Montana Sky

by Rick Beck

Chapter 3

Mesa Moves

The rain pelted the roof of the cabin and the wind tore at the shingles. Taz spent a week replacing the old roof, after the first rain storm left the beds wet. It took that long because they were in no hurry just after moving in to their new home. They spent more time laughing and joking after being separated for a couple of months. The separation, after being together every day for over a year, was difficult for both of them.

Taz sipped the coffee, impervious to the heat of the liquid on his lips and inside his mouth. He was back to remembering the details of the time he and Kodak spent together, including when they were separated once before.

He'd been taken to an army hospital to dry out in a locked room in the psychiatric section his first day away from Kodak. Only the general was allowed inside, except for hospital staff. He was told that he'd stay there until his discharge was final. He was listed as being a member of Gen. Walker's staff, but his duties were not defined. There were no hospital records kept for the man in C-11 with no name.

Lord knows the reporters tried to find him, after he was a no show at the congressional reception given in his honor. The general had been around a long time and he knew how to keep someone out of reach for a day or forever if he wanted.

"Congressional aids and staff told this reporter that Sgt. Tazerski was on special assignment and therefore was unavailable for the reception. This left in question the speech Kodak, Paul Anderson, wire service photo-journalist and the sergeant's companion on his tour, gave to explain the sergeant's absence. This reporter was unable to reach Mr. Anderson for comment."

Gen. Walker was efficient and careful. There were no loose ends, no falsifications anyone could prove, and only officers he trusted knew the facts. No one in the U S Army was about to tarnish the heroic face that was Sgt. Tazerski and only the men closest to the general knew all the facts.

The general did what needed to be done to protect Taz, not for the U S Army's benefit, but for Taz. General Walker had seen better men than Taz suddenly lose their minds, after seeing too much. After experiencing the unimaginable horrors of war, some men became drunks and others became drug addicts, and this was the cost of war that was never measured.

Because Taz quit drinking cold turkey, his fall came out of the blue. No one around him, except for Kodak, knew he was a drunk. He was merely a drunk who wasn't drinking.

Not many men are strong enough to quit on their own and never drink again, because sooner or later they're going to get blindsided by something. They don't see it coming and can't brace themselves for the impact, and they have a reflex reaction to it. They remember booze will kill the pain.

The general knew this history. He gave Taz the time and the facility where he could dry out, while keeping him away from scrutiny. The fact it corresponded with his final two months of obligation to the army meant Taz was his own man the day his discharge came.

Not even Kodak could be told where he was. Kodak was under 24 hour a day scrutiny by the media, once the press realized their DC darling had gone missing. There were rumors of a secret mission, a special commission from the president, sending him back into combat, but soon the trail grew cold as Taz quietly finished his tour of duty and Kodak dropped out of sight.

The shrink was optional but he came with the room and Taz humored him, matching him question for question, when he talked at all. Once the discharge came and the doors opened, it would be up to Taz to stay sober. No one could force him to do anything.

"We can make sure you dry out by keeping you confined here, but sooner or later you'll walk out of here, and then whether or not you stay sober is up to you," the shrink said. "I can give you all the reasons why you should stop drinking, but the real world is out there and I can't tell you what to do about that."

At first it had been a dog fight, more growling than talking; Taz soon realized he couldn't get anywhere that way, and while never telling the doctor anything, he began to talk. All Taz knew was that he trusted Kodak and he missed his friend. He thought his lack of cooperation was keeping them apart, and so he talked on most days.

The general told Taz to trust Dr. Sharper and he'd soon be reunited with Kodak. Accepting that the general knew best, he agreed to play along. It had all worked out in the end. He started to trust the general, once his plan became clear.

"Sit tight. Do your time. You'll have your life back soon," the general assured him.

Now, the general had brought him the worst possible news. Kodak wasn't returning to the cabin and Taz didn't know if he could live without him. He'd hold off on making any decisions, knowing Kodak knew where he was and would find his way back to him if it was possible, maybe even if it wasn't. He had to have hope.

Kodak sat on Nature magazine's offer for some time. Nature didn't want anyone else taking the pictures. Seeing Kodak's pictures taken in the jungles of Vietnam convinced them he was their man. Taz knew Kodak wanted to go on a job that would pay him well and he told him he thought he should go.

The idea of being without Kodak had no great appeal, but Taz had mostly been alone, and he knew he could tough it out for the few weeks he'd be gone. It now saddened him that he had agreed. What he wanted was for Kodak to stay there with him, but it wasn't fair for him to deny Kodak some freedom to ply his trade. He thought if he let Kodak go to do this job he'd be happier being with him in Montana.

