Metal Peace

by Rick Beck

Chapter 8

Release

The ranch slowly went back to normal. The sandbags stayed in the driveway as a warning to discourage anyone driving up toward the house. They were left out in anticipation of Taz's return to the ranch, when guards would once again need to stand watch.

Taz grew stronger every day, which left less and less concern about his survival. His inner strength immediately had him wanting up and out of the bed and the hospital. For a few days Kodak could keep him calm, but the doctors weren't so successful at issuing sedatives and pain medication. Taz didn't like feeling doped up. A little pain made Taz feel like he was alive.

The idea was to move Taz to the ranch as soon as he was strong enough. All of Billings wanted to get him out of town so they could rid themselves of the news people who were forever shoving microphones into the citizenry's faces to ask them how they felt about it all. Most didn't know what they were talking about, until it was explained.


"General, McCoy. 03," Crosby said, coming to the office door.

"Where the hell have you been, McCoy? We've got every newsman in the civilized world here. What are you doing?"

"That's not all you've got, General. He's there."

"He who?" the general barked.

"Jake Slade is our boy. Army sniper with a general discharge."

"What?" the general said, moving up close to his desk and listening more carefully to the phone.

"I'm sending you his Army ID picture."

"Okay."

"Where are you?"

"I'm at FBI headquarters in DC, General," McCoy yelled into the phone. "I've been tracking Sam Jones to see where he might have gone."

"Sam Jones? I didn't tell you to find him."

"Funny thing about that, General. I'm in St. Louis getting a gander at Jake Slade's records, and when I take his picture over to the local FBI shop, they start telling me about you rounding up Sam Jones' militia boys. They track all the militia in the Northwest. They've got men inside. They've got pictures at FBI headquarters in DC. They arranged for me to use a gizmo they have here to check out newspaper and magazine photographs to identify each face in a crowd.

"I'm not exactly on a roll with finding Slade. I decided to come see if I could locate Jones. Find Jones you find Slade. They'll be together sooner or later, General."

"Why are they being so nice to you, McCoy?"

"Once I told them I was working for you, they couldn't wait to give me a look at their photo collection. Still didn't find Jones, but I know where Jake Slade is."

"You do. Where is he? Talk louder. You sound like you're at the airport?"

"They wouldn't let me call you from inside the headquarters. I had to come outside to make this call. That's why it is so noisy. There's a damn bus depot across the street from the entrance. I'm standing on the corner of 9th & Pennsylvania Avenue."

"I've been in DC, McCoy. If I want a description I'll go back. Get to the point. I'm looking for some guy called Jake Slade? Yell if you like."

"They wanted to talk about militia movements when I told them you sent me. I tied the army sniper to the courthouse shooting. I tied him to the sergeant's shooting. Their interest level peaked."

"What did they think of your conclusions?"

"That's when they sent me to FBI headquarters in DC, General. They got me looking through this gizmo that magnifies the faces. I been here two days looking at pictures. No luck looking for Jones. You wouldn't believe this magnifier, General. It brings faces right out of a crowd."

"McCoy! Slade," the general barked, one finger in one ear and the phone pushed hard against the other. "I've listened to all the buses I care to hear."

"This morning I heard them talking about your sergeant. Someone had a Washington Post with a picture taken out in front of the hospital in Billings. I ran that picture into the magnified and checked every face. Slade was in front of the hospital when that picture was taken. He is dressed like a doctor, tightly trimmed beard and mustache. It's Slade. No doubt about it.

"General, I sent you his file picture before I left St. Louis. It should be there today. I'm having his face blown up from the picture in the paper this morning and I'm sending that to you today. I'm having them prepare copies for me to bring back with me.

"We talked about him coming at you, General. You need to put more men on your cowboy at the hospital."

"Done, McCoy. I did that when the press showed up. He won't get near Taz. What's your next move, McCoy? Make it short. This line is terrible."

"More file pictures to look at. Jones is in Idaho. Positive ID on that from agents in the field. He is at one militia compound and then another. They lose him and then he pops up. Slade is probably working for Jones. Sooner or later they'll be together. The FBI now knows who Slade is and they'll be looking for him. I'll go out to Andrews when I'm done here and fly back there."

