Metal Peace

by Rick Beck

Chapter 2

The Uncertain Future

Kathleen sat across the trail with her Winchester across her legs, looking back toward the cabin as the jeep eased down the trail back toward the house. Taz was on a green canvas stretcher that had been placed on top of a pile of hay and it laid across the back of the vehicle.

Maddox sat behind the stretcher holding up an IV as the jeep moved awkwardly on the uneven dirt and grass trail. Kodak walked on the side of the stretcher nearest Taz's head and the general walked on the other side of the jeep. Two cowboys with rifles sat on their horses near the corral next to the cabin and two more rode just ahead of the jeep. Everyone was alert and No one spoke as the precession crawled back down the hill in an agonizingly slow journey.

The mood was somber.

The general told the two men they left behind not to let anyone near the scene of the crime. He'd be back with the sheriff to conduct an investigation, after Taz was secured. Kodak told him all he knew, which was that he found Taz shot shortly after he left the cabin to feed the horses. Taz was pale and remained motionless.

When Kodak was with Taz, waiting for the general to ride to the rescue, he'd seen heard nothing. There was no one there but the two of them. Whoever had done the shooting was long gone, leaving no sign of who they were. Why anyone might want to shoot a ranch hand sitting with a monkey on the corral fence was anyone's guess, except it wasn't that long ago that there had been the shootout at the courthouse that Taz was instrumental in breaking up. The general already had a good idea of who was behind Taz's shooting.

"What the hell do you mean by ordering me out here like I'm one of your soldiers? I've got an office full of patients who depend on me, Gen. Walker. You explain yourself."

The doctor was in a sloppy looking gray suit, stethoscope dangling from his neck, as he charged the gate, once he caught site of the general before he looked at the jeep and who was on the stretcher.

"He's been shot. It's bad. Keep him alive, doc," the general pleaded. "What ever it takes, do it."

"Damn dumb… why didn't you tell me. I'd have had an ambulance here. Let me up there," Dr. Westphalia ordered, climbing awkwardly into the jeep to tend to his patient. "Get me a damn ambulance. This man has lost too much blood. What in the hell are you doing up there. Who shot him?"

The doctor ranted as he checked Taz for exit wounds and added to the direct pressure Maddox was using on the wound.

"He's bleeding out of his back. It went through," Dr. Westphalia said, adroitly feeling for other wounds on Taz's back. "Damn it. I need an ambulance," he yelled. "I need gauze. Bring me all you have. I'll try to pack this to get pressure on the bleeding. His breathing isn't good. May have nicked his lung. Can't tell from the angle of entry."

"Crosby has already called for an ambulance. It's a long way out here," Rowdy said. "Closest one is forty miles away."

The doctor stuffed gauze into the wound on Taz's lower back, taking off his Jacket as he'd begun to sweat.

"Rowdy, ride back up there. Go to where we found him. Scour the area. Look for the bullet. If it went through him it's out there. Don't let those cowboys ride on the crime scene. Put them on the perimeter to stop anyone from going up there. I'll call the sheriff."

"Yes, sir. I'll take a couple of cowboys and show them how to look. If it's out there, we'll find it, General."

"Come on with me," Kathleen said, shoving her rifle in its holster. "You're a mess, Kodak. You can use some coffee."

"No, ma'am, I'll stay with him," Kodak replied, standing next to the jeep as the doctor pulled out gauze and packed in more that he pulled from the bucket sized container of gauze Maddox brought him.

"What did you boys do, rob a pharmacy? Put some of that in my car. I'm running low on gauze at my office. Move back away from me. Give the boy some air. There's nothing to see. He's been shot. Go find something to do," Dr. Westphalia snapped, whipping his hands on his once white shirt. "Where's the damn ambulance? Do you know what type blood he has? We can't wait. I've got to get some blood in him if there's any hope of keeping him alive."

"Type O," Kodak said. "It's on his dog tags."

