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'Till I Waltz Again With You

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-... . --. .. -. -. .. -. --.

The plane touched down at Augusta State Airport at exactly 1541 on Monday, the 28th of September, 1953. At 1547, the few soldiers aboard finally made their way onto the tarmac. One of them scanned the cheering crowd for signs of his father and found him standing in the front, looking decidedly put out. He dropped his Army issue duffel and ran, pulling his father into a crushing embrace.

At 1549, Captain Benjamin Franklin Pierce, US12836413, United States Army Medical Corps, ceased to exist, and Hawkeye made his triumphant return to Maine.

.--. .- .--. . .-.

The first time he saw it in the news was in the Brunswick Times Record, almost four months after his homecoming. Thayer Hospital in Waterville was dealing with a sudden surge in patient renal failure, leaving doctors stumped and experts scrambling for answers. Hawkeye read the article over and over and over, looking for any information as to the symptoms the patients were exhibiting.

“Ben, really, put that paper down. Have a nice breakfast with your old man.” Daniel Pierce crumpled the paper and set a mug of fresh coffee in front of his son.

Hawkeye grabbed for the mug, sputtering as he took a quick, still all-too-hot sip. “Dad, I know that something’s going on.” He gestured to the rumpled paper, “This is not ‘still being in Korea’ paranoid. This is something we saw, we treated, every six months.”

The elder Pierce sighed and stabbed his fork into his eggs. “You don’t know if it’s the same thing. The ‘hemorrhagic fever’ that you saw over there is just that: over there. Nothing like it has ever been seen in this country.”

“Exactly, Dad!” Hawkeye gestured wildly, nearly knocking over his coffee; Daniel moved the mug out of the way just in time. “What if a vet brought it back? The mites, the fleas… they might have survived the trip. This is serious; they don’t know what they’re dealing with!”

“And you do?” Daniel stared his son down.

Hawkeye, never one to back down, stared back and answered, “Yeah. I do.”

.--. .- - .. . -. - ...

Hawkeye made the hour long drive every day for two weeks. Under the guise of being a visiting physician setting up a new dialysis clinic in Gardiner, he was allowed full (albeit monitored) access to the kidney patients. The ward had a dozen beds in it, although it was only built to have six, and each bed housed a patient in the second phase of Korean hemorrhagic fever, but the characteristic onset of renal failure had long surpassed its welcome: not only had the symptom lasted longer than the normal seven days, but eleven out of the twelve were in complete renal shutdown.

And there were two more in the emergency room with rapidly dropping platelet levels.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do, Doctor Pierce.” Doctor McBride sighed heavily and shook his head. “We’ve only got the one dialysis machine, and that’s now running twenty-four seven. It’s an old machine; it won’t last until the end of the month at this rate.”

“And both the low saline IV and Ringer’s lactate have been ineffective. And you’ve got a bad bed shortage going on,” Hawkeye looked around the room, at the beds parked so close together that a patient could roll over and be on top of their neighbor. “What are you thinking of doing when those other two – “

“Doctor McBride! There’s something wrong with Mrs. Simpson!”

Both doctors hurried to the bed, where a young nurse in starched hospital whites was feeling for a pulse.

Hawkeye grabbed for the chart while McBride took a hold of the woman’s wrist. “There’s no pulse; she’s gone into cardiac arrest.” He bent over Mrs. Simpson, stethoscope at the ready, and felt for any signs of breathing.

“Get me two CCs of merbaphen!” McBride barked out. He looked up, but the nurse hadn’t budged. “Now Bette; move it!”

Hawkeye immediately dropped the chart and blocked Bette’s path. “Wait a minute, you can’t give this patient a mercurial diuretic! She’s in renal failure; she’ll end up drowning in her own fluids!”

McBride turned and glared at Hawkeye, “Well, if you’re the expert here, what do you suggest we do?”

“Closed chest cardiac massage,” Hawkeye pushed past McBride none too gently and began pumping his hands down on Mrs. Simpson’s sternum. “It worked in Korea, it’ll work here.”

After two tense minutes, McBride declared that Mrs. Simpson’s heart rate was stable enough for Hawkeye to stop compressions. He turned back to Bette, who was tending to another patient, and said, “Get me all of the heart monitors you can find once you’re done here. I have a feeling that this won’t be the only one.”

..-. .. .-. ... - -.. . .- - ....

Hawkeye sat on an overturned bucket outside of the hospital’s receiving bay, a bummed cigarette hanging unlit in his lips. Just after they had stabilized Mrs. Simpson, two more patients in the ward had stopped breathing, one of which they weren’t able to save.

McBride appeared beside Hawkeye, bundled against the January cold, lighting his own cigarette. He offered the lighter to Hawkeye, who waved it away, “I just like having something in my mouth… it helps me think. Oral fixation; you know how that goes.” McBride pocketed the lighter and took a long inhale.

“It happens, Doctor Pierce. We can’t save them all. You were in Korea; you should know that better than anyone.”

“But it doesn’t make any sense!” Hawkeye stood and kicked the bucket he was sitting on; it rattled down into the receiving bay, landing on a snowdrift. He took a deep breath, “None of the patients in there were in Korea, all of them are different ages and were in varying degrees of health, and now they’re all on death’s doorstep.”

McBride raided a quizzical eyebrow, “Beyond the obvious and impressive skills you’ve acquired, what does Korea have to do with this?”

Hawkeye sighed. “Reading in the paper, I thought whatever’s going on had resemblance to something we would see twice a year over there.” He chewed on the end of his cigarette. “I thought I knew what this was.”

“I thought that ‘dialysis clinic’ thing was a bit out there.” McBride stubbed out his cigarette. “So why are you actually here?”

“Like I said,” Hawkeye began pacing the receiving bay, “I thought I knew what this was. Every six months or so, every MASH unit along the 38th parallel became inundated with something that resembled this. We later learned that the Russians and Japanese called it Korean hemorrhagic fever. It has four stages,” he counted them off on his fingers, “One: flu-like symptoms and low blood platelet levels; two: onset of renal failure and proteins present in extremely minimal urine output; three: extreme diuresis with excessive need for low saline IV solutions; and four: recovery.

“But all of these people are getting so stuck on the whole idea of ‘renal failure’ that they’re going to die.”

McBride turned and headed back for the door, “Then you’re really not going to like this,” he said, “There are six more in the ER with low platelet levels and proteins in their urine.

“This is about to get a whole lot worse.”

.... --- .- .-. -.. .. -. --.

Hawkeye began hoarding as many newspapers from as many towns as he could get his hands on. The Kennebec Journal in Augusta, The Morning Sentinel in Waterville, The Portland Daily Sun and The Portland Press Herald in Portland, and even The Bangor Daily News in Bangor all reported the same thing: dozens of people were being admitted to the hospital every day, all in some varying degree of kidney failure.

What the papers didn’t report, and what Hawkeye had learned from McBride, was that patients were dying in almost equal numbers.

-... --- ... - --- -.

He had been home exactly six months when he decided to go to Boston.

A quick phone call to Massachusetts General Hospital, and Hawkeye had an appointment to meet Doctor Charles Emerson Winchester for a catch-up lunch with an old Army buddy.

Hawkeye packed an overnight bag with his mountain of papers and a few essentials. He ended up making the three-hour drive to Boston in just over two; the coastal highway was nearly empty. When he arrived at the hospital, he threw his bag over his shoulder and walked straight through to the thoracic ward: every member of the hospital staff was busy attending to patients; no one paid him enough attention to stop him.

He knocked on Winchester’s door, and when no answer was forthcoming, he tested the knob. The door opened easily, and Hawkeye slipped inside the office.

The room looked exactly as the office of Charles Winchester should: the walls were lined with expensive looking wooden shelves filled to bursting with books, folders, patient files, and journals. The carpet, while not plush, was well taken care of, and in the middle of the room stood a large, ornate dark-wood desk. Uncharacteristically, the desktop was covered in stacks of charts, papers haphazardly strewn about.

Hawkeye set his bag on a nearby chair and walked around the back of the desk. He started sifting through the papers, finding them all to be about patients that had died of cardiac arrest following rapid renal failure.

“I should have known you’d snoop around in here, Pierce.”

The unexpected voice made Hawkeye jump. He looked up from the papers, “Oh hiya, Chuckles. It’s been a while.”

“I’d hoped to keep it that way, at least for the first year.” Charles scowled, but there was no real force behind his statement; he sounded more tired than angry. He nudged past Hawkeye and sat in his desk chair. “What brings you to Boston?”

“Can’t a fella come down and surprise his old pal Charles with lunch?”

“If that’s the sole reason for your being here, I will eat my stethoscope.”

Hawkeye sighed and perched on the corner of the desk. “You know why I’m here; it’s happening all over Maine. I’d hoped it was a relatively isolated thing, but from the looks of it…”

“… Pierce, it’s happening all around the country.” Charles pushed his papers into messy piles and reached for a folder. “These are telegrams from institutions all across the United States.” He grabbed a stack of multicolored papers and handed them to Hawkeye one by one, “Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Brown, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, the Mayo Clinic, Houston Methodist; they’re all saying the same exact thing: patients check in to the emergency room with flu-like symptoms, and leave the hospital a lot less alive.”

“And every patient has the same thing?” Hawkeye skimmed over the telegrams.

“Every single one. When it first started here, I thought it somehow was Korean hemorrhagic fever, but none of the treatments that worked over there have worked over here.”

“That’s what I thought, too. Is anyone making any progress?”

Charles shook his head. “We’re trying Dilantin in some patients that we hope to prevent cardiac arrest in, but nothing is definitive yet.” He looked up at Hawkeye, looking more tired and frustrated and hopeless than Hawkeye had ever seen him; even at his lowest points in Korea, Charles had still always had hope.

“What the hell is going on, Charles?”

“Hawkeye, I wish I knew.”

-- -.-. .. -. - -.-- .-. .

Boston held a lot of memories for Hawkeye: residency, Carlye, draft day.

Trapper.

Hawkeye sat in his little motel room, paging through the phone book. He hovered over the “M”s, wavering between looking Trapper up and throwing the book at the wall.

Before he could talk himself out of it, he flipped to the section starting with “McI” and scanned down the page:

Mcintyre, John A Jr. – BAL 7631
Mcintyre, John H III – BAL 7694
Mcintyre, John – BAL 7698
Mcintyre, John F – BAL 7753
Mcintyre, John – BAL 7810
Mcintyre, John A – BAL 7866
Mcintyre, John F – BAL 7911
Mcintyre, Dr. John F – BAL 7950
Mcintyre, John C – BAL 8049
Mcintyre, John T Jr. – BAL 8097

Hawkeye’s hand shot to the phone, and he was dialing the operator before he realized what he was doing.

“Operator? Yes, could you please connect me to BALdwin 7950? Yes, I’ll hold. Thank you.”

The phone rang. And rang and rang. After the seventh ring, Hawkeye lost his nerve, slamming the receiver down and heading to the bathroom for a shower.

Before he could turn the water on, his phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Pierce? It’s Charles. I think you need to get down here as soon as heavenly possible.”

Hawkeye had never heard him sound so panicked. “Charles? Charles, what’s wrong?”

“Just… get down here. Please.”

Hawkeye hung up, threw on his coat, and went to hail a taxi.

“Massachusetts General. There’s an extra five dollars in it if you can get there in ten minutes.” It was only after the cab started moving that Hawkeye remembered that he had driven his own car to Boston.

As the taxi weaved in and out of traffic, Hawkeye, feeling quite foolish, tried not to think about what awaited him.

-.. .. .-.. .- -. - .. -.

When the taxi pulled into the hospital, Charles was pacing outside the main entrance, breathing into his hands to keep them warm.

Hawkeye paid (including the extra five dollars) and jumped out of the taxi. “Charles!”

“Oh thank mercy. Pierce, come with me. Quickly.”

Both doctors rushed through the bustling hallways until they reached the thoracic unit. Charles paused, his hand on the door. “Remember those patients that we gave Dilantin to?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, it seems that it didn’t do what we expected it to,” he said as he pushed open the door.

Hawkeye followed him through, walking further into the ward. “What do you mean? Dilantin disrupts cardiac dysrhythmia; it should be keeping their heart rates stable.”

“It’s not; they’re all tachycardic. Have you ever heard of Nikolsky’s Sign?”

Hawkeye stopped, puzzled. “Once, I think, in med school. Something with skin blisters, right?”

“When any slight friction occurs on the skin, a blister forms within minutes,” Charles continued, walking to a curtained off bed. He pushed the curtain back, and Hawkeye’s eyes went wide.

In the bed, there lay an unconscious boy about fourteen years old; his body was covered in angry red blisters, but Hawkeye could see patches of skin beginning to burst and peel away from the boy’s body.

“… is that,” Hawkeye swallowed, “… is that what I think it is?”

Charles nodded, not taking his eyes off the boy. “Toxic epidermal necrolysis. And he’s not the only one: every patient we gave Dilantin to is showing signs of epidermal separation on more than ten percent of their bodies.”

“It can’t be. Charles, it just can’t be; TEN is a one in a million side effect; to think that all of these people have it…” Hawkeye trailed off and picked up the boy’s chart. “Heart rate: one-twenty-five; epidermal separation: twenty percent; BUN levels: greater than twenty eight milligrams per deciliter; glucose: greater than two hundred fifty two.

“How on Earth is this boy still alive?”

