The transfer Rodger had requested had come through the end of September. A month by ship to Burma then onto China where he was reassigned to the Flying Tigers at the base in Chenkung, China.
Drumming his fingers on his desk, he re‑read letters from Adele and Ada.
Time. He had lost its sequence. It seemed so long ago that he had been home. And not even him, someone else. He folded the letters and put them back into the envelopes.
He riffled through the paperwork that pressed on him like rubber bands over too many sheets of paper. He pushed it all aside, then stood up and stretched. Men milled around the outer room, rumbling voices all around. He heard snatches of conversation; a poker game was in progress. Outside seemed quiet enough. But something was in the air; he could smell it, like ozone before a storm.
Rodger walked outside, around the building, listening. He strained his eyes against the night, slowly sweeping his head left to right. Then he heard the faraway drone of an engine. He wanted to go after that crazy Jap, still around after all these months. Sweat tickled down his armpit and his heart beat wildly, but he reconsidered and calmly called out orders.
“Pickens, get Jackson. Tell him it’s his chance to sack the Wolf. Hurry up! Keys, Mannor and Robins, we’ll crew the plane.”
Because Jackson was scheduled for first flight in the morning, he had gone to bed, blissfully sober. He came at a run, struggling into his flight suit while Stony Pickens, arrogant and self-possessed, casually walked behind him.
He’s good and he’s trouble, mused Rodger.
Jackson glanced up frequently at the men loading his plane with armament, hastily pulling on his gloves, and helmet, then checking his boots and zippered pockets. A tense grin played about his lips that Rodger envied. Once he caught Stony looking hard at Jackson, his jaw pulled taut and his eyes narrowed.
As Jackson prepared to board, one of the mechanics cried out, “Oh, come on, Stony, wish him well! Be a good sport!”
Stony attempted to smile, to wave off the implications. Rodger understood Stony’s resentment, how much he wanted to go instead of Jackson, to be the one who claimed the kill.
Jackson’s engines awakened, the intense vibrations stirring the night. Rodger and Stony stepped aside to watch the take‑off. Rodger flashed the victory sign.
Rodger whistled softly, swallowing down his own envy as he watched Jackson out-maneuver the Zero, concealing himself in cloud layers, filling the sky with his noise, dropping on top of the Zero. They tangoed in the sky. Jackson had the advantage, and then lost it. But neither could gain a position for the kill.
The take‑off aroused all of the pilots from sleep, and they stood outside to await the outcome. The men on the ground listened, wondered, and placed bets.
For several minutes, they could see no sign of Jackson in the sky. Rodger checked his watch, searched the sky again. The dark mantle of night began to pale into an azure line running across the horizon, as if it were turning itself inside out.
Rodger was the first to see the flaming plane approach the field. In spite of his crippled aircraft, Jackson made a skillful landing, earning the admiration of the whole group. The fire crew rushed out to extinguish the raging fire that had gutted the tail section. Jackson hopped off the wing and, fire extinguisher in hand, helped put out the fire.
A group collected around Jackson as he walked back to the barracks. Once inside the debriefing room he removed his flight helmet and gloves then paused in his silent striptease act. No one spoke.
Finally, Jackson shook his head from side to side.
Stony tried to suppress a grin as he clapped Jackson on the shoulder.
“Right nice of you to have your sport and leave him for someone else!”
There was chorus of laughter, of relief and gratitude.
Rodger trailed behind the group. He heard the Night Wolf’s plane returning and shouted,
They scattered, heading for the outermost bushes. The Night Wolf made one low pass over the outside perimeter of the airstrip. In the starry predawn, a piercing howl echoed. The wounded Zero left, leaving a smoky trail.
“Ya got him, Jackson!” cried his wingman. “He’s hurt bad, too!”
Rodger walked beside Jackson. The lean, handsome face turned to him.
“Mine was the first strike, sir. I should have made sure.”
Rodger clapped Jackson on the shoulder.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself. You did some pretty fancy flying. So did he. All’s fair, you know.”
And fair for me, too, he thought.
