Major Greg "Pappy" Boyington was annoyed. He twisted his head to get a better look at the Zero that had hitched itself to his tail and tried another dive. The Japanese pilot was good, Pappy had to give him that, and he certainly seemed to know how to stay on a Corsair's tail. Greg winced as he felt more bullets bite into his plane. He had volunteered to fly orphan on this mission as they were a wingman short - at the time it had seemed a good idea, now he was not so sure.
"TJ," Gutterman's voice ripped across the radio waves. "TJ Wiley, pull the damned thing up... pull it up." The panic in the man's voice told Pappy that Jim's concern for his wingman was very real.
Sparing a quick glance at the troubled flier, he noticed with a sinking feeling that TJ was indeed in a no-win situation. The plane was spinning down towards the empty island that they were fighting over and, if the boy didn't pull out of the dive pretty soon, then he wouldn't have to worry about a rough landing.
Bullets ripping along his own plane drew Pappy's attention back to his own troubles. Gritting his teeth, he snarled, "That's it, you bozo." As he spoke, he pulled the plane about in an impossibly tight spin and, tilting it upwards, was able to gain enough altitude to force the Japanese pilot past him. Greg made short work of the enemy and, bringing the plane about, he circled the island once more. There was no longer any sign of TJ or his plane, and Pappy hoped that the lad had managed to bail out before it hit the trees.
"I saw TJ jump, Pappy," Gutterman stated, as if reading his commander's thoughts. The Zeroes had obviously had enough of this particular dogfight, as they were peeling off and making a run for it.
"How'd he look?" Pappy asked, turning his head in each direction to see how the rest of his flight was shaping up.
There was a long pause before Gutterman answered slowly, "Not good, Pappy, not good enough."
"All right, radio in his position and get a search plane out here."
"They don't come out this far, you know that, Pappy," snapped Gutterman, the emotion at losing his friend very strong in his voice. "Besides, that Zero followed him down after he was out." The silence was even longer after that announcement.
"Well, he could have missed him. TJ's pretty lanky, you know," Pappy stated, knowing that his words would do little to comfort his team, but also knowing that he had to make the attempt.
"I've got problems, Greg." Gutterman's voice came in very loud over the radio.
"Well, you'd better nurse it home, boy," Pappy snapped, knowing what Jim was angling to do. "These planes don't grow on trees."
Gutterman began to fall back. "I'm sorry, Greg, I reckon my best bet would be to land on that island and wait for a rescue."
"Gutterman," Pappy snapped, really annoyed with his second in command. "We just discussed the fact that they don't rescue out this far."
"Not for pilots, Pappy, but they might for a plane," came back the snappy reply as TJ's wingman began to peel off.
"Gutterman, you get back in formation," Greg cried into the radio, almost spitting the words with his anger.
"You're breaking... up on... me..." came back the spluttered reply.
Greg could feel the tension rippling up from his back and across his shoulders; it was almost like a lead weight rising to enfold him. Slowly he began to turn his plane. "Take the flight home, Casey," he ordered into the mike.
"What about you?" Lieutenant Casey asked, the shock in his voice reminding Greg just how young the officer really was.
"If Gutterman reckons they'll come out for one plane, just think of the speed they'll come out for two," Pappy said, turning the plane into a spiral, following the same flight down that Gutterman had.
"What if they don't?" Casey yelled into his radio as he watched his friend and commander fade from view.
"You'll think of something," came back the jaunty reply before communication was cut.
Pappy did a precision landing on the small spit of land that lent itself to be used as a makeshift landing site. He leapt from his plane and headed over towards Gutterman's parked bird. The captain was standing beside his plane, obviously waiting for Greg.
Upon reaching the man, Pappy drew back his right fist and let it fly into the other's face. At the last moment, the smaller man pulled the punch - he had no intention of having to carry Gutterman about the island. Even so, the force of the blow sent the other man sprawling.
"What the hell was that for?" Jim asked, not bothering to rise until he had clear indication that Pappy wasn't going to plant him back down there again.
Pappy stood over the fallen man and considered punching him out again, but then realised that TJ was more than likely somewhere on the island and more than likely hurt. Slowly he reached out a hand, and Gutterman accepted the help up.
