Montana Sky

by Rick Beck

Chapter 13

Courthouse Showdown

Breakfast at the ranch was a treat, with a variety of choices the boys didn't get on the mesa. The general was dressed in jeans and a white shirt and tie to appear more respectable in court. Taz wore his jeans and a button up plaid shirt, not needing to look good for the city elders who were expressing an interest in the local rustling.

Everyone in and around town had something to do with the cattle industry if they were permanent residents. Land and cattle furnished the local economy with cash. There was no small uproar about the White Brotherhood having a presence in the county. Seen as something untoward, the elders had a stake in seeing to it the rustlers were convicted. What started as lawbreaking ended with a community priority.

"General, is anyone going armed?" Taz asked, across his third cup of coffee.

"No, it's only an arraignment. You think we need to go armed? There shouldn't be trouble today."

"No, there shouldn't be, but I got me this tickle, General. I used to get the same tickle on the back of my neck about the time Charlie hit us out on patrol. I'd feel a mite better if someone was armed."

"I know better than to question someone's tickle," Gen. Walker said.

The general stood on the back porch and called the wranglers to gather around.

"Rowdy, I want two jeeps. Two riflemen in each jeep. Open up the armory and let each of the riflemen pick a weapon. When we go into court, the two jeeps will follow five minutes after we leave. Keep your distance. Park a jeep behind the bank. Park a jeep behind the General Mercantile. Once you're there, put a lookout on top of both those buildings. I want to keep an eye on the courthouse.

"Leave the weapons in the jeep unless you need to use them. We should only be there a half-hour to an hour, but I'd rather be safe than sorry. Those guys have robbed us once."

"Yes, sir," the men agreed.

"Kendall, get a .45 and bring mine. The rest of you hang around the bunkhouse, until we get back and sound the all-clear."

Gen. Walker wasn't given to flights of fancy. He hadn't been in combat since his youth, but he'd been a witness to war most of his life. You stayed prepared just in case. You never let yourself get caught with your pants down. Taz's warning reminded him that it was the innocent looking circumstances that could turn deadly.

The drive into town was without incident; both Kendall and Gen. Walker had .45's strapped to their hips. Kodak sat in the general's jeep with his camera at the ready, photographing Taz and the general as they went through the front door of the courthouse.

Inside the courthouse the sheriff's deputy tried to disarm the general before he entered the courtroom. The sheriff came along in time to intercede, having his own worries about the prisoners.

"I've got no evidence anything is going to happen. I've got no evidence something isn't going to happen. Rumor has it, there's going to be an attempted jailbreak. I've got everyone armed at the jail."

"I've got a few men outside. We had our suspicions about how long Jones senior will let you hold onto Jones junior."

"Having you watch my back helps, General. I tried to recruit some deputies. No takers. State Police have been alerted and I've asked for assistance to hold onto these birds. My four deputies are armed inside the courthouse. I'll make sure they know you men are watching the outside."

"Keeping the peace is my life's work, Sheriff. We'll try to keep those boys in your jail until you make other arrangements."

"Yeah, well, they aren't in my jail. The judge insisted they be in the courtroom. They're sitting in the hallway behind the courtroom with two of my deputies."

"It wouldn't take a military genius to overpower your deputies."

Once in the courtroom, the proceedings moved fast. The deputies marched the prisoners into a holding area. The action didn't take long to develop. Meeker made a motion for bond. The judge promptly denied bond. Meeker stood to raise an objection. It was the last thing attorney Meeker ever did. One of the first shots knocked him down with a bullet in his chest.

Weapons appeared as men moved from the observers section toward the prisoners. A deputy took cover behind a desk, the judge objected, an exchange of gunfire had everyone diving for cover. Two more deputies tried to regain control of the prisoners but a barrage of gunfire forced them into retreat.

After the door at the back of the courtroom opened, people were scurrying to safety, Kendall held the door open for the general and Taz. With his .45 at the ready, he wasn't about to fire into a courtroom in chaos. Kendall backed out, covering the strategic withdrawal of his commander.

"We can't let these guys get out of here with those prisoners. We need to secure the outside of the courthouse somehow. I can't be sure how many men they've got in here, but if I made a move like this, I'd have everyone backing my play," Gen. Walker said as they hurried toward the stairs.

The general had seen four gunmen in the courtroom, but there was fire coming from the street and on the first floor. The general knew his men outside were already engaged.

"General, they're going to have hostages," Kendall said as the three of them rushed down the steps.