Taz stood on the porch and watched the trail leading down to the house. It was farther overland than following the fence line, but the fence was a fifteen minute ride to the north of the cabin. He'd stood every day, watching the trail from the same spot, expecting Kodak to appear one afternoon. Even knowing he might never return, he watched anyway.

His entire life had been spent waiting to have a life, which led him to Vietnam. He was sure his life would end there, until Kodak showed up. For some reason his appearance changed Taz. Kodak was in school and a professor's glorious talk of war had him going to Vietnam to find himself and photograph the war.

Once Kodak found Taz, his world was quickly turned upside down. Little did he know the agreement he entered into with Sgt. Jacoby was going to leave him questioning everything, including his sanity. Being made responsible for someone who was utterly irresponsible kept Kodak off balance and confused.

His curiosity being greater than his original revulsion to Taz, Kodak walked into the lion's den unaware, and he ended up being the lion tamer. It didn't happen right away, but slowly, the two men bonded. Together their lives had more meaning than ever before, and in a war zone that helped them stay alive.

Taz didn't reflect on his past as a matter of preference. There was nothing behind him that had anything to do with the man he had become. He was doing a man's job and enjoying life the way he never imagined he could, and yet without Kodak, the joy had gone out of it.

Reflecting on Kodak became painful, because of the uncertainty of his absence. The past two years were full of him. His present was empty without him. The idea of Montana with his friend at his side was heaven but without him it felt empty. Taz wasn't eager to consider a future never knowing what happened to Kodak.

It was the day after the general brought the news, and Taz was standing on the front porch, looking for some sign of Kodak's return. He would not change his routine. He knew, one day, he'd see him coming home. It's the only thing that kept him from going to pieces.

He saw the rider coming ten minutes before he got to where the cabin was tucked up close to the canyon wall. The man sat too tall and straight to be Kodak. It took another minute for Taz to know it was the general. His benefactor was concerned about him and there was nothing Taz could say to set the general's mind at ease.

"Morning, general," Taz said, as the general moved his horse up to the porch so he was able to look Taz in the eye. "You join the Welcome Wagon?"

"Kathleen is worried about you. I have fresh soup. It's still warm. She wrapped it to keep it that way, and she roasted a chicken for you. I brought bread and some more coffee, beans, and canned goods. She's always picking up canned goods on sale. She knows what… Kodak buys for you."

"Come on in. I've got a pot on the stove," Taz said, walking through the open door into the single room, carrying the canvas bag the general handed him.

The sun was out and the cool night air was warming so that shirt sleeves were comfortable. Spring had grabbed hold and the days would continue warming for some time to come. The general stepped off the horse and brought the second canvas bag of fresh prepared food as he watched Taz grab the faded red coffee pot.

"No, I'll fix us some fresh. I don't need to grow any more hair in my ears and nose, son. Your coffee has that impact on me. You're accustomed to that swill the army serves you, but I, I am a connoisseur."

"You're telling me I wasn't getting the same coffee generals got?" Taz asked, in mock shock.

"We'd send the guy that brought us that kind of coffee out to face a firing squad. No, mine came in a silver carafe and was always replaced on the hour, until I no longer needed coffee. That's when I was brought my bourbon."

"I knew you officers got a better deal. No one never served me no coffee. If I wanted it I had to go get it myself. I guess I should have become an officer," Taz kidded.

"It was one way to keep you boys in shape. Making it too easy on you would only encourage you to get careless. Here's the bottle you asked for," Gen. Walker said, setting down the bourbon in the center of the table.

Gen. Walker knew giving a drunk a bottle was the wrong thing to do, but Taz had to live his own life, make his own mistakes, and the general wasn't going to treat him like a child. He'd been asked to bring a bottle and he'd brought it.

"Do you want me to wash your cup or can I wipe it out with my shirttail?" Taz asked. "You being a general and all."

"Get away from there. I'll take care of my cup. Get the grinder out and fill it up and grind some beans. Those aren't ordinary beans, son. That's my special blend Kathleen picks up for me when she gets into Billings.

"Good lord, I'll have to clean this mess up enough to get some water in that sink. You're way too young to be this messy. I think maybe I'll bury most of it and bring you up some fresh paper doodads. Do you ever wash dishes?"

"Not if I can avoid it. Most stuff wipes right off dishes. Kind of adds some flavor, after I burn something. Once I dirtied them all, I figured out I could put the cans on the stove but you got to open them first. Man they sure don't like to be heated up before you open them. Suckers go off like a grenade," Taz explained.

