BJ looked up from the procedural write-up he'd been studying. Cassie, one of the nurses on Dr. Sweeney's team, stood in the doorway. “Yes?”
“There's a patient asking for you.”
BJ set the folder aside. “A patient asking for me?”
“That's what Admitting said, sir.”
“But I've only been here a week. No one knows to ask for me. Did they say who it is?”
Cassie shrugged. “Just some guy in ER 3.”
“ER 3.” BJ headed for the door, trying to puzzle out who might know about his transfer here. He paused in the hall, momentarily at a loss.
“He's in Admitting ward 1.” Cassie pointed down the hall. “Down the stairs, and keep going until you hit the back of the building.”
“Right. If you don't hear from me by noon, release the bloodhounds.”
BJ did in fact get turned around on the main floor, but a sympathetic nurse straightened him out. He knew he was in the right place when a clobber of people with charts and patients in wheelchairs made an obstacle course of the hall. He stopped at the main desk.
“ER 3?” he asked the duty nurse, an older woman with her hair in a severe bun.
The woman looked up, her face seemingly set in a perpetual glare. Sternly she pointed with her pencil down the hall.
“Thank you.” BJ backed away. He hoped he'd never have to work with her. He'd be living in a permanent state of fear.
The admitting rooms were not clearly labeled, so he popped his head into the first opening he came across. Some bandaged patients waited despondently within, some on chairs and a couple on gurneys, while hospital staff with clipboards circulated among them.
“May I help you?” asked a feminine voice at his elbow.
BJ turned. Another nurse, young and much less fierce looking, stood in the hall. “I'm looking for ER 3.”
“Oh, are you Dr. Hunnicutt?”
BJ felt relieved. “Yes.”
She smiled, the welcome in her face dispelling the feeling that BJ had begun to develop about being an intruder in his own hospital. “Right this way, Doctor. I've been sent to find you.”
“I'm glad. I was afraid they might need to get the dogs out after all.”
“It's a big place, I know.” She led him around a corner to a closed door. A small black plate with “ER 3” stenciled in white marked the door, but BJ didn't know how he could have possibly found it on his own. ERs 1 and 2 were nowhere in sight.
His guide knocked on the door and leaned in. “Visitor,” she lilted.
“Is it Dr. Hunnicutt?” answered a rough voice he didn't recognize.
“Yes, sir,” she answered.
“Send him in.”
Thoroughly bewildered, BJ stepped past her through the door. And halted.
Another white-coated staff member with a clipboard was seated on a metal folding chair across the small examining room. BJ registered him only as a blur, because his gaze was locked on the bedraggled figure that had just risen from the chair next to his. BJ took in the grimy, quilted uniform with a ragged blood-stained tear over the left thigh; the bare wrists and ankles showing recent scars protruding from the too-short tailoring; shaggy dark locks flecked with frost above a ratty two-week old beard; deep blue eyes in hollow sockets, the entire face chiseled to the point of emaciation, but softened by a careless grin that was all his own.
“Hawkeye!” BJ whispered.
In two steps BJ had closed the distance. It was the only possible antidote to astonishment -- the physical feel of Hawkeye's skinny ribs and shoulders, solid in his arms in defiance of all the arguments that insisted why he couldn't possibly be here.
BJ broke the embrace to hold his friend at arm's length. “Hawk, how did you get here?”
“Long story,” said Hawkeye. “What's up with your transfer to the 121st?”
“Long story,” said BJ. “But you have to tell me what happened. Did they trade you, or let you go, or --”
“Dr. Hobart here has the full story,” said Hawkeye. “The short version is that I was being moved somewhere and guerillas intercepted my truck. They arranged to get me across the border disguised as a mackerel in a sampan.”
“I thought I smelled fish, among other things.”
“Yeah, that's the current topic of discussion. Dr. Hobart wants to examine me first, and I want to take a shower. I say that there's no point in dressing in anything clean until I'm not quite so disgusting.”
“But you've always been disgusting, Hawk.” The words slipped out before BJ could stop them -- his old habit of bantering with his friend suddenly awakening from its dormancy to embarrass him.
But Hawkeye only laughed. BJ had thought he'd never hear that familiar cackle again. It was too much. All at once the world went blurry and he had to squeeze shut his eyes.
Hawkeye placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “It's okay, Beej. I'm all right.”
BJ nodded, unable to speak. They embraced again, patting each other's shoulders. BJ pulled away, struggling to force down the emotion.
“Look, Beej, you gotta help me.”
BJ wiped away brimming tears. “Sure, Hawk. Anything.”
“Some folks from the 4077th are coming down in a couple of hours. They didn't say for certain, but I'm pretty sure that Potter and Margaret are coming, and maybe one or two other people.”
“You already contacted the 4077th?”
“That's how they let me into the country. Potter fixed it for me. He's the one who told me you were here.”
BJ said sagely, “How long did it take for the news to spread all over camp?”
“I don't know. About a minute. Why?”
BJ chuckled. “Potter told me that I'd be the fortieth person to know you were back.”
“Oh, we're probably well into the fifties by now,” said Hawkeye, “if you count the Port Authority and the evac staff. But I have a problem.”
Hawkeye spread his hands. “Look at me. I look like some sort of refugee.”
“You look like you've been through hell,” said BJ.
“Exactly. And I don't ... I don't want to scare them by the way I look. By the time they get here, I want to be as normal looking as possible.”
BJ could hardly keep his jaw from dropping. “Hawk, they're going to notice a difference. What are you, forty pounds underweight?”
Hawkeye pretended to act offended. “Come on, Beej. It's not that bad.”
Dr. Hobart spoke up for the first time. “He weighs 122,” he said in his gravelly voice.
BJ jumped. “Hawk!”
“In light clothing,” Dr. Hobart added.
“Thanks a lot,” Hawkeye fired back at him. He turned back to BJ desperately. “Look, I only said as normal as possible. What do you say? Shower, haircut, shave --“
“Lunch,” said BJ significantly.
“The Port Authority fed me,” Hawkeye said. “Kimchi and roast pork. Do you know how long it's been since I've had meat? Trust me, I'm full.”
Dr. Hobart said, “I'll need some photographs of your original condition.”
