Montana Sky

by Rick Beck

Chapter 15

The Meaning of Life

The regular routine picked back up the morning after the rustler roundup. Taz & Kodak were up drinking coffee on the front porch before the sun began to light the far horizon on the west. The horses were out, free to run in the corral on a rare day off. There would be no riding fence today.

Taz spoke of plans to put an additional room onto the cabin to have a bedroom separate from the cabin. The bunks were fine, and after the army they seemed normal, even comfortable, but Kodak mentioned wanting a big luxurious queen-sized bed. The money he made from the pictures Nature magazine agreed to buy from his time on the island would pay the bills and pay for the bed.

Taz was immediately talking about where Kodak wanted the addition. As they chatted, Jeremy rode up with rabbit and fresh eggs.

"Wondered what time you fellows got up," he said. "Hunted with father this morning. Grabbed a dozen eggs out of the hen house. I had a hankering for a cup of that coffee you make from those beans each morning. Indian coffee… sucks."

"You clean the rabbit, I'll pour the coffee," Kodak said.

"I can do that. I couldn't a few months ago. Surprising what you pick up living out on the plains."

"How's your father?" Taz asked.

"Medicine Band? He's quiet as ever. Deadly shot. He shot the rabbits. He said I should bring them to you."

"He's not quiet enough for me," Taz said.

"You still holding a grudge against my father?"

"I don't guess I am, but I have a hard enough time figuring out my life. I don't need him roaming around in my head."

"According to what you've said, he told you true?" Jeremy said.

"His message wasn't the problem. The delivery system was."

"I can do eggs. You got to do the rabbit. I'll fry it to death," Kodak said.

"Fear not, noble image catcher. I'm a gourmet chef when I'm not shrinking heads," Jeremy bragged happily.

While Taz and Kodak liked their privacy, Jeremy was easy to be around.

Tazerski watched the goings on from his bunk for a long time, waiting for Kodak and Taz to leave him again; but they showed no signs they'd leave, so he got down for his morning banana on his way to check on the horses.

"I didn't see you," Taz said, after a long silence.

"I'm right here, my brother. You had your eyes checked lately?"

"All those Indians that helped round up the rustlers. I never saw you."

"I'm a shrink and I'm a pretty good cook, but I'm not a wild Indian. It was promoted as an activity for excellent horsemen, who look good carrying an AK-47. Two areas in which I fall woefully short."

"You're dressed Indian today," Kodak observed.

"Sally Two Shirts made sure I was suitably dressed before my hunting trip with Medicine Band. She was away attending to her mother for the past week. I resorted to the cowboy look."

"The poor man's shrink, Medicine Band," Taz said. "You do follow in your father's footsteps."

"Don't underestimate my father, Taz. Just because you don't believe in him doesn't mean he isn't a powerful man."

"I didn't say I doubted his ability. I said I didn't like it."

"Oh, you're changing your mind?"

"I'm not fond of having my brain picked over. What are you doing here?"

"Just helping my neighbors. It's the Indian way."

"I'm as much of a cowboy as you are an Indian. I don't know what the hell I'm doing. It seems obvious. Follow your nose and there you are," Taz said.

"So much more to the human psyche than your nose, Taz," Jeremy said. "Knowing what you want to do doesn't make it easy. Not in my case anyway."

"He just insulted me, didn't he?" Taz asked Kodak.

"You'll have to ask him. I'm just sitting here digesting. I leave the heavy lifting to you two."

"You are an enigma. What you can do, I, a trained psychiatrist, don't know can be done. You defy the typical behavior patterns that define a man's character. You are heroic, anti-social, and at peace within yourself. That combination shouldn't exist in one man."

"You're insulting me again. I'm not anti-social; I'm not anti-social, am I Kodak?"

"No, I find you wonderfully sociable. Tazerski likes you."

"There you have it. If the monkey likes you, you can't be all bad. I heard about what you did in town. I read about your exploits in Time, and I still don't know what to make of you, when I sit here speaking with an ordinary looking man."

"So you say. I got Kodak. He makes it all happen," Taz said. "Like the ventriloquist and the dummy. I won't tell you which I am. You're the shrink. You figure it out."

"He was doing what he did in Vietnam long before I got there," Kodak said. "All I did was take pictures."

"Yeah, but there were no pictures before. Until there were pictures there was no Taz; no Taz, no hero. You made me who I am, my love. I was just a slug with a big gun until you came along."

