Montana Sky

by Rick Beck

Chapter 4

Island Master

Kodak looked across what he thought was the volcanic field, sealed long ago with molten rock that cooled to create a top. Vegetation grew in abundance but there were no trees, mostly shrubs and weeds. As he examined it for some sign of a breach or impending eruption, he caught sight of a brilliant red bird sitting in the nearest tree, across the crags and crevices. It was maybe fifty yards away.

The bird seemed unaware of Kodak. It would have taken a major effort to cross the lava field for a closer look. Going around was a ten or fifteen minute hike and his approach was likely to scare the winged observer off his perch.

Kodak sat to rest, while he watched the red bird primp, as it sat on a bare limb. Kodak wondered if it had seen a man before. From that perch it saw him come up to check out the top of the island. It didn't seem to have any fear, Kodak calculated. With the size of the bird's beak it could discourage most folks from getting too close. Being a bird, it could fly away if someone came too close.

The bird's brilliant plumage fascinated Kodak. You couldn't miss it. Once he caught his breath, Kodak began moving back down toward the beach. His intention was to find an easier route, using the stream as his focal point. It was still tough going and the scratches and the soreness in his muscles proved it.

He spent some time collecting a pile of coconuts, using the machete to free the nut and piling the nuts up near the pile of rocks he planned to make into a fireplace so he could cook. He'd thought to bring a package of cheap lighters.

His aborted attempt at becoming a Boy Scout taught him lighting fires was an acquired skill he hadn't acquired. Being on an island brought it to mind, and disposable lighters seemed perfect for island living.

As he used one of the rocks to open the coconut, he drank the soothing liquid. There was something about coconut water that was refreshing, and it satisfied him enough so he didn't need to figure out what might be easy enough to catch and cook, and yet be tasty enough he wanted to eat it. Monkeys, birds, and lizards really didn't do it for him, and none were likely to cooperate in becoming his dinner.

He picked at the flesh of the coconut and found it filling. Once he was done, he took the empty shell and filled it with fresh water for a refreshing drink. Using a piece of the abundant plastic, he protected the water from bugs before going swimming to cool down.

He gathered several kinds of fruit that he'd seen before, but couldn't name. He stayed away from anything he wasn't sure was safe to eat, but some were tempting by their very beauty. He'd wait to see if the wildlife feasted on them before he did.

By this time his camp near the beach was taking shape. He slept on the cushions from the plane but he wanted to get his bed off the ground. The fireplace only needed assembling and he kept a supply of water close at hand. The one thing he needed to do was clear a trail to the top of the island where he could both see and signal any passing boat. The trip up and back was too difficult to do him any good at present. He had hung his brightest Hawaiian shirt in a tree on the beach where it could be seen from the water.

While he'd found a knife, a hatchet, some tools and a tarp in the rear of the plane, there was nothing to fish with. The flight was supposed to be a flyover to see what the island had to offer. If the beach was firm and flat enough the pilot would land, leaving Kodak. He would return with supplies Kodak would need. If landing wasn't possible they'd return to get a sea plane for a water landing. The pilot was authorized to supply Kodak as needed to keep him happy.

It was a fine plan but the plane crashed miles from the island where they were going. They'd flown around a storm to be safe and it was during that detour that the plane's engines stuttered and stopped. Kodak was left on his own and no one knew where he was. Lucky for him the island was relatively friendly, so far.

Kodak began each morning with a fresh shower beneath the waterfall he'd discovered. He was mindful of his clothes when he took them off and before he put them on. There was some concern about the large unidentifiable insects that seemed to show up at the most unlikely times. You only needed to find one in your pants once to check twice before putting on clothes.

He brushed his teeth, combed his hair, and once more took a look at his reddish beard and mustache that had begun to take over his face. He was tanning up nicely. He'd burned badly as a boy but staying within the tree line kept him out of the direct sunlight most of the time.

Photographing the many stages of the lagoon fascinated him. Photographing the many varieties of wildlife took skill and patience. He sat, watching for hours, documenting each species he wanted to capture on film.

He was grateful they'd taken the care to pack it so carefully for whatever reason. He'd flown out there to take pictures and that's what he planned to do. It might not be the right island but it was an island and the critters were varied and colorful.

Kodak planned out each day carefully. What he photographed depended on the light, the weather, and his mood. He first spent some time watching the creatures, who took a keen interest in watching him. He moved slowly, sat quietly, and did all within his power to look benign, which wasn't easy with a four foot lizard lingering nearby.

One monkey had come to examine his presence after spending time sitting on the edge of where Kodak lived. One day, after opening a couple of coconuts, Kodak held one out with the tasty coconut water inside for the monkey to take.