“He won’t be for long; sepsis is setting in. Soon he’ll go into shock. IVIG and plasmapheresis were completely ineffective. Norepinephrine sped up the process and piperacillin, tetracycline, streptomycin… broad spectrum antibiotics do nothing; we just do not have the resources to keep fighting it.”

“There’s that experimental drug, what’s it called… cyclo… cyclophosphor…”

“Cyclophosphamide?” Charles shook his head. “It’d be too risky. And we don’t have access to it here.”

“So you’re just going to let him die?!” Hawkeye hissed, not wanting to alarm any nearby patients.

Charles’s expression went soft, defeated. “It’s not just him, Hawkeye, it’s everyone on this ward.” He looked out over the sea of beds. “Every person in here was given Dilantin. On my orders. I ensured their deaths.

“I killed them.”

- .-. .- .--. .--. . .-.

His ride back to the motel was silent; he leaned his head against the window and just stared at the passing buildings.

He walked into the lobby and passed the front desk when the clerk stopped him. “Mister Pierce? I have a message for you.”

She handed Hawkeye a piece of notepaper with only a phone number on it. “Thanks,” he said, walking down the hall. He pulled out his room key, unlocked his door, and proceeded to flop on the bed.

He looked at the paper in his hand. BAL 7950.

Holy shit.

He quickly sat up and reached for the phone. He was connected, and this time, the other end was picked up after two rings.

“McIntyre residence,” a young girl’s voice answered.

“Um, hello. My name is Ben Pierce; I’m a friend of your dad’s. Is he home by any chance?”

“Sure, let me go get him,” she set the receiver down, and Hawkeye could hear her yelling, “Dad? Dad! The telephone is for you!

Who is it, Becky?” a male voice responded, getting closer to the receiver.

… Pierce? Yeah, that’s it. Ben Pierce.

Hawkeye could practically hear the sharp intake of breath; Trapper obviously hadn’t thought his call would be returned so soon.

“Heya, Hawk.”

Hawkeye smiled at the familiar voice. “Heya, Trap.”

An awkward silence fell, both men seemingly waiting on the other to make the first move. Hawkeye decided to take the plunge.

“How’s it been?”

He heard Trapper chuckle. “It’s been weird, being back and everything. I feel like I was gone for ten years the way these girls have grown up.”

“And work?”

“Work is… actually, work has been terrible… Becky, go wash up for supper! Yes, I’m serious… Yes, I actually cooked… No, you won’t get food poisoning from it… Don’t make that face! Go set the table!”

Hawkeye couldn’t contain his laughter; listening to Trapper try to be authoritative always had had that effect on him.

“Sorry, Hawk, it’s just been hard, what with Louise and Kathy in the hospital.”

“Oh god, Trap, I’m sorry.” He didn’t want to ask, but he knew he had to, “Flu-like symptoms and low platelet levels?”

“Yeah. How’d you...? Huh. I suppose that’s why you’re in Boston, then.”

“One of the surgeons at Mass Gen was a Swamp Rat. I figured I could get at least semi-reliable information out of him.”

“Hawk,” Trapper started, taking a few breaths before continuing, speaking barely above a whisper, “Hawk, this is bad, isn’t it? Tell me straight: my girls aren’t coming home, are they?”

The bluntness of the question caught Hawkeye off guard. He stammered out an answer: “Trap, I don’t know if over the phone is the right way to do this.”

“Then that’s all the confirmation I need. Thanks, Hawk.” And the line went dead.

Hawkeye dropped the receiver, put his head in his hands, and started to cry.

... .--. .-. . .- -..

He drove to the hospital the next morning to check in with Charles, only to be told by the duty nurse that Doctor Winchester had taken a personal day and if he’d like to leave a message that message will be delivered as soon as the doctor is in thank you.

Hawkeye politely declined and left the hospital.

He drove slowly back up the coastal highway, noting that it was just as deserted going into Maine as it was driving out of it. Hawkeye started to worry just how far and fast this thing had spread; how did this make it all the way across the United States? Was it in Canada? Mexico? Is it ravaging through South Korea and Japan? India? England?

Shaking his head, Hawkeye turned on the radio, hoping that he could ignore his thoughts for another ninety minutes.

-.. .- -. .. . .-..

He pulled into his father’s driveway at 1732. At 1733, he rang the doorbell.

He rang it again.

When he rang a third time and no answer was forthcoming, he stepped to the window to the left of the door, the one his father always kept unlocked. Hawkeye wedged the window upward. “Dad?” he called out.

The house was dark. The smell of burnt coffee wafted through the air.

He took a few cautious steps inside, turning on a light on the side table. “Dad?” Again, he was met with no answer, and he started to panic.

Hawkeye turned on lights in every room, calling out for his father, finding nothing. His dad had to still be around; his truck was still parked outside, his keys and his wallet still in the bowl by the front door, his coat still on the rack.

After checking the entire upstairs, he made another sweep of the first floor. He found his father collapsed behind the kitchen island, his body wracked with fever, shaking from the chills.

“Oh good Jesus, Dad!”

Hawkeye heaved his father off the floor, threw his arm around his waist, and half carried, half walked him out to his car.

He prayed that they could make it to Spruce Harbor Hospital in time.

-... ..- .-. .. .- .-..

Daniel James Pierce was buried in Crabapple Cove Cemetery at 1430 on Friday, the 2nd of April, 1954.

-.. . .--. .- .-. - ..- .-. .

Hawkeye threw his Army duffel into the flatbed of his father’s truck alongside his steamer trunk and overnight bag. On the passenger seat were his father’s copy of The Last of the Mohicans, a road atlas, and a pocket watch that had belonged to his great-grandfather.

At 0845, Saturday, the 3rd of April, Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce left Crabapple Cove for the last time.

... --- ..- - ....

He headed south, stopping, again, in Boston. He parked in the lot of Massachusetts General and made his way inside and up toward the thoracic unit. He hoped that Charles would be in today.

What he didn’t expect to find was Trapper John McIntyre slumped against the wall beside the door.

Hawkeye approached quietly. “Trap?”

Trapper startled, and wiped his face around his eyes; his face was puffy and pink, and he’d most definitely just been crying.

”Hiya, Hawk. Fine day, isn’t it?”

Hawkeye couldn’t respond; he just stared down at his one-time best friend, concern on his face, and tears welling up in his eyes.

Without saying a word, he fell to his knees and pulled Trapper into one of the most overdue hugs any man had ever given.

They sat for several long moments, just breathing, taking comfort in the strength of each other.

Quietly, so quietly that Hawkeye isn’t actually sure if Trapper really spoke, he heard, “They’re gone, Hawk; all my girls are gone.”

He pulled his friend in tighter, choking back a sob. “It got my dad, too, Trap.”

They sat wrapped around each other, not alone in their sorrows, not caring who saw, until their tears stopped.

-.-. .... .- .-. .-.. . ...

He must have dozed off at some point, because the next thing Hawkeye knew was that he was woken up to the unit door banging open, his neck horribly stiff. He glared upward, shielding his eyes from the light, when he saw a very rumpled Charles Emerson Winchester and did not see a very exhausted Trapper John McIntyre.

“Charles,” he croaked out, his voice still sleep heavy, “what time is it?”

Charles checked his watch. “Just after two thirty,” he said, exhaustion coating his every word.

Hawkeye slowly stood up, knees and ankles popping. He rolled his shoulders and stretched out his neck, turning to Charles, “Did you see where the guy next to me went?”

“Seeing as I was up to my ears in heart attacks, no, Pierce, I did not see where your compatriot went. What are you doing back here?”

He steeled his jaw before answering, “I buried my father yesterday – “

Charles’s face immediately switched from annoyance to pity. “Pierce, I’m sorry – “

“ – and the guy that was next to me now has to bury his entire family. A wife and two girls. He’d just come home to them a little over a year ago, and now he’s got to leave them again.”

Charles said nothing; he turned and started walking down the hallway, Hawkeye trailing not two feet behind. Charles went to the end of the hall and unlocked a door reading STAFF ONLY, and both doctors strode in to the staff lounge.

The lounge was standing room only, filled with doctors, nurses, orderlies, maintenance staff; everyone that worked in the hospital seemed to be in this small room. Several people were smoking, and more than several people were taking nips out of flasks and passing them off to coworkers.

They made their way to the back corner of the room and leaned against the windowsill. Hawkeye scrubbed his hands over his face and through his now salt-and-pepper hair. “Have you been in contact with anyone else?”

Charles shook his head, stealing a cigarette from an abandoned pack; Hawkeye had no idea that Charles would stoop to something as plebian as smoking, but the current circumstances could bring Queen Elizabeth down to the level of commoners.

“Normally, I wouldn’t bother repeating something like this,” he said, lighting the cigarette and taking a deep inhale, “but there’s a rumor circulating that a facility in Kansas City has a cure. Or is close to a cure. I can’t remember which.”

“Kansas City, Missouri or Kansas City, Kansas?” Charles made a move that could be interpreted as a shrug; Hawkeye tried to think of what medical research facilities were out in the Midwest and came up empty. “Either way, that’s a pretty random location.” He plucked the cigarette from Charles’s fingers and took his own drag.

“Pierce,” Charles began, taking the cigarette back, “I don’t know how much longer I can continue to do this.”

Hawkeye stared at his friend, completely unbelieving of what he was hearing. “Charles… are you throwing in the towel? You’d never do that.”

“Under normal circumstances, I would not. But,” he paused, bringing the cigarette to his lips. “Whatever this is, it’s speeding up: when this started, patients would come in and not enter Phase Two for at least a week. Now, they barely have time to be transported from Emergency to a ward before they go into arrest. Nothing about this makes any logical sense, and although I am a Christian man, I cannot believe that any God would do something like this; I do not believe that even the devil himself could do this. I am tired, I am frustrated, and, above all else, I am frightened.”

He paused, taking another long drag, his voice cracking. “And Honoria is in there now, as well as my father. It won’t be long until… Pierce, I can do absolutely nothing for them; at this point, I cannot even make them comfortable. And if I were to be honest with myself, Mother most likely isn’t going to be far behind.”

He stubbed the cigarette in a nearby ashtray and reached for the pack, shaking one out for himself and one for Hawkeye. “I don’t know why this thing has not affected me, or you for that matter, but I do feel that I need to spend as much time with my family as I can.”

Hawkeye chewed on the end of his cigarette and nodded. “We all have to do what we have to do. I’m planning on being in Boston for a bit. I’ll call you in a few days?”

“That… that would be sufficient.”

Hawkeye reached out and squeezed Charles’s shoulder before making his way out of the lounge.

Now it was time to find Trapper.

-.-. .- -. - . . -.

He wandered through the hospital, hoping that Trapper was still somewhere inside. Eventually, he ended up in the canteen, and, sitting in a corner staring out the window, there was Trapper, a full cup of coffee sitting in front of him.

Hawkeye pulled out the other chair and sat down; Trapper didn’t move. Sometime during the morning, it had started to rain.

They sat together, silently watching the rain fall into the little garden right outside.

“I’m sorry, Trap.”

Trapper either didn’t hear him or outright ignored him. Hawkeye reached across the table and grabbed on to Trapper’s hand; only then did the other man look away from the window.

“I’ve got nothing left, Hawk. For so long, my only goal was to get back to my girls. Now they’re gone. So what’s there for me?”

Hawkeye looked from the window to his friend. “You’ve got me. And now, I’ve got you. We might be able to make it through this if we try together.”

He leaned forward, speaking quietly. “I’ve got an atlas, a full tank, and almost fifteen hundred dollars in cash. We can go wherever we want.”

Trapper raised his eyebrows, clearly surprised by Hawkeye’s offer. “So, what? We go on a road trip together to find a new, more exotic place to die a horrible death? No, thank you.”

Hawkeye shook his head. “No, Trap. Someone, somewhere has to be working on a cure, an antidote, something, and I say we find them. There has to be something out there worth hoping for, right?”

Trapper stared at him for a long time before finally heaving a sigh. “I suppose there’s no reason to stay around here, now, is there?

“Just give me a few days. I need to make final arrangements for my family.”

“Of course, Trap. Whatever you need, you just let me know.”

Trapper stood, coffee still untouched. He took a few steps before turning back. “Are you staying anywhere?”

“No,” Hawkeye replied, “I hadn’t made it that far, yet.”

“You can… you know you can always stay with me?”

Hawkeye smiled. “I’d like that.”

“Good. Okay. I’ve got a rowhouse in Bay Village, on Piedmont Street. It’s the one with the blue picket fence. You can’t miss it.”

Now, it was his turn to raise unbelieving eyebrows, “Blue picket fence?”

Trapper shrugged. “It’s Lou’s… it was Louise’s favorite color.”

Hawkeye nodded solemnly. “I’ll see you later, Trap.” He watched his friend turn and walk away before chugging Trapper’s cold coffee, throwing the empty cup against the wall.

.--- ..- -. .. .--. . .-.

After more wandering in the hospital, he finally found where the public telephones were hidden. He stepped inside the booth and pressed zero.

“Yes, operator? Can you please connect me to the long distance operator?” There was a few seconds of soft clicking sounds as Hawkeye dug in his pocket for a phone number he had yet to use. “Hello? Yes, can you place a call to JUniper 6-9117? The charge is to be made to B.F. Pierce. Boston. Yes, thank you.”

The call sounded muffled, like the phone was enveloped in cotton. Eventually, the other end started ringing, and Hawkeye braced himself.