"It was my fault, Pappy," Jim began to explain his reasoning behind his leaving the flight. "I should have been on that Zero's tail - if I'd done my job, then he wouldn't have been shot down."
"Gutterman," Greg snapped, turning and starting to walk into the surrounding jungle. "This may come as a real surprise to you, but pilots do get shot down in this war."
"I know that, Pappy, but not all of them have me as a wingman."
Gutterman sounded so dejected that Greg stopped and, turning, gave him a hard, penetrating look. Seeing nothing but the slumped shoulders of his friend, he relented and asked instead, "Did you see the direction that TJ came down in?"
Gutterman gave a moment's thought before he slowly nodded and pointed into the forest. "It was over there. I'm not sure how far, but we'll have to find him before dark." It was a statement of fact - each man knew that, if TJ was bleeding heavily, they had to find him fast or else finding him would not really matter.
"All right, then, let's get moving," Pappy snapped, before he headed in the direction that Gutterman had pointed out. "Did you remember the first aid kit from your plane?" he suddenly asked.
"Got it here." Jim sounded slightly better, and Greg knew it was because he felt he was doing something. The smaller man wondered just how Gutterman would feel if they found his wingman dead. With a shudder, he pushed that thought aside.
Two hours later and Greg was considering shooting his second in command. Gutterman was almost hyper in his efforts to find his downed wingman.
Pappy came to a stop and listened to the sounds of the jungle about them. The animals were doing what Greg assumed the animals did at this time of day, and nothing seemed to be out of place. They had come across some rather large fragments of TJ's plane, but that didn't really give them any clues as to TJ's whereabouts, as it had already been confirmed by Jim that his wingman had managed to leap from the burning plane.
Pulling out his meagre water supply, Greg took a long swallow and noted that Gutterman hadn't taken a drink since landing. "You'd better take some water, Jim, otherwise you're not going to be much use to TJ, even if we find him."
"We'll find him," snapped the other man, still doing slow turns and scanning the surrounding area, as if the downed man was suddenly going to appear.
Pappy turned back, shaking his head as he did so. A low groan reached his ears and he spun back to Jim to see why the man had made the sound. Jim was still scanning the area. "What?" Greg finally asked.
"What what?" Gutterman questioned, a frown slipping across his features.
"You groaned," Pappy supplied.
"No, I didn't," Jim replied, turning his full attention back to his commander.
"Yes you did," Greg accused, not liking the idea of Jim playing a warped joke in their present situation.
"Did not," Gutterman shot back. Opening his mouth to shoot off another wisecrack, it died upon his lips as another moan, this one louder, reached both their ears.
Greg's eyes swept up, catching and holding Jim's as they both said together, "TJ."
Gutterman's mouth was now plastered in a wide smile as he called, "TJ... TJ." Pushing aside some foliage, they heard the noise again, which seemed to be coming from above them. Glancing up at the same time, they both saw their lost friend hanging from the trees above. "Damn it, TJ, how'd you end up up there?" Gutterman demanded, not at all pleased to find his wingman in such a position.
"I don't think it was his idea, Jim," Greg replied dryly.
"How the hell are we supposed to get him down?" Jim asked, scanning the surrounding trees and knowing that to climb up was going to be nearly impossible for him.
"Here, I'll go," Greg said, removing his jacket and canteen. TJ was only about twenty feet from the ground, but it was going to be a nasty fall if they didn't watch what they were doing. "TJ, can you hear me?" Pappy called up before he began to climb. The man in question didn't answer, apart from another elongated groan.
"How is he?" Gutterman demanded, dancing about at the base of the tree.
Greg shot him a dirty look; he was only about halfway up the tree, and the semiconscious pilot was still far enough away that he was unable to tell if TJ was seriously hurt. "I don't know, Jim - why don't you try shimmying up this tree and finding out?" he snarled back as he missed his grip and slid painfully down a few feet.
"Careful, Pappy," Jim advised from his terra firma position. "Don't fall," he added, by way of warning.
