Metal Peace

by Rick Beck

Chapter 7

Eye Openers

There were two more days between McCoy's departure from the ranch and his return. This time there were no side trips and he went directly into the general's office without being invited.

"McCoy, you done flying on the army's dime?" the general said, as he jotted down some notes. "Sit down. You brought me something."

"Sometimes I even surprise myself, General."

"What did you find out?" the general asked stopping in the middle of what he was writing.

"Our shooter smokes Viceroy."

"Come on, McCoy. I can read and I don't need to fly to Illinois to know that."

"I want you to look at what my man in Cicero got us," McCoy said, removing the plastic bag he'd been carrying for four days. "First look at the cigarette butts. Here's some blowups of them. Don't take the evidence out of the plastic bag. I want you to hold on to it until we find a use for it.

"Why that is important comes later. Look at the butts. He is checking the thumb and partial index fingerprint he took off the shell casing. No matches in the system. He ran the prints against known hit men. No luck.

"You see anything unusual about the butts, General?"

"No, he smokes them to the filter. Lots of guys do that."

"He doesn't smoke them down to the filter. He field strips them."

The general's eyes met McCoy's with some displeasure in them.

"He's military?"

"Holloway said he's seen these butts done like that before. He knew an army sniper who did it this way. Put the filter in his pocket to dispose of later. They pinch it off at the tip while it's still lit. Leaves a distinctive stain on the index finger and the thumb."

"Leave no evidence behind, but he left it for us?"

"He's not an army sniper any longer, General. Maybe he got careless. Maybe he wanted to leave us a little something. Taunt us. Taunt you."

The general pushed back from his desk and didn't speak for several minutes as he processed what he was being told. He looked at the pictures of the butts before looking back at McCoy.

"What else. You're holding out on me, McCoy. You had all this the first time around. You made a second trip. Why?"

"I collected your sheriff's fingerprints from the courthouse. I'm a little slow on the uptake. It took me a long time to realize that we might be able to connect the shootout with the shooting. It's the only thing that makes sense. Actually it was during one of my sleepless night on those damn transports, when we dropped about a thousand feet in a second and a half it came to me."

"What did the second trip tell you, McCoy?"

"The man who handled the shell casing I found on the canyon rim was in the window at the courthouse the day of the shootout."

"You're certain? There's no chance you could be mistaken."

"Positive ID. The thumb print on the shell casing and one of the thumb prints from the inside of one of the windows at the courthouse are identical."

"I'll be damn. McCoy, you're a force of nature. What comes next?"

"I'm working on a strategy. What's going on out front? I felt as if I was driving onto the base back in Da Nang."

"I picked up a tail after leaving the hospital. Kendall left him in the dust when we got to the mountains.

"Kendall's from Hazard, Kentucky. Knew how to drive before he could walk. I let him soup up the '57 Chevy in case we had a need for speed.

"Kathleen was with me. We couldn't stop to confront them. Don't tell her I said that. She'd thrash me for suggesting I need to look out for her, but I wouldn't put her in danger. I don't like being threatened, even from a distance. Threatening my wife is a bad move."

"Kendall told me about it. Now you're turning the ranch into a fortress. I'd have suggested it. At least until we nail this guy and whoever sent him," McCoy said.

"These are the times when it pays to have soldiers for cowboys."

"I need you to open some doors. You have connections everywhere and the next step will require your touch."

"And what do you need?"

"The Army keeps fingerprint records on all the special forces. While I can't get near them, I bet you can get me in the door, General. If we're looking for a former military man, my bet is on special forces. It cuts down the search."

"I'll send a messenger to carry the prints to APO in San Francisco with my request to run it against prints they have on file, active duty and discharged."

"Start the search with army snipers," McCoy said. "It's another long shot, but we're on a winning streak. We just might get lucky one more time. Then we can run recent traffic stops in Montana, when we ID him."

"What good is a name if he's tucked away in some militia hideout somewhere?"

"Maybe a picture comes out of a name. A picture gives us a lot more to go on. A picture gives us an advantage he isn't aware we have."

"You think the man who shot Taz followed us away from the hospital? Kendall only saw one man. Never saw his facial features."

"The way I figure, your man on the mesa is a warning shot to you, General. A man like Jones doesn't want your hired help. He wants you. He wants to make you sweat. The hit man is merely following orders. He's waiting for someone to give him the go ahead before he makes his next move. I'd take armed guards with me any time I left the ranch if I were you. If he's been to the hospital he knows Taz is well guarded. He may be waiting for you to make a mistake."

"I'm not one to travel with a lot of fanfare, son."

