5. Operation Nighthawk

    BJ was in the shower when the summons came. Over the sound of running water he heard the announcement: “Attention, attention. Captain Hunnicutt, you have another delivery from Songnim. Report to the colonel's office. Captain Hunnicutt, please report.”

    BJ bolted from the shower half rinsed. He pulled on his blue robe, never mind it clinging to his wet arms. Belting it around him, he wiggled into his slippers and flung himself out the door. As he raced toward the colonel's office, he saw Mulcahy and Charles burst from their tents and jog toward the central building. He arrived slightly before they did, and yanked open the door.

    Klinger wasn't at his post. BJ hurried on to Potter's office, where he found Potter, Klinger, and Margaret waiting for him. Margaret was dressed in her lab coat and had obviously just walked in from post-op. BJ was suddenly aware that he was one terrycloth layer away from naked, not to mention soaking wet. Automatically he checked to make sure that his robe was closed. Relieved to note that it was, he stepped forward eagerly.

    Potter handed him the letter. “It's the same writing as before,” he said.

    BJ glanced at it, noting the nearly identical direction, before tearing the envelope open. He could tell by feel that this letter was considerably shorter than the first. Which certainly proved to be the case, when he pulled only two sheets from the envelope.

    It was Hawkeye's writing. Except for the paper, which was thin like Paik's note, the letter had a normal appearance. No blotchy ink or crossed lines. BJ read aloud as the others gathered around.


    Dear Beej,

    This is my second letter to you. Since I have no way of knowing if any of these are getting through, I'll give you the low-down first. I'm an unwilling houseguest of the North Koreans. I may be in the town of Songnim, somewhere between Sariwon and Pyongyang. I hope you know where this is, because I sure as hell don't, but that's what the pilot on the train with me thought, and his guess should be pretty good. His name is Robert MaGarry and his navigator, William Deesland, was with him. I haven't seen them for almost a month, when they went on to the work camp while I stayed here. I'll jot down the names of the rest of the prisoners on the train with me at the end of this letter, if I can. I don't have much time.

    I won't kid you, Beej. The first three weeks were rough. I don't want to go through all that again, even in writing. Besides, there isn't time. The good news is that conditions have improved. I'm writing this with an actual light in the room. That makes it dangerous. I have a few minutes before some guy who's helping me, I'll call him OMF (Our Mutual Friend), comes by and whisks this off to Letter-Letter Land. For all I know he could be carrying the pages to the hospital's tiled roof, folding them into paper airplanes, and lofting them toward the front lines. But I hope that at least one of my letters gets through, so you'll know I'm okay.

    It seems that if you want to get treated semi-decently around here, you have to get really sick. I don't know why I didn't think of that before. Anyway, about ten days ago I came down with some kind of fever -- chills, lung involvement, the works. You remember Dr. Paik who passed through the 4077th. He got me through it. I'm still pretty weak, but I'm getting stronger. They feed me twice a day now, which is nice. They also moved me out of this miserable rat-hole (literally) where they'd kept me prior to my illness. I'm now a resident of the hospital. My new room comes fully equipped with an actual cot, a blanket, a bare 20-watt light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and its own set of leg irons. I find the leg irons under the bare bulb particularly evocative of the local ambiance. It took me a while to get used to them, but if you're sick enough I guess you can sleep through anything. Frank Burns did. This is the perfect setting for a round of good-cop/bad-cop, but no one has tried that with me yet. Instead, I daily get to hear all about the virtues of Communism. I think I'll pass.

    The bad news is that my illness took me down another few pounds. I'm probably more than 30 pounds underweight at this point, but I'm only guessing. OMF was sneaking me food for a while, but he started looking pretty ragged and I told him to stop. He didn't altogether, but as I said they feed me twice a day now, so I don't need it as badly. Everyone is hungry here, Beej. It's hard to appreciate how much we have until you see people who have virtually nothing. Then our abundance begins to look obscene. The Chinese ”


    The letter broke off abruptly. Beneath Hawkeye's final unfinished sentence was a postscript, added with a fine blue pen in a hand that BJ instantly recognized. It said only:

    “Do not be alarmed, all is well. The courier is here and must leave now. I am sending this by rail so you will receive it quickly. Dr. Pierce is in the southwest wing of the hospital on the second floor, third room from the central stairs. There are only two guards in the building at night. Dr. Pierce should be strong enough to travel by the time you get this. Come quickly. I do not know when he might be moved. Bring bolt cutters.

    -- OMF
    13 April 1953”


    BJ felt his heart pounding. The letter was written just seven days ago. Only last week, Hawkeye was alive and writing this letter.

    Margaret said urgently, “Colonel, if there ever was a time to move, this is it.”

    “Klinger,” said Potter softly, “tell them what you found when you tried to trace back that first letter.”

    “Yes, sir. A Mr. Karris at the Red Cross in Seoul gets them from somebody up in Changdan, who gets them from some group that runs things across the border near there. Some folks in Panmunjom might be helping them, but he doesn't know for sure. And there's no way to know who the original courier might be.”

    “In other words,” Charles said, “there's no return address.”

    Potter shook his head solemnly. “Not one that we can use.”

