The whole crew and LinChing lolled about the front room. Rodger stared at the war-savaged countryside through the kitchen window, aching hands clasped behind his back. He shook out his arms, flexing his fingers before turning towards Mary Elizabeth. She went about her kitchen chores ignoring him.
He cleared his throat; the muscles in her back twitched.
“Mary Elizabeth!” he demanded. “We have to talk.”
She jerked around, a wide‑eyed look distorting her pretty features. She shook her head, wringing the tattered dish towel in her hands.
“No. Must clean up breakfast. Maybe later.”
“Mary Elizabeth, now.” He could see she was not going to budge. “We’ll talk here, then.”
She remained standing in the same spot, her head bent, eyes fixed on her wriggling toes.
“All right,” Rodger moved around so that he blocked off her view of the front room. “I’ve made arrangements for you to stay with the nice nuns at Tiandong.”
Mary Elizabeth recoiled like he had slapped her. He reached out to her, but she would not let him touch her.
“We’ll come and visit you—at least once a week.” Rodger swallowed hard. “And your father, too, as often as he wants.”
Without lifting her head, she murmured, “No. I must stay here. Have work to do. You go ’way now.” The dish towel dangled from her hand.
Rodger reached over and pulled her wrist. He bent over so that he was face to face with her and whispered savagely, “I can’t let you die in this God‑forsaken hovel! You’re going, and that’s all there is to it!”
She wrested free, surprising him with her violent strength. Her black eyes blacker, she snarled, showing even white teeth as she hissed, “I not go. This is my home here. Get the hell outta here yourself!”
LinChing had slipped through the doorway and stood beside Rodger. He placed a restraining hand on Mary Elizabeth’s shoulder, speaking softly to her in Chinese. Still she protested, until the sounds of “no…no…no” dissolved into a wrenching sob. She threw off her father’s hand, pushed between them, and flung herself into her bedroom. The furious echoes of her slamming door caused each man’s head to snap up.
Rodger slumped against the door frame. LinChing touched his arm. “All right. I see to her. We’ll be ready in one hour.”
Rodger glanced at his watch, considering that it would be almost noon before they left and nodded. “I’ll help if you want.”
“No. We need no help.”
The words stung. He felt drained, emptied, except for his anger. He wanted to undo what he had just done and bring them all back into harmony. There was movement behind him as the men in the room busied themselves, hurriedly starting a poker game. Rodger stomped off to his bunk and packed his knapsack with overnight gear.
LinChing had slipped into Mary Elizabeth’s bedroom. The door eased open, and he dropped a bundle onto the floor. What few possessions the child had peeked through holes of a ragged sheet. Rodger thought of his sisters with armloads of doll clothes that couldn’t be stuffed into a single suitcase.
Out from the dark interior of Mary Elizabeth’s room whizzed a flying object. Only when it plopped against the chair next to Jimmy did the men recognize the missile as Mary Elizabeth’s doll.
Jimmy picked it up, holding it gingerly, as if it were imbued with life. Mary Elizabeth appeared, staring at them all fiercely. Her reddened eyes, swollen cheeks, and disheveled hair gave her the appearance of an exotic, caged bird on the verge of an escape.
Jimmy and Ted beckoned her. Ignoring them, she went to stand beside her father, not touching him, her head bowed so that her hair cascaded over her shoulders and covered her face.
Rodger walked over and jerked the doll from Jimmy’s hands and stood in front of Mary Elizabeth. He gently squeezed her shoulder until she looked up.
“We’re going to put her here on this shelf. That way, no one enters or leaves this house without your blessings. Just like when we leave the debriefing room.”
He slowly stepped over to the shelves and put the doll, with its grimy face and threadbare dress, on the end of the middle shelf, ever watchful of the kitchen and front door.
“Now it won’t seem like you’re away at all.”
She watched him. A smile played about her lips, softening her despondent countenance. A spurt of hope ran through Rodger.
With a toss of her head, she pointed to the doll and, locking eyes with Rodger, said in a beguiling voice, “I stay. Send the doll.”