"Let me put it this way. Your life might depend on you always being in a crowd. I get his picture and our odds of keeping you alive go way up. I don't have a picture.

"He's clever. He's patient. He's persistent if he was the one following you home. We need to take him out before he takes you out. Remember this, General, he can sit in wait and shoot from five hundred yards and knock the eye out of a needle. If he's army trained, He won't miss," McCoy said.

This was a fact of which Gen. Walker was well aware.

"Army trained?" Gen. Walker mulled over in his mind. "Maybe you should take the print. I'll write you a letter."

"You're reading my mind," McCoy said.

"You know what's at stake. You've come this far. Probably a good idea to let you follow through."

"Clear the way for me to get into their records. If he's in there I'll stick with it until I dig him out."

The idea of one of his own taking him out was anathema to a soldier's general. He loved his men above all else, except for Kathleen. He hated the idea of being taken out by one of his own.

The general leaned back in his chair to give some thought to McCoy's information. The shooter being at the courthouse explained a lot.

Was he freelancing, settling a grudge he had with Taz? Was he sent by Jones to shoot Taz? If the shooter only wanted Taz, he had work to do. If his objective was to kill the general, he had work to do.

"If he was at the courthouse, he could have a personal grudge against Taz," Gen. Walker said.

"I've thought of that," McCoy countered. "Personal is up close. Walk up and put a gun in his stomach and squeeze off a few rounds to watch him die. This was business. It was a hit. If he's only after Taz, why follow you?"

"You still think it was a hit?"

"Logic tells me. It could have been a hunter who mistook him for an elk," McCoy said flippantly.

"You piss me off, you know? I want this to be simple and easy," the general said angrily.

"You should have let Andy of Mayberry do it. I can only follow the evidence. It's what I do. It's why you called me. All I can give you are the facts."

"I suppose you expect to be fed and you'll probably want more sleep."

"If there's food involved, I'll stay until you arrange for a flight to where I can get my hands on the files I need to look at. I can only look at one print at a time."

"When you worked that case for me back in Vietnam, you came to me as a drunk kid away from home for the first time. You were cocky, arrogant, and useless to mother, God, and country. All I could think to do was give you a chance and hope you'd shape up. You did.

"What I see before me now is a professional investigator with more intuitive ability than most investigators with a lot more experience. What happened to you, McCoy?"

"Well, General, I met this general. He told me to get my shit together or spend the next two years in Leavenworth. I took him at his word. I took the job he offered me seriously. What you see before you today is the result of a stupid kid being given a chance to make something of himself. I still take it seriously."

"You come up with a lot of ideas from a tiny bit of evidence, like that thumbprint. How do you explain that?"

"I get hunches, General. You mentioned food a ways back. I also have a good memory. I'm starving. I work better on a full stomach."

"That hasn't changed. How do you stay so thin stowing away all that chow?"

"I'm a growing boy, General. For some of your wife's chip beef gravy over biscuits, I'll do the job," McCoy bargained. "Just don't ask me to round up no cows."

"Cattle, McCoy," Gen. Walker said. "You work cheap. I'd have given you my best steak."

"I'd have finished the job without the chip beef," McCoy admitted.

The two men laughed loudly.

Jake Slade sat in a station wagon inside the hospital parking lot. He'd waited a week to come calling, because he knew everyone would be on their toes for the first few days. He'd watched the comings and goings for days and he figured the general would put guards on the cowboy's room.

He'd thought of a grenade, but Sam Jones wanted to keep it simple. How he missed the cowboy's heart, he'd never know. He may have moved or twitched at the instant the shot was fired. Somehow the cowboy survived and that mistake wasn't likely to happen again.

"I want him dead. I want that general scared. I want him to know I can hit him any time anywhere I want," said Sam Jones, when he said no to the grenade.

Jake was nobody's fool. Up on that mesa, taking out that cowboy was easy. Going into a hospital and into his room was dangerous and unpredictable. Jones wasn't making the hit and didn't care about unpredictability. He was a man that only saw the world his way.

The closer he had to get to take out the dude he was after, the more dangerous it became for him. He knew danger. He knew how to avoid it. It didn't scare him.

Walking into a guarded room was akin to suicide. He'd seen the guards arriving and leaving. There were only two on duty today, but if he had to shoot his way into the room to finish the job he'd started, he'd never live to shoot his way out. He had to get into the room without being challenged. That made getting out a lot easier.

Jake was waiting for the opportunity that would eventually present itself. Either from a distance or close up, once he got a shot, he'd take it, but he was in no hurry. There was no need to rush into a deadly shootout. He'd wait until he controlled the situation and his exit route was safe.