    Margaret slumped. “So there's no way that we can tell Paik when and where to meet us.”

    Potter's eyes looked bleak. “I'm sorry.”

    BJ had found out about the lack of usable return route when he'd tried to give Potter his letter to Paik the day before. But Paik's latest message sounded so urgent, he couldn't help asking, “Colonel, Paik gave us good instructions. Couldn't we put a man on the ground and have him go after Hawkeye, rather than having Hawkeye come to the chopper?”

    “I don't know about that,” said Potter. “You're talking about all kinds of extra risk, to Hawkeye as well as to the rescue team. I don't know if Embry will go for it.”

    BJ persisted. “Would it hurt to ask?”

    Potter hesitated, then said, “Klinger, get General Embry on the line.”

    “I'm already dialing!” Klinger crashed through the doors to the outer office.

    BJ automatically started reading the letter again. It took him a moment to react to the sound of his name. “Huh?”

    Charles looked irritated. “I said, Hunnicutt, would you like to sit down before you fall down?”

    “What do you mean?”

    “I mean, you look ready to drop. Perhaps you'd be interested in securing some adequate clothing for yourself as well.”

    BJ glanced down. “Oh, yeah.”

    Klinger popped the door open. “I've got General Embry on the line, Colonel.”

    Potter reached for the phone. “Hunnicutt, let me see Paik's note on the second page.”

    BJ handed over the entire letter.

    “Fine. Now you might want to take Major Winchester's advice and get dressed.” Potter picked up the phone. “General Embry, Sherman Potter ... Yes, you could say that we've had a recent development. Listen to this...”

* * *

    BJ was having trouble keeping his hands still. Hands, hell. He couldn't keep his whole body still. Restlessly he prowled from one end of the Swamp to the other.

    Charles was on duty in post-op along with Langley. Tuck was curled up on Hawkeye's bunk (BJ had mentally reverted to calling it “Hawkeye's bunk” after receiving his friend's first letter). The younger man was trying to read a journal, but BJ knew that his pacing was disturbing him. Well, that couldn't be helped. Besides, Margaret was pacing, too. Her official post for the evening was supposed to be the guest chair next to BJ's cot. BJ figured she'd actually sat on it for a grand total of ten seconds. It should have been comical, seeing the way they paced around and past each other, circling the central stove and switching direction at the last moment so they didn't bump into each other. Yet BJ couldn't quite bring himself to appreciate the humor. Restlessly he shook out his hands, trying to soothe his jangled nerves.

    Mulcahy was keeping vigil with them. He sat at Charles's desk with a Bible propped open on his knee. He actually seemed to be making progress on the sermon he was writing. BJ envied him. Tonight he couldn't keep his mind on anything except the rescue mission. The chopper was en route right now, coming in to Songnim from over the Yellow Sea. It was the 22nd of April. Operation Nighthawk had begun.

    The mission called for a single agent to rappel down from the chopper to the rice paddies south of town, assisted by the light of a waxing moon. There he would rendezvous with two South Korean sympathizers who would guide him through town. The threesome were to make their way north through the orchards, then enter the town and move quickly to the hospital. BJ knew they were carrying picks for the leg irons, and bolt cutters and an acetylene torch in case that failed. They also carried chloroform to silence the hospital staff, although BJ was certain that they carried other, more deadly methods of ensuring silence as well. He didn't want to dwell on that aspect of the raid. He cringed at the thought that a doctor or nurse might be killed in the attempt to rescue Hawkeye.

    Once Hawkeye was released, the party would retreat to a different location north of town, then light a beacon to guide the chopper in. The agent would climb a line back into the chopper, then work the hoist to bring up Hawkeye in a harness, it being a fair assumption that his broken ribs would not permit him to climb a rope. Then, before the moon set, the chopper would fly back over the sea to a waiting UN ship. Hawkeye would be free.

    It seemed an incredibly risky plan, the more so because the Intelligence agent turned out to be Colonel Flagg. He'd apparently convinced the mission planners that his contacts with the local Korean agents were more important than putting an experienced man on the hoist. BJ was torn between admiring Flagg's audacity, and anxiety that Flagg would do something crazy that would jeopardize the mission. There was simply no way to tell. If Flagg let them down, he and Hawkeye would be stranded a hundred miles from help, with a lot of angry North Koreans between them and escape.

    Distressed by his thoughts, BJ whirled -- and collided with Margaret, who had just done the same thing.

    “Sorry,” he said automatically, his apology overlapping hers.

    She held out her hands, which trembled slightly. “Do you believe this, BJ? I'm a nervous wreck!”

    BJ smiled. “I think that's why Colonel Potter threw us out of his office.”

    “I can't believe it!” Margaret rubbed her arms briskly. “In ten or twelve hours, Hawkeye could be standing right here!”

    “At which time we'll both be on the floor, unconscious from exhaustion. Hey!” He steadied her as she nearly tipped into the stove. “Take it easy.”

    “Is there anything I can do to help?” Mulcahy called from his station at the desk.

    “Pray,” said BJ.

    “Hit me over the head with a rock,” said Margaret.

