He concluded them by saying, "Captain Scott, Captain Willis, this briefing is to discuss the status of the search for our missing chief surgeon, Dr. Benjamin Pierce. Since neither of you are acquainted with Dr. Pierce, you're free to assume your regular duties if you prefer."
The two young doctors looked at each other. From their growing rapport, BJ felt almost as if he was looking at a five-year younger version of himself and Hawkeye. Langley spoke for the twain. "If it's all the same to you, Colonel, we'd like to stay and hear what progress has been made in finding our missing colleague, Dr. Pierce."
BJ was grateful. The two young men, though inexperienced medically, had shown remarkable maturity in handling what could have been a very ticklish situation. As soon as they understood who Hawkeye was and his importance to the camp, they treated any mention of him with the utmost respect. Tuck took Hawkeye's bunk. BJ was glad of it, and relieved in hindsight that Winchester had thought to invite the young men into the Swamp. The place would have been punishingly empty otherwise. But Tuck kept up the tradition of surgeons with interesting names, so he was welcome.
Langley took what was usually the spare bunk, reserved for temporary staff or visiting friends. It was he who had brought up the curious treatment of the still. BJ had poured the last batch of gin into a couple of bottles and stored it away. Ever since then, the still had been left dry. When Langley asked about it, BJ said, "This is Hawkeye's still. We'll fill it up when he gets back." Since then the still had become a kind of shrine. Flowers were regularly left there, as well as pictures and mementos, some of which BJ didn't understand and clearly represented private memories on the part of the givers. Crowded as the Swamp had become, Tuck and Langley accepted the importance of the still. They simply moved around it as they did the stove, or the various foot lockers. Pierce's locker and his remaining personal items had been moved to the supply tent. BJ kept the picture of Hawkeye's parents on his nightstand along with his portraits of Peg and Erin. He'd tucked a snapshot of Hawkeye into a corner of the frame. It showed a hatless Hawkeye grinning at the camera. It had been taken during one of their infrequent leaves in Seoul.
Colonel Stockhelm began the briefing by clipping a map to the easel they normally used to review medical procedures. BJ was curious despite himself. It was his first view of the battlefield that had cost them so much.
Stockhelm pointed to a dotted red line that followed the brow of a ridge near the top of the chart. "This is the current front line. All this area," he indicated the rest of the map down to a road that hugged the bottom, "was overrun by the enemy five nights ago when a Chinese regiment attacked the line from the northwest, here." He indicated the point of attack near the upper left. "The forward aid station was located here, about sixty yards from the front." He tapped an area near the center, just south of the dotted line. "Wounded were evacuated by bus and ambulance along this road." He indicated a north-south road that joined the larger east-west road at the map's base. "MASH 4077 is just over 4 miles west of this intersection, and the 8063rdis east about 30 miles. When the enemy broke through the lines, enemy fire threatened the main road to the west, but vehicles could still use the eastern route toward Songu-ri."
BJ bit his lip. Battalion Aid looked so isolated near the top of the map. "Colonel, how far is it from the aid station to that intersection?"
"One and three-quarter miles," replied Stockhelm promptly. "The ridges to the east and west provide cover for the vehicles moving south. By chopper the distance to the 4077th is barely 3 miles, but the terrain makes a direct ground approach impractical."
BJ started when someone tapped his shoulder. It was Margaret again, offering him a tumbler of scotch. BJ looked around. Potter sat at his desk, pouring drinks for everyone. At ten in the morning, yet. BJ didn't like the looks of that at all. He accepted the proffered glass and took a belt.
Stockhelm continued. "Our forces were able to stop the enemy advance at the main road. Our first day's counterattack bought us little ground, but on the second day we were able to push them back out of the valley. By noon of the third day, we considered the area secure. As directed by General Embry, our troops made a thorough search of the battlefield."
Stockhelm took a breath. BJ thought, here it comes.
