Dear Colonel Potter,
Gee whillickers! You sure don't tell a feller much. I only just now found out through a friend of a friend from some guy that came home that Capt. Pierce has been missing since early March and now its almost May already! I'm sorry sir, I don't mean to yell but Holy Smokes! Can you tell me any details about how it happened because I'm real worried and so is my mom and Park Sung. Me and Ma have asked the reverend to do a special prayer on Sunday asking his safe return. I haven't told many stories about Korea I don't know why, it just didn't seem to make sense out here but lots of people know about the work I did helping with the wounded and doctors and all and of course Park Sung knows Hawkeye, too.
Please Colonel if you have time maybe you could fill me in or ask Capt. Hunnicutt if he wouldn't mind doing it. I'm awful worried but my wish is that by the time you get this it will all be mute because Capt. Pierce will be back. I heard on the news that they are doing a sick and wounded prisoner exchange. Could Hawkeye be part of that? Not that I want him to be hurt but I hope that if he is they let him go. Even if they don't I hope the switch is a sign that the war may be over soon but I don't think so. You know how those negotiators are.
I hope everyone else is doing okay. I can't picture the MASH without Hawkeye in it. It seems like he was there forever just like I used to be. I hope he gets to go home like I did. It's too bad something bad has to happen for people to go home, only sometimes it doesn't so I guess its okay. I hope the next time you to write me you will be home too. Only don't wait that long because I want to hear about Capt. Pierce even if you don't know anything.
Ma sends her love and all of Ottumwa does too. We're keeping our fingers crossed for all of you but especially Hawkeye. Please Colonel if you hear anything drop me a line.
Your civilian friend,
Walter O'Reilly (formerly Radar)
Hawkeye leaned heavily on his supporters. Much as he tried to keep pace, he simply didn't have the strength. They'd been climbing steadily for the last two hours, following a network of gullies into the foothills. His mind was willing, but his current injuries and the weeks of privation gave his body a different outlook on the matter. He regularly stumbled on the narrow, rocky track and would have pitched forward if one or another of his companions didn't grab him. Also, the climb made him breathe harder, aggravating the rib injuries that had finally begun to heal. Sometimes he literally saw stars as a shot of pain brought him close to blacking out. He didn't even think about it anymore. He had to keep moving.
He smelled the village before he saw it. A smoky forerunner wafted its way down the path, carrying a peculiar mixture of scents out of which Hawkeye could identify vegetables and manure. At length they rounded a corner, and a squalid collection of dilapidated huts came into view. The village was crowded against the base of a mountain. The only approach seemed to be up the narrow gulley that Hawkeye and his current benefactors had just climbed. Hawkeye noted the presence of women and children -- wary faces peering from dark, small-cut doors rimmed with ragged thatch -- before the raiding party stopped. Hawkeye went to earth where he stood. He was aware of voices around him, but the need to rest was overpowering. It felt like the world was spinning slowly. He was on a platter, like a slow-motion record player, revolving higher and higher into an empty sky of cool, sweet darkness.
Hands brought him back to his current situation. He opened his eyes, startled to take in the dusty, sunlit village. Two men, older than those who'd formed the raiding party (except for the toy man) were urging him to rise. With their aid, Hawkeye got clumsily to his feet. His left leg was trembling; no doubt he'd overworked it. He hoped the stitches had held. His left arm was burning but he couldn't worry about that now. He hobbled along with either arm draped across the shoulders of his escorts. They were bringing him to one of the huts. Hawkeye ducked, but still scraped his head against the upper sill of the door. It was dark inside, the temperature right on the border of being neither warm nor cool. There was a straw mat next to the wall, and they put him on that. It was so thin he could feel every pebble on the ground, but he was so tired he didn't care. It was such a relief to be lying down.
He startled awake -- he didn't even know he'd been sleeping. Someone was offering him water. Small hands. A woman, perhaps? Or maybe the little toy man.
Hawkeye recalled how he had once scorned water that a young mother had offered him after a jeep accident. Today he reached for the cup gratefully. He polished it off in several appreciative swallows. He lay back with a sigh, and let himself become oblivious.
Colonel Potter pushed the final paper across his desk and spun it around so it was upright to BJ. He pointed to the signature line. “And once more, right there.”
BJ signed. Colonel Potter took back the form, squared it with the rest of the stack, and passed the pile back to BJ. “That's it. Take these with you to the 121st. The clerk there will hook you up with Major Sweeney.” BJ took the forms with a hollow feeling.
“Sweeney's a good man,” Potter continued. “He handles much of their restorative work. You'll finally get the chance to perform some of those follow-on procedures that we just don't have the time or facilities for here.”
Potter folded his hands on his desk. BJ suspected that another father-son talk was in the offing.
“Son,” Colonel Potter began, confirming his prediction, “I know this change is upsetting in some ways. Believe me, I wouldn't be pushing for it if I didn't believe it was in your best interest for me to do so. It certainly isn't in mine, handing over a top-flight surgeon to somebody else. But it's the best I can do under the circumstances.”
“I know, Colonel, and I appreciate it. Peg appreciates it, also. It's just ...” He let the sentence hang unfinished.
Colonel Potter fixed his steely gaze on him. “Don't you worry, son. I'll keep on Pierce's track. If I hear anything --“
“I know.” BJ waved him off good-humoredly. “I'll be the first to know.”
“Well, not much more than thirty or forty down the list.”
BJ cocked an eyebrow. “Thirty or forty?”
“I don't think I could dial faster than news spreads through this camp.”
BJ smiled. “You're right about that. But I'm not expecting any news -- not unless they happen to bring Hawkeye back to Songnim.”
“Let's hope they do,” said Potter. “Who knows? In a week or two we might even get another letter courtesy of Syn Paik.”
“I hope so.” There was no point in BJ telling the colonel how unlikely he considered that possibility. Instead, he rose. “Colonel, it's been a privilege serving with you.”
“Best of luck to you, son.” Potter shook his hand warmly. “I mean it.”
“To you, too,” answered BJ. “I mean that twice as much.”
“Klinger's already requisitioned a jeep,” said Potter. “You can pull out any time you're ready.”
“I said my goodbyes to everyone last night, Colonel.”
Potter's eyes started to glisten. “It's a pretty low-key send-off. I don't want you to think that I don't appreciate everything you've done for us --“
“Relax, Colonel. I don't think anyone in the outfit is in the mood for a party, least of all me. But do call if you need me. I'd like to help out if I'm able.”
“We'll be fine,” said Potter firmly. “I'm counting on you to pick up the baton for some of the cases we'll be sending your way. We're still working together, just a few miles farther apart.”
BJ smiled. “Thanks, Colonel.”
“Adios. And tell Klinger he'd better not get so involved with his own trading that he forgets to fill my shopping list.”
“I'll invent a suitable threat, Colonel.”
“Thank you, son. God speed.”