The room exploded with laughter. Rodger embraced Mary Elizabeth, smoothing down her hair, brushing away the bangs so that he could kiss her forehead with a loud smack.
All the men ringed around her, each giving her a brief and solemn kiss good‑bye. Jimmy patted her head, then his large hands cupped around her face as he kissed her cheek. Ted held his hand open, palm up, offering her a pack of gum.
Mary Elizabeth paused, pinched the green foil pack in her right hand, then bent and kissed Ted’s palm. She faced Rodger, an outstretched hand before him.
“Please, give back ivory marble.”
Reluctantly, Rodger dug into his pocket, pulling out the marble, fingering the intricate design a last time before handing it to her.
“Thank you very much.”
Much to his surprise she kept it gripped tightly in her hand. Then she pirouetted and quickly left through the front door to climb into the jeep Rodger had parked out front. A group of Chinese workers squatted along the side of the building watching the drama play out wordlessly, smoking pipes, the sweet smell of tobacco and opium wafting in heat waves streaming off the ground.
LinChing scooped up the tattered bundle and followed. Weary, Rodger hefted his knapsack over his shoulder and made the V sign to the men in the room as he left.
As he drove, Rodger looked over to LinChing and Mary Elizabeth. No one spoke. LinChing’s long hair, done in a queue, swayed as they bounced along and Mary Elizabeth sat upright with the wind whipping her hair into a tangled mess. The hot dust choked them and the sun poured mercilessly over them. Rodger weaved around the potholes and planted land mines.
Two hours later with the late afternoon sun behind them, they approached the mission from the backside, where the garden and courtyard lay. Rodger leaned back into his seat, slowing the jeep and pointed. “Look at it. Isn’t it beautiful? I mean, look at it! They’ve done a hell of a job making something beautiful here.”
He eased the jeep to a full stop in front of the mission. He waved as he saw Father McBride and felt some of the tension lighten as the tall man smiled and waved back.
Father McBride walked briskly over to the jeep. “Good day.” He shook hands with Rodger and bowed his head to Mary Elizabeth and LinChing. “Honorable guests.”
Like Chinese fire dogs, the two nuns guarded the doorway, silently observing them. Mary Elizabeth turned sideways when Rodger introduced her. LinChing tugged at her, but she edged behind his back.
Rodger growled at her. “Let’s go look at the garden.”
They waited for her, but she would not move. Rodger took her hand and pulled her along, through the gate to the lush enclosure. Sunlight played through the thick and overgrown leaves; lengthening shadows danced on the swept dirt path. The pungent perfume of flowers and the buzzing insects stirred the air as they moved along.
The feeling of dread that had dogged Rodger lifted, freeing him from Mary Elizabeth’s overbearing presence in his thoughts. LinChing spoke to her in soothing, lyrical tones, but she would not respond. Rodger figured Mary Elizabeth might thrive with the beauty of this garden and the attention of these good people and have a little bit of security here. If only she would give an inch. Perhaps Father McBride could get through to her. At least Rodger hoped the kind-hearted man might work his own small miracle with this sullen child.
“Sister Grace and Sister Pearl have fixed us supper.”
Father McBride waved them into the mission, past the nuns with hands shielding their smiles. “They have grown the rice and vegetables, tended a garden of what you might call ‘a blessing of necessity.’”
Rodger appreciated the wry humor of the grey‑haired priest and was disappointed when Father McBride didn’t join them for supper as they sat at a wooden table with benches in a sparsely furnished room. Rodger noticed immediately how the polished wood shone and the floors showed only the tracks of their dusty shoes.
“This place is really nice and clean.” He smiled broadly at the nuns who blinked at him without any discernible expressions as they placed the platters of roasted onions, peas, eggplant and steamed rice upon the table. “I’m impressed. The food is great! Mary Elizabeth, maybe the nuns will let you cook for them, too!”