"How in the hell are you getting all over the place, McCoy? Last time I heard you were in California. Who's footing the bill?"

"Hell, General, I show them my orders assigning me from Army Investigation to you and all they ask me is, 'is that Gen. Hardnose Walker?' I tell them it sure as hell is, and they pick out the oldest transport going near where I'm going and strap me in. I don't know whether using your name helps or gets me the worst plane on the flight line, but they get me where I'm going."

"You're something else, McCoy. Don't be too long gone. We plan to bring him home in a few days. Might want you to take a look-see at what I'm doing to protect him."

"I do believe you miss me, General."

"McCoy, what made you look at the pictures taken in front of the hospital?" Gen. Walker asked.

"Jake Slade."

"Why? What made you think you'd find him?"

"Hunch. A hunter's got to hunt, General. Slade was discharged because someone was killing the local village chieftains around the area where he worked. Slade likes to kill, General. It's his job. Be careful because he does it well."

"Liked his job too much, huh," Gen. Walker said. "I saw it a few times. Most men don't like to kill but some men get a taste for it."

"You keep an eye on your cowboy and watch your back, General. He can pick the time he wants to take a shot at you and he doesn't need to get close. He wasn't at the hospital visiting relatives. Make certain only doctors the guards recognize get into that hallway. Slade is slick. He'll keep looking for an opening until he gets his prey."

"Damn," the general remembered something he'd overlooked. "The day all hell broke loose when the news media found Taz, Taz's neck was itching. He kept complaining about his neck. He's got a hole in him the size of all outdoors, and his neck itching is what he complains about. I was too happy to see him awake to put the pieces together."

"General, I got pictures to look at. My neck itches from time to time. It isn't that big a deal, you know. My butt's been known to itch."

"No, it isn't a big deal, except the last time his neck itched was the day of the shootout at the courthouse. He told me he got that itch on patrol in Vietnam just before 1st Squad got hit by Charlie.

"It itched the day of the shootout. His neck itched the day the news media showed up looking for him. Now you tell me Jake Slade was there. Mighty curious that itch."

"You know how silly that sounds, General?"

"Yea, sure. It's downright insane, but I saw it work. Now you tell me the itch thing was accurate again at the hospital. He didn't remember what the itch meant, but I remember the day he told me not to go to the courthouse unarmed. I took a few armed cowboys to humor Taz. I thought he was feeling uneasy about facing the rustlers.

We ended up in one hell of a gunfight. That itch saved our bacon. If Slade was at the hospital, why didn't he try to get to Taz?"

"Could be Mr. Slade saw all the commotion and ditched his plan. You do understand your cowboy isn't Slade's real target? Shooting your cowboy is meant to make you nervous. He's planning a hit on you, General. Jake Slade isn't done yet. He has bigger fish to fry. He'll use Sgt. Tazerski to get at you."

"I've thought about it. I was the man behind the men who put an end to Jones' Montana ambition. He seems like the kind of bird who holds a grudge. I got most of my cowboys armed. I'll be all right here and when I leave the ranch I'll take protection, until you cage this bird for me, McCoy."

"You need to see about getting your cowboy out to the ranch as soon as possible. It'll be easier to protect both of you if you're in the same place. I won't be here more than another day. I've got a call in to Andrews to get on the first flight going your way, but you need to move that cowboy."

"McCoy, don't try to tell a general how to general. I'm waiting until he's strong enough to make the trip. Then we have a doctor who'll sit with him if necessary, but we can't move him until moving him won't kill him. They're still worried about some undetected permanent damage from his excessive loss of blood. Once they tell me they think it's safe, we can move him here. After the crowd he attracted today, they'll be more than glad to get him off their hands.

"I'll take all the precautions I can before moving him. We'll keep him at our house until the house on the mesa is ready to move into. Probably two more weeks if the weather is good."

"Smart move, General. Why didn't I think of that?" McCoy said.

"McCoy!"

"Yes, sir, General," McCoy said, almost clicking his heels.

"What I said about you becoming a damn good investigator," Gen. Walker barked. "You just might be better than that. Thanks, McCoy."

"Yes, sir. I try."