“Fine, photograph me!” said Hawkeye. “Just get me into a shower as quickly as possible and you'll have a friend for life. Once I'm clean, you can examine me inside and out to your heart's content. Only squeeze some time in there somewhere for me to call my dad.”
“I'll see that that all happens,” said BJ, catching Dr. Hobart's eye. The other physician nodded.
“Then let's get started,” said Hawkeye. “We're on the clock.”
It was nearly fourteen-hundred hours when Sherman pulled the jeep up to the side entrance of the 121st, the one commonly used by staff and not patients. A group of about a dozen staff members in fatigues and white coats were scattered just outside the door, gossiping and smoking in the afternoon sun.
Sherman, Margaret, and Mulcahy climbed down from the jeep, as a corpsman rushed to greet them. “Take your jeep, sir?”
“Thank you, Private.”
As Mulcahy and Margaret collected their various bags, Sherman overheard some of the conversation on the steps.
“He was a POW for two months, and he lost over fifty pounds,” said one of the corpsmen.
The word POW caught Sherman's attention, and he listened more carefully.
“I believe it,” another one answered. “Who's the one who's seen him? A walking skeleton, she said.”
“That's what Nurse Wilson told me,” said a pretty young lieutenant. “She said they got the smallest pajamas they could find for somebody his height, and they hung on him like a tent.”
Mulcahy brushed close to Sherman. “Colonel, do you suppose they're talking about Hawkeye?”
Sherman frowned. “If they are, Padre, I suspect that they're exaggerating a might.”
“That don't surprise me,” said the first man, responding to the nurse. “You know how they got him across the border? Nailed him into the hold of a sampan. He was sealed up between the decks for six days and nights with no food or water. He's lucky he got out alive.”
The second corpsman said, “I heard they lowered fish down to him.”
The first corpsman said, “Well, maybe that's true. But I heard the NKs made it tough for him, on account of all the gooks he killed.”
“I thought he was a doctor,” the nurse said. “What makes you think he killed a lot of gooks?”
“'Cause he was in a firefight,” the man answered. “That's how he got all shot up. Those Commies don't take kindly to us kicking their asses, I tell you! That's why they beat him half to death with a piece of chain. Took the skin right off him, Nurse Wilson said.”
Margaret grabbed Sherman's arm. “Colonel!”
Sherman approached the principle speaker, Margaret and Mulcahy following a step behind. The group, noticing his bird, fell silent.
“Son,” Sherman said to the loudest talker, “do you know one sure sign of a fool?”
The corpsman stood rigidly, eyes ahead. “No, sir.”
“It's somebody who talks as if he knows something, without consulting the facts.” Sherman stepped past him, with Margaret and Mulcahy in tow. When they were inside the doors, he couldn't help muttering to himself, “Jackass!”
Margaret clutched his arm. “Colonel, those awful things he said happened to Hawkeye -- they aren't true, are they?”
“I highly doubt it,” Sherman answered. “Can you imagine Pierce shooting it out with anybody? I was there, you know, when we drove into an ambush. He wouldn't fire then even in self defense. That yahoo outside is just talking to make himself feel important.”
Margaret, still fretting, walked ahead. “This way, sir. He'll be on this ward.”
Sherman was content to follow Margaret's lead, her knowledge of the 121st's layout being fresher than his own. They wound down a couple of halls, then Margaret pointed. “Look. BJ.”
Hunnicutt was pacing slowly outside a closed door about halfway down the hall. As they rounded the corner, they caught his eye. He turned and met them halfway.
Margaret stretched out a hand. “BJ, hi. How is he?”
“Fine. Just finishing up a call to his father.”
“Is he hurt very badly?” Mulcahy cut in. “They were telling the wildest stories on the steps outside.”
Hunnicutt frowned. “I don't know about any wild stories. There's been a lot of interest in his case because of his escape.”
Margaret pounded his arm. “So how is he?”
“Thin,” said Hunnicutt. “You'll notice that right off. Hawkeye doesn't want to make a big deal about it, so try not to fuss. But he's down about forty pounds, so prepare yourselves.”
Mulcahy muttered, “That's better than fifty.”
Hunnicutt grunted. Obviously he had his own opinions about Pierce's weight loss. So did Sherman. Pierce was down a quarter of his normal weight. He'd normally be hospitalized for a while on that basis alone.
“What about his other injuries?” Sherman asked quietly.
“Paik's assessment was on target,” said Hunnicutt. “Hawk's got eight broken ribs, some dorsal and some ventral, so don't hug him too hard. That means you, Margaret. The ribs are healing, along with a hairline fracture of the zygomatic arch, but they're still tender. His bloodwork indicates malnutrition -- not surprisingly -- but no sign of any other problems. He's got an amazing constitution, considering what he's been through.”
“We heard something about bullet wounds,” said Mulcahy.
“He's got two,” Hunnicutt said, surprising Sherman, who had been ready to write the whole thing off as a rumor. “Both superficial, on the left-hand side, one in the arm and one in the leg. The thigh wound is the most serious, but I cleaned and reclosed it, and I think it will mend all right. He limps a bit from it, though. Both wounds were mildly infected so I've put him on antibiotics. He's got a variety of cuts and scrapes that could benefit from that as well.”
“When did Pierce get shot?” Sherman asked.
“You know the exchange that didn't come off?” said Hunnicutt. “It turns out that the truck he was riding in was ambushed that very morning. The guerillas killed everyone but Hawk, who fortunately was already on the floor when the shooting started.”
Margaret thumped Hunnicutt's shoulder. “See? I told you the exchange not working out wasn't your fault!”
“It would have been my fault,” Hunnicutt countered. “It's just that the guerillas struck before the folks in Songnim could tell the guys in the truck that the switch was off.”
“You don't know that,” Margaret insisted.
“It's a pretty safe bet,” said Hunnicutt. “The only thing that isn't my fault that the ambush made the lack of exchange not my fault.”
Mulcahy murmured, “And I thought I was hard on myself.”
The door Hunnicutt had been guarding down the hall opened. An angular figure in a dark blue hospital robe over light blue pajamas stepped out. He looked the wrong way first. “Beej?”
Margaret gave a little yelp and rushed forward. Pierce turned toward the sound of footsteps. His normally lean face was outright gaunt, but his smile was the same. He saw Margaret and laughed, holding out his arms.