"I'll keep that in mind and pass it on to Kathleen, so she doesn't make that mistake," the general quipped, cleaning out two coffee cups.

The general got the coffee pot on the stove, after shoving enough wood in it to get the fire going. He put out the soup and found one clean bowl up in the cabinet to sit down in front of Taz.

"I'm really not hungry, General. I've been off my feed. Tell the Mrs. I appreciate it very much but I'll be fine."

"Yeah, and the Mrs. is going to ask me how you liked her soup, and you're going to tell me how you like it, because she knows when I'm not shooting straight with her. She took the time to make this soup for you, son, and you're going to eat it. I brought some crackers. Coffee should be ready in a few minutes. The soup is warm enough for you. Eat! Enjoy! That's an order."

"Yes, sir."

Taz sat watching the general move piles of debris out of his way. He seemed oblivious to the slovenly former soldier's utter disregard for any order in his life. He didn't come up to criticize or complain. His concern for Taz was real and heartfelt, but he was at a loss to find some right thing to do to make things better for Taz.

He didn't understand Taz & Kodak's friendship, but it was none of his business. Taz wasn't in the army anymore and Kodak never was. Their lives were their own and all he did was offer them a place to make their lives work and plenty of work to boot.

Taz was a tireless worker. He took Cyclone along the fence line for hours each day. The constant breaches in the fence were troubling and more than usual according to the meticulous records Kathleen kept for the years he was gone.

General Walker's spring cattle count hadn't begun yet, but he halfway expected to come up short. If they came up short it would be time to put men on riding fence around the clock, until the culprits were caught. It was only suspicion at this point but he couldn't help but wonder.

He didn't sense Taz was in any danger, but he thought about bringing up a sidearm for him to carry, just in case. Then he thought about Kodak being missing, and he figured he'd wait to bring Taz a gun until his disappearance was resolved.

The general stressed that if he found anything suspicious, he was to come down to the ranch house for reinforcements before taking any action on his own, so they could mount a force to confront the bad guys. He knew Taz might try to take on the culprits if he came upon them, but telling him not to might register as an order.

While it wasn't unusual for cows to wander off from time to time, cows rarely carried wire cutters, and the overwhelming evidence pointed to man-made cuts. Though Taz's repairs disguised the source, the general spent time inspecting Taz's splices.

Once they had a few days of dry weather, they'd drive the rest of the herd off the mesa and down onto the meadows, where the new grown spring grass would make the cattle happy. That's when branding started and a head count was most accurate. The general wasn't going to come to any conclusions until that was done.

It was rare for Taz to spend too many hours of daylight in the cabin. His natural instincts made roaming something he liked, roaming the fence line was fine. He regretted not spending more time with Kodak when he could have, now that he couldn't. Work came first because he owed it to the general, but it bothered him now.

Kodak always kept the cabin clean, the food prepared, and only rode out with Taz when he needed help to accomplish some task, or when Kodak just wanted to stay with him. It wasn't an easy life but it was a good life and it was their life.

Kodak spent a lot of time writing his novel, using the notebooks he kept in Vietnam to remind him of the facts. He stopped writing when Taz came in, to dish up a meal before they sat on the porch to watch the sunset together.

Many magazines had approached Kodak to do spreads for them, but besides the box canyon pictures and the Vietnam pictures he owned, his devotion was to Taz and their Montana home. Traveling required an investment of time he didn't want to make. To do a job right required you be willing the time to do it right and Kodak wanted to spend his time making their cabin a home and keeping Taz fed.

When the offer came to do the photo shoot on an island in the Pacific, the idea appealed to him. The income was enough to put away for a rainy day. It would also keep Kodak's photojournalist career alive in case he needed to find work later. Their Montana mesa was perfect, but things change and photographing animals seemed safe.

Taz encouraged Kodak to take the job. He'd seen the excitement on his face and a short separation didn't seem like it would be all that bad. Mostly he wanted Kodak to be happy. He'd ridden to the house with him to bring Milkweed back to the cabin, thinking he'd take her back down for Kodak when he returned.

It had been little more than a week and it seemed like forever. Taz could hardly remember Kodak's face at times. He lay in bed at night wondering about his friend's fate. He couldn't help but miss him.

Had they seen the last of each other? Was Kodak at the bottom of the ocean or in the belly of a fish somewhere? Was the first friend he ever had gone forever?