"Once you get what you're looking for there, get back here."

"Yes, sir."


Taz knew he needed to be alert. It wasn't the on patrol Vietnam kind of alert but an undercurrent of anticipation that told him he wasn't out of the woods yet. He felt his body mending, which reassured him the danger was somewhere else. The pain was tolerable as long as he was able to keep his mind off it.

Armed guards went with Taz everywhere he went within the hospital. They were provided white smocks that covered their guns. This was more for the comfort of the hospital staff than serving some purpose. When the guards had to leave Taz for a test or an examination the head nurse had to okay the people who were giving Taz care before the guards waited outside the door.

Kodak and Madge were always in the room during the day. At night it was Kodak, a replacement nurse, and one of the guards who assured Taz he could sleep easy, but any time the door opened, Taz wanted to reach for his B.A.R., quickly realizing it was well out of reach. It was unsettling to Taz how similar the hospital felt to Vietnam. He simply couldn't shake the idea of danger lurking.

He wasn't anywhere near Vietnam but he finally remember what the itch on the back of his neck meant. He woke up to that itch and that was the first time it ever failed him. Something usually happened when he had that itch, but nothing had happened that day.

Maybe the itch was the result of him being shot and so his neck itched when he regained consciousness. His neck hadn't itched since, but he hadn't forgotten his uneasiness over being in that hospital.

Taz still couldn't remember hearing the shot that took him down. He did have a memory of looking down at Tazerski as he reached to scratch his neck. His next memory was of Kodak with his head resting on Taz's hospital bed. Maybe that's why his neck still itched. He didn't think so, but it was a possibility.

Some mornings Taz found it difficult to separate Vietnam from the Billing's hospital room. The upheaval in his body kept his mind off balance and on constant alert. Kodak's presence reassured him and told him where he was. The hospital had closed in on him that first day he was awake. He wasn't comfortable being there.

He wanted to get up and walk out but he couldn't. He could barely make it to the bathroom with Kodak's help. He was sure the weakness would pass but it hadn't. He didn't like the hospital or that it required some thought for him to put all the pieces together each time he awoke. Feeling like he was always in danger angered him.


The great sadness that had descended on Gen. Walker's ranch lifted. There was relief and a new problem that came in the form of journalists, photographers, and 'news' people, who arrived in clusters at first. It took some thought for Gen. Walker to decide how to handle 'news people' who had no luck reaching Taz in the hospital. It was no secret that Gen. Walker's ranch would be Taz's next stop.

The first few days of this interruption, Gen. Walker took the walk down his driveway to the road to meet whoever came to inquire about Taz. He answered questions in general, hoping they'd figure out it wasn't worth the trip out to the middle of nowhere to come away with so little and besides a chat, little is what they came away with. Gen. Walker would not talk about Taz or his recovery.

The reporters carefully stood in front of the ranch entrance as they reported to their cameras that they knew nothing about anything, but what a fine spiffy driveway Gen. Walker had. The driveway that led to the ranch somewhere up that away, where the once missing sergeant, now found, would come to rehabilitate, or so they speculated.

The faces changed. The questions remained the same.

"Is Sgt. Tazerski coming here?"

"I haven't discussed Mr. Tazerski's plans with him. I don't know where he intends to go."

"Doesn't he work for you?"

"He has a job with me any time he likes. He might decide it's not what he likes today. I can't tell you what he might decide tomorrow. He works for me. I don't own him."

Gen. Walker took care in dressing the part to meet the reporters and the curious. He wore his biggest ten gallon hat, a buckskin shirt with tassels, and two pistols crossed his chest. These were his silver pistols with the pearl handles. He wore snakeskin boots inlaid with silver.

Whether walking with two guards, who kept their pistols drawn and at their sides, or standing up in the right passenger side of his general's jeep, the general cut quite a figure and every eyes was on him as he made his flamboyant entrance.

This show gave two sharpshooters time to take up their position a hundred feet to the right of the driveway's entrance. A slightly elevated camouflaged position prepared to offer a perfect view of anyone in or near the driveway.

The sharpshooters were there to drop anyone who became a threat to the general. It was the kind of precaution a general could take without believing it was necessary and not wishing to be proven wrong.

