Metal Peace

by Rick Beck

Chapter 4


It was the fourth day after the shooting that Gen. Walker was standing on his back porch, looking out at the new day. He'd already made the call and he'd gotten the same reply to his inquiry.

"No change. Taz was stable."

He'd lost a lot of men in his time. They'd come and gone. Some got the million dollar wound and went home. Others died. Still others disappeared once their tour of duty ended. Gen. Walker never questioned it or spent a lot of time having regrets. Some of his men were pretty amazing, others barely ordinary, and there were the men he never knew at all.

With Taz in the hospital it was different. He'd become attached to Taz in a way he never allowed himself to become attached to men in war. The risk of war was too high to get too close to the men who might die.

Sometimes it was unavoidable. When he lost someone he knew well, he wrote it off to the cost of war. It was the business he was in. He pushed it from his mind in order that he could do his duty and not make mistakes.

He wasn't at war now. His men for the most part didn't do dangerous duty. Yet it was because he was a man of war that Taz went to town with him that day, prepared to lay down his life to insure the right outcome at the courthouse. Taz was a man who liked order. He respected authority. All Taz asked was to be left alone to do his job on the mesa. It was the least he could do for Taz, but doing it exposed him to the madness of men unlike any enemy the general knew.

As difficult as it was, he realization he was responsible for Taz being shot. He'd left his flank unprotected. He'd underestimated the enemy and Taz paid the price. The general didn't know what he'd do if Taz died. All his sons were grown and they'd moved on hardly knowing their father. Taz was the closest thing to a son the general had.

He'd seen men die before and in time that wound would heal. What he dreaded was, if Taz died, he then owed Kodak a debt he could never pay. All the wives and girlfriends of the men who died under Gen. Walker's command, didn't live this close. It wasn't an easy fate to consider, but was this justice for a man who sent men to fight and die?

He calculated he'd softened since retirement. He softened and let down his guard and he was with men he cared about and for and when they went out to work, he had every right to expect them to come back.

Taz wasn't like any man Gen. Walker knew. Taz was a man among men. He wasn't pretentious or ambitious beyond a desire to do the best job possible, when he was working. His motivation had nothing to do with personal gain.

Gen. Walker stood on the back porch, remembering being shot himself, and lying half on Main Street, half on Main Street's sidewalk. It was Taz who pulled him to safety. He didn't hesitate. Had he hesitated, the general might well have suffered a mortal wound. This was the image that troubled the general most.

Taz was right where he was needed when trouble started. He was willing to do what was required, risking his life by putting himself in the line of fire, to keep other men alive. Taz did what he saw as his duty, which went far beyond the United States Army. Being a long way from war, he still managed to save his general's life.

Gen. Walker felt the long ago healed place where the bullet went through his side the day of the shootout in town. There was a dull ache in the cold, or when the rains came to stay. It was a serious wound but not life threatening. It reminded him of wars waged and the men who waged them.

"You taken to dementia, General? I've called you twice," a husky voice said, as a large young man stood in front of the general at the bottom of the steps.

"Oh, sorry! McCoy? How the hell are you, son?" the general said fondly.

"Fine, General. A little confused, but I'm sure you'll straighten me out PDQ. You were always good at that, as I recall."

"Nah, you just needed pointing, McCoy. It's what I do, point young men. You did the all the work."

"You don't give yourself enough credit. My career started when you pulled my ass out of the sling I'd hung it in. The case you assigned me to made my career in military investigation. You gave me purpose."

"But you're getting out, McCoy. How could you forsake the Army?"

"The Army trained me and now my skills are worth real money. There's no future in military investigation. With this war coming to an end, no more drug runners and smuggling. Time to find out what the rest of my life is going to be about."

"You've grown. You've matured. I'd hardly recognize you if not for that voice of yours. You look good, McCoy."

"I thought you were retired," McCoy said, pushing the conversation in the direction where it needed to go.

"Yea, I thought so too. I've got myself into the middle of an FBI deal, and now I may have gotten my best man killed. At best he's going to take a lot of healing. Whatever the outcome for him, I want the guy who shot him and I want him, McCoy," the general said with an unmistakable determination in his voice.

"How can you possibly arrange for me to be assigned to the Montana Army Reserve, and have them tell me to report to you as quick as I report there? I've been in the army for four years and most of the time there is moss growing under my boots. You've moved things so fast my head is spinning."

"It's a long story. It's about a state affair that turned into an FBI affair. I can't prove the shooting is related, but you can, and it is. I wanted the best investigator I know. I know you, McCoy."

"Yes, you do, General."

"The local sheriff is a good fellow but he's in way over his head. He'll let me have my way. Hell, he didn't even know he was in danger, until I told him to watch his back."

"I'm supposed to report to the Chicago Police Department in a little less than four weeks. I haven't called them yet. I don't know how long this will take, but, whatever you need, General, I'm your man. I'll hope the fellow who got shot comes out okay, while I track down the shooter. I can tell he's important to you. The cop job is pretty important to me."