"Battalion forward aid had been shelled and partly burned. There were two bodies inside the station. Graves Registration has identified one of them as Corporal Lewis, the corpsman who stayed behind the main evacuation to assist Captain Pierce. The other body has not been identified as yet. It was badly burned, but in any case does not match the description for your Captain Pierce."
Potter interrupted. "How does a burned body fail to match a description?"
Stockhelm hesitated. "For one thing, the body was too small in stature to be Captain Pierce."
"Are you aware," Potter said, "that a burned body can lose several inches in height?"
Stockhelm cleared his throat. "For another, Graves Registration has identified both these men as Negroes."
Potter was at his combative best. "You'd better be damned sure about that identification, Colonel. How long will it take the medical and dental records to catch up to this poor fellow?"
"Dental records for all MIAs have been requested from their families stateside. After that, it depends on the individual dentist's office how quickly we receive them. The best we can hope for is about two weeks."
BJ closed his eyes. What hell poor Hawkeye's father must be going through, having to deal with his son's death twice in one war. BJ clenched his hand on his empty glass.
Potter said, "Would it help for anyone here to view the remains?"
Stockhelm looked even more uncomfortable. An investigative aide he might be, but Potter's direct approach to the practicalities of death was probably a little more pointed than he was used to dealing with. "Colonel, I assure you that will not be necessary. Please accept that forensics experts have identified the bodies sufficiently to discount the possibility of one of them being your Captain Pierce."
"Well, if you want somebody down there, just yell," Potter said. "I want this matter resolved."
"Yes, sir." Stockhelm turned back to his map. "Now, the litter jeep belonging to Battalion Aid was found here." He tapped a point about halfway down the north-south road.
BJ sat up. "That's a mile from the aid station!"
"A little less than a mile," Stockhelm corrected. "It had been shelled and burned, but our troops identified it by registration number."
"So Hawkeye got that far, at least," BJ muttered.
"We don't know that, Captain," said Potter gently. "The jeep could have been commandeered by enemy soldiers."
"There were a number of dead NKs in the immediate vicinity," Stockhelm confirmed. "We believe they were killed by the shellfire that destroyed the vehicle."
Potter spread his hands in an I-told-you-so gesture.
"However," Stockhelm reached into his jacket pocket, "we found this next to one of the enemy soldiers." He removed his hand. BJ spotted a gleam of metal just before the colonel opened his hand. Lying on his palm was a set of dog tags. BJ's throat constricted. He didn't have to look at the name to know whose they were.
Beside him, Margaret gave a small cry and covered her mouth. Woodenly BJ reached out and gathered up the tags. The embossed letters gleamed in the light. Capt. B.F. Pierce. BJ ran a finger over the raised digits of the serial number.
"We formed a search line," Stockhelm continued, his voice echoing weirdly inside BJ's head, "from the main road, past the jeep, and all the way back to Battalion Aid. A number of GI remains were recovered. Over eighty percent of the bodies that were relatively intact have been identified. Of the remainder, none matches the description for Captain Pierce."
"What about those that aren't ... intact?" Potter asked.
"A number of ... partial remains were recovered. There is no way at this time to state definitively who they belonged to. Anyone who is directly hit by a shell ... well, there aren't a lot of pieces left to identify."
BJ closed his eyes.
Potter resumed his interrogation. "Any Caucasians among these `partial remains?'"
Stockhelm answered solemnly, "Yes, sir."
"And were any of them located near the jeep where you found Captain Pierce's dog tags?"
Stockhelm paused for two heartbeats. BJ knew what the answer would be before Stockhelm gave it. "Yes, Colonel. There were some Caucasian remains among the Asian dead."
BJ closed his hand over the dog tags. Potter only said, "I see." The defeat in his CO's voice said more to BJ than the rest of the entire briefing.
Stockhelm waited in silence. In a moment Potter cleared his throat. "How many men are still missing, Colonel?"
Stockhelm's voice returned to its brisk "briefing" mode. "In the total five-day action, eighteen men remain missing and unaccounted for. This number includes Captain Pierce."