Captain Robins rubbed his hands together. “Sir, we’re starting a little poker game, it being so close to breakfast and all. Would you care to join in?”
Rodger stopped short, inhaling the acrid night air, sucking in all of the stars above.
“Deal me in.”
The rustle and click of poker chips rang sharply as he came in the door. Six men sat around the table, waiting for him. Their boisterous talk filled the tiny room, and someone was bent down rummaging boxes, looking for beer. Finally, the short, balding mechanic in a rumpled uniform produced eight capped bottles of beer. Someone threw a metal opener that skipped and clanked across the table.
Rodger watched until four of the men had taken a beer before he reached for a warm bottle. As he uncapped it, foam spilled over in quiet rivulets, oozing down the sides of the bottle, over his hand, dripping onto the floor. He wiped his hand dry on the side of his pants. He swallowed the salty, welcomed beer quickly, then abruptly plunked down in a chair.
“Five card stud, joker wild.” He took the deck, handed it to the man on his right to cut, and began the deal. Cards landed in place before him. “Ante’s white, limit ten dollars. We’re playing with American dollars.” He slipped the cards together and then fanned out the edges to peek into them.
Stony watched each man look at his cards. Rodger had once heard him say he could find clues in the reflections of an eyeball. Rodger dropped his eyelids, shifting his loose change from his right pocket to the left side, then leaned back into his chair. He found his silver dollar. Throughout the game, he would touch the edge of his pocket.
“I’ll see you and raise you five.” Stony let the chips rain down. After fifteen minutes, he had lost three successive hands, as had Rodger.
“I’ll call.” Rodger laid down his straight.
Stony fanned out his club flush, snapping each card down onto the table. “Read ’em and weep, Colonel,” Stony smirked, raking in the chips.
“Last hand for me,” Rodger said, mentally reviewing the upcoming daily roster.
Daylight streamed through the dirty windows. Each of the six men frequently whisked away beaded sweat from their foreheads. Two folded their cards and waved good-night. Rodger had dropped close to a hundred bucks, but he still felt lucky.
Time dragged around each play made. Four were still in. Rodger upped his bet by five dollars, hoping to narrow the odds. Two men folded, leaving him pitted against Stony.
Rodger leaned forward, rotating his shoulders as if to work out a kink. Stony chewed on the end of his mustache. He threw in another blue chip. Rodger tossed in one, picking up a red. Stony squinted, slowly pushing his red one into the pile. His eyes focused intently on Rodger, then he smiled. Rodger smiled back. Stony added another blue chip. Rodger eased in a blue one, then scooted another blue one beside it. Stony continued to smile, playing contentedly with his blond mustache. He scratched his chin, then picked up two blue chips and tossed them into the center.
“I’ll call.” Methodically, he exposed his hand.
Rodger laid down his royal flush on top of Stony’s ace, king, queen, jack, and ten. Only by a hair’s breath, he thought. But then again, that’s all I need to win.
The two who had folded, dropped the legs of their chairs so that they could lean over and see the lay of the cards.
Robins whistled, rolling his eyes backward as Rodger raked in the chips.
“That was real close, yes siree, real close!” he exclaimed. “There ain’t enough odds in the world that’ll say a combination like that will ever be seen again!”
Rodger nodded. “That’s for damn sure.”
Stony chuckled. Stretching his long arms overhead, he arched his back and yawned loudly.
“Not my lucky day by a long shot. Guess I’ll get some shuteye. I’m not due out till three.”
He stood up to go, then casually challenged, “Play you Cold Hand for a hundred, Colonel.”
“You’re on.” Rodger shuffled the cards, giving the deck to the man on his right. As each man flipped the oncoming card up, he stared straight ahead into the other’s eyes. When all five had been dealt, there lay an eerie hush about the room. Rodger looked quickly at his cards, noting that he had three threes. Then he glanced over to Stony’s hand and recoiled slightly when he recognized the aces and eights. Dead Man’s Hand. No one said anything.
Rodger swept the cards up and compacted them into a neat pile.