Jake survived at the courthouse, because he'd planned his exit route. Two of his buddies left in body bags, but he slipped away in the confusion. If Jones hadn't wanted the cowboy responsible taken out, Jake would have done it on his own. He didn't like being shot at and especially he didn't like being surprised while he was working. Jones paid well and that made it better. He wasn't a man that held a grudge, but he did like the idea of settling the score.

Slade went over the events of the week so far. When he remembered the truckload of Indians showing up, he chuckled. That was unexpected. He hadn't read about any significant Indian being at the hospital. He was glad he hadn't made his move that day, although confusion was often good for a successful getaway. Jake didn't mind distractions as long as he wasn't the one being distracted.

He was waiting for the right time to make his move. he'd know when it came. He wanted the cowboy first. It ruined the fun if he did the general first. The general would know he was next once he killed the cowboy.

Maybe he'd slip in dressed as a redskin. 'That would be the ticket,' he thought, as the idea came and went. A clown would work or maybe a Mickey Mouse suit to look as if he was lost, looking for the children's ward. How long until Halloween? Everyone dresses for Halloween, but he didn't need a disguise. Steal a doctor's coat and a stethoscope and he'd look right in place inside the hospital. After all, no one knew who he was.

"What are you doing," a voice inquired as Kodak tried to open his eyes.

He felt a hand on his head and a gentle shaking.


"Taz! Taz!" Kodak yelled, pulling Taz's hand to his chest, hugging it to him while looking into his open eyes, ignoring the dark circles surrounding them.

"Where the hell are we? Did I finish our bedroom?"

"No, you're in the hospital."

"I am? Did my hand get infected?" he asked, looking at the hand he'd pulled splinters out of a few months before. "I never get sick."

"You were shot, babe," Kodak said.

"Shot! We're in Vietnam? We left Vietnam. I was out at the corral with Tazerski. We were sitting together watching the horses graze. Is Tazerski okay? Did I finish the bedroom? I was going to work on your bedroom."

"You were shot. Tazerski is fine."

"I was shot? Who shot me?"

"I don't know. You're awake. You know who I am. That's all that's important."

"Oh, man, is my mouth dry. Where am I?"

"A hospital in Billings."

"Oh, this is where the general was?"

"Yea, this is where they treated the general."

"How long have I been here?"

"A week, I think. I'm not sure. I don't know what day it is. Could be two weeks. Seems like forever."

"You need a shave," Taz said, feeling Kodak's furry face.

"I do, don't I," Kodak said, laughing as the tears ran out of his eyes.

"You're crying."

"Yes, I am. You're awake. They didn't know if you'd wake up. You lost a lot of blood. Dr. Westphalia kept you alive until they got you here."

"I feel like I can hardly breathe. My back hurts like hell. My head hurts. If I'm in the hospital, why can't they do something about the pain? I feel like I'm lying on a rock."

"It's late. I'll see what I can do. You want some ice?"

"Yes, no, don't leave me. Push the button and they'll come," Taz said.

"Oh, yea. I forgot. We're in the hospital," Kodak said.

A nurse came and then a doctor came. They flashed lights in his eyes, checked his heart, his pulse, and the doctor checked his bandages for blood or drainage.

"Go ahead and give him the pain medication. All his vitals are strong. He's going to be okay. You had us scared, young man. It was touch and go when they brought you in here."

"It was?"

Kodak nodded while the nurse added the pain medication to his IV, sitting down near the foot of the bed. The doctor left the room satisfied.

"Is he okay?" the guard on the door asked the doctor.

"He's awake. He's going to be okay," the doctor said, smiling.

"All right!"

"General!... General!"

"Oh my. What time is it, Crosby?"

"04:30, General."

"You're standing here so I guess it's important. Give me a minute to dress."

"Yes, sir," Crosby said, shutting the door quietly.

"What is it, hon? It's still dark," Kathleen observed.

"You go to sleep. It's important. It's almost daylight, dear," the general said, leaning to kiss Kathleen.

"If it's Taz, let me know," Kathleen said.

"I will," he said, pulling on his pants and heading for the communications room.

"Someone reporting trouble?" the general asked from the door.

"I started getting calls an hour ago. UPI called. The AP called. The UPI called again. They want to know where they can find a Sgt. Tazerski. They're just getting wind of where he's been since he dropped out of sight. They put two and two together and came up with you, General."

"Jesus. How long has he been here? Don't they ever give up? He's been a civilian for over two years."

"I don't know. Going on two years I'd say. I've been here two years and he was here when I got here."