Margaret launched herself toward him and threw her arms around his neck. At least she'd restrained herself enough not to knock him over. Pierce gathered her into his arms, rocking her while she whispered what were probably the sort of inanities that are best left private. Pierce grinned as the other three came up, and winked at Sherman over Margaret's shoulder.
Sherman was having a hard time grinning back. He'd been warned, but Pierce's emaciation was still shocking. It would take months to get him back to a reasonable weight. Sherman noted the swelling under the left eye, no doubt a result of his fracture. He also noticed the bandages around Pierce's thin wrists, something Hunnicutt had left out of his report. Sherman couldn't help wondering what other details had been omitted.
Margaret finally released her grip on Pierce's neck, but she didn't let go of him. She turned within the circle of his arms, putting her left arm around his waist as she wiped away tears with her free hand.
“Colonel, Father,” Pierce greeted them. “Thanks for coming.”
Mulcahy said in a rush, “It's wonderful to see you, Hawkeye. We've all been so very worried. The 4077th hasn't been the same since you left.”
Sherman was becoming sensitive to the crowd that was beginning to form at the end of the hall. Patients and staff alike lingered at the intersection, no doubt curious to see the “POW.” Sherman put out his arms to scoot his party along. “Let's get out of the hall, boys and girl. Pierce, shall we step into your room?”
“Absolutely. It's a lovely little place just big enough for five. Or, if we were staying in North Korea, fifty.” Pierce limped through the door, turning sideways to accommodate Margaret, who was still attached to his right side. Sherman shook his head. What a set of contradictions that woman was.
Pierce had been given a private room, doubtless because he hadn't been debriefed yet. There were no windows, but the standard-sized hospital bed was neatly made and there were three extra chairs, a wooden one in the corner and two folding chairs set to either side of a small table. A door to a tiny lavatory completed the Spartan setup.
Pierce limped across the room then, unable to sit down because Margaret still had her arm around him, leaned against the edge of the bed. Margaret hardly seemed aware of it. She continued to hug him, dabbing at her eyes. At least she'd stopped crying for the moment. Hunnicutt shut the door behind them.
Mulcahy walked toward the little table, chattering perkily. “As I was about to tell you, Hawkeye, you have been sorely missed. My bag is absolutely brimming with letters and good wishes from everyone at camp.”
“You got my bathrobe and the still in there?” Pierce joked.
Mulcahy set his heavy bag on the table and began to rummage inside. “Actually, I do have a gift from Major Winchester.”
“A gift?” Pierce raised his brows at Hunnicutt. Hunnicutt bobbed his shoulders in token of ignorance.
“Yes, here it is.” Mulcahy retrieved what was obviously two liquor bottles independently wrapped in newsprint.
“He spared no expense, did he?” Pierce commented, provoking a chuckle from Hunnicutt.
Mulcahy extended the thicker bottle first. “He said this one is for here.”
Pierce extended his free hand.
“I'll get it,” said Hunnicutt, probably reacting to the fact that Margaret showed no signs of releasing Pierce yet, which would severely hamper the use of his right arm. Hunnicutt tore off the wrapping, then laughed. He held up an unlabeled bottle filled with clear liquid. “Hawk, you know what this is?”
Pierce shook his head.
“The very last drop ever brewed in the still. I poured it off and corked it up a couple of days after you didn't come back from the line.”
Pierce seemed surprised. “You stopped using the still?”
Mulcahy said, “It gradually turned into a place where people left little mementoes of you. I have many of those now in my bag.”
Hunnicutt said, “The still itself is filled with nickels.”
Pierce looked puzzled. “Why nickels?”
Hunnicutt shrugged. “It's sort of a `penny for your thoughts' kind of thing.”
“Then why didn't you use pennies?”
“You were away. Long-distance thoughts cost more.”
Sherman was relieved that Hunnicutt didn't give away the real meaning of the nickels. Pierce might not be too comfortable knowing that his will had been read while he was still alive.
“Yes, people have certainly been sending urgent thoughts your way,” said Mulcahy. “We must have over four hundred dollars in nickels now, if you count everything in OR and Rosie's.”
Pierce's eyes went round. “Four hundred dollars?”
Mulcahy was casual. “More or less.”
Pierce waved a hand. “You keep it, Father. Give it to the orphans.”
Mulcahy brightened, as he always did when someone supported his favorite cause. “Why, thank you, Hawkeye! That's very kind of you.”
Pierce pointed to the second bottle. “What's that other one, Father?”
“Oh, this. Well...” Mulcahy tore off the wrapper, revealing a slim bottle of dark brown glass with an elaborate gold crest. “My goodness. This is Winchester's special Napoleon brandy.” Mulcahy adjusted his glasses to read the label. “Cerbois Armagnac Vintage 1938.” Mulcahy blinked. “Dear me! This is a rare vintage indeed!”
Pierce took the bottle gingerly. “I thought Charles would sooner eat with his hands than give away one of his precious brandies -- especially to someone like me.”
“You mean, a person who drinks beer out of a can?” said Hunnicutt.
“And uses paper napkins, among other failings of the great unwashed.” Pierce looked at Mulcahy. “Did Charles send a message along with this one?”
“Oh my, yes! I almost forgot.” Mulcahy frowned in concentration. “He said this one was to welcome you home.”
Pierce shook his head. “The big lug.” He glanced around the room. “Hmm. No glasses.”
Sherman smiled. “Save it for your father, Pierce.”
Pierce was his typical stubborn self. “No, Colonel. Charles said this was to welcome me home. Well, the four of you are about as close to home as it gets without my dad. I'd really like to share a drink with you. Just one,” he added, as Hunnicutt lifted a warning finger. “Don't worry. There'll be plenty left to carry home to Crabapple Cove.”
Hunnicutt pushed himself off the wall he'd been leaning against. “All right, I'll see if I can round up some glasses. In the mean time, the rest of you can tell Hawk anything you want to about the 4077th, but Hawkeye, you are not allowed to tell any stories except the truck one because I want to hear them, too.”
“No stories,” Pierce promised.
“Good.” Hunnicutt opened the door. “I'll be back in two shakes.”
Pierce looked down at Margaret, who seemed content just to lean against his side. “So what happened at the 4077th while I was gone?”
Margaret shrugged. “Nothing!”
The four of them dissolved into laughter.
