Hawkeye's letter stirred such a variety of emotions that BJ thought he would burst. Relief, first and foremost, that his friend was alive -- or had been alive a mere two and a half weeks ago, if BJ counted on his fingers right. He felt compassion for Hawkeye's plight, and horror at the things he'd experienced. But through it all rose an overwhelming feeling of anger. Such a deep, complete rage that BJ was glad there wasn't anyone in the room he wanted to kill, because he probably would have done so, and then some.
BJ hadn't been able to read past the part where Hawkeye had told him that it wasn't his fault. The words stopped in his throat and he stared at the page, now an indistinguishable blur. Margaret had tried to pick up for him, as she had helped now and again to puzzle out a particularly illegible phrase, but she was in worse shape than BJ. She got through the next sentence and then she, too, faltered.
Potter came around the desk and gently pried the letter from BJ's hands. In a voice husky with emotion, he read haltingly through the final paragraphs. When Potter lowered the letter, the silence was deafening.
For a while no one spoke. Margaret's shoulders shook to soundless sobs. At length Winchester straightened. “Colonel, what must we do?”
Potter wiped his eyes with a handkerchief and replaced his glasses. “I need to show this letter to the war crimes division. Get someone looking into this pronto. I'll call General Embry -- just as soon as I'm able to speak properly. And we need to pass along this list of the other POWs as quickly as possible.”
Winchester indicated the slip of paper on Potter's desk. “Are you going to read that one as well?”
BJ looked up blearily. He'd forgotten about the slip of thin paper that had fallen out when he'd opened the envelope.
Potter picked it up and looked at it. “It's in Korean.” He unfolded the paper, and bobbed his eyebrows. “There's another letter to Hunnicutt inside.”
BJ vaulted from his chair and snatched it up. With disappointment he realized he didn't recognize the handwriting. The writing was small, written in blue ink with a fine pen. He skipped down to the signature, and got a little shock of surprise.
“It's from Dr. Paik.” BJ held up the letter and steadied his voice.
“Dear Dr. Hunnicutt,
Permit me to express my profound regret and deepest apologies for how Dr. Pierce has been treated since his detainment. When I compare his experience with my own considerate treatment at your hands, I am filled with grief and shame. Dr. Pierce's condition is very poor. He is about 13 kilos underweight and has been beaten numerous times. He arrived with several fractured ribs, a possible fracture of the left zygomatic arch (which I have not been allowed to x-ray to confirm), and lacerations on his wrists from being chained. He also received a minor head injury as a result of a fall. These wounds are now healing, as are his many contusions. He has a low-grade fever which may be due to his injuries or to the damp cell in which they house him at night. I have been trying to get him moved to the hospital to avoid pulmonary complications. My superiors maintain that there is inadequate security here. Why this excessive need for security I do not know, but they keep Dr. Pierce guarded at all times. I have suggested restraints as a means to bring him inside. I do not like this solution, but I may have to act on it for his own safety. My superiors are considering it.
I have said that Dr. Pierce is always guarded, so we cannot speak freely. I have been directed to find out what medical procedures Dr. Pierce knows. This is easy for me. I simply ask Dr. Pierce to demonstrate some procedure that I know he knows. I hope that this will convince my superiors of his value and perhaps lead to better treatment. My colleagues ask him questions, also, but he has handled all inquiries admirably. Perhaps we are playing the game too well. I tried to make his illness an excuse for his release, but my superiors refused. I think they want him to show us as many new procedures as possible. Also, they may be reluctant to release him in this very poor condition. Unfortunately he is on a very inadequate diet, so his recovery is slow. I have tried to increase his rations, but for now must supplement his allotment from my own portion.
If you are wondering how I came to be here, it is quite simple. Two of my comrades who stole supplies from you recognized me as I left your camp in the company of the MPs. They followed me to the prison camp where, disguised as guards, they reported that a transport truck had overturned and the injured prisoners inside had requested a doctor from their own country, per the Geneva Convention. I was released into their custody and soon crossed the border, traveling through Kangwon-do province to Pyongyang. Later we moved south to Songnim to avoid the bombs. That is where we are now, a large brick structure in the center of town. Two weeks ago my superiors ordered me to interrogate a captured American doctor. They must have had some doubts as to his identity. They chose me to test him because I am a surgeon who speaks English. I did not know that it was Dr. Pierce until I saw him on the train. I have told my comrades only that I had seen him before and know of his reputation, but that I do not know him personally. I have not read his letter because I need to know nothing about it in case I am questioned. I have good trust in the people who will bring this letter to the International Red Cross at Changdan. Therefore I will sign my name.
With sincerest regards,
BJ lowered the letter.
“He sounds like a remarkable man, this Dr. Paik,” said Charles. “He's certainly going out of his way to help Pierce.”