BJ found his way outside. Spring had produced a refreshingly crisp morning, with just enough sun to warm things up without being hot. BJ sighed. He believed that this transfer was the best thing, he truly did. So why did it feel so wrong to be leaving?
BJ flexed his feet inside his boots. The leather sides felt rougher today than usual. His argyle socks hadn't been made to take the punishment of Army boots. After ten long days, during which he'd only removed them long enough to wash them, they were definitely wearing thin. Well, he'd be damned if he left the MASH without wearing Hawkeye's favorite socks. Let his new CO tell him they were nonregulation. Unless he was directly ordered otherwise, he intended to keep wearing them until they literally fell apart.
A quick footstep made him turn. Margaret Houlihan approached with her typical decisive gait. BJ was relieved to see that she wasn't quite so exhausted looking as she had been the night before, when the entire gang had feted him at the O Club with farewell drinks and an almost offensive rendition of Thanks for the Memories. He hoped her refreshed appearance meant that Margaret had finally gotten some sleep. BJ wondered how she would fare after he left. She really didn't have many friends that she confided in, and she wasn't comfortable about it even when she did.
Margaret drew up next to him. “Is this it?”
BJ hefted the paper stack that Potter had handed him. “I have my traveling papers. As soon as I find my taxi driver, I can go.”
“Well, good luck.” To BJ Margaret looked indescribably sad, with her hands stuffed in her pockets and an abandoned look on her face.
On impulse BJ put an arm across her shoulders, guiding her into a slow walk. “Are you going to be okay?”
“Oh, I don't know.” Margaret brushed her cheek, so quickly that BJ couldn't tell if she'd swept away a tear or not. “In the Army you get used to people coming and going. I was used to coming and going. Then, for a little while, it wasn't like that. I had ... people that I cared about. This latest thing, with you leaving, is just life returning to normal. People come and go. I was a fool to think that would ever change.”
BJ hugged her across the shoulders. “It doesn't have to be that way. You can keep in touch with people, if they really mean something to you.”
“That's a nice thought, but sometimes you just can't.”
BJ knew she was referring to Hawkeye, and bit back a response. He could hardly refute her when she was so obviously correct.
“I've been thinking,” Margaret said.
“My future. I don't want to stay in the Army any more.”
BJ halted in surprise. “You'd give up being a major?”
Margaret spread her arms. “I'd give up this -- dismal postings, a life continually on the move so I can never get close to anyone -- the pain.” Her eyes were tearing up. “I really have had enough of pain. I've seen enough hate and killing, and more than I can stand of good men getting maimed and hurt. And not even men in some cases -- boys!” She blinked back the tears without letting them fall.
BJ was only slightly less amazed after her explanation. He asked, “What would you do?”
Margaret dabbed her nose. “I want to work in a hospital -- in a nice, clean hospital in the states. I'd still want to stay in surgery, but I'd really like to get away from this.”
BJ squeezed her shoulders, then pulled her into a hug. Margaret was a great hugger; pity she didn't do it more often. In a moment he felt her begin to chuckle. He pulled back to see her face. “What's up?”
“I'm such a baby. Look at me.”
“Nonsense.” BJ patted her back. “Anyone would feel a little low after treating several thousand casualties.”
Margaret laughed, blotting the corners of her eyes. “I'm going to miss you, BJ.”
“Keep in touch,” he said sternly.
“I'll do my best.”
The sound of an engine drew their attention. Klinger drove a jeep around to the front of the Swamp. Father Mulcahy was sitting in the passenger seat, with a load of boxes taking up half the back seat behind him. Klinger brought the jeep to a halt with a squeal of brakes, then jumped out. Father Mulcahy turned around and began fussing with the stack of boxes, while Klinger came around to assist him.
BJ turned back to Margaret. “It looks like my ride's here.”
Margaret embraced him. “Good luck, BJ. We'll let you know if we hear anything.”
“I'll do the same.”
Then, because it looked like she needed it, BJ stooped and gave her a peck on the lips. Her surprised smile and blush were an ample reward for his forwardness. BJ grinned, then jogged toward the jeep.
Klinger looked up at the sound of footsteps. “Oh, Captain, there you are. We'd better get going, sir, if we're going to make your report time of eleven-hundred hours.”
“Relax, Klinger, I'm all packed. Just let me get my bag.”
Father Mulcahy tipped his hat. “Good morning, BJ. I hope you don't mind if I share a ride with you as far as the orphanage. I wanted to bring down a few packages of clothing and some canned goods.”
“Father, I'd love your company. Save some room for me in the back seat.”
“Need a hand with anything?” asked Klinger.
“Just the stuff from the supply room,” BJ said.
Klinger patted a foot locker tucked in next to Father Mulcahy's boxes. “Right here, sir.”
“All right. I won't be a minute.”
He pushed open the door to the Swamp. Langley was asleep, having come off the night shift a few hours before. Charles was reading at his desk. At BJ's entrance, he set down the book and rose. “Hunnicutt.”
Charles followed BJ over to his bunk. “Not to needlessly repeat what I said last night,” he said quietly, “but I do wish you the very best of success in your future endeavors.”
“Same to you, Charles.”
BJ shook his hand. Charles actually looked affected by BJ's departure. Well, he'd unbent a lot during the last couple of months, enough so that BJ thought he might actually miss him a little bit after all. He guessed that sometimes people do change. Charles had been going out of his way to be a responsible chief surgeon, and there had been that amazing conversation with Margaret a moment ago. BJ regretted having to miss any further developments. Yet it was inevitable. He was moving on.
Yesterday BJ had returned the framed picture of Hawkeye's parents to his former bunkie's foot locker, along with his remaining personal effects. BJ had arranged to store it at the 121st, which had a lot more storage space and was far less likely to move than the 4077th. The snapshot of Hawkeye he had placed in his suitcase next to Peg and Erin's. But there was one thing he'd left until the last moment.
BJ faced the cluttered still. All these tributes to Hawkeye, the nickels and mementoes, should remain here. They were expressions from the 4077th to Hawkeye, and BJ didn't feel right in taking them. But one thing he did want. Gently he lifted the dog tags from where they had dangled for more than a month over the fixings bowl. They tinked against the glass, the sound muffled by the packed nickels inside. BJ tucked them into his pocket.
He turned back to find Charles looking at the floor. BJ said, “You're sure you don't mind leaving the still here?”
“Consider it the 4077th‘s candle burning in the window.”
“Thank you, Charles.”
“Not at all, Hunnicutt. While Pierce and I were not particularly close, I did admire his professional abilities. I intend to preserve this humble setup as a reminder of his dedication to medicine and his concern for the welfare of his patients.”
BJ felt a genuine smile creep onto his face. “Charles, did I hear you right, or did you just commit to being inspired by the still?”
Charles looked startled, then chuckled. “Yes, I suppose I did. Perhaps my Korean experiences have affected me more than I realized.”
