Sunday, April 14, 2013
Friday, March 22, 2013
Drake sat back with a contented sigh. Exhausted, he sank himself into a large, overstuffed arm chair. Head back on the cushions, he glanced idly around, taking in the informal decor of Rudy Gutierrez’ living room. He found it comfortable, if decidedly masculine. Ranger Gutierrez was obviously a bachelor.
The room’s furnishings weren’t recognizably country, or colonial, or even modern. Nor did the many decorations and pictures covering the walls follow any kind of recognizable theme. Everything was just, well, comfortable; the way a man would choose things—regardless of whether it all matched or not. Drake liked it anyway. He found the place relaxing.
Of course, it would be even more comfortable without the obvious tension between him and Paige. Since returning from their strange odyssey some sort of barrier had fallen between them.
Barrier? He asked himself. Yep, about as subtle as a broken portcullis.
Gutierrez’ bear-like frame lumbered in from the kitchen. “Here’s your coffee,” he placed a steaming mug in Drake’s hand.
“Thanks, but don’t go to any trouble for me. All I really want to do is sleep for the night.”
Gutierrez waved away the irrelevancy. “I’m gonna put on a pot of chili in a few minutes. But for now let’s put our feet up and kick back for a few. Whataya say?”
“Deal.” Drake felt too tired to argue about it. In fact, a bowel of hot chili sounded good. “I’ll go along as long as you promise to take a break too.”
“You got it, Padre.” Gutierrez flopped into an old leather recliner. With a practiced yank of the wooden handle he leaned himself back, elevating his tired feet. “Ahhh!” He sipped dark brew from a chipped Marine Corps mug. “This is the way a long hard day is supposed to end.”
“I’m just glad to be here at all.” In spite of the strain, Drake felt blessed to be alive, let alone warm, dry and comfortable. The entire affair could have ended a whole lot differently. Even at the end, up there on Half Dome’s summit, he and Paige had not been entirely safe. With her help—although she nearly shredded his shirt in the process—Drake had managed to drag his tired body up and over the jagged edge of the crest.
* * *
HALF DOME SUMMIT
“What happened?” Even gasping and weary, Paige’s presence had him baffled. “I thought you got shot?”
“I did, sort of. Anyway, a bullet or something socked the saddlebags I had all the food in. When I hit the ground hard, I had the wind knocked out of me. By the time I could sit up again, that man was there.” She gestured vaguely toward the cliff edge. “Anyway…” she stumbled, “I… guess you… already know about that.”
Drake pulled himself upright. He sat, elbows on knees, head in his hands, and stared grimly at the edge where Parker had fallen. “I’m a murderer.”
“Self-defense is not murder, Stan. You know better than that. Those men were evil. They tried to kill us both a bunch of times. He was trying to murder me when you stopped him. Anyway, don’t take all the credit for the General. It’s not your fault he chose to commit suicide. You heard what he said, who he challenged. I guess he got his answer.”
Afterward, they crawled back from the perilous edge to Hank. The dog lay quietly licking a long, bloody gash down his side.
What with the distractions of cliff hanging and caring for each other and the dog they were completely clueless as far as what might be happening in the rest of the world. The world suddenly and forcibly made them aware of outside considerations. The variably gusting mountain winds abruptly increased in intensity. Suddenly they found themselves in the midst of a howling hurricane. The force of the wind tugged at their clothing, painfully whipped hair into eyes, and pelted them with loose grit and sharp little pebbles. Drake shielded his eyes and peered through the fierce windstorm in time to watch the Marines land.
To the United States Marine Corps it’s known as Vertical Envelopment, a tactic developed in the wake of the Korean conflict, honed in the sweaty jungles of Southeast Asia. Essentially, Vertical Envelopment is accomplished using helicopters to airlift entire rifle platoons, leapfrogging over enemy lines and dropping them in strategic positions.
This enables the Corps to place organizationally intact troops in the enemy’s unprotected rear. That advantage allows the Marines to strike multiple, key locations simultaneously, wreaking havoc and overwhelming their foes, as Marines are wont to do. As far as Drake could see that is exactly what the USMC was doing on the summit of Half Dome that day.
The powerful but localized storm forced the pair to screw their eyes shut to
avoid being blinded. What Drake did manage to see were three mismatched, olive green helicopters, bearing the label MARINE, hovering in the darkening skies above. Among them was another of the ever-present Blackhawks, and one of those old, banana-shaped things he thought had gone out of service decades ago. Even the wicked, snake-like shape of a Cobra attack helicopter circled far above. The Blackhawk and the ‘flying banana’ quickly set down on the rocky summit, while the ‘snake’ continued to orbit overhead, riding shotgun over the landing zone. Ironically, after all they had already survived, the helicopter’s propwash threatened to hurl the intended rescuees right back over the edge. Paige and Drake clung desperately to the rocks, managing to hang on until the engines wound down, the flashing rotors slowing to a stop.