    Mulcahy smiled. “I'll give both requests their due consideration.”

    “If the rock works for Margaret,” said BJ, “will you hit me as well?”

    “The Lord does work in mysterious ways,” said Mulcahy, and turned back to his sermon.

* * *

    Syn Paik walked slowly down the hospital corridor. His shoulders sagged, and his heart was low. So many days spent hoping, so many risks run, only to have it all be for nothing. He sighed and checked his watch. It was very late. Well, he was grateful that a debilitative patient had kept his mind engaged this evening. The improved prospect of his patient's recovery was the only solace Paik could find after his failure to protect Dr. Pierce.

    Paik heard a soft footstep up the hall and lifted his eyes. He halted in pure amazement. A Caucasian man with his face blacked stood at the top of the stairs. He held a pistol leveled at Paik's chest. His bearing and equipment pronounced him to be a soldier, but his uniform was dark, nonstandard. Two other men wearing more normal clothes stood on the stairway behind him. They wore masks to disguise their features, but their eyes appeared to be Korean.

    Paik blinked. The rescue team. Of course. Now that it was too late, they were here.

    The man in front spoke harshly. “Make one move, and I'll make my move, and that will be the last move you'll ever make.”

    Paik worked to parse the awkward sentence. By his accent the man was American. Perhaps he was undereducated. But in that case, why make him the spokesman for the party?

    Paik responded softly, “I will make no moves against you.”

    “We're looking for the American doctor you're holding here,” the man continued belligerently. “Take me right to where he is, and don't think for a minute that we don't know right where that is.”

    Paik paused. Was the man simple-minded? His speech was so convoluted, it made it difficult for Paik to understand him. Why didn't he do the sensible thing and let the others speak to him in ordinary Korean?

    The man must have misinterpreted Paik's hesitation. He raised his pistol. “Take me there now, or I take you out now.”

    “Of course.” Paik started to step forward, then caught himself. Slowly, in as non-threatening a manner as he could, he pointed toward the closed door almost next to him. “That's the room.”

    The soldier hesitated; he appeared to be counting. “I see,” he said at last. “Door number three.”

    Paik remembered the instructions he'd written giving Dr. Pierce's location. Clearly this other man had seen them, too. Should he reveal himself as Dr. Pierce's ally? Perhaps not. He had no idea how the information would be received, or who might overhear it if he said so.

    The man gestured with his gun toward the door. “Open it.”

    “It is not locked.” Paik stepped to the door and pushed it open. He reached inside and snapped on the electric switch. The hospital was one of the few buildings in town that had the luxury of electricity, courtesy of the generator in the basement.

    “Stand back, Red,” growled the soldier, “before I make you live up to that title in a way you'll regret.”

    Paik stepped back. The man walked quickly toward the open door. The two others moved forward to back him up. The one in front leveled his machine gun at Paik. Paik held very still.

    The American stopped at the open door, then whirled to confront Paik. “You lying bum! There's no one in there.”

    “I know,” Paik said. “But that is the room where the American doctor was held. See? There is the chain where he was shackled to the wall.”

    The man made a brief circuit of the room, taking in the simple cot, now stripped, and the remaining length of the hated shackles. He strode out of the room, and held his pistol to Paik's chest. “All right, Commie. Where is he now?”

    “I don't know.”

    The gun pressed into Paik's sternum, and he closed his eyes. But the strange, hostile man did not fire. “You're going to tell me,” he said between his teeth, “where the American prisoner is now.”

    “He was here,” Paik said, “until he recovered from his illness. Yesterday, an officer came and took him away.”

    The gun barrel dug in painfully. “Where did they take him?”

    “I don't know. Somewhere to the south.”

    The man loomed over him. “You expect me to believe that?”

    “It's the truth.” Paik met his interrogator's eyes sorrowfully. “I don't know where they have taken him. I know only that he is gone.”

    For a moment Paik thought the man would fire anyway. Then, with an exclamation of disgust, he shoved Paik backwards into the opposite wall. Angrily he addressed the man nearest Paik.

    “Tie up this Commie with his own chain, and give him something to shut his lying mouth. You,” he said to the other, “check the north wing, as quietly as possible. We'll meet you at the rendezvous point in four minutes. Move!”

    The man behind Paik strong-armed him into Dr. Pierce's former room. How fitting, Paik thought, that he should end up wearing those same chains. In some karmic way, he and Dr. Pierce seemed fated to be captives of one another. It was a strange business, war.

    The American re-entered the room. He bore down on Paik menacingly. “If it turns out that you lied about our man not being here, before I leave I'll come back and cut your throat.”

    “You will not find him,” Paik said as sincerely as he could. “He is gone.”

    The soldier gestured savagely to the man holding Paik. “Put him down!”

    Paik caught a whiff of chloroform before the cloth hit his face. He tried not to fight it. It was only chloroform. He would be all right, provided that the other man kept his word and only killed him if they found Dr. Pierce, which of course they would not do. Paik tried to hang onto that thought as he lapsed into unconsciousness.