"They've got hostages," Gen. Walker said.

As they hit the bottom stair and turned toward the exit, two gunmen appeared at the far end of the hallway, opening fire. The general dodged into the first door they passed with Taz and then Kodak close behind him. The office was empty, and a door to the street at the side of the building stood open.

Once Taz, the general, and Kendall disappeared into the courthouse, Kodak went over to the General Mercantile to pick out some sweets for Tazerski. He picked out some unusual cloth for window curtains and he picked up a bundle of things for Kathleen.

It took fifteen minutes in the store, which made it a few minutes after nine, when he was paying the clerk. The hearing began at nine and he was told it wouldn't take long. He heard the gunshots as he stepped outside. Setting the bag down just inside the door, he checked his camera.

There were four men with rifles on the far corner of the courthouse to his right. They were exchanging fire with the cowboy on the roof across the street and someone on the roof above him was also firing at the gunmen.

When other cowboys came running with assault rifles in hand, Kodak captured it on film, using the supports for the overhang outside the Mercantile for cover. As the cowboys fired from the street and the roof, the gunmen reluctantly went into the courthouse. Merchants and customers came tentatively out of their shops.

There was a man from the barbershop draped in the protective covering for his shirt. Half his face had shave cream on it and the other half didn't. The barber had a razor in his hand and they both leaned around the overhang supports to see what was going on. Kodak clicked pictures of them and other people, who came out of the stores.

Once the gunmen disappeared, the cowboys split and two set up a position on one side of Main Street in front of the courthouse and two on the other. Kodak could see they had all the exits covered in the front and the only exit in the back opened directly across from the sheriff's office.

Rowdy had taken control of the street, yelling orders at the other men. In a few minutes the street was back to normal. Kodak had been exposed to firefights in Vietnam and this was child's play compared to that. His heart didn't race and he didn't sweat as he went about shooting pictures.

Gen. Walker, with Taz beside him, exited on the left side of the courthouse. Kendall brought up the rear, checking behind him before leaving the building.

"We're coming over," Gen. Walker yelled to his men. "Cover us."

His riflemen fired a couple of bursts so the general and Taz could cross the street safely. The general stood beside Rowdy, making a count of their adversaries.

"How many do you count?" the general asked.

"Four outside. Four inside on the ground floor. Those two groups arrived separately. We engaged the first four and ran them inside. The four over there now came just before you came out," Rowdy said.

"There were four gunmen I saw in the courtroom. They'll no doubt arm the rustlers. That gives them nine armed men with maybe ten hostages. We can't let them out of the courthouse."

"They've got us badly outnumbered," the general said, considering his options.

"They're armed to the teeth but can't shoot worth a shit," Rowdy said.

"Okay, I'm taking your jeep, Rowdy. You stay put. If you need to retreat from here, go ahead, but the two alleys offer a strategic advantage. I'll bring back reinforcements. It's going to be an hour before we can mount a counter-attack. Can you give me an hour?"

Rowdy spit a wad of tobacco into the street.

"Stop talking. Get moving, General. We got the high ground. I ain't letting them go nowhere."

"Here's my .45. That'll buy you a little time. Carry on. Come on, Taz; we need to move," the general said, leading the way to the jeep.

Turning onto Main Street, Kodak stepped out of the shadows. Taz wanted to stop for him, but Kodak pointed at his camera, waving for them to keep going. Taz knew Kodak was in his element and he'd faced far worse next to him in Vietnam.

The general handed out rifles to a dozen cowboys, who had stayed put that morning. There would be four addition vehicles, four men per vehicle returning to town with them.

After arming each of the men with an M-16, the general kicked a crate down at Taz's feet.

"Here's your weapon, soldier," he said.

"Damn right," Taz said, as he removed the top of the crate to retrieve his B.A.R.

He hadn't seen the big rifle since his breakdown, during the tour of the States, where the B.A.R. was a prop he took on stage with him. In Vietnam the B.A.R. was the difference between life and death for many a man, including both Taz & Kodak. It felt good to have it back in his hands.

The general and his small detachment were back in 50 minutes and came down the top of the two alleys where Rowdy Kendall, Boyd, and four cowboys, with the help of the sheriff and two deputies, kept the outlaws inside the courthouse.

Setting up a crossfire from the two alleys that ran behind the businesses on Main Street, they kept the situation under control. The opposition's amateur soldiers were confused by the unknown amount of firepower they faced.