There were two sharpshooters. One looked through a scope at the gathering and the other used binoculars to survey the woods on the far side of the road at spots that might provide a possible sniper's perch.

These precautions were going to run off any professional hit man, because he was going to spot the two sharpshooters and the camouflaged guard post in short order, and that was the point. There was no desire to have a shootout with a bunch of newsmen caught in the middle, but then there was always the chance the sniper didn't care.

The idea of Taz being shot on his ranch and the man who shot him still being out there somewhere close, meant caution was taken where possible. There was no reason to think the guy was still around. There was no reason to think he wasn't. It was a game of wits now and it was a game Gen. Walker didn't intend to lose.

With so many former soldiers in his employ, giving them some time doing something they were well trained to do was good. It paid off when they took down the White Brotherhood's compound. Tactics gave Gen. Walker and his men the upper hand. A superior display of force discouraged resistance. Preparedness was important at times like these. It became more important once Taz came home.

Once retired, Gen. Walker never figured military discipline would come in handy on his cattle ranch, but once it was necessary, it was right there in the person of the men he'd offered jobs. He'd hand picked the soldiers he invited to go to work on his ranch. He was careful to single out men who might benefit most from such employment.

His sons growing up and moving away to pursue their own lives got Gen. Walker thinking about how he'd run a ranch and have people he trusted, and so he began asking his best soldiers if they wanted a job with him once they were discharged. The men he knew best and trusted most were the most anxious to accept the invitation.

"War is hell," and Gen. Walker wanted to get as far from war as possible, once he retired. He'd never imagined being called upon by Montana authorities and the FBI to assist in the demolition of what was likely to become a dangerous militia.

It was dangerous enough to stage a jailbreak and overpower a local sheriff and his men. It took Gen. Walker and his men to save the town from the insurrection at the courthouse. They weren't able to stop the jailbreak but they were able to round up the militia and everyone involved with an assist from the sheriff and state police.

That event led them into the current danger. The people who were at the center of the militia wanted to teach Gen. Walker a lesson. They'd started with Taz, the most visible of his cowboy-soldiers who took down the militia in the shootout at the courthouse.

It wasn't much of a stretch to think, if they wanted to take out Taz, they might want to take him out as well. There was no evidence of it yet if he disregarded the tail that tried to follow him home from the hospital. Gen. Walker was a general and he disregarded nothing. His primary concern was his wife's safety and the safety of his men. That meant he had to be careful to keep the people around him safe.

Now his every move was planned in advance. There were guards in place where he was going and along whatever route he took. If Kathleen was with him there were more precautions, because he didn't want his wife in danger. Kathleen never knew how well she was protected because the men protecting her and her man were professionals.

Gen. Walker had studied the two pictures he'd received the day McCoy called from outside FBI Headquarters in D.C. He was confident he could pick Slade out of a crowd on first glance, even if he was wearing a disguise. It would be the first thing he looked for any time he stepped out of a door or got out of a car.

He now wore his .45 in an open holster Rowdy made for it. The flap on the military gun-belt that kept the .45 in place in any terrain was a hazard if he needed to get to the pistol in the least amount of time. Any time he went outside he was wearing the .45 under the flap of his open shirt he no longer tucked in.

He didn't like letting Kathleen see him armed, but she knew what was under the dangling shirttail. Kathleen knew a lot more than she was willing to let on. With Taz already in the hospital she knew the stakes ran very high. Her husband being armed was a comfort to her.

Gen. Walker was trained to look into the face of fear and never blink. He recognized danger where danger existed. His training taught him to think fast and clearly to reduce or remove danger as carefully as possible. This took a lot more determination when the people who could be hurt were the people closest to him. All precautions were taken.

A big blowup of the two pictures of Slade were hung above Crosby's radio equipment in the communication room. Smaller copies were posted in the bunkhouse and in the barn. Every cowboy stopped from time to time to memorize the face.

Gen. Walker was pleased to see the loyalty his men showed him without considering what his loyalty meant to them. Each was grateful to have a job and a place where he belonged. No matter the original intent, the general and his former soldiers made for a successful ranching operation.