The monkey sat staring and did not move for a long time. Kodak didn't move, keeping the hand with the coconut extended outward. The monkey went from looking at the coconut to looking at Kodak's face and back to the coconut.

The offering proved too irresistible. The monkey stood up and ambled over to Kodak, reaching up to politely take the coconut out of his hand. He sat next to Kodak's leg before draining the liquid and picking at the coconut meat inside, unconcerned about the man.

From then on the monkey stayed close to camp, as Kodak spent several days weaving coconut palm fiber into a hammock he could tie out between two appropriately placed palms just inside the tree line. The monkey, Tazerski, took a keen interest in the weaving, while waiting for more coconut to come his way. He showed no fear as he sat in front of his weaver friend.

The hammock made it possible for Kodak to sleep off the ground and away from insects and things that crawled around in the night. He'd elevated his boots to allow them to dry in the ever-present warm breeze. He wore his sneakers on the beach and saved the boots for the climb to the top of the island. Trying not to use the stream, he cleared a little more underbrush to create his trail to the top.

He'd known to gather wood and some of the paper that came to the island with him, which he kept dry in plastic. Should he see, hear, or think someone was anywhere near the island, he'd race to the upper reaches of the island and light the signal fire, using the paper to start it with the dried undergrowth he was cutting making excellent fuel, but it still took too long to get to the top.

It was while he reconnoitered the terrain to find a place to put the signal fire that the big red bird flew close enough to get his attention. It flew across the lava field and perched back on the same branch where it had been sitting before. This time it kept an eye on Kodak, no longer pretending not to notice him.

As Kodak gathered wood and dead branches full of dried palm leaves, the bird came swooping down near the top of his head, before taking a perch in a suitable tree a few yards away.

Kodak had left his camera in camp, not wanting to risk setting it down while he worked, but he knew he would be back to capture this particular bird, although dozens of varieties were well represented at a greater distance with none of them showing interest in the new arrival. Kodak sat and watched the red bird, deciding it was some type of parrot that sat watching him.

Chewing on something like an apricot, Kodak held one out for Tazerski, who came over to take it before sitting next to him to eat it. Being hot and sweaty from the climb, Kodak was ready to head back to camp for a swim. He got up after relaxing long enough to want to face the climb back down to the beach.

Tazerski got up to walk with him. Kodak eased himself down the steepest part of the hill he'd been making an attempt to clear. If he had a shovel he could make it less challenging, he thought. It was important to make it easier on him so he could get to the top faster, but it was the best he could do at this point. Progress was slow.

By the time he was a dozen feet down from the top, the red parrot came swooping past, crossing the spot where the water came out of the hill and ran downward. Kodak watched it fly effortlessly a few feet off the jungle floor. It perched in a tree ten yards off to his left. What was he doing? Kodak felt the bird was interacting with him.

Kodak eased himself off the uneven path he'd created, and crossed the water carefully, using a rock in the middle to keep from getting his boots soaked again. Once he got a few yards from the red bird, the bird glided away, downward, landing in a tree ten yards further down the hill.

Kodak could see the undergrowth was far less dense as he looked down at the red bird, who flew down a few more yards as if telling Kodak to follow him, which he did, finding the going far less difficult. In fact there was evidence of grading and maybe even an ancient staircase, which had grass and weeds growing over it but none of the thick undergrowth he'd been chopping for over a week.

This way down went fine for a few hundred yards and then the steps were overgrown with some brush, heavier grasses, and ever present jungle undergrowth. Kodak used the machete to make short work of the obstacles. Man had been here and he had lived here long enough to have a staircase to the top of the island. Kodak was amazed by this discovery, forgetting the parrot who seemed to be showing it to him. Could a parrot be that smart? How long ago were men here?

It was both comforting and a bit frightening to know men had been here, but where did they go? One thing was sure, he could make it to the top in a few minutes, taking the red bird's route.

When Kodak made his way back to the beach, the red parrot was resting in a tree near his campsite, and Kodak made his second friend, Red Baron. Red Baron kept his distance without showing any concern for his safety. He'd discovered the man and wanted to keep an eye on him. It was the most excitement there was for a bird on a small island.

It was that afternoon instead of the next day that Kodak got his first pictures of the Red Baron. He primped, posed, spread his wings, and stared into the camera lens with increasing interest for what it was. As soon as Kodak set it down on the camera case, Red Baron came calling. After examining the camera without touching it, he flew to a lower tree close to where Kodak sat with Tazerski.

"You have got to be the most beautiful bird I've ever seen."