"The randomness of the universe, or do you believe it to be predestination?" Jeremy calculated. "The end result is precisely the same in either case."

"I got no destination beyond a ranch in Montana," Taz explained.

"Likewise, I'm sure," Kodak agreed.

It was two weeks before an invitation came to celebrate the round up of the rustlers and the general's recovery. The White Brotherhood had been removed as a source of irritation. The cattle were safe, the fences repaired, and the town was back in the right hands. Repairs covered the worst of the damage done during the shootout, and the gunfight was now part of local lore.

When vacationers asked, "Is this where it happened?" the story was told anew.

When Taz & Kodak arrived, there were cowboys, Indians, Indians dressed liked cowboys, cowboys half dressed like soldiers, sheriff's deputies dressed like cowboys, and all there in honor of the restored order.

Tables outside stretched the length of the back porch and were covered in food and the food never stopped flowing. Mostly men stood with plates in hand, laughing and joking happily. Much of the discussion was about the day they took the county back from the WB.

"How you doing, General? You look stout today," Taz said, shaking the general's hand.

"Fine and dandy. They patched up the hole and pumped in a couple of pints of blood and I was good to go. I laid up there for a week to make Kathleen happy. I was ready to ride herd a few hours after you boys left."

"Yes, I'm sure you were," Taz said, not believing a word of it.

"He's sore and he's got to go back tomorrow. They don't trust him not to ruin all the work they did on him," Kathleen said. "Men!"

Taz and Kodak laughed about the two different versions of the same story. Kathleen put down golden ears of corn already swimming in butter. Mouths were watering and the corn was gone before Taz could grab an inviting ear. The cooks couldn't keep up with the hungry wranglers.

"Hello, Medicine Band. You are well, I trust?" Taz asked.

Medicine Band sat cross legged in the chair next to the general. At first he seemed not to be able to hear Taz. His expression never changed. In fact it never changed as far as Taz was concerned.

As Taz turned away from his attempt to communicate with the Shaman, he spoke.

"Fine," Medicine Band finally said, after a long contemplation. "I have a touch of rheumatism."

"Sit down at the table with us. Both of you," the general ordered, interrupting the conversation. "We've got burgers, franks, smokes, ham, beans, slaw, salad fixin's, potato salad. There was corn here a minute ago. Kathleen, someone ate the corn," he yelled, as if it was a news flash.

The general had good color and he was always in charge.

"Coolers are full of beer and sodas. Help yourself," the general said.

Kodak took a plate and loaded it up, delivering it back to Taz. He took another plate for himself. More corn appeared, and everyone within reach reached for an ear.

"Hamburgers aren't done. Ground Sirloin," the general said with pride.

"I'll go over to get you one in a couple of minutes, Chief," the general told Medicine Band. "I might need my .45 to get two away from those cowboys."

Medicine Band leaned toward the general to whisper in his ear. Taz tried to hear. He was sure the old geezer was up to no good.

When the general got up later, he headed for the open grill. It was surrounded by the thick smell of cooking beef. Taz lost interest in all things eatable when Kodak brought him a burger. It looked like a pound before the bun and all the fixings were installed. Taz wasn't intimidated and went about devouring the burger as Medicine Band stared at him in a familiar way.

A few minutes later, while Taz wondered if he could get another burger down, the general returned with two burgers. One was a patty with a thick slice of Bermuda onion on it. The other was piled high with trimmings. Taz kept an eye on both of them.

"Here you go, Chief. Two slices of cheese, extra onion, dill pickles, and jalapeño. I get your order right?"

The chief nodded, taking the sandwich in both hands, ignoring the plate he didn't need. He looked directly at Taz, winked, and dug in. Taz started to laugh and Kodak was too busy eating to watch the drama taking place at the table.

As they sat, ate, laughed, and enjoyed the companionship and the food, another member of the team that took down the White Brotherhood appeared.

"Sheriff Ward, glad you could make it. Grab yourself a plate. Hamburgers melt in your mouth and the corn is tender as can be, if you can catch up with an ear," the general bragged.

"I'm not here to eat, General. You aren't going to like what I've got to say, but there's no easy way to say it."

"Don't tell me they escaped?" Gen. Walker said without any humor in the comment.

"Worse, to me. Remember what I told you about the judges in the south of the state?"