* * *

    BJ and Margaret had finally settled on BJ's cot and chair, respectively. They'd chatted in a desultory fashion for a while, but at length had fallen silent. Tuck had long since turned his light out, and was apparently sound asleep. About an hour ago Mulcahy had covered his eyes and stretched out on Langley's cot. He lay there now, Bible in one hand, with the pages of his sermon tucked inside it. BJ heard him snoring gently.

    A rap on the door startled him. BJ leaped to his feet, with Margaret beside him. Potter let himself in. BJ needed only one look at his face to know that the mission had not been successful. He only hoped that the news wasn't much worse than a failure to find Hawk. Beside him, Margaret seized his elbow.

    “No soap,” Potter said quietly, noting their alarm.

    “They couldn't get Hawkeye?” asked BJ.

    “We don't know the details yet.” Potter seated himself in the chair that Margaret had just vacated. Margaret and BJ sat on the edge of BJ's cot, facing him. Potter leaned forward, his voice low. “Apparently Flagg got out of Songnim safely. He sent a message ahead to the ship, `The hawk has flown.' We won't know more about what they found until they return.”

    BJ felt the weariness of the long night descend on him like a weight. He leaned forward, elbows braced against his thighs, his hands dangling between his knees. “Do you suppose they moved Hawkeye from the hospital after his recovery?”

    “We're fairly positive they did,” Potter said.

    BJ glanced at him curiously. “Why `positive?'”

    “Because General Embry gave me another piece of news tonight, when he called to brief me on the outcome of the mission.”

    BJ got a queasy feeling, thinking he wasn't going to like this. “What news?”

    “It took a little while to work its way through channels,” said Potter. “If we had known about it even six hours earlier, Embry never would have authorized this mission.”

    Now BJ was sure he was going to hate it. “What happened, Colonel?”

    “It seems that the North Koreans have finally decided to accept our offer to trade supplies for Pierce. They want to meet us tomorrow at a little village outside of Kaesong, where the exchange is to take place.”

    “Tomorrow?” BJ's heart raced. “That means --“

    “Yes. If the North Koreans are dealing in good faith, which Embry believes they are, then Pierce must have been well on his way to the meeting place by the time we received their message. He probably left Songnim yesterday, or even the day before.”

    A feeling of dread crept over BJ. “What are the chances that they'll find out about our raid before the exchange takes place?”

    “Unless the rescue team completely evaded everyone in town and at the hospital,” said Potter, “I'm guessing that the North Koreans will know about it by morning. And it's possible that they will cancel or postpone the meeting as a result. It's also possible that they might take reprisals against Pierce, especially if anyone was hurt.”

    Margaret put a hand to her mouth. BJ felt as if he was slipping into a maelstrom.

    “I'm sorry, son.” Potter's voice was near to breaking. “I'm afraid that, in our eagerness to help Hawkeye, we may have inadvertently made things for him even tougher.”

* * *

    Thursday, April 23, night

    Dear Peg,

    Darling, you can't believe how much I miss you. The news keeps getting worse. I wish you were here so I could hold you, and not feel as miserable as I do right now.

    I wrote you earlier today about the botched rescue mission. I can't blame the rescue team. The pilot was brave and selfless to try. Even Flagg acquitted himself well. The planning and execution of the mission went off without a hitch. They might even reinstate him as a full colonel after this, which I suppose was his motive in volunteering in the first place. And there was no way any of us could have known that Hawkeye was no longer at the hospital. Afterwards, when we learned about the exchange offer, we could only hope that communications between Songnim and Kaesong were sufficiently snarled that the people holding Hawkeye wouldn't find out about the raid until after they released him to us. It seems that hope was false. Our people waited all day at the rendezvous point, but the North Koreans never showed.

    I feel like this whole snafu is my fault. I know, Hawkeye let me off the hook about going to the front for me. I'm still not sure if I buy his reasoning on that. But this raid thing is certainly my fault. If I hadn't pushed so hard for a rescue mission, Potter wouldn't have lit a fire under General Embry. If I'd have held off for just one more day, Hawkeye could be in camp right now. Damn it, it's enough to drive a person crazy!

    Potter says there's no way of knowing how long it will be before the North Koreans approach us again. So far there hasn't been a peep from the people who set this up, not even to blast us for that abortive rescue attempt. The only good news is that we learned from Flagg that no one in Songnim was hurt. Apparently our people got in and out without alerting the local soldiery, although they knocked out some of the hospital staff with chloroform. That means that the reprisals against Hawkeye, if any, are bound to be less severe. God, I hate myself. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to cause him any more pain. Now he might have to endure extra weeks of it, all because of me.

    I feel like my involvement in this affair has been a disaster from beginning to end. I can't help Hawkeye, and every time I try I seem to end up hurting him more. I feel so guilty, I can hardly stand myself. Every time I see a nickel I think, if it weren't for me, Hawkeye would be back now. It's like everything in the camp is condemning me. I can't live full of self-loathing like this, and I'll be no good to anyone if I try.

    I have therefore decided to accept Colonel Potter's transfer offer. I couldn't go to Tokyo General. That would be too much of a slam against Charles, if nothing else, and Potter needs him to stay. He'll be the new chief surgeon here. Let's hope that his elevated position compensates him somewhat for remaining behind. But Potter says he can't release all of his trained surgeons at once. Charles has less seniority than I do, so Charles is the one to stay.