"Thanks, Jim, I'll try to keep that in mind," muttered Greg under his breath as he slowly inched his way further up the tree. Finally, after much slipping and hissing, Pappy was about even with the fallen pilot. Reaching over, Greg touched TJ's face; lifting it up, he confirmed that the man was indeed unconscious. "He's out cold," he yelled down the tree. Then, glancing down, he realised that maybe it was for the best. "I'm going to have to let him fall," Pappy advised. "Try to break his fall." As he spoke, he checked TJ's body for broken bones by running his hand over the parts he could reach - if another part of his body was injured, they were not going to find out until they had him out of the tree. "Ready?" he called, looking down at the face that was peering up at him.
"As I'm ever going to be," came back the sure reply.
Greg could see Gutterman leaping from side to side as he worked, and Pappy wondered if Jim would actually catch his fallen wingman, or if survival would snap in at the last moment and he would miss, saving himself from possible harm. He pushed that thought aside - after all, they had to get TJ out of the tree before they could see to his injuries. "Here he comes," he yelled as he cut the last of the parachute that was holding the man caught in the tree.
The lanky young man dropped like an arrow, and Greg winced as he heard the muffled cry from below that was followed by the heavier sound of a body meeting another body, then a mumbled curse as Gutterman obviously took in his own injuries from the rescue attempt.
"How is he?" Greg called as he slowly, carefully made his way down the tree.
"Heavy," came back the reply from Gutterman, and Pappy smiled - if Jim was joking about it, then he couldn't be too seriously hurt from having his wingman drop on him. Finally reaching the ground, he moved over to where Gutterman was straightening the unconscious man out.
"Find any wounds?" Greg asked, squatting down beside the other man as he ran his hands gently over the body of his friend.
"No bones broken," Jim advised, "but I don't like this...." As he spoke, he pointed to a small, neat hole that had punctured the injured man's body. Slowly opening the flight suit, Gutterman winced as he saw the amount of blood that had seeped from the small bullet hole. "Damn that bastard... I knew he went down after TJ."
Greg reached out and rested a hand upon the other man's shoulder, offering his support. "All right, Jim, there was nothing that anyone could do. Let's just get him patched up and back to the planes."
"I'm going to get that bastard," Gutterman muttered under his breath as he pulled out the first aid kit and began to tend the wound.
As he was finishing, the man under his hands began to groan again and lick at his lips at he muttered, "Jim... damn it, Jim, he's on my tail." He twisted his head from side to side, as if trying to see the Zero that had attached itself to his rear.
Gutterman finished tying off the bandage and, reaching out, caught Wiley's head in both of his hands, his palms on either side of the dirty face. "TJ, you're safe now. I'm here with you and we're going to get you somewhere safe." As he spoke, he reached for his canteen and dribbled some of the precious liquid into the other's mouth. At first Wiley was unresponsive, but soon his survival instincts kicked in and he was gulping at the water. "Easy... easy," Gutterman warned as he moved the water away. As he sat back on his heels, Jim looked up at Greg and asked, "What are we going to do now?"
Pappy had been watching as Gutterman tended to his wingman, surprised at how gentle the normally violent man could be. He snapped his attention back to the present with the question and, wiping sweat out of his eyes, he advised, "We're going to have to get him back to the planes."
"How?" Gutterman paled as he remembered the two hour trek that it had taken them to get there. Although the island was not very long, it was fairly hilly and the journey had been tough enough with just themselves.
Pushing himself up and away from the tree that he had been leaning against, Greg said, "I'll take his feet... you get his head."
The hike back to the planes was not particularly pleasant and the normally vocal Gutterman hardly said a thing, except to offer words of encouragement to his injured friend whenever he showed signs of regaining consciousness.
They had stopped for another breather when TJ suddenly bolted out of his unconscious state. Gutterman was sitting beside the man, using the wet rag that he had ripped from his shirt to gently wipe away the grime from his friend's face. Wiley groaned a couple of times under his breath, almost whimpering as he tried to fight his way up from the darkness that had claimed him since his leap from his burning plane. Then, with a gasp of shock and fear, he opened his eyes and, swinging an arm up, caught Jim a glancing blow across the head. The attack was so unexpected that Gutterman was surprised and was unable to ride out the blow, falling to the ground as the world darkened about him. When he came to, he knew that only a few seconds could have passed because Pappy was still heading in their direction.