Several of the bad guys with rifles, using the two second floor front windows, tried to put enough fire into the alleys to gain an advantage from above, but the angle was severe, making the effectiveness of the gunfire minimal.

The general directed half his force into each of the two alleys.

"Remember, they've got hostages. If someone comes out of there and they aren't firing at you, don't fire at them. We don't want to be killing any townies," the general told his men.

The general took Taz through the bank to Main Street, where Kodak was photographing the men firing out of the windows at the alleys.

"Nice day," Taz said.

"Nice rifle. Big. What's a guy like you doing in a place like this?" Kodak asked in his flippant way.

"I'm the guy with the big… gun. You got a long lens for that thing?"

"In the general's jeep," Kodak said.

"Go get that lens, and you stay farther away to shoot your pictures," Taz ordered.

"Yes, sir," Kodak said, heading for the jeep.

"See those two windows?" the general asked.

"Hard to miss with all those guys shooting from them."

"I'm going to tell Boyd to draw their fire over to this alley. Can you cross over and go out the back of the Mercantile and tell Rowdy to draw their fire as soon as Boyd does? It'll get those boys focused on the alleys. Once you're done, meet me at the front of the Mercantile. I'll give you the rest of the plan then.

The general moved back into the bank and Taz peeked out to make sure the coast was clear, dashing toward the front of the Mercantile.

Taz kept his eyes on the doorway of the Mercantile as he dashed across the street. A few feet from the sidewalk he felt a stinging impact on his side. Once he was safely out of the line of fire, he looked down at the B.A.R. The stock had been split in two by a bullet. He had wood splinters in his hand where he held the rifle against his side. The bullet it hadn't hit him. He checked for blood and found none.

"I'll be a son-of-a-bitch," he said, expressing his surprise.

Taz ducked into the Mercantile for repairs. The man behind the counter peeked up just enough for Taz to see his eyes.

"I'm one of the good guys. Duct tape?"

The merchant pointed at a shelf. Taz grabbed a roll of tape, wrapping the splintered stock. Yanking the splinters out of his hand, he wrapped the tape around the wound.

"Thanks. Bill the general's account for the tape," Taz said, rushing out the back door to alert Rowdy to the plan.

Taz came back through the Mercantile to meet the general a couple of minutes later.

"You get those sons-of-bitches and I'll keep you in tape, son," the man said as Taz passed the counter and went to the front door.

Kneeling beside the general, Kodak clicked pictures.

Taz started out of the doorway and bullets hit down the wall on either side of the door, breaking the store windows. Taz leaned more carefully out of the doorway.

"General, someone's making a getaway at the side of the courthouse," Kodak said, taking a series of pictures as men piled into a waiting car.

"Shit, time to get this show on the road. How'd they get out of there? I thought the sheriff had the first floor covered. If they don't fire on my men, they're going to escape."

Gen. Walker stood, dashing across the street toward Taz. He got within a couple of feet of the sidewalk before a bullet knocked him down.

Taz dropped the B.A.R., leaning forward with his arm extended, pulling the general to safety. Both of them ending up on the floor just inside the Mercantile.

"General, you got a hole in you," Taz said, seeing the blood on his shirt.

"Damn it," the general said, looking at his side and feeling the pain. "Look, Jones and the rustlers are getting away as we speak. I've got myself in a bind. My men are pinned down in the alleys and the men in those windows are becoming better shots. I need you to take them out of there. Did you tell Rowdy the plan?"

"Yes, sir," Taz said.

"Once they draw their fire, can you step out in the street with your rifle and clear those windows out? I don't want heroics. There's eight of them now. They should all be returning fire toward the alleys. I figure you'll have ten seconds before they realize they're taking fire from the front. I don't want eleven seconds, Taz. Ten seconds, five on each window, and you get your ass back in here or I'll come out there and drag you back in here. Can you do it?"

Taz peeked out at the street and the front of the courthouse where the shooting had become more fierce.

"I'd rather not, …but sure, I can do it. I'll take them out for you."

"What's wrong with your hand?" the general asked, noticing the tape when Taz cradled his rifle, preparing to make his move.

"Splitters," Taz said.

Taz listened, peeking out one more time to see the men in the courthouse dedicating their fire toward the two alleys where Gen. Walker's men were drawing the fire so Taz could go to work. He listened to the increased gunfire go on for a minute more.

Moving out across the sidewalk, he took two steps into the street, where he faced the windows in question. Jerking up the barrel of the B.A.R., he opened fire on the window to his right first.