It had been while reading about Civil War generals, taking their most trusted men back to civilian life with them that had Gen. Walker thinking it was a good idea. This was before he remembered that many of the men on the ranch, when he was a boy, spoke of serving with his father in Europe.

Under the current conditions, the men were more soldier than cowboy. They weren't about to see any harm come to anyone on the ranch. Reverting back to a military mindset took no effort at all for men who served in wartime.

A couple of times reporters slipped onto the ranch, trying to avoid the guard post by using the woods. Once they set off the motion detector, Crosby would alert the guards on duty, who let the trespassers trip around in the thick forest underbrush to the north of the house before rounding them up to usher them back to the road, where they were made to stand in front of and read the sign out loud, "Trespassers will be shot."

If Jake Slade came around, no one recognized him and he didn't make his presence known. With so many eyes searching for him, it was doubtful he was among the reporters.

Gen. Walker was more than a little familiar with reporters. They had a short attention span, tiring easily when no small shiny objects attracted them. Maintaining a pleasant demeanor, he told them nothing they didn't already know. Fewer and fewer reporters made the trek out to the ranch each day, but the general cheerfully met with them.

It was a time when the reporters hadn't honed in on who might have shot Taz or why someone would want to shoot him. They weren't sure how seriously he was wounded or if he was still in the Billings' hospital. Only the rumors he was there kept a group of reporters nearby.

It was the general's intention to have Taz safely tucked away on the ranch before the facts in the story became clear. Everyone who had a role in protecting Taz had orders not to give so much as the time of day to anyone.

At present the news media were content trying to get a live sighting on Taz. Their main ambition, finding the missing Sgt. Tazerski who'd been misplaced two years ago. At least that's when they'd lost track of him. All they had was rumor and suspicion to explain where he got to.

McCoy was the only one to put all the pieces together. Both Kodak and Gen. Walker had some idea of who might want Taz dead and why. McCoy identified the shooter, tying him to a motive for the attempt on Taz's life. Only McCoy had drawn a straight line from the shooter, to Taz and from Taz to the general.

Releasing any of this information to the press would ruin any chance of catching Slade off guard. If he didn't know he'd been identified, he had no need to hide. This is what McCoy saw as his way of getting his man. He didn't intend to turn over the final piece of the plan to anyone else. Not only didn't Slade know he'd been identified, he didn't know there was an investigator on his trail.

The FBI's main interest in Jake Slade was Sam Jones, who was heavily invested in the militia movement. The White Brotherhood had mostly been rounded up but the militia groups merged one into another as necessary.

The FBI agents were concerned about Gen. Walker's safety, but he was the last man who needed protection. He was their best source of information in the area and they advised local police agencies that cooperation with the general would be looked on with gratitude.

The FBI agents assigned to duty to identify and observe the northwestern militia groups were grateful that Angus McCoy brought them several essential pieces on the remnants of Sam Jones' White Brotherhood. They weren't so much concerned with the identity of Taz's shooter as they were with how he was associated with Jones.

The combination of logic and intuitive ability, along with his persistence, led McCoy to the shooter. Once he identified Slade, he was ready to make an arrest. When he crossed paths with the FBI agents and they offered him an opportunity of a lifetime.

McCoy was smart enough to know that scratching the back of the FBI was always a good idea. When they let him use the gismo that got McCoy a look at Slade's picture outside the hospital where Taz was, McCoy knew he was on a roll.

The FBI agents were impressed that McCoy knew to use the device to look for Slade in what was a one in a million shot Slade would be standing in a picture taken thousands of miles away. Another of McCoy's hunches turned gold.

McCoy had been reluctant to get into the investigation Gen. Walker wanted him to do. He owed his career as well as his future to the general. He couldn't refuse him. Working a case in the middle of nowhere was going to be a long and lonely road. Yet that road and the investigation led him directly to the FBI.

Once seated at FBI headquarters in the Nation's Capitol, he was overwhelmed. He was sure the formality of a buttoned down federal agency wasn't his cup of tea, but they were the big leagues. He had set out to be a cop and he'd soon be a Chicago detective, but being at FBI headquarters was impressive indeed.

