Montana Sky

by Rick Beck

Chapter 1

Chapter 1

A Rick Beck Story

Editor: Jerry W.

©OLYMPIA50 2017, all rights reserved

If you liked sitting on the edge of your seat at a Saturday matinee as a kid, you'll love, Taz & Kodak II, Montana Sky

Prologue:

Taz and Kodak have settled into life on the mesa above Gen. Walker's Montana ranch. Taz rides fence to help to keep the cattle contained, while Kodak goes about making the line shack their home.

When Kodak gets an offer from Nature magazine, he takes it. While heading for an island to photograph the animals, Kodak's plane goes missing over the Pacific. Once hearing the news, Taz realizes Kodak may never return.

Confronted by rustlers, helped by Indians, a Shaman threatens Taz's stability by giving him a message from the lost Kodak. T

For David

Thanks to Tracy, who is making the world a better place by being in it. Her contributions to my work are invaluable. This book wouldn't be here if she wasn't there for me.

…As always, thanks to Larry, for being Larry and a prince.

Among the Missing

It was a gullywasher. As beautiful as the Montana springs can be, there were the spring storms. They dropped out of the mountains from the west, moving southeast and often saturated the mesa. The line shack that Taz & Kodak called home sat close enough to the canyon wall to furnish extra protection from the worst of the weather.

Storms swept off the mesa onto the meadows below, bringing water that turned the brown grass green, starting another grazing season. The rains came up fast, lasting for days in some cases or merely minutes in others. It was a sign the seasons were turning.

Taz gathered his tools to ride back out to the northern section of fence where he'd found a new break. Keeping the cattle on the general's ranch was a full-time job. Taz kept his eyes open for breaks in the wire where cattle might break through.

When he left the cabin, he glanced at the sky. It had clouded over. He thought it could rain but there was work to do and he intended to get it done before he lost any cattle. It was his job.

Taz was distracted by Kodak's absence. Taz knew staying focused on his job was important. Any number of times during the day his mind might stray to thoughts of his friend, which made his work more difficult.

It looked more and more like rain the farther he rode. The grumbling thunder rolled along the canyon peak above him. Lightning flashes followed, unsettling Cyclone. The lightning came closer and the thunder told Taz to quit daydreaming and get the job done.

He wasn't sure the lightning and thunder could drive the cattle through the broken fence, but he wasn't taking any chances. A little rain wasn't enough to keep him from doing his job, but he regretted needing to take Cyclone out in weather that frightened her. She was a good horse and she trusted him, so she stayed under him in spite of being made skittish by the elements.

Straining his back to join the wire tightly together, he tied it off. When he looked up, he found Gen. Walker sitting on his horse beside him.

"Morning, General. Nice day," Taz said, with his usual sardonic wit.

"What are you doing out in a storm?"

"It wasn't storming when I started. Fence needs fixing. Ain't fixing itself, so I came to help it along. The rain got here after me, which brings up the question, why are you out here? This is a one man job."

"I want you to come down to the house," the general said.

"It's about Kodak?" Taz surmised, checking the repaired wire.

The general shifted in his saddle, making the leather squeak. His plan wasn't to talk out there. He intended to tell Taz down where there were people around him. It was a plan not likely to fly.

"Is he all right, General? I figure not with you coming out here. You may as well tell me. The longer you wait the worse I'll figure it is."

"New Zealand reported Kodak's plane overdue on Sunday. Nature magazine called the house this morning. They were waiting for a search to be conducted. Since he had no spouse listed, they didn't feel it was necessary to call until they got word. I wanted to be the one to tell you, son."

"How long overdue?"

"It's Wednesday. The plane carrying him out to the island was due back Sunday afternoon. It was listed as lost Sunday night. They checked the island and all alternative landing fields within range, but there's no sign of them yet."

"It's a big ocean," Taz said with a distance in his voice.

"I've got contacts in the Pacific Fleet. I've asked them to keep their eyes open. They'll begin some informal maneuvers early next week. It'll follow the flight plan filed by the pilot. They'll report anything they find that might indicate what may have happened to the missing plane."

"Thanks. I appreciate it. It's a big ocean," Taz repeated, feeling like his feet weren't firmly planted on the ground under his boots.

"Why don't you come down to the house? We're both going to have pneumonia standing out here in the rain. You know Kathleen will be worried about you. She's made up the guest room. It's right next to the radio room. You can keep an eye on Crosby for me," Gen. Walker said.