“If that's true, then perhaps you wouldn't mind hanging onto this.” BJ lifted a bottle that had been sitting next to the crate that he'd used as an end table. He handed it across to Charles. “This is the last of the old still vintage. Perhaps you might store it for me. Crack it out in case Hawkeye ever does come back this way.”
“Hunnicutt, it will be my pleasure.”
BJ raised a brow. “Seriously?”
“Undeniably. If ever a vintage should be stored out of sight and not drunk, this one certainly qualifies.”
BJ grinned. “Thank you, Charles.”
BJ tucked his traveling papers into his suitcase, then grabbed its handle and the strap of his duffle bag. Charles held the door for him, nodding as BJ passed.
It felt final then, for the first time, as BJ heard the door to the Swamp rap shut behind him. Klinger grabbed his duffle bag and slung it into the gap behind the passenger seat. BJ wedged himself into the remaining space between Hawkeye's foot locker and the door, placing his suitcase on his lap. He was relieved that Father Mulcahy had chosen to come along. This way he could sit quietly in the back seat, and not feel obligated to make small talk with anyone as they pulled away.
Several of the nurses and Tuck had drifted out of the post-op ward to wave goodbye. BJ waved back, wishing they could just get on with it. He'd already said his parting words the night before; he had run out of words. Finally Klinger started the motor and the jeep pulled away. BJ couldn't help looking back at the Swamp one last time, and at the signpost outside. He noticed Winchester's face peering like a ghost through the mosquito netting behind it.
BJ turned around, and spotted Margaret, standing all alone in the shadow of the building next to the pre-op ward. She lifted a hand in farewell, looking ready to cry. Good, he didn't want to be the only one. BJ returned the gesture, until the curving road hid her from view. Rosie's Bar flashed by on his right. Then it was gone. No more MASH, no more Ouijongbu.
He turned and faced the back of Klinger's head. Scrubby trees flicked by on either side. The dust from the road drifted over his Class A uniform, penetrating his nasal passages and coating his tongue with the bitter taste of defeat.
Hawkeye awoke in the early evening. The toy man roused him by shaking his good arm. “Yovo sayo,” he said, with variations.
Groggily Hawkeye sat up. His leg felt better, but his arm was burning. Hawkeye pointed to the bandage on his left bicep, then mimed opening a sack. “Medical bag?” he asked.
The little man nodded, then turned and crept out the low-slung door. Hawkeye heard him calling outside. More awake now, he noticed the aroma of cooking. Maybe they would let him eat something.
The young man who had helped him off the truck appeared, temporarily blocking the door. He knelt beside Hawkeye and presented the bag.
“Kam za mi dah,” Hawkeye said in his limited Korean vocabulary. The young man bowed.
Hawkeye got out the alcohol, then looked over the bullet wound that had just creased the biceps brachii and brachialis. Not too bad. It would be awkward to try to pour alcohol over it. Hawkeye tried to position himself to not spill any overflow onto the straw mat.
The young man divined what he was doing, and motioned for the bottle. Hawkeye held out his arm, and the fellow poured. Hawkeye jumped at the shock. Good thing he wasn't holding the bottle, or he might have dropped it. When he could unclench his teeth, he thanked the young man again. His helper nodded, and put the alcohol away.
Hawkeye decided to put a couple of tape strips across the wound, but otherwise leave it open. It had to be better than binding it with that cloth. The young man watched him as he laboriously cut and positioned a strip of tape. Hawkeye said, “You're a doctor in the making, aren't you?”
The young man just eyed him. Hawkeye held out the tape to him. The young man took it, and completed a crisscross pattern under Hawkeye's direction. The entire operation took only about a third of the time that it would have taken Hawkeye to do it by himself. “Kam za mi dah,” Hawkeye repeated sincerely. He wished he could say more. For now, he'd have to get by with smiling a lot -- after he got over wincing from the alcohol.
When the medical supplies were packed away, the young man assisted him outside. The village had turned out for a picnic, gathering around a large pot over a fire in the central clearing. He was a little dubious about the fire, but guessed that the surrounding hills would shield it from any unfriendly eyes. Besides, Hawkeye wasn't about to argue -- he was certain that he smelled meat. Were they having a feast in his honor?
Apparently so. His helper seated him near the fire. The toy man approached, carrying two steaming bowls. He handed a bowl to Hawkeye, bowing as he presented it.
“Kam za mi dah,” Hawkeye said again, grateful to Mr. Kwang for teaching him the phrase.
They were serving millet mush, the same thing that his guards had fed him on their southward journey. Hawkeye suspected that this evening's meal was courtesy of the North Korean military. They had dressed it up with vegetables and some kind of meat that it was better not to wonder about. Dog, perhaps. Well, he could certainly use the protein.
The toy man squatted on his heels next to him. Fearful to violate protocol, Hawkeye waited until the old man began to eat before attacking his own portion. He decimated it in a few seconds. Afterwards he sat back, the feel of warm food in his belly intensely satisfying. He could see more of the stew in the pot, but was afraid to ask for it. Instead, he started to study the villagers.
They were a ragged bunch, probably refugees from some other area. There were about thirty in the band. Hawkeye would have considered them outlaws if it weren't for the women and children. The women were leery and remained on the opposite side of the fire, but the children were curious. Now and again one approached, but whenever Hawkeye reacted to the little scout, he or she scurried away to the safety of his fellows.
The toy man took Hawkeye's bowl and left. Hawkeye beckoned toward the nearest child. The little boy hid his face and dashed off. A little girl, however, came closer. She was so tiny she seemed like a sparrow. In the failing light, Hawkeye could see a couple of dry, scaly spots on her face. Pellagra? He urged the child toward him until she close enough for him to touch. Gently he tilted her face toward the campfire. One of the sores had started to bleed.
The toy man returned with another bowl of food. Hawkeye took it, then pointed at the child's sore. “Pellagra,” he told the man. The old man merely watched him. Hawkeye dipped into his bowl and routed out a piece of meat with his chopsticks. He held it up so the man could see it. “Protein,” he said. “You give this to them,” and he pointed again at the little girl's face. He then held out his chopsticks so she could take the meat.
The little girl hesitated, but at encouragement from the old man, she accepted the tidbit. She immediately scampered away, then looked back at Hawkeye, chewing and giggling. Hawkeye nodded and smiled.
The toy man gestured across the circle, beckoning to the others. A couple of children shyly approached; others were pushed forward by their mothers. Before long the whole group had descended on him. Hawkeye tried to do a visual check of each child, looking for signs of avitaminosis. About half the children appeared to have deficiencies of some kind, with two more kids and one of the mothers showing signs of pellagra or ariboflavinosis. For those children, he made a point of getting the mother's attention, if he could identify her, then showed her a sliver of meat before he fed it to the child. For the rest, he just divided up his dinner among them.