“Pierce and Hunnicutt once went out of their way to help him,” Potter answered.
BJ felt weak inside. “I had no idea that our help would turn out to have such a personal impact on Hawkeye's survival.”
Charles snorted. “Sort of a reversal of that old cliché `no good deed goes unpunished.'”
“Amen to that,” said Father Mulcahy. “But I'm puzzled as to who exactly this Dr. Paik is and what his relationship is to Hawkeye.”
Potter answered. “Dr. Paik was slightly injured when our forces captured an enemy aid station, and was brought here for treatment. He had studied in Chicago, but was so impressed with our latest advances that he wanted to stay and learn more. As usual, Pierce and Hunnicutt tried to pull a fast one. They made up phony transfer papers assigning a Dr. Cho Hwan-ho to the 4077th.”
“Oh, I remember Dr. Cho!” Mulcahy cried. “Now I know who you mean. He was here about a week before they ... took him away.”
“Yes. It was Major Houlihan who saw through the scheme.” Potter fixed his eyes kindly on her. “You realize, Major, that if you hadn't blown the whistle on Dr. Paik, alias Cho, he wouldn't have been on hand to help Hawkeye now.”
Margaret's voice was thick from crying. “I was only doing my duty.”
“Well, you did a fine job that time, as always.” Potter turned. “Klinger, I want you to get on the horn. Try to locate Colonel Stockhelm. Tell him what we've got going on and try to get him up here. If you can locate General Embry, ring him through.”
Klinger stood. “Yes, sir.”
“And here.” He shuffled through Hawkeye's letter and removed a single page. “Take this list of POWs and start contacting the various units. Try to get the names of these fellows back to their respective lands of origin as quickly as possible.”
“Right away, sir.” Klinger took the page and left.
“I still don't understand,” said Mulcahy. “Hawkeye writes as if OMF -- Our Mutual Friend? -- is a different person from Dr. Paik, but Dr. Paik's letter indicates that he is the one who, at least primarily, is helping Hawkeye.”
BJ said, “I think Hawkeye didn't want to write anything that might get Paik into trouble. I think he invented OMF to get Paik off the hook in case his letter was intercepted.”
Potter nodded. “He'll be bunking with Pierce in the jail if they realize he's running uncensored letters across the border.”
“Of course,” said the priest. “And the thing for Sparky's wrist ..?”
“Paik's watch,” BJ answered. “That's the clincher that Syn Paik and OMF are one and the same.” BJ stood. “Colonel, I'd like to call Hawkeye's father and tell him the news. As to how much I tell him ...” His heart sank at the thought of it.
“It's a tough assignment, son,” said Potter. “Do you want me on hand?”
BJ couldn't imagine how he would relay some of the things in his friend's letter to Hawkeye's sole surviving parent. He nodded. “I'd appreciate it, Colonel.”
“Well, that can wait a bit, anyway,” said Potter. “Klinger's got the phone tied up just now, and it's the middle of the night back home. We can leave Pierce Senior in the dark for a few more minutes, assuming that he's probably asleep now anyway.”
BJ stared at the tattered letter in his hands. “Or not.”
“Whatever,” said Potter firmly. “Let's get the official channels rolling first, and get the word out on these other missing men. Their families and friends are going to be just as worried about them as we were about Pierce.”
“Were?” BJ shook the letter in Potter's face. “It sounds like he's in hell right now. That is, if he hasn't already starved or been beaten to death.”
Potter stopped him with his sincere, piercing stare. “I understand how you feel, Hunnicutt, but we have got to use official channels. It's not like we can just drive up to Songnim and get him. That's one hundred miles into enemy territory, at least.”
BJ clenched his fist. “But we know where he is!”
“Knowing where he is and getting him out are two completely different animals,” said Potter. “The only kind of rescue I've ever heard of this far behind the lines is a snatch pick-up. They use it for downed airmen, where the stranded man climbs into a harness and is hoisted into a helicopter. That won't work for Pierce unless Paik can somehow get him into an open field at some prearranged time.”
“Then let's ask him to do it!” BJ paced tightly in his anxiety. “We must be able to get a message back to him somehow.”
“I'll have Klinger try to trace the origin of the letter,” said Potter. “But you have to be aware that writing to Paik could well endanger his position or even his life. And although Paik has been very forthcoming so far, he might hesitate to stage an actual prison break.”
“But I'm sure he wants Hawkeye returned.”
“It certainly seems that way, but it's more likely that he's trying to get his name added to the list of prisoners to exchange as part of Operation Little Switch.”
“But that's already underway,” BJ pointed out. “Given the traditional pace of negotiations, I can't see the North Koreans suddenly adding names now.”
Potter placed his hand on BJ's arm. “Hunnicutt, there are folks who are experts in this sort of thing. Let's apprise them of the situation and let them generate a plan of action. They won't just do nothing, I promise you.”