"Is there any evidence," Potter said, "to suggest that any of these men might have been captured?"
"There is no direct evidence, no. But it can take months for prisoners' names to be reported, if they're reported at all."
"So if Pierce is alive," Potter said, "we could be in for a long wait."
"I would say that that's likely in any event, Colonel. You'll have to wait either for the enemy to volunteer that information, or for the forensics people to complete their job. Either option could take months. And we have to be prepared to accept that we may never come up with a definitive answer. With all the shellfire in that area, we have to face the fact that we may never recover the bodies of some of these missing men."
Colonel Potter sighed. "Colonel, given what you've told us today, what is your current, best assessment of the situation?"
Stockhelm said, "We don't have sufficient evidence at present to declare Captain Pierce deceased. Therefore, we will continue to list him as `missing.' In our best estimation, we can only conclude that he has been either captured or killed."
"A great, big, goose egg!" Potter slammed his fist so hard on his desk that Sidney winced.
The two were alone in Potter's office, following the emotionally devastating meeting with Colonel Stockhelm. Potter had detained his staff long enough after Stockhelm's departure to polish off a good bottle of scotch. Sidney doubted it would help. The sight of Hawkeye's dog tags gave the proceedings such an air of finality. If Hawkeye had really been in the center of that inferno, Sidney couldn't see how he might have escaped. Judging from the haunted look he'd seen in BJ's eyes, Pierce's closest friend didn't consider that likely, either.
Sidney asked Potter, "How's your kernel of hope, Sherman?"
"Almost pulverized," Potter responded. "But it's still there. Damn!" He sprang to his feet and began pacing. "There must be something we can do."
Sidney turned up a palm. "What would you recommend? There's been a thorough search and investigation -- an uncharacteristically detailed investigation, from what I can tell."
Potter balled his fists and rested them on the desk, glaring at Sidney. "Do you know how many men Pierce is physician of record for?" He paused. "Four thousand, give or take a few. That's two regiments of men he treated. Himself." Potter resumed pacing. "That doesn't even include the contribution he's made to other cases in his capacity as chief surgeon. He's probably responsible for a whole lot more. Some of Burns's patients leap to mind. That's why Embry devoted so many resources to this search. No other MASH physician's record comes close. That's because no one else has served at a MASH for as long as Captain Pierce has. He's been with this unit for more than two years. That's years, Sidney, right behind the front lines." Potter cocked his head. "You want to take a shot at guessing who comes in second?"
"How about if I just give you his initials?"
"That's right, BJ Hunnicutt. His second anniversary is coming up in a few months." Potter leaned on his desk again. "Maybe I was wrong, Sidney."
Potter sank into his chair. Absently he reached for a bottle and poured himself a drink. He offered one to Sidney, who accepted it. Potter took a swig from his glass and leaned back.
"Pierce was already a seasoned hand when I got here," he said. "By all rights I should have transferred him to easier duty behind the lines. Most MASH surgeons get rotated out after six months. But he and Hunnicutt were such a team. I couldn't see breaking that up. Plus Pierce fought it each time the idea of a transfer came up. We had to practically beat off General Korshak with a stick."
Sidney frowned. "General Korshak. I don't think I know him."
"It's not important. Some I Corps yahoo who wanted Pierce as his personal physician."
Sidney raised his brows. "He sounds like a brave man."
"Oh, Pierce opened up his wit on him, both barrels. Korshak wanted him anyway. But the point is, Sidney, Pierce didn't want to go. He said if he had to be stuck in Korea, he wanted to serve his time where he could do the most good. As far as I know, that opinion never changed. And he did so much good, Sidney." Potter rubbed his eyes. "I've been strolling through his service record, as you might have guessed. His record's a bit thinner as a result. I figure nobody needs to know that he once set fire to the latrine, or held rickshaw races in the lobby of a hotel in Tokyo, or hijacked a steam shovel when he couldn't find a cab."
Sidney chuckled. "You're taking all the color out of his paper trail."