When everything was gone, and it didn't take long to clear one bowl among ten children, the toy man ordered them away. He produced a pipe and got something disgusting, probably manure, to reek at the end of it. He offered Hawkeye a puff, which he (politely, he hoped) declined. The man then got to business.
“Ouijongbu,” he said, then a bunch of other stuff followed by shaking his head.
Hawkeye was starting to get the message that Ouijongbu was out. He tried something else. “Seoul?”
The man stared at him. "Kyongsong," he said, or something like it.
Kyongsong -- was that a different town? “Seoul,” Hawkeye repeated.
"Kyongsong," said the old man. Well, at least he was consistent. Then he talked some more, and maybe Hawkeye was finally getting the knack of Korean, because he thought he heard a word in there that he recognized.
“Inchon?” Hawkeye ventured.
The old man nodded. “Inchon” (only with a slightly different pronunciation, no doubt the correct one), followed by some other stuff and then "Kyongsong" again.
“Inchon,” Hawkeye said. “Coast. Yellow Sea.”
“Inchon,” the old man confirmed.
Well, okay, maybe they were near the coast. In that case, it would make more sense to try to reach Ouijongbu via Inchon and Seoul then attempting an overland approach through the front lines. That is, assuming he was still in North Korea, which he must be. UN planes continued to patrol the area. The raiding party had hid every time a plane flew over, but that was only prudence. A pilot could assume that any party on the ground was an enemy on this side of the line. It didn't seem very practical for Hawkeye to try to flag down a jet, certainly not while wearing such a Chinese-looking uniform. He'd be strafed long before they realized he was an American.
“Okay,” said Hawkeye. “Tomorrow you take me to Inchon.”
“Inchon,” the old man said, then offered him another chance at the pipe.
Ah, what the hell. Hawkeye took it, and experimentally drew in a tiny puff. He fought back the impulse to spit, doing his best to expel the smoke gracefully. That stuff tasted just as awful as he'd thought it would. What a rotten thing to do after dinner.
The next morning Hawkeye woke feeling feverish and weak. He was worried about not being fit enough to make the trip, but it appeared that no one was ready to leave yet. The raiding party seemed content to heal their wounds and feast off their plundered rations. Hawkeye determined to take it easy, fearful of getting a relapse of whatever fever it was that he'd had two weeks ago. Paik had barely pulled him through that, and he'd had the facilities of a hospital at his disposal. These people had the facilities of roughly zilch. However, they shared their morning and evening meals with him, which was generous. No more dog, but they tossed some roots and potatoes that had been saved over the winter into the pot. Hawkeye ate what they gave him, and slept most of the day.
The next day the fever was gone, although he still felt weak. Fortunately he didn't have to go anywhere that day, either. Word must have gotten out in the neighborhood, because another whole village of twenty or so people wandered up the trail, no doubt a partner clan to this one that was hiding out in the same area. They were mostly mothers with children, and a couple of men who had wounds of various kinds. Hawkeye spent the day looking over the parents and children for disease and trying to impart to the mothers the best course of treatment. Unfortunately a sufficient diet was needed to handle most of the problems, something it seemed unlikely that they would be able to manage. He could do nothing for old wounds except verify the extent of the damage and try to indicate reassurance. He longed to reset a badly knitted humerus, but out here it was foolishness to try to break and reset a bone. More recent wounds he cleansed with alcohol, but only one of the men had anything recent enough that he could stitch.
The third day he actually felt better. His hospital slippers had been shredded from his journey over the rocks, so one of the women adapted a pair of sandals to accommodate his larger-than-Korean-sized feet. His injuries were slow to heal, but they appeared to be holding their own against infection. That day he played with the children and looked over their hurts again. He checked over their food supply, but there was very little dietary advice he could offer via sign language. Their food appeared to be limited to what had been dried and stored over winter, and whatever the various foraging parties could steal. It was too early for their gardens to supply much in the way of vegetables, even assuming that they could cultivate a garden in this rocky soil. Hawkeye could only figure that they were hiding from conscription into the North Korean army. He wished them luck. From what he could tell, this whole area would be part of North Korea for some time to come.
On the fourth day, the toy man must have decided that Hawkeye was well enough to travel. When they sat down to breakfast, Hawkeye noticed that two of the men were carrying a machine gun and a pistol respectively. The latter was the young man who'd shown such an interest in Hawkeye's medicine. They ate their small meal with minimal conversation. At the end of it, the toy man brought Hawkeye a small canvas bag. Hawkeye opened it to find a measure of millet meal. He bowed and thanked his host. Considering their poverty, the gift of food was magnanimous indeed.
After breakfast the toy man drew a map for Hawkeye on the ground. Hawkeye understood from it that he'd have to travel west to a river, then follow the river to the sea. There were some islands near the mouth of the river that they were to go around, making for a city on the mainland coast below.
“Inchon,” the old man said about it, then drew a dot further inland with his stick. “Kyongsong.”
“Seoul,” said Hawkeye. “I get it. Thank you.”
"Kyongsong," the man repeated.
“Yes, thank you.” Hawkeye bowed. “Kam za mi dah.”
The toy man acknowledged in kind, then rose. Awkwardly Hawkeye got to his feet, favoring his hurts. One final bow, and the farewells were done. Hawkeye waved goodbye to the kids, who had lost their fear of him over the preceding days. The young man with the pistol brought Hawkeye a walking stick. With the man with the machine gun in front, and his young “doctor” friend behind, Hawkeye walked stiffly down the narrow trail, heading for the river and Inchon.
Monday, April 27, night
The move went well, and I'm safely settled in at the 121st Evac Hospital. It about broke my heart to leave the 4077th, but already I feel a bit lighter. I think this will be a good move, although it will take some getting used to.
For one thing, this hospital is huge. They've got five hundred beds filled at any given time, compared to our MASH's daily average of about ten. Of course, we overcrowd our 60-bed capacity during a deluge, but this place can easily hold a few hundred more. It's funny, but this posting almost feels like returning to a hospital in the States. The pace is slower, and everything is much cleaner. The patients have real beds, and the doctors actually follow a schedule. My new boss, Dr. Sweeney, will be having me assist him for a while so I can learn the new procedures. After I get settled in I'll move to the second shift, which is fine by me. I'm actually looking forward to the peacefulness, I even want to say the loneliness, of a night shift.
It's evening now, Peg, and it's so quiet. Even at night in the MASH there was always noise -- conversation from people crossing the compound, the sentries making their rounds, the periodic roar of ambulances or jeeps passing by only a few feet from our heads, with only a thin canvas wall to shield the sound of their motors. Here, I share a room with a guy who supposedly is named Bob, but whom I've yet to see because he's currently on leave. As a result I put away my clothes in complete silence, or the nearest thing to it. The wooden walls block almost all sound from the compound outside. I keep noticing the ceiling, how strange it is to have a solid roof over my head. Occasionally traffic passes by outside, and the lights crawl across the ceiling. As opposed to the MASH, where the lights beam right through the walls into your eyes and wake you up. But there are no battle emergencies here. We know when the wounded are coming, who they are, and what their injuries consist of. Sufficiently equipped teams are ready to greet them when they arrive. It almost feels like cheating.
