Disclaimer: Twentieth Century Fox owns the copyright to the M*A*S*H Series and characters. This story was created solely for the amusement of the author and any other fans out there. Enjoy.
1. Without a Trace
This story explores an alternate ending to the episode "Where There's a Will."
BJ Hunnicutt was as tense as he ever got. His day trip into Seoul was supposed to relax him -- haircut, manicure, the works. But it had been spoiled almost immediately upon his return by the news that Hawkeye had been sent to the front in his place as a temporary replacement for battalion forward aid. The first wave of casualties brought with it the news that a surgeon at Battalion Aid had been killed. BJ spent hours worrying about his friend, unable to confirm his status because the heavy fighting had knocked out the phone to the aid station. When he finally discovered a patient sporting Hawkeye's trademark mattress sutures, he had whooped with joy. Everyone in the operating room had sighed with relief, knowing their chief surgeon to be still with them.
But their relief turned out to be premature. Klinger delivered the bad news the next time he brought in a new patient.
"The phones are back at Battalion Aid," he reported, maneuvering the stretcher into place.
"Halleluiah," said Potter wearily. "Did you reach Pierce?"
"No, sir." Klinger draped the unconscious man for surgery with practiced ease. "The sergeant I talked to said he had his hands full. They're really getting pounded up there."
"As if we aren't getting pounded here," Charles interjected.
"At least we're getting pounded with people, not bullets," said BJ. "Klinger, is Hawkeye in any danger?"
"Hard to say," their hirsute clerk replied. "The battle's been going back and forth all night."
"If it gets too hot," said Potter, "Embry will retreat. He's a seasoned commander. He won't risk lives unnecessarily."
"Thank God for that," BJ muttered.
He returned to his patient, far from satisfied. At least the demands of his craft took his mind off Hawkeye's plight. BJ completed the work -- a double resection topped off with a splenectomy -- and was just closing when Klinger repeated his bad-news routine, this time while delivering a load of towels.
"Sir!" he yelled, the word coinciding with the kick he gave to open the door. "General Embry just gave the word. We're falling back."
BJ's heart leaped to his throat. Potter narrowed his eyes over his surgical mask. "Who is?"
"Everybody, the front whole line." Klinger dropped off the towels at the nursing station before approaching his CO. "A Chinese regiment hit them in the flank. The whole area's being overrun."
"Damn!" Potter sagged over his patient, his blood-stained gloves momentarily still. "What's Embry's assessment? Does he need us to bug out?"
"His orders didn't say anything about us." Klinger automatically accepted an empty blood unit from Kellye. "But Battalion Aid is definitely moving. The road to Ouijongbu isn't secure, so all new casualties are being routed to the 8063rd."
"At last." Charles closed his eyes briefly. "A reprieve from more wounded."
"We've got enough outside to last us a while," said Potter.
"What about Hawkeye?" BJ asked.
Klinger shrugged. "I guess he'll fall back to the 8063rd too."
"Damn!" said Potter again. "Blast that Drake."
Margaret looked at him inquisitively. She was assisting the colonel that evening. "Sir?"
"Colonel Drake, CO of the 8063rd. If he gets his hands on Pierce, it could take us days to pry him loose." Colonel Potter resumed working. "That crafty son of a buck will use this advance as an excuse to keep Pierce there to bolster his own unit, and leave us short-handed."
Charles cocked his head. "Surely he wouldn't deprive us of our chief surgeon."
"Pig pudding!" Potter cried, while BJ rolled his eyes. Trust Charles to become concerned about Hawkeye only when it looked like it might affect him personally in terms of an increased workload.
Potter continued to rant. "Drake will laugh up his sleeve to his armpit! The man has no sense of fair play. He's probably chortling over his coffee this minute, planning his coup!"
"Klinger," BJ said, "is there anyway you can find out for sure where Battalion Aid is headed?"
The corporal spread his hands. "I'll ask, sir. But if all hell is breaking loose up there, the last thing they're going to be doing is broadcasting their position."
BJ had to be content with that. Besides, with Hawkeye gone, he had more than his share of wounded to tend to. As the night worn on, dragging down his spirits with it, he felt Hawkeye's absence keenly. Even if he and Hawkeye didn't talk, as they often didn't when they got too exhausted, it was comforting to have him at hand, working away at a neighboring table. But every time BJ looked up now, it was only to see Charles' rosy face, perspiring freely despite the cool March temperatures as exhaustion took its toll.
By 3 AM the urgent operations were done. Potter had finished up earlier, but BJ and Charles shuffled into the changing room together. Klinger followed to collect their linen, looking beat.
Charles sank onto the wooden bench, plucking at the ties to his mask. "Well, Klinger, any word from the 8063rd? Yes, I know it rhymes."
"Nada. En route, that's all anybody can tell me."
"A surprisingly polylingual response." Charles rose, handing his soiled garments to Klinger. "Gentlemen, if you don't mind, I'm going to creep onto my creaky little cat's cradle of a cot and surrender to the sublime embrace of Morpheus."
Klinger stuffed the used linen into the bin. "Gonna sack out, huh?"
Charles delivered one of his forced chuckles that sounded more like a hiccup than anything else. "Well put." He nodded at BJ. "Hunnicutt." He zipped his jacket, then slipped through the door into the dark compound.
Klinger collected BJ's gown. "How about you, Captain? Gonna grab some sack time?"
BJ fumbled with the drawstring for his pants. "What's taking so long? Shouldn't they be there by now?"
"In case you haven't heard, Captain, there's a war on. They could have been diverted miles to avoid the fighting. Still, I think we'd hear something by oh-four-hundred."
"You gonna sit by the phone?"
Klinger looked up at him with bloodshot eyes. "What else would I be doing?"
BJ clapped him companionably on the shoulder. "Bless you, Klinger."
With at least another hour to kill, BJ headed for the pre-op ward. Mulcahy had been there earlier, but when BJ entered he saw only Margaret, murmuring to Bigelow who was shift leader that night. When Margaret noticed BJ, she finished up and headed toward him. BJ wondered if his own face looked that strained. "I was going to find Klinger," she said softly.
"I just left him," said BJ. "No word yet."
"I see." Her head drooped, hands sunk in the pockets of her lab coat. She looked very small and vulnerable just then. BJ wondered what she might be going through, given her inconsistent but close relationship with Hawkeye. Not that she would ever show it.
BJ said gently, "Klinger says we might hear something by oh-four-hundred."
Margaret glanced at the wall clock, and sagged. "Another hour? Oh, BJ." She yawned. "I don't think I can stay awake that long."
BJ gave her a smile. "Don't worry about it. I'll keep watch."
"Let me know the minute you hear anything definite. Just tap on my door."
"You got it."
Margaret smiled and squeezed his arm. "Good night."
Silence descended on the camp. BJ checked on the most serious cases still waiting in pre-op. The nurses had everyone covered, administering blood and antibiotics as required. He then took a stroll through post-op. All the patients were doing as well as could be expected. At length BJ sank onto a bedside stool and scrubbed his face.
Bigelow's voice in his ear startled him. "Shouldn't you get some rest, Doctor? You won't be needed here for at least another two hours."
BJ rotated his neck to get the kinks out. "What I need is a cup of coffee."
"Sleep would serve you better."
"I couldn't sleep now." He finished rubbing his eyes, then stood as abruptly as his weary body would let him. "I'll check in with Klinger."
Bigelow placed a hand on his arm, smiling. "He's okay," she said, and BJ knew she didn't mean Klinger.
"I know. I just --" BJ felt foolish, but he couldn't shake the dread that had been haunting him all evening. "I want to know that Hawkeye made it to the 8063rd all right. Klinger said they should be there no later than four."
Bigelow smirked. "It's five minutes past now. What's keeping you?"
"Right." BJ left with alacrity. He wished he could laugh at himself, enjoy Bigelow's gentle ribbing for what it was, poking fun at his fears. But he had a rock in his gut where his stomach ought to be. He wouldn't be able to get rid of it by pretending that Hawk was going to be all right. He had to know.
He pushed open the double doors to the clerk's office. From the light inside he knew that Klinger was still at his post. Their tough Toledo clerk might not admit it, but BJ knew that he was as worried about Hawkeye as BJ himself could be. Where their once-rebellious cross-dresser had developed his sense of responsibility, BJ would never know. But when Radar had shipped out, the former escape artist had turned over a new leaf and did his best to stand in for him. BJ was grateful for it. Otherwise, Radar's departure might have been more than the little hospital could take.
We're a small unit, BJ reflected. It makes sense that we'd feel each person's loss more keenly than a larger outfit would.
BJ banged his hip on the jamb as he entered the room. "Damn!" he swore softly, and rubbed the sore spot. Being tired enough to walk into walls was not a good sign.
Across the room from him, Klinger was hunched over the radio. The fact that he didn't react to BJ's noisy entrance meant that he was totally absorbed in the conversation. "What do you mean, I can't talk to him? Is he the chief surgeon or what?"
BJ relaxed marginally. In his mind, the title "chief surgeon" was always linked with one particular name. He approached Klinger's desk.
"Then let me talk to your CO." After a fractional pause, Klinger hollered, "So wake him!"
BJ stepped forward into the pool of light thrown by the desk lamp. Klinger jumped and automatically put a hand over the mouthpiece.
"Sorry to startle you," said BJ. "What's news about Hawk?"
"Only negative news, and it ain't good."
A thrill of alarm rippled through BJ's chest, but Klinger immediately uncovered the phone to yell into it. "Well, how about if my CO tells your CO to get his bird up to the squawk box? I'm sure he'll have plenty to say to him." Klinger paused, then added sarcastically, "Thank you." He tipped the mouthpiece away and covered it again; it must be a clerking habit. The other end of the phone Klinger kept cocked by his ear, listening for a response.
BJ's mouth was dry. "What's up?"
"Captain Pierce is overdue. He stayed behind with a corpsman to try to stabilize a patient. They were supposed to be one minute behind the evac bus. The bus pulled into the 8063rd thirty minutes ago. So far, there's been no sign of Captain Pierce's litter jeep, and the whole road to Battalion Aid is one hotbed of enemy fire. There's nothing moving on it but tanks and infantry as far as our guys can see. Enemy infantry, that is."
Thirty minutes. Nothing but tanks and infantry. Thirty minutes.
"I was trying to reach Captain Rackley," Klinger continued. "He was the regular surgeon assigned to Battalion Aid. Apparently he got hit by some mortar fire and they had to send him out with the last batch of wounded. All the guys at the 8063rd know is what Rackley told him before they put him under -- that the litter jeep was supposed to follow. I'm trying to find someone else from Battalion Aid who was on that bus. Maybe somebody besides Rackley was the last person to talk to Captain Pierce. It's possible that he might have planned to take some alternate route in case he was cut off."
Last person to talk to Captain Pierce. Overdue.
BJ placed a hand on Klinger's shoulder. He wanted to say, "Keep trying," but the words wouldn't form. The rock in his stomach had grown so that it was now a tight, searing pain, blocking his breath, preventing him from speaking. He squeezed Klinger's shoulder and turned away.
At that moment the person at the other end must have come back on the line, because Klinger said animatedly, "I don't care! You're talking about our chief surgeon, here. Give everyone a quick rap on the soles and ask them if they know anything." A pause. "Just do it!"
BJ let himself out the front door. He stepped to one side and propped himself against the corrugated steel wall. He stood staring across the empty compound, the clustered tents blurring into one indistinct pattern. The moon had just risen in the east, its shrinking final crescent hanging luminously over the dark lumps of the mountains that ringed the camp. Too small to provide any real light. On the battlefield it would be dark, except for the flares and the white fire of the guns.
Was Hawkeye under the jeep at this minute, perhaps watching that same moon? Was he dashing from cover to cover, trying to avoid the approaching enemy and the revealing light of the flares? Maybe he was still at the old battalion aid station, dug in to some bunker and overlooked by the advancing troops.
BJ pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. He stood there until the chill of the night-cool metal warmed to the heat of his back. He drew in breath after breath of frigid air in a desperate attempt to keep going, to keep breathing, to fend off the despair that threatened to seize him by the throat.
"Hunnicutt?" queried a rough voice.
BJ lowered his hands. Colonel Potter swam into focus before him. The older man was dressed in his blue bathrobe, his pajama bottoms and slippers visible beneath, his hands clasped behind his back. The CO's head was cocked in inquiry, his pale eyes narrow in the light bleeding through the shaded office windows.
"Son?" he asked in his gravelly voice. "Any news?"
BJ would have thought that talking was impossible. Yet he found himself answering, "Hawkeye." The word was a whisper. BJ tried again. "He's ..." BJ groped for a word that wouldn't have the finality that he felt in his soul. He finally settled on Klinger's term. "Overdue."
"Sweet mother of Christ." Potter's gaze never left his face. BJ had used to think that those eyes could stop someone in their tracks by their sheer intensity. But at this moment they were just the stricken eyes of an old man. Colonel Potter couldn't help this situation. No one could.
"Is Klinger on this?" Potter asked.
BJ waved at the door. In an unwitting echo of BJ's gesture, Potter squeezed BJ's shoulder, then stepped inside. The door rattled shut. BJ stood with his head tipped back against the wall, hearing the mutter of voices through the thin metal, not able to understand what they were saying, not caring to understand. The night was old. BJ stared at the moon, slowly climbing into a sky that grew more and more gray. When day fully broke, the fragile remnant of moon would vanish, leaving no trace that it had ever been there.
* * *
Charles Emerson Winchester III was the hit of the yacht party. The sun was pleasantly warm on the shoulders of his white sports jacket, his head shielded from its rays by a dapper straw boater straight from previous-century England. Their host's lovely creature of a daughter laughed up at him as she playfully tipped back his hat, the bubbles in her champagne glass dazzling in the sunshine.
The voice, distinctly masculine, penetrated the dream. The party broke apart like sun sparkle on the waves.
"Major Winchester, sir?"
The voice was now accompanied by a hand shaking his shoulder. Charles mashed his pillow to his head. "Klinger!" he growled in his most threatening voice.
"Sorry to wake you, Major. Staff meeting in ten minutes."
"Staff meeting!" Charles slammed down the pillow and yanked up his eye shields. "Has Potter gone mad? What time is it?"
"Oh-eight-fifty, sir." Klinger's moist eyes looked sadder than usual. From the bedraggled looks of him, their local Lebanese flunky had been up all night.
"Surely the colonel must realize that his staff needs some rest between these vicious bouts in OR. If Pierce were here to handle some of the load, my objections might not be so strenuous --"
"Excuse me, Major." Klinger backed toward the door. "I have to notify the other officers."
"What about --"
The door to the Swamp banged shut before Charles could complete his sentence.
"-- Hunnicutt," he finished.
Puzzled by the perfunctory exit, Charles looked over at his roommate's cot. Hunnicutt's bed -- if you could call these flimsy mattress stands "beds" -- was made. Clearly the least-offensive of his bunkmates hadn't made it home last night. Perhaps some follow-up surgery in OR? If so, Charles would fill in for him today. He wouldn't like it, but a Winchester pays his debts, particularly when he's fully aware that his commanding officer would order him to take the duty anyway. Might as well be graceful about it, however un-heartfelt the gesture may be.
Charles glanced at the clock. Eight minutes to nine. Insufficient time for a shower. With a sigh, Charles reached for his uniform. In a statement approaching calumny, he muttered, "I hope Pierce gets back soon."
* * *
Margaret woke to a tentative rapping at her door. She jolted awake in an instant. It was full daylight. Had BJ stopped by last night? She didn't remember it, but he'd promised to bring her news. It wasn't like BJ to not follow through on something.
"Just a minute!" Margaret snatched up her robe and threw it around herself as she reached for the door. She pushed it open, expecting to see the tall young doctor there. Instead, she found a disheveled Klinger meeting her eyes. He looked absolutely beat.
"Klinger." Her sleep-muddled confusion gave way to alarm. "What is it? Did you hear any news?"
"Staff meeting at oh-nine-hundred, Major."
Margaret belted her robe savagely. "I asked you if you had news, Corporal."
Klinger sagged. "All I'm authorized to tell you is that we have a staff meeting at oh-nine-hundred."
"Authorized to tell me?" Margaret felt her insides turn to ice. She forced out the words. "It's Pierce, isn't it?"
Klinger lowered his eyes. "I can't say, Major."
She seized the front of his jacket. "You'd better say, mister!" Her voice was strangled, dulling the effectiveness of her threat. "What's happened to him?"
"We don't know."
She released him with a cry. "What do you mean, you don't know?"
"I'm telling you, Major, we don't know. Everything we do know, the colonel will tell you at oh-nine-hundred."
"Oh-nine-hundred." Margaret whirled back to the relative darkness of her tent, letting the door shut in Klinger's face. Oh-nine-hundred. A glance at her nightstand showed her that she had six minutes. Plenty of time to get ready, if she pulled her hair back instead of trying to brush it out. That is, if she could keep her hands steady. Damn, she was shaking like that time the shells were falling all around the hut, and Captain Pierce had held her in his arms --
A tear slipped down her cheek, as suddenly as if it had fallen from the sky. Damn it, damn it, stop shaking! Get ready.
She swallowed the sickness down her throat, then reached for the brushes at her nightstand. Or should she dress first? The shells were falling, and Pierce had held her and made her feel safe. Her memory flashed from the abandoned hut to the mouth of the cave, back and forth. How warm and secure had she felt, huddled in Hawkeye's arms. She hadn't been worried last night. Hawkeye had visited aid stations numerous times. He been fired on more times than she cared to think about, but he'd never been hurt. Only that piece of shrapnel that one time, and that hadn't been too bad. He'd been shaken, yes, scared, yes. But not hurt. Not like those poor young men who were carried in all the time.
The tears were falling in force. Angrily Margaret wiped them away. You're being silly! she scolded herself. You don't know that he's been hurt. But then, why the sudden meeting? Why would Klinger refuse to tell her his news?
Three minutes to nine. Why couldn't she keep her hands still? Where the hell was BJ? Frantically she drew on her fatigues. Why did they have so many buttons? Damn it, she'd never be ready in time. She yanked her belt snug with a flourish then banged out the door, winding her hair up anyhow behind her head as she raced for the colonel's office.
* * *
Dr. Sidney Freedman pulled into the compound near the office and shut off the engine. For a moment he sat in the jeep, eyes closed, soaking in the sun's rays that had only just cleared the eastern ridge of the mountains. Potter's early-morning call had filled him with distress. Still, these people were his friends and he was going to do his best to help them through this. That would mean that he'd have to put his own feelings on the back burner for a while. He hoped he'd be strong enough to do that.
"Dr. Freedman, good morning!"
Sidney opened his eyes. Father Mulcahy waved jauntily, walking toward him. That and his cheery greeting were so at odds with Sidney's mission that the psychiatrist could only stare.
"Getting an early start today, are we?" Mulcahy chatted as he came up. "Or should I say `you?' I'm not an early riser this morning, I'm afraid. It seems I was so exhausted after last night's grueling session that as soon as I could get away, I crawled into bed and slept like a log for eight hours. That was after we'd heard the good news, of course."
"The good news," Sidney prompted.
"About Hawkeye being all right. Oh," cried Mulcahy, recollecting himself. "You don't know. You weren't here last night. Well, we all spent several fearful hours worrying about his safety. It seems that one of the wounded men brought back a report that a surgeon at the aid station had been killed -- God rest his soul." Mulcahy crossed himself. "Oh, you should have seen the relief in the OR when we found out it wasn't Hawkeye! Although there was some talk that they would have to bug out. Did that finally happen, do you know?"
Sidney was keenly aware of the glances that the first-shift personnel cast in their direction, as they crossed the compound in the course of their business. Sidney collected his bag. "Shall we talk inside, Father?"
"Oh, yes, I almost forgot!" Mulcahy backed hastily towards the office door as Sidney climbed down. "Klinger woke me a few minutes ago. He said we had a staff meeting."
"I know you do, Father, because I'm invited, too."
"Are you? Splendid!" Mulcahy paused on the threshold. "Is there something in particular the colonel wants to discuss?"
Sidney waved the priest inside, then followed himself. "Yes, Father. I'm afraid there is."
"Afraid? Why afraid?" Still facing Sidney, Mulcahy backed through the double doors to Potter's office. Sidney followed him in.
The colonel was seated at his desk, his face looking lined and solemn. BJ was slumped over one corner of the colonel's desk, his head propped on his palm. His ward coat was awry, his face bewhiskered and pale. Both he and the colonel had empty glasses in front of them. From the looks of them, Sidney wondered if they'd been here all night.
Mulcahy turned around and saw them. "Good Lord! Colonel, BJ, are you all right?"
Potter waved lackadaisically at a chair. "Have a seat, Father. Sidney, thanks for coming."
"You're welcome, Sherman. I wish it could have been under happier circumstances."
"Circumstances?" Mulcahy blinked. "What circumstances?"
Potter intervened. "Roost in one of those chairs, Padre, and I'll fill you in."
Sidney selected a spot to stand near the filing cabinets. He wanted to be in a position to observe the faces of the staff as they dealt with the news. Mulcahy had barely settled himself when Margaret burst through the door, lowering her hands from her head as if she had just been adjusting her hair. She barreled into the room with all the force of her personality.
"Colonel," she began, "be straight with me. I have to know --" She spotted Sidney off to one side and stopped. Her face went so white Sidney thought she might faint.
He stepped forward to catch her elbow. Gently he lowered her onto a chair.
"Major Freedman," she said weakly. "You're here."
"I'm here. Are you all right, Major?"
"If you're here," Margaret continued, "then ... the news ..."
Potter splashed some scotch into a fresh glass. "Toss that down, Major, and don't let your imagination run away with you."
Sidney noticed that BJ had not reacted in any way to Margaret's flamboyant entrance. The captain twirled his empty tumbler on the desk, staring at it. He must be very drunk.
Mulcahy twisted in his chair, trying to catch the expressions on the faces around him. "What's happening?"
"As I was about to explain," Potter began, when he was once more interrupted.
Winchester paraded through the door. From his impeccable dress and collected demeanor, Sidney mentally noted him as another one who hadn't yet heard the news. Arrogant as the physician could sometimes be, Sidney believed Charles to be a decent human being, if you could dig beneath those layers of pomp and pretense. He hoped that Charles would be able to rise to the occasion and provide some support for his more-stricken colleagues.
Klinger entered last, his enormous eyes making him look like a dog that had just been whipped. He met Sidney's gaze, and the psychiatrist nodded in greeting. Klinger lowered his head and drew a chair to the very back of the room. He fell onto it and covered his eyes.
"I think you're all aware," Potter began without preamble, "that the enemy overran our front line positions during last night's attack. This advance has been halted, but the front shifted about a mile and a half south of its previous position. As a result, personnel assigned to Battalion Aid fell back to the 8063rd. They regrouped early this morning, and set up a new forward aid station bolstered by members of the 8063rd and the replacement surgeon who was originally scheduled to relieve Pierce last night."
Winchester rolled his eyes. "Colonel, we know all this, or could easily surmise as much. Since when have you become so concerned about the outcome of any particular action? The front goes back and forth all the time." He shifted in his chair to eye his colleagues. "What is everyone so gloomy about? Good Lord, I feel as if I've walked into a wake."
BJ winced, but no one else moved.
"The difference is this, Major," said Potter in his most no-nonsense voice. "When the battalion aid evacuees arrived at the 8063rd, Captain Pierce wasn't among them."
"He wasn't --" Winchester looked about, startled. Mulcahy sat tensely upright, too stunned to speak.
Margaret was white to her lips. "Colonel," she managed. "Is he --?"
Potter continued firmly, "His official status is `missing in action,' MIA."
Mulcahy adjusted his glasses. Margaret clasped the edge of her chair with both hands, her gaze drilling into the front of Potter's desk. Winchester sat open-mouthed, too dumbfounded as yet to speak. Klinger and BJ didn't alter position, although BJ twirled the empty glass faster on the desktop.
"I'll tell you what I know," Potter said, "though it isn't much. Captain Rackley, the only remaining surgeon assigned to the aid station, was injured by mortar fire during the enemy advance. He was removed with all the wounded they could fit in an evac bus. Pierce remained behind with a seriously injured patient in an attempt to stabilize him and get him out on a litter jeep. A corpsman, Corporal Lewis, also remained to assist Captain Pierce." Potter paused. "That's the last anyone saw of them."
Everyone's control was slipping now. Margaret's eyes filled, though she kept her hands clamped to the sides of her chair. Mulcahy's head was bowed, in grief or prayer, Sidney couldn't tell. Winchester sat breathing heavily, blinking his eyes. Sidney was right about him. He was a good man, if only he'd let it out more often. BJ's expression Sidney couldn't read. He had buried his face in the crook of his arm, slumped over Potter's desk. In the back row, Klinger kept his hand over his eyes.
Potter cleared his throat, and went on. "I spoke with General Embry at oh-five-thirty this morning. The front line units are being notified to watch out for any allied personnel who might have become separated from their units. I gave him Pierce's description, and Drake has provided one for Lewis. This information is being passed down the line. It's possible that our missing friends went to ground when they realized that they couldn't get out in the jeep. The road was heavily shelled. They might have taken cover anywhere between the aid station and the new front line. It's still possible for either of them to walk in under his own power at any time. More likely, if they're still in the area and at liberty, they'll lie low until nightfall."
The reactions in the room were unchanged. Mulcahy blew his nose.
"More important, our forces are planning a counterattack. I don't have the details, but we're told to prepare to receive more wounded. I've already sent out an urgent request for surgeons. Embry is backing me personally on this, and I expect to see at least one new man by nightfall, and two if they can round up another."
Winchester sputtered to life. "But, Colonel, if they do launch a counterattack, assuming that Pierce is still alive out there, surely our own advancing forces will put him at further risk."
"It can't be helped, Major. We've got to reclaim that ground. It's the only way we can conduct an effective search, not to mention that it's militarily indicated."
BJ pushed himself upright. "Colonel, may I be excused?" he asked loudly.
"Holster your hoofers a second, Captain. Major Winchester, you were present when Pierce readied himself for the front."
Winchester looked puzzled. "I was in the room, yes."
"Do you by any chance recall if Captain Pierce attached his rank insignia before leaving?"
Winchester's face clouded. "I'm ... not sure. I wasn't paying much attention."
Margaret spoke, her voice a whisper. "He never wore his rank insignia."
Mulcahy chimed in. "Why is that important, Colonel?"
"Because if the North Koreans did catch up to Pierce, they might be more likely to spare his life if they recognized him as a surgeon. His rank would help distinguish him from an aide or another member of the medical corps."
Winchester nodded. "I'll check his personal effects for rank insignia when I return to the Swamp."
"Hunnicutt," said Potter, "will you assist him?"
Hunnicutt swayed in his chair. "Whatever you say, Colonel." Sidney couldn't tell if Hunnicutt was ready to throw up or pass out. The look on his face was far from comforting.
"All right," Potter said. "I'll be making a general announcement in the mess tent a few minutes from now. You don't have to attend unless you want to be there. Until then, try to keep this news to yourselves. Father Mulcahy, something in the way of a `safe journey' prayer would be very much appreciated." Potter twitched a grim smile. "You have your work cut out for you today."
"Oh, my, yes." The priest blotted his eyes, and blew his nose one final time. "Yes. I'll make myself available to everyone. Just ... would you give me a few minutes to prepare before you make your announcement?"
"Is ten minutes sufficient, Padre? I don't want this thing to get away from us."
"Oh, I think so."
"Let's make it fifteen. I'm sorry, Father. Today will be one of the roughest days the 4077th's seen. I asked Dr. Freedman to come up to try and lighten the load."
"Yes, of course. How thoughtful. Thank you, Sidney. I appreciate the help."
"And all of you." Potter's gaze swept the room. "We can get through anything if we work together. Don't bottle up your feelings inside. If you need to talk, talk! My door is always open, as is the padre's. Sidney's got his shingle out for business as well. You've got good resources here. Use them. That's all."
BJ lurched to his feet, then stumbled over Klinger on his way to the door. The diminutive clerk mildly put out a hand to fend him off, apparently too far gone to be startled or even curious. Winchester rose and took his roomie's arm in a steadying grip. With a parting nod at Potter, he guided his bunkmate out the door. Mulcahy left just behind them in a considerably more collected manner, sniffling and tucking away his handkerchief. Sidney's heart bled for him. What a position to be in, trying to comfort others when his own feelings must be in shreds.
"Klinger," Potter said. The corporal raised his eyes. Potter's gravelly voice went soft. "Why don't you grab some kip, son? You can bunk with the night patrol."
"Thank you, sir." Klinger hoisted himself to his feet and staggered out the door.
Only Margaret remained, hunched alone in the midst of the vacant chairs. Sidney took Winchester's former place beside her. "Margaret?"
At the word the tears that had been brimming slid down her cheeks. She lifted beaded lashes toward Potter. "Colonel," she said softly, "is there any hope?"
Potter spread his hands on his desk. "There's always hope, Major."
"I meant reasonable hope."
Sidney smiled. "Hope by its very nature is unreasonable, Major."
Margaret continued to ignore him, addressing her remarks to Potter. "But in a push of this kind -- they so rarely take prisoners." Her voice cracked, then she forced herself to go on. "What do you think, sir, yourself?"
Potter cleared his throat and bowed his head. To Sidney, it looked as if he was ready to step off a very high cliff. "We don't have many facts in hand, Major. It would be irresponsible for me to speculate under these circumstances."
"I see." She rose. From where he was sitting Sidney could see how badly her hands were shaking. "May I be excused? I'd also like a little time to prepare before you break the news to my nurses."
"You don't have to be there, Major," said Potter kindly.
Margaret drew herself up. "Yes, I do. With your permission, sir?"
Potter nodded, and she left. The double doors swung shut behind her.
Sidney faced Potter across his desk. It was remarkable, the transformation in Potter's face. The grizzled army colonel façade melted, and the next moment a very tired, decimated old man sat behind the desk.
Sidney leaned forward, reaching for the bottle. "Drink, Sherman?"
Potter waved him off, leaning forward onto his desk. For a moment he was silent, and Sidney let him be. When at length he did speak, the grief that he'd been keeping at bay was clearly audible in his cracked voice. "What a rotten thing to happen."
Sidney nodded. "It doesn't get much worse."
"The 4077th's in trouble, Sidney. This blow is going to take morale down to subterranean levels."
"I'll be on hand for as long as you need me."
"It could be a week. Even longer."
"The office knows where to reach me."
"It all depends on whether or not we can regain that lost ground," Potter said. "Then we'll see what the search turns up."
"I take it you're not expecting Captain Pierce to walk in under his own power."
"Through an enemy advance, carrying a wounded man?" Potter rested his head on his hands. "No, I don't expect that to happen. I've seen too many battles, Sidney. Such miracles are rare indeed. I'm afraid that Major Houlihan is right. I think we'll find Pierce, or what's left of him. Not the other way around."
"What happened to hope – or just plain luck?"
"Luck." Potter straightened. "Yes, I can go along with that. Pierce is lucky, at least he is with women and cards." Potter capped the bottle and returned it to the liquor cabinet. "Hope, on the other hand, is a millstone that drags down the spirits of those condemned to carry on without knowing the truth. If you could exorcise this kernel of hope lodged in my breast, Sidney, I'd be mighty grateful."
* * *
Charles guided his unsteady companion across the compound, drawing more than a few startled looks from passing personnel. Charles drew himself up to his most formidable stance and continued without pausing.
Unfortunately, Igor chose to address him. "Major? Is Captain Hunnicutt all right?"
"Fine, Igor, fine," Charles said. "The doctor has been taken ill, is all," he added, in direct contradiction of himself.
Igor spread his hands. "Well, don't look at me. He didn't even eat breakfast this morning."
"A wise move, always."
Charles opened the door to the Swamp with his free hand, then bowed Hunnicutt's head for him so he wouldn't smack into the upper sill. Once the door had closed behind them, Charles felt temporarily safe from the public eye. He guided Hunnicutt to his bunk, fully expecting him to collapse onto it. But Hunnicutt sat heavily, staring at Pierce's empty cot.
"Sleep, Hunnicutt!" Charles commanded.
BJ shook his head. Charles sighed. Pierce's things were in an atrocious mess, as usual. Charles longed to clear some of the clutter away. That way, at least, Hunnicutt might not be so paralyzed by the sight of the empty space.
Oh, well. He may as well carry out Potter's commission. "Where would Pierce keep his rank insignia?"
BJ mumbled incoherently. Charles leaned closer. "Where?" he repeated sharply.
"Foot locker," BJ replied.
Charles felt a pang as he threw back the lid, clearly stenciled with Pierce's name. At least the foot locker wasn't a mess. Apparently Pierce reserved his untidiness for articles he actually removed from the foot locker and left lying about. He easily located the case containing the rank insignia. A set of "railroad tracks" lay within. He extended the box towards Hunnicutt.
"Is this the only pair he has?"
BJ nodded. Carefully Charles closed the box and returned it to its place. "What about his caduceus?"
"Dress uniform," BJ muttered.
Charles dug below a trove of nudist magazines. Pierce's Class A's were neatly folded at the bottom. The caducei that proclaimed Pierce to be a medical practitioner and therefore a noncombatant were in place on the jacket collar. Charles felt a twinge of regret.
"Hunnicutt," he said without turning, "why don't you get some rest?"
"You think this will all look better in the morning?"
"I think," Charles said, facing him, "that you are mentally, physically, and emotionally drained. You need to get some rest."
"And to think, only yesterday I had the deluxe treatment in Seoul."
BJ's voice held a dangerous edge of hysteria. Charles wondered if a sedative might be in order. He gave persuasion another try. "Lie down, Hunnicutt."
To his relief, the other man complied. BJ didn't close his eyes, however, but lay staring at the ceiling. "So this is what it's like," he murmured, "to kill your best friend."
Alarm bells sounded in Charles's brain. Still kneeling beside Pierce's foot locker, he delivered his firmest rebuke. "First of all, there is no evidence yet that Pierce has been killed. We have grounds for concern, and that is all. Second, you are not responsible for an order than came in and was executed while you weren't even in camp."
"Yeah, it was executed, all right. Executed right up to the front."
Charles got to his feet. "I see you're determined to wallow in self-generated misery. Permit me to suggest how foolish you'll feel when Pierce walks in unharmed tomorrow."
BJ's blue eyes lanced up at him. "Do you really think that will happen, Charles?"
Trapped, Charles's first instinct was to temporize. Hunnicutt continued to hold him with his stare. Charles lowered his eyes. "No." He sank onto Pierce's cluttered cot. "No, I don't think it will."
BJ rolled onto his side to face him. "What do you think happened to him?"
In light of this positive response, Charles elected to pursue his new course of honesty. He considered carefully. "If the battle overran his position, he would have been exposed to anything from shellfire to rifle fire to machine guns. Assuming he survived that, he'd have to be relatively uninjured and mobile to have even a chance of escaping detection -- which seems all the more unlikely if you consider that he had a wounded man in tow. Unfortunately, even if they take him prisoner, his fate is by no means certain. I'm sure you've heard as many stories as I have about the treatment he might expect -- up to and including summary execution."
BJ sank back to stare at the ceiling. "Thank you, Charles."
Charles felt the weight of his previous pronouncement like a heaviness on his chest. "Whatever for?"
"For saying what you really thought. If you told the truth about that, maybe you were telling the truth about other things."
"Such as what happened to Pierce not being your fault?"
BJ hesitated. "It feels like my fault."
"It isn't," Charles countered. "It's the war."
"Yes." BJ bit his lip. "It's the damn war."
Charles sighed and bowed his head. When he looked up again, BJ's eyes were closed. Charles watched him a minute. The breaths were deep and regular. At last. Charles closed his eyes in relief.
The loudspeaker blared, "Attention, attention, all personnel. There will be a meeting in the mess tent in five minutes. Come one, come all. Don't be late for this very important announcement, whatever it is."
There was a swirl of activity as wooden doors banged and groups of people began converging on the officer's mess. Charles watched his roommate anxiously, but Hunnicutt didn't stir. Charles offered a tiny prayer of thanks.
Well, he needn't worry about his movements disturbing Hunnicutt if this ruckus failed to do so. Quietly Charles moved about the tent, picking up Pierce's things. Miscellaneous personal items he stowed in the locker; clothing he separated for laundering, if it required it, which most of the articles did. He couldn't bring himself to pack away Pierce's books or the Spartan array of articles that habitually inhabited his bedside shelf -- his PX clock and decorative aftershave bottle, and the hinged double frame showing a youthful picture of his mother on one side and a current one of his father on the other. Removing those would have been too much of an admission of what Charles already felt in his heart -- that Hawkeye Pierce was not coming back.
Charles sighed heavily, then went ahead and stripped the bed. The new doctors, assuming they arrived, would need a place to sleep.
* * *
Corporal Max Klinger shuffled the papers on his desk. He just couldn't get going today. He told himself that it was his scant four hours of sleep, but he didn't believe himself. He'd had less sleep than that before, and it didn't make him fall apart like this.
Klinger sighed, and looked again at the paper in his hand. Sooner or later he'd be able to actually understand what the words on it were saying, but it was hard. He set the paper in the outbox and sat, elbows propped on the desk. Then he looked up at the outbox. Did the paper he just put there belong there, or had he just set it there without thinking? Klinger shook his head and reached the paper down again. Holding it with both hands, he stared at the page, willing himself to pay attention.
The squeal of brakes penetrated the slit between the office doors. Klinger glanced at the clock. Almost sixteen hundred. This would be the replacement surgeons. Klinger glanced over his shoulder at Potter's office. He could hear gentle weeping beyond the door. Potter had escorted a teary Bigelow in there only a few minutes ago. Unwilling to disturb him, Klinger went out to greet the new arrivals himself.
They had already dismounted and stood by the jeep uncertainly, glancing around with an all-too-apparent expression of doubt. Klinger remembered that feeling well, when he got his first look at the place that was to be his glorious posting for the duration of his forced servitude. Funny, he hadn't noticed how dingy everything looked for quite a while.
He forced a neutral expression onto his face; it was beyond his current abilities to smile. "Are you guys the new surgeons?" he called, crossing toward them.
"Yes, we are," one of them answered, while the other casually saluted in greeting. Holy cow, they must be new, saluting a corporal. Maybe they hadn't noticed his stripes and mistook him for the post commander. Wouldn't that be a laugh?
At that moment Klinger noticed Major Winchester, eyes on the clipboard in his hand, about to enter post-op. He waved and called, "Major!" Winchester halted. Seeing the men by the jeep, the doctor adjusted his course to meet them.
Klinger stepped forward to introduce himself. "I'm Corporal Klinger, company clerk. And this," he said, extending a hand as Winchester came up, "is Major Winchester, one of our surgeons."
"Charles Emerson Winchester, at your service," said the major, extending his hand.
The nearest man took it. "Tucker Willis. Call me Tuck."
Winchester smiled tersely. "Tuck." Klinger braced himself for the sarcasm that was sure to follow this announcement – but Winchester merely shifted his gaze to the second man.
"Langley Scott," the young man said, shaking his hand.
"Gentlemen, welcome to the 4077th," said Winchester. "We're a little disorganized at present, but rest assured that your contribution to our efforts here is much needed and highly appreciated. Tell me, have either of you served at a MASH before?"
Tuck shook his head. "I'm just out of residency. Amarillo, Texas."
Langley said, "I've handled some gunshot wounds. I completed my residency in Chicago."
"We had a surgeon here for a time who hailed from Chicago," Winchester replied. "Expert emergency technique. We were sorry to see him go."
Langley said, "I hope I'll be able to make as favorable an impression."
"Well, as in all areas of specialization, emergency medical procedures must be studied and learned. I expect that you'll have a crash course tonight. However, as soon as you've settled your things, do let me show you around. I'll brief you as much as I'm able before the casualties start rolling in -- which they may do at any time."
"Thank you, sir," said Tuck enthusiastically.
Klinger almost shook his head, but caught himself. He himself would hate to be dependent on Winchester's good will, which was grudging enough at the best of times.
Winchester turned toward Klinger, making him jump guiltily, considering his thoughts. Thank goodness the major wasn't a mind reader.
"Klinger, would you direct these gentlemen to the Swamp?"
"The Swamp, sir?" Apart from the fact that Klinger was used to thinking of it as Hawkeye's billet, Klinger couldn't see the major willingly opening his door to anyone named "Tuck."
"Indeed," Winchester responded. "Dr. Freedman requires the privacy of the VIP quarters at present. In any case, surgeons would be better able to introduce other surgeons to the peculiarities and nuances of the 4077th. I only request that you gentlemen deposit your things quietly. The other surgeon in residence has had an arduous all-night session and needs rest. No doubt you'll meet him later this evening at triage or the mess, whichever comes first."
"I appreciate the warning," said Tuck, touching the brim of his helmet again. Klinger saw that he had been wrong; it wasn't a salute. It looked like a Texas thing, with Tuck touching the brim of an imaginary ten-gallon hat.
"At your convenience, gentleman." Winchester nodded, then resumed his course towards post-op.
Klinger retrieved the doctors' bags from the jeep. Tuck stood just behind him. "Well, he seems like a right nice fellow. Is everybody at the 4077th so friendly?"
Klinger had to collect himself before he could answer. What a topsy-turvy world it was, when an outsider's first impression of Major Charles Emerson Winchester III is "nice" and "friendly." Klinger grabbed a suitcase in each hand, then headed for the Swamp. "Friendly is our middle name," he said finally.
The doctors hoisted their duffle bags and followed. Klinger plucked open the door to the Swamp with a free finger, then stepped inside quickly before it could close on him. He stood frozen on the threshold, in shock.
Except for Captain Hunnicutt's bunk, which still sported a semi-circle of abandoned clothes and trash around its rumpled and unconscious occupant, the place had been cleaned within an inch of its life. Is this what surgeons did when they were upset -- scrub? All of Captain Pierce's things had been put away except for a few doodads. It hurt Klinger like a slap to see the empty spot on the wall where Hawkeye's purple bathrobe had always hung.
The two empty bunks, Hawkeye's former one and the spare across the room, were neatly made. However, Klinger's campmates apparently had been busy while he had been poking around his office, trying to think. All around Hawkeye's bunk, filling the vacant shelves and the table for the still, were jars and vases and glasses of water filled with wildflowers. More flowers were strewn on the bed. It looked like everyone in the MASH had stopped by to leave flowers. Hawkeye's bunk was a festival of color.
Tuck came up and peered over Klinger's shoulder. "If that don't beat all," he said softly. "Boy, you people sure know how to make a fellow feel wanted."