Planes overhead. A flash of wing; one of his planes. Rodger bolted from the jeep, tumbling forward, and screamed. “Clear out! Clear …”
Where Josephine and Tobias had been, a thin, black column of smoke curled up. The ground was splattered by bullets.
Bombs hit the mission. The force of the explosions knocked Rodger off his feet. He was thrown down, his head slammed into the gravel and mire. His whole body hurtled out of control, skidding and thumping, bouncing every which way. He tried to pull himself up, but his arms collapsed and his aching body thudded back down to the ground.
He lay with his face buried in the dust for several minutes before he could focus his eyes and order his thoughts. Debris rained down, and something struck his hand. He quickly ducked his head inside his folded arms, shielding his face.
The earth had stopped moving, and he was suspended in an ungodly silence. When he heard his own breathing again, felt his heart beating and blood pounding in his temples, he knew they were dead and he lived. Slowly he rolled over to his side and pushed up onto his elbow.
Sister Grace walked in the rubble, with her bloody hands pressed against her eyes. Rodger forced himself onto his feet and stumbled to her side. She was muttering in an unintelligible, prayer‑like whisper. Rodger looked behind them, and there, intact, was the jeep, a little bullet hole bleeding gasoline.
He led Sister Grace over to it and seated her, pulling off his jacket and putting it around her shoulders. He searched under the seat and found the first‑aid kit. Sister Grace sat paralyzed, only her lips moving in silent prayer. Rodger hunted under the seats and in the back of the jeep until he came upon a rag. He shook it fiercely, then stuffed it into the hole, wiping the gasoline from his hands onto his fatigues.
He yanked at the latch on the first‑aid kit. “God damn it, open!” He hesitated before pulling away Sister Grace’s bloody hands, afraid to expose the wounds.
“No, no, no,” she resisted then suddenly gave way, dropping her hands, exposing the shredded pieces of flesh and gaping, bulging eyeball.
Rodger pressed the sterile bandage quickly against her face, stanching the blood and covering her ugliness. He fought down his own vomit, the bile searing his throat, burning his mouth.
“Stay here, Sister Grace. Just stay right here.”
He walked over to the ruins, kicking aside sharp‑edged stones. There in a corner, a faded, black, cotton cloth showed under a pile of rubble. Rodger stared at it. Father McBride.
Rodger went on, stepping carefully over the ragged edges of stone. The gate still stood, though the wall was gone. It banged crazily against its own frame until Rodger walked over and shut it. There in the overturned courtyard, underneath the uprooted trunk of the litchi tree, side by side, lay Mary Elizabeth and LinChing.
Had they not been dead, it would have been a pretty scene, for it looked as if they were playing a game, each intent upon discovering a secret hidden in the hallowed ground. Rodger knelt before them and tenderly brushed aside the long trailing hair across Mary Elizabeth’s face.
His left hand was stiff and useless as he tried to lift the tree trunk from their bodies. It would not budge.
As he straightened up, he noticed Mary Elizabeth’s clenched fist. He knelt down, pried her fingers apart and pocketed the ivory marble.
He scanned the court yard. Sister Pearl lay heaped in a corner. He went to her and checked for a pulse. Dead.
Returning to the jeep, he raised his voice above the nun’s jumbled prayers. “You and me, Sister Grace. I’m going to take you to the hospital. Hold that bandage tight.”
The jeep lurched before Rodger could grasp the wheel firmly enough. He concentrated on the road, weaving in and out of ruts. Sister Grace droned on above the engine noise of the jeep.
“God damn it, would you shut up?” Rodger screamed at her.
She desisted. Her head bowed forward as she slumped into the seat. Five miles more to the hospital at Bose. Almost there. Almost home safe.
He waved to a sergeant. “Head injury!”
“Yes, sir!” The young man checked the body for vital signs. “Sorry, sir, she’s dead.”
As the body was taken away, Rodger staggered from the jeep. He stood alone beside the mess tent. He felt dizzy. Rudderless.
He lit a cigarette. His thoughts became coherent as he looked overhead at the sky. God damn McGree and his hide and seek game with the Japs. Hotheaded Ace. Only the enemy had sought and found. Rodger squashed the cigarette butt with the heel of his boot.
He noticed another jeep parked in front of the mess tent. He walked over, climbed in, and started it. No one saw him leave.
It was dark, the darkest of hour before dawn when Rodger pulled up to his base. He tried flexing his left arm before going inside. It hurt, but he could move all of his fingers.