"Jim, you all right?" Greg asked, as he reached out and caught hold of the flailing arms of Lieutenant Wiley. "TJ... TJ..." he snapped a couple of times. "Will you knock it off, for Christ's sake?" he cursed, gripping both the man's arms and holding them down at his sides. Whether it was the tone of voice or that the injured man recognised his superior, neither man could say, but TJ slowly blinked his eyes and sanity returned to them. Licking at dry lips, Wiley gasped as the pain of his wound suddenly hit him.
"Okay, TJ," Gutterman said, shifting back to kneel beside the other man. "Just take a sip of this." He held the canteen up to his friend's lips, and then swiftly pulled it away as the other began to gulp at the contents. "Slowly, man... slowly."
"What happened?" TJ finally asked in a breathless whisper, looking from one man to the other.
"You got shot down," Greg supplied when it became obvious that Gutterman wasn't going to explain. "We saw you come down on the island and decided to join you." He gave Jim a hard look, which told its own version of the story to the man lying upon the ground.
Wiley gave Gutterman a measuring look, then closing his eyes, said, "I don't really remember that, just the Zero on my tail and..." he paused, a slight frown capturing his handsome face, "him coming toward me and bullets all about...." He stopped again, as the image didn't make sense - he felt sure that he was no longer in his own plane.
"The bastard strafed you after you'd jumped," Gutterman finally grated out, his voice choked with emotions as he hurried on, "I'm sorry, TJ, I should have been there for you.... I'm your wingman and I fucked up."
Wiley took a short, shallow breath - the only kind his injury allowed him to take - and said, "You had a Zero on your tail, Jim; how could you protect me when you were fighting you own Zero?" His tone was one of hazy confusion as he asked the question.
Gutterman pushed the other's words aside as he repeated firmly, determined to suffer the full weight of guilt that he considered his lot, "I'm your wingman and it's up to me to protect your back."
Greg sat back on his heels and looked at the two men before him. There were times when he had to wade in and prevent them from killing each other, and then there were times when they were almost suicidal in their efforts to protect the other.
He rubbed at his growing headache and said tiredly, "Look, this can wait until we get TJ back to Vella La Cava." He gave Gutterman another look and kept his stare there until the other man nodded his agreement. They had more important things to worry about - getting off the island alive was one of them. "You ready to move on?" Greg leant over Wiley and gently reached out, touching his face and drawing his attention back to the major. "Do you want a morphine injection?"
Wiley considered the request, gauging the pain, before he closed his eyes and nodded his head - to some it might seem a sign of weakness, but to him it was only another extension of his lack of faith in his own ability.
"There nothing wrong in wanting it, TJ," Greg offered, knowing how the other man would look upon his needing the drug to fight the pain. "Hell, if I had a hole in me that size, I'd be demanding the damned injection." He returned Wiley's weak smile and then patted his shoulder reassuringly.
"Here," Gutterman said, holding out the drug.
Greg took a deep breath and accepted the syringe. He sent the needle home and waited a few tense seconds until the fluid hit Wiley's system; slowly his eyes closed and a slack-jawed expression filtered across his features. "He's out of it," Pappy said, leaning back and wiping the sweat out of his eyes with his arm. "How's the wound holding up?"
Jim had begun checking the bandage as soon as TJ had slipped into his drugged sleep. "Not too bad; at least it's not bleeding any more."
"Okay, let's get moving... we've still got a way to go."
After they were on their way, Gutterman rallied the courage to ask, "Pappy, how are we going to get off this island?"
"I don't know, Jim," Greg answered honestly, "but if I know Casey and the boys, they're working on it." He paused, hefting Wiley's feet up so that he had a better grip on them. "Let's get back to the planes, then we can radio in and see if we can pick anyone up."
"Yes sir," came back the tired reply.
The planes were pretty much as they had left them. Gently they placed Wiley upon the ground in the shade of one of the large wings, then - climbing up into his cockpit - Boyington began to play with the radio, trying to reach Vella La Cava. He knew that he would have to relay the call, but hoped that he would be able to do so.
"How far do you reckon we are from the coast?" Gutterman suddenly asked, taking in a deep breath and catching the hint of salt upon the breeze.
Greg paused in his working of the radio and scanned the surrounding area. "I don't know... maybe a mile, more or less."
"Do you think they'd be able to get the duck in here?" Jim asked, referring to the Grauman Goose that they had used in the past to great effect. As he spoke, he settled down beside TJ and again checked the bandage.