"Okay, cowboys, we need a fill-up here. All cowboys with type O blood, stand over here, the rest of you find something to do to earn your pay. Bring something for them to lie down on. No point in letting them pass out, while I drain their blood."

Westphalia continued to work on slowing the bleeding as another jeep was pulled up beside the first one with the same set-up of stretcher on hay. The doctor set up a transfusion, using the medical equipment that was only a little better than what he had in his office for emergencies.

"We'll start with three pints. If his pulse doesn't improve we'll need a couple of more units. You give once and once only and then go find something to do."

"I'm type 0," Kendall said. "I'll give next."

Cowboys still stood around the jeep. The doctor worked and the cowboys gave blood. Kodak held Taz's hand. The general leaned on the hood of the jeep, watching the doctor move. Kathleen brought coffee for Kodak and the general and told the cowboys to come to the back porch where she had cups and coffee and some sandwiches that were freshly made.

This was a scene Gen. Walker's cowboys experienced at one time or another while they were in his army. The wait was always worse, when it was a soldier they knew that they were waiting for. Everyone knew Taz. Most knew Taz's legend. No one wished this cowboy harm, no matter their reaction to his close friendship with Kodak. At times like these issues like those didn't arise.

It took another half-hour before the ambulance was being guided up beside the jeep. Dr. Westphalia supervised the loading of Taz.

"Look, he needs to be in a hospital. It's all I can do to keep him alive. I need to pee and I'm dying for a cup of coffee. He's as stable as he's going to be. If I send that ambulance out of here, General, can you catch me up with it once I piss and get a cup of your coffee to go."

"Not a problem, doc. I'll get you in that ambulance without it needing to stop if you like," the general said.

"No, that won't be necessary. Put a cowboy with type O in the back. He'll need another transfusion before we get there. I'll flag you boys down in fifteen or twenty minutes," he advised the ambulance's driver.

"We move pretty fast, doc. Odds are the next time you see us will be in Billings at the emergency room," the driver answered.

"Kendall, can you give this guy a five minute head start and beat him to the Interstate?" the general asked, knowing the answer.

"I'll be waiting on the ramp for him if you let me take that Corvette you got in your private garage, General."

"I want to get there alive. Just catch him without any heroics and I might not pee myself before we get to the hospital," Dr. Westphalia said, heading for the bathroom.

"Go ahead, driver. I'll see you in about fifteen minutes. Stop at the bottom of the ramp and let the doctor get in the back."

"You're on," the driver said. "Like I said before, you'll probably see us in Billings."

The general rode up front with the driver and Kodak rode in the back with Taz and a cowboy with type O blood. Kendall passed the ambulance with the doctor a mile before they reached the ramp to the Interstate. The doctor was waiting at the bottom of the ramp in his blood stained shirt that now had significant coffee stains to boot.

"Damn doctor is no more than twelve years old and he's a surgeon. Thanks me for my assistance but told me he could take it from here. Kids think they know it all," Dr. Westphalia complained.

"Is he still alive?" Kodak asked, worried about how pale Taz grew the last few miles into Billings.

"He's alive. His pulse is weak. His breathing is shallow. The boy is in serious trouble. I hope that little boy knows what he's doing," Dr. Westphalia said.

"He going to live, doc?" Gen. Walker asked.

"That's up to him. I don't have anything to do with it now. They had the operating room waiting. Once he's stable they can get in there and stop the bleeding. He lost a lot of blood before I got there. I don't know how much. I don't know if I got enough back in him to make the difference or not. He's young, general, unlike you and me. He's strong and I'd say he's got an even chance of surviving the day. I don't know what those surgeons are going to find. If it had hit his heart he wouldn't have made it here. If it nicked his lung, he may have blood in his lungs. That makes it a bit more dicey. All we can do is wait and hope what I did was enough."

"You want my man to take you back?" the general asked.

"With him?" the doctor said, pointing at Kendall. "No, I risk my life once a day. I'll walk before I'll let him drive me."

"Nice rod you got there, General. I don't think the doctor appreciates it as much as I do."