He was exasperated trying to elicit any response from this motley group, crowded around a small, rectangular, roughly built table. After the simple meal was blessed twice with words he could not comprehend, they ate in silence.
Mary Elizabeth sat before her plate, one hand holding onto chopsticks, her other hand staying clenched in her lap. Rodger tried to catch her eye to wink at her, but she would not look up.
LinChing spoke after a bit in Chinese to the nuns. Smiling at him, the sisters began to clear the dishes, leaving the still laden plate before Mary Elizabeth.
Father McBride appeared in the doorway. “Major Brown, why don’t we go into my office while Sisters Grace and Pearl show LinChing and Mary Elizabeth to their rooms.”
With welcome release, Rodger followed the priest into a cramped room, divided down the middle by pale sunlight pouring in from an uncurtained window. Father McBride sat down at a battered wooden desk and pointed to a lumpy, green easy chair “Have a seat, Major.” He extracted a bottle of whiskey with two mismatched jelly jars from the bottom desk drawer. “Would you care for a shot of whiskey?”
“Yes, but…” Before Rodger had a chance to finish, Father McBride had poured the liquor and shoved the glass toward him. Leaning across the desk, he offered a cigar from a nearly empty wooden box.
Rodger rolled the cigar between his fingers. “New method of conversion?”
“Just since I’ve been here.” Father McBride drummed his fingers on the desk top. “Small pleasures.”
He turned in his chair and stared out the window. “It’s the stark contrasts that drive a person crazy. The beauty and the war. You try to live as if nothing unusual is going on around you, but tomorrow you know you could be dead. And you have so very little choice or say in the whole matter.”
He faced Rodger again. “I suppose you of all people know what I mean.”
“No, Father, I don’t. I chose to be here. There’s a big difference.”
The priest edged his glasses off, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I didn’t get a choice, I was assigned here.” He shrugged. “I shouldn’t have made waves. At least not in papal waters.”
“Over here, it could be a tidal wave before any of us gets wet. We’re pretty much out from underneath brass thumbs.”
“Major, the way I see it, God set up this game board, laid out the rules, and threw in a factor of chance—or free will—and divided his men into two teams of equal strength. The unknown reward is for the winners.”
“Father,” Rodger began as he sipped the whiskey, then leaned forward on the desk. “It’s a poker game, at best. Win, lose or draw, it’s a matter of luck and a little skill. You bet against the odds that you’ll lose your life.”
“But the rules, Major. Even your game has rules.”
“Well, hell, even the good players break a rule now and then,” Rodger swallowed the rest of his whiskey. “Sometimes the pay‑off’s worth it.”
Smiling into the last of his whiskey, Father McBride drawled, “And I’ll wager sometimes it’s not.”
A rustling outside announced that the nuns were making preparations for bed. Rodger stood, extending his hand.
“I’ll not keep the good sisters waiting up for me. I have a feeling they’d stand there all night until I was ready to be shown my room.”
“Do you play chess?” Father McBride pointed over to a corner where grey dusky shadows fell across a small table set with an ivory board and chessmen.
“Yes, some. But the sisters…” Rodger arched an eyebrow toward the door.
“I’ll see to it. Why don’t you set up the board?”
As Rodger finished arranging the chairs at the table, Father McBride padded in and sat down. Rodger swiveled the board around so that the right‑hand corner squares were white.
“Strictly by the book, eh, Major?” Father McBride scraped his chair closer to the table, his owl‑like eyes wider in surprise.
Rodger paused, enjoying the unsettling effect he had on the priest. “Playing by the rules makes the victory sweeter.”
“You choose your color, Major.”
“I’ll be Black, you’ll be White.”
Rubbing his hands together and smiling broadly, Father McBride replied, “It’s amazing how everyday things can be read as symbolic. Let us begin the battle.”
The first seven moves, Rodger played it safe, or seemingly so. Father McBride played skillfully, once in a while eyeing Rodger severely.
At one point, Father McBride whispered, “J’adoube,” then reached over and straightened his Queen.