I think I'll like it here. I haven't met too many people yet, but the ones I have seem friendly and professional. Actually I'm not much in the mood to make new friends. I feel the need for some quiet reflection. Or maybe not even reflection, just a letting go of all the things I've been worrying about for so long. I brought Hawkeye's things with me and put them in storage here. It almost feels as if I'm carrying him a little bit closer to home. In any case, I feel closer to home. Every day, Peg, I'll be sending kids back by ship through Inchon, or putting them on a plane to Japan. I wonder if they'd notice if I jumped aboard with the patients one of these days? In any case, it seems a lot easier to get to you from here. It's so crazy. Just a few hours by air, and I could be in your arms. Yet here I stay. Could you please explain the logic of that to me?
Okay, my eyes are finally closing. Tomorrow I hit the OR, ready to learn something new. I wish I could be learning it in California. Maybe it won't be too long now, darling. I think the negotiators are finally making progress. Give Erin a kiss for me.
All my love,
The trip to the river took three days. It wasn't that their pace was particularly slow. At least, it felt fairly sprightly to Hawkeye, during those periods that they walked. But they hid regularly -- from planes, NK patrols, even common villagers. Rural as much of the land was, there were still enough folks that it seemed they spent two hours hiding for every hour of forward progress. Hawkeye used these rest breaks to marshal his strength and sleep if he could. He still had a peculiar watery feeling in his joints that suggested his fever would happily return if he gave it an opportunity. But he was going home, and he couldn't afford to be sick. Whenever the word came to move out, he dragged his protesting body off the ground and headed down the next section of trail.
It was now deep twilight of the third day. Hawkeye sat on the side of a levee, following the negotiations between the older of his two escorts and the owner of a battered, 20-foot sampan that bobbed forlornly in the irrigation ditch. There was much quiet dickering back and forth. Hawkeye massaged his thigh. Travel had strained it and the stitches were tearing, but there wasn't a lot he could do about it. His arm was faring better, being spared some of the strain. He'd been so long used to the complaints from his ribs that he'd learned to ignore them. However the walk, being mostly downhill toward the sea, wasn't nearly as stressful as their original uphill flight had been. Hawkeye was relieved to see the boat. Maybe now he could rest.
Darkness fell, and still the men talked. It was warm enough for mosquitoes, and Hawkeye spent most of his time swatting them as he waited. He thought about supper, but his gift of millet meal was all but gone. He decided to save the remainder for the boat trip, assuming that he ever got permission to come aboard.
A fat, lopsided moon, very yellow, lifted itself over the horizon to his left. There was nothing in this river valley but war-ravaged plain. From the toy man's map Hawkeye guessed that they had passed through the region near Kaesong. He'd occasionally glimpsed towns between the irrigation ditches in which they hid. Everything had been bombed flat. Spring was returning to the fields, but the towns were dark, charred, and empty. No building worth the name had been left standing. It was a sobering sight, not made any warmer by the presence of that spectral moon rising over the blasted landscape.
The younger man recalled Hawkeye from his daydreaming by a touch on the shoulder. He nodded toward the boat. Wearily Hawkeye hitched himself up. Leaning heavily on his stick, he struggled up the steep grade toward the boat.
The captain, if such he could be called, had been joined by a lad of ten or so, probably his son. The boy scampered about the boat, making it ready. The captain jumped onto the deck, then pulled up a board over a bench that had been built against the cabin at one end of the sampan. He beckoned to Hawkeye, inviting him closer. Hawkeye glanced toward it, wondering what might be inside, when he suddenly understood what the captain was saying.
“You want me to get in there?”
The captain kept talking, gesturing. Doubtfully Hawkeye climbed over the gunwale, his young friend steadying him. He hobbled toward the bench and looked into the empty space. It smelled damp, but the moonlight made it impossible to see any details. The captain took Hawkeye's walking stick, then gestured for him to climb in.
Hawkeye looked at his two escorts. The older one stood impassively, but the young man echoed the captain's gestures for Hawkeye to climb in. Hawkeye guessed that they wanted him to be invisible in case they were stopped by any North Korean patrols, but the idea of crowding into such a small space as that set his teeth on edge.
Everyone was watching him. Oh well, here goes nothing. Hawkeye sat against the wooden side, braced himself, and lifted his legs over. A host of critters scurried away on the interior side, making his skin crawl. Hawkeye swept a sandaled foot around the floor trying to clear it of unwanted company, for all the good that might do. Which was worse to have crawling on him, bugs or rats? He decided that he was going to find out, because this looked like the only boat to Inchon that would honor his passport. Gingerly he lowered himself in.
He was taller than the bench was long, so he partially curled up on his right side. The wooden deck was damp as he'd suspected, and smelled of mold. Wonderful, let's see if we can add pneumonia to our list of infirmities. When the captain replaced the bench cover, it was all Hawkeye could do to hold himself in place. Darkness enveloped him. At least they didn't nail the bench down. Hawkeye lay there uneasily, feeling the air grow muggy in the confined space. Surely they couldn't keep him in here for very long. He'd suffocate.
The footfalls of his companions on deck were clearly audible through the wood. There was a squeak of wood against wood, then a curious sliding sensation. The captain and his son must be poling the sampan down the ditch. That meant that his two escorts were back on their way home. Hawkeye fretted in his latest prison. He wished that he could trust this boat captain as much as he did the people in the village. He didn't like the thought of placing his life in the hands of someone who had to be argued into taking him, and then only as a sardine in a wooden can.
Something tickled next to Hawkeye's face, and he smacked it with his fist. He didn't succeed in killing it; whatever it was squirmed away. This was a nightmare. The squeaking of poles and swaying motion went on. Hawkeye tipped up his head, trying to find some better air to breathe.
Charles stepped out the rear door of post-op for a breath of fresh air. It was mild enough that he didn't need a coat; the night air was actually invigorating after the contrived warmth of post-op. He stood with his hands in the pockets of his lab coat, appreciating the lofty beauty of a half-lit moon hanging whitely over the eastern ridge.
He turned to reenter the ward when he noticed that he wasn't alone in his appreciation of the heavens. A trim figure with a jacket over her bathrobe stood in the dark outside her tent, looking up. Charles altered his course and made his way to her.
“Margaret,” he said quietly. “You're up late.”
“Charles. Yes, I know.” She rubbed her hands over her arms.
“Yes. Well, not really, but I've been out here a while.”
“Just thinking.” She smiled, but in the dim light that reached her from the spotlight outside post-op, her expression appeared sad.
Charles positioned himself companionably next to her. “May I inquire as to the nature of your thoughts?”