BJ turned away, too frustrated to speak.
“Colonel,” Mulcahy ventured, “where exactly is Songnim?”
For the next few minutes the group used Potter's wall map to trace Hawkeye's rail journey through the mountains and up the Taedong river toward Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
“There's a major airfield about ten miles south of Pyongyang,” said Potter. “That's a favorite target for our B-26s and is heavily defended. Still, that's fairly close to Songnim. We should have good reconnaissance information for that area. Maybe our folks could identify a possible pick-up site.” He pondered. “I don't know the practicalities of carrying out such a mission. None of the horses I ever rode had wings.”
During the map-reading interval, Margaret had collected herself somewhat. She now spoke up. “Colonel, why do you suppose they moved Hawkeye to this special hospital?”
“I'm not sure. They do occasionally separate prisoners from each other, rather than keeping them in a camp. Remember, North Korea never signed the Geneva Convention.”
“As if that isn't appallingly obvious!” Charles sputtered. “These people are so far from the Geneva Convention that they'd probably explode upon contact with Swiss cheese!”
“That's not what I meant,” Margaret said. “It was strange how that one officer took him off the front lines so suddenly.”
Potter said slowly, “They may have been trying to get him out of harm's way.”
“Ah, of course!” Charles rolled his eyes. “Anyone can see that keeping Pierce safe from bodily harm was certainly their top priority.”
“You're not following me, sir,” Margaret persisted. “So many things in Hawkeye's account don't add up. The sudden appearance of this officer, then Hawkeye's removal from the train instead of going with the rest of the prisoners to the camp. And Dr. Paik's comment about the excessive security. There's something strange going on, Colonel.”
Potter fell silent. Thoughtfully he perched on the edge of his desk. To BJ's surprise, the old soldier looked guilty. He began heavily, “I wasn't going to tell you this.”
There was no surer way of arresting everyone's attention than the preceding sentence. BJ listened anxiously.
“I set something up a while back,” Potter continued, “when it looked as if Colonel Stockhelm wouldn't be able to help us. I wanted some surer way of finding out if Pierce had been captured than waiting for his name to come out in Pravda one of these months.”
BJ was mystified. “What did you do?”
Potter stared at the floor. “I called in Lieutenant Colonel Flagg.”
“Flagg?” Charles swelled with indignation. “That imbecile? Colonel, for heaven's sake, why?”
“That moron thinks everyone's a Communist,” BJ seconded, “including Hawkeye.”
Potter raised a hand against the storm of objections. “I admit that the man is several cups short of a tea set, but the fact is he's one of the few people I know who has connections with the other side. I asked Flagg to sniff around and see if he couldn't find out if and where Pierce was being held. It looks as if some of his questions might have filtered up to the right ears. I can't help but notice that this North Korean officer showed up only two days after I turned Flagg loose. The incidents could be related.”
“Let me understand,” said Charles. “Did you offer the North Koreans a deal?”
Potter nodded. “All the medical supplies Embry could spare, in exchange for Pierce.”
Charles exchanged a look with BJ. “Judging from what I've heard, the North Koreans should have jumped at the opportunity.”
“That's what I was hoping,” said Potter. “But it seems they only jumped half way. I feel as if I'm responsible for that appalling train ride. I won't be able to look Pierce in the face, assuming that I do get to see him again.”
“What you're responsible for,” said Charles strongly, “is getting Pierce off the front lines where he was a target for every North Korean conscript with a grudge -- not to mention an occasional target for our own artillery.”
Potter sighed. “Well, let's hope my interference did that much good, anyway. My heart is right down in my boots.”
Klinger pushed open the door. “Colonel, I have General Embry on the line.”
Potter stood. “Fine. Patch it through. Hunnicutt, can I borrow Pierce's letter for a few minutes? I'll return it as soon as possible.”
Numbly BJ nodded.
“And Klinger,” Potter continued, “see if you can dig up someone who can translate the first part of Paik's letter. It's probably just delivery instructions, but we may as well get all the information we can.”
BJ and the others shuffled out the door while the colonel picked up his phone. The door closed on Potter's courteous greeting. BJ stood in Klinger's office a moment, feeling lost. There was so much to be done, and he felt as if he wasn't able to do any of it. Whereas he wanted to rush off to Hawkeye's rescue, he was obligated to wait for the United States Marines, or the Air Force, or whoever Embry decided was best equipped for the job. Whoever it was, it wouldn't be a doctor named BJ Hunnicutt. BJ ground his teeth.
“Hunnicutt,” said Charles at his shoulder, “what do you say to opening the Officer's Club a tad early this evening? I could certainly use a restorative beverage of some kind.”
