"Have fun, kids," said BJ, squinting into the sunshine. "I wish I was going with you - looks like it's going to be a fine afternoon." He dumped the large hamper he was carrying into the back of a jeep.
"I would be more than happy to give up my seat," grunted Charles Winchester, adding another box."
BJ grinned. "Sorry, Charles - my seat's staying right where it is. Ryan isn't out of the woods yet. My patient, my responsibility."
"The children really need our help, Major," said Father Mulcahy as he climbed behind the wheel of a second jeep. "That bug that went round the orphanage hit some of them pretty hard. The least we can do is give everyone a quick check-up. And extra rations are always welcome over there."
Charles cast a withering glance in his direction. "Yes indeed, Father. When I became a thoracic surgeon, it was with the express aim of spending hours in the company of hordes of small children with runny noses and sticky fingers."
"Well, I'm looking forward to a change of scenery," said Margaret Houlihan as she and Nurse Baker joined them. The two women were each carrying a box of equipment, which they stowed securely alongside the hampers. "In fact, I asked Colonel Potter if I could go instead of sending one of the other nurses. And twenty-five children is hardly a horde, Charles."
"You volunteered for this?" Charles was amazed.
BJ slapped him on the shoulder. "Never mind, Charles," he said sympathetically. "I'll think of you while I'm sitting out in my deckchair, enjoying a cold drink and a good book. Might even play a little music…."
Charles glared at him. Margaret finished arranging their supplies and wiped the dust from her hands, then looked around the little group in irritation. "Where's Pierce? Trust him to hold everything up."
"Coming, my klaxon-voiced beauty!" Hawkeye Pierce emerged from the Swamp carrying a carton marked 'chocolate' under his arm. He tossed it into the back of the jeep and jumped into the front, patting the seat beside him and waggling his eyebrows invitingly. "It's a lovely day for a picnic, Margaret – let's you and I drive off into the wilderness together and spend the afternoon enjoying each other's company."
Margaret gave him a look that would have frozen a penguin in its tracks. "Don't push your luck, buster. If you think I've forgiven you for that disgusting suggestion you made to me in the OR yesterday, you'd better think again."
"I must have missed that," said BJ, sensing a good story.
"Well I heard him," said Charles stiffly. "And Margaret is correct, it was totally inappropriate and deeply offensive."
BJ looked at Hawkeye, eyes glinting with amusement. "Okay, now I've really got to know. What did you say to cause such a Major humour malfunction?"
"Well, I don't have time to go into all the fine details, but let's just say I stillthink it would be the most fun two people could have with the suction gear." Hawkeye sounded amazed that his advances had been spurned.
BJ roared with laughter, but Charles was unimpressed. "Maybe it would be better if you travelled with Father Mulcahy, Major," he said.
"Yeah, keep that woman and her wandering hands away from me," grinned Hawkeye. He winked at Baker, who tried not to laugh as Margaret joined Father Mulcahy.
Charles approached his jeep from the driver's side. "Move over, Pierce."
"You want to drive?"
"No, I do not want to drive; however, I do want to arrive intact, so move over."
The little convoy left the camp, waved off by BJ and Baker, and as they drove through countryside that was parched and brown at the end of a long summer, Hawkeye sat back and took a deep breath. "Isn't it great to get out of that place, even just for a few hours? The sun is out, the war is on hold and life is about as good as it can get in this hellhole, if you ask me. All we need to set us on our merry way is….."
"Pierce," said Charles quietly. "I can just about tolerate sharing a jeep with you for twenty minutes, but if you are even considering singing, I can promise that you will be abandoned in the dust by the roadside long before you reach your first tuneless chorus."
Hawkeye looked hurt. "No operatic duets? We could make beautiful music together."
"Not in your wildest dreams." The absolute disdain in Charles' voice should have killed the conversation dead, but Hawkeye was never one to let an opponent get the last word.
"Strangely, singing arias with you has never featured in my wildest dreams, Charles," he said cheerfully. "My night-time fantasies tend to be concerned with more physically demanding pleasures."
Charles gritted his teeth and decided it was best to concentrate on driving, and the peace lasted for almost two minutes until Hawkeye, his feet resting up on the dashboard, began to whistle loudly, slapping his hands against his legs in time to the jaunty tune he was making up. The jeep came to an abrupt halt, as did Hawkeye's whistling. Charles hurtled from the driver's seat and strode back to where Father Mulcahy had been forced to brake suddenly in the vehicle behind. Breathing heavily, he placed both palms on the jeep's bonnet.
"Father, trust me when I say that a man's life is in danger if you do not swap places with me this instant."
Father Mulcahy could see that the situation had gone past amusing and as usual, it was up to him to play peacekeeper. "By all means, Major," he said. "If you don't mind me saying so, Hawkeye really seems to be rubbing you up the wrong way today."
"This and every other day," said Charles tightly. "That man does not rub - he grates." He glared round at Hawkeye, who waggled his fingers back.
Father Mulchay clambered out of the jeep. "If you will excuse me…" he said to Margaret.
With the new drivers in place, they set off once more. As they slowed approaching a sharp corner, the sound of two voices drifted back to the vehicle in the rear, accompanied by enthusiastic toots on the horn. "She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes …yeeha!"
"They'll get us all killed," hissed Margaret, scanning the undergrowth anxiously as if expecting to see a sniper crouching behind every bush.
Charles' voice was that of a man driven far beyond his limits. "Margaret, that would almost certainly be an improvement on the day thus far."