Margaret was hardly forthcoming at the best of times, and lately she'd kept more to herself. She rarely ate with the officers anymore, except for Father Mulcahy or Colonel Potter. Charles might have suspected that she was avoiding him, except that Potter had mentioned something about her evasiveness in passing after one of their staff meetings. Pierce or Hunnicutt would never have let the situation continue. Let's see, what could he do, in his own inimitable style?
“Margaret,” said Charles, “you're entitled to your privacy of course. However, if you would like to ... unburden yourself of anything, the present time would be commodious.”
Margaret's expression warmed. “That's sweet of you. But there really isn't anything on my mind.”
Charles cocked an eyebrow at her.
“Really,” Margaret insisted.
“Then perhaps you'd care to share with me what isn't on your mind.”
Margaret laughed. “You're as bad as BJ.”
Charles blinked. Apparently his tactic had worked too well. “Thank you.”
“Oh, Charles.” Margaret jiggled his arm, then stood next to him, returning her gaze to the moon. “I was just thinking about what day it is.”
“May 4th?” asked Charles.
“May 3rd,” said Margaret.
“Not since midnight.”
“I know. It's just that May 3rd was the last day of the prisoner exchange.”
The light dawned. “Ah, yes.” He looked down at Margaret. “And Pierce wasn't returned.”
“I knew he wouldn't be,” said Margaret. “But part of me kept hoping that he would.” She shrugged. “Just ... hoping.”
Charles was moved. “You think about him a lot, don't you?”
“Yes. Don't you?”
Charles's automatic reaction was to deny it, but he thought it through. Every morning he rose to the sight of the nickel-filled still and Pierce's bathrobe. It was as if the man's spirit still lingered about the tent, even though his physical presence had gone.
Charles said slowly, “Each day, when I assume my duties, it is my intention to fulfill them with something of the dedication and passion that Pierce brought to the same role.”
Margaret's pale eyes glimmered up at him. “Really?”
Margaret looked thoughtful. “I had no idea.”
“Based on that remark, I can only suppose that I've failed.”
Margaret clucked her tongue. “Charles, I didn't mean that! You know, you really are doing a very decent job -- much better than I expected.”
“Your endorsements this evening are too flattering.”
“I didn't mean it that way. I meant -- take for example the way you helped out Langley and Tuck when they arrived. That was really decent of you, not to mention essential. I don't think I ever thanked you for that.”
“I only did what had to be done.”
“There was a time not too long ago when the only thing you ever did was your regular shift or required OD duty.”
Charles felt the truth of her statement too keenly, and shifted away from the uncomfortable ground. “I must have been obeying that old Army maxim, `never volunteer.'”
“Well, I'm glad you volunteered that time.”
They stood for a while in silence, gazing at the moon. Charles stirred. “I suppose I should return to my shift. Any parting thoughts?”
“The moon isn't that small tonight.”
Margaret smiled. “It's nothing. Something BJ said once.” She pulled open the door to her tent. “Good night.”
Charles backed away uncertainly. “Good night, Margaret.”
The boat journey was interminable. Thank God he didn't have to stay curled up in the bin the whole way. Apparently the captain only wanted Hawkeye locked out of sight when they passed through a town. He'd stopped the boat not too long after Hawkeye had boarded to take on supplies. About twenty minutes after they were underway again, the plank was removed and Hawkeye allowed to clamber out. The captain wanted him to stay in the cabin or flat on the deck, even though they traveled mostly by night. Whenever they approached a town, Hawkeye was again sealed into the bench seat as a precaution.
Escaping the mouth of the river on day three was the hairiest part. The captain apparently intended to slip out on the morning tide with the fishing fleet. Hawkeye had been locked away for most of the previous night, the riverside traffic having steadily increased as they approached the bay. Dawn was announced by a crack of light along the front edge of the plank, at which point Hawkeye had been hidden for several hours. The boat creaked and felt strangely skittish on the deeper water, guided by a homespun sail that looked like it had never seen a good day in its life. The hours wore on, and Hawkeye wondered if they would let him out soon. Surely they must be out to sea by now.
All at once he heard voices calling. The hails grew gradually louder, as if they were approaching a dock or another ship. Something knocked against the wooden side of the boat. The gunwale scraped loudly. There was a pause, followed by the heavy tramp of booted feet. Hawkeye's heart rate went sky high. For minutes the heavy footfalls on deck had his heart in his throat. Fortunately this turned out to be some sort of cursory inspection, because the boarding party left after only a brief visit. Hawkeye remained in his hiding place all day, for once not minding the claustrophobic quarters or its icky little denizens that made him jump as they tried to conduct their business around or beneath him. The truth was, he was so unnerved by the boarding incident that, when they did pull off the plank shortly after sundown, he was reluctant to climb out.
The blast of salt air was invigorating, the sky still molten from where the sun had set across the sea. Hawkeye's limbs were so cramped that he could scarcely move them. The captain and his boy hauled him out limp as a dead cat and laid him on the deck. Hawkeye lay on his back drinking in the fresh air, and even more greedily consuming the water they offered him. His food had run out the day before, but the two boatmen had been fishing. Hawkeye thought very few meals tasted as good as his snack of fresh sushi, eaten right off the hook.
He was left free that night. Mostly he dozed on the deck on a thin straw mat, with a piece of sailcloth over him to ward off the breeze. When dawn approached they gave him some more of their fish, then shooed him into the cabin. They were sailing south in sight of land, but in the predawn light Hawkeye could see the fishing fleet setting forth. All day he kept out of sight in the relative comfort of the cabin, except for those times when another vessel came too near, and he was herded into the hole for another round of waiting and hiding. This was the pattern for the next three days.
He was sleeping in the cabin when the sound of voices jolted him awake. Light was broad in the sky. The voices were close -- seemingly right next to the boat. A heavy boot hit the deck.
Hawkeye rolled off the bunk to the floor. He crouched there, desperate. Unfortunately, there was no place to hide. Every nook in the tiny cabin was filled with the supplies or tackle needed for the crew. He cowered next to the bunk. They were obviously being boarded again, but by whom? A North Korean patrol? If so, why hadn't the captain warned him?
Footsteps approached the cabin briskly, and the door was flung wide. Hawkeye stared at the opening, mesmerized. A uniformed man looked in.
The man was Korean, but Hawkeye didn't recognize the uniform. It had that clean look that can only be maintained by those who work on the sea, far from the all-pervasive grime that hounds those who labor on land. The man shouted at him and gestured. Hawkeye couldn't tell if he was angry or not. His expression was firm, but he didn't have a weapon drawn.
Slowly Hawkeye pushed himself up. He couldn't stand upright in the cabin, but limped toward the door. The man stood aside to let him pass.