The phone rang as the general sat to pull on his boots, figuring his sleep was done for this not

"Yes, sir. This is Gen. Walker's place. Yes, sir," Crosby said, putting his hand over the receiver. "Lester Storm, Time magazine. I haven't told him anything yet, General."

"Give it to me, Crosby. What the hell is going on?" the general said sourly. "Why now?"

"Gen. Walker. What can I do for you," he growled into the phone. "Do you have any idea what time it is? It's 05:00 in God's country and I don't take calls until 08:00."

"I apologize, Gen. Walker. I interviewed you a couple of times for my magazine. We talked about your command, in the Pacific. I'm Lester Storm. It's almost seven here. I'm in New York City."

"Oh, you're in New York City. I guess you don't have time zones in the East."

"Let me get to the point."

"Yes, let's. I can't have you shot long distance, so talking is good, Mr. Storm. Shoot."

"We have an interest in Sgt. Tazerski. We've been looking for him since he disappeared from DC two years ago. I was there to do a story on him. The sergeant dropped out of sight. This is the first sighting we've had since."

"We're going to come to some point, Mr. Storm? I'm back to the having you shot idea."

"You know he was on the cover of our magazine on two occasions. We've received a gunshot wound report on someone named Tazerski. Hard to believe there are two and so close to a general who seemed to be looking after his best interests, after he gained fame as the 'fighting fool of 1st Squad.

"We've located an ambulance log indicating he was transported from your ranch to a hospital in Billings, Montana. What can you tell me about it? The hospital claims they've never heard of him. Don't you find that strange?"

"No comment," the general snapped. "It's 05:06 and I don't take calls in the middle of the night, Mr. Storm. I haven't had my coffee. I'm rather irritable before I have my coffee. Call me back at 08:00 my time and I may or may not have a comment at that time."

"I just need one verification. There's only one hospital I can find in Billings. They have no record of a Tazerski ever being there. I can fly out there but I'd rather talk to you about it. If I can get a little information you might head off a full scale invasion of Montana by curious journalists, who follow our lead religiously."

"I'm sure it'll be a nice flight. You'll like Montana. I can't tell you anything. I'm aware of a gunshot wound but nothing for you and New York City to worry yourself over, Mr. Storm. It was nothing and he isn't there."

"We have a vested interest in following the sergeant's career. He was quite an item for quite some time. If he's out there I'll locate him, Gen. Walker."

"I don't know about that. He was a sergeant and I was a general. It's a military thing. Call me back after 08:00 and we'll chat if I can find something out for you," the general said, slapping down the phone right past Crosby's nose.

"Damn SOBs. How can I protect Taz with the entire news world wanting to find him? I thought that was over."

The phone rang and Crosby snatched it up before it could irritate Gen. Walker any more.

"Gen. Walker's office. What do you want," Crosby said, uncharacteristically sarcastic.

"Kelly? What's wrong? Is he okay? …He is. He is. Get back to your post. Thanks," Crosby said, giggling and then laughing as he hung up the phone.

"You lost your mind, Crosby?" Gen. Walker asked.

"He's awake. Taz is awake and talking. He's fine. He's going to be all right."

Gen. Walker stood at the door for a minute, listening to Crosby. A slow smile came to his lips as he buttoned up his shirt. The anger was gone and his disposition took a sudden turn for the better. He walked next door to his office, sitting in his chair. He reached into the humidor for one of his cigars, taking it in his teeth.

"He's going to be okay. Thank God," he said softly, kicking his cowboy boots up on his desk.

It took a few more minutes for Kathleen to make the first pot of coffee and bring her husband a cup. The first thing she spotted when she entered his office was the cigar.

"You are only to have one of those a day and we agreed it would be after dinner," she said, setting down his coffee while giving her husband a look of disappointment.

"He's awake. He's going to be okay," the general said happily.

"Taz? He's awake? Oh, my word, how wonderful. Now maybe we can get some spring back in our step," Kathleen said, hugging and kissing her husband.

Kathleen sat on his lap and put her arms around his neck, kissing him again, putting the cigar when she finished.

"The press knows he was shot. They're trying to find him. They've been on the phone all night, Crosby said. I can't stop the press and they're going to be all over that hospital.

"I don't know how to keep Taz protected. McCoy thinks this bird is going to make another try at killing him?"

"Why? He's as sweet as they come. Taz wouldn't hurt a fly."

"No, but he killed two of those birds at the courthouse. McCoy is sure this guy was there. We need to get Taz back here as soon it's possible. We can protect him here."

"Can you put more guards on him?"