Greg rubbed at the pain between his eyes and wished that he hadn't broken his sunglasses on their last mission. "I don't know..." He paused before adding, his mind not really on the question that had been asked, "Maybe..."
"ington... Greg... Boyington, can you hear us?" Life suddenly spluttered from the radio and seemed to fill the small clearing with an impossibly loud sound.
Pappy immediately focused in on the communication and, recognising Casey's voice, he answered, "Greg here. We've found TJ - he's hurt and in need of medical attention. Can you tell us how long before rescue... over?"
Silence filled the small clearing until Casey's excited voice came back, "Pappy... Pappy, is that you?"
"Yes, it's me... now, where the hell are you guys?" He paused, before adding for good measure, "I've been waiting to get rescued."
"They've refused to come out to pick you up." Casey sounded totally indignant, before he added in a more subdued tone, "Well, they're tied up somewhere else and won't be able to get to you for at least two days."
"Casey," Pappy snarled into the radio, shooting a look toward Gutterman, who was squinting up at him, the concern at the delay clearly written across his face. "TJ doesn't have two days, do you understand? Now, get me a damned plane out here, and get it out here now." His voice had risen as he spoke, and he finished at practically a shout. He paused, realising that he was not going to achieve very much by losing his temper with his young lieutenant. Taking a deep breath, he continued in a calmer tone, "Try to do your best, Casey, TJ's in a bad way."
There was a long pause at the other end before the young lieutenant came back with, "We've been talking to the navy pilots... about the duck... but it may cost you that case of bourbon you got in last week?"
Casey was referring to the sea plane that they had borrowed upon occasion from the USS Detroit; Pappy could also hear the question in the younger man's voice and shouted into the radio, "Well, make the damned deal, Casey, and get French out here." He paused as he said a silent goodbye to the very expensive, very smooth bourbon that had taken him over four months to get. Casting another quick look at Gutterman and TJ, he decided that if the injured man survived it would have been a case well-spent.
Signing off from Casey, Boyington leapt down from the plane and wandered over to the other two men. "How's he doing?" he asked as he crouched down, unable to hide his concern.
"Not... bad," gasped Wiley, his breathless tone belying the words he had spoken.
"He's done better," Gutterman offered, not wanting to say what he really thought in front of his injured friend.
"Well, Casey's doing a deal with those navy pilots who have the duck." He glanced at his watch before finishing, "With any luck, French could have us out of here before nightfall."
Wiley opened his mouth to speak, moving to rise up as he did so, but he only ended up coughing as he fought against the sudden pain this action caused. His entire body folded up upon itself as he fought to regain his breath.
"Will you damned well just do as I say and lie still?" snapped Gutterman, his tone sharp because of his concern for his wingman.
"What about another morphine injection?" Pappy asked, wincing in sympathy as the coughing man finally collapsed into a boneless bundle.
"It's too soon," Gutterman stated. Looking up sharply, he caught Boyington's expression and shook his head. Pappy knew that Jim was only acting upon recent information received from Allied Command Rear Area about the addiction that had been caused through morphine being given too freely to injured personnel.
Boyington reached out and applied slight pressure to Gutterman's shoulder. He realised the amount of control it must take for the other man not to give in to his friend's obvious pain. "He'll make it," he stated quietly, as he noticed that Wiley had once more slipped into unconsciousness.
"He'd better," Gutterman warned, then seeing the hard look this earned him, he added, "It's taken me long enough to get him out of the habit of shooting me down, I don't want to have to train up another greenhorn."
"I'm going to check out the best route to the beach, you wait here with TJ." He paused, before adding, "We'll have to make our way to the sea once Casey radios that French is on his way - hopefully he can get the duck."
"Damn it, Pappy," Gutterman suddenly burst out again. "I should have been able to get that bastard."
"Stow it, Jim; now is not the time to beat yourself up about it," Pappy snapped, checking his gun before he added with dry humour, "If you really want, I'll go a few rounds with you once we're back on Vella La Cava."
Jim licked at his lips as he considered the other man's offer, before he slowly shook his head and mumbled, "No thanks, I've seen you fight... and you fight dirty."