"Sorry, General, I forgot about the rain. I don't live down there," Taz said, straining his back to make the final tie to repair the section of fence. "You got a bottle of booze down there you can lend me?"

"I keep a case of 30 year old Kentucky bourbon on hand. That do?"

"Good as any. Bring me a bottle the next time you ride up my way, will you?"

"Good as done, son. I've got my radio man on our shortwave. It's quiet but he's listening. If anything breaks, Crosby will pick it up. Anything else I can do?"

Taz took his hat off and wiped the sweat off his brow. The rain ran out of his short hair and over his face. He used his arm to wipe the constantly dripping water before returning the hat so low on his head the general could no longer see his eyes. Rain, having collected in his hat, ran down his wet face. Taz stood in a daze for a minute, trying to remember what he was doing.

"No, sir. Nothing I can think of. Thanks. You better get on home."

The general knew Taz well enough not to try to convince him to do what he thought was best for him. The kind of bond that had formed between Taz and Kodak wasn't unusual with men in a war zones. What was unusual was that it had grown stronger once they'd returned to the States. It was easy to see they went together and how important Kodak was in keeping Taz's life in balance.

It was bound to be a rough ride for Taz, until they found out what happened to Kodak, if they found out. The general knew from years of war that there was only so much he could do for one of his men. Then, they were on their own, as Taz was now on his own to deal with his feelings.

Gen. Walker reached to touch Taz's shoulder affectionately. He turned his horse back down the fence line toward the house. The general could have sent one of his men on the errand, but not really. When word came and he waited at the house for news, there was no one else to send. As difficult as it was, it was his mission and he never failed in his duty to his men. It's why they called him, 'a soldier's general.'

Taz stood alone in the rain for a long time before climbing back on Cyclone. Sitting there for a few more minutes, he finally remembered where he was going.

"Giddy up, Cyclone," Taz said, giving her flanks an easy squeeze with his thighs before turning her in the direction of home.

Luckily Cyclone knew where shelter and food would be found. The next thing Taz knew, he was sitting in front of the barn. It was pouring rain. The only thought that went through his mind as Cyclone carried him home was, 'Why did you leave me?'

Not knowing how long they'd been sitting there, Taz dismounted, leading his mount inside the enclosure he'd built next to the house for the two horses, his and Kodak's. He carefully hung the saddle and blanket before using another blanket to dry her, taking extra time to talk to her, feeling guilty for making her stand in the rain. He pulled down an extra helping of hay to make amends.

He'd built the barn the first week there, using a pile of lumber left near the shack for that purpose. Winter was threatening the mesa then and the general didn't think the horses would make it being out in the weather all winter in a corral.

Taz learned something about building during basic training. They'd built two camps complete with tents for the men and buildings for the commanding officer, noncoms, and sergeants. A barn was a piece of cake for him, because the horses wouldn't complain about it.

The barn went up in a week. After securing more wood, each horse got her own stall with a ledge just out of reach to keep the hay high and dry.

Even in the rain the hay was dry and Taz pulled some down for Kodak's horse, Milkweed, once Cyclone was dried and fed. He sat down in Cyclone's stall, unable to go any further. Still mostly somewhere else, his mind flashed from one thought to the next in no particular order.

Milkweed used his cool nose to nuzzle Taz's shoulder over the low barrier that separated the horses, as if to thank him for the hay. Taz smiled, patting the damp nose. This was his connection to Kodak, after he left on a job he was offered but hadn't sought. He might be gone two weeks to a month. He would fly out into the Pacific, stay a week on an island paradise to take pictures, and fly home.

He'd only been gone a week, but now, Taz fought the idea that he might not be coming back. He sat motionless, unable to process losing the only person he'd ever been close to or trusted.

"You miss him too, huh?" Taz said, rubbing Milkweed's nose.

Cyclone got into the act, pushing Taz over with her nose, jealous of being left out of the rare moment when Taz sat with them.

"Okay! Okay, I like you too," he said, standing and brushing the hay off his soaked shirt and jeans, suddenly feeling chilled, out of place, and alone.

A few minutes later he was closing the door as he went inside the cabin. The Hawaiian curtains over the two windows, Kodak's idea of a joke. He'd purposely picked a pattern that resembled his matching shirts and shorts he'd worn on stage, during their whirlwind tour of the country. It seemed like a million years ago.

It was surprising what you could find in a one size fits all general merchandise store in Big Sky Country. Kodak spotted the material with a dozen other bolts of cloth. It could be made into anything you required, from clothing to curtains. He found it along one isle of the General Mercantile on an early visit and he saw curtains for the windows, a humorous reminder of the serious events that brought him and Taz together.