"Guns and a mob of reporters. What could possibly go wrong? We need to get him home. Set up a room for him where Westphalia can look after him. Until then, I've got to find a way to keep the reporters away from him. I'll talk to the Billings police chief," the general said. "Let him know what's brewing."

"How's the place coming on the mesa? Once he's up there you can put a guard on him. Put a guard on top of the canyon. They won't be able to bother him."

"We're still a week away from having electricity up to them. Most of the outside construction is done and once we ship the cattle, I'll put as many men as it takes to finish the interior. They put in the bathroom yesterday. We can't test the plumbing until the electricity is done and the electric pump in the well is hooked up. We'll have to keep him here until it's all done. I'm going to asphalt the trail up to their house. It'll make things easier."

"You're going all out on this project," Kathleen said.

"If the rains come early we'll need a paved surface," the general explained. "It'll make the trip easier on Taz."

"We can put him in the guest room and set up a folding bed for Kodak," Kathleen said. "I don't think they'll put up with that for long. You going to tell them about the press?"

"Kodak took care of the local media, when he was on tour with Taz. He'll probably have some ideas of how to take care of this. All I can do is guard him. I have no authority in Billings."

"You're a general, dear. You can keep it from getting out of control. The Billings police will be more than happy to have your expertise."

"I'd rather not. I suppose I could shoot a couple of reporters. It might discourage them," Gen. Walker said.

"I don't think they'll let you do that, dear," Kathleen reminded him.

"Given a choice of facing the North Vietnamese or a pack of journalists, Kath, I'd take the North Vietnamese every time."

"They coming too, dear? I'll have to have some help in the kitchen if we're going to feed an army."

Gen. Walker kissed her again and looked at her face as she stuck the cigar back in the humidor. He frowned.

"Celebration's over. Time to get to work, dear."

"This can't help but complicates his rehabilitation. I don't want him bothered. How am I to know which one of these reporters isn't a reporter? I don't like it and it can't help but get out of control. Reporters!"

"You'll take care of it, dear. You need to shower and change your clothes. I want to go to the hospital. Don't you? I'll get breakfast ready for you."

"Yes," the general said, remembering the good news. The general got showered and dressed in suitable clothing. They sat down to breakfast together as the sun rose and got higher in the Montana sky.

Kendall got up and was excited about the news that Taz was awake. The sadness that reached across the general's ranch was lifted, but it did nothing to stop the chaos that was heading their way.

"Dr. Jake Slade. Has a nice ring to it, don't it," Jake Slade said to himself as he arranged a nametag he made to go on the doctor's tunic he'd stolen for the occasion.

He slipped the stethoscope into his ears, letting them slide down on his neck the way he'd seen the doctors do it. The rearview mirror didn't offer him much of a view of himself, but he knew he was convincing. He was always convincing. He could charm the most hardcore doubter, because he believed in himself and he could always shoot his way out of there if he failed to convince someone.

It had taken him some time to figure out where they'd moved the elusive cowboy, Tazerski. It just took time, patience, and a keen eye to figure out which room was out of bounds for everyone but doctors and nurses.

The guard on the door was a dead giveaway, except prisoners often put each other in the hospital and cops knew better than to leave them unguarded while being treated.

Jake Slade reached under his tunic to touch the handle of the revolver in a holster under his armpit. It was small, relatively quiet, and effective at close range. He'd be in and gone before anyone knew what was happening. He'd walk back across the parking lot, get into the vehicle, and leave.

He'd drive to the main entrance, ease his way onto the main highway, turning right, heading for the Interstate about the time the first cop cars would be racing to respond to the call, 'shots fired at the hospital.'

By the time the police were in the room of the man who had just been shot, he'd be on the ramp to the Interstate, heading for Idaho. He'd drive the speed limit, stop at the first rest area and jettison the costume. He'd slip the .22 caliber pistol down in the side of the trash can beside the doctor's tunic.

'It was good to have a plan,' he thought, opening the car door, stepping out onto the parking lot.

Jake Slade stood tall, taking a deep breath of fresh morning air. It was the end of one shift on Tazerski's door.

He'd succeed because he took the time to put all the pieces together before he made the hit. It was why he was successful. It was how he'd succeeded in Vietnam without getting wounded. He took the time to know the target, know the area, and make a quick getaway, once the job was done.

"Ah, Mr. Storm, how did I know I'd be hearing from you again? How are you?" Gen. Walker asked cheerfully.

"General? Gen. Walker?" the uncertain voice asked.

"The one and only. You able to give me any more information about what's going on, son?"