Margaret's spirits had been in a high state of flutter ever since Hawkeye's much-longed-for yet totally unanticipated phone call. To think, only the night before she'd resigned herself to believing that she wouldn't see him again for perhaps a very long time.
Then the call had come. He'd sounded like himself, only tired. Well, that was to be expected, but still it worried her. She couldn't keep her mind on anything, could hardly keep her hands from knocking over items on her dressing table or fumbling things. She packed an overnight bag. The Colonel might not allow it, but she wanted to be ready just in case. And surely this was a special occasion. How many POWs get free on their own? They ought to give him special consideration just for that. Besides, who knew what nurse they might assign to him at the 121st? She could be busy, she could have other distractions, who knows? Hawkeye deserved to have somebody close by who knew him. True, BJ was there, but he had other duties, too. What Hawkeye needed was someone dedicated to his care. At least during these first couple of days, before they shipped him out.
Shipped him out, back home. Margaret swallowed the lump in her throat.
The journey to Seoul was an exercise in patience. Colonel Potter didn't drive as fast as Klinger always did. Margaret was exasperated enough during the drive down, but bit her nails off over the way the colonel slowly and deliberately wound his way through the dusty streets of Seoul. Klinger would have barreled through with horn blowing, trusting the pedestrians to look after their own lives. At last they reached Yongdungp'o, a couple of miles south of the capital and home to the 121st Evacuation Hospital, only to arrive to that horrendous discussion on the stairs. All the way to Hawkeye's room Margaret kept envisioning horrible disfiguring injuries. He didn't sound as if he'd been hurt that badly. Would Hawkeye still make jokes if his skin had been beaten off and he was shot all to pieces? It didn't seem likely, and yet this was Hawkeye they were talking about ...
So seeing him standing there at last, looking much the same as he had done except for being way too thin, was a tremendous relief. It was a shock to feel his ribs and shoulder blades so clearly through the bulky hospital bathrobe. That is, it was nice to feel him in her arms, but disturbing at the same time. For the longest time she couldn't let go of him. At first she thought it was her duty to protect him; he looked so frail that she couldn't imagine him not needing help to stand up. Then, when he showed no signs of falling over, she wondered if she wasn't secretly worried that he might disappear again. After about half an hour of that, she finally decided that she didn't want to let go simply because she wanted to be touching him. Well, that wasn't so bad. No doubt the others would put it down to her being overprotective. Let them.
The conversation was mostly comfortable but peculiar. Hawkeye was clearly delighted to see them -- at least, it appeared that way -- but he was uncharacteristically evasive. Hawkeye picked up the story from where his last letter had left off. He recounted the events plainly, without embellishment. Somehow that made it all the more real, the understated way in which he relayed what must have been terrifying experiences. Margaret couldn't help staring at him in amazement sometimes. There he was, the same intonation to his voice (albeit strained with fatigue), the same facial expressions (looking strange in that too-thin face). There was a slim pink scar that ran from just beneath his bangs on the right-hand side to his eyebrow, no doubt the injury he'd gotten from falling that time. He seemed a lot more thoughtful, and smiled more than he laughed. He was the same, yet he wasn't.
He wouldn't come clean about the details, either. Any time someone pressed him too closely, he shrugged it off or changed the subject. For example, that time when Colonel Potter questioned him about the bandages on his wrists.
“How did that happen, son?” he asked, pointing.
Hawkeye shrugged. “Just chafing from the manacles on the truck. I told you about that.”
“But your wrists were injured before that.”
Hawkeye looked wary. “How do you know that?” He shot a glance at BJ, who shook his head. Ah, BJ. She'd have to tackle him later, and find out what else he was hiding.
“It was in Paik's note that he sent with your first letter,” said Colonel Potter. “He mentioned lacerations on your wrists.”
“Oh.” Hawkeye appeared to think back. “He probably meant rope burns. You remember, I wrote BJ about that.”
“He said they were from the chains,” Father Mulcahy added.
Hawkeye hesitated. Just when the pause would have become uncomfortable, he waved dismissively. “Chains, ropes, what's the difference? It's over. Beej, how about another shot of fruit juice? And what happened to your good socks? It looks like they're falling to pieces.”
And so it went, for the hour and a quarter of their visit. Then the CID man came, and an officer from I Corps, and they shooed out everyone except Colonel Potter so Hawkeye could report to them. Margaret walked with BJ and Father Mulcahy to the canteen for refreshment.
When they were settled on a bench in the cafeteria, Father Mulcahy inquired, “BJ, will Hawkeye be all right?”
BJ sat thoughtfully at one end of the long table, his untouched soda before him. “I think he'll heal up okay. It will take some time to get him back in the pink, but he'll survive.” BJ shook his head. “God, when I think about what he's already had to survive...”
Margaret asked quietly, “What happened to him, BJ?”
BJ sighed heavily. “If you're asking about any details that he might have told me that he didn't reveal in there, the answer is `I don't know.' Seriously,” BJ added, forestalling her protest. “He told me very little while I was dressing his wounds. You know how it is when you're working on someone. There really isn't a whole lot of talking you can do when you're telling someone, `now lie on your right side and hold your breath.'” BJ shrugged. “I guess he doesn't want to talk about it.”
Margaret wouldn't be dismissed that easily. “But you know something, something you're not telling us.”
“Only the evidence of my eyes,” said BJ. “Father, you were right about the chains. He has some superficial irritation now, but at some point Hawkeye's wrists had been pretty badly injured. We're talking gouges, here. The wounds are largely healed, but I'm sure he'll be scarred for life. He has scars on his ankles, too, just not as bad.”
Margaret said, “And you don't know what caused it.”
“I don't know how the injuries occurred,” said BJ. “He didn't volunteer it, and I didn't push.”
Farther Mulcahy said, “He probably wants to forget the whole thing.”
BJ grunted, and took a sip from his drink.
“Is that the best thing to do?” Margaret asked.
“Hawkeye is a very generous person,” said Father Mulcahy. “I'm sure he'll open up once he feels a little more secure.”
“What can I do to help with that?” asked Margaret.
BJ smiled. “You seem to be doing a fine job so far.”
Margaret blushed, to her embarrassment. She hadn't done anything to be ashamed of. Well, maybe she'd hung onto Hawkeye a little longer than was strictly necessary, but that was understandable.