"I have no fears that the legend will live on. What's interesting to me are his medical contributions. Did you know that the first month he was assigned to this unit, efficiency rose almost a full percent? That's while he was in training. At the present time this unit has the highest efficiency rating in the whole damned Korean theater of operations. You know what that increased efficiency translates to? Over fifty additional lives saved in the course of Pierce's tenure. That's a whole extra platoon of men who are alive today because Pierce made the choice that he did. Of course, that assumes that Pierce is solely responsible for the increase in efficiency, which isn't true. We acquired Winchester and got rid of Burns; that was probably worth most of a percentage point right there. But Pierce set the standards. As chief surgeon, he had more influence over this unit's performance than anyone, with the possible exception of our head nurse. I can't let a man like that go without exploring every possible avenue. I just can't, Sidney." Potter rose to stare out the dirt-flecked window to the compound.
Sidney studied his drink. He had no ideas at all. Maybe his kernel of hope was smaller than the colonel's. He'd seen a lot of good men die, too.
Potter turned from the window, and Sidney blinked in surprise. Potter had a sly smile on his face, and his eyes twinkled. "Sidney," he said, "you're about to pronounce me crazy."
"Is there any particular variety you're going for, or just general insanity?"
"I'll let you be the judge." Potter sat down at his desk. "What about Flagg?"
Sidney almost dropped his drink. "Colonel Flagg, from Intelligence?"
Sidney set down his drink. "You're right. I'm pronouncing you crazy."
"He's a lieutenant colonel these days," Potter continued. "Winchester pulled a fast one on him and they busted him as part of the official reprimand."
"That's a story I'd like to hear."
"I'll tell it later. The point is, regardless of what I think of him personally, Flagg has all these contacts, a whole network of informers. He routinely deals with people from the other side. If Pierce was captured, Flagg might be able to turn up somebody who would know about it."
Sidney was dubious. "You're putting an awful lot of faith in one man's pointed head."
Potter shrugged helplessly. "What else can I do? There's nothing more left to try."
"It's the nuttiest idea I've heard in a long time, and I've heard some stiff competition, too." Sidney raised his glass. "Sherman, good luck to you."
"To us all." The glasses clinked.
Sherman wondered if he had gone crazy, when Colonel Flagg surreptitiously stepped into his office the following afternoon. Sherman noticed that he wasn't announced. He'd probably slipped past Klinger in keeping with his current conceit of being "the wind." Of course, that wouldn't be too difficult, as Klinger was currently out delivering the mail. At least Flagg wasn't disguised as an usher this time.
Flagg whipped off his dark glasses and leaned against the wall. "Sherman T. Potter," he said, gazing toward the ceiling.
"That's what the name plate says. Pull up a chair if you'd like, Colonel."
Still gazing at the ceiling, Flagg began to pace. The man's affectations were enough to drive any sane person mad. Thank goodness Sidney was on the premises -- not that Sherman would tell Flagg that. "The wind" still thought that half the people on base were Commie sympathizers, with Sidney no doubt the Red's main cheerleader.
Flagg whirled to face Sherman. "I want to clarify the mission parameters."
"Of course, Colonel." Sherman remained pointedly factual, hoping to lessen the chance that something inflammatory would come out of his mouth. "What do you need?"
Flagg's eyebrows knotted as if he was in deep concentration. "Something to loosen the lips of those Commie Reds. Something they want."
Sherman lifted a piece of paper from his desk. "How about this?"
Flagg studied it without moving. Apparently convinced it wasn't booby-trapped, he snatched it from Sherman's fingers. Sherman suppressed a sigh.
Flagg stalked back and forth, reading it. "I see, just what I expected from you. Medical supplies. Penicillin. Streptomycin. Tetracycline."
"I know what it says, Colonel," Sherman interrupted. "That is my handwriting."
"Sulfa. Morphine. Bandages." Flagg focused his narrow eyes on Sherman. "You've got enough on this list to treat every Red up to the Yalu River and back down to Peking."