McGree and Summer lay in their bunks asleep. Rodger stomped to McGree’s bunk and clamped his right hand around his neck, jerking him out of bed, and then throwing him against the wall.
“You dumb SOB!” Rodger advanced on him.
McGree, instantly alert, crabbed his way along the wall.
“Mary Elizabeth’s dead because of you.” Rodger pinned McGree’s shoulder with his good hand. “We’re going to do us a little flying, McGree, old boy. We’re going Jap hunting. Just you and me. Pay some dues.” Rodger shook him free of the wall. “Twenty minutes.”
Summer had awakened and begun to suit. Rodger turned to him.
Summer continued dressing. “My fault as much as anyone’s.”
“I’m not responsible for you.”
“Yes, sir. I know that.”
Rodger headed out to his plane with McGree and Summer close behind. They had no night time ground crew to assist as they preflighted and rolled out. Rodger scanned his instruments, working his bruised hand. As the engine caught and held, and the oil pressure registered, he slammed the canopy shut. He waited, emptying his mind of any thoughts but this mission. McGree and Summer signaled they were set to go.
McGree took a heading and Rodger followed. Summer acted as wingman. They headed northwest, flying deep into the mountainous interior. Craggy peaks jutted through the thick cloud cover. McGree dived through an opening.
Guns blazing, they took the Japanese by surprise. But two Nates got off the ground.
Rodger watched for movement, sure that McGree and Summer did, too. Without the sun to blind them, it might be easy pickin’s. But the lightening grey sky hid the Nates.
“Bandit, one o’clock!” cried Summer.
McGree aligned for a strike. Rodger dived and strafed the runway, coming up into the second plane. Summer was holding his own against the first one; McGree fired and hit.
Then McGree took it full on the side. His plane caught fire, spiraled downward, but he maneuvered his craft and rammed into his Nate. Both planes exploded into flames.
Summer and Rodger chased the second, elusive Nate. Rodger, low on gas, figured the chase would soon be over. One way or the other.
Summer’s plane went flaming down. Rodger caught the Nate in the belly. The plane banked, spitting gunfire. Bullets hissed through metal. The canopy shattered. A bullet chewed into his shoulder. His mind blanked, and the plane spun out of control.
He snapped back to consciousness, clutching the controls. The ground swirled around and around, like pancake batter. Rodger jerked himself upright, fighting negative Gs. He eased off the throttle and took his feet off the rudder pedals. Close. Too close, but he pulled out. He headed back for the base.
He landed hard, bounced, then thudded onto the runway. Coolies scattered as his plane zagged across the runway. He pulled alongside the revetment and killed the engine. The transport had arrived. Two of the crewmen ran over to him.
Rodger shoved open the shell of the canopy. He fought the dizziness, the queasy sickness in his stomach. Tired. So damned tired.
“Hand up,” he ordered.
“Yes, sir.” A lieutenant hopped onto the wing, shouting over his shoulder. “Major’s hit!” Deftly, the man lifted Rodger out of his seat and guided him to the other crewman.
“Hospital not far. Due east. Take my jeep.” Blackness blanketed him.
Later, he awoke with sweat trickling down into his sideburns. He tried to lift his left arm, but looked down to see it pinned by bandages to his side. The head nurse appeared at the end of his cot.
“Nice of you to return the jeep, Major.”
“Just a friendly exchange.” He pointed to the bandages. “What’s my damage?”
“Then I’ll be movin’ on, Nurse … ?”
“Adams. Jane.” She gave brief directions to a younger nurse, then fixed her amused gaze on him. “No go, Major. You’re here at least until the next transport.” She waved a white envelope teasingly. “The boys left this for you.”
“Damn it! Have they left yet?”
“They’ll be leaving in a couple of hours. As soon as they have some air cover.” She laid the letter on his chest, then touched his leg. “You’ll be goin’ home in a couple of weeks, Major.”
Another nurse came to the bed wordlessly handing Nurse Adams a ragged doll. “Oh, yes. Captain Raftly left this for you. Said Mary Elizabeth and the others were taken care of.” She tossed the doll into his good hand. “Seems people like leaving you things, Major.”
He tucked the doll beneath the covers, away from her eyes, away from his. “Yeah. Know where that guy is?”
“Told me he had to escort another transport home.”
Rodger nodded. He waited until she had been gone for a good half hour, then called over an orderly.
“Bring me my clothes.”
“I can’t do that, sir. You’re not discharged.”
“What is your rank?”
“Consider it an order.”
He had his pants, socks, and unbuttoned shirt on before Nurse Jane came storming down the aisle to his bed. Her reddened face materialized before his.