McCoy planned to develop his career in baby steps. He wouldn't let ambition drive him. He'd work an investigation just like he was working this one. It would assure the proper outcome in each case. Racing to convict someone, anyone, to pad his resume wasn't his style. He was lucky enough to be going from Army Investigations directly to being a Chicago detective.

This was only possible because Gen. Walker pulled his skinny ass out of the big wringer he'd gotten it in without any help. The drug investigation the general threw him into paved the way directly to Army Investigations. Even the general was surprised by McCoy's tenaciousness in staying undercover with the dangerous case until it was solved.

McCoy's appreciation for law enforcement had grown, while he worked for the general. He'd want to find a way to maintain the contacts he'd made inside the FBI by sharing information he developed during investigations with the FBI agents when possible. Having open communication with other crime solving agencies couldn't help but pay off.

On his way back to Montana McCoy had a lot of time to think about his entire involvement in Taz's shooting. He took the time to read the information on the militia movement FBI agents furnished him.

The FBI agents were certain that if Slade got wind of the fact he'd been identified as Taz's shooter, he'd burrow so deeply into a militia group somewhere that they'd never find him. Their best guess was it would be the same militia group where Sam Jones was hiding, which had McCoy studying the information on the militia movement that he was given.

For the time being Slade was still near Billings, trying to finish the job he'd started on the canyon wall above Taz's cabin. He was now staying in close proximity to the hospital, waiting to get his next shot at Taz. This gave McCoy the advantage. Slade was going to show up one day, feeling invincible, and McCoy would snap the cuffs on him if possible and put a bullet in him if it wasn't.

No one could know what Slade's next move might be, but McCoy intended to be there to stop him.


Disaster was inconceivable to the general. His men were capable of staying in control and McCoy made it less likely someone would penetrate their defenses at the ranch. He'd always avoided disaster by having the right men in the right places at the right time. His biggest failure had been in failing to protect Taz before realizing his war with the White Brotherhood wasn't over.

Gen. Walker was home from the war and seeking to be the best cattle rancher he knew how to be. He'd tried to forget their were bad actors everywhere you went. He truly believed he could retire peacefully to his ranch. His plan came back to bite him on the ass, but luckily he was a general and he had no trouble regrouping.

After losing interest in the ranch, the biggest contingent of reporters returned to Billings, and slowly lost interest, leaving town. The reporters who stayed staked out the hospital, taking shifts, determined to get the story. They lived out of a motel, playing cards to fight the boredom as they waited.

The doctors were aloof, which didn't require a lot of training. The reporters couldn't be sure Sgt. Tazerski was still at the hospital. They couldn't be sure he wasn't. All the doctors said they hadn't seen him and hadn't treated him. Odds said at least one of them was lying.

The entire staff was briefed by the sheriff and warned that revealing anything but the no-story story could get Taz killed. The doctors and nurses treating Taz did it by using a series of deceptions to throw the reporters off their trail. A hidden corridor that allowed access to a series of adjoining rooms allowing doctors to come and go and for Taz to be moved out of view of the interlopers in most instances.

The guards stayed in the hall in front of the room where it was suspected Taz was. There was a guard in the hidden corridor that only doctors and nurses could access. The guard accompanied them to and from Taz's room. A series of disguises made moving around to treat Taz easier. Whenever necessary a distraction was created to get prying eyes off of the real action.

Reporters stayed clear of the hospital when it wasn't their turn to be there. They maintained six hour shifts and no Sgt. Tazerski or Mr. Tazerski had been seen by anyone. By the end of Taz's second week in the hospital, this had become the routine. The big worry now was getting him out of the hospital and back to the ranch.

By this time the reporters weren't sure they knew anything, but that didn't deter them. The younger, more energetic among them took to stepping into and quickly out of rooms without guards on them. The more experienced among them knew this could very well lead to a bullet, but they didn't bother cub reporters with such details.

After the first few days the entire country thought the elusive Sgt. Tazerski had been found in a Billings' hospital. Now the press wasn't as sure he was still there. After two weeks the story no longer led every newscast or appeared on the front page of newspapers. The elusive Sgt. Tazerski had eluded them again, or so it seemed.