"General Embry authorized it, Colonel. Take a gander at page two."
Flagg flipped to the second page and immediately flipped back. "And what makes you think this Pierce character hasn't decided to join his pinko friends on his own initiative, assuming he survived?"
"We've been through that before, Flagg. I would think that the word of the mayor of Ouijongbu and his chief of police, not to mention that of General Embry, should be sufficient to corroborate Pierce's character."
"All right." Flagg stuck the list in his pocket. "You've given me enough to bait my hook. Now it's up to me to reel them in."
"We need to find out if Pierce is alive. If you can find out where, so much the better."
"Alive or dead, I'll get it out of those Reds. That's my job. Count on me, Colonel."
"I'm doing that." For better or worse, he mentally added.
"The wind" blew himself back out the door. Sherman pressed his hands against his desk and took a restoring breath. He wasn't at all sure he'd done the right thing. Flagg was more than half crazy, and therefore dangerous. But he worked fast and he was tenacious. If Pierce was alive, perhaps Colonel Flagg was the man who could find out.
There was a rap on the door, then Sidney poked his head in. "Is the coast clear?"
"The intellectual wreck has once again blown out to sea. Come in, Sidney."
Sidney pulled up a chair. "So, did Flagg accept the assignment?"
"I don't know whether to be glad about that or worried."
"Neither do I. Let's have a drink."
"We had one at lunch. If I have another one now, I'll be too bombed to talk to anyone this afternoon."
"Then talk to them this evening. But don't tell anyone about my little experiment with Flagg. I don't want to get anyone's hopes up -- or have to deal with their outrage, either."
"My lips are sealed."
"I've got something to crack them open with." Sherman got out the one remaining bottle he had left after yesterday's trials. He chuckled a little as he poured.
Sidney gave his quirky half smile. "What's so funny?"
"I was just remembering this spat Pierce had once with Colonel Bloodworth about his casualty predictions. Pierce called him the Grim Reaper and pushed him into a wall."
"Pierce did that?"
"You betcha. Bloodworth was going to press charges, too. You know what changed his mind?" Sherman grinned. "Me. I told him in no uncertain terms that any surgeon who knew his business out here was worth his weight in gold. I guess all that strutting down Memory Lane I did yesterday morning was what put the incident in mind."
Sidney accepted the drink. "Is there a point to this, Sherman?"
Sherman chuckled again. "You know those supplies I offered to Colonel Flagg? On the black market, I figure they ought to be worth about Pierce's weight in gold. Fitting, don't you think?"
There was a tap at the door. Sherman beckoned the silhouette outside to come in. Father Mulcahy pushed the door wide, halting on the threshold. He appeared slightly dazed, his eyes overly large in his pale face.
Sherman was on his feet in an instant. "Is something wrong, Padre?"
"Oh, no." Mulcahy fidgeted with something in his hands. An envelope. "It's just that I received this letter in the afternoon mail ..."
BJ had nearly reached his limit. After that grisly session with Stockhelm yesterday, the last thing in the world he wanted was another meeting. BJ had had nightmares enough from the first one. Every time he'd closed his eyes the night before, he could hear the echo of Stockhelm's voice saying "pieces." BJ's mind couldn't refrain from manufacturing horrendous images to go along with that word. All day long he'd walked around with a rock in his chest and a lump in his throat. He wanted nothing more than to have the words erased from his memory. But that wasn't an option. He had to live with what he'd heard, somehow.
And now Colonel Potter wanted everyone to assemble in the Swamp at nineteen hundred. Oh, well, it had to be better than staring at his cloth walls, the tent flaps being down for the winter. Or worse, staring at the dog tags that now dangled from the topmost coil of the still. When this thing was finally over, they might be the only identifiable objects to return from that disastrous battalion aid mission.
Langley was on duty in post-op, but Charles and Tuck were there. Margaret rapped on the door and let herself in. Her stricken eyes were underlined with bluish half circles that made them look bruised, especially when contrasted with her abnormally pale skin. BJ wondered if he looked that bad. But who cared, anyway? Hawkeye was missing, probably dead. A little thing like walking around in shock was minor compared to that.