The captain and his son stood near the front of the boat, fidgeting. They kept their gazes focused on the deck. The patched square sail had been furled. Their sampan was moored to a larger vessel, some kind of launch that had come alongside. On the deck of the launch, four more mariners in similar uniforms to the one who had opened the door stared down at him. Two of the men carried rifles; another wore a side arm.
Hawkeye walked stiffly toward the center of the sampan. He always limped until his leg had a chance to loosen up. The first man followed closely behind him. When they reached the middle of the deck, the man called. Hawkeye stopped and faced him. The man pushed back the quilted cloth around Hawkeye's neck, checking around his throat. It occurred to Hawkeye that the man was looking for dog tags. Finding nothing, the man stood back and eyed him.
“GI Joe?” he asked.
Hawkeye glanced at the captain and his son. If he said the wrong thing -- if these were North Korean sailors -- would they harm the others for having carried him this far?
“Oi!” the first man cried, nettled at being ignored. He pointed at Hawkeye's nose. “You ... GI Joe?”
Hawkeye cast a glance at the others. He had to say something. “I'm Captain Benjamin Pierce. I'm a surgeon -- a doctor.”
The man's expression didn't change.
If these were NKs, they'd never pass him through, regardless of what he said. Hawkeye felt his internal resistance fade. “Yes. Me GI Joe.”
The man stabbed his finger at him. “You!” Then he pointed at the launch.
There was nothing for it but to obey. Hawkeye hobbled toward the launch that dominated the creaky sampan. Seagulls coasted through the air, spreading their thin cries on the wind. There was an open gate in the launch's deck rail. A knotted line descended from the railing beside it to the sampan's deck. Hawkeye hoped he wouldn't have to climb up to the gate. With his luck he'd fall between the boats and be squished or drowned.
However, climbing was apparently the plan. As he approached the launch, one of the riflemen slung his weapon to extend a hand, as did the man with the pistol. The other rifleman stood back, his weapon held ready but not in an overtly threatening position. With the first man assisting from behind, and the two others pulling from above, they hauled Hawkeye through the open gate in two big steps. Hawkeye sucked in his breath as the movement caused pain to spear his arm and sides, then it was over.
Up on the taller deck, he could finally see what the launch had previously obscured. The bay was covered with seagulls, hovering in loud hordes over numerous small boats. Beyond them lay an extensive network of docks, including a mammoth platform at which was moored a sizable military ship. Beyond the docks a good-sized town hugged the base of rolling wooded hills that dropped steeply to the water. The sun hadn't risen far above the eastern hills. Hawkeye could see people moving like ants on the streets along the shore.
Hawkeye pointed at the town. “What city is that?”
The rifleman beside him stared. Apparently he knew as much English as Hawkeye knew Korean.
Hawkeye persisted. “City, town, that one. What's its name?”
The man lifted his chin toward land. “Inchon.”
“Inchon.” Hawkeye let out the name with a breath. Inchon. South Korea. He'd made it. He was free.
Hawkeye began to laugh.
Sherman was heading across the compound toward his office when he heard the announcement.
“Paging Colonel Potter,” said Klinger's sarcastic voice over the PA. “There's someone on the telephone who can't wait to speak to you.”
Sherman picked up his pace, and in a moment pulled open the office door. Klinger saw him and rose, phone in hand.
“Inchon Port Authority calling,” he said.
“Inchon! What do they want?”
“You, oh noble sir. You want to take this in your office?”
Sherman waved him off and took the phone. “This is Colonel Potter. Who's this?”
“I am Chang Kon-sang of the Inchon Port Authority,” said the voice on the line. “I wondered if you would help to identify someone for me.”
“Identify someone?” Sherman said, to Klinger's interest. “Who?”
“One moment, please.”
There was the sound of rustling, then a new voice came on the line. A familiar drawl said, “Hello, Colonel.”
For two heartbeats Sherman forgot to breathe. “Pierce?” he said tentatively.
“Well, I wouldn't swear to it in court,” Hawkeye responded, “although they just might make you do that.”
“Pierce!” Sherman clutched the phone, while beside him Klinger jerked upright with amazement. “Is it really you?”
“That's what the Port Authority is trying to find out. Apparently they don't let just anyone into this country who arrives via sampan smelling like a sardine.”
“Ho, Hawkeye!” Sherman couldn't remember when he had felt so relieved. “It's good to hear your voice, son!”
“Yours, too, Colonel. Believe me,” and now Sherman could hear the weariness in his former chief surgeon's words, “it's very good to hear.”
“How are you, son? What's your condition?”
“Uh huh.” Sherman could well imagine, based on Paik's reports, how “fair” Pierce's condition might be. Sherman would probably have to view the medical records to find out what the story really was. “How did you end up in Inchon?”
“I was rescued by some villagers while I was being moved from one place to another, and they hooked me up with a boat captain who got me across the border.”
“So you escaped?”
“More like I bumbled into some people who helped me escape.”
Beside him, Klinger had fired up the PA system. He now picked up the mike. “Attention, all personnel. I thought it might interest you to know that Captain Pierce is on the line. He's calling from Inchon harbor. You may now begin mandatory displays of spontaneous emotion.”
“I'd love to hear more about it, son,” Sherman told Hawkeye, “but we're about to become inundated.”
“With casualties?” asked Hawkeye, sounding concerned.
“With partying personnel,” said Sherman. “Klinger just made this little howdy-do call public. But first, what do you need me to do?”
“Nothing further, Colonel. Mr. Chang here just needed someone to verify my identity before he passed me through. I asked them to take me to the 4077th, but --”
That was as far as Pierce got before the door crashed open. Everyone piled in -- corpsmen, nurses, officers. Within fifteen seconds the place was a madhouse, and Sherman hadn't a prayer of hearing anything on the line.
“Silencio!” he bellowed. “If you can't hold it down, take it outside!”
The bedlam decreased marginally. It was Klinger who came to the rescue. “Hey, everybody,” he yelled, “I'm switching to speakers.” He flipped a switch and called, “Dr. Pierce, are you there?”
Everyone shut up to hear the response. “Hello, Klinger,” said Hawkeye.
The place erupted with cheers. Sherman held out the phone so Pierce could get an earful. For himself, he stuck a finger in the ear nearest the door. People in front of him were laughing and crying. Margaret Houlihan had collapsed in tears, and was being held up forcibly by Father Mulcahy.
Sherman picked up the mike. “Did you get that, son?”
Hawkeye's response came over the speakers. “It sounds like you have the whole unit in there.”
“Damn near,” Sherman confirmed, talking over the renewed cheering. “What's your situation, son?”
“Well, as soon as we get off the phone, Mr. Chang has detailed a couple of guys to drive me over to the 121st. I was going to see if I could hitch a ride from there to the 4077th.”
“Ix-nay on the hitch, Pierce,” said Sherman, then spoke louder to override the resultant groans. “I think you'll get a fine reception at the 121st. Hunnicutt is there now.”