    The upshot is that I've decided to go to the 121st Evac. I'll be in different surroundings there, and might even ease up on myself when everything around me doesn't remind me of how badly I screwed up here. Also, at the 121st I'll have the chance to get back to the 4077th relatively quickly in case they need me for any reason. I hope that, by not being on hand to pester Potter about Hawkeye daily, it will lead to fewer mistakes in getting him back.

    Maybe I'm taking too much on myself, but when I think of Hawkeye slowly starving to death, then I think that all of my emotional misery can't come close to what he's going through. I need to get out of this place. I want to come home. I want to run away from here so bad sometimes it's all I can do not to run screaming down the street. I haven't felt this bad since the first night that Hawkeye went missing, and I knew it was all my fault. Well, he's missing again tonight, and this time it really is my fault. And nothing that I can do will ever make up for that.

    I'm tired, Peg, and sick at heart. Please forgive the tone of this letter. It's been a long day of disappointment. If I could get back to you tonight, I'd hold you and never let go. Keep me sane, Peg. Be my anchor for me. If you can do that, maybe Hawkeye will get the anchor benefit once removed, since I let him down so terribly.

    I have to stop, Peg. I'm writing nonsense. They say that things always look better in the morning. I can't imagine how this nightmare will improve with daylight, but I have to give it a try.

    I love you, my darling. I love and miss you so much it hurts. Imagine that I'm holding you now so tightly that you can hardly breathe. Don't let me go, Peg. I need you right now.

    With more love than you can possibly imagine,


* * *

    Hawkeye whacked his hip against the metal side of the closed truck as a particularly vicious bounce tossed him into the air. He came down hard on the bench, doing his best to balance there between bumps. Surely Korea had the worst roads on Earth. It didn't make things any easier for him by being shackled, manacled, and blindfolded as well. They'd been traveling for the better part of two nights now, and his poor body must be battered into one enormous bruise.

    At least they didn't mean to hurt him this time. Hawkeye was fairly sure that the arduous journey was incidental to their purpose, whatever that might be. For one thing, they fed him regularly. Three meals a day, right along with the troops. He was getting to know his guards a little, albeit by senses other than sight. Stinky was the main one, named for obvious reasons. Then there was Blowhard, and Obsequious Al, his personal favorite. The boss was Grunty, and the driver he'd christened Squeaky because of his shoes. He was relieved to find that he wasn't terribly disoriented by the blindfold. His week of blindness was starting to pay dividends. It can be truly amazing, the things you end up being thankful for.

    Of course, he'd gone through that initial period of terror at the hospital, when the moving crew first barged into his comfy little post-jail cell quarters and trussed him up complete with blindfold. Paik was practically beside himself. A lot of very loud words were exchanged, but as they were all in Korean Hawkeye had no idea what was going on. His best guess was that they were taking him outside to be shot. Thank God Paik had called out, when they'd seized his arms to march him away, “Safe journey, Doctor!” so he knew he wasn't about to face a firing squad, even though he wouldn't be able to see them.

    The journey had proceeded tediously, although Hawkeye reflected that it wouldn't have been much more interesting had he not been blindfolded. They spent hour after hour inside the closed truck, traveling primarily at night to avoid allied planes. He wondered if he was heading back to the front. Maybe they were taking him to a prison camp. If so, perhaps he'd see MaGarry and Deesland and the others again, Wally and Don and Ventris and his men, and Ugo and Herb and Johan. That would be nice. At any rate, it was bound to be better than being chained to a stake on the bare ground again, which was his usual sleeping arrangement at the front. Hawkeye tried to steel himself against that likely possibility.

    The truck lurched to one side, then corrected itself in a move that flung Hawkeye to the floor. He was able to break his fall partly with his hands, and partly by planting his face on the boots of the guard sitting across from him. The guard -- Obsequious Al that shift -- started to help him up. The next moment the body of the truck was peppered with bullets.

    The driver screeched to a halt. The two guards nearest the front of the truck, Stinky and Blowhard, clambered over him and burst out the back door. Hawkeye heard the chatter of their machine guns as they returned fire. Obsequious Al let go his grip of Hawkeye's arm. Silently he slid to the floor, draping himself over Hawkeye's head and shoulders as he fell. There was no movement at all after that, although Hawkeye could hear the tap, tap, tap of liquid pattering to the truck's metal floor. With a start of horror, Hawkeye realized that Obsequious Al was dead.

    A cry from the rear of the truck told him that one of Al's companions had likely met the same fate. Another spray of bullets swept the truck. Hawkeye curled into a ball, keeping his head and shoulders tucked under the dead man. He cried out as a bullet seared the outer side of his left arm, which happened to be facing up. He hunched his body tighter. Only one gun was still firing near the truck's cab. That would be Grunty, the officer. He'd be the one with the pistol. A third blast of machine gun fire rattled the truck. Hawkeye jerked mightily as a bullet tore across his thigh. The metal body of the truck seemed to thrum from the impact of the bullets -- or maybe that was his ears ringing. Hawkeye held still. The shooting had stopped. A foreboding silence ensued.