“Hear, hear,” said Father Mulcahy. “We could all benefit from a round of sustenance after such an emotionally exhausting afternoon. And our colleagues will want to hear the news as well. Hawkeye is alive! That statement alone will work wonders on revivifying this camp.”
BJ felt his heart sink, in Potter's words, down to this boots. “And what will they think when they learn the rest?”
“You must use your own judgment about what to relay, of course,” said the priest. “But there is hope again. In spite of all that we've heard to dismay us, my heart has been freed of a heavy burden. We must have faith that Hawkeye will be delivered from his present circumstances and returned to us safely.”
BJ relented. “I'll drink to that.” He noticed Margaret looking hesitant. “Margaret?”
She looked startled, then took a step back. “You go ahead. I'd rather be alone just now.”
“No.” BJ took her arm firmly. “We're going to get through this together.”
“Of course we are,” said Charles.
“Indeed,” said Mulcahy. “All of us.”
BJ turned toward Klinger, who had gone back to sorting the mail now that Potter was using the phone. He placed a hand on the busy clerk's shoulder, gaining his attention. “If any letter was ever more appreciated ...” he began.
Klinger's eyes grew moist. “Now at least I know what I've been looking for all these weeks. Don't worry, Captain. I'll keep my eyes peeled for any more big square letters from North Korea.”
BJ smiled. “Thanks.” Taking Margaret's arm, he escorted her out the door.
Charles's drinking session went long, with everyone in camp crowding into the O Club for news and updates, provided periodically by Klinger as Potter persistently bulled his way through the brass. The crowd grew even more animated when they learned that the Green Dragon outfit was receptive toward carrying out a rescue mission, provided that they could get support from someone on the ground. BJ immediately started drafting a reply to Paik, just in case the mission went off. He kept Pierce's letter handy; he and Margaret must have read it six times between them. BJ wasn't sharing it with anyone else, but just the sight of that blotchy paper was enough to kindle the compassion and ire of Pierce's many friends.
By twenty-one thirty hours Charles had had enough. Extricating himself from the mob, he made a mandatory visit to the latrine, then headed toward the Swamp. The buzz of voices from the bar followed him across the darkened compound. Charles tucked his chin into his scarf and his hands into his pockets. Technically Spring had sprung, but it didn't feel like it yet. He walked quickly through the nippy air, then pushed open the door to the Swamp.
It was dark inside. Tuck and Langley had joined the others in the club. Charles switched on the central light, then snapped on the smaller lamp over his bed. He lit a fire in the stove, then shed his coat and scarf. He looked around at his familiar things, the only reliable sources of comfort in this godforsaken wasteland: his bathrobe and slippers, the red velvet cushion, the tea service, his record player with its attendant stack of civilized sound, awaiting his hand to be called into existence.
The ritual, Pierce had called it. Thoughtfully Charles dressed for the evening. Though the other half of the room was dark, he could almost imagine Pierce sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching him. Which Pierce had never done. To the best of Charles's knowledge, he and Pierce had ignored each other to the extent that they were able. Only tonight he felt eyes upon him, almost as if Pierce was somehow watching him from that dismal tomb in which they had imprisoned him. Heartbreaking. Charles gave an involuntary shudder.
Automatically he reached for the tea pot, then stopped. Pierce wouldn't have tea in prison. True, he'd never sought it out when it was available, preferring that vile concoction of his own making. But there was something wrong about preparing his evening tea the same as usual, when Pierce was barely surviving on a bowl of rice gruel per day.
Dressed now in his robe and slippers, Charles automatically began to leaf through his albums. Shostakovich, Mahler, Bach, Haydn, Mozart. Old friends. All of the pieces instantly leaped to mind the moment he turned up their titles. This must be how Pierce heard them. Charles paused at Kindertotenleider. He closed his eyes. Softly the piece began to play. It started with the opening lament of the oboe and bassoon, their compelling voices weaving about one another. Yes, it was possible to hear the music without hearing it. Come to think of it, Beethoven was probably past master at this technique.
When Charles opened his eyes, he found the light jarring, soft as it was. Releasing the album, he snapped off his bedside lamp, then the central light. Darkness descended on the Swamp, but only for a moment. The firelight assumed prominence, filling the place with a flickering glow. Too bright. Charles opened the door and beat out the fire he'd just lit. He shut the grill with a squeak. The Swamp was now dark.
Charles stood a moment, letting his eyes readjust. In the newly created night, he could see the embers in the stove throwing off a reddish gleam. Light seeped through the seams of the canvas walls, enough for Charles to make his way across the room to his desk. A glimmer on the wood revealed the central cubbyhole. Charles felt inside, removing the paper and pen that he knew were ready to hand there. Charles set the paper out on his desk. He stared intently, but couldn't see it. Had he made things too dark?