Margaret crossed to BJ's bunk and took the wooden chair next to him. "Do you know what this is about?" she asked softly as she settled herself.
BJ shook his head. "No idea."
Potter entered next, flanked by Klinger and Sidney. The psychiatrist greeted Winchester, who was seated at his desk. The major waved at his bunk, where Sidney took a seat. Klinger crossed to Langley's cot. Seating himself on the edge of it, he whispered to Margaret, "Hey, Major. Do you know the poop on this?"
Father Mulcahy entered last. He was carrying a cardboard box that he placed on Charles's foot locker near the door. He then clasped his hands and looked at Potter expectantly.
Colonel Potter had remained standing near the central stove. When everyone was settled, he began.
"We've spent a lot of time these last few days wondering and thinking about our lost friend and colleague, Captain Pierce. This afternoon Father Mulcahy received a letter showing that Hawkeye was thinking about us, as well."
An electric jolt shot through BJ's chest. Before he could speak, Potter continued.
"The letter is from Captain Rackley, the battalion aid surgeon who worked with Hawkeye during those final hours before the evac. Two days ago Captain Rackley, who was injured in the attack, shipped out to the 121st. He posted this letter to us just before he left the 8063rd. I thought it would be fitting if we could all hear his words together, here in the Swamp that was Hawkeye's home for so long." He walked over and seated himself in the free chair between Tuck's bunk and the still.
BJ's heart was pounding. He cast a glance at Margaret. She had gone white, and clutched the edge of her chair. BJ reached over to hold her hand. She started at his touch, then peeled loose one hand to give it to him. Her fingers were like ice.
Father Mulcahy stepped forward. He held what looked like a couple of forms in his hands. They were dirt-smudged and wrinkled, and showed creases from where they'd once been folded into thirds.
Mulcahy cleared his throat. "I'd like to begin," he said in his soft voice, "by reading you some words that Hawkeye wrote himself."
BJ swallowed in a dry throat. Margaret was squeezing his hand hard enough to cut off circulation.
Mulcahy peered at his audience through his spectacles. "It's a will that he jotted down earlier that last evening. Now, this document has no force of law. Hawkeye has been declared missing, not deceased. However, after discussing the situation with Colonel Potter and Dr. Freedman, I elected to share its contents with you in the hopes that it might give you some present comfort."
Margaret had begun to shake. BJ shifted to put an arm around her shoulders. As soon as he released her hand, she slid out of the chair and huddled on the edge of the cot next to him. BJ put an arm around her while she nestled up to him, trembling.
Mulcahy began to read. "I, Benjamin Franklin Pierce, being of sound mind and endangered body, hereby decree this to be my Last Will and Testament."
BJ winced a smile at the phrase "endangered body." He could almost hear Hawkeye's voice talking through the lines.
Mulcahy continued, "I bequeath to my father all my worldly possessions, with the exception of the following. To Charles Emerson Winchester III --"
From his seat at the desk, Charles lifted his head, his attention fixed.
"During the dark days of war made himself available. You've been a victim of a ceaseless stream of dumb jokes. Though we may have wounded your pride, you've never lost your dignity. I therefore bequeath to you the most dignified thing I own: my bathrobe. Purple is the color of royalty."
At this point Mulcahy set the letter aside, and opened the closed flaps of the box. He lifted out a bulky garment that BJ instantly recognized. Mulcahy must have made a trip to the supply room earlier that evening. Mulcahy draped Hawkeye's robe over Charles's outstretched hands. Charles blinked rapidly.
Mulcahy straightened and lifted up the letter. He began again, his voice not entirely steady. "To Father Francis Mulcahy, I leave five cents." Mulcahy reached into his pocket and held up a nickel."You're a man of God," he read, "and I know worldly possessions mean little to you, Father. So I leave you a nickel, along with something I value more highly than anything I own: my everlasting respect. To Margaret Houlihan --"
Within the circle of BJ's arms, he felt Margaret tense.