Red Baron knew he was being talked to but didn't have anything to say. He took Kodak's interest as non-threatening, and had made up his mind he was not in danger. The first time Kodak threw a half a piece of fruit his way, he swooped down to get it, knowing it was for him to eat.

"I see you blush when you're admired. All the ladies must tell you what a gorgeous bird you are," Kodak told him, as Tazerski chattered jealously.

Red Baron swooped down, glided within a few feet of where Kodak sat, then swept upward, following the same route he'd shown Kodak back up to the top of the island.

"Yes, Tazerski, I love you best. You've got to admit, that's one handsome bird."

The monkey looked at him without a bit of understanding, but he knew if he sat close enough there would be a reward, and it was way easier letting Kodak feed him than going out to feed himself.

While Kodak fed Tazerski every time he ate, it was the monkey that demonstrated to Kodak how to fish without any equipment. As they walked out toward the lagoon to see if the plane had moved closer to the mouth, the monkey reached into the water and slapped a nice size fish out of the water. It landed at Kodak's feet.

"It can't be that easy," Kodak said, smiling and knowing it was time to get a fire going.

Kodak's fruit and coconut diet was happily supplemented with fish; he'd known all along they surrounded him, but didn't have an idea how to catch one until he saw it done.

Stacking rocks properly just outside the tree line on the sand, he created a perfect fireplace. Putting a cleaned fish on a center stone in his makeshift stove made for a perfect fish dinner. Tazerski wasn't partial to fish but he liked fishing, and on most days they made their way out to the best fishing spot on the rocks; soon Kodak was as adept as a monkey at flipping a fish out of the water.

Kodak could rarely eat an entire fish, and Tazerski ignored any offer to get him to eat some, but the jungle wasted nothing. A rather unsavory looking lizard appeared at the edge of camp while the fish was cooking one day, and once Kodak was done he threw what remained at the lizard.

His big mouth opened, catching bones and all, and he made short work of it. Kodak had yet another mouth to feed. Godzilla slept next to the hammock, keeping the bugs and mosquitoes from overrunning the camp, and eliminated the need for Kodak to take out the garbage. Godzilla ate everything, which worried Kodak, but how do you tell a ferocious looking four-foot lizard to 'scram'?

The sight of a four foot green lizard, his mouth lolling open all the time, was disconcerting to Kodak. When the mouth snapped shut on some juicy passing bug, Godzilla appeared even more imposing. How could Kodak be sure those jaws wouldn't one day snap shut on him? His unsettled reaction to the presence of the lizard soon became an uncomfortable acceptance, then Godzilla became one of the family.

Godzilla was no threat and even Tazerski walked past without fear as he climbed up into the hammock next to the sleeping green watch lizard. After a swim and some coconut liquid and fresh fruit, Kodak settled into the hammock for an afternoon snooze. The heat and humidity of some days was oppressive, making anything but swimming and relaxing inadvisable.

Kodak watched the monkey climb up and sit next to him in the ever improving hammock. When Kodak let his hand touch the fur on top of Tazerski's head, the monkey swatted at his hand as if it was a fly buzzing about him.

"I miss you, Tazerski," Kodak whispered.

The monkey squirted off the hammock, chattering his disapproval for being disturbed from his lounging place. Godzilla sat motionless, impervious to Kodak. He spent the evening giving other reptiles a run for their money if they came near camp. It was a symbiotic relationship neither understood but both accepted as the way it was.

Kodak dozed without a care in the world. He had food, was comfortable, did as he pleased from the time he decided to get up, until the time he decided his day was over. It was a good life with companions, but the companion he most wanted to be with was absent, and so nothing else mattered as much as that fact. As he went about his everyday activities, his thoughts often came to rest on his friend in Montana.

As the breeze gently moved the hammock on one particular afternoon, Kodak reflected on his last separation from Taz. At first he didn't know anything, except that the party was over and so was their tour of the United States. He took the picture that appeared on the cover of Time. It made Taz famous, until he drank himself back to oblivion, leaving Kodak on his own.

He smiled, tickling Tazerski, who quickly dislodge himself from the cheerful Island Master's reach. It was the night of the reception in DC that an emptiness last shook Kodak's life. He'd never known what it was like, being someone's best friend, until he was Taz's constant companion.

Then Taz was gone.

Kodak, shaking with fear, lay motionless on the ground as Taz fought his own kind of war, protecting Kodak as he did it. The camera was in his hands, and so he took two pictures of Taz doing what Taz did best, and neither of their lives would ever be the same once those two pictures hit the wire services.