Charles looked around. No, he could make out the edge of his cot, the outline of the stovepipe, and the boxy shapes of the shelves lining the walls. True, they were only darker areas in the blackness, but it should be sufficient light. Or at least, equivalent to the illumination of a stone cell that had only a slit under the door and a tiny metal grill to let in moonlight. Charles turned back to his desk. He found the edges of the paper with his fingers. There. The stationery didn't look like pale smoke. It was more like a half-guessed rectangle in the gloom. Still, that was enough to begin.
Taking pen in hand, he wrote an experimental greeting: Dear Mother. If he concentrated, he could almost see it. He tried a second line: The weather is much improved, but it's still far from balmy. As long as he used his hands to keep track of the edges of the paper, he could guess where the darker spider track of his writing crossed the page. It was an intense exercise. Charles shook his head. Pierce must have eyes like a cat.
A burst of muted chatter permeated the tent's cloth walls. Charles paused, but no footsteps approached the Swamp. Carefully he placed the paper and pen back in the cubbyhole, then drew back his chair. He seated himself cross-legged on the floor between the desk and his cot. A chill draft quickly made him a target. Well, that was certainly appropriate for this simulation. Leaning against the edge of the desk, Charles closed his eyes. Softly the strains of Kindertotenleider began to play in his mind. Charles sighed, and let the piece commence.
Margaret slumped over the tiny table across from BJ, her chin propped against her palm to hold up her head. She had almost drifted off when BJ's voice startled her out of her stupor.
“Okay, here i' is.” His voice was slurred from numerous drinks. Fortunately everyone else was so drunk at this point, or so deep in their own discussions, that no one was paying them any more attention.
“Go,” Margaret mumbled.
BJ held up his much-worked letter, squinting to focus on the parts between the cross-outs. “Dear Dr. Paik, thank you so much for taking care of our dear friend Hawkeye...”
Our dear friend Hawkeye. Margaret glanced at the letter that she'd begun to her “dear friend Hawkeye.” It was written on a cocktail napkin that was currently soaking up the various dribbles of scotch and beer that spattered the table. The blue ink had bled into the paper from each of these minor wells.
“Dear Hawkeye,” her letter ran. After that several sentences were crossed out. “We all miss you.” That was rank. “I'm so sorry to hear --“ That was pathetic. There was nothing to say that wouldn't be absolutely insultingly ridiculous. And there was no way she could say anything meaningful anyway, since the enemy might intercept the letter and BJ had told her that they must be very careful about what they write.
Oh yeah, BJ. He was still droning on. Margaret refocused her attention.
“...difficult,” BJ was saying, “but I hope not impossible. If you would agree, at the next full moon, to take our friend for a walk ...”
Full moon, hah. That was assuming they could even attempt a rescue at night. Unless Paik put out signal lights, how would the pilot even find them? They might be better off by day -- but then they'd have to get past the interpreter and the guard. Guards. No, BJ was right. A night rescue was their only option. Did Paik have keys to the jail? Because if he didn't, they could just forget the whole thing.
She looked down at her letter. A spot of moisture had hit the end of Hawkeye's name, so the final “e” had become a blurred semi-circle, like a black eye on the paper. Margaret covered her eyes.
“Well?” BJ asked her.
She jumped. “What?”
He blinked at her. “Do you think it will work?”
“Oh, yeah. I's great.”
Was BJ swaying as he sat, or was her vision skewed? Margaret pushed herself to her feet. “I have to go.”
BJ looked concerned -- at least, the watery outline of him looked concerned. “Can you find your way in the dark?”
“Oh, sure!” Margaret waved him off, nearly upsetting her balance. She slammed her palm against the table to regain it.
BJ looked unconvinced. “All right. Be careful.”
Margaret gave him a thumb's up and patted his shoulder, then left her hand there to brace herself as she maneuvered past him toward the door. The anonymous clamor of the O Club throbbed in her ears as she wobbled by, past her worried, gossiping nurses, past the knots of men who were plotting rescues and revenge. She held up a hand to ward off the door jamb, and stumbled into the night.
The brisk air struck her face. Cold. Shit. She fumbled for the zipper to her jacket, but there was no way in hell she was going to get that sucker zipped. She stuck her hands in her pockets and hunched over to partly shield herself from the wind. The cold ate an uncomfortable line down the center of her belly. How would it be in a train, with the air whining past her hour after hour? These uniforms, even when zipped, weren't all that warm. Without any gloves, her hands would freeze. How much warmer could it be, huddled in a group of people equally cold. How would it be?
She staggered toward her tent, wanting only to lie down. Lie down and forget all those things Hawkeye had said. Forget the brutality and the horror. Forget the hopelessness. Forget that all his fantasies about her didn't involve him. Forget about how much that bothered her, although she couldn't have said why.