The first sign that something was changing was when six vehicles at the rear of the hospital. Their arrival went virtually unnoticed and were spaced to be that way. The vehicles arrival were coordinated with the changing of the guard in the hallway outside of Taz's room. The reporters were always at the other end of the hallway looking for an opening that might give them a look in the room at the end of the hall.

Nothing had taken place that aroused any suspicion that something was taking place. The new guards arrived shortly after the off duty guards went into the staircase to go to the waiting vehicle outside the ground floor door.

The reporters left the hallway satisfied it was all routine. They didn't notice the cowboys had their shirts tucked in and their guns were plainly visible. They'd always imagined the guns under the shirts. Seeing the sidearms was no great shakes.

Today there was no vehicle waiting for the two guards who were usually going off duty. Instead they stood at the end of the hallway on the first floor next to the door that led outside and waited.

Taz had made it clear that he was ready to go home. The doctors scratched their chins and were reluctant to give their approval. Having Dr. Westphalia agree to stay at Taz's bedside until all possible danger had passed reassured the doctors who wanted to have their hospital back and without the constant surveillance that seemed to have been going on forever.

Taz perked up and began eating solid foods. Kodak was relieved. Madge agreed to accompany Taz to the ranch and assist with Taz's medical care, until he was up and getting around on his own.

Two sheriff's deputies came in and went to the downstairs nurses station just after 9 a.m. There was laughter as they chatted with the nurse. It got the attention of one of the reporters but no word was sent out that anything unusual might be occurring.

Two more sheriff's deputies came in and took the stairs to go up to the nurses station there. The reporter seated at the top of the stairs took notice. He checked the hallway to see if the regular guards were in place, and they were. None-the-less, something was up.

The second floor reporter went downstairs to the phones to report the movement to the reporters at the motel. Word spread like wildfire, reaching all the local news media in minutes. It was put on their news ticker. The word was out.

"Something is happening at the hospital!"

Each room in the motel waited for a turn on the telephone to make a long distance call to notify their headquarters they were on the move. A parade of cars left for the hospital. No one really knew if anything was going on or if being shut up in the motel for so long just had them all stir crazy and ready to move for any reason.

When a gurney was rolled from the back of the hospital, around the nurses' station, and down the hallway toward Taz's room, the reporters went nuts. Something was happening.

"There's a gurney. They're taking a gurney to the room with the guards," a reporter yelled into the phone.

Cars lurched. Tires squealed. Each car full of reporters sought a way to gain some advantage in the race to the hospital. Police cars blocked the main entrances, forcing the reporters to park in a distant parking lot well away from the front entrance.

Parking like crazy people, car doors were left open as reporters sprinted toward the hospital's front doors. It was a feeding frenzy of reporters. No one was safe from questioning.

This stampede cleared the other side of the hospital where the general moved a private unmarked ambulance up to the side door where the patient would be loaded. It was an operation that went unnoticed by anyone but the general's men and sheriff's deputies.

No one was there to make any effort to break up the flood of reporters at the top of the stairs, where they watched the hallway with the two guards leaning against the wall at the end. It looked just like it always looked. Sometimes there were two and at other times there was just one. What had changed?

"Someone said there was a gurney?" an old reported said.

"Yes, there was. I saw it. It went into that hall," a reporter reported with his finger.

"Did it go into the room next to the guards?"

"I don't know. I went to call you guys," the cub reporter said.

"Oh, Jesus," the old reporter lamented. "No saw anything."

Striding up the steps two at a time, a sheriff's deputy stopped at the top.

"You boys got to form one line. You're blocking access. You are free to stay here at the top of the stairs, but remain on one side and remember, this is a hospital. Rumor has it there are sick folks here."

The deputy held his index finger up to his lips.

"Are they moving him today?" the old reporter asked, stepping forward to take charge, using his arms to move everyone else back.

"Moving who?"

"The guy in the room they are guarding?"

"Got me. I'm a deputy. They said move you boys away from the stairs. I move you boys away from the stairs. That's what I know."

"Nothing is going on. Which one of you called us?" the old reporter barked.

The deputy went to the nurses to get his coffee refilled with the reporters looked on.