    Hawkeye eased himself a little farther from Al, tilting his head to listen. There, he heard them now -- approaching footsteps. He held absolutely still. Maybe they were black marketeers, and they'd move on when they saw that there was nothing beyond the weapons to steal. It was possible that they were South Koreans, but Hawkeye couldn't count on that. It didn't seem likely that Grunty would take him through unsecured territory. The attackers could be rebels, renegades, outlaws, or just plain folks who hated North Korean soldiers. With practically anybody responsible, his chances for survival were pretty much up in the air.

    Blood trickled down his arm and thigh where he'd been hit. Maybe they'd think he was dead and leave him alone. Although what he was supposed to do then, shackled and adrift in a foreign land where he hadn't the faintest idea of his location, would pose a pretty problem.

    Several voices closed in on the truck. They halted, hovering near the back gate. Hawkeye heard the brush of clothing and the click of weapons being secured. Looters, probably, taking what they could use from the dead men. One of them jumped into the truck, the soles of his canvas shoes squeaking on the metal bed. Hawkeye's heart pounded. He hoped the movement wouldn't be noticeable. The man took another step forward, then held still. He called. The other voices stopped. Hawkeye lay there trying not to breathe. The man called again.

    A second set of footsteps climbed into the truck. The two voices held a brief conference. Then, in silence, they approached.

    Hawkeye felt their hands on him. He willed himself not to move. They propped him up between them. Hawkeye let his head loll, but one of them grabbed it and gave him what sounded like a command, holding it upright. Okay, they knew he wasn't dead. Hawkeye sat up as directed. Might as well take a bullet while sitting tall as lying down, as if anyone outside of the Heroes Almanac would really care about that. He started as the man touched his head. Hawkeye felt him working the knot, then he removed the blindfold.

    Hawkeye blinked at the influx of light. They must have traveled through the night; it was about an hour past dawn. He focused on the silhouette in front of him, then stared. Surely that had to be the tiniest human being he'd ever seen. The man was like a toy, with deeply tanned, leathery skin, weathered almost to parchment over the years. The bones in his face were obviously in fierce competition with each other to stick out as far as possible. You could probably balance a cup on either cheekbone. The man's face was so arresting that Hawkeye forgot to be frightened.

    The man gabbled at him in Korean. Right, they speak that here. Hawkeye felt like a dunce. He attempted a Korean greeting. “Yovo sayo,” he said, hoping he was getting the pronunciation somewhat close. The man started, and exchanged a look with the other man, but did not reply.

    Hawkeye then tried the only Korean word he knew that might mean something. “Ouijongbu?”

    The man took this in, then replied with a rapid-fire response. Hawkeye listened intently, but he sure couldn't hear anything that sounded like “Ouijongbu” mixed in there. At least they were talking to him instead of shooting him. The other man in the truck sat on his heels. He was much younger than the speaker, and watched his elder respectfully. Their clothes were a mixture of uniforms and rags. Hawkeye couldn't tell if they were soldiers or not.

    At the first silence, Hawkeye tried again. “Ouijongbu. MASH 4077. GI Joe.”

    The little man jerked his hand toward the horizon. “Ouijongbu,” followed by more Korean. Hawkeye felt a twinge of relief. A breakthrough.

    The little man finished his speech, then popped up neat as a cat and headed for the tailgate. The younger man grabbed Hawkeye under the arms to help him up.

    That was a mistake. As soon as he started to rise, Hawkeye felt his head spin. He glanced down. His left arm and thigh throbbed, but little blood had seeped through the quilted Chinese fabric. No wonder they hadn't bought his possum act; he hardly even looked wounded. He felt it, though. The combined weight of the manacles, shackles, and their attendant chains was almost more than he could bear. His knees started to tremble.

    Another man jumped into the truck to help the first assist him to the door. Hawkeye took one step that he remembered. The next step was a long drop down into darkness.

* * *

    Margaret approached Colonel Potter's office almost in a dream. That's what it had felt like for the last two days, after that long night's session waiting for the results of that horrendously timed rescue mission, and the long next day hoping that the exchange would take place anyway in spite of that mission, even when everyone knew that it wouldn't. Today Margaret was worn out. Her emotional roller coaster was stalled at the bottom of the hill, too exhausted to budge.

    Klinger was filing forms. She walked past him, pushed one side of the colonel's split office doors open, knocked on it, and leaned in. “You wanted to see me, Colonel?”

    Colonel Potter looked five years older, not surprising considering the events of the last five weeks. Margaret sluggishly recalculated. Six weeks. Six weeks and a couple of days. She'd figure it out later. Right now Colonel Potter was addressing her.

    “Come in, Major. Have a seat.”

    Margaret sat in the first chair she came to, plopping down rather heavily. She'd really have to get some sleep one of these nights.

    “Major,” said the colonel, “you look beat right down to your socks.”

    “And those socks are beaten to lint.” Margaret sat taller. “I can handle myself, Colonel. What did you want to see me about?”

    “Just a head's up.” Colonel Potter folded his hands on his desk. “Hunnicutt is leaving us.”