“Hello?”

“Beej, it’s great to hear your voice.”

“Hawk! I’m glad you’re alright. You are alright, right?”

Hawkeye chuckled into the receiver. “Yeah, Beej, I’m alright. I think. The Eastern seaboard has not been faring too well, though. Is your coast doing any better?”

“Not in the slightest. Peg and I have been fortunate; no one in our immediate family has been hit. What about you, Hawk? How’s your dad?”

He froze, unsure how to make himself answer.

“Hawk? You still there?”

“Yeah, Beej. My dad’s… my dad… yesterday,” he sighed, “his funeral was yesterday.”

“Jesus, Hawk, I’m so – “

“Beej, look, the reason I’m calling: have you heard anything about a cure? Or some sort of treatment being developed? Any rumors at all?”

The other end was quiet as BJ thought. “Nothing about a cure, but I have heard that there’s something like a stronghold set up in the Midwest; in Nebraska or Missouri, somewhere smack in the middle of the country.”

“Do you think it’s real? The stronghold?”

BJ sighed, “I don’t know, Hawk. I’m not sure I know what to believe anymore.”

“Is it worth it, Beej? Would it be worth it to make the trek to God-knows-where USA, hoping for the first time in a long time that you’ll find something, and in the end, turning up empty handed?”

The phone was silent. “I’m not sure what you’re saying.”

“I’m saying that I can’t stay here any longer; there is no hope left in Boston.

“But Charles heard a rumor of a treatment being developed out west. You’re hearing of a stronghold back east. And in both your stories, I’ve heard ‘Missouri’.”

“So you’re thinking – “

“ – that there’s something worth checking out in Missouri.”

BJ laughed, but it was a dry, humorless, tired laugh. “Well, Peg and I were thinking of leaving, anyway; San Francisco’s gone. Its anarchy here: buildings are burning, homes are looted… people just aren’t acting like people anymore.”

“Think Colonel Potter’s looking for some visitors?”

More quiet; Hawkeye could practically hear the wheels turning in BJ’s head.

“Let’s do it. We’ll meet in Hannibal in two weeks; that’ll give us some time to put things in order out here. Then we’ll figure out what to do from there.”

“Great. It’ll be good to see you, Beej.”

“You too, Hawk. Take care.”

He hung up the phone, nodding to himself. There was a plan in place; whether or not it was a good one didn’t matter. He just felt better having a goal.

He exited the booth and left the hospital, heading for a rowhouse with a blue picket fence.

- .-. .- ..-. ..-. .. -.-.

There was less traffic on the streets of Boston than there was on the coastal highway. He’d never seen the city so desolate, so deserted; it frightened him, shook him straight to the core.

It reminded him of how fragile human life actually was.

-... .-.. ..- .

The fence was, indeed, very, very blue. It was the sort of blue straight out of a crayon box.

Hawkeye couldn’t help but stare as he put the truck in park, gathered his important things in his overnight bag, and walked up the path.

He was still staring at the fence when he heard the front door open.

“Told you it was blue.”

Hawkeye scoffed, finally moving past the blue, blue fence, “I think you undersold this, Trap. This is a special kind of blue: this is the blue, the blue to end all blues!”

Trapper smiled a small smile, backing away from the doorframe, allowing Hawkeye inside.

He followed Trapper upstairs to the guest bedroom, and as he set his bag down on the chair in the corner, the lights started to flicker quickly before going completely dark.

Both men looked at each other. “What do you think that means?” Hawkeye asked.

Trapper looked up at the ceiling. “I think I have an idea,” he said, “but I really, really hope I’m wrong.”

They made their way back downstairs. Trapper offered Hawkeye a whisky, which he accepted, and poured a double for himself.

“I’ve just got one last phone call to make. I’ll be back in a bit.”

Hawkeye nodded as Trapper went upstairs.

.-.. .. --. .... - ...

The lights never came back on.

.--. -.-- .-. .

Tuesday, the 6th of April, 1954 was the McIntyre funeral, the last funeral in Boston.

What little was left of the city council had passed down an order: all dead bodies were to be treated as contaminated entities. Hospital workers and police broke out their protective gear. Boston’s dead were now burned upon a massive pyre, a giant group memorial service.

Surviving families, broken and battered, surrounded the fires, day and night, singing.

Always singing.

... -- --- -.- .

Within two days of the ordinance passing, Boston’s streets had emptied of people and filled with smoke. Those that were still unaffected by the mystery illness didn’t want to take chances in the outside world; going outside was a thing that was done only as a last resort. Trapper and Hawkeye spent a full day covering the rowhouse windows with as thick of a layer of fabric as they could. But it wasn’t to keep the illness out; they knew that whatever this was was very unlikely to be transmitted in the air.

They just wanted to keep the smell of death out for a little while longer.

--. --- -. .

Four days after the funeral, Hawkeye called up the hospital looking for Charles.

Unsurprisingly, Charles answered.

“Winchester.”

“Chuckles, I never thought I’d say this, but I’m so glad you picked up the phone.”

A defeated exhale came over the other end. “Pierce.”

“Trapper and I are leaving for Missouri. We’re meeting with BJ and his family. Are you in?”

He was met with silence. There was so much silence that Hawkeye didn’t know if the call was dropped, if the phone lines went dead with the power.

“I’m in. Come by the hospital tonight at eight o’clock. I’ll be ready then.”

“We’ll see you at eight,” he said, and he hung up.

They spent the rest of the day packing Trapper up: getting his important things together in a bug-out bag, packing clothes in an old suitcase, bagging up canned and dry goods.

Digging out Trapper’s old shotguns. Just in case, he’d said.

As there was only room in the truck’s cabin for one person, Trapper volunteered to ride in the bed. They rearranged the trunks and boxes, laid a blanket and pillow down, and tied Trapper in with a rope, propping him up with a pair of binoculars so he could always see behind them.

Hawkeye tucked a shotgun in beside Trapper’s leg, took the other one with him up front, and started toward the hospital.

Charles was waiting outside of the emergency entrance with two suitcases and a briefcase.

Wordlessly, he put the cases in the bed, nodded at Trapper, and brought the briefcase in the front seat with him.

Hawkeye turned and opened the small window in the back of the cabin. “Trapper, Charles. Charles, Trapper.

“All set?”

Without waiting for an answer, he threw the truck into gear, and started out for I-90.

.... .. --. .... .-- .- -.--

The endless stretch of I-90 was slow going at the beginning: sometime in the last three days, about half the city decided to make a run for it. They all failed.

Hawkeye drove slowly around the disabled vehicles; some of them were empty, but many of them still had people inside, victims of something they didn’t even realize they had.

The smell was overpowering.

They all spent some time looking through the cars for anything they might be able to use: Hawkeye siphoned gas, Trapper pulled out provisions, Charles grabbed anything that could be worth bartering, logically presenting the argument that paper money would be worth nothing very soon. But they all stayed within shouting distance of the truck.

They packed up their things, strapped Trapper back into the bed, and continued on their way. The farther they drove from Boston, the clearer the highway was.

The radio didn’t work; all the stations had lost either power or their entire staff. They didn’t bother with idle conversation, riding in silence, ignoring the posted speed limit. If there even were police still in the area, they wouldn’t waste their time pulling a truck over for speeding.

They reached the New York – Massachusetts border a little before 2300 that night. They decided to drive a little further before bunking down.

Twenty minutes later, they pulled off the highway and entered the hamlet of East Chatham, New York.

- .-. . . .-.. .. -. .

They drove slowly, keeping an eye out for any people that may be about, any places that they may camp out for the night, any dangers that might be present.

After fifteen minutes of searching, Charles spotted lights in the distance.

“Pierce,” he said, and the truck slowed to a stop, “Over there, beyond the tree line. What do you think that could be?”

Hawkeye squinted, “It looks like a fire.”

He rapped his knuckles on the back window. “Trap,” he said, knocking harder when Trapper didn’t answer. “Trapper!”

Trapper jerked awake, “Whuzzat?”

“What’s that over in the trees?”

Trapper untied himself and peered over the edge of the truck with the binoculars out into the trees. “It looks like a bonfire. And there’s at least two shadows moving; it might be people.”

Hawkeye looked from Charles to Trapper. “Do we risk investigating it?”

Trapper made a face behind the binoculars; Charles wrinkled his brow.

“I think we’re better off in an old barn,” Trapper said, lowering the binoculars. “I really don’t know if we can trust people at this point; I remember ‘War of the Worlds’, I remember how the people in my neighborhood acted when they just thought the world was ending.”

Charles nodded in agreement. “Yes, we should keep going. Actually,” he said, turning to look back behind them, “wasn’t there a gas station a bit back? That should do, at least for tonight.”

“You got it, Chuckles.” Hawkeye turned the truck around and drove back to the gas station, parking right by the station door.

Hawkeye and Charles got out of the cabin, Charles taking the shotgun and checking the grounds for any people, Hawkeye untying Trapper from the back. Trapper grabbed the other gun and helped check the perimeter.

“All clear, Hawk,” he said, circling back around to the other two.

“Great. Here, help me get this door up; we’ll park the truck inside, less likely we’ll lose our stuff that way.”

Trapper and Charles hoisted the service door up and Hawkeye drove it slowly inside, avoiding driving into the oil change pit.

Just as he put the car into park, he heard a gunshot go off. Scrambling out of the cabin, he ran back outside, only to find his travel companions surrounded by men in forest camouflage, some with guns, some with torches, some with rope, wrenches, pipes.

One of the men with a revolver stepped forward, “Na kolina!,” he shouted.

Hawkeye, Trapper, and Charles looked from each other to the men surrounding them; they didn’t say anything.

The man with the revolver walked up to Trapper, “Na kolina, brudnyy pes,” he said, kicking the back of Trapper’s knee, causing him to fall to the ground.

Charles and Hawkeye took the hint; hands raised, they both knelt down.

That was when the butt of a rifle hit him right at the base of his skull, and everything around Hawkeye went black.

.--. .-.. .- ... -

He came to inside a barn with a splitting headache. He tried to move, but all too quickly realized that he was tied to something. He looked around for Charles and Trapper, finding them bound to support beams that ran along the stables.

The barn itself was large, with stables and tool storage on both long walls of the lower floor, and, as far as he could tell, hay and barley bales on the second floor. The entire barn was bustling with people.

A young girl, seeing that he was awake, walked over to Hawkeye with a bucket. “Voda?” she asked, holding up a metal cup with liquid inside.

He looked from the girl to the cup, unsure if he should drink it. The girl smiled, repeating herself and taking a sip from the cup, “Voda!

“Oh, water,” Hawkeye said, “You’ve got water. Yes. Yes, please.”

She held the cup and waited for him to drink his fill before moving on to Trapper, who had just begun to stir.

“Trap, can you see how Charles is?”

Trapper swallowed his mouthful and looked over, straining to see how Charles was fairing. “He’s still out, Hawk. Looks like he took it pretty hard to the back of the head; there’s some blood running down his neck.”

Hawkeye chewed on his lower lip. “Any idea what we walked in to?”

“Not a clue,” Trapper said, testing his bindings, “but I think they’re Russians.”

“Russians?” Hawkeye looked around the barn. “What are Russians doing in New York?”

“Actually, we are not from Russia,” a voice called out, his accent thick, “We are z Ukrayiny.”

A tall, broad man in camouflage and heavy boots clunked down the stairs; from the air he presented to the English he spoke, Hawkeye could only conclude that this man was the leader.

He walked up to Trapper, grabbing his chin and forcing his head up. “Please, I beg of you, for your own safety, please refrain from comparing us to those Russian suchi dity.” He spat on the ground.

Trapper laughed nervously, “Don’t like them Russians, eh?”

The man chuckled quietly, releasing Trapper’s chin. “In my country, we have a saying, ‘The Devil you can ban with a cross, but a Russian you can never get rid of’.”

He motioned to some of his men to come forward, “Vidv’yazavshy yikh; vony ne stanovlyat zahrozy diya nas.” The men moved to untie them from the posts.

“Please, forgive my comrades; they are very suspicious of strangers. Come. Sit with me at my table. We will talk.”

Three of them began walking towards the stairs; Charles, still partly unconscious, had to be held upright by two men.

They all sat at a small square table and, upon the man’s snapping, were presented with cups of water and plates with ham and cheese.

“I am Ruslan Dyachenko, from Kharkiv. My daughter, Olena, you have already met. Allow me to welcome you to Vovcha Tropa, safe-haven for Plast and all of Ukraine.”

Hawkeye and Trapper had begun to eat their food; Charles was swaying slightly and sipping at his water. “Plast?” Hawkeye asked. “What’s Plast?”

Ruslan leaned back in his chair, “Plast, in Ukraine, is scouts, much like your Boy Scouts. We buy this farm two years ago, as place for our… shcho take slovo? Convention? No… jamboree? We want to have space for all to gather and teach and celebrate.

“But now, here, we take up arms, to protect our own. We must be cautious; many have tried to get in to our camp, but we do what we must, to protect our own.”

Trapper looked at Hawkeye, and then back to Ruslan. “You mean you killed them?”

Ruslan raised up his chin, waving a dismissing hand. “’Killed’ is nasty word; many died of illness. We simply do as we must to ensure our survival. Now eat, you need strength.”

Instead of eating, Hawkeye got up from his chair and moved to examine Charles. He tenderly prodded the bruising area at the base of his skull, “Please, Ruslan, my friend here needs to be examined. I’m a doctor; actually, we’re all doctors, but I need my kit out of our truck.”