Taz was tough. Little in life got to him. He'd been kicked around as a kid. He learned not to expect much. He'd never had a friend before and he didn't know how to lose one. The ache in his heart was something new. He'd never have let him go if he'd known Kodak might not return. They'd been in a war, shot at, lost, emerging in some alternate world of flashbulbs and media. They both laughed about it. How could life change so fast?

You follow your nose and take it as it comes, but Taz wasn't prepared for how his life had caved in on him, once Kodak was gone. He wasn't convinced, or couldn't accept, that Kodak was dead. No, there was no evidence he was dead. He took off in a plane and flew off over the ocean and he was out there somewhere. Taz thought that, but without Kodak there was no proof, and the doubt ate at him.

Taz was never a hero. He became a photograph. The photograph was the hero, but the photograph was of him, so he became a hero. It wasn't him even when it was. Taz was always a zero. He didn't belong anywhere. He became whatever the people around him wanted him to be. The army wanted him to be a hero and he became one, never believing he was one.

He'd picked up a rifle. It made him feel taller than his five foot seven height. He picked up a rifle and he let it speak for him. It had little to do with him. The rifle had a spirit all its own and Taz gave himself to the will of his weapon. It made him taller, more visible, an important element of 1 st squad. They depended on him.

Kodak's pictures caught a fragment of a second in time on film, frozen forever. Taz was never a model soldier. He wasn't a part of anything. He had no need for approval or acceptance. These were things he'd never had.

The B.A.R.'s (Browning Automatic Rifle) spirit melded with his, and he became more than he'd ever been before. The sound, the feel, the power of the B.A.R. blended with his essence, becoming one with him, and he with it.

1 st squad and Sgt. Jacoby bought into his heroics and the whirlwind surrounding him carried them out of danger and on the road to entertaining the troops without it being any of his doing. Neither he nor Kodak took it too seriously, until the night it came falling down on Taz. The war had finally caught him off guard and unarmed. Ten thousand miles from where the guns were being fired, Taz became a casualty of war.

Taz never had a break in his life. Suddenly he was famous, cared about, and even in despair there were people doing all they could to bring him back off the razor's edge. Even when he fell the furthest, he understood there were people who cared. This was responsible for Taz's healing more than anything else, but being told Kodak was waiting for him made a difference. After two months, the general took him to a reunion. Taz didn't know how he felt until he took a look at Kodak. He realized he wanted to get on with his life. He knew he was starting over, but this time there were people who cared and because Kodak cared, Taz wanted to be a better man, a sober man.

The smile, the expression, the absolute rapture Kodak expressed upon seeing him was enough to drag him back away from the gates of hell. If ever he'd doubted anyone loved him, or that he was capable of loving, Kodak erased the idea. Taz may not have understood why his friend stood by him, but he did.

They'd been together every day since flying into Montana to set up housekeeping in a broken down shack on the mesa, a half dozen miles above the house and an additional twenty miles from any sign of civilization. They'd lived there together, until Kodak went on his photo shoot. He couldn't conceive of not seeing him again. He couldn't conceive of going through life without him. He didn't know if there was life without him.

He was just going to take pictures. They'd been together in a war and Kodak was just going to take some pictures. Now he might not come back. If he could come back he would. Taz settled on that.

He lay in bed that night with a fire burning in the stove, where he left the door wide open so he could watch the embers. The bottle of bourbon sat in the middle of the table. The flickering flames showed in the glass of the bottle as the empty cabin furnished deep shadows around Taz's life.

The following morning when Taz got up, he stood in his socks and jeans, holding the bottle. He read everything written on the labels. He set it back in the middle of the table. He stared at it even after he set it down. He wanted a drink more than anything in the world but it was early. He didn't want to drink early. He slung the coffee pot back on the stove. It was still more than half full from the pot the general made. Two days, three days, four days old, didn't matter a bit. They may have been good beans but it was still coffee. In Vietnam Taz drank coffee he was sure could have peeled paint off a car, but he drank it, glad to have it, happy to see a new day. Happy it was the general's coffee he was drinking and not his.

There weren't a lot of good things about war. The coffee, having coffee, was good, even when it was bad coffee. 1 st squad was good. He never minded 1 st squad all that much. They had been people but they were all in the same boat together. It didn't matter if you were Cohen and came from money or you were Taz and came from dirt, Nam was the great equalizer.

Had Taz not been there, Cohen might never have lived to make it home. Had Cohen not been there, Taz might never have lived to become a hero, an icon, a magazine cover boy. Taz laughed, holding the boiling cup of coffee as he leaned on the porch post, looking down toward the house, where Kodak would come from when he returned.

How long had it been now?