    Margaret nodded. Status of emotional roller coaster: unchanged.

    “I Corps approved his transfer,” the colonel continued. “He'll ship out to the 121st Evac on Monday -- three days from now. I think he could use the break.”

    Margaret nodded again.

    Potter narrowed his eyes. “Could you use a break, Major?”

    Margaret jumped a little. “Me, Colonel? What makes you say so?”

    “For one thing, it looks like you're trying to ride that chair side-saddle.”

    Margaret straightened up. “It's just fatigue, Colonel. I'll be fine with a good night's rest.”

    The colonel laced his fingers. “Lord knows you're entitled to a little extra consideration --“

    The last thing Margaret wanted was a useless exhibition of sympathy. She said tartly, “With respect, sir, my personal concerns are my own. They have no bearing on my professional conduct or the way in which I manage my staff.”

    Colonel Potter watched her with sad eyes. “I see.”

    Margaret held her chin high. “Do I have your permission to share this announcement with my nurses, Colonel?”

    Potter sat back with a sigh. “Yes, Major, you do.”

    “Fine. I'll prepare them for the change.” Margaret stood. “Are we expecting any replacement surgeons?”

    “Not at this time, Major,” Potter responded wearily.

    “Then with your permission, sir, I'll get started.”

    As she headed for the door, she heard Potter say gently behind her, “Good luck, Major.”

    Margaret spun smartly to face him. “Thank you, sir.” She about-faced and exited with the same verve. One step through the door, and she was face-to-face with Klinger. His dark, moist eyes met hers. Why was everyone so sad around her today? What was wrong with everybody?

    She pushed past him. “Excuse me, Corporal. I have work to do.”

    Klinger said to her back, “Anything I can help with, Major?”

    Margaret continued toward post-op without stopping. “If there is, I'll let you know.”

    She escaped through the double doors, releasing them gently so the noise wouldn't disturb the patients. Lieutenant Baker was shift leader today. She was sitting at the duty nurse's station, filling out paperwork. Always paperwork. Margaret leaned close to address her quietly. “Staff meeting at the end of the shift, Lieutenant.”

    Baker was used to the frequent meetings. She didn't even look up. “Yes, m'am.”

    “Where's Lieutenant Kellye?”

    Baker did look up then. “I'm not sure, Major. She's off duty until fifteen-thirty.”

    “Never mind, I'll find her.” Margaret gestured at the desk. “Carry on.”

    “Yes, m'am.”

    Margaret exited the outer door to post-op. She scanned the compound for her second shift leader. She'd inform Kellye's group at fifteen-thirty, and bring the rest of the staff up to speed at sixteen hundred when they came off shift. They could handle it. This unit had gotten by with only four surgeons before. Her nurses would all need refresher courses in triage, and someone would have to run the pre-op ward while the doctors were in surgery, but they could do it. Margaret had complete confidence. Her staff could handle anything.

    Margaret's footsteps slowed. From out of nowhere a pang assaulted her. She blinked as her breath caught. Damn it, not here. Not in the middle of the compound.

    Margaret lifted her head and marched determinedly toward her tent. With every step she chanted a silent litany: no one stop me, no one stop me.

    No one stopped her. She flung open the door to her tent and hurried into the sanctuary of the relative darkness inside. The wooden door banged shut behind her. Margaret stood a moment with head lowered, breathing deeply, fighting back the emotion. No, it would be all right. She wasn't going to cry. She wasn't --

    The spasm of sadness that rocked her made her legs buckle. Margaret collapsed onto her cot, covering her eyes. Why was everything so hard? This wasn't a crisis. BJ should go. Margaret was happy for him, in a way. He wasn't well. He picked at his food instead of eating it. If he'd said ten words yesterday, it would surprise Margaret. No, he would be better off at the 121st. He might even begin to recover in a place where everything didn't remind him of Hawkeye.

    There, that was it. That was the pain, the fountainhead of all the wrongness. Hawkeye was gone. The unit just wasn't the same without him. BJ wasn't the same, and Potter wasn't, or Klinger ...

    Margaret hunched over miserably. And she wasn't the same. Why was that so hard to admit? Everything felt so wrong and empty. Where was his raucous laugh that used to slice through the buzz of the mess tent? Where were the little tunes in OR, and the stupid jokes that used to alternately infuriate her and make her chuckle in spite of herself? Where was his level-headedness in a crisis, his two skillful hands, the way he would never let her off the hook when she was trying to hide out from herself, the way she was right now? All that was left were nickels, nickels, nickels. Well, you couldn't get much comfort from a nickel.

    “I miss him,” she said aloud, talking between the hands that still covered her face. The tumult inside was a little quieter. She said again, louder, “I miss him.”

    There, that felt better. Maybe that's all that she needed. Just to admit that she missed a friend and let the chips fall where they would. She could do that.

    Margaret rubbed the tears away. All right, just another minute or two. She'd compose herself for two more minutes, then find Kellye. A tear leaked down her cheek, and she brushed it away. She didn't have time for this. After all, she had work to do.