“This is no problem,” Ruslan said, standing up, “we have your truck outside. Come get what you need.”

“Keep an eye on him, eh, Trap?” Trapper nodded, and Hawkeye followed Ruslan out of the barn.

He surveyed the area: the barn itself was in a clearing next to a farmhouse; from there, they were surrounded by fields of unidentified shrubs and purple bell flowers. The sun was up, but not too high in the sky. It was sometime early morning; they had been out all night.

He looked over the contents of the truck: the only thing that seemed to be missing was the shotguns; everything else was still in its place.

Hawkeye grabbed the medical kit and headed back inside to give Charles a good thrice over.

-.-. --- -. -.-. ..- ... ... . -..

Charles was thoroughly concussed.

Fortunately, there seemed to be no basilar skull fracture and his pupils responded normally to light, so the only thing he needed was plenty of rest and hydration. Ruslan assigned Olena to be Charles’s care nurse, bringing him water and food and waking him every few hours.

But that still meant that they wouldn’t be able to travel for a few days, so Hawkeye and Trapper volunteered to make themselves as useful as possible in any way they could: Trapper spent his time performing checkups on members of the camp, and Hawkeye, having had some experience, helped around the farm.

They would work until the sun began to set, then gather at the communal tables and eat a modest supper, then sleep on straw beds in the stables.

At night, they’d talk in hushed voices; Trapper was amazed at the condition of the people there.

“Hawk, these people are all at the peak of health; there’s no sign of any illness, not even hay fever. I don’t know if there’s something in the water or what, but I want what they’re having.”

“We’ll have to ask Ruslan tomorrow; maybe he’s got some secret stash of anti-hemorrhagic fever pills.”

“I’m serious, Hawk. Even before all this started, I’d never see this many perfectly healthy people.”

Hawkeye sighed. “Alright. Breakfast. Hopefully, he’ll feel like talking.”

..-. --- -..- --. .-.. --- ...- .

The next morning, they sat with Ruslan and ate a small breakfast.

Trapper tried to bring up the topic very casually; he failed.

“So, I’ve noticed that all your people are in perfect health,” he said in between bites. “It’s pretty amazing, actually. What’s your secret?”

Ruslan stiffened, staring Trapper down, hard. He motioned to the others at the table, and they all got up and moved to the other end.

“This is something I do not like to talk about, so I will say this only once, and never again,” Ruslan quietly said.

Hawkeye and Trapper scooted closer.

“We start in Kiev, we make plans to escape from Radyans kyy Soyuz, from Stalin and his murderers. Before we leave, we are captured, sent to Kamera. Is called Laboratory Twelve now, but it is still as evil.

“We are separated, interrogated, sleep deprived, starved. We become as those with Stalin’s invented sickness, but we are kept in Kamera, not like those with invented sickness.”

Ruslan took a long drink before continuing. “I am given a choice: be in medicine experiment, or be sent to the Gulag; there is no choice.

“The ‘medicine’ is poison. I am given pills, I am given shots, and my heart hurts. I could not breathe. One day, my heart is beating so fast, I think it will come out of my chest, and the next, so slow I think I might die. Every day, I am given more and more. And then, my back begins to hurt. Right here,” he motioned around his kidneys, “hurt, every time I would breathe. I cannot see and I am dizzy.

“And then it stopped.”

He looked down the table, at the women and children finishing their breakfast, and looked almost wistful. “The poison then did nothing; my pain stopped, my heart did not beat strange, my eyes could see. The doctors, the butchers, they say I am wrong, I should be dead.

“I see the files, they have been poisoning me with… Dyhoksyn.

“I leave Kamera, and meet with others that had been let go; we are all fine. We are better than we have been in years. We find a medical book; Dyhoksyn is foxglove, is deadly poison.

“We leave Kiev in the night. We come here, where our brothers have already set up camp. And I have idea: we plant foxglove, and we eat tiny bits every day. And we have. And my people, we live. We will survive where others have not.

“I never think I would be grateful for what happened. But I am, because my daughter can live.”

Ruslan finished his drink and stood up. “Now we must work. Please, join us.”

Hawkeye and Trapper could do little else but stare at each other, processing all the information they had just heard.

..-. .- .-. . .-- . .-.. .-..

On the fifth day, Charles declared himself well enough to travel.

“Pierce, stop fussing,” he said as Hawkeye shined a penlight in his eyes, “I am fine; as long as we stick to the highways, I am most definitely able to travel.”

They packed up their things, and just as they were tying Trapper into the bed, Ruslan approached them.

“You have been of great help; please, consider yourselves friends of Plast. Friends of Plast are friends of Ukraine.” Another man stepped forward and handed Trapper their shotguns. “We have taken care to clean and re-sight them. They will be good as new.

Proshchayte, moyi druzi. Survive. Be well.” Ruslan kissed them all on both cheeks.

They drove off the farm at 1013 on Friday, the 16th of April, 1954.

-. . .-- -.-- --- .-. -.-

They continued to follow I-90: stopping for a quick bathroom break in Albany, through Amsterdam and Utica, passing slowly through Syracuse.

The once picture-perfect college town looked like a warzone: windows smashed, cars overturned, things scattered everywhere, people lying dead in the street. They all kept their eyes alert, Charles and Trapper kept their shotguns at the ready, as they crept through the ruined city.

Rochester fared no better. They arrived in the early afternoon, but the sky was black with thick smoke, the air smelling of ammonia and sulfur.

They covered their noses and mouths with their shirts, Trapper shielding himself with a tarp, and tried to find the fastest route out.

“What happened here?” Hawkeye coughed out.

“There’s a chemical plant,” Trapper replied, “it must have caught fire.”

“Pierce, let us not linger here,” Charles said, voice raspy from the smoke, “I’m not getting a very good feeling about this place.”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea.”

They kept moving west, until they arrived in Buffalo around 1600 that afternoon.

Buffalo looked just like Rochester and Syracuse.

They kept driving until they reached the waterline. Stopping in what they presumed to be a park, they untied Trapper and stretched their legs.

“Where are we?” Trapper asked through stretching his back out.

“Buffalo,” Charles replied from a few feet away, “Specifically, I believe this to be Broderick Park.”

He walked to the fence that separated visitors from the water. “There, come look,” he beckoned the others.

“This is Lake Erie,” he said as Hawkeye and Trapper joined him, “And across the way, there, that is Canada. Ontario, if I remember my geography.”

Trapper leaned forward, resting his arms on the iron bar. “Do you think this is happening in Canada, too?”

Charles turned and walked back to the truck, grabbed the binoculars, and returned to his spot. He slowly scanned the opposite shoreline, “I don’t see any movement, but that could mean anything.” He passed the binoculars off to Hawkeye.

“I don’t know,” he said, checking buildings and cars along the waterfront, “This whole thing just gives me the heebie-jeebies.”

Trapper pushed himself off the fence, “Let’s do lunch,” he said, and they walked back to the truck.

After they had eaten, all three eventually wandered back to their spots on the fence, silently staring over the water and into Canada.

They stood for a long while, until the sun began to set, watching the breeze blow over the water, taking in the sounds of the sea, forgetting, if just for a minute, that the world as they knew it was collapsing all around them.

-... .- - ....

They made camp for the night underneath some trees, rising early with the sun.

After a quick breakfast, Hawkeye grabbed a small bag from the truck; they hopped the fence, trailing carefully down the bank, and started undressing for a wash in the lake. As they stepped into the cold water, decidedly not looking at each other to save what little dignity they had left, Hawkeye couldn’t help but comment, “Kinda reminiscent of Korea, eh, fellas?”

Charles dipped his soap bar into the water and began vigorously scrubbing, “I’m not even pretending to acknowledge that with a response, Pierce.”

Trapper laughed, wetting his own washcloth, “Hey, Hawk, remember the ‘Polly Adler Birthday Cookout, Picnic, and Barbecue’?”

Hawkeye splashed cold water on his face, “The spoon race with the cheating nuns?”

“Frank winning Klinger’s lacy underoos?”

“Hah!” Hawkeye laughed, “And that tug-of-war? All of us covered in mud!”

“Washing off in the creek afterwards…”

“… and stealing all the nurses’ clothes!”

They both dissolved into fits of laughter, barely able to stand up straight; even Charles joined in with a chuckle of his own. Laughing so hard felt amazing, but it also felt strange, foreign, completely inappropriate.

Breathing heavily, their laughter petered out, and the three men finished their baths in silence.

--. ..- .. - .- .-.

They were packed up and on the road by 0930.

Hawkeye consulted his atlas for the most direct route, and they continued on I-90, running parallel to the water, heading south.

They encountered the same problems leaving Buffalo that they did leaving Rochester, Syracuse, Boston: cars upon cars blocking safe passage. They did what they always did upon leaving a city; they masked up, they siphoned, they raided, they looted. They replenished their supplies in the only way they knew how.

Trapper found a guitar in the trunk of one of the vehicles. Strapping the instrument to his back, he hauled the pillowcase full of canned goods to the truck bed, climbed to his spot in the back, and began tuning.

Charles and Hawkeye stowed their gear and climbed into the cabin. Hawkeye put the truck into gear and began the slow trip through the traffic.

And as the truck picked up speed, the melodic sounds of an acoustic guitar floated through the air, and Trapper began to sing.

”Now the hacienda’s dark
The town is sleeping
Now the time has come to part
The time for weeping”

He strummed the next few chords, and all three joined in for the chorus:

”Vaya con dios, my darling
Vaya con dios, my love

The next two hours passed quickly, accompanied by soft music.

. .-. .. .

They crossed into Pennsylvania just before noon, quickly arriving in Erie, a small manufacturing town right on the edge of the Great Lake. Hawkeye slowed the truck to a complete stop, looking around the street.

“I don’t like this,” he said, “it’s too quiet. There’s no fire, there’s no debris, there’s not even any cars parked on the street.”

Charles pulled the shotgun into his lap and Trapper cocked his, both men surveying their surroundings.

“Proceed with caution, Pierce,” Charles said, still looking out the window, “but we should get through this place as fast as we can.”

Hawkeye put the truck back into gear and began creeping through the town.

In the middle of the city, they came upon the Gannon College of Arts and Sciences. The college’s many windows were all boarded up, a makeshift barricade at each door.

They pulled up to the largest building, Hawkeye putting the truck in park, and they got out to stretch their legs, senses on high alert.

Then Trapper whispered, “Hawk?” He pointed to a window on the second floor. “Hawk, look at that.”

Hawkeye and Charles turned and looked at where Trapper was pointing: a few slats on the window were sitting lower than all the others.

“Observation post?” Charles asked.

“Sniper perch?” Hawkeye suggested, looking at all the other windows.

“I don’t know,” Trapper said, “but I think we better get going before we find out.”

Before they could leave, they heard a laugh: somewhere nearby, a child was laughing. It was a haunting sound, almost ghostly, and it sent shivers down Hawkeye’s spine.

They searched for the source, never out of arms reach of the truck, when a small red ball bounced out in front of them, chased by a girl no more than ten years old.

“Linda! Linda, get back here!”

A woman, presumably the girl’s mother, ran from the building and snatched her up, leaving the ball to bounce into the grass.

“You know better!” she chided, “Get inside before – “ She trailed off, just noticing the three strange men standing beside a beaten down truck. Her face went slack, and she hugged the little girl closer and ran back to a hidden door.

The three were quiet for a few seconds before Trapper cut the silence, “Okay. That is most definitely our cue to am-scray.”

They scrambled back in the truck and sped off, not bothering to really look where they were going.

They ended up on a road leading to the outskirts of town. It was a desolate road, surrounded by scraggly trees and looming factories on each side. The buildings were all in various conditions, some appearing to be fortified, and some were falling apart before their very eyes.

Trapper watched as the building nearest to them began to flame, and they left Erie behind.

-.-. .-.. . ...- . .-.. .- -. -..

They drove and drove, heading southwest, making their way through Girard, Ashtabula, Painesville, Mentor, Willowick, Euclid. Every town was the same: abandoned streets, boarded up buildings, bodies lying where they had fallen. And in every town, they stocked up and gassed up.

They didn’t encounter any more living people until they reached the outskirts of Cleveland, when they encountered a roadblock going across East 200th street. Towering over them was a wall of cars stacked five high straight across the road. In the center, there was a giant metal door, similar to a rolling door on a warehouse. Patrolling across the top were men with guns, and three more armed men approached the truck.

An older man with a graying beard held up his hand, indicating that Hawkeye should stop; he did.

“Halt there.” He walked up and took a quick circle around the truck. Seemingly satisfied with what he saw, he continued, “Maine? What are you boys doing way out here?”

“We’re, uh –“ Hawkeye started, not taking his eyes off the revolver the man had casually pointed at him.

“We’re heading to Missouri. If we could just pass through – “ Charles chimed in, finishing what Hawkeye had started.

“No can do, mister. See, it’s my job to keep all you plague carrying outsiders out where you belong.”

Hawkeye glanced over at Charles, and Charles looked back at him.

“Since we boarded up the routes out of town, none of our people have gotten sick. And we’re gonna keep it that way. You’re just gonna have to find an alternate route.”

“Well, sir,” Trapper piped in, “We really don’t know the area at all; can you give us directions?”