BJ wasn't helping. His smile grew into a grin. “Are my eyes playing tricks, or is Margaret Houlihan blushing?”
“None of your business, you ... you ... You men! You're all co-conspirators together.”
Father Mulcahy patted her hand. “Now, Margaret, I think you're doing a wonderful job. Your dedication and support are just what Hawkeye needs right now.”
BJ smirked over his drink. Margaret slapped his arm. “Stop that!”
“Can't I leave you people alone for ten minutes without it turning into a schoolyard ruckus?”
The three of them turned to see Colonel Potter arriving. He sat down heavily at the table, placing a cup of coffee before him.
“Back so soon, Colonel?” BJ asked.
“They wanted to hear Pierce's story without outside interference,” said their CO. “I stayed long enough to express my complete confidence in Pierce's integrity. They said they'd follow up with me later. The rest of you should be prepared for a telephone call or a visit as well.”
Mulcahy sounded concerned. “Surely they don't suspect Hawkeye of conspiring with the enemy.”
“There's always a question of collusion in cases like this,” Potter said flatly. “Did he make a deal to get out, and so on.”
“But surely his injuries would suggest otherwise,” said Mulcahy.
“Unfortunately, that argument can work both ways,” said Potter.
BJ was grim. “In other words, he may have bargained to save his neck.”
Margaret felt anger blaze up within her. “Hawkeye would never do that!”
Potter patted her wrist. “Keep your voice down, Major.” He leaned forward conspiratorially, keeping his voice low. They all bent closer to hear him.
“We all know Hawkeye's character,” Potter said. “But I'm sure you must have noticed an element of evasion in his report.”
Margaret grimaced at the term, but could hardly deny what she'd observed for herself.
Mulcahy said, “Surely he's just unwilling to discuss painful memories.”
“That's my hunch, too, Padre,” said Potter, “but at this point it's only a hunch. None of us is qualified to figure out for sure what's behind it.”
“So what do we do?” asked BJ.
Potter straightened. “We call in the big guns.”
Margaret was bewildered. “What does that mean?”
Potter said, “I had Klinger place a few calls before we left camp. One of these was to our old friend Sidney Freedman.” Potter took up his coffee. “He'll be flying in from Tokyo tomorrow morning.”
“Thank heavens,” said Mulcahy fervently. “I would hate for Hawkeye's homecoming to be marred by nasty suspicions of collusion.”
Potter shot the priest a steely gaze. “I wouldn't say that so loudly, Padre.”
“Oh, my goodness, yes.” Mulcahy colored. “I forgot how this place churns out rumors.”
Margaret hesitated, then decided to make her announcement. “Well, rumor mill or not, I want to stay with Captain Pierce tonight. As his nurse!” she added, as BJ made eyes at her. She raised a fist. “And I'll flatten anybody who says one word out of line, about him or me!”
“Well, Major,” said Colonel Potter unflappably, “I suppose the 4077th could get along without you for one evening. I'll speak to the CO about having you rotate shifts with Hunnicutt tonight -- that is, I assume you'll be at hand?” he said to BJ.
“I'd better be,“ said BJ. “Otherwise, who knows how many flattened bodies will be littering the hall come morning?”
Margaret subsided with a growl. “You're impossible.”
“Only on my good days.”
Potter rose. “Well, we may as well head back, Padre. Those inquisitors could be in there for donkey's years.”
“Yes, of course.” Mulcahy stepped free of the bench. “Margaret, you'll make sure that Hawkeye sees the greetings from everyone?”
“We'll empty your bag tonight, Father,” BJ promised.
“Very well, then,” said Mulcahy. “Cheerio.”
“Call me with a report in the morning, Major,” said Potter.
“Yes, sir,” Margaret affirmed.
The two men walked away.
Margaret looked back to see BJ fiddling with his drink, an impish expression on his face. “So, Major,” he said. “Would you like to take the first shift tonight, or the second?”
Margaret hesitated. “I think I'd prefer to take ... both.”
They snickered over their drinks. It was such a relief to laugh, when so much of her felt like crying.
The session lasted almost three hours, but Hawkeye was fairly sure that his brass-bound visitors left satisfied. Hawkeye ushered them out the door, then climbed wearily onto his bed. He fell onto his back, sinking into the luxurious softness, and sighed. What a day. Could it only have been that morning that he was awakened from sleep, famished and dirt-encrusted, on a creaky sampan with two strangers he couldn't talk to as his only company?
Oddly enough, it had been far easier to tell his story to those two Army clowns. They didn't care what had happened to him. What they wanted were facts, and Hawkeye could give them facts -- the conditions, the treatment of their prisoners, the men he'd seen killed. In a strange way the dispassionate interrogation let him put the thing at a distance, as if he was reporting things that had happened to somebody else.
But they hadn't happened to somebody else. Hawkeye threw an arm across his eyes. These things had happened to him, and he was going to have to live with what he'd seen and been through -- somehow.
He heard the door open, and uncovered his eyes. BJ poked his head in. “Okay if I come in?”
“Beej, sure.” Hawkeye propped himself on an elbow.
BJ approached him uncertainly. “Is everything ... okay?”
“They're not gonna put me in the pokey, if that's what you're asking.” He glanced curiously at the closed door. “Where are the others?”
“Mulcahy and Potter went back. Margaret wanted to stay. She's checking out her temporary quarters in the nurses' barracks. Personally I'd plan on her being here half the night -- that's if you don't mind, of course.”
“Of course I don't mind. I'm glad she wants to stay.” Hawkeye ran out of energy, staring into space.
BJ pulled up a chair. “You look exhausted. Do you want to nap until dinner?”
Hawkeye looked at the wall clock. He'd been aware that it was seventeen thirty, but had failed to associate the time with any type of eating behavior. “You people certainly eat a lot of meals.”
“Three times a day, not including snacks.” BJ's smile faded. “Are you undergoing a bit of culture shock?”
“I guess so. I've already eaten more today than I have for the whole previous week.”
BJ looked sadder. “I'm sorry to hear that.”
Hawkeye lay back. “No, it's all right. It's just strange.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
Hawkeye closed his eyes. Anything he could do. What to do. He said, “How do you think it went today?”
“With the others?”
Hawkeye nodded, eyes still closed.