"Yes, he is. He's like a son to me. We'll need to take a ride up onto the mesa. It's about fifteen minutes. I can get Kathleen to rustle you up some grub, let you freshen up in the guest room, where you can put your things, and I'll give you all the details you need.

Kendall eased the jeep up to within a few dozen yards of the corral. The general and McCoy left the jeep to look over the spot where Taz fell.

McCoy used his toe to move the grass and a small quantity of dirt, while looking at the discolored soil.

"A lot of blood. Describe the wound to me, General," McCoy's demeanor was professional as he examined the immediate area with his eyes.

"I'm told he was sitting on the top rail of the corral fence. The bullet entered upper left quadrant of his chest. Exit wound where it smashed the third rib and came out his back. It barely missed his heart and the trajectory took a chunk out of his back, but it missed all the vital organs."

McCoy looked up. His eyes followed the canyon's ridgeline, where it tapered away just beyond the corral and then tracked it back in the other direction. There were several rock formations that stood above the canyon wall but only one in proximity to the corral.

"I need to get up there. I don't suppose it can be done without more bouncing?" he said, pointing to an outcropping that stood above the canyon rim very near the edge.

"Yea, it'll require going out to the highway and coming in from the east. There's an old cattle trail up there from when my grandfather kept a herd up there in the spring. I don't have enough cattle to make that a productive proposition, but I'm guessing the trail is still there."

"Anyone been up there in relationship to this case?"

"No, not that I'm aware of. The sheriff was here. When I told him I had an investigator coming, he backed off completely. He's not looking to be involved in the case. A courtesy call to his office might be a good idea, but I don't see him going up there voluntarily."

"I don't suppose it will be any easier on my back, going up there?" McCoy inquired.

"It's a dirt trail. Rains soften it. Sun bakes it, McCoy. It'll be a rough ride. I'll tell Kendall to take it easy but no guarantee. I can have a couple of horses saddled and I'll ride up there with you. The easiest way to go is back down to the house and out the highway if we stick with the jeep."

"No, No, no horseback riding. I have my dignity. I'll investigate your case for you, General, but don't expect me to take a shine to horseback riding. I'm strictly a city boy. I don't need to tell you how troubling it is breathing this air."

"You've never had fresher air, McCoy. Montana has the best air this side of heaven."

"Like I said, I'm a city boy. You see the air in the city. How do you know what's in it if you can't see it?"

"Very funny, McCoy. If we're going we better get moving."

Kendall pulled the jeep up to the canyon rim a few dozen yards from the outcropping McCoy pointed out.

"Okay, here's the plan. We're looking for anything that doesn't belong here. Odds are someone waited here to get the shot he wanted. With your man sitting still I can't believe the guy missed his kill shot. I'd say you have one lucky cowboy, General."

On foot they circled around the main point of interest. McCoy was looking for tracks, signs of a vehicle, slowly closing in on where he was sure he'd find a sniper's nest.

"Here. Here's some cigarette butts," Kendall yelled, standing on some of the rocks that formed the outcropping.

"Don't touch them," McCoy yelled.

"There's a shell casing," Kendall yelled, looking down.

"Don't touch it. Back out of there and don't touch anything," McCoy said with excitement.

"I might get a partial print off the shell casing. At times it's enough if the guy's in the system."

McCoy leaned to put the shell casing into a plastic bag with a pencil, flicking each butt in as well.

"I'll need to come back up here to dust this spot. We might pick up fingerprints or a palm print."

"What do you think?" Gen. Walker asked.

"He spent a while up here. Probably came in before sunrise. He walked a ways to get in here. A vehicle would leave tracks. See the tracks the jeep left? No horse dung. You said he was shot early."

"Yea, maybe an hour after first light. They sent the monkey down to the house and I was already in my office."

"Monkey?" McCoy said, looking the general over. " "You do know you said monkey?"

"Yea, it's a long story."

"A monkey rode down to the house from that shack? You're making that up to make me feel like a tenderfoot, aren't you?"

"No, it surprised me too. Kodak told the monkey where to go. He had Taz's shirt and he brought it to me. The monkey saved Taz's life."

"A monkey?" McCoy said without believing it.

"He's at the house. Kathleen treats him like one of our kids. I'll introduce you when we get back," the general said. "He spends a lot of time in the barn with the horses."

"No, General, I absolutely do not want to meet your horseback riding monkey."

"How close can you get me to Chicago, General?" McCoy asked. "I need to get these things to a lab I trust."

"I'll put Crosby on it. You might have to improvise a little if I can get you close. Why not use the State Police Crime Lab? They'll cooperate. We rescued Montana from the outlaws for them."

"No, I want to watch. I got a guy lets me watch. He'll stick with it, until he's got all there is. I'll need to go back up there to dust the rocks. See if our shooter got careless. This is good. Is there more?" McCoy asked, shoveling in the remainder of the chipped beef gravy on fluffy biscuits.

"Sure, McCoy. I told Kathleen not to throw it away, when I knew you were coming. I knew you ate leftovers."