The man eyed the atlas sitting on the seat between Charles and Hawkeye. “Nah. You got one of them,” he motioned towards the atlas with his gun, “and I bet you’re smart enough to use it. Now get out of my sight.”

Hawkeye nodded as the man retreated back to the metal gate, reversed the truck, and parked one hundred feet away to consult the maps.

“Okay, it looks like if we double back up I-90, we can hit 271 and follow that south. Then we can hit up 480 and follow that west to the Ohio Turnpike and keep following it west until we hit Perrysburg.

“It’ll take longer, but we can pretty much avoid Cleveland all together.”

“Yes, I’d rather enjoy not getting shot.” Charles said.

Hawkeye reversed out of the spot and drove away from Cleveland.

He followed the turnoff for I-271 and came upon the Ohio Turnpike after twenty minutes.

Here, Hawkeye had the exact opposite luck than he had travelling the coastal highway: what should have been a two hour drive turned into almost four hours. He’d forgotten that there were toll stops on the Ohio Turnpike, and those toll stops started out nigh impossible to clear.

In the beginning, there were cars blocking any passage through the tolls; the three would have to disembark, mask up, and break into cars in order to even attempt to move them. Many of them moved easily once they got going, but some vehicles had their clutches get jammed, their brakes freeze, their steering columns snap, and they would become giant, two-thousand pound paperweights.

But, eventually, the highway and the toll stops began to clear, and right after the exit to Baumhart Road, their path became completely open.

- --- .-.. . -.. ---

The sign proclaimed “WELCOME TO PERRYSBURG POPULATION 4,006”, but the view told them something completely different: there were absolutely no buildings standing.

In the distance, about six miles to the south, there was a large, smoking, flame-spitting crater. Fire had spread out in all directions, engulfing anything and everything, burning it all to singes.

“What the hell happened?” Trapper asked, his voice unbelieving.

Hawkeye consulted his atlas, “I think that was a factory,” he said. “Owens-Illinois.”

“Ah. My family has… had holdings in them; they manufacture glass and plastics.” Charles said, eyes never leaving the pit.

“That must be what blew up, then; plastics get nasty,” Hawkeye mumbled, distracted by his atlas. He suddenly threw the book to Charles and made a hasty exit off the Turnpike.

“Pierce, what are you doing?!” Charles said, trying to keep himself from sliding around the seat. “You don’t have to drive like a maniac!”

“Oh yes I do,” Hawkeye replied, “I’m changing course really quick.

“We’re making a pit stop in Toledo.”

-.- .-.. .. -. --. . .-.

Astoundingly, he remembered the street address: 1215 N Michigan Street, Toledo, Ohio.

He never found out what had happened to Klinger; all Hawkeye knew was that he stayed behind in Korea to find Soon-Lee’s family, so he wasn’t expecting much when he knocked on the door.

What he got was a young Korean woman answering the door.

She squinted against the setting sun before bursting into laughter. “Hawkeye!” She threw herself into his arms.

“Wha – Soon-Lee?!”

“Yes, Hawkeye! And Doctor Winchester! Come in, come in,” she said, releasing Hawkeye and backing away from the door.

Once all three were inside, Soon-Lee turned her attention on Charles, squeezing him in a giant bear hug. Trapper shut the door and turned toward the footfalls he heard on the stairs. “Maxwell Klinger!”

Klinger poked his head around the landing, cautiously eyeing his visitors.

“Oh, Max, you’re being silly. It’s your old friends!” Soon-Lee grabbed him by the arm and dragged him out of his hiding spot. “He has been extra cautious lately, now that it’s just us,” she whispered, a sad tone to her voice.

“Come and sit. I’ll make tea.” She hugged Klinger and then moved into what Hawkeye guessed was the kitchen.

Klinger gave a half-hearted salute. “Hey, guys.”

Hawkeye was the first to reach him, “What? No hugs?” he asked, bringing Klinger into one of his own.

The four men sat in the little sitting room while Soon-Lee busied herself in the kitchen.

“So, Max, how was Korea?” Charles asked.

“It was actually alright for a little while, when all the fighting actually stopped – “

Hawkeye felt a tap on his shoulder; Trapper was standing behind him, motioning to the front door with his head. Hawkeye quietly excused himself and followed Trapper to the front porch.

They sat on the top step and watched the silent street. Newspaper pages blew by like city tumbleweed, and Trapper put his head in his hands.

“What’re we doing, Hawk?”

He looked at his friend, a man that looked so impossibly tired, “We’re visiting an old friend,” he answered.

“Why are we in Toledo? Why are we going to Missouri? Why are we even bothering?”

That question quickly enraged him; he tried to keep his voice down, but it quickly grew to a shout. “We’re bothering, you asshole, because if we didn’t, then my dad, your daughters, and Charles’ entire family would have died for nothing!”

Breathing heavily, he had stood, walked down the steps, and started down the street by the time he heard Trapper call his name.

.-- .- .-.. -.-

He walked, not paying any attention to where he was going, until the sun had completely set. He passed the Mercy School of Nursing and hung a right at the Toledo Museum of Art, eventually ending up in front of Swayne Field.

He stood, staring past the stadium, not really paying anything any attention, when a voice crept up behind him, “Beautiful, ain’t she?”

Hawkeye nearly jumped out of his boots.

He turned around to see Klinger, a flashlight in both hands. “Home of the Mud Hens.”

“Jesus, Klinger, don’t do that! What are you doing here?”

“I should ask you the same thing, Captain.” He handed a flashlight off to Hawkeye. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous to go walking about alone at night?”

“Yeah, well,” Hawkeye started, not knowing how to finish. “I think it might have gotten dangerous if I hadn’t gone.”

“Oh yeah; we could hear you inside.” Klinger walked to a nearby bench and sat down, motioning for Hawkeye to join him.

He sat and heaved a heavy sigh. “We were supposed to be in Missouri by now,” he explained, turning off the flashlight. “We’ve only been on the road a week, and five of those days were spent holed up in a barn with a bunch of Ukrainians. My nerves are fried, my patience is gone, I can’t get the taste of gas out of my mouth, and I’m just so damned tired of trying to be optimistic.”

Klinger let out a small laugh, “Believe me, Captain, if anyone can sympathize with knowing the taste of car parts, it’s me.”

Hawkeye hung his head and let his own laugh escape. “What made you think that you could eat a Jeep?”

Klinger shrugged. “I wanted out. It seemed logical at the time.”

“Almost got you out, too.”

”And then I stayed anyway.”

“Yeah,” Hawkeye said, “How’d that go?”

Klinger cleared his throat. “It was Korea… it went about as well as Korea could.”

“Did you find her family?”

“Yeah,” Klinger replied, fiddling with the flashlight. “Took about four months, but we found them living on a communal farm in Sangju. She tried to convince them to come back to the States with us, but they kept insisting that they’d be safer staying in Korea.”

He sighed. “And then we came back here. I thought I’d have problems with my family, y’know, me marrying a Korean and all, but when I got back, there was barely any of my family left. All I had was my sister and my Uncle Abdul, but both of them kicked it within the week.”

Hawkeye didn’t know what to say to that, so he said nothing, and Klinger continued.

“But the thing is, Captain, is that nothing like this was happening in Korea; everyone there was perfectly healthy when we left.”

He nearly dropped his flashlight, “Klinger, what’re you saying?”

“I’m saying that Soon-Lee’s parents knew something that we didn’t. They didn’t want to come here with us because they were afraid they’d die. They didn’t want to risk it, and Soon-Lee told me on the plane that they begged her to stay in the country.”

Hawkeye just stared at Klinger. “So, this isn’t happening in Korea? But it’s happening everywhere else?”

“That’s my guess.”

“Then why aren’t we affected? We’re not Korean.”

“I don’t know, Captain. Best I can think is that we were over there long enough for whatever this is to think that our immune system is Korean.”

Hawkeye bit on a hangnail on his thumb. “We’d better get back, Klinger.”

.--. --- .-. -.-. ....

It took almost an hour for them to walk back to Klinger’s place. By that time, Charles had fallen asleep in a reclining chair, Trapper was sprawled out on the sofa, and Soon-Lee was waiting on the front porch.

She rose off the step and quickly walked to them, pulling Hawkeye down for another hug. “I am so glad you’re alright.”

“Yea, Soon-Lee, I’m fine; just needed to blow off a little steam. Where’re Trapper and Charles?”

“Asleep inside. Should I wake them?”

Hawkeye shook his head. “Nah. Let’em sleep. We’ll need to be up early, anyway. Long drive still ahead.”

The three walked back up the steps. “Yes, Doctor Winchester was telling me about your plan. Max, I think it’s a good one.”

Klinger looked confused, “What plan? I think I missed something, here,” he said.

“Let’s go out into the back. I have coffee ready. And sandwiches. And then Hawkeye can tell you all about his plan.”

- .... . - .- .-.. -.-

He explained the plan, which was still just little more than “let’s all go to Missouri because there might be something there,” and at first, Klinger was extremely hesitant.

I don’t know if I want to leave my home, he had said.

But during the night, as Hawkeye slipped in and out of sleep on the rug in the sitting room, cocooned in blankets, he could hear the couple quietly talking.

“ – but is this really a good idea? There’s no guarantee – “

“ – it’s all we have, Max. There’s no one left in Toledo – “

“ – is it even safe for you to be traveling in – “

“ – it’ll be the best for all of us – “

And as the sun rose, bringing Hawkeye awake with it, they had reached a decision.

“We’re in, Captain.”

Hawkeye smiled around his coffee. “Excellent.”

-.-. .... . ...- .-. --- .-.. . -

They woke Charles and Trapper at 0730, and immediately started packing up the Klinger’s things, while Klinger excused himself, told them to put all the stuff they were going to bring on the front stoop, and left the house.

An hour later, all four of them were sitting on the steps, a few boxes and bags surrounding them, when Klinger pulled up in a bright green Chevrolet pickup truck.

Soon-Lee rolled her eyes, “At least you hotwired a practical one this time.”

Klinger hopped out of the front, escorted Soon-Lee to the passenger seat, and the four men started loading up the flatbed.

Hawkeye brought his truck in front of Klinger’s and, as he was waiting for Charles and Trapper to get settled, brought the atlas over to Klinger.

“So the idea for now is to head back down to Perrysburg and head west on I-90, maybe take a rest stop in Notre Dame.

“Getting out of the city’s probably going to be tough, but we’ll make it through,” he said, putting the atlas back in his truck.

“Everybody ready?”

Klinger took one long last look at his childhood home. “Yeah,” he said, a bit sadly, “Let’s get moving.”

-.-. .- .-. .- ...- .- -.

Toledo was, by far, the easiest city to navigate out of. There were a few occasional rough spots, but nothing like previous experiences. They still stopped on the outskirts to replenish their gas stores and pick through trunks.

The ride to Indiana was smooth and uneventful; the toll stops along this section of highway were abandoned. They pulled into the township of Notre Dame, Indiana a little before 1100.

They drove through the town, simultaneously admiring and mourning the empty campuses of the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College, stopping outside of a Rexall at 1130. While Soon-Lee and Trapper unpacked some things and started setting up for lunch, Klinger disappeared inside the boarded up building. He quickly came out with a shopping bag full of items and set it in the passenger seat of his truck, joining the others for an impromptu, middle-of-the-street picnic.

They packed up quickly, getting back on the road by 1215.

The monotony was never ending, and it didn’t help that the scenery out of the windows was nothing spectacular: miles and miles of green pastures, a few trees scattered throughout. At one point, just past La Porte, Hawkeye dozed off, quickly waking up when the right side of the truck started scraping along a guardrail. The two car caravan pulled over, and Hawkeye got out, jumping up and down and shaking his hands in an effort to rid himself of the adrenaline.

It was unanimously decided that, for the first time since leaving Boston, Charles should take the wheel. Hawkeye crawled over to the passenger side and rested his head against the window; he was asleep within minutes.

He briefly woke up as they were passing through Joliet, but fell back asleep before they made the turn southward.

He finally awoke as they exited Lexington. Grabbing the atlas, he checked on their position.

“In fifteen miles, take exit 167, then turn left onto US-55.”

“What’s off of 167?” Charles asked, glancing over at the atlas.

“We need to make a pit stop.”

.... . -. .-. -.--

They entered Bloomington Cemetery at 1609 on Sunday, the 18th of April, 1954. At 1616, Hawkeye got out of the truck and walked to the headstone they had been searching for.

HENRY BRAYMORE BLAKE
May 21 1907 – September 1 1952
Lieutenant Colonel USAMC
Beloved Husband
And Father

His eyes had just begun to water when he felt a hand on his shoulder; Trapper had come to stand next to him, with Klinger not too far behind. They stood silently as the breeze blew through the trees, each wearing a small smile.

Then Hawkeye saluted, Trapper and Klinger following suit.

“You were a helluva guy, Henry Blake,” Trapper said, lowering his hand.

“Rest in peace, you ol’ mealy-mouthed fly-fisher,” Klinger said, turning back to the trucks.

Hawkeye looked over at Trapper and smiled. He grabbed Trapper in a side hug, resting his head on Trapper’s shoulder. After a few quiet moments, Hawkeye whispered, “Abyssinia, Henry.”

They walked back to the trucks arm in arm, and left the cemetery in silence.

... --- --- -. .-.. . .

They were only on Route 66 for a grand total of two miles, but Trapper had managed to get that damned song stuck in everyone’s head (except Soon-Lee; she had never heard it before) for the entire sixty mile ride south. By the time they entered Springfield, Hawkeye was ready to beat him over the head with his own guitar.