“BJ's at the evac hospital?” Pierce sounded apprehensive. “What happened?”
“He transferred over there just last week. He'll be tickled pink to hear that you're coming.”
“Does he have to?”
“What do you mean?” Sherman put it together. “Oh, I see. You want to surprise him.”
Sherman chuckled. “Well, if you insist. But you're responsible for resuscitating him if he collapses from the shock.”
“BJ can handle it. Besides, I still owe him for his latest joke.”
“Pierce, I know you need to rest up, but I don't think I can let you go without at least a few of the folks here having a word with you. Do you mind?”
“Do I mind?” Pierce's voice was almost drowned in the excited chatter. “I'd have to have a word with you if you said I couldn't have a word with them.”
Sherman passed the mike to Bigelow, who was closest. “We all miss you, Hawkeye,” she called. “Come back soon!”
“I'll do my best.”
The mike passed next to Father Mulcahy. “Hawkeye, hearing from you again is the answer to a lot of prayers. Welcome home.”
“Thank you, Father.”
Mulcahy handed the microphone to Margaret. Tears were streaming down her face. She seemed to be crying more than she was smiling. She held up the mike and tried to talk into it. Even though her lips moved, no sound came out.
“Hello?” Hawkeye queried.
Margaret opened her mouth, but again nothing came out but a soundless puff of air.
Father Mulcahy leaned close. “Hawkeye, this is Margaret trying to have a word with you.”
“I must have been gone a long time. You sound just like Father Mulcahy.”
Mulcahy handed back the microphone. “Go ahead, Margaret,” he said encouragingly. “Say hello.”
Margaret's third attempt was no more successful at producing communicable sound than the first two. Sherman chuckled, along with several others.
Mulcahy reclaimed the microphone. “Hawkeye, Margaret isn't able to speak at the moment. She's crying rather heavily, I'm afraid.”
“She's that upset that I'm back, huh?”
Margaret snatched the microphone from Father Mulcahy. She mouthed a vociferous response into the microphone that, unfortunately for her, was little more than a string of sibilants strung together by sound-free breaths.
Charles took the microphone. “In case you couldn't make that out, Pierce, you have just been roundly cursed out by the aforementioned Margaret Houlihan.”
“I wouldn't have it any other way.”
“For myself I would like to add that your bathrobe and still are ready to be picked up as soon as you find it convenient to do so.”
“Stop it, Charles. I'm getting all choked up.”
Sherman took back the mike. “I'm sure we could go on for another hour, Pierce, but you ought to get yourself over to the 121st and let Hunnicutt and the other folks there give you a good look-see.”
Sherman was distracted by an urgent tapping on his arm. Margaret was mouthing something, trying to make up for her lack of voice with expressive hand movements.
“Uh, Pierce,” Sherman said, “if I understand my sign language correctly, Margaret is asking if you would mind a little welcome-home visit from a few members of your old unit.”
“It's up to you, Colonel. If you want to waste a day driving down to see me, I'll happily see you in return.”
Sherman wasn't sure how to interpret that response. Most likely Hawkeye was reluctant to have a lot of people swarming over him when he was fresh off the boat. “Pierce,” he said, “we'll keep it small, no more than two or three of us. Does that sound acceptable?”
“It's your party, Colonel.”
“It will take us a little while to get organized. We'll probably get to Seoul no sooner than, oh --“ He checked the clock; it was shortly before ten. “Say half past noon.”
Hawkeye's voice cut easily across Margaret's silent protests. “Sounds good, Colonel.”
Hah, Sherman was right. Hawkeye would be much happier seeing people after he'd had a chance to clean up a little. Well, if Sherman could keep Margaret on a leash, it shouldn't be too hard to dampen the dust trails that the welcoming committee was so eager to burn behind them.
“And listen, Colonel?” Pierce continued. “Would you mind calling my dad? They don't want me calling the States from here, and I want him to know that I'm okay as soon as possible.”
“No problem, son,” said Sherman. “In fact, we could even delay our trip by another hour or so, and give you the chance to talk to him. I'm sure they'll let you place that call from the 121st.”
“I'd appreciate that, Colonel.”
Margaret subsided when Pierce mentioned his father. Thank you, Pierce, Sherman thought.
“And one more thing,” Pierce said. “I was wondering if you could arrange some sort of compensation for the boat captain. He ran a lot of risks getting me here.”
“Don't worry, Pierce,” said Sherman. “We'll work something out.”
“It would be nice if whatever you worked out included food and other supplies that he could bring back to the villagers up north. Half of them are starving.”
“I'll see what I can do.”
Igor leaned forward. “Speaking of starving, Captain, do you want me to fix you a nice lunch? The colonel can bring it with him when he comes.”
“No thanks, Igor,” responded Pierce. “I ate yesterday.”
Many in the group chuckled, but Sherman couldn't. Pierce's response was probably no more than the plain truth.
“All right, Pierce,” said Sherman. “We'll see you this afternoon, probably around thirteen-thirty. Are you sure you're up to it?”
“I think so. So far it doesn't seem real. I keep expecting them to whisk me off somewhere else.”
“Just so long as they don't whisk you farther than the 121st. Welcome home, son.”
“Thank you, Colonel. Goodbye, all.”
“Goodbye!” chorused the room, and Sherman cut the connection.
“All right,” he said, addressing the high-spirited assembly. “We'll pull out in two hours. Now, he's bound to be tired, and we don't want to overwhelm him with visitors. Major Houlihan and Father Mulcahy will accompany me. The rest of you, if you'd like to send along a little welcome-home thought, just give it to one of us.”
“Colonel,” cried Klinger. “Surely you don't mean to drive all the way to Seoul without an experienced driver at the wheel.”
Sherman shot him a look. “No, I don't. Fortunately, I'm damned experienced.”
Klinger deflated. “Yes, sir.”
“Relax, people,” said Sherman. “We'll try to arrange for Hawkeye to visit here soon.”
The group shuffled out the door, their momentary disappointment at being denied a visit more than compensated for by their relief at knowing that Captain Pierce was free. Sherman mulled the facts. If Pierce was in substandard shape -- and how substandard was anyone's guess at this point -- the last thing Sherman wanted to do was haul him around Korea. He intended for only the quietest and calmest members of his staff to visit Pierce this first time, except for Margaret, whom he doubted he'd be able to stop in any case. If he and Father Mulcahy pulled out alone, she'd be five minutes behind them with Klinger at the wheel.
“Klinger,” said Sherman, when the crowd had dispersed, “try to get a call through to the States. I want to tell Dr. Pierce that he can expect a call from his son.”
“Yes, sir.” Klinger cheerily picked up the phone.
“After that, we'll start spreading the word through I Corps.”
“My heart yearns to do thy bidding, Colonel. Only, what do you want me to tell them?”
Sherman sighed. “Tell them Captain Pierce is free. Any details beyond that will have to wait until later this afternoon.”