Boyington smiled boyishly at the tone and words, and shot back as he began to walk towards the edge of the clearing, "I fight to win, Gutterman... fight to win."
As soon as he hit the jungle, the smile slipped from Pappy's face. He had seen the beginning of a real fever about Wiley's features and knew that they would have to act fast if they were going to save TJ's life.
The trip to the ocean proved to be surprisingly easy. He came across a well-worn animal path that led directly to the sea and wondered briefly what type of animal lived on the island... judging from the size of the pathway, he decided that he didn't really want to meet one.
He was back at the clearing within the hour and knew as soon as he entered that Gutterman had some news - and, judging from the full-teethed grin that greeted him, it had to be good.
"Casey called about twenty minutes ago. French is on his way to pick up the duck and is going to head straight here. Should be about three hours." As he spoke, he glanced up at the sky.
Pappy followed his look and stated, "It'll nearly be dark by the time he gets here, then." He stopped as he considered his options. "There was plenty of dry wood near the beach; we could light a beacon for him." He paused again, before he asked, "Did you confirm which end of the island he was to land at?"
"Yeah, and Casey also said that one of the nurses was accompanying French."
"One of the nurses?" Pappy asked in surprise, his tone just below a bellow.
"Yes, apparently she was in the radio shack as the deal went down and thought that she might be of some help."
"And Casey let her go?" It was obvious from Pappy's expression that he was not too keen on the idea of a woman joining in the rescue.
"Apparently Casey didn't have much choice - she said that if she didn't go, then she'd have to report what she'd heard to the commander at the hospital."
"Great... that's just great," Boyington snarled under his breath. "I'm gone for five minutes and the whole place is falling apart and nurses are coming into combat zones.... Colonel Lard is going to hang me out to dry if he ever finds out."
Gutterman watched his commander pace about the small clearing and bit back a smile; he wouldn't like to be in either Casey's or the nurse's shoes when Pappy caught up with them both.
Finally Boyington pushed his anger to the background and stated, "Come on, let's get TJ down to the beach, then you can come back and take off when you hear the duck."
"I want to stay with TJ," Gutterman protested.
"You'll do as you're told, Jim. I'm not leaving a plane behind just so you can sit with TJ." Seeing the stubborn streak appear upon the other man's face, he offered, "Look, Jim, I'm going to get my butt kicked if anyone finds out about this whole escapade," he waved his arms about to indicate the clearing, "and leaving a plane behind is going to get us found out." He paused again, before adding firmly, "So you'll take off and escort the duck back, while I return here and then fly my plane home... now, that's final," he finished, his tone putting an end to any further arguments that Gutterman might have thought about putting forward.
The trip to the beach was not easy, as they had to carry the unconscious man between them. It took them nearly an hour to cover the mile or so to the ocean. It was still light when they arrived, and Pappy set about pulling some dry logs together in the middle of the beach. When he had finished, he headed back towards Gutterman and Wiley. Kneeling down beside the men, he asked, "How's TJ doing?" The man in question had not recovered consciousness and, seeing the state of the wound, Boyington considered that a blessing.
"He's still bleeding - that last half mile through the jungle didn't do him any favours," Gutterman said, slowly lifting the rag that he'd been holding firmly against the wound. He swiftly replaced it as more blood welled to greet his look. "Damn," he muttered, applying more pressure.
"Have we got any more bandages in there?" Pappy asked, reaching for the first aid box. It was the second one from the other plane; the first had long since run out.
"I've kept one back - I was going to put it on when the plane arrived," Gutterman explained, reaching over with his free hand and pulling the bandage in question from the small container.
"All right," Pappy stated, moving to stand beside Gutterman. Glancing at his watch, he added, "You'd better start heading back to the planes; the duck should be here in half an hour or so." Boyington had contacted Casey just before they left the clearing and had been informed that French was, indeed, on his way, and should make the island at the expected time.
"Give me another five minutes?" Gutterman requested, giving Pappy a swift look before lowering his head and refusing to meet the other's glance.
Boyington knew the thought that was going through the younger man's mind: was this to be the last time he saw his friend alive? Pappy reached out and rested his hand upon Gutterman's shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze as he said, "Jim, you'd better get going. If French arrives early, I don't want him to have to wait for his escort." He took a breath, before adding, "There could be a lone Zero out there."