“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Like in turkey,” she spat back. She watched him struggling. Shaking her head and with an exasperated sigh, she reached over and buttoned his sleeve. “Here.” Then she started with the bottom shirt button. “I’ll get someone to drive you to the transport.”
Rodger grabbed her arm and squeezed it. “Thanks.”
“No, problem soldier,” she said briskly, turning and walking away. “We need the bed space.”
Rodger shoved the unopened letter in his coat pocket, then slung the coat over his shoulder. He dumped out the sack with his personal belongings and examined Mary Elizabeth’s marble. He realized it was actually a carved ivory bead. Fingering it, absorbing its warmth, he slipped it into his right pants pocket.
Nurse Jane came back with a young woman in tow.
“This is Sergeant Laird. She’ll get you back to your base. And here,” Nurse Jane thrust a vial of pills into his right hand. “Pain killers. Take only when needed.”
Rodger arched an eyebrow.
She eyed him sternly. “And no alcohol, Major. If you want to fly again, take care of yourself.” She spun on her heel and marched down to the operating room.
“Yes, ma’am.” Rodger threw a salute to her disappearing backside. The sergeant kept her head lowered, partially hiding her smile. “Let’s go, young lady. I’ve got a date to keep.” He picked up the doll, and they walked outside into the intense humid daylight to the jeep.
During the ride back to base, he gritted his teeth to keep from groaning, willing away the pain. He hopped out of the jeep before it had come to a full stop and tipped his hat, the doll dangling over his eyes. “Thanks, Sergeant. Drive carefully.”
The sergeant saluted, then gunned the engine and took off.
Rodger walked over to the cockpit of the transport. “Hey, Ace, got room for me and my stash?” He stood respectfully to one side of the loading ramp as the last coffin went aboard.
The captain pushed back his hat and whistled. “Thought you were out of commission for a while, Major. Yeah, I got room. But,” he smiled broadly, “no back seat drivers.”
“Don’t leave without me.”
He walked over to the sleeping quarters. No voices, no bantering, no snoring, just deathly quiet. He motioned two Chinese boys over.
“Do you understand English?”
The older teenager nodded.
Rodger pointed from one to the other. “You two pack up McGree’s and Summer’s belongings. Bring them to my quarters.”
He snagged another young boy coming from the kitchen to help him. As he stuffed the doll into his knapsack with the last of his gear, one of the transport crew came in just as the two teenage Chinese boys with duffle bags came to an abrupt halt before Rodger.
“I’ll carry that, sir,” and the young man swung the knapsack easily over his shoulder. “Those, too.”
Rodger handed his over and motioned for the boys to do the same with the other two bags and followed the crewman out to the plane.
The captain threw him a package of wax earplugs. “Here—for your beauty sleep, Major.”
Rodger fumbled with spongy pieces of foam until at last he stuffed one in each ear. Remembering the letter, he shook his coat free and took the letter postmarked from Washington, D.C., from the pocket, laying it on his lap. He turned it over, picked it up and tore the end off with his teeth, then crumpled the envelope and tossed it aside. Taking the official paper out of his mouth, he snapped the paper so that he could read it.
FLYING TIGERS TO BE REASSIGNED. R&R HONOLULU.
Rodger burst into laughter so long and deep tears rolled down his face. Of all the ironies.
He searched his pocket until he found the ivory bead, rolling it between his thumb and index finger, thinking how much like it he felt.
He leaned back into his seat, trying to settle in for the long ride home. His shoulder ached and his arm hurt deep inside. He closed his eyes and drifted through the pain into a half‑sleep. The mutilated face of Sister Grace morphed into that of Mary Elizabeth. He bolted upright and wrenched his shoulder. Hot, liquid pain spread across his shoulder and into his neck. He tried to close his eyes again, against the pain, against the faces.
He worked the bottle up from the deeper part of his pocket and flipped off the cap. Just one, he told himself, swallowing hard. One of the crewmen leaned over and handed him a canteen of water.
Rodger drank, handed it back to the man, and said with a nod, “Only one for the pain.”
As the plane rumbled through the night, he slept, not even waking when they landed at Okinawa for refueling. When the plane had landed and was taxiing to a stop at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, Rodger felt the light touch of someone’s hand.
“Major. Last stop.”
As much as he wanted to get to his feet, he couldn’t. Two men, nameless and faceless, helped him off the plane and into a jeep.
Rodger looked down at his shoulder where blood had seeped through the bandages and began to stain his shirt. Gingerly, he touched the spot and winced in pain. He closed his eyes and sank into a soft, velvet blankness.
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