"To you, Margaret, I leave my treasured Groucho nose and glasses. Maybe it'll remind you of how much I enjoyed that silly side that you show all too infrequently." Mulcahy reached into the box, and emerged holding the fuzzy toy. He placed it gently on Margaret's palm. She closed both her hands over it, then folded it to her chest and bent her head.
"To Sherman Potter," Mulcahy read. "You not only knew what to say, but what not to say. My Dad's a lot like that. It makes me miss him a little less knowing that you're around. My father called me Hawkeye after the character in The Last of the Mohicans. It's his favorite book. I'd like you to have the copy he gave me."
Mulcahy retrieved the battered paperback from the box and delivered it to his CO. Potter cleared his throat mightily, and set it on his lap.
"To Maxwell Q. Klinger," he continued. "You may be one of the all-time scroungers, but when it comes right down to it you'll give a friend the shirt off your back. So the least I can do is give you the shirt off mine. And not just any old shirt, but my beloved Hawaiian shirt. I hope you'll wear it even if someday it does go out of style."
Mulcahy lifted out the stained but freshly cleaned garment and bore it to Klinger. The clerk accepted it with his left hand, blowing his nose lustily into a handkerchief with his right.
Mulcahy straightened. "The will ends there."
BJ jumped. He'd been waiting almost patiently, certain he was going to hear a parting word from his friend after all. From the startled looks on the tear-stained faces around the room, everyone else had expected the same.
Mulcahy flipped back to the first page. "You can see a line here, partly erased, that begins, `To BJ Hunnicutt, my best friend.' There's a small space, then he continues with the message to Major Winchester. But I think Captain Rackley can help fill the gap."
Mulcahy handed Hawkeye's will to Potter, then rummaged in his jacket pocket. Potter leaned around the flower-bedecked still and handed the pages to BJ. The sight of Hawkeye's familiar scrawl struck him with an almost physical pain. There was the line with his name in it, partly erased. Did Hawkeye blame him, after all? BJ stared at the battered page. From the angle of her head, he knew Margaret was reading it as well. Perhaps she was as hungry for some tangible sign from Hawkeye as BJ could be.
Mulcahy pulled an envelope from his pocket. "I'll read it to you just as Captain Rackley wrote it. In case you might be puzzled by the reference, I'll explain that Hawkeye was playing chess when Colonel Potter gave him the order to help out our friends at the front."
The priest removed a letter and unfolded it. Margaret put her arms around BJ. He patted her shoulder, chewing his lip.
Mulcahy began to read.
"Dear Father Mulcahy,
I'm sending this document on to you in the hopes that you'll know what to do with it. My name is Bob Rackley. I was the surviving surgeon on duty when Captain Pierce arrived for temporary duty at the forward aid station. We had some shelling during the early part of the shift. During lulls and between wounded, Dr. Pierce worked on the enclosed document. I didn't know for sure, but I thought it might be his will. When you work this close to the front, it's easy to think that you might not be around too long, especially when guys are falling all around you. I lost my partner a couple of days ago, but I guess you all know that.
When the enemy advance started, we had a sudden influx of wounded. Then the word came to bug out. I was helping my corpsman load a stretcher onto the bus when a sudden barrage knocked me down. I got shrapnel all down my right side, which put my hand out of commission. Captain Pierce put me on the bus with all the wounded we could fit. Shells were falling everywhere and the lieutenant was screaming at us to move. Just before the doors closed, Pierce stuck that letter in my pocket.
"In case I don't make it out," he yelled over the racket. "And listen. Tell BJ he'd better get home to that family of his, or I'll have interrupted my chess game for nothing!"
That's all. The doors closed and we drove away. It wasn't until the next day when I woke up after surgery that I learned that Captain Pierce and all the guys with him were missing. I'm sincerely sorry. He was a good doctor and seemed like a good friend. I wish I could say more.