"Yes, sir," Lester Storm said suspiciously. "I haven't gotten the entire story but I'd appreciate you being honest with me on what I do have. How is Sgt. Tazerski? I trust he is not seriously wounded?"

"The last I heard, he was fine. There's nothing for you to worry about. I'll let him know you inquired about him and if you leave your number, he can call you. Don't be surprised if he doesn't call, Mr. Storm. Mr. Tazerski has readjusted well to civilian life. I don't believe he has any interest in the insanity you boys bring his way."

"General, I've been on the phone with the local papers in Billings. I'm talking with local television news departments and news director of the radio stations. They've led me to the ambulance company that transported Sgt. Tazerski to Billings. I spoken to a very unpleasant Dr. Westphalia, your local sheriff, likewise telling me he knows nothing about anything to do with you or your ranch.

"In spite of your efforts to keep me in the dark, what I know is Sgt. Tazerski was near death when he arrived in Billings. He was suffering a gunshot wound near his heart and he spent some hours in the operating room, after his arrival. All according to the records kept by a hospital on a gunshot wound.

"The news services in Billings are going to be all over this story later this morning. They're going to the hospital to get what will quickly become of national interest. You're about to be inundated by journalists of every stripe. That's my best estimate.

"Sgt. Tazerski is a celebrity, like it or not. Do I send our crew to join the… invasion, or do you give me some information that can lessen the need to pursue this story?"

"Yes! Yes, Of course I'll do my best to inform you of the facts. He's Mr. Tazerski. He was discharged from the army two years ago. Goodbye, Mr. Storm. I've got work to do. Have a nice day. Nice talking to you again."

Gen. Walker tried not to slam down the phone, only half succeeding. Complicating the situation wasn't what he had in mind, but he was powerless to stop it now. Taz was conscious. He could move him to the ranch as fast as the doctors said it was advisable.

"Kendall, time to roll. We need to get to Billings before noon, when I'm told all hell breaks loose. We'll need two… no get me four men, sidearms only. We might need to convince some folks that Taz needs his privacy."

"Okay, boss. He okay?"

"It's not him, Kendall. It's the entire news world making their way here to cover the story about him being shot. They've suddenly been made aware of where the disappearing Sgt. Tazerski got to. How the hell they got wind of it… I'd like to know. I might be able to maintain some control if I get out ahead of it. I'll call the Billings police before we leave. They may be willing to drop some men in there before the stampede starts. I'll let them know reinforcements are on the way."

Already straining the resources of a small town hospital, the influx of news media, demanding answers, and wanting access was going to make everything more difficult. Gen. Walker was accustomed to fighting for what he needed, but shooting journalists, even annoying ones, was extreme.

Protecting Taz under the circumstances was going to be made more difficult. That's why Gen. Walker would stay, until all risk was removed. He'd sit in the room with his .45 in his lap if he thought Taz was in danger.

Knowing Taz was going to be okay meant seeing to it he stayed okay. He didn't want to alarm his men until it was necessary. With the Billings police already alerted, he knew they were prepared to protect Taz, until he arrived with more men.

It hadn't hurt at all for the general to have sent in the latest bulletproof vest for a dozen of the Billings police. He'd also sent some of the latest communications equipment he'd been give by the Montana National Guard. Gen. Walker knew how the game was played and doing favors for local law enforcement bought him cooperation when needed.

"How do you feel, Taz?" Kodak asked, feeling better than he'd felt in ages.

"I've felt better. Pulling that tube out of my dick wasn't my favorite thing. Can I have some more ice?"

Kodak leaned over to spoon the ice into Taz's mouth, until he shook his head no a few minutes later. His disposition wasn't very good after being unconscious for so long and waking up to major discomfort.

The door opened and Madge came in with a cup of ice cream. She looked at Taz and he looked at her.

"They'll only let you have vanilla, but I brought a cup thinking you might enjoy it. I'm Madge," she said, giving the cup of ice cream to Kodak.

"Just take a little and see how it tastes. It's cool and might help soothe your throat," Kodak said.

"Did you notice the people outside?" Madge asked, pulling her Harry Callahan pistol out of her purse and placing it on the table in front of her chair.

"No, I haven't looked outside," Kodak said, as Madge arranged her things on the card table in front of the gun.

"You mad at someone, Madge?" Taz asked. "I hope it isn't me. That's the biggest gun I ever seen."

"Honey, I know who you are. I know the biggest gun you ever saw was that B.A.R. A Browning Automatic Rifle is a hell of a weapon, Sergeant. This is a pea shooter in comparison, but I know how to use it for maximum impact should some misguided soul come looking for trouble."

"Trouble?" Taz said.