Gutterman took a deep breath, letting in out in a gust. He felt his heart begin to beat faster at the prospect of leaving his injured wingman. At first, the two men had not particularly liked each other - in fact, Jim had dreaded the day that he'd got TJ as his wingman - but over the ensuing months, he had grown closer to the man who lay under his hand than he had to anyone else in his entire life. Looking up, he slowly relinquished his position and watched as Pappy placed his own hand over the rough bandage that was pressing against the bleeding wound.
"Take care of him, Pappy," Jim asked as he slowly began to back away, never taking his eyes from the men until the jungle obscured his vision. Then, turning, he ran for the small clearing, tearing through the rough terrain in his haste to get to his plane and check on French's arrival at the island.
Pappy Boyington slowly waded back toward the beach and turned to watch the seaplane as it disappeared into the distant horizon, followed closely by a lone Corsair.
He stopped for a few moments beside the dying remnants of the fire that had blazed so brightly a few minutes before. Slowly, he stretched up towards the darkening sky, trying unsuccessfully to stretch the kinks out of his body. He had spent the last fifty minutes bending over his young lieutenant, keeping tight pressure upon the wound.
In the end, he had been relieved to see the nurse take over TJ's handling as they had loaded the injured man into the back of the duck. She had efficiently removed the blood-soaked bandage and reapplied another, thicker dressing. Then, moving with the knowledge of one who knew her profession, she began to attend to her patient. The door closed and Pappy had begun his trip back to the island.
Realising with a shiver that he had been standing in the growing darkness, drifting, Boyington gave himself a mental shake and, taking a deep, steadying breath, began to head back in the direction of the small clearing and his plane.
Three weeks later, Pappy pulled his plane off the runway and into its allotted space along the side of the field. Slowly, wearily, he climbed from the cockpit. It had been a long mission and a very early start. The sun was only just reaching its zenith, and he felt like he could hit the sack and not get up until the new dawn.
"Hey, Pappy," a familiar voice called. Turning, he caught sight of Anderson standing beside his wing.
"What?" Boyington snapped. His voice would have deterred another man from going further, but Robert Anderson had other matters on his mind than his commander's tone of voice.
"You saw that Zero I got, didn't you?" Anderson had reached up a hand and was shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun that slashed across the airfield.
Pappy thought about denying the question; he didn't really want to talk about the battle they had just fought, the men that had just died... he would have to think about that soon enough when he wrote the letters home to the families of the two pilots that had not made it back. Instead, with a heartfelt sigh, Boyington confirmed, "Yeah, I saw it go down. Have a word with Casey to get it confirmed and I'll sign the papers." As he spoke, he jumped down from his plane and made his way across the airfield. He could hear Anderson, Boyle and Bragg going over the dogfights behind him.
What he needed, he decided, was a good, long, stiff drink. Without changing pace, he turned and headed towards the Sheep Pen, the hut that they used as an all-night bar. It was nearly empty. Moving swiftly towards the stash of whisky, he poured himself a healthy slug before he turned and leaned back upon the bar, surveying the room. He started up and let a smile ripple across his face as he saw the only other occupant of the room.
"TJ, you dog," he stated, moving swiftly towards the other man. "When did you get out of the hospital?"
The man in question looked up, startled, then guilty, as he confirmed, "Next Tuesday."
"Next Tuesday?" Pappy said, his smile growing wider as he slung his leg over a chair and settled down across from the still-healing man. "Are you AWOL from the hospital, TJ?"
"I was going stir crazy in there, Pappy," TJ explained, with just a hint of whining in his tone. He took a quick sip of his drink and added quietly, "Besides, I was wondering how Jim was doing?" He had phrased the statement as a question, and Boyington looked down at his own glass.
"He's still not been in to see you, then?" he asked, concern colouring his voice. TJ had been asking for his wingman since he had recovered enough to be asking the question. "I know for a fact he's been contacting the hospital every day."
"Yeah, I know... the nurses told me. I guess he's just been too busy to visit," Wiley explained, although the excuse sounded lame even to his own ears.
"He was really cut up about you getting shot up the way you did, TJ," Pappy said, his tone quiet and even, knowing how difficult it was for the young man.