The blades were still spinning as troops began to dismount, expertly deploying over the craggy surface. A third of the soldiers remained close in, establishing a security perimeter around the landing zone. The rest of the marines spread out, probing Half Dome’s numerous crevasses for the presence of possible hostiles.
Out of the midst of the purpose and bustle, three men strode to the spot where Drake, Paige and Hank lay, dazed, wounded and exhausted. The man in the lead was US Park Ranger Rudy Gutierrez, USMC Ret.; temporarily restored to active duty.
“Thank God you’re safe,” he exclaimed, immense joy spreading across his large brown face. He stooped to engulf Paige in his arms, gently lifting her.
The other two—big husky Marines—gave Drake a more aggressive assist to the vertical, Hank still clutched in his arms. Paige clung to her uncle, but stretched an arm out towards Drake. Even dazed, Stan Drake understood the gesture and came into her embrace. He returned it with one of his own. Rudy Gutierrez stood at the top of Yosemite, grinning, clutching both of them in a great bear hug.
After graciously allowing a moment for tenderness, one of the Marines put a gentle hand on Drake’s shoulder. “Excuse me Sir, I’m Lieutenant McKay, Fifth Force Recon, Thirty-first Marine Expeditionary Unit. My men and I are currently on a training rotation at the Mountain Warfare Training Center, Pickle Meadows. That’s over on the next pass north of here,” he pointed off to his right. “Sir, I’ve been ordered to assist the National Park Service in their efforts to deal with subversive Militia activities within the confines of Yosemite National Park.”
Drake nodded his head, trying to keep up with the flood of new information. The young officer continued, “Would you be so kind as to fill me in on the situation here, as you understand it, Sir?”
“Well Lieutenant,” Drake manfully attempted to draw himself upright. “Ms. Mitchell and I were chased up here by an unknown number of armed men from the Mariposa Militia. By the time we reached the summit only two were left.” He gestured vaguely toward the cliff edge. “I, uh…” he cleared his throat before starting over, “I shot one man over there. Then we struggled with the last one, Vince Taylor—he called himself ‘the General.’ In the scuffle Taylor fell from the precipice over there.
“Whooee!” exclaimed the other marine, a tough-looking Gunnery Sergeant with the name Nyberg sewn over his right breast pocket. He stood fearless on the brink, gazing over the edge. “Just like Wyle E. Coyote, huh?” His bold look challenged Drake. “Straight to the bottom of the canyon: Pow!”
Drake compressed his lips at that bit of grim humor, but made no attempt to rebuke the man. Instead he turned back to Lieutenant McKay. “There’s only one other man that we know about. We left him lying on the old Vernal Slide trail, down one of the switchbacks. We think he has a broken leg. I don’t have any idea what shape he’s in by this time, but he was wide awake, mad as a rattlesnake last time we saw him.”
“I know where that trail is, L-T,” Gutierrez volunteered.
“Be careful uncle Rudy,” Paige warned. “That man shot at us when we left him.”
“Armed with what?” McKay wanted to know.
Drake handled that one. “He has a high-powered hunting rifle. It’s got a scope on it, too,” he added. “Oh, and I know its 30-06 caliber, because we found a box of cartridges in the saddlebag. That’s what you’re up against, Lieutenant.”
“Thanks for the Intel Sir, and thanks for whittling down the opposition for us.” The Marine took a step back, giving Drake a good, hard look. “Gutierrez here tells me you’re a minister.”
“That’s right,” Drake replied evenly.
“Well Sir,” McKay fought to suppress an impudent grin, “I just thought you’d like to know, if you’re maybe thinking about a career change, that is; the Marines are always looking for a few good men.” McKay came to attention and saluted. “Semper Fi, Sir!”
Drake gave a sheepish grin and a thumbs-up, “Give ‘em Heaven, Lieutenant.”
Gutierrez moved around the two, putting his big hands on Drake’s shoulders. “Well Padre, looks to me like you raised some perdition here today.” Drake winced at the analogy. “Yup, jacked it up and put a chunk under it!” He engulfed Drake in a hearty, masculine embrace, laughing at his own joke.
McKay turned as a young Marine approached. The soldier saluted and made his report. “Sergeant Lee says to tell you; ain’t nobody up here but us, Lieutenant.”
“Very well, Corporal. Carry on.” Lieutenant McKay returned the salute. “Sergeant,” he addressed himself to Nyberg—still out on the ledge, “recall the troops. Let’s move it out.”
“Aye, aye Sir!” snapped Nyberg. Raising his voice, he whirled his right arm in the