"Kodak!" he screamed as loud as he could scream. "Kodak."

The word shattered the silence, echoed out into the box canyon, coming back at him. He went back into the cabin and sat staring at the bottle of bourbon, wondering what time it was. Sipping the coffee, shirtless, on a morning that was a little above freezing, Taz was oblivious to everything but what went on behind his eyes.

He wondered about the time again.

He watched the rider coming closer through the open door. The general's horse cantered the last few yards to Taz's front porch. It was a beautiful red horse. Taz walked out as the horse, remembering how to take the general up to where Taz stood, moved sideways to get them eye to eye.

"She's a beauty," Taz said, feeling the space between her eyes and down to just above her warm silky nose.

"Thoroughbred. Kathleen saw her when she was back in Kentucky two years back. Kathleen is from Kentucky, you know? Horse country that. She bought her for me. I didn't see her until I retired. She'd kept her in the corner of the stables out of sight when I was home on leave.

She didn't want the horse to get used to me only to have me gone again in a few days, as I was always gone from her. She's got a way of setting me straight. I guess it wasn't easy on her all these years," he confessed.

"She run the place?"

"You want to know the truth, she still does. Keeps the books, makes the deals, pays the bills. She lets me give orders to the men so I feel useful, but the men tell me she knew what she wanted and it was best not to argue when she told one of them what to do."

"That's a nice story. She must really love you, General," Taz said with an understanding he'd never possessed about love before.

"Yes, she put up with more shit than any wife should, but I'm home and I'm making it up to her. I'm staying home from now on.

"Here, some clean cups. Chicken and dumplings in the tin. You must rate, she never makes chicken and dumplings for me. Here's a tin of biscuits. She says they're fine cold or hot. Here's butter. Go ahead and take those in. I'll bring the rest."

"The rest?"

"You don't think I came up here just to bring you lunch? Yeah, she's still pulling stuff out to bring to you. She keeps thinking she has forgotten something."

The general brought in a canvas bag that was hung over his saddle horn. His horse stood patiently right where the general left her.

"More canned goods. Paper plates. Burn them in the fireplace. Don't just put them outside. They'll blow down to the house if you do. You haven't opened the bourbon. I brought you another one," the general said, holding a second bottle in his hand.

"No, you keep it. It isn't for drinking. I promised Kodak I wouldn't take another drink. That's for me to know I won't drink. It's easy to not drink if there is nothing to drink. It makes me remember why I don't drink to have the bottle to remind me."

"The first time we met, I sensed you were one courageous soldier. I had nothing to base it on but instinct and some pretty pictures Kodak took. It's easier to see it here, Taz. I don't know what you are experiencing, but most men I know would have drunk themselves silly if how I think you feel is anywhere close."

"It's just what I need to do, General. I appreciate your concern for me. I surely do appreciate it. Let the Mrs. know how much it means to me, knowing she is concerned for me. It helps. It surely does help. Don't know many folks give a hoot about me."

"More than you know, son. You're a good man. You deserve a break. I'm afraid I can't give you one. There's nothing. No word. No wreckage. No sign. They've just disappeared," the general said sadly.

"They'll keep looking. Lots of navy ships out there. Most of the fleet knows to keep their eyes open for a very important fellow. A personal favor to an old general."

"Thank you, General. No wreckage, no wreck. It helps. You shouldn't be spending so much time worrying about me. I'll be fine. I got my chores and such."

"That may well be true, son, but I can't help myself. My boys are my life and when one of you is hurting, I'm hurting. Just let me be and I'll let you be. We'll both deal with our lives the best we can. I just want to be handy, son."

"Sounds like I get the best end of the deal but I can't see anything wrong in that. I'm at home here now and this is where I belong."

"Have some chicken and dumplings? Kathleen's dumplings melt in your mouth. I'd be big as a house if you put them in front of me too often."

"Sounds like you might like to join me, General. Let's eat."

"The smell is too much to resist. I'll just sit here and have a taste. Kathleen doesn't have to know. Didn't intend to come here to eat your grub."

Taz laughed and the general put out two paper plates and dropped a small amount of the aromatic meal on his plate and a larger amount on the other plate.

After finishing his portion, the general got up from his food and excused himself.

"Got to get back. Chores to do. Don't want Kathleen suspecting I'm up here eating food she sent to you," the general said, picking up his hat and heading for the door.

Taz walked to the door to watch him riding back toward the house. He'd never had friends and now he was blessed with them. It was difficult to be depressed under those circumstances.

The general was more like a father to him than his father had ever been.

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