The door to the bar suddenly burst open and some of the men began to shuffle in, Anderson at the fore, ready to buy a round in celebration of the Zero he'd shot down. He stumbled to a halt as he felt the tension in the room wash over him and, spying the two lone occupants, he spun about and waved the others out, firmly closing the door behind him.
Silence once again drifted down upon the room for a few seconds, before Wiley said, "He risked his life to save me; if you and Jim hadn't come after me, I'd more than likely still be hanging in that tree."
"Well," Boyington began, searching for the right words, "that's more than likely true, but he's going to need a little bit of time to work it out." He paused, before he added, "You know what he's like once he gets an idea in his head...." He stopped again, letting his words hang.
"He's asked for another wingman... hasn't he?" TJ was not looking at Pappy, but staring remorselessly at the nearly empty glass clutched between his hands.
"That's not so unusual, TJ," Boyington stated, his tone firmer, annoyed at the unknown airman who had told Wiley of Gutterman's request. "It's a gut reaction, nothing more - most of us go through it at some time, but once he sees you're fine and in the air, he'll soon change his mind."
"And if he doesn't?" TJ was after promises, and Pappy knew that he couldn't give him any.
Standing, he finished his drink in one swallow before he answered, "Give Jim some time, TJ, he'll come round... besides, he's the only one who trusts you're not going to shoot him down." He meant it as a joke, but could tell from the glare this earned him that it had backfired slightly. He shrugged by way of apology and continued, "Have a talk with him, let him know how you're feeling, and don't let his stubborn mode put you off."
Even as he finished, the door was flung open again and a loud voice berated, "I don't care if the president himself is in there, it's been a long morning and I want a drink." Jim turned from the unseen person he was snarling at and stopped cold. He took in the two men before him, his glance lingering upon TJ, who had stiffened at the familiar voice. Gutterman, for himself, looked as if he wanted to quietly back from the room and then do a runner back to the States.
"I'm glad you've arrived, Gutterman," Pappy stated, heading in Jim's direction. "Your wingman wants to ask you a question, and I'm ordering you to stay here until the matter's sorted."
"Now, Pappy, I thought we'd discussed this?" Gutterman began, bristling at the other's words.
Boyington interrupted him, close enough now to poke the other man in the chest as he stated firmly, "No, we didn't discuss this... you barged into my tent and ranted at me for five minutes before you left." He paused, his look saying more than his words ever could. "Now, I would suggest that you sit down and buy your wingman another drink, then talk about what's been going on in your mind over the last few weeks." With that, he forcefully pushed past the gaping man. He could see the concern and uncertainty filter across Gutterman's features, and realised that TJ and Jim would be all right. You didn't turn your back on someone you were prepared to die for, that much Pappy had learned, so if TJ needed Jim beside him as wingman in the sky, then Gutterman was not going to be able to refuse him.
The sun caught Boyington as he left the bar. Squinting as he looked across the compound, he knew that he would have a headache before the day was over. With a sigh, he decided to write the letters home before the pain became too great and he slipped into the arms of a drunken stupor to ward it off.
"Hey, Pappy," Casey called, trotting up behind the other man. "Are Jim and TJ going to be all right?"
Boyington stopped and, turning, gave the tall, lanky man a stern look, but it wilted when he realised that Casey was only asking out of genuine concern. "Yeah," he replied, "they're going to be all right... it's just teething problems."
"Teething problems?" Casey repeated, not sure of his commander's choice of words.
Boyington began to smile at his own joke as he continued, "Yeah... Gutterman's about to get his stubborn head bitten off by his wingman."
Casey stopped, now totally confused and slightly concerned about Boyington. He watched Pappy continue across the compound towards his tent, his dog appearing from wherever he had been sleeping and trotting after him... like his master, he was looking very pleased with himself.
It's not easy in the sky, when the bullets they let fly,
It's not easy.
Death's the only glory you can share, is there anybody there?
It's not easy,
Yet you know that you're not scared, 'cause your wingman he is there.
It's not easy
To see him take a dive, a Zero on his tail. Your fear is brushed aside,
It's not easy
To dive after the striking plane, your intention is the same.
It's not easy,
Opening your back for another Zero's attack,
It's not easy,
But it's a chance you have to take, to give your wingman that vital break,
Suddenly, it's easy.
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