They rode through town, avoiding roads that were completely unusable because of fire, debris, crude blockades, piles of the dead. They stumbled on Carpenter Park at 1719. Disembarking, the five weary travelers walked through the wooded area until they came upon a river with a small sandy beach. Soon-Lee took off her shoes and sat at the edge of the river, feet resting in the water.

“Oh, this water is a bit cold,” she said, and Klinger was running back towards the truck before she could finish her sentence.

Trapper joined her, sitting on the sand, dipping his hands in the water and scrubbing them over his face.

The sun was just beginning to set.

Klinger came back with a blanket, a basket of food, and the bag of things he took from the Rexall’s in Notre Dame. He wrapped the blanket around his wife and opened the basket, handing out the goods inside. Charles sat on a fallen tree and began to eat his canned tuna.

Clutching the Rexall bag, Klinger approached Hawkeye.

“Captain,” he quietly said, “Can I ask you something?”

“Yeah, of course, Klinger; what’s up?” Hawkeye asked through a mouthful of beans.

Klinger looked around, “Not here; back by the trucks.”

He set his can down and followed the fidgety man back to the trucks.

“What’s wrong, Klinger?”

“So I… I’m really out of my depth here. Soon-Lee’s feeling sick; she’s been throwing up a lot. And I just kind of went into Rexall’s and grabbed anything that said ‘anti-nausea’, but I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Throwing up?” Hawkeye furled his brow, “Is there anything else going on?”

“She’s been getting tired easily, and really cranky. And she says her stomach hurts a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Will this help?” he asked, holding up a bottle of Thalomid.

Hawkeye grabbed it out of Klinger’s hand, “No no no no, oh no,” he said, throwing the bottle as far as he could. “I wouldn’t give thalidomide to someone that’s pregnant; I don’t think it’s safe.”

“Well, what about this… prom… prometh…” Klinger looked up, completely confused. “Wait a gosh darn minute, Captain, who here’s pregnant?”

“Promethazine would be fine, but just to be on the safe side, I’d keep it to under twenty-five milligrams; it’s going to make her very sleepy.”

“Her? Soon-Lee? My Soon-Lee?”

“Klinger, come November, I’m pretty sure you’re going to be the father of a seven pound baby nose.”

“Me? A dad? You think?! A-ha!” Klinger let out a whoop, hugging Hawkeye hard around the middle and kissing both of his cheeks; he dropped his bag and ran back to the river, shouting for Soon-Lee.

Hawkeye put the bag in the truck bed and rejoined the others, a huge smile bright on his face.

They celebrated that evening by making their way into the Leland Hotel and up to the exclusive suites on the top floor; it was the first time in almost two weeks that Hawkeye, Charles, and Trapper had slept in real beds.

They opened up all of the curtains and, after finding and opening a pretty decent bottle of brandy in the cupboard beside the dresser, stepped out onto the balcony to enjoy the sunset.

A gentle breeze blew by, and one by one by one, they made their way back inside, until only Hawkeye was left standing.

For the first time since his father died, Hawkeye actually had hope for the future.

-... .-.. --- -.-. -.- .- -.. .

He had planned to wake with the sun, to get on the road by 0800 and to Hannibal as soon as they could, but it seemed his body had other plans.

He rolled over in bed and barely opened his eyes to glance at his great-grandfather’s pocket watch on the nightstand; it read 9:42 AM.

He started awake, looking around the room, finding that he was alone. Panic set in, and he quickly threw on his shirt and pants and ran into the hallway. He saw no one, but as he made for the stairs, he thought he heard voices coming from below. As quietly as he could, he crept down the stairs to the mezzanine, only to be met with his four companions sitting at a large round table on the floor below.

“Ah, Pierce,” Charles said around a mouthful of scrambled eggs. “We were wondering when you’d join us.”

Hawkeye walked down the steps, his mouth watering at the smell. “Where did you guys find eggs?”

Trapper pointed upwards with his fork, “There’s coops on the roof,” he said, swallowing. “And lots of pigeons.”

“… pigeons?” Hawkeye asked as he sat down, “How many eggs did you have to swipe to get enough for five people?”

“You don’t wanna know,” Klinger said at the same time Soon-Lee said, “Eighty-one.”

Hawkeye could only stare, slack jawed. He turned back to Charles, “Are you actually eating scrambled eggs? You? The Archbishop of Titipu?”

“They are actually quite delicious.”

“In Korea, you almost started a riot when Sal insisted on scrambling them!”

“Ah, but Pierce, we must learn to make concessions,” Charles said, stuffing his mouth with another forkful, “And right now, these are among the top ten most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.”

He spooned some eggs onto a plate and handed them over to Hawkeye. Hawkeye took a bite and nodded approvingly, “They arequite good; could use some ketchup, though.”

“Ketchup? On eggs? You officers are a weird bunch,” Klinger said.

They continued to eat, when Hawkeye eventually asked, “How’d you manage to cook these? Are the gas lines working?”

“Sterno cans,” Trapper replied, “There’s a bunch of them back in the kitchen storage closet.”

“Couldn’t hurt to take some with us,” said Klinger, putting his fork on his now empty plate and leaning back in his chair.

“We’ll have to scrounge around, see what’s still left.”

They ate until they felt as if they would burst, and then split up to look around the hotel for useful items. When they converged again, they had twenty three cans of Sterno, four extra-large boxes of matches, an axe, two lengths of rope, another tarpaulin, a portable stove, five flashlights, a hose, nineteen batteries, a set of cooking pans, and two large boxes filled with jarred preserves, potted meat, and various other kinds of canned food.

Hawkeye and Klinger went back up into the rooms and grabbed the few things they had left behind, along with bedding, pillows, blankets, and towels.

Satisfied, they loaded everything into Klinger’s truck, strapped Trapper in the other bed, and headed for the southern city limit. Hawkeye quickly glanced at his atlas and turned towards I-72, heading west and, ultimately, their destination.

Exiting Springfield was a challenge; it was almost like someone had tried to set up layers of debris barricades around the south end of the city.

Hawkeye, Klinger, Charles, and Trapper all got out and began clearing a pathway; Soon-Lee rummaged around in the long abandoned cars.

They had been clearing for over an hour when she came looking for them.

“We’re not even halfway there,” Trapper said, wiping sweat off his brow.

“Think any of these cars still work?” Klinger asked.

“It is probable that some still run. Why?” Charles gave Klinger a confused once-over.

“Because I have an idea. It’s not a good one, but if it works, it’s easier than doing all this,” he said, running off and stopping to inspect cars along the way.

“Klinger, what’re you looking for?” Trapper shouted after him.

“A big Ford, preferably something from ’49 or ’50,” Klinger said, checking the cars all around him.

“Is he gonna do what I think – “

“Yes, McIntyre, I think he is,” Charles replied.

“Oh good Jesus,” Hawkeye said, pushing the heels of his palm into his eyes, “He’s going to try to ram it.”

“Aha!” Klinger shouted, “Captains! Come help me real quick!”

Trapper and Hawkeye glanced at each other before making their way to Klinger, who was already jimmying the door open.

“Okay, Captain One, I’m gonna pop the hood and pull on a couple wires. You tell me if you can see where they end up. Then you gotta touch the solenoid with this piece of metal exactly when I tell you to.

“And Captain Two, will you hold the flashlight for me?”

“Are you One or Two, Hawk?”

“I don’t know; do you know anything about cars?”

“No in the slightest.”

“I guess you’re Two, then,” Hawkeye replied, pulling and propping up the hood of a garish orange truck, pocketing the piece of metal that had Klinger handed him.

“Captain, can you see this wire?” Klinger asked, and Hawkeye could see a green wire jiggling into what looked like the battery; Hawkeye said as much.

“Okay, and this one?” Klinger moved an orange wire.

“That’s the… distributer? Distributer cap?” Hawkeye now wished he had paid better attention when his dad was trying to teach him this. Tears welled up quickly in his eyes at the thought of his father, but he pushed those feelings down to focus on the task at hand. “What next, Klinger?”

“Now, I try – “ There was a quick sizzlepop, and Klinger let out a yelp and stood up.

“You alright, Klinger?” Trapper asked.

Klinger sucked on his fingers, “Yeah, just a little electric shock; nothing to be concerned about,” he said, getting back into position in the truck. “I should be able to get it this time.”

The wires started moving again, “Alright, I think I got it. Captain, can you find the solenoid?”

“Erm… what’s that look like again?”

Klinger, still holding onto the wires, answered, “It’s round, either black or silver, with two prongs sticking out of it.”

Hawkeye found the thing that Klinger was describing sitting next to the battery, “Alright,” he said, “Now what?”

“When I tell you, bridge the gap between the prongs with the thing I gave you.”

He reached into his pocket for the metal piece, waiting for Klinger’s signal.

“Alright… now,” Klinger said, twisting the wires; Hawkeye placed the metal strip across the two prongs, and the engine came to life.

Klinger edged his way into the driver’s seat, “Let’s get clearing.”

Surprisingly, pushing the huge debris out of the way with the truck went better than Hawkeye expected: it took another hour, but there was now a path large enough for their vehicles to fit through.

“Too bad that truck’s all smashed up now,” Trapper said, “Would’ve been good to have another one.”

“I’m sure there’ll be more along the road if we really want another one, McIntyre,” Charles said, climbing into the passenger seat.

“No need,” Hawkeye said, “We’re finally on our way to Hannibal. One hundred more miles, and we’re finally there.”

Hawkeye put the truck in gear and turned on to I-72.

.... .- -. -. .. -... .- .-..

It was the fastest ninety-eight minutes of Hawkeye’s life.

They crossed the Mississippi River at 1408 on Monday, the 19th of April, 1954. At 1409, they exited the highway onto Mark Twain Avenue and headed into the city proper. Criss-crossing through the ruined streets of the once idyllic river town, they all kept their eyes open for, as the man himself had said an eternity ago, “Ol’ Doc Potter’s shingle”.

At 1446, Hawkeye turned from Dulaney Avenue onto Broadway, and as they passed Grand and Collins and approached Summit Street, Charles spoke up, “Pierce, turn right here.”

Hawkeye eyed him, but complied with the request. “What’re you thinking, Chuckles?”

“Something about this area strikes me as familiar; I’ve got a feeling… turn right again.”

He turned the truck down Grace Street, and as they approached the intersection of Grace and Collins, they found it:

Doctor Sherman T Potter
Family Practice

1300 Grace Street

Continue Straight Ahead

They followed the road through a tree lined curve and not thirty seconds later, the house came into view.

A large patch of land had been cleared to the right of the driveway, and, next to what appeared to be four cords of wood, were two pick-up trucks, a box truck, and a Ford Club Coupe.

Across from the house was a small barn, and beyond the barn was a cleared plot of land with corn, tomatoes, and a smattering of other vegetation. Chickens were wandering the land, and a few goats and two cows were moseying in a pen by the barn. Machine parts were scattered between the house and barn, and a large tank labeled PROPANE sat in the back.

The house itself was a neat two storey building surrounded by a split-rail fence, the path leading up to the porch lined by flower beds.

And sitting on that porch in a white Adirondack chair and sipping lemonade was Margaret Houlihan.

Hawkeye parked the truck beside the Coupe and got out, shading his eyes from the afternoon sun. He smiled as soon as he saw her, and she stood, put her drink down on the table next to her, and hurried down the steps.

“Pierce!”

She pulled him into a huge hug, and he reciprocated, squeezing her tight. “It’s so amazing to see you, Margaret.”

Charles had untied Trapper, Klinger and Soon-Lee had parked their truck, and all four of them came around and joined in, forming a giant group hug.

Margaret turned and hugged each person in turn, pressing a kiss to Charles’ cheek. She excused herself, wiped a tear from her cheek, and ran back to the house, “Colonel! BJ! They’re here!”

Three men exited the house, two of which everyone knew and one that looked familiar. BJ hurried down the steps and grabbed Hawkeye first, “God, Hawk,” he said, voice cracking, “We were so worried.”

Hawkeye cupped the back of BJ’s head. “Think something like this could get me? You must have me mixed up with someone else.”

Colonel Potter had reached the group, the other man trailing not far behind. Hawkeye took a step back and saluted his former commanding officer, Klinger and Charles following suit. The colonel broke into a wide smile and, after returning the salute, pulled him into a hug.

Potter stepped back to stand beside the other man. “You all remember my son-in-law, Robert?” he asked.

“Ah, yes, hello Robert,” Charles said, moving to shake the man’s hand. “It’s been a long time.”

“Yes it has. How are you all faring?” Robert asked, shaking Charles’ hand.

“It’s been a…” he chuckled and shook his head, “a trip and a half. But we should probably get this young lady into the shade,” Charles replied, placing a hand in the small of Soon-Lee’s back; she smiled and gave Colonel Potter her own hug.

“Where are my manners?” Potter smacked himself gently on the forehead. “Come in, come in! We’ll stow the rest of your gear later, but now, let’s all get some lemonade.”

They all followed him back to the house, Margaret grabbing her glass from the table. The inside was just as quaint as the outside; if there were still magazines, Hawkeye could picture this place being featured in House Beautiful or House and Garden. It was the perfect country house, comfortable and cozy.

The only thing it was missing was its hostess.

Looking around, all Hawkeye could see were people that had been with him in Korea at some point.