There was a pause, then BJ said, “They know you're holding back.”
Hawkeye nodded, then rolled onto his side. He propped his head on a hand to face BJ. “I knew this would be rough.”
“I can't lie to you.”
BJ looked concerned. “Why would you need to lie?”
Hawkeye collapsed onto his pillow, closing his eyes again. He really was bone weary. “I saw some awful things, Beej.”
“I know.” BJ's voice was kind. “I kind of got a taste of that from your letter.”
“I had no business putting those things in a letter. I was tired, and I used poor judgment.” Hawkeye opened his eyes. “I'm sorry you ever had to read that, Beej.”
“Don't be,” said BJ strongly. “At least it gave me a feel for what you went through.”
“No one knows what I went through.” Hawkeye noticed BJ's troubled expression. “Oh, don't worry. I told those two guys just now everything.”
“Meaning you didn't tell us everything.”
Hawkeye winced. “I can't, Beej. You'd feel it too much.”
“More than what I felt reading your letter?” BJ challenged.
Hawkeye was losing the battle against exhaustion. His eyes seemed to close on their own. “That's the problem, Beej. I didn't put the really bad stuff in my letter.”
If BJ answered Hawkeye didn't hear him. He fell into a long, black tunnel of sleep.
Sherman received the call just before he headed out of his office that evening. He answered the phone himself. “MASH 4077th.”
“Sherman? Embry, here.”
Sherman straightened up out of habit. “Yes, General. What can I do for you?”
“I just received a preliminary report from the investigatory team,” he said. “Their initial findings indicate that Captain Pierce appeared to conduct himself in a satisfactory manner during his confinement.”
The word fell dully on Sherman's ear. “Satisfactory?”
“That's their current assessment. At this time, there appears to be no official reservation regarding the propriety of Pierce's conduct while he was a prisoner. Captain Pierce is off the hook.”
Sherman did a slow burn. “Thank you, General. I appreciate hearing that.”
“I thought you'd like to know. If you have any sort of commendation in mind, I'll willingly consider it -- pending final approval of the team's findings, of course.”
“Thank you, General. I'd like to give it some more thought.”
“Suit yourself. You know where to find me.”
“Yes, sir. Thanks for calling.”
Sherman replaced the phone rather more forcibly than was required. Satisfactory. The decorated dunderhead. Unlike Sherman, Embry had never been a prisoner of war. Sherman remembered it only too vividly -- the Jerrys and their camps, the cheerless barracks and stultifying boredom. It didn't matter that Sherman's physical situation had been vastly superior to what Pierce had endured. The loss of one's freedom was always painful, and forced detainment a humiliating experience. Still, the nation's attitude had been different back in WW II; Sherman hadn't needed to cope with all the Commie balderdash that Pierce was having to put up with. It was bad enough to be mistreated by the enemy, without having to defend your actions to your own people.
Klinger rapped on the door, then entered. He was already stripped down to his skivvies and bathrobe. “Colonel, anything I can help you with at this late hour?”
“No, Klinger. I'm leaving now. You can go to bed.”
“If you don't mind my saying so, sir, you look like you could stand some sack time yourself.”
Sherman rose stiffly. “That's what I was planning, but a call from General Embry delayed my departure.”
Klinger stepped aside to let Sherman exit. “General Embry? What did he want?”
“He wanted to let me know that, at least for the present, they aren't planning to bring any charges against Pierce.”
Klinger looked baffled. “Why would they do that, sir?”
Made stupid by fatigue, Sherman realized his mistake. He groped for a way to explain what he hadn't meant to let slip. “There's always a bit of hysteria that returning prisoners might have collaborated with the enemy.”
“Captain Pierce wouldn't do that.”
“Relax, Klinger. It looks as if the brass are leaning toward the same conclusion.”
Sherman shuffled wearily out the door. Klinger followed. “Geez, sir. I had no idea that you could go to jail for being in prison.”
“These are strange and turbulent times, Klinger.”
“Yes, sir. Sleep well, sir.”
“Thank you, Corporal. Good night.”
Hawkeye drifted to consciousness. At first he couldn't tell where he was; the room was still and quiet, and there was no smell of the sea. A lamp threw a soft glow across the room. Hawkeye looked over. Margaret was reading at the small table by the wall.
The hospital room. He was at the 121st Evac. Memory flooded back. He closed his eyes with relief. For several breaths he relished the feeling; he was free. He was safe. It was a tremendous gift, and he determined not to take it lightly in the future.
At length he stirred. Margaret looked up, then set aside her book and approached the bed. She was wearing her black sweater, the one he liked. Her hair glowed golden in the backlighting from the bulb. He had long considered her an attractive woman. Yet, tonight, he could see her only as a friend. Someone he knew. Someone he could count on. That fact seemed of overwhelming importance, although he couldn't have said why.
Margaret brushed back his bangs. Her gesture seemed unforced and natural, all the more surprising as Hawkeye couldn't remember her ever having done that before. “You slept a long time,” she said in a low voice.
“That's the result of being unconscious.”
“You didn't eat dinner. Can I bring you something?”
Hawkeye consulted his internal status, but the truth was he didn't know if he was hungry or not. It would take him a while to get used to paying attention to hunger pangs again.
“In a bit,” he decided. He reached for her near hand and took it into his own. Her fingers were small compared to his, and cool from the temperature of the room. Her skin, despite the frequent scrubbings for surgery, was soft, her nails short but polished.
“You look a lot better,” said Margaret. “More rested.”
“I feel better.” With his free hand, Hawkeye touched the side of her face, then her hair, which she was wearing loosely about her shoulders. The feel of it was even softer than he'd remembered.
Margaret tipped her head to rest her cheek against the back of his hand, then almost immediately straightened, as if embarrassed about her display of emotion. “I should get you something to eat.” She started briskly toward the door.
Hawkeye pushed himself up. “Margaret, wait.”
She stopped, but didn't turn around.
Hawkeye said, “I just wanted to say that I'm sorry.”
Margaret fidgeted. “Oh, that's all right. You've been away a long time and --“
“I didn't mean for just now. I meant, from before.”
“Before?” Margaret turned to face him. Her expression was a mixture of confusion and wariness.
Hawkeye held out a hand. “Come here.”