"Very funny. It tastes fine to me. I'll take another plate, General. Tell your driver I'll want to go into town to get a fingerprint kit from your local sheriff. Then he can take me back up to dust those rocks. Give Barney Fife a call and let him know I'm coming."

"Good as done. I'll get you a refill on this."

"Sheriff may lend you a man if I ask," the general said.

"No, Andy needs to stay in Mayberry, and I'll make sure it's done according to Hoyle."

"Good as done. The corral and the cabin? I have some building to do up there. I've got lumber, shingles, and insulation on the way for later today. Do I store it or can I get my men to work? I don't want them in your way."

"Nothing there to look at again. What we're looking for is up top. It could give us something to go on."

"Yea, these birds are wily critters. We'll want to have them nailed solid before we make a move. I don't know who did the shooting, but I know who put him up to it, and I want him."

"Come on Kendall, to town, and then back to the top of the canyon, Watson, where the games afoot."

"What did you put in his SOS, boss?" Kendall inquired.

Late that afternoon Rowdy and Boyd were checking three truckloads of lumber and building supplies in the driveway while cowboys unloaded a fourth in the barn.

"Damn, General, you building a housing development out here?" McCoy asked, entering Gen. Walker's office.

"They didn't leave any food in here, McCoy. What did you get me?"

"A fine palm print where the shooter pushed himself up out of his perch. That's it. It'll be hard convicting someone on prints taken off of rock, but it all adds up in the end."

"I can get you out of Missoula at 06:30 in the morning. It stops in Joplin and than Joliet. Can you get someone to pick you up in Joliet? If you can you're home free."

"06:30? Isn't that, like, really early, General?"

"Yea, so you better sweet talk Kendall, because he's got to get his ass up at 03:00 to be sure you're on time."

"A road-race. Now you're talking my language. I take it I can sleep on the plane?" McCoy asked.

"If you don't stop eating the plane will never get off the ground, McCoy. I suppose you can sleep. I've never heard of it on a cargo plane, but you are exceptional."

"What are you building, General?"

"Taz was working on an addition to the cabin. We'd been waiting on the window frames. He's an independent sort and insists on doing things himself. His buddy, Kodak, lives up there with him."

"Buddy?" McCoy asked.

"Friend. Very close friend," the general said.

"I see," McCoy said.

"Well, it isn't for me to see. I've been looking for a change to do something for that boy, since he pulled me out of the line of fire in town."

"Pulled you out of the line of fire. Here, in Montana?"

"The shootout at the courthouse. I got shot. I was down in the street and Taz pulled me to safety. I've been looking for a chance to put something more substantial up there for the boys and with him flat on his back, I'm going to build a bungalow. A nice porch where we can sit out and watch the sun set some evenings. We'll run a phone line and some electricity while we're at it.

"It's the least I can do for him. I'll do it my way and apologize later. It'll be a suitable place for him to heal up."

"General, if I hadn't seen you general, I might mistake you for an old softy," McCoy said. "That's a nice thing you're doing. You'll put a smile on that cowboy's face."

"Maybe. A general expects loyalty from his men, and that's one loyal cowboy. I can afford to spoil him a little."

"I haven't seen any signs you're not a general any longer, General," McCoy said.

"You ever heard of posse comitatus, McCoy?"

"Sure, I am an Army Investigator. It prevents the military from operating on a war footing within the U.S."

"That's why I'm a retired general who employs some discharged soldiers on his ranch. Otherwise, anything I did could be confused as a criminal act. I render assistance when called upon, as a Montana rancher. I'm just a well armed rancher with connections."

"From what I read on that shootout in town, you conducted a military operation, saved a lot of local asses. General or not, they are damn lucky to have you here."

"That comes from a lifetime of military experience. Just lucky I was in the neighborhood."

"Taz, who has now been shot, just happened to be the cowboy who blew the bad boys to Kingdom Come. Three dead, three wounded, and the shootout ends," McCoy repeated the facts he'd learned at the sheriff's office.

"A cowboy who just happened to be one of the deadliest weapons to survive Vietnam, and I may well have put the bull's eye on his chest."

"How do you figure?" McCoy asked.

"It was my plan, McCoy. I won the battle, Taz paid the price. The war is on. A general has to protect his men."

"You blame yourself and now you want to build him something he might never use?" McCoy thought out loud.

"Rewards often are for the giver more than the getter. Rewarding a man like Taz isn't easy. He doesn't want anyone to give him anything. He wants to earn his way."

"He knew we were walking into danger before I did. I should have known. He told me not to go to town unarmed."

"Even then I wasn't concerned. It's not the first time either. Kendall is always telling me to be prepared for trouble and not leave my ass hanging out. I think I might be slipping, McCoy. Maybe it was a good thing I retired."

"Stuff happens, General. No one knows what comes next. We do the best we can. You did what you thought best at the time. Why question yourself? Beating yourself up over your wounded cowboy… well, it's spilt milk. I need a shower and some sleep."

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