Once Kodak left, the place was a mess in little more than a week. Kodak kept it picked up if not clean, while Taz used his carpentry skills on the stable and a front porch, making the shack into more of a cabin. Previously men had come and gone while the main herd grazed nearby for a few weeks at a time. It was now Taz's and Kodak's home.

Taz decided on the improvements he wanted to make, taking his finished ideas to Kodak before beginning a project. Kodak had no resistance to Taz's plans and likewise, inside their cabin, Kodak made the improvements he thought would add flavor and comfort to the place where they lived.

The dirty clothes and dirty dishes were piling up in a cabin too small for piles of anything. These were details Taz didn't notice or care about. The sloppy spell of weather had dirtied all his clothes by this time. He picked through the pile each morning for the least offensive dirty clothes for a second go around, once he'd brushed off the dried mud that he swore leaped up on him no matter what he did.

He didn't mind the sight of grossly wrinkled jeans, as long as he could get them on without a struggle. There was a big wooden tub out back that was filled with rain water. When things became too smelly even for Taz, he'd dump the clothes in there and carefully dump a half a box of Duz flakes in on top.

He was sure letting them coexist in there for a day or two couldn't hurt. He'd hang them on the line Kodak installed for the laundry he did by hand in the same rain tub. He was sure there was a step or two he was leaving out, but water and soap were the important things after all.

Taz peeled out of his drenched shirt and jeans, stripping off his soggy socks and underwear before digging the least offensive but dry replacements out of the pile of dirty clothes. He hadn't planned on Kodak being gone all that long or the weather turning so wet.

Building a fire in the stove next, he needed strong black coffee to warm his innards. Stoking a fire in the small stove heated the entire cabin in no time.

Kodak hadn't been there to ride into town with Kathleen, Mrs. General, to shop. The supply of canned goods was dwindling. It was noodle soup or Hormel chili. There was a can of corned beef hash but no onions or potatoes to cook up with it the way he liked but had never fixed himself. He didn't figure it would be too hard if he had the ingredients.

Taz put an extra scoop of coffee in the basket and filled it until the water was running out of the top, placing it on the stove that was already blasting heat out of its openings. Taz stood close to it to soak up the heat and run off the uncomfortable chill.

"That'll have to do," he said, sitting at the table with the checkered Italian table cloth, remembering Kodak putting it on the table the night before he left.

It was another bargain buy from the general merchandise store that made Kodak laugh. The idea of an Italian tablecloth on the Montana range delighted him no end.

"Shoulda told you no," Taz said, never saying no to Kodak.

He noticed the stains on the tablecloth before putting his feet up on the table. It was no great crime, since Kodak wasn't there to correct him, but he still felt guilty.

He regretted being such a slob. Kodak didn't mind and now Kodak's touches inside of where they lived were all that was left of him. He fought back the emptiness that crawled up out of his stomach into his chest. He stared off at nothing, trying to collect his thoughts.

Taz didn't need to look far to find Kodak. He'd left his mark inside the living quarters. There was just the one room and they'd gone through the trouble of making up all of the four bunks built into one wall. Two bunks always remained unmade, even when they only used one, because they never knew who might drop in unexpected.

They didn't want some naïve wrangler to get the wrong idea, or the right one, or put a cowboy in the position of making a decision about the two men who manned the line shack on the mesa. It was Montana, where people tended to mind their own business when you let them.

The general was most likely to come up. Kathleen frequently made feasts for the wranglers who ate at the general's table, when it was feasible. Kathleen made plenty, to send some to Taz & Kodak. The general sat long enough to have a cup of coffee and to chat, after bringing something.

The general was impressed at how fast Taz built the shelter for the horses, using the leftover wood to start on the front porch, which is where they sat to watch the changing Montana sky. The general liked staying until the sun left the sky, which was quite a sight. It left him enough time to ride home before it was pitch black.

This had become their home. Taz had been left home alone.

The coffee was boiling over before he got up to pour his cup, which he overflowed. He sipped enough boiling brew to make it safe to set down on the tablecloth, but even then it left a ring where it sat. Kodak would scold him for being careless. He missed being scolded. He missed Kodak hovering around him once he came in from work, cleaning up after him.

He sat in the rocker on the porch with his hand on the arm of Kodak's chair, watching the trail Kodak would take when he came home, if he came home.

He formed the words on his lips as he pondered the fate of his friend.

"Kodak!" came his agonized cry.

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