Slowly she returned to the side of the bed. Hawkeye reached for her hand and held it. “Major, I'd like to officially apologize for all the mean, rotten, tasteless, and humiliating pranks that I pulled on you during my stint at the 4077th.”
“No, let me finish. Some of it was in fun, but when I look at it honestly, a lot of it was just plain cruel. I was mad at being in the Army and I took it out on you as their local representative. That wasn't fair.” He squeezed her hand. “I wanted to let you know that.”
Margaret pursed her lips. “You weren't cruel.”
“Yes, I was. I know cruel. I've just been through it. Having had more than my share recently, it bothers me more than you can know that I've ever been that way toward another human being.” He caressed her hand. “Forgive me.”
“Oh, Hawkeye. Of course I do.” She brushed his hair back again, then pulled his head to rest against her. They stayed that way a moment, him holding her hand, her other hand resting on his forehead while his head rested against the soft black sweater, the pulse of her belly throbbing in his ear.
She stroked his bangs. “BJ says you're not telling us everything.”
Hawkeye gently disengaged to meet her eyes. “How can I? It's bad enough that one of us has to remember these things.”
Margaret smiled. She took his hand between both of hers, twining her fingers around his. “You know one of the things that I found most exasperating about you?”
“My erratic shaving habits.”
“The way you never let me off the hook.”
Hawkeye had to look away.
Margaret continued. “You never let me get away with hiding my emotions when I was upset about something.”
Hawkeye said to the wall, “This is different.”
“Oh?” she asked in that challenging way of hers. “How?”
Hawkeye turned back to her, feeling desperate. “Whatever I tell you, you'll have to live with. I don't want anyone to have to have the same ... images that I do.”
Margaret squeezed his hand earnestly. “I'd understand.”
Hawkeye caressed her fingers. “That's the problem. I think you would understand. You and BJ both.” He gave her hand a shake. “I don't want to hurt you again.”
“You won't hurt me.”
He gazed into Margaret's eyes. They were so tough, so cool, yet the fine lashes outlined eyes that only hours before had been filled with tears.
He lowered his gaze. “Please, Margaret. Just give me a little more time.”
She kissed his forehead. “Don't forget to tell me when you're ready.”
Hawkeye looked up toward the door. He'd been going through the gifts and notes that Father Mulcahy had brought from the 4077th. The cheery words and good wishes left him feeling sad and lonely. He was glad to see BJ pop his head in.
Hawkeye rose from the little table. “Beej.”
BJ grinned. “I brought you a visitor.”
He held the door wide, and a small, trim man with a mustache and a secretive smile entered the room.
Hawkeye felt a surge of joy. “Sidney!”
Sidney's smile broadened. “Welcome back, Captain.”
Chuckling, Hawkeye embraced him, patting his back. “Thanks for dropping in. Is this a professional visit, or did you just happen to be in the neighborhood?”
“Colonel Potter told me the news yesterday, and I just had to come and see you for myself.”
BJ headed for the door. “I'll leave you two to catch up.”
“Tactful as always, Beej,” said Hawkeye.
BJ lifted his hands innocently. “Hey, I have work to do.” He waved and closed the door behind him.
Hawkeye gestured at the table. “Have a seat.”
Sidney didn't take the suggestion. Instead, he picked up one of the mementoes lying on the table.
“Gifts from the 4077th,” Hawkeye explained.
“So I gathered.” Sidney twirled the item in his hand -- a little grass ladder that Bigelow had woven for him, apparently to commemorate the water tower incident.
“I won't make it back there,” Hawkeye said.
Sidney focused on the ladder, apparently absorbed. “What makes you say that?”
“Tomorrow they're sending me to Tachikawa General. They want to fatten me up a little before they put me on the boat.”
“How do you feel about that?”
“Oh, you've started with the `feeling' questions.” Hawkeye pulled out his chair. “I guess we've begun.”
Sidney didn't dissemble, something Hawkeye appreciated about him. Instead, the psychiatrist pulled out a chair to sit facing him. “Do you want to go back to the 4077th?”
Hawkeye dithered, then came clean. “Sidney, I look like hell. I don't want people to see me like this.”
“BJ says you've put back five pounds already.”
“That's just water,” said Hawkeye. “The fact is, I don't feel that bad. I mean, sure, my ribs hurt and I limp and I can't walk the length of this hall without getting winded, but I really don't feel too bad, all things considered. I actually forget about my appearance for a while -- then I'll see someone staring, like when I went on that walk with BJ this morning. And all of a sudden I feel like this battered, used-up shell. I don't want to see that look on the faces of the people I used to work with. I want them to remember me the way I was. Does that sound foolish?”
“It makes perfect sense.”
“I don't mind Beej and Margaret. I mean, I'm glad they're around. But they look so sad. Sometimes even with them I want to crawl away and hide.”
“It's a strange thing about imprisonment,” said Sidney. “You work so hard to get back to where you were, and when you finally get there, all you want to do is isolate yourself again.”
Hawkeye hung on his words like a rope. “That's it. That's what I feel. Is that normal?”
“It's a stage you're going through,” said Sidney. “You'll readjust, but you have to give yourself time.”
“I think I need to. There are some people who I know would understand -- Colonel Potter, for instance. But I just can't seem to ...” A sudden pain in his chest kept Hawkeye from speaking any further.
“Your experiences will be with you the rest of your life,” said Sidney. “You won't forget them. In fact, you may even remember more details, as time passes. The challenge for you is how to let those memories be part of your life without overwhelming it.”
Hawkeye rose to his feet. He took two steps to the wall, his stride shortened by the size of the room and the stitches in his thigh. “I feel like I'm being overwhelmed right now. I had a dream last night, where I remembered ...”
The silence stretched out. “What?” Sidney prompted.