* * *

    Hawkeye faded back to consciousness. He was lying in winter-brown scrub under some gnarled trees. New leaves were unspiraling from the knobby ends of the branches. Groggily he raised a hand to his head, then came awake with a start. His manacles were gone. He looked himself over; no chains, no shackles, no handcuffs. He sagged with relief. After a breath, he lifted his head to take a personal inventory. There was a bloody bandage on his left thigh, and his left bicep was bound as well. His clothes had managed to become filthy in the two days since he'd left the hospital -- probably all that dust from the road.

    He raised his right wrist and studied it. He could see the old scars from where he had damaged his wrists before, and new red welts where the recent chains had scraped the skin raw. Nothing too deep or urgent there. He checked his left arm. The wrist was in the same shape as the right one. The place where the bullet had struck was bound with a dirty white cloth. It would be awkward to try to rebandage it. Hawkeye tried not to think about all the microscopic creatures that might be living in that cloth, preparing to move into new quarters in his skin.

    At his feet rose a thick screen of bushes. Beyond that, he could just make out the gray back and side of a military truck, pockmarked with bullet holes. He didn't see any bodies, but the bushes partly obscured his view. To his right squatted the little band of guerillas. There were six of them, counting the toy man. Hawkeye could see right away that two of them were wounded. One had a bandage around his shin. Another had a shoulder wound. They crouched in a circle, dividing up the plunder from the captured truck -- ammunition, food, guns, money, papers. And a medical bag. At least, it looked like the bags that he and his orderly had used at the front.

    It was worth a try. Hawkeye pushed himself up onto his right elbow. His head swam, but he didn't pass out. The movement drew the attention of the group. They stopped talking abruptly and stared. The little toy man hopped up and came forward, chattering, motioning him down. Hawkeye imagined him to be saying, “Rest, rest!” Hawkeye shook his head and pointed to the medical bag, then at himself. “Doctor,” he said.

    The little man studied him. Hawkeye gestured again at the bag. He tried a third time. The guy with the leg wound finally understood and pitched it over. Hawkeye struggled into a sitting position, then pawed around in the bag. There wasn't much in the way of supplies. Some alcohol, scissors but no bandages, a suture setup and tape, a syringe with a large-bore needle, but no drugs. Oh, well, he could use some of it.

    The cloth around his thigh was soaked. He untied the crude bandage and set it aside. Using the scissors, he cut away enough of the fabric to expose the wound. It was a bad laceration, but the bullet had hit nothing vital. Hawkeye gritted his teeth and poured alcohol over the wound.

    That almost did make him black out. Jesus, that hurt. He clenched his teeth until the searing wave of pain had passed. Breathing deeply to clear his head, he steadied his hands and reached for the suture setup. He sterilized the needle and suture, then went to work stitching his thigh. The needle wasn't particularly sharp. It was a grand exercise in pain, and one he wouldn't want to repeat. He was aware that the men were watching him curiously, but concentrated on his task. His hands were shaking, from pain or fatigue he couldn't tell. It made it damn hard to close the wound, but he finally succeeded, close enough for jazz, anyway. When finished, he crisscrossed tape over the area to keep the stitches from pulling out. He wanted to avoid reapplying that filthy bandage if he could help it.

    His rescuers seemed impressed. The man with the hurt shoulder pointed at it. Hawkeye waved him over. His bullet wound was a simple through-and-through that had penetrated the tissue of the supraspinatous without hitting any of the major vessels. Hawkeye splashed a little alcohol over it -- his days working at the front had taught him to be frugal -- and went to work closing the holes. When that was done, he looked over the other man's leg wound. It turned out to be a gash, probably from a stone. He cleaned it and rebound it with the original cloth, hoping to save his meager supplies for more serious injuries.

    His little foray into generating good will appeared to be successful. While he was finishing with the second guy, the others had divided their booty among them. Two of them now approached Hawkeye. Carefully they helped him to stand. The toy man gave the order to move out. The group set out, taking Hawkeye with them.

    They followed a twisting course among irrigation ditches and thickets of brush. Their pace was quick. Hawkeye gritted his teeth and did his best to keep up. Considering that they had just knocked over a military truck, he could see the advantages of clearing out of the area. Besides, Hawkeye had two helpers, while the other two wounded men walked unassisted. Even the guy with the bad shin limped along at a good pace. If he can do it, Hawkeye thought, so can I.

    The bad news is that they were headed north, toward the foothills. It was pretty easy to tell their direction, with the sun so low in the sky. The next time the toy man came close, Hawkeye caught his attention and pointed south. “Ouijongbu,” he said. “MASH four-oh-seven-seven.”

    The man waved dismissively, jabbering an explanation, and kept walking.

    Okay, Hawkeye thought. He knows about Ouijongbu. He just doesn't care that we're walking in the opposite direction from it.

    It was difficult to maintain the pace. Despite his improved rations the last two weeks, he had still been eating far fewer calories than his body felt it needed. No doubt his recent bloodletting hadn't helped matters. Soon Hawkeye couldn't think about anything except putting one foot in front of the other. His ribs began to ache from the strain, and he fought like mad not pass out. He didn't want to be abandoned by the side of the trail, so he was determined to get wherever they were going -- even though he had no idea where that might be.

Back | Forward