On the eleventh move Rodger lost his Bishop. Father McBride waved a long, gnarled finger at him, admonishing,
“Prudence, young man, prudence!”
By the twenty‑second move, Rodger had sacrificed his two Rooks, then forced Father McBride into taking the Black Queen. That left Rodger with a single Pawn and checkmate. Father McBride sat back against the chair, stunned.
“So you see, Father, prudence doesn’t always win the game,” Rodger leaned back, stifling a yawn. “I admire your skill and judgment, though. You gave me a run for my money.”
“And you, Major, sacrificed all your men for the ultimate victory—on a long shot I’d play it close, too. You’ll end up a general before too long.” Father McBride stretched, his bones cracked audibly. “Shall we retire?”
“Another game next time,” Rodger offered his hand to Father McBride. “I’ll be bringing LinChing as often as possible to see Mary Elizabeth.”
“Yes, yes. Goodnight.” Father McBride released his grip on Rodger’s hand.
Customarily, Rodger knew, the men would sleep in separate rooms away from the main quarters. As he walked down the corridor, Sister Grace fell in step with him. He pointed to a room he presumed was Mary Elizabeth’s, raised an eyebrow, and stopped before the door. Sister Grace shook her head sternly. Rodger ignored her frown and tipped the door open.
Mary Elizabeth sat huddled in the corner on a mattress, hands clasped about her knees, head bent into her folded arms, rocking herself back and forth. She seemed, in a way, to be meditating.
“Goodnight, Bright Eyes.” Rodger shut the door, moving quickly away from her room into his own. Her eerie silence had unnerved him.
He had a hard time closing off his mind from the last image of her. All through the night he dreamed of desperately crawling through one tunnel after another, never finding the end. He awoke before full break of dawn, glad to shake off the nightmare.
He shaved, then searched until he found LinChing. LinChing sat deep in meditation on the patio ground. Rodger hesitated, remaining still until LinChing stirred, then eased himself down onto the ground as quietly as possible.
“Do you think we can move out early?”
He should have noticed the difference in LinChing’s demeanor: his total composure, his smooth brow and his pursed lips should have been the tip-off.
“I must stay with her.”
“Look, I know it’s tough for you. And her. But, without a mechanic, we’re grounded. You know that.”
LinChing raised his arm, then let it fall. “For her, sun will set and eternal night come.”
Rodger could chew that kind of logic to bits and spit it out right between LinChing’s eyes. He stood.
Towering over LinChing, he murmured, “I’ll be back in three days to get you.” He stepped away. “Tell her I’ll bring her something.”
He bolted down his breakfast of hard crusted bread and coffee. Father McBride and the nuns were weeding the garden when he looked out the kitchen window. He acknowledged them with a wave that he was leaving. He snatched his knapsack and left. Alone, Rodger drove fast and recklessly the next two hours back to the base. The mid‑morning heat sucked away his perspiration. He forced his thoughts on the next sortie, getting off the ground, into battle.
Gunfire rumbled in the background, making Rodger uneasy. Orders meant nothing to outlaw flyers, to Aces. Especially to someone like McGree.
Rodger leaped from the jeep and sprinted to the revetments. Two planes gone. McGree and Summers.
Rodger let the door slam behind him. Jimmy sprung out of his bunk, ready on the defensive.
“What the hell are they doing?” Rodger boomed.
“Uh, sir, McGree’s out. Uh,” Jimmy ran his hand through his hair, “Will an’ Ted went out just after you all left. Summers bought it.”
“Damn.” Rodger turned away. “I can’t leave any one of you bastards for a minute that you don’t think you’re bigger and better than God Almighty.” Rodger threw his gear down.
“So what the hell is McGree doing?”
“Lookin’ for spare parts from Summers’ plane.” Jimmy shifted from one foot to the other. “We’re gonna pick ’em up late tonight.”
Rodger heard McGree’s plane rumble in. “Tell him I want to see him immediately.”
“Yes, sir.” Jimmy hastily put on pants and ran outside.