“It's this recurring dream I have. A memory, really, but it's always so ... vivid.” Hawkeye found himself breathing more quickly, remembering. “I never made a fuss in prison. Sometimes I'd have nightmares, and I'd wake up in a cold sweat, but I never made a sound if I could help it. I thought that if I caused any trouble, they'd take me out and shoot me. They shot a lot of people, Sidney. The guy in the cell next to mine was crazy. He'd scream all the time. There was the quiet guy on my right who did nothing but meditate all day, and then there was this guy. He'd rush the guard when he brought him food and try to bite him. He'd howl and thrash around. One morning they hauled him off. That was shortly before they came to bring me to the hospital. I was walking through town and I heard a shot. It was muffled, far away. I looked towards the edge of town -- the hospital was on a hill, and I could see pretty far -- and the crazy guy was just falling into a pit. One of the guards had his pistol extended toward the space where he'd been standing. They were small and far off, but I could see it clearly. The guard stuck his pistol back in his belt. The dead guy was just lying there, on top of ... other bodies. The other guards were smoking, not even paying attention. They'd just killed this guy and it didn't mean anything to them.” Hawkeye wiped the sweat from his face. “I told this story to those two jokers yesterday, and it didn't mean anything to them, either. They only cared about UN soldiers, or ROKs. They didn't care about a guy who for all we know might have been on our side before he went crazy.”
Hawkeye felt weak after his confession. He drew out his chair and reseated himself. “I could never get that image out of my head. I thought that, when they were done with me, I'd find myself standing at the edge of that same pit someday, while a guard with a bored expression on his face blew my brains out.”
Sidney waited a while, then said, “But that wasn't the only murder.”
“Oh, no. Hell, no.” Hawkeye scrubbed his face. “I saw enough murder on the front line to ruin my sleep for the rest of my life.”
“I take it you don't mean battle-related deaths.”
“No, although there were plenty of those. You could hardly avoid it. One time one of our makeshift wards took a direct hit. There were ... pieces of guys in the trees, like strange birds. Somebody must have eventually brought them down, but I was too busy trying to fix up the guys who were left. It was bad enough having to deal with these injuries in the OR. Out in the field we had nothing. Just our wits, a couple of bone saws, and occasionally a truck to take the wounded away.”
“But there were murders on top of this.”
“Yes. Four ROK guys. They marched them into camp. They made them dig their own graves. It was another of these matter-of-fact executions. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The guys were just standing there, then rifles cracked, and down they went.”
Hawkeye closed his eyes. He could still see the scene, too vividly. The clouds were low over the mountains, the battle in the hills beyond producing occasional bursts of light and tiny towers of smoke that were no doubt suffocating clouds to the men below them.
Hawkeye forced out the words. “They ordered me to bury them.” In his mind, he saw the squad leader thrust the shovel into his hands. “But, they weren't all dead. I saw one of the guys kick his foot. Another one was groaning.”
“What did you do?”
Hawkeye covered his face. He still remembered the rain of blows on his back. “I wouldn't do it.” They knocked him to the ground, where fists were replaced by boots. A blow to his face stunned him. One more kick, Hawkeye thought, and I'm in the grave with these guys.
“What finally happened?” Sidney prompted.
In his mind, Hawkeye heard the crack of a rifle butt against skull. The groaning stopped. “They killed the hurt ones,” he said. “Then they buried them.”
Sidney sat silently for a while. Eventually Hawkeye recovered enough to force a bitter smile. “I Corps cared about that one. They wanted to know where the ridge was, so they could find the bodies. I couldn't tell them much except the approximate date and the layout of the hills. But I don't know how accurate my directions might be.”
After a moment Sidney stirred. “I can see why you're reluctant to share this with BJ and Margaret --“
“There's more, Sidney.”
The psychiatrist grew still. “Tell me about it.”
Feminine screams filled his brain, the same agonized shriek that had jolted him awake the night before. “They brought a woman into camp.”
“Some local. I don't know who she was -- a villager, a suspected guerrilla, who knows.”
He could still see the dirty, grinning mob closing in. She disappeared under their numbers. Flames from the campfire turned the lurid scene into a high-contrast nightmare.
Sidney's voice dropped into the memory. “What happened to her?”
The screams curdled his blood. Her shrieks and the laughter of the men. Hawkeye had lunged to the end of his chain, shouting until he was hoarse. They'd ignored him.
“They killed her.”
Eventually the enervated screams subsided to sobs, with an occasional plea for mercy. Hawkeye hunched miserably in his chair. “I couldn't help her, Sidney. The whole time I was at the front, whenever I wasn't working, they chained me to a stake, like a dog. I pulled at the manacles until my wrists bled, but I couldn't help her. I couldn't do anything.” He drew a shuddering breath. “How do I live with that?”
Sidney paused in thought. Hawkeye could see that he was shaken, but he couldn't possibly be more shaken than Hawkeye was himself. After all, Sidney hadn't been there. He'd only heard the story.
Finally Sidney said, “Every man makes peace with the phantoms of his past in his own way. You've taken a big step today by telling me this.”
“For all the good it did,” Hawkeye grumbled.
“When the time is right, I think you'll be able to communicate enough of this to the people close to you to give you some peace.”
Hawkeye raised his eyebrows. “Do you think I'm going to tell this to my father? He's been through enough already.”
“Don't sell him short.”
“I don't mean to. I just can't see myself talking about this to anyone -- anyone besides a professional head shrink, that is.”
“And those two fellows from I Corps.”
“Oh, those guys.” Hawkeye sprang from his chair restlessly. “A lot they cared. As long as it was clear that I didn't give away any military secrets, having never known any in the first place, they didn't give a damn about what happened to any of us.”
“And you do,” said Sidney. “That's your weakness, Hawkeye, as well as your strength. You care about other people. It's how you get hurt. Ironically, it's also how you get well.”
Hawkeye stared at him. “What should I do?”
“For now, rest. Take care of yourself. Let the folks at Tachikawa help you recover your health. I'm just a hop away in Tokyo, if you need me for the week or two before you ship out.”
Hawkeye still felt anxious. “And what happens after that?”
“You can hook up with a psychiatrist on the mainland if you feel the need for one.”
Hawkeye subsided. Eager as he was to get home, there was something a little nerve-wracking about leaving the support of the people he had come to rely on during his service here.
Sidney picked up on his hesitation. He said, “You're a healer, Hawkeye. My hunch is that, by helping to heal others, you'll help to heal yourself.”
Hawkeye wasn't convinced. “I hope you're right, Sidney.”
Sidney rose. “It's such a lovely day. Why don't we find Major Houlihan and go for a stroll about the grounds?”
Hawkeye nodded, then patted his friend on the shoulder. “Thanks, Sidney.” He swallowed the lump on his throat. In less than twenty-four hours he'd be leaving. Once that happened, he could never be sure if he would see Margaret or Beej again.