"Yeah, right wing nut jobs. Birchers, I think you said," Gen. Walker had no joy in his characterization.

"Million dollar bond on Sam Jones and his kid. They're loose. I don't think they're in Montana. They may be out of the States by now."

"Damn it! What good does it do bringing the peace to this place? What are you doing about it?" Gen. Walker demanded with his voice.

"Federal problem now, General. They got bail from the federal judge in the southern district. They aren't scheduled to appear again for another month. They'll be long gone by then. I didn't know they had a bail hearing. I trusted those state boys."

"They'll never show up for court. At the least Jones is an accessory to murder. His son might skate with the rustling and assault charges, but not Jones. He orchestrated a conspiracy."

"Money trumps the law, General. You got enough money, the law don't apply to you."

"Our country is being bought out from under us. It's not what I spent 30 years fighting for, Sheriff Ward. I want those men in jail. Have I got to go fetch them?"

"They could have skipped out of the country by now," the sheriff said.

"No, those birds will be in the States. They'll tie into some militia group where they can hang out and stay out of sight."

"Maybe," the sheriff said.

Later that day as the food was being put away and the people were returning to their own lives, Jeremy made his way to Taz, who was saddling Cyclone and Milkweed for the ride home.

"I've got a message for you," Jeremy said.

"A message? What kind of message?" Taz asked suspiciously.

"Medicine Band told me I should give it to you."

"No, you don't. You keep the message. I don't need it, don't want it, can't afford no message from him. He's not playing around inside my head anymore."

"He told me to tell you, 'The metal peace does not rest.'"

"What? You're playing with me? He didn't say that."

"The metal peace does not rest. That's the message. I'd take it seriously. He doesn't waste time with trivia."

"Are you kidding me? Where is he?" Taz asked, unnerved by him doing this at the end of the day. "I want to hear it from him."

"He left a few minutes ago. He said I should tell you those words. He knows we're friends."

"The metal piece does not rest," Taz said. "It's nonsense."

"That's it," Jeremy said, not catching the subtle difference in Taz's version.

"He some kind of joker?"

"My father is many things, a joker he is not. A message like this is sacred to him and not of his design. That message is of importance to you."

"Yeah, right. I sat at a table with him for hours. Why didn't he tell me then?"

"Not the right place or time? He knows how you feel. He didn't think you'd listen to him, but if I tell you, you know I'm serious."

"I don't get it," Taz said, angry and wanting to get out of there. "Kodak, come on. Let's get home. I'm tired. Thanks, Jeremy."

"You're welcome," Jeremy said.

"You didn't do me any favors. That old man is determined to drive me nuts. He knows I don't like it, so he sends you to do his dirty work. You tell him not to take no more messages for me, okay?"

"It's important Taz. Don't dismiss it. You'll figure out what it means, when it's time. Then you'll know how to handle it."

"I already know how to handle it. Bye Jeremy," Taz said, riding over to open the gate, waiting for Kodak to follow him before he closed it, slipping the rope back in place to secure it.

"What's that all about?" Kodak asked, sensing Taz's anger.

"Nothing. That old bird is playing with me again."

"Medicine Band? He doesn't seem the playful type. He's the one that knew about me? The spirits told him?"

"Yeah. I don't want to talk about it. It's crazy stuff. I don't like it."

They returned home and settled back into the cabin. Taz looked at the kitchen to see what he needed to build before he built the bedroom.

They sat up that night until long after dark, the open door to the stove attracting their eyes as they made small talk while holding hands, always most comfortable at home, alone, together.

Post Script

Long after they'd gone to bed, the fire burned down to cool the cabin for easy sleeping. The trouble with sleeping easy and sleeping deep came when Taz awakened, sitting straight up in bed.

"The peace metal. The peace symbol," he said, figuring out the riddle Medicine Band sent him.

"What?" Kodak said, alarmed by the sudden awakening. "Go back to sleep. You're dreaming."

"The message from Medicine Band, 'The metal peace does not rest.' He meant the peace symbol I gave to that kid in the hospital right before he died. I told him I'd go to see his friend. The guy he thought he was talking to when he was talking to me. I forgot to ask where he was from. I need to go to see his friend. I promised him."

"How could that old man know that?" Kodak asked.

"How indeed? How did he know you were safe on an island halfway around the world? He's a Shaman. He walks with the spirits."

The End

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