"One, two, three, four, five," he counted before turning his fire on the window directly in front of him. "Six, seven, eight, nine, ten."

Glass shattered, wood splintered into shards from the force of the automatic weapon's fire, dangling over the outlaw's heads, just before the windows were empty of gunmen and fire from the courthouse ceased. The crossfire from the alleys continued for another minute before the street went silent.

Once Taz did as much damage as he could, he stepped out of the line of fire. This confined all the fighting to the ground floor and the general's men controlled the street.

Sam Jones and his kid were gone, which pleased no one, but what could have been a disaster ended in a whimper.

Kodak smiled across at Taz, after taking a couple dozen pictures of him in action. Seeing him move out into the street alarmed him, but before he knew what was going on, Taz was standing back in the doorway safe and sound. Kodak had a camera full of pictures to prove it really happened. It seemed like old times, when he photographed Taz in Vietnam, while he took it to Charlie.

Samuel Jones, his son, and the rustlers were on their way back to the White Brotherhood compound. There was no way for the general to get anyone in the way of their escape. Most of the ammunition was spent and that left them in vulnerable. The bad guys knew where they were going, and the general began to plan to seal off the WB compound until reinforcements arrived from elsewhere.

Once the courthouse was taken back, the body count gave the good guys an advantage. The courtroom folks didn't do so well, with Meeker dead and the judge and a deputy wounded. The judge was still objecting, gavel in hand, when he was loaded into the ambulance.

Taz didn't want anything to do with the doctor and charged a bottle of alcohol to the general, after taking the duct tape off his hand, he doused it in alcohol as Kodak cringed. Taz put the alcohol in his shirt pocket.

"Where'd you get the rifle, Taz?" Kodak asked.

"The general had it in the armory. How 'bout that? Like an old friend. Needs a little work though. It got shot."

"You always stand out in the middle of the street to get shot at?"

"No, only when that's what needs doing. Sure convinced them to get out of those windows," Taz said proudly.

He'd done his job, and getting them out of the window ended the siege, with the general the only one of his men seriously wounded.

"Nothing like jungle warfare," Kodak said with a smirk.

"It's all the same. Bad guys getting shot and me doing the shooting."

"How's your hand?"

"Just some splinters. Ruined the Browning's stock. That pissed me off."

The State Police arrived on the scene before the general's detachment withdrew. They pieced together what happened, with the sheriff giving a rundown on what went on inside the courthouse, and Rowdy provided details of what went on outside.

The compound wasn't very interesting to Gen. Walker, but he'd put his men on guard on the hill across from the gate. He wanted the people inside to know they'd escaped the courthouse but they weren't out of Montana yet. This didn't take much energy and the guys inside had put a bullet in him, which made it personal.

Several of Kodak's pictures featured Samuel Jones. Once compared to pictures of him in his youth by the sheriff, it was obvious. Both the FBI and Montana law enforcement wanted copies of the pictures for their files.

While Dr. Westphalia poked, prodded, and patched the general, he laid it out to Rowdy.

"Jones had to know once he sprung his kid his compound wasn't a good idea. Why would they go back there? They hadn't expected resistance. He pulled off the great escape without a plan if someone objected."

"Sheriff," Gen. Walker said, as the sheriff came in with his arm in a sling.

"You know he might be smarter than I think. Jones could have switched vehicles. They could be long gone. Jones expected to take the courthouse with no trouble. He knew you'd have a couple of deputies on duty. Jones didn't know you'd identified his son. With Meeker dead, not a victim of poor shooting, I suspect, no one could tie father to son or the rustling to the WB. They make a getaway and start over in another state and no one is the wiser if junior lays low."

"You've given this a lot of thought. The only piece of luck I got was having a man with his own army a few miles out of town. We'd be burying a lot of innocent people if not for you, General."

"I do believe in community service, Sheriff. I don't aim to get shot doing my civic duty however."

"General," the police officer said. "I can patrol the Interstate to stop them if they get that far, but I won't have any reinforcements until some time tomorrow. If you keep an eye on the compound until then, I'd sure be grateful. Keep the sheriff informed."

"Hey, Doc, a little easy on that padding," the general complained.

"You need to be in a hospital. Both of you," the doctor said, including the sheriff. "I'm going to do my job right. You hush."

"Yes, sir," the general said, regretting letting Kathleen call the doctor.

"We'll keep an eye on them. I've got some radio equipment I can give the sheriff so we can communicate. Other than that, I'm not getting my men shot at any more if I can help it."

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