Uh oh, emergency. She teetered past her door to the row of bushes behind her tent and fell to her knees. A bitter rendition of her past few drinks came up to spatter the ground there. With a fumbling hand, Margaret plucked a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped her nose and mouth. Lovely, she jeered at herself. You're such a fine example for your nurses.
She backed away from her vile contribution to the flora and sat shivering against the side wall of her tent. The world was spinning in nauseating circles. She wanted to be sick again, but didn't think she had anything left to bring up. None of them had eaten dinner -- not Charles, not BJ, not even Colonel Potter. Maybe Father Mulcahy did. He always handled crises better than other people. But he was a priest and Margaret was only a nurse whose life hadn't turned out the way she'd once thought it would. Where were the kids? Where was the love? Was that so much to ask, one lousy man who wasn't a total dirtball or screw-up or weakling?
Hawkeye's face floated before her. No, she didn't want to think about him. It was horrible to think about him. There was nothing to do about it except to know that he was in this horrible place far from help. She imagined his eyes fixed on her. They were very blue and had a pleading look. He was watching her hair in the sunshine, the way he'd written about it in his letter. Margaret must have read that paragraph ten times. A painful brilliance, he'd said. An aureole of gold. Golden. Brilliant. Yup, that's me. Margaret Houlihan, brilliant glow.
A footstep startled her out of her mental meandering. A voice floated through the revolving void. “Did you take a wrong turn?”
BJ. How could he still be standing? How the hell had he found her?
Margaret stirred. “I feel sick,” she slurred. Then she shivered.
“I know. Come on.” BJ knelt and gathered her up. Instead of helping her to rise, he got to his feet, cradling her in his arms like a child. How the hell could he do that without falling over?
Margaret put her arms around his neck as he headed for her door. It was nice to feel his masculine strength, to breathe in the delicious scent of a man. Too long. Too long without men. If only the wind wasn't so damn cold. “I don't feel well.”
“I figured that.” BJ plucked the door open, then jammed it with his foot and kicked it wider. He carried Margaret inside, shuffling carefully in the dark. He bent forward, and Margaret felt a blanket at her back. Reluctantly she let go of BJ's neck and collapsed onto her cot. It whirled in sickening circles.
BJ snapped on the bedside lamp. Margaret put up a hand to block the light. “I'm gonna be sick.”
“I have a trashcan ready.”
The world kept spinning. She was sure that it had faded out for a minute, but the next minute it was back again. It had BJ in it. He was sitting in a chair near her bed watching her. How long had he been here, a few seconds or an hour? How would she know?
BJ's words reverberated in her tortured world. “You'd better get some sleep.”
But Margaret had temporarily crossed over into consciousness again. Or semi-consciousness. Whatever this weird dream state was, where every time she closed her eyes, there was Hawkeye, watching her with that same helpless expression that was on BJ's face when he'd first read Hawkeye's letter.
She said sluggishly, “Do you think he meant all those things he wrote?”
“I never told him anything important.”
“Yeah, he did. I didn't even wan' him to understand an' he understood.”
She heard the warmth in BJ's voice. “He's like that.”
Margaret felt the tears start. She laid the back of her hand across her eyes to shield them. “He wrote such nice things about me. I never said anything nice to him ever.”
“I'm sure you did.”
Margaret sniffled. “Well, maybe. Once or twice.”
“Don't worry about it,” said BJ. “I'm sure Hawkeye knows how you feel about him.”
“Does he?” Margaret swallowed her tears. “Then he knows more than I do.”
The sickening spinning intruded again. Through it Margaret mumbled, “Why'd he have to get caught, anyway?”
“It's better than the alternative.”
“Yes.” Margaret turned her face to the wall. “Better than the alternative.”
The world was fading again. A final phrase slipped through. “Sleep, Margaret.”
April 19, Sunday morning
I'll try to make this letter coherent, but I'm still in a state of shock. After five weeks and three days, we finally got word from Hawkeye. He's alive and is a prisoner of the North Koreans. They're holding him (or were two weeks ago) in a jail near a teaching hospital in a town called Songnim, not too far south of the North Korean capital. A doctor friend of ours smuggled a letter from him across the border. Colonel Potter is pursuing a couple of different plans to try to get him out. We're all anxious for this to happen quickly, as the conditions there sound pretty appalling. To give you an example, they transported Hawk and some other POWs north by rail like animals -- sheep in this case, literally lambs to the slaughter. They traveled for two days and nights in a locked box car with no food or water. He's hardly eaten since his capture and says he's lost twenty pounds, although the doctor who wrote us thought it was more. I can't imagine Hawkeye even twenty pounds lighter. The first thing that strikes you when you meet Hawkeye is not his urgent need to lose weight.