Kodak wanted to get up and photograph the war, but he'd probably have been dead if he did it the way he wanted to do it. This is where the amazing rise of their relationship began. Taz, up until then seemingly totally dependent, became the master warrior; controlling the battlefield, protecting everyone on his side, a threat to everyone who wasn't.

That day started Kodak's respect for Taz. They weren't friends before. Kodak was put off by Taz's erratic behavior before he'd seen him in battle. He was a contrary soldier acting nothing like a soldier should, in Kodak's mind.

In a few minutes Taz rose from slovenly, bedwetting, drunken soldier to warrior supreme.

It was the first day of the rest of their lives, even if they didn't know it then. Kodak would forever be known as the photo-journalist who took the pictures of the fighting fool of 1 st squad.

Kodak was in awe of Taz from that day forward. The nagging question he asked so often of the men of 1 st squad, 'why do you put up with him?' had been answered, as the men of 1 st squad told him it would be. 'You'll see,' they'd said, and he had seen. He was a believer.

Taz and Kodak spent over a year together as friends. Neither of them said they were friends, they just were. Taz trusted Kodak for a reason not completely clear. Kodak was thankful Taz saved his life on more than one occasion, but the feelings he had for him were nothing like any feelings he'd had for anyone.

The truth was, when Kodak wasn't with Taz, he was thinking about him. He thought about him every day. Sometimes the images made him smile and other times it made him sad. He was incomplete without him. He understood word of the plane's disappearance had reached him by now. He wanted to let him know he was okay, but he could only dream and think about him.

After almost two months of separation that time, with Kodak knowing nothing except for the rumors in the local newspapers, Sgt. Kendall came to his room with a note from Gen. Walker.

"If you want to accompany Sgt. Tazerski to my home in Montana, I'm sure he'd like the idea. You are welcome at my ranch for as long as you wish to stay," signed, Gen. Walker.

In ten minutes Kodak was packed and seated in the back of the general's staff car. They drove out of DC. He wasn't sure where they went, but Taz and the general were waiting behind a building on a military post a half-hour drive from the city.

Taz sat in the backseat with Kodak after the general had sent them on their way with plane tickets to Montana. Taz had nothing to say, but stared at his friend for a long time. They were on the plane before Taz wanted to talk.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't intend to let this happen. I promise I won't let it happen again. I hope you can forgive me."

Kodak's smile answered the question. He patted the back of Taz's hand and Taz just watched the familiar fingers on top of his. It was a comfort. He didn't know what to expect. Gen. Walker told him they would see each other before he went to Montana. He didn't tell him Kodak was going with him.

They picked up right where they left off. Taz was less and less withdrawn as time went on. The months away from each other had created an emptiness that one sighting wasn't going to relieve. Just being around one another moved them closer and the trust was there, growing stronger each day.

Kodak smiled as he thought back to that reunion. He didn't know how long it would be before the next reunion. Taz depended on him to be there. Letting him leave was a big step for him. Kodak regretted taking the job that led to them being separated for what would be an indefinite length of time.

By now Taz would regret letting him go. He probably wouldn't want him to leave him again, Kodak thought, but he regretted leaving and he wasn't going to be anxious to leave Taz any time soon, once they were back together, whenever that might be.

Kodak was sure Taz was growing, becoming stronger, and that made it possible for him to let go of him for a few weeks. It wouldn't be easy on him because no one knew what happened. The general would have taken the news up to him in person, because he was that kind of man.

"Overdue and lost," was how he imagined the report on the plane's disappearance would read. Kodak knew he could be at the bottom of the lagoon with the pilot. It was by the luck of whatever force rolled the dice that he was the one to live.

He pictured Taz in the cabin. Taz had started working on it the first day they arrived on the mesa. The door wouldn't close. There were two cinderblocks to climb up into the shack. The windows were broken and the mess inside spoke of sloppy cowboys and other varmints.

As he let his mind relive the sight of their new house Kodak smiled, remembering how Taz took the wood that had been brought to allow for an upgrade to make it livable, and how Taz was immediately going through what was there and planning what he could do with it.

Kodak smiled so big it made him want to laugh as he remembered the cowboy who had led them up the long climb, until they reached their mesa quarters.

They'd had breakfast with Kathleen, Mrs. General, fussing over Taz, wanting him to have another biscuit with honey and butter, and coffee, more coffee, and juice, more juice. Kodak laughed at how Taz didn't know what to make of the general's wife. It was obvious people being nice to him wasn't what he was accustomed to.

It was Rowdy who walked the horses up to the porch as Taz's eyes grew wide.

"What are they for?" Taz asked, not liking what he suspected.