Madge looked at Kodak and he shrugged, seeming to have no objections to anything she might say.

"Honey, someone shot you. I've been around long enough to know if someone tries to kill you and doesn't, odds are he'll keep trying until he does.

"I'm here to keep you alive. That's what the gun is for. Call it your insurance policy."

"Jesus! Anne Oakley for a nurse," Taz said. "I'm just a cowboy who does his job."

"I'm a nurse who takes her job seriously."

Taz wasn't sure how to take Madge. Her having a gun didn't bother him. He just didn't think it was necessary.

Taz lifted his head to scratch his neck. It had begun to itch as soon as Madge arrived. He knew the itch meant something, but he couldn't remember what. Scratching it didn't help.

Jake entered the hospital through the side entrance. He knew where the doctors' lounge was from earlier visits. Doctors came and went from hospitals all the time. He sat in the lounge with a newspaper to see if he'd be challenged. He wasn't. After a few doctors came and went, he put down the paper, stepping into the hall to assume the role of doctor.

The man he wanted was on the second floor. There would be a guard, perhaps two. One shot behind the ear would dispatch them as well as anyone else who got in the way. Leaving as few bodies behind as possible was his plan, but killing was no problem for Jake Slade.

There were a dozen or so men approaching the first floor nurses' station as he stood in the hallway observing. He didn't waste any time slipping into the stairwell. It was time to do the job. As he moved up the stairs he felt the handle of his gun to be sure it was there. He stepped out into the second floor hall on the opposite side of the hospital from where he was going. The walk across would allow him to observe everyone moving around on the second floor. Passing the second floor nurses' station would be the last place he might be challenged before he reached Taz's room. By the time he entered the hall where he was going, he'd have enough information to know how to proceed.

He took one glance to see if the guard was in place. He didn't keep looking down that hall, not wanting to alert the guard of his interest. It was time to make his move.

As Jake Slade was about to cross the open area in front of the nurses' station, men whom he recognized from the first floor nurses' station crossed in front of him. It was like a small scale invasion. He was distracted by the chatter aimed at the nurses.

He slowed to make sure the disturbance wouldn't attract too much attention. In another minute he'd slip across unnoticed, because the new arrivals would block the nurse's view of the hall. He'd take all the help he could get.

The guard moved a few feet, until his back was against the wall at the end of the hall. He looked back at the disturbance at the nurses' station. The guard locked eyes with Jake as he prepared to cross over. Jake didn't want to join the crowd at the nurses' station and he didn't want to retreat.

When Jake looked back to see if the guard was still looking his way, he saw the military issue .45 on his belt. The shirttail that covered it had been pushed out of the way. The guard continued staring directly in Jake's direction.

Jake opened the first door to his left to move out of sight. He read the name as he entered the room.

"Morning, Mrs. Lavender," he said enthusiastically. "How are you this morning?"

More men came up the main staircase, heading for the nurses' station, joining the first group that were arguing with the nurse over the whereabouts of one Sgt. Tazerski, who they had it on good information was in this hospital.

Jake stepped back out of the room saying, "You have a nice day too. I'll be back to check in on you later."

There was confusion in the middle of the hospital. The guard had moved toward the commotion, halfway down the hall now. The commotion seemed to concern him. A second guard appeared out of the stairs on that side of the hospital.

Jake took his time seeing what came next. This was unexpected and now the guards were alerted to the disturbance. The time for making his move had passed. He wanted to find out what turned a normally quiet hospital into a circus.

It was just before noon when Gen. Walker and Kathleen reached the hospital. He wasn't expecting a reception committee but press vehicles were everywhere.

"Kendall, take us around to the side entrance. There's already news vehicles out front and I don't see any cop cars. They were supposed to head the press off. We'll go up the side stairs. They'll be able to figure out what room he's in if they know what they're looking for."

"Get the extra men upstairs. Put some at the end of the hallway nearest the main stairs pronto. I don't want Taz disturbed."

"Yes, sir," Kendall said, swinging out of the sedan and going back to the following vehicle to relay the orders.

The general held the door as Kathleen slid out and they moved double time into the hospital.

The man on the door reached for the knob to let Gen. Walker and Kathleen inside.

"I've got men with me. They'll take care of crowd control," Gen. Walker said to the guard as he entered Taz's room.

As soon as Gen. Walker was in Taz's room, he was on the phone.

"Hello, this is Gen. Walker. Get me an outside line. No, get me the Billings police chief. Thanks. Yes, I know they're looking for his room. Don't let them come down here. Tell them he isn't here. Make something up.