Anyway, when I felt a little better, I asked for my things. When I found his will among them, I knew I had to send it on to you. I hope his best friend realizes he wasn't slighted. Pierce was fussing over this thing all night, but in the end there just wasn't time. Sometimes we don't get a chance to say what we mean to. That's why I had to write you. I hope "BJ" understands.
I'm about ready to ship out. Let me pass along my heartfelt sympathy for all of you there at the 4077th. I'm pulling for all of you, and for Capt. Pierce, too, wherever he may be.
With sincerest regards,
Mulcahy's voice stopped. BJ sat with his eyes closed, his cheek resting against the top of Margaret's head. Her arms held him snugly. BJ heard sniffles around the room.
"I'd like to conclude," Mulcahy continued, "with this quote from the Bible. `Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' I can think of no better example of that greater love than the words that appear in this letter. Let us bow our heads for a moment of silence as we wish Hawkeye well -- in Captain Rackley's words, wherever he may be."
The moment stretched long. Margaret squeezed BJ's ribs so hard he could scarcely draw breath. He himself was numb, limp. How could it keep hurting so much? Surely there must be some end to it, but BJ couldn't imagine how the ache inside him would ever fade.
Mulcahy said, "Amen."
BJ lifted his head, exchanged subdued looks with others around the room.
Charles moved first. He slid back his chair and rose, Hawkeye's bathrobe dangling from his hand. He carried it to the still. Silently he shifted some flowers and mementos, then shook out the robe. Carefully he draped it over the still, arranging it so the pocket stitched with "MD USA" was prominently visible. Blinking his reddened eyes, he proceeded back to his chair.
Mulcahy also approached the still. He fished out the nickel that he had returned to his pocket. Reverently he placed it on the table, below Hawkeye's dog tags.
BJ heard the jingle of change. Potter sorted through the coins he'd just removed from his pocket. He selected a nickel, then leaned forward and placed it next to Mulcahy's.
Suddenly everyone in the room was doing the same. Tuck laid down a nickel, and Charles. Sidney handed an extra one to Klinger, who couldn't find one of his own, before placing his on the table. Margaret handed one to BJ. He took it dully between his fingers. It was warm from being in her pocket. He leaned forward and they set down their nickels together.
Potter blew his nose. "Well," he said in a ragged voice. "This volume is going to look real swell next to my Zane Grey collection." He looked around the room. "Is it just me, or does anyone else need a belt?"
Tuck spoke up timidly. "BJ?" BJ looked at the younger surgeon. "Do you remember that last batch of gin, the one you put away?"
BJ glanced at his foot locker. He'd completely forgotten about the two bottles he'd stowed there.
"Well," Tuck went on hesitantly, "this might be a bad suggestion, but I wondered if you might want to open one of those bottles now. Sort of as a toast to Hawkeye."
BJ half expected a storm of protests, at least from Charles and Margaret, but they sat quietly. He looked at Potter, who shrugged. "It's a fitting tribute," he said.
BJ shook his head. "The stuff is vile."
"But that is life," said Mulcahy. "The sweet with the bitter. The laughter and the remorse."
BJ made no further resistance. He spun the dial for his combination lock, while Charles fished out an eclectic assortment of glasses. BJ dug out one of the bottles and uncapped it. Instantly the familiar tang of the world's most gut-eating beverage assaulted his nostrils. He filled people's glasses as they held them out, everything from shot glasses to water glasses to martini glasses. He paused when he saw the brandy snifter, and looked up, startled. Charles held out his favorite glass patiently.
"Are you sure?" BJ asked. "Didn't you always say that this stuff would bruise the crystal?"
"Sometimes in life," Charles said, "one gets bruised."
BJ poured him a shot.
When everyone's glasses were filled, Potter rose. He held his glass high, an action mirrored around the room.
"There are times for speeches," said Potter, "and a time to reflect. No more speeches tonight. To our dear friend, Hawkeye Pierce."
"To Hawkeye," echoed voices around the room.
BJ drained his glass.