"I haven't had it out of the garage since I retired. Kathleen got me that for my fiftieth birthday. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I don't have any place to drive it. What are you doing here? I didn't tell you to follow us to the hospital."

"It's Taz, boss. I got to know if he's still alive. Besides, you'll need a ride back sooner or later."

"There is that," Gen. Walker said.

Kodak paced, Dr. Westphalia sat next to the general on a couch. Kendall leaned with his back against the wall beside the door.

They waited.

It seemed like hours before one of the surgeons came into the waiting room. Everyone was on their feet, waiting for him to speak, but unsure they wanted to hear what he had to say.

"We've got the bleeding under control. It took some time to accomplish that. They're transfusing him now and once we're sure he's stable, we'll go in to start making repairs. No vital organs were damaged, but he's lost a lot of blood. The extreme angle of the entry wound saved his life."

"I got another pint if you need it," Kendall said. "I'm type O."

"No you don't. You've given your limit, son. One pint is it," Dr. Westphalia said.

"We've got that covered. Type O is one of our favorites. We keep a lot of it in stock. We'll be okay there. Come back in a few weeks and give us a pint then. With his blood loss we could be looking at some degree of brain damage. We won't know until he wakes up."

"He will wake up?" Kodak asked.

"If he wakes up," the doctor answered. "We'll know more once we repair the damage. None of the damage in itself is life threatening. It comes down to how much blood was lost and how bad he wants to live. It's the best I can do right now. Once he's stable, we'll finish and I'll report back to you, but the big question won't be answered because he survives the operation. That'll be good but the real test will be when he opens his eyes and can recognizes you."

The surgeon left the waiting room as everyone went back to their positions.

"Well, General, I've done all I can do here. Have your man run me back home. Please order him not to take that viper of a machine out of second gear," Dr. Westphalia said, ignoring Kendall as he spoke.

"Doc, we never got out of second gear," Kendall bragged.

The general laughed as the doctor squeezed his forearm as a last means of offering him comfort.

"Sorry I took you away from your patients, doc. I did need you."

"Oh, I didn't have any patents. I was just fussing for the sake of it. I hope your boy is okay. I don't know if I got enough blood in him soon enough. What I do know is I did my best. You let me know how it goes."

"I will, doc. Kendall, take it easy on him and cover the Corvette back up once you return her to the garage. We'll be here a few days by the sounds of it."

"I'll wash it up before I put her away, boss. If it's okay?"

"Good man, Kendall. Bring Kathleen down. I know she'll be worried. We'll have dinner in town before we go back. Bring the Oldsmobile and be sure to fill it up before you leave. That thing drinks gasoline like it's water."

"Yes, sir. Come on, doc. I'll deliver you safe and sound. Good luck, Kodak. I'll be praying for Taz. I'll be back with the Mrs. Later this afternoon."

"Thanks," Kodak said, as Kendall held the door for the doctor.

"Gentlemen," the doctor said. "I removed his third rib. We stitched up the exit wound after doing what we could to repair the tissue damage. His heartbeat has strengthened considerably. We'll leave him on the respirator for the time being. One less thing for his body to struggle to do. There is no reason he can't breathe on his own. If he remains stable after a few more hours, I'll remove him from the respirator. See how he does.

"He'll be in the ICU for the next few days. I can let you in one at a time, but only for a few minutes. Then, the best thing you can do is go home. We'll keep you advised."

"How long before he has a room?" Kodak asked.

"Private room, son. I want a private nurse twenty-four hours a day in his room. If you have a former Army nurse on staff, you tell her I requested her. I want the best doctors. I don't want to hear I can't or I won't. Anyone asks you who the hell I think I am, you tell them I'm Gen. Walker, and I'm used to having my orders obeyed. You understand, son," the general said in his most determined soft but convincing voice.

"Yes, sir. I'll get on it," the surgeon said.

"We'll give them a few minutes and I'll tell them to take you back so he hears your voice," Gen. Walker told Kodak. "I've been led to believe that does a lot for a wounded soldier's morale."

"Thank you, General," Kodak said.