The only good news in the letter (apart from his being alive, which is a tremendous relief) is that one of the doctors at the hospital knows him. It turns out that this doctor, whom Hawkeye calls “Our Mutual Friend” (OMF to protect his identity), escaped from one of our prison camps after we'd treated him here at the 4077th. He had been captured the same way Hawkeye was -- working in a forward aid station that was taken during an enemy attack. The major difference between their experiences (apart from OMF's treatment here at the 4077th) is that the South Koreans aren't too rigorous about guarding their prisoners. It turns out that most of the Communist POWs want to stay here anyway -- well over fifty percent. I've heard figures as high as ninety. But the North wants them back, so their fate has become a major bargaining chip at the peace talks.
Still, it was fairly easy for Paik (his real name) to slip away with some outside help. But Hawkeye is carefully guarded. Paik mentioned in his note (he included his own letter along with Hawkeye's) that the security for Hawkeye is unusually tight. We're hoping that this is a sign that they'd be willing to trade him for medical supplies. This was a scheme that, unknown to us, Colonel Potter had set in motion shortly after Stockhelm's briefing. Do you remember Colonel Flagg, from Intelligence? Well, Potter recruited him to get the word out to the North that we were willing to trade medical supplies for Hawkeye's release. This should have been a tempting offer. Hawkeye's own letter confirms their desperate need for supplies. I don't know why they're still holding onto him. Paik thought that perhaps they wanted to assure themselves of his identity, which could be the case, since his dog tags were taken from him during the attack. Paik also suggested that they might be waiting for his physical condition to improve. I hope not. We can improve his condition here far better than they can up there.
Thank God Potter isn't waiting for the North Koreans to act. He's been working on another plan to have a rescue team get Hawkeye out in a raid. It's a tricky mission because we'll need someone local to get Hawkeye to the rendezvous point, assuming that we can even make contact with them. Paik is the obvious choice, but we don't know if he could pull off a jail break, even assuming that he's willing. Failing that, we can hope that Hawkeye will be added to the prisoners being exchanged in Operation Little Switch. Potter thinks this is what Paik is trying to do. I don't think it's very likely that the North Koreans will return him that way. So far they haven't even officially acknowledged that they have him yet. We're getting word to them through Intelligence that we have proof. Maybe that will speed up his return.
Learning that Hawkeye's alive has really been a shot in the arm for us all. We're angry but we're energized. There's a firmness in everyone's step and a determined look on their faces. For the first few weeks after he disappeared there was a pall of mourning over the camp, almost exactly as if he had been killed -- which was pretty much what everyone thought, although we kept hoping for better. Then, when Klinger found his letter in yesterday's mail, morale picked up overnight. What am I saying? It was better within minutes, and even higher when we learned that the Green Dragon rescue unit was considering this mission. Everybody's talking about how we can get Hawkeye back. The still is overflowing with nickels. I think I mentioned the nickel that Father Mulcahy laid down during Hawkeye's (premature as it turned out, thank God) memorial service. Well, people have been adding nickels ever since. The still is packed to the brim with them, and the stand is overflowing. There are nickels lining all the shelves around Hawkeye's old bunk. Tuck just sweeps them to one side if they get in his way. He's very good natured about it. The windowsills at Rosie's Bar and the O Club are decorated with nickels, too. These nickels are often stolen, I guess by people who don't understand what they're for, but the patrons soon replenish them. Even the window ledges in OR are lined with nickels. It's as if everywhere you go around here, someone is giving a nickel in token of their thoughts about Hawkeye. Last night at the O Club we had nickels all over the floor when they kept getting knocked down from the juke box and the bar and the table tops.
Honey, I hope the next time you hear from me I'll have some really good news -- that Hawkeye is back with us. I keep staring at the map in Potter's office, counting the miles to Songnim. When I look at the city, it's almost as if I can see Hawkeye there, locked in that tiny cell, spending hour after hour in the dark. I kept waking up last night, thinking that I couldn't breathe. I remember how Hawkeye hates closed-in places.
And one more thing -- I'm wearing my argyle socks. Hawkeye particularly asked me to in his letter. I plan to wear them until he gets back. I hope this will be a short enough period of time that they won't fall apart on me. It seems the least I can do. Maybe somehow he'll feel across the miles how much we're all thinking and worrying about him. Maybe some of that concern will seep into his subconscious and give him additional strength. There's nothing more I can do or hope for, so I wear my nice socks and lay down nickels and hope like hell that he's going to be okay. It's little enough, I know. But it's all I can do.
Take care of yourself, my darling. Give Erin a hug and a kiss for me. I'll bring you up to speed as soon as anything further develops.
All my love,
Sherman stared at the paperwork in his hands. He'd been staring at it off and on for the last two hours, and he still wasn't sure what to do about it.