That meant Mildred, Peg, Evy, and, oh god, Erin…

He shook his head, grimacing, put his glass down, and walked back outside. And he kept walking until he’d cleared the barn, passed the plots, through the underbrush, and ended up in a small clearing in the woods.

He sat down on a nearby rock and let the tears come.

.-. . -.. ..- -..-

He allowed himself ample time to calm down.

As he was standing up, he noticed purple flowers growing all around the clearing. Purple flowers that were shaped like hanging bells.

Oh, he thought, picking one of the flower stalks out of the ground and heading back the way he had come.

Oh yes.

... ..- .--. .--. . .-.

He made it back to the house as the five men were unloading the newly arrived trucks. BJ spotted him first.

“Hey Hawk!” he shouted, arms weighed down by sacks of canned food, “Where’d you run off to?”

Hawkeye blinked and considered his options, “I needed to get some air.

“But look what’s growing in the area,” he said, pulling the purple plant out of his shirt.

BJ set the sacks on the porch step and moved to take a closer look, “It’s a nice shade of purple,” he said, looking at the plant from all angles, “But what is it?”

“It’s Digoxin, only in its most pure form.”

“Foxglove? You were carrying foxglove in your shirt?” BJ asked, pulling at Hawkeye’s collar. “Why aren’t you welting up? Where’s the rash?”

“That’s just it Beej, I think we’re immune.”

“Okay, now that’s nuts.”

“No no no, hear me out,” Hawkeye said, turning toward the group, “Actually, we should all talk about this. Dinner first, though?”

Potter narrowed his eyes in suspicion, but said instead, “Alright, let’s all go in for supper. The ladies are already working on something that I’m sure is delicious.”

..-. --- --- -..

It wasn’t delicious.

But if he were to be honest with himself, for Spam and tuna, it wasn’t too horrible, and at least it was better than Army food. He just had to not think about what he was eating, and supper became quite enjoyable.

In between bites, Hawkeye began to talk. He told his friends all about the first part of their trip, focusing on the story that Ruslan had told them.

“ – and he said that since they’d been eating it, no one in their camp had gotten sick, from anything. Ask Trap here, he did all their checkups.”

“It’s crazy and really hard to believe, but it’s all true; there wasn’t a sneeze, sniffle, or cough in that camp.”

“And I think it’s all because of this little plant.”

“And where was I when all this was happening, Pierce?” Charles asked.

“Chuckles, you were very thoroughly concussed. I’m surprised you remember the barn at all.”

“Well, who could forget the caring of Miss Olena?”

“So, Pierce, you’re thinking… what? That if we grow foxglove, we can somehow synthesize it into Digoxin? Or that we should all ingest it just in case it somehow managed to make an entire community immune?” Margaret said, pushing her food around her plate. “It doesn’t make any sense; and I don’t remember seeing any of those flowers in Korea.”

“Well, maybe they’re not flowers. Maybe Korean foxglove is… I don’t know… maybe it grows like poison ivy vines over there. Maybe it’s the tree itself!”

“I saw we try it,” Trapper said, “What’s the worst it can do? Kill us?”

“Yes, actually,” Colonel Potter piped in, “Foxglove poisoning can cause a range of symptoms before death, things like vomiting, bradycardia, xanthopsia, hallucinations, and a whole host of other fun stuff.”

Trapper chewed slowly, absorbing it all in. He swallowed, “I still say we do it. At least I’m gonna do it; I’ve got nothing left to lose.”

Hawkeye and Charles both looked at him, their heads cocked to the side. Trapper looked between them, muttered an apology, and continued to pick at his food.

“I promised Peg that I’d live to see the end of this,” BJ said, hanging his head, “I promised her that I’d do what she couldn’t and see this through and watch my daughter grow up.”

BJ looked up, right into Hawkeye’s eyes, and said, “And now I can’t do that. My wife is buried in Casas Abodes, and my daughter, outside of Guymon. Those two towns will be burned into my soul forever; if it wasn’t for Margaret joining up with Erin and me in Fort Huachuca and keeping me together all through Kansas, I don’t know where I’d be right now.

“So I am going to do everything in my power to still be around in the future; I can’t watch my own child grow up, but perhaps I can be privileged enough to be around to watch your baby grow, Klinger.”

Soon-Lee, Robert, and Margaret all dabbed at their eyes with their napkins. Charles gave BJ a small smile, and Klinger clapped him on the shoulder, “Anything for you, Captain,” he said.

“I’m all for this foxglove thing,” BJ continued, “Maybe there really is something to it.”

“That’s three ‘for’s,” Hawkeye turned to Charles, “Chuckles?”

Charles signed and rubbed his hands down his face. “Oh, what the hell. I’m in.”

“Excellent. Margaret? Klinger? Colonel?”

Potter put his silverware down and folded his hands on the table in front of him. “I made Mildred a very similar promise, Hunnicutt: that I’d make it as far as I could. When I laid her to rest in her beloved flower bed, I swore, that day, that I wouldn’t give up.

“But I knew I couldn’t get very far on my own; then Robert showed up. And then you lot came along, and I think I may just be able to make good on my word.

“I still say this plan is as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks, Pierce, but count me in.”

“Me, too,” Robert quietly said. “I wasn’t in Korea as long as you all were, so maybe it’ll affect me differently.”

“So what is the ultimate plan, here?” Margaret asked, “We plant foxglove, wait for it to grow, and when it matures, we eat it to see what happens?”

Hawkeye nodded, “Essentially, yeah.”

She sighed, “Count me in, too, I guess.”

He turned to Klinger, who appeared to be deep in thought. “What about Soon-Lee?” he asked, cupping her hand, “I don’t know if it’s such a good idea for her.”

“You’re right, Klinger,” Trapper said, turning to Soon-Lee. “We really don’t know how this will affect you or your baby. So I think it might be a good idea if both you and Klinger don’t participate; that way, we’ll be able to see if the foxglove makes a difference. Hopefully.”

“This first year, I’m thinking that we just transplant some plants from the woods to outline the garden plot,” Potter said, “That way, we can cultivate the seeds over summer, and plant the seedlings starting in fall.”

“Good idea, Colonel,” BJ replied, “We’ll start up in the morning?”

“Sounds perfect to me,” Margaret said, standing up and gathering plates. “As seeing as how Soon-Lee and I cooked, I think it only fair that you five, rugged, handsome men take care of the dishes.” She deposited the plates on the countertop and made her way back to the table.

“Come Soon-Lee,” she said, holding out her arm, “Let’s go build a fire and watch the men work.”

Soon-Lee giggled. “Yes, let’s.”

The men all looked at each other. “I feel that we just got tricked somehow.”

“That we did, Robert,” Potter said, resting his hand on his son-in-law’s shoulder, “So you go grab a bucket of water, and we’ll go do the dishes, and then figure out a way to get the girls back.”

Hawkeye smiled.

“Just like the old days.”

.-. . ...- . -. --. .

After a small breakfast of fried tomatoes and eggs, the many members of the Potter farm split up to begin work on transplanting the wild foxglove. Margaret and Soon-Lee followed Hawkeye into the woods and to the clearing where he had found the first plant, and, donning rubber gloves just in case, they began gently digging up foxglove, roots and all.

While he was digging, Hawkeye kept an eye out for any creepy-crawlies he could find.

The other four had dug a thin trench all the way around the edge of the garden plot, a can of insects resting at each corner. They waited until Hawkeye and the ladies came back, and Charles suggested that they all go inside for a quick drink before replanting.

Margaret and Soon-Lee took off their gloves and followed the others into the house, leaving Hawkeye behind to enact his part of the plan.

When the group came back out, no one noticed that the cans were now missing their bugs.

Margaret made to put on her gloves and let out a shriek.

“Ugh! Oh god, what did I just stick my hand in?!”

She upturned her glove, and all manner of worms, millipedes, pill bugs, and beetles came tumbling out.

“Pierce! Did you do this?” she demanded, Soon-Lee cautiously checked her own gloves while the five men stood and laughed.

“There are no bugs in my gloves?” Soon-Lee asked.

“No need: you’re going to have Max’s baby,” Charles said, laughing through his words, “I think that’s punishment enough.”

Klinger threw an empty can at him, which Charles easily ducked.

“Alright, gang,” Colonel Potter said, wiping his eye, “We’ve had our fun; now let’s get back to work.”

Margaret dumped out her other glove, turned them both inside out, and started planting the foxglove, her brow furled, her gaze never once leaving the ground.

Hawkeye knew that look, and he knew that they were going to be in for a world of hurt when she retaliated.

.-- .- .-.

The prank war continued for the next week and a half.

Margaret and Soon-Lee got their revenge that night: when everyone went to bed, all the men found their beds had been short-sheeted; when they tried to readjust their sheets, they discovered that the sheets had been nailed to the headboards.

The next morning, the ladies woke up to find their doors missing. It wasn’t just the doors to their bedrooms: all the doors in the house were gone. They weren’t found until three days later, stashed in the barn loft.

While preparing breakfast that Friday, Soon-Lee switched the salt with the sugar; no one was able to drink coffee for the rest of the week.

On Sunday, Margaret woke up as the sun came up, planning what she’d need to prepare her next attack, only to find herself unable to move from the bed. She wiggled and struggled and tried to turn over, but something was holding her down: looking back over her shoulder, she could see that her entire body had been cocooned in Saran wrap, and that she was tied to the bed.

She shouted for Soon-Lee, but it turned out that the Klingers had also been victims of this joke.

It took them almost two hours to free themselves, but in the end, Margaret and Soon-Lee had gained a powerful ally. And that powerful ally took it upon himself to hide all of the forks, as well as everyone’s left shoe.

On Monday, Klinger was suspiciously absent for most of the day. That evening, Hawkeye found half of a tractor in his room; Trapper had the other half, Potter had several car batteries on his bed, Robert found his room filled with tires, all of BJ’s furniture was missing, and Charles walked in on a dozen chickens.

On Wednesday, they all took a ride into Hannibal under the pretense of gathering supplies. While they did in fact get some food and medicine and fuel, they all went to find things to complete their master pranks.

Wednesday night was filled with trepidation and suspicion: no one entered a room without checking first, no one turned their back on another, and the two warring factions stayed as far apart as they could.

Thursday morning began normally.

Margaret awoke and cautiously got out of bed. She carefully made her way to the bathroom and opened the (now replaced) door, only to be bombarded with a wall of soap suds.

During the night, the men had set up the ultimate bath bomb: a tub of hot water, half a bottle of Lux, and several pounds of dry ice, causing the room to be filled floor to ceiling with foam.

Margaret swore under her breath, went back to her room to dress, and headed out to the barn to complete her final prank.

She vowed to finish this once and for all and emerge the victor.

... -. .- .--.

Nothing happened to anyone the entire weekend; in fact, Hawkeye was almost convinced that the girls had given up, quietly surrendering the prank war.

Almost.

He woke Monday, feeling confident that he’d won, and stepped out of bed.

That’s when the pops started.

They were neither very loud nor extremely forceful, but they sounded like cap guns, let off puffs of purple smoke, and felt a bit like stepping on a mouse trap, and he couldn’t immediately figure out what was going on.

In the other bedrooms, he could hear Trapper, Charles, and Potter yelping; they must be stepping on the same thing.

Hawkeye hopped as fast as he could across the room, only to find Margaret, Soon-Lee, and Klinger sitting at the table, sipping on coffee.

“Good morning, Pierce,” Margaret said, a smug smirk on her lips, “I trust you slept well?”

“What is this stuff, Margaret?” Hawkeye asked, inspecting the bottoms of his feet.

“Oh, nothing too dangerous; just some ammonium hydroxide and iodine.”

“Ammonium what and what?”

Her smile turned predatory. “Nitrogen triiodide,” she said, “Snap powder.”

The other five had finally made it out of their rooms, and all six stood, slack-jawed, as Margaret sipped her coffee.

“What?” she said, standing up and walking toward the sink, “You smarty-pants doctors aren’t the only one who had to study chemistry.”

She wet a few hand towels and tossed them at the men. “Here, wipe it off with this. It should stop popping.”

Soon-Lee stood, taking the remaining two cups to the sink. “But be careful,” she said, “the stuff could be everywhere.”

And with a giggle, she, Klinger, and Margaret left the house, leaving Hawkeye and the others to helplessly search around them, trying to find a clear path.

Hawkeye started laughing; he could admit when he’d been bested, and Margaret had one-upped them like a true champion.

- .-. ..- -.-. .

An armistice was reached at 1015, Sunday, the 2nd of May, 1954.

. -..- .--. . .-. .. -- . -. -

They waited a full two weeks before starting their experiment, just to ensure that the transplanting had worked.

On Wednesday, the 5th of May, 1954, they all sat down to a supper sprinkled with foxglove flowers (Klinger and Soon-Lee abstaining for experimental purposes). The next morning was wrought with stomach upset, blurry vision, headaches, and fluctuating blood pressures.

“What did that guy say about this stuff, Pierce?” Potter asked, sitting on the sofa with his head back and eyes closed.

“He said,” Hawkeye began, hiccupping the entire time he spoke, “that he had side effects, and then they mysteriously stopped.”

Soon-Lee and Klinger took it upon themselves to care for their friends. They busied themselves with emptying sick buckets, getting cool washcloths, distributing aspirin, keeping track of pulses and blood pressures.

“How long is this going to go on?” BJ asked, grabbing the nearest sick bucket.