"Hello, this is Gen. Walker. You boys were supposed to be here by now. I've brought men to keep them out of his room but not enough to control the outside. You need to put a couple of cars out here until you convince the press to back off," the general advised.

Jake Slade stood on the first floor watching the general and his wife and then four more men go into the staircase on the opposite side of the hospital from where he stood. He hadn't figured out what was going on yet, but he intended to before he left for the day.

If he'd gone ahead with the hit he'd have walked right into Gen. Walker's men. Calling it off proved to be a wise decision. Slade knew his intuition wasn't to be questioned. It had saved his life more than once.

Jake headed for the main entrance, blending in with the people he could see coming and going. Men passed him, going up the main stairs on their way to the second floor. Some men passed him on their way back outside. The loud voices were demanding and intimidating.

Jake stood watching them for a minute as he stood at the big glass doors. He moved out into the warm early afternoon. A man with a microphone stood nearby. He was gathering a crowd and Jake moved over to listen.

"For two years Sgt. Tazerski's whereabouts have been unknown, but this news service has tracked him here."

"Cut. That's all I need out here," a man in a suit and wearing headphones ordered. "We'll finish it inside once we have more. Take some stills and get the sign. I want pictures of the sign. We need to set the scene for tonight's broadcast."

Jake was standing under the sign. He moved around the men with clicking cameras and past the illegally parked news vehicles, thinking someone should do something about the scofflaws. He shook his head and headed for his car.

Jake thought about the general and the guards in the hallway. He knew there was a good chance the general would go into that staircase alone, when he left. If he timed it right he could take him out on the stairs, go up and get the cowboy, but with the guards already there and the group that just showed up, the odds were against him making two hits and coming back out alive.

He understood it would be easy to get trapped on the second floor. Too many people and he could no longer control his escape route. It was over for this day. Too many variables had been added to the picture. Any one of them could foil any plan he came up with.

'I'll wait for things to calm down. No choice. As long as they don't know what I look like, I can move around freely. This just isn't my day. Too many cameras. He might appear in one of the pictures. If there was no hit there was no reason for someone to go over the faces in those picture.' That suited Jake fine.

As Jake was preparing to leave the hospital parking lot, Gen. Walker finished with the phone and came into the hall to position his cowboys. He sent a man to the end of the hall where anyone coming up the main staircase would pass. He sent one man back down to the first floor to watch anyone who went into the staircase. He put two guards on Taz's door. The police chief was sending two cars to keep an eye on the activities out in front of the hospital.

Satisfied, Gen. Walker finally felt comfortable doing what he came to do, visit his friend.

A police car drove down in front of where Jake was parked. He didn't let the cops see his face, reflexively moving his hand very near his gun. The car kept moving as another police car came through a side entrance and stopped at the main hospital entrance.

"Grand Central Station," Jake said to himself.

Jake slipped the gun out of its holster, placing it under his thigh, resting his hand very close to it. He pulled off the tunic, the holster, and the stethoscope in one motion, tossing it in the backseat. His white tee shirt with the 'don't tread on me' logo was a perfect fit for Montana free men. People often smiled and nodded when he wore it.

Jake Slade was a cool customer. He sat quietly until all the police cars were out of view. It was time to make a smooth quiet exit.

'What the hell happened?' he wondered, beginning to feel like he'd failed the mission he'd undertaken. First his kill shot didn't kill the cowboy and now, just as he was ready to finish the job, all hell broke loose. 'Maybe this cowboy ain't meant to be dead.'

He looked into the rearview mirror, carefully brushing back his thick dark hair, smiling through his newly acquired facial hair to make certain he still had it.

"Shit!" he yelled, exploding with rage, slamming the side of his closed fists against the steering wheel. "I wanted to finish it today. Where did all those idiots come from?"

Jake drove away from the hospital and Billings. He would regroup and decide on his next move. It was never the same twice. Each day brought a new approach. He didn't like getting this close and then needing to retreat.

"Here it is. Room eleven," a young reporter said as he charged out of the staircase.

"Can we go in?" the small man asked the big cowboy.

"You think I'd be standing here if you couldn't go in?"

"How is he? This is Sgt. Tazerski's room?"

"Got me. It's the room I was told to stand in front of to keep people like you out. They don't discuss the patient cases with me. This is a hospital. It's where people come for privacy. Why don't you go back to wherever you came from? This room is off limits to visitors. Doctor's orders, and much more importantly, my orders. Scat!"

The police kept order. Reporters stood in front of anything hospital like, making speeches to a camera. They mostly said they had no information about anything, except the world was once more aware of a disappeared celebrity sergeant from a faraway Asian war.

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