There was a tap on the door. Sherman looked up to see Hunnicutt peering through the window. Well, it looked as if the Almighty was going to force his hand. Sherman beckoned the younger man inside.
Hunnicutt poked his head through the door. “Any news, Colonel?”
“Regarding Pierce? No.”
“Nothing new from the Green Dragon unit?”
“Not since what I told you at lunch.” Sherman waved him in. “Come in, Hunnicutt. Pull up a chair.”
Hunnicutt complied. Sherman used the opportunity to take a good look at the MASH's senior surgeon. Despite the upsetting content of Pierce's letter, some measure of peace had been restored to the young doctor's face. Hunnicutt was still waiting -- not liking it, but waiting nonetheless. At least now he was waiting for further news from his friend, instead of news about that friend's death. It made a world of difference.
Hunnicutt settled himself. “What's up?”
Sherman indicated the form on his desk. “I just received some new orders. Your transfer has been approved.”
Hunnicutt blinked. “What transfer?”
“I thought you'd spent enough time in this hell hole. A couple of weeks ago I started asking around. Today I got the go-ahead to pursue a couple of options. Your choices include the 121st Evac and Tokyo General. The latter needs a couple of weeks to go through, although you should confirm it right away if you're interested.”
Hunnicutt leaned forward. “Colonel, I can't leave now.”
“I know the timing is awkward, son --“
“It stinks!” Hunnicutt leapt to his feet and paced in agitation. “How can I leave when we're on the brink of getting Hawkeye back? I have to be here, to get his letters when they come.”
“We could read them to you over the phone, with your permission.”
“Unless they follow me to Japan, which could add days. No, Colonel. I have to stay here until we find Hawkeye.”
“That could take some time, son. Wouldn't you be more comfortable waiting for him at a posting a little farther from the front lines?”
“I'm sure I'd feel worse.” Hunnicutt rested his fingertips on Sherman's desk. “Do you think that I could actually enjoy a plush posting in Tokyo when Hawkeye is fighting rats for a few scraps of gruel?”
Sherman sighed. “It's a common feeling, to want to suffer in common with a friend. Don't think I haven't noticed how little everyone is suddenly eating around here. The rats in our garbage dump must be having the biggest party since somebody thought of putting bells on cats. But you have a duty to yourself and to your family to keep yourself fit. And I have a duty, not to prolong your stay at a post that at times can be hazardous, not to mention emotionally draining.” Sherman cut back the fire in his voice. “I enjoyed the benefit of Pierce's and your expertise for well over a year. You seemed satisfied with the arrangement and I didn't want to rock the boat. But the boat's been rocked. Pierce is gone. Even if we do get him back, they'd never reassign him here. As soon as he's fit to travel, Pierce's next destination is home. We have two new surgeons who are coming along, thanks to your help and Winchester's. Isn't it about time, son, that you started thinking about your own well being, and how a position farther from the front might be a comfort to your family?”
Hunnicutt had turned away, but his posture indicated thoughtfulness. He automatically massaged the palms of his hands; every one of them was subject to “surgeon's cramp.” Finally Hunnicutt said dully, “It feels like such a betrayal.”
“I know,” said Sherman, encouraged that Hunnicutt was at least considering it. “The timing's lousy, as I said. But Hawkeye wanted you to use your best judgment.”
Hunnicutt faced him with a bitter smile. “Is this your way of trying to make sure that what happened to Hawkeye doesn't happen to me?”
“You bet it is,” Sherman said strongly. “I have regrets enough to carry into my retirement years. The least I can do is to honor Hawkeye's wish for his best friend to go home in one piece. You were both overdue for a transfer. In Pierce's case, I waited too long. I don't intend to make the same mistake with you.”
Hunnicutt sank back into his chair, still rubbing his palms. He sat staring into space. Sherman let him chew it over.
At last the young surgeon met his eyes. “Colonel, I need to think about this.”
“That position at Tokyo won't stay open long,” Sherman warned.
“I know. I just,” Hunnicutt shrugged helplessly. “I need a little time.”
“That's fine, son. Sleep on it a day or so. Let me know what you decide to do.”
April 19, night
Of all the crazy things to fall out of this mess, Colonel Potter has just now offered me a position at Tokyo General. Part of me wants to accept it, out of consideration to you and also because I really am sick of this place. It just isn't the same without Hawkeye here. Still, I can't help feeling that by doing so I'd be running out on him. It doesn't seem fair that when things are going the worst for him, I'd get transferred to the cushiest post a surgeon could hope for out here. Colonel Potter has given me a couple of days to wrestle with it. I don't know what to do. I'll let you know if I come up with any answers. Until then, I'm anxiously watching the mail and waiting for any news about the rescue mission. They've named it “Operation Nighthawk” in honor of Hawkeye. I hope it comes off soon.
All my love, darling,