The gurney had been wheeled into the room and Taz was ready to be transferred onto it. Kodak stood to allow the gurney to be moved snuggly up against the bed. His hand came out from under Taz's mattress with a .45 in it.

"What the fuck is that?" Taz wanted to know.

"It's a gun," Kodak said. "I thought you were in the army?"

"You were sitting there all this time with a .45 under my mattress?"

"Gen. Walker gave it to me. He worries about you."

"You could have shot me. The safety is off."

"I suppose. I didn't."

Madge took her .44 magnum off the table where she was sitting, stuffing it into her purse. After Taz was arranged on the gurney a green baseball cap with the US Army logo in yellow was shoved down on his head to shield his eyes.

"I'll be seeing you later, kiddo. I'll be out before you can say Jack Robinson. I've never worked on a ranch before," Madge said, tucking her well-armed purse under her arm.

"Bonnie and Clyde you two ain't," Taz said. "What's going on? Why all the artillery? I let her slide because I don't know her, but I know you and you've never packed before."

"The war's over. We're going home," Kodak said.

The door opened and cameras began to flash from forty feet away as every reporter was now facing the hallway. They yelled questions, as the first paramedic appeared in the hall. A man held the door open to the staircase that led down to a door at the side of the hospital.

At the same time Taz was being moved downstairs one of Gen. Walker's men opened the front doors at the bottom of the main staircase to yell, "There's an ambulance at the side of the hospital. They're getting away."

By the time Taz was being maneuvered out of the stairs and out of the side door, all the reporters were racing toward the other side of the hospital.

By the time the fleetest reporter reached the side of the building, Taz was being slid into the ambulance, hat pulled low to cover his face, and for good measure Kodak blocking any clear view of his man. Cameras clicking, reporters yelling, the chaos arrived in time to see the back door of the ambulance shut from the inside. The six ranch vehicles that arrived earlier were now parked to keep reporters from closing in on a well organized operation.

Someone shouted, "They're getting away." as the ambulance began easing out from in between the ranch vehicles, easing around the sheriff's car at the nearest exit, turning onto the highway that went in the direction of the general's ranch.

Reporters took off for their cars. Unfortunately they'd parked in a lot on the opposite side of the hospital. Gen. Walker drew up the plan and it was executed perfectly with a big assist from the Billings sheriff's deputies. He was all smiles as the six ranch vehicles moved out behind the ambulance with the valuable cargo on his way home.

"Wounded War Hero Goes Home," was the headline everyone favored at both local and national news headquarters.

The reader must have been curious about who the hero was and where he was. A stock photo taken during Taz's army touring was all there was. Kodak's photos taken of Taz since his army days documented his maturing into manhood, but they were private.

It was a few more minutes after the ranch vehicles followed the ambulance onto the highway when the first reporter's car approached the exit. As he stopped for the police car, it drove away, leaving the exit exposed.

The reporters car reluctantly started again as a half dozen other cars arrived on the scene. The driver of the first car to reach the exit was determined to be the first car out, and so he refused to yield to the faster moving cars.

They'd all seen the ambulance disappear on the highway. This was going to take some cooperation to catch up with their prey. After too long in Billings, no one was in the mood to compromise. Horns blew. Reporters screamed.

Two cars collided when a third car tried to run the blockade by going over the curb and sidewalk. Honorable reporters felt obligated to smash into him to keep him from beating them out of the parking lot.

The two remaining Billings police cars stopped and the police got out, leaning on the front of their cars to watch the demolition derby that had broken out. Each time a car was positioned to break out, another car blocked the way.

Once one car finally worked its way out on the highway, the rest had to cooperate to keep them from getting away.

The reporters wasted no time giving chase, but they'd underestimated the general's guile. When they soon found themselves behind the unmarked ambulance, traffic was thinning on the way out of town. Finally they had a piece of good luck, or so it seemed. It should also have seemed too easy but there was the ambulance in plain sight.

The decoy ambulance slipped in behind the one carrying Taz, shortly after it left the hospital. The decoy slowed to let the ranch vehicles pass before it was time for them to turned off to take the road home.

One by one the following vehicles slowed to find a place to turn around, realizing they'd been snookered. The reporters that didn't know Montana knew they better go back the way they came, after a nice drive in the country.

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