“I have,” Hawkeye hiccupped, “absolutely no idea.”

... .. -.. . . ..-. ..-. . -.-. - ...

The side effects from eating the foxglove continued for almost a month. And each day, they began to get worse and worse.

Hawkeye woke on Monday, the 31st of May, expecting to feel absolutely horrendous.

Instead, he felt better than he had in months.

He made his way over to his roommate, shaking Trapper awake. “Trap,” he said, “Trapper!”

“Go back to sleep,” Trapper mumbled, covering his head with his pillow, “It’s too damned early.”

“Trap, how do you feel?”

Trapper uncovered his head and cautiously opened his eyes. “Huh,” he said, blinking a few times, “I feel fine: my headache’s gone, my vision is clear, I’m not all that nauseous…”

He looked at Hawkeye, “You think it’s kicked in?”

“I’d bet my sanity on it.”

“Let’s go see how the others are.”

Hawkeye crept into the room that BJ and Charles shared, gently shaking BJ awake. “How you feeling, Beej?”

Groaning against the intrusion, BJ rolled over, facing away from Hawkeye. “Go ‘way,” he said.

“No, Beej, you got to wake up. I need to know how you feel.”

“For God’s sake, Pierce, some of us are still trying to sleep!” Charles grumbled, sitting up.

“Chuckles, how’re you feeling?”

“I’m quite annoyed at being awoken, but…” Charles said, seemingly considering his symptoms, “But I actually feel quite well.”

BJ finally sat up, “Yeah, me too.”

“Okay,” Hawkeye said, standing up, “We’ll talk all about this after breakfast.”

.--. .-.. .- -.

The dishes had been cleared and washed, and everyone gathered on the front porch, drinks in hand, to discuss the future of their little group.

“We have a relative timetable, now,” Potter said, “So what do we do with it?”

“If you cut and dry the flowers, it’ll be easier to get the seeds out,” Robert said, “Evy would save her poppy and zinnia seeds that way.”

“And then what?” Soon-Lee asked, sipping her drink, “Do we distribute them like Jimmy Appletree?”

Klinger laughed softly, “Its ‘Johnny Appleseed’, sweet pea.”

“We could…” Charles began, pausing to think. “What we could do is spread out, look for other survivors, see what they’ve done to last this long.”

“What about that stronghold I heard rumor about?” BJ asked. “Do you think it exists?”

“Or the cure you mentioned, Charles?” Hawkeye chimed in, “But what good would a cure be if everyone that was in Korea is immune already?”

“We don’t know how this will affect the next generation, though,” Trapper said, “We could be the only ones with the immunity; it might not pass on.”

“So a cure might still be needed.”

“What about you, Margaret?” Potter turned and asked, “You’ve been pretty quiet all morning.”

She ran her finger around the lip of her glass, “I was just thinking that there’s no way to accomplish anything if we all stick together; we’re going to have to split up at some point.”

They fell into a contemplative silence.

“There are military bases all around the country,” Margaret said, “And they must have some surviving doctors and researchers and scientists. Do you still have your atlas, Pierce?”

“Yeah, it’s in the truck. Gimme a second,” he said, retrieving his atlas and handing it to Margaret.

“Fort Leonard Wood is smack in the middle of the state, with Whiteman Air Force Base a bit to the northeast,” she said, pointing to Pulaski and Johnson counties. “In Kansas, there’s Fort Leavenworth, Fort Riley, and McConnell Air Force Base. Oklahoma has Fort Sill, Camp Gruber, and three air force stations scattered about. The Rock Island Arsenal and the Great Lakes Naval Station are in Illinois. Camp Chaffee and the Little Rock Air Force Base are in Arkansas, and that’s just what’s in the surrounding states.”

“The east coast has Walter Reed, Wilkes-Barre, Fort Meade, and McDonald Army Community Hospital,” Colonel Potter said, “What’s out west, there, Hunnicutt?”

BJ blew out a breath, “Well, there’s an Army medical center in San Francisco, but beyond that, I’m not all that sure. There must be a few, though; California’s a big state.”

“What’re you thinking, Major?” Klinger asked, leaning forward.

“We split into two groups, one heading east, one heading west. We hit as many cities, bases, and hospitals as we can, gathering intel and distributing seeds as needed. We meet back here.”

“We don’t have that many plants,” Trapper pointed out, “Think we’d get enough seeds to last us a few states?”

“Can’t hurt to try,” BJ said.

“Besides,” Hawkeye chimed in, “There’s always the ones in the woods. Maybe we should take those to dry first?”

“We can hang them to dry in the barn,” Soon-Lee said, standing up. “Let’s go cut some plants.”

... . . -.. ...

They spent the next week cutting and drying foxglove blossoms, catching the seeds that fell in a makeshift newspaper trough set up on a table.

They kept up with farm work, tending to plants and animals, making sure their food stores were clean, busying themselves with housework and yard work; Hawkeye, Trapper, and BJ even tried recreating their old still.

Doing anything and everything to avoid talking about the inevitable.

But on Tuesday, the 8th of June, they realized that it couldn’t be avoided any longer.

At the supper table, Hawkeye was the first to broach the subject, “So who’s going where?”

Margaret put her silverware down and looked anywhere she could to avoid eye contact. Trapper and BJ just looked at each other, Klinger grabbed at Soon-Lee’s hand, Charles just sighed.

“Welp,” Colonel Potter said, “I think I’m a bit old to go gallivanting around the country. I’ll need help running this place, so I’d like Robert to stay. And in her condition, I think it unwise that Soon-Lee travel.”

“Where Soon-Lee goes, I go,” Klinger said, gripping her hand tighter. She rubbed her other hand on the back of Klinger’s, in soothing circles.

“So that’s me, Robert, Klinger, and Soon-Lee staying at home base. What about you, Winchester?”

Charles sighed and pushed his vegetables around his plate, not looking up. “I left Boston because I’d lost my entire family. And, as unlikely as I thought it would be because I honestly despise you all sometimes, I feel like I’ve found my family again.” He looked up at Colonel Potter, “I’d like to stay, as well, if that’s alright.”

Potter smiled, “The more the merrier,” he said, resting a hand on Charles’ shoulder.

Trapper nodded. “So that just leaves us,” he said, looking from BJ to Hawkeye and Margaret.

“Two one way and two another,” BJ said.

Hawkeye took a few deep breaths; he really didn’t want to say what he had to say. “Trap, why don’t you and Margaret head east, and BJ and I will head west?”

Margaret looked at Trapper, and Trapper nodded. “I think that’ll work,” he said.

They finished the rest of their suppers in silence.

.--. .- -.-. -.- .. -. --.

They started packing at 0904 on Wednesday, the 9th of June, 1954.

BJ found a can of black paint in the barn and painted both sides of the two trucks they had decided on taking:

MASH 4077
BEST CARE ANYWHERE

Margaret and Soon-Lee went through the provision stores, packing what they thought would be useful. Klinger moved these boxes into the trucks.

Hawkeye and Charles drove into town to stockpile gasoline and find appropriate water containers.

Potter and Robert busied themselves in the barn wrapping seeds in packets of Saran wrap. Trapper staked out the kitchen, boiling water and cleaning plastic containers with soap and vinegar.

They reconvened at 1346 for lunch. Hawkeye tore his atlas in half, handing the eastern part of the United States to Trapper and Margaret and keeping the western half for himself and BJ.

By 1430, both parties had a suitable route planned out.

They all sat in front of the fire that evening, quietly enjoying each other’s company.

“What do you think it a good return date?” Trapper asked, mindlessly braiding Margaret’s hair.

BJ hummed. “Why don’t we shoot for New Year’s?” he asked.

“Find Christmas presents for us all along the way?” Hawkeye laughed.

“Why not?” BJ replied, “That’ll be the challenge: find a neat, unique gift for everyone during our travels.”

“And some baby stuff,” Klinger added, patting Soon-Lee’s stomach, “Don’t forget about the littlest nose.”

“Of course baby stuff. We’ll spoil that little one absolutely rotten,” Potter said.

“When the time gets closer, I’ll go back to the old house,” Robert said, sounding a bit choked up, “It’ll be good to put Stuart's things to use again.”

Potter gave his son-in-law a small, reassuring smile.

..-. .. .-. .

They stayed by the fire long into the night.

They all knew that this might be their last night of happiness for quite a while.

-- --- .-. -. .. -. --.

Morning came all too soon for his liking.

He rolled out of bed, walking quietly as to not wake Trapper just yet, and made his way to the kitchen. Margaret was already awake and making coffee.

“Good morning, Pierce,” she said, handing him a cup.

“Morning,” he mumbled.

They sat at the table, Margaret staring out the window.

Colonel Potter shuffled in. “Good morning, you two.”

“Morning, Colonel,” Margaret said, “Coffee’s on.”

Potter poured himself a cup. “That’s what finally got me out of bed, the smell of nice, fresh coffee.”

He sat at the table, “Almost like Mildred was still here.” Margaret cupped his hand.

Hawkeye finished his coffee, “I should go wake Trapper up. Should be time to get going soon.”

He walked into his bedroom to find Trapper already awake, standing at the window.

“Morning, Trap.”

“Heya, Hawk,” he said, not turning around.

Hawkeye sat on his bed. “Ready for the big move?”

Trapper sighed, “I suppose I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. What’s your first move?”

Hawkeye gave him a half shrug. “Up to Iowa, I think. See how Radar’s doing.”

“That’s a good move.”

“Where are you heading off to?”

“Margaret knows some people that were stationed at Camp Chaffee, so we’re going down to Arkansas, then through Tennessee, most likely.”

Hawkeye fiddled with the edge of the blanket. “Trap,” he said, “There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask.”

Trapper turned back around, eyebrow quirked.

“It’s just… how did you know how to get in contact with me, that first time back in Boston?”

Trapper gave a small laugh. “I picked up right as you hung up. I just had the operator tell me where the call came from.”

“Oh,” Hawkeye said, a smile playing on his lips, “I thought you might have gone door to door with my picture asking if anyone had seen me.”

“I was saving that if you never called me back,” Trapper sat on the bed next to Hawkeye. “I’ve got this great picture that I was going to send to the papers.”

Hawkeye hid his face in his hands, “Not the one from the Chief Surgeon party?”

Trapper started laughing, “You know that’s the one.”

He looked at his former-and-now-possibly-still best friend, “I’m gonna miss you, Trap,” he said.

Trapper threw his arm around Hawkeye’s shoulders, “I’m gonna miss you, too. But, hey, it’s only six months. Then we’ll be together again.”

Hawkeye turned and hugged Trapper full on. “You’ve got me,” he said.

“And now, I’ve got you,” Trapper said, fiercely returning the hug.

Reluctantly letting go, Hawkeye said, “We should go see if the others are awake. It’s almost time to get going.”

“Yeah, but first, let’s finish that dance you promised me all that time ago,” Trapper stood, pulling Hawkeye with him. “Think you’re up for that, Ginger?”

Hawkeye laughed, “Anything for you, Fred.”

...- .- -.-- .- -.-. --- -. -.. .. --- ...

The trucks were fully packed by 0900, and the little group stood between them, no one wanting to be the first to say it.

He heard a sniffle, and a sudden intake of breath, and Margaret lunged forward, crying. She hugged Colonel Potter with the force of a thousand suns.

“Be well, sir,” she said through the tears. “Keep everyone safe; I expect great things from here when I get back.”

He hugged her back, “Don’t you worry now, Margaret, everything will be perfect when you get back, you just wait and see.”

The floodgate broken, Hawkeye, Trapper, and BJ all moved forward. BJ hugged Soon-Lee close, and she buried her face in his shirt. “I’m getting you all wet,” she said, laughing and rubbing at her eyes.

“I think I can live with that, Soon-Lee. You take care, now.”

Trapper gave Klinger a hug, whispering in his ear. “Yes, sir! Of course, sir!” Klinger said, standing and saluting.

Charles extended his hand to Hawkeye, “Be safe, Pierce.”

“Nope,” Hawkeye said, pushing Charles’ hand aside, “A handshake ain’t gonna do it, Chuckles.” He hugged Charles as hard as he could, and to his surprise, Charles hugged him back.

BJ then turned and shook hands with Trapper; Trapper pulled him in and kissed both of BJ’s cheeks.

Margaret unwound herself from Colonel Potter, giving everyone else a fierce hug, before finally turning to her travelling companions. She placed a kiss on both Hawkeye’s and BJ’s cheeks, and climbed into the truck’s cabin, still sniffling.

BJ climbed behind the driver’s seat of the other truck and started the engine.

Hawkeye held out his hand to Trapper. “Until I waltz again with you,” he said.

Trapper grabbed his hand and pulled him into a final hug. “Keep my love locked in your heart.”

They parted, climbing into their respective trucks. The tiny caravan backed up and made their way down the drive, waving to the friends and family they were leaving behind.

They turned onto Collins Street, and then onto Broadway, following each other until Broadway turned into St. Marys Avenue turned into James Road turned into the exit for US 61.

The trucks sat next to each other for several long minutes, until they all waved at each other, BJ turning right, Trapper turning left.

He settled back in his seat, his half of the atlas in his lap and a shotgun by his feet, and Hawkeye Pierce smiled.

Because it was a brand new day, and Hawkeye lived to chase the dawn.

- .. .-.. .-.. .. .-- .- .-.. - --.. .- --. .- .. -. .-- .. - .... -.-- --- ..-