"Well, you see that trail, partner? That trail goes up to the mesa where you're going. I'd reckon it to be a two hour walk on account it is mostly up hill, but you see, I ain't got no two hours to fool around with you, so we ride up to make it a half-an-hour of easy riding."

"There's no truck? No jeep or anything?"

"No bus, no taxi, and no rickshaw. This is a ranch. These are horses. On ranches if you want to go somewhere you ride horses."

"I don't like horses," Taz said, not having had any experience with one.

"They probably ain't too fond of you either, bud, but it's how we get places and they know if they want to eat they got to cooperate. None want to end up dog food."

"You ride horses?" Taz asked Kodak.

"I think I went horseback riding with my sisters when I was little. I'm pretty sure we did."

"You get on first," Taz said, not sure he was getting on at all.

"Okay, hold the reins, now don't be yanking or pulling on them or she'll put you on your ass. Simply let her know you got the steering wheel, put your left foot in the stirrup. You let your weight go onto your left foot. That's for leverage. Once the stirrup has the weight and isn't giving any more, you shift your weight onto it as you kick your right leg over to the other side. Be careful of the saddle horn or you'll end up coming right back down. It's not hard. Once you do it one time, you'll be fine. Show your buddy there's nothing to it."

Kodak had let Rowdy stand up beside the horse's head, going over the step by step instructions as he mounted the horse.

"This is Milkweed. She's a pussy cat. Won't give you a minute's trouble."

"Big damn pussy cat, you ask me," Taz protested.

"Okay, cowboy, come on down. You saw your friend do it. It's your turn. Do you remember what I told him?"

"Yeah, step on that thing and climb aboard. Does that thing know I'm about to climb on top?"

"Molly's our sweetest horse. I saved her special for you. She knows she's a horse and she thinks you're a cowboy. Don't confuse her by making her think you ain't sure."

"You think she thinks anything?" Taz asked.

"It's cool, Taz. You can get a good view from up here. It's great. Try it. You'll see," Kodak urged him.

"I like the view down here just fine. I don't like riding on no critters and I don't want no critters riding on me. It's an understanding I've always had concerning animals."

"Okay, get your foot up in the stirrup like I showed you. Here, you take the reins so she knows you're the driver. Talk nice to her. She'll do fine."

"Driver? You got to be kidding me. Where the hell's she going?" Taz yelped, as the horse began to go around in a circle as Taz hopped, one foot in the stirrup and one foot doing the bunny hop so as not to fall on his ass.

"Hold up, cowboy. Let off the reins. She don't know where you want her to go. Stand still. Just put the weight on the left foot and swing your right foot over to the other side and you're all set."

Once again the horse began to move in a circle, nudging Rowdy off balance as Taz hopped, pulling on the reins, Molly turned in quicker and tighter circles.

"Don't pull on the reins, cowboy. She's just going in the direction your telling her by pulling on those reins that way," Rowdy explained, shaking his head at the unorthodox dance.

"Damn thing's a cyclone not a horse. Make her stand still. Stand still, damn it," Taz ordered, and the horse stood still.

"Okay, now we're getting somewhere. Put your weight on your left foot, swing your right foot over top to the other side," Rowdy ordered, and finally Taz got up in the saddle, not sure he wanted to be there or if he could stay.

"All right, Tex. We got 'er whipped now. Sit up straight and hold the reins gently. I'll lead the way and she'll follow me. You ain't got to worry about the accelerator or the steering wheel and by the time you're home, you'll be a regular cowboy."

"Okay, Cyclone, you heard the man. You follow him and I'll… well, I'll sit here and watch."

As Rowdy moved onto the trail, both Taz's and Kodak's horse fell in line behind him. They were on their way to their new home and a new life they couldn't possibly imagine.

Kodak couldn't stifle his laughter at the memory of Taz's first horseback ride. Within a couple of weeks it was like he'd been born in the saddle. He treated that horse like a little kid, and spent time rubbing her down, then brushing her after each ride.

He just had to build a barn to keep them out of the cool nights. Taz seemed driven to improve the cabin and the grounds they used each day. This was to be their home for a long time to come if he had his way, and he wanted Kodak to be happy and comfortable.

With no electricity and a definite rugged edge to their lives, they spent a lot of time getting to know each other in a way they'd never had time to do before. They talked about their lives, the army, their experiences together, and the new life they'd agreed to have together.

Kodak became sad again, knowing Taz missed him and was wondering if he was still alive somewhere.

'How long am I going to be here?' he wondered, remembering Robinson Crusoe.

Kodak had a lot of time to think, and that wasn't always a good idea. It ran in spells, and some days were better than others, but he knew where he wanted to be and he knew he was lucky to be alive.

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