When McGree ambled through the door, Rodger looked up from the maps spread across the table. “This better be good.”
“Well, sir, it was pretty routine up ’til we got to where the convoy was crossin’ the French-Indochina side. We sorta cleared the ground area. Nothin’ in sight—no planes or heavy stuff. Then three Nates came outta nowhere. It got pretty hectic, ya know, three against two. I got on Summers’ left wing. But one Jap stayed on our tails. I figure Summers was dead before he smoked out.”
“How is it you managed to evade three planes?” Rodger punched his pencil through his fingers.
“Flat out flew ’em”
“Did any follow you back here?”
“No, sir! I did some switchbacks.”
Rodger scrutinized McGree’s face, wanting to find a sign, any sign of a discrepancy. McGree was a crack flyer in a P‑40, but headstrong and heartless.
“Damned careless. No planning, no back‑up.”
Rodger tapped the pencil on the map. It was more likely McGree and Summers had gone their separate ways looking for their own sandbox to play in. Rodger gave up, knowing it was a futile attempt to convince McGree that everyone had to be a keeper of sorts. Out here, it was like running with a pack of wild dogs; God help the fallen leader.
“Find Summers’ plane while you were out there?”
“Yes, sir. Jimmy and me are gonna go out after dark for parts.”
“Not out of bounds, is it?”
“No, sir.” McGree stared back at Rodger.
Lying. Rodger knew it.
It would be risky taking the planes up without LinChing here, but Rodger hesitated only for a moment. “You and Jimmy fly wingman to me and Steve. We’re gonna have a looksee at the countryside.”
Rodger suited up. He checked his .45 automatic, fingered the leg‑zippered pocket for his knife, his side for a smaller pistol. He wondered if he could really use it if his plane were downed. It would just depend. But it was damned reassuring.
Rodger led the way to the revetments, shouting and waving away the coolies. Like a swarm of locust, they scattered.
“Off the field!”
Each pilot did a preflight, climbed aboard and taxied into position. The roars of engines deafened all other noises, and the violent vibrations were like a tuning process for Rodger that brought him and his plane in harmony. Pushing the throttle forward, he nosed the fine body around to face the wind. At the point of separation, the ground trailing underneath the wheels and wings, his head lightened, each thought riveted on flying. He felt like an eagle on wing.
Off to his left, Steve joined him. Maintaining radio silence, they flashed each other an “okay” hand signal.
Long stretches of the countryside showed no signs of wartime activity. The teeming vegetation was interrupted only by patches of rice paddies where short, bow‑legged men, women and children bent low to harvest crops.
At the sounds of their low‑flying planes, mothers on the run scooped up babies and tied them onto their backs. As Rodger and Steve flew past, they moved back into the fields.
“Damn,” Rodger swore under his breath. It meant these people recognized American planes.
It wasn’t much of a mission. There was no air warfare. Back on the ground, Rodger could almost touch the frustration in his men. They all wanted action. Any action. He suspected more than ever that McGree and Summers had created some of their own.
Under the black, cloudy night, the Japanese raided their base. Except for Will and Jimmy, none of the other Tigers made it to his plane in time to get into the air. The two airmen returned shortly after midnight. No one was hurt, but irreparable damage had been done to the buildings.
The men milled about, cursing at one another and the sky overhead. Rodger inspected the minor damages done to the planes. They would have to pack up and move.
Rodger would have to make LinChing leave Mary Elizabeth and return to base. He needed his best mechanic.
Pointing to an area map inside what was left of the briefing room, Rodger stabbed at a spot that was Bose, forty‑five minutes from Tiandong. “Like it or not,” he spoke harshly aloud, “LinChing comes back.” He assigned a crew to go set up a new base.
McGree hefted a crate, shifting his weight to turn around. “Tell him we got spare parts. From Ted’s plane.”
Rodger glared at McGree. His last sortie with Summers had been responsible for the Japs finding them. He had led them right here.
“Some peace offering that is,” Rodger grumbled. But at the moment, it was all he had to offer the old man.
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