It startled Kodak to see Taz on a machine that was helping him breathe. The noise and the monitoring devices were disturbing, but nothing distracted Kodak from noticing how pale Taz looked.

"I'm here, babe. I'll be here when you wake up."

He stood next to his bed, holding Taz's hand, wanting to hear his voice. A nurse sat on a chair just inside the door.

"You an army nurse?" Kodak asked.

"No, that's Madge. She retired a few months ago but they called her a few minutes ago. She agreed to stay with him, when they told her the general's name. Who is he anyway? The way the surgeon was talking, it might have been the president or someone."

"He was the commanding general of the Pacific forces up until a year ago. He's just a rancher now."

"This one of his boys?" she asked.

"Yes, Taz is one of his boys. Madge might know his name. He was famous once upon a time."

"You think so. He's so young. Madge is like really old, you know."

"If she was in the army, and if she can read, she might know his name. He was on the cover of Time magazine a couple of years ago."

"He was?" she asked, taking a closer look at Taz.

"Well, you can't stay. It's the rules, no matter if he is famous. We won't leave him alone. That general made that clear to Dr. Williams. I'll come tell you if there is any change," the nurse said. "No one is allowed to stay in the ICU. Five minutes is the limit."

"Thanks," Kodak said. "I'll be in the waiting room."

Gen. Walker listened to what Kodak had to say, once he returned to the waiting room before he walked back to where Taz was. The nurse stood up when he came in. She wasn't sure of how to stand at attention, but one look at Gen. Walker made her want to find out.

"You're too young to be an Army nurse. You know what you're doing?" the general wanted to know, after taking a look at Taz.

"Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir. Madge is the Army nurse. She's on her way."

"You tell her Gen. Walker wants to talk to her, when she arrives, can you do that for me, young lady?"

"Yes, sir. I'll tell her to speak with you right away."

"He doing okay?"

"No change. He's only been here a few minutes."

"If there is a change you come get me. I'll be in the waiting room."

"Yes, sir."

"If we don't have another Army nurse to spell Madge, you'll do. You tell the doctor I want you as Madge's relief. She'll decide how much time she wants to devote to me. You okay with that, young lady?"

"Yes, sir. I'll tell Dr. Williams. He's a surgeon."

"You tell him what I want and we'll do fine."

"Yes, sir. I've got other duties, but I'm sure he'll take care of it."

"What's your name?"

"Wilma Forge."

"Nice name, Wilma. You ever been to Valley Forge?"

"No, sir, is that in Montana?"

"No, it's not in Montana," Gen. Walker said, amused by the naiveté in her question.

When Kathleen arrived, she went to see how Taz was doing. Upon her return to the waiting room, she ordered the general to come with her to go to dinner. Kodak refused an invitation to go along, which didn't surprise them.

"Kodak, I know how hard this is on you. It's hard on all of us, hon. We all love Taz. Why don't you let me bring you something to eat. There's no point in making yourself sick. You'll want to keep up your strength for when he comes home and you'll need to take care of him."

"I know, Kathleen. I can't leave him. I told him when I came back from the Pacific that I'd never leave him again. I couldn't eat anything. You go ahead and eat and bring something I can have later."

Kathleen brought back a sandwich for Kodak and she had put a pillow and a blanket in the car, because she figured he'd not want to leave Taz. She brought those in with the sandwich, not letting the general get out of the car for fear he'd want to stay at the hospital.

"I'm taking my husband home. He needs his rest and letting him sit here won't do him or Taz any good. He'll no doubt be back here before sunup, but you get a little rest if you can. I'll send him a Thermos with some coffee for you. Don't let him drink it all. He will, you know?"

"I won't," Kodak said. "Thank you, Kathleen. You're a special woman. You and the general are special people."

"Thank you, Kodak," she said, hugging him. "You try to get a little rest. He's strong. It'll take more than one bullet to stop Taz. Heaven help whoever shot him if Taz ever catches up with him."

Kodak nodded and Kathleen left him alone.

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