“Clean up and let’s get to work,” Rodger ordered.
Superstitious nonsense, he thought as he walked to his office. As he passed the board, he pulled the flight sheet down and replaced Stony’s name with his own.
After lunch, Stony stomped into the office, his mouth compressed and eyes ablaze. Rodger continued reading the paper in his hand, until Stony cleared his throat.
“Sir, could I have a word with you?”
Rodger looked up “What is it, Pickens?”
“I think I’m entitled to an explanation about the change in the flight schedule,” Stony spat out, “Sir.”
“Right.” He tapped the sheet of paper in his hand. “I reviewed your flight time. You’re due for some time off. And I need a few hours. That’s it plain and simple.”
“I want to protest—-”
“So noted, Pickens. Get some rest.” Rodger picked up his pen and began to sign the x’d lines.
With a thud, a clump of bills hit the upraised sheets of paper Rodger held in his left hand. He pocketed the poker winnings.
“Thank you, Pickens. This change has nothing to do with the poker game. My logs are up for review, and I can’t let any minor infractions show up. Don’t take it personally.”
“No, sir, I won’t take it too personally.” Stony turned and stormed out of the office, banging the door.
During the briefing, Rodger forced himself to act more enthusiastic than he really felt. The flight plans were limited in scope and field, the usual from the brass. He resented it as much as his men, but he pretended it was all perfectly sensible; and he pretended not to notice when his squadron blatantly disobeyed the cockeyed mandates.
Once airborne, he became just another pilot, working as part of a team. Reno was his wingman. The others, Steve, Coolly, and Nick, wasted no time doing preflights and run-ups. Rodger felt the current flowing between the planes, uniting them, washing over them, as blood goes from the heart to all parts of the body.
They took off with a direct vector, climbing north with one hundred forty miles to reach the Burma border, a routine mission. The flight spread out at the bomb line; all eyes swept constantly back and forth for enemy aircraft, making sure the sky was clear.
Reno cried out, “Bandits! Nine o’clock high.”
“Red Leader. Advance throttle and climb to twenty‑five.” Rodger initiated a climbing turn and leveled off at twenty‑five thousand feet. All of the others followed. Sweat slid from his armpits down to his wrists. They were working men now. No thought for anything else.
“Holy smokes! Red Leader, look what’s comin’ in from the south!” Reno banked slightly for a fuller view.
“Increase right bank!” Rodger barked.
As fast as they executed the turn, the Japanese Nates were out of sight.
“Lost ’em all, dammit,” moaned Coolly. “Nothin’ to write home to Mom about tonight.”
Then at eight-thousand feet, coming from the opposite direction, a single Nate skimmed along the cloud cover. Rodger pulled a quick ninety‑degree turn with Reno right beside him, level with the Nate, six miles back, their P‑38s screamed after him.
Reno dived behind him, staying level, but the elusive Nate remained two miles out of range. Finally at one‑thousand feet Rodger lined up the red nose, red rudder, and mid‑section of the Nate in his sights.
There was a short burst of flames, and little holes popped out on the fuselage. One more longer burst, and the engine and wings took the strikes. In a graceful dive, the aircraft began its descent, smoke spewing out. Rodger lined up astern, very close this time, and fired again. Huge hunks of the aircraft, flailing as if imbued with life, flew into space with dizzying speed. The canopy shot straight up, hovered for a second, and then tumbled over and over. The parachute blossomed, drifting slowly down to earth.
Almost immediately Rodger and Reno were rejoined by the others, along with the rest of the Japanese force.
Reno yelled, “Red Leader, break left!”
Rodger twisted over left and up into the sun. Getting into position behind the enemy leader, he tailed him hard until he had him in his sights. He pressed the trigger; a line of holes burst into the enemy’s wing. With grim determination, Rodger executed a hard barrel roll, passed over, and came into him again.
He heard strikes against his tail, but didn’t allow his eyes to wander from the sights. Again he fired. Two long, one short. The fuselage and tailpipe danced with fiery colors and gray‑green smoke. Rodger looked over to the cockpit. The pilot was dead, slumped against the controls, forcing the plane into an erratic spiral dive.
“Hot damn, Colonel!” sang out Nick. “We done ’em all in!”
“Red Leader here. Any damage?” Relief and pride in his men mingled with a sudden exhilaration. “Well, the boys at home aren’t going to believe us when we tell them about the ones that didn’t get away!”
They headed back to base. Upon approach, in tacit agreement, they made a low pass in unison.
The last one out of the debriefing room, Rodger walked across the compound toward his office, where he met Stony.
“Congratulations, Lt. Colonel. I heard you had a very successful day.” Stony crossed his arms and stared daggers at Rodger.
“Right. I expect the Night Wolf will be back tonight. You had better be prepared.”
Without another word, Stony turned and strode to the mechanics hut, issuing orders in a loud, surly voice; he looked like an emperor at the arena. Two mechanics scurried from the newly arrived ships to go to Stony’s, giving it a shakedown.
Rodger laughed aloud, wishing he had a picture. Then he shook his head, as if to brush off the lightness and good spirits. He went to the officer’s club, following the voices that led him to Banjo Billy in the poker room.
“Banjo, a word with you.” Rodger waved a flaccid salute to the other men.
His “Yessss, sir” was punctuated by the slapping down of cards.
“Couldn’t have come at a better time or to a better man.” He swept the jackpot into his hand, pocketed it, and saluted Rodger.
Rodger had cultivated a certain metallic edge to his voice while a captain on the high school football team, a voice that he knew how to use effectively.
“I have your request for a leave. Illnesses in your family.”
Squaring his shoulders, Banjo Billy replied, “Yes, sir. My mother and my wife. My mother’s in the hospital, and my wife’s having a difficult pregnancy.”
“There’s no one else that help out? No other family members?”
“Well, sir, no, but I’m, well, I’m an only son. The only man around. I mean; they need me.”
“Combat experience is at its lowest, and we need men with your background. You know that.”
“I know that, sir.” Banjo Billy frowned, distressed. “I’d only be gone a month leave, sir.”
“The war might wait for you.” Rodger shrugged. “Your request has been cleared by the Colonel himself. The transport leaves tomorrow, late afternoon.” He handed the orders to the and stared long and hard at the young officer.
Banjo Billy wavered. Rodger could see the captain’s resentment outlined in the clean-shaven, boyish face. But every opportunity he had, Rodger would pound home to his men: a man’s prime commitment, his first loyalty, is duty.
“Report to me at sixteen hundred hours.”
Banjo Billy looked around him. The guys were beginning a new hand of poker, each one talking to everyone in general. Rodger bet himself that he would not reach the count of one hundred.
“Excuse me, sir—but I’ve reconsidered. It’s probably more dangerous flying home. I’ll stay here and do my own, honest work.” He cast an anxious glance at Rodger. He ruffled the slip of paper, without actually tearing it up.
“Hey, Banjo, are you in for this hand or not?”
“In. But you guys don’t stand a chance in hell!” He quickly shoved the paper into his back pocket.
It was a bittersweet victory for Rodger. He went to the bar and motioned the bartender for bottle of half‑empty Jack Daniels and a clean glass. He left without a word to anyone.
Unlocking his office door, he remembered being twenty not so long ago. He sat heavily in his chair, pulling himself up to his desk, tipping the bottle into a glass. Without the lights on, the room had a gray cast to it. Rodger played with the shadow of his glass on the desk top. He lit a cigarette. His body tensed, and he strained to hear the noise. Yes, there it was.
He relaxed then, slouching back against the chair. He raised his tumbler, the amber liquid sloshing back and forth, in a salute as the beautiful screams of Stony’s Mustang split the still of dusk.
He told himself that Stony was not cursed; a poker’s hand had no meaning behind the game. Survival took skill, timing, and well, yes, luck. But you had to be good. Or lucky.
“Here’s to you. Go get ’em.” As the screeching tires left the pavement, Rodger downed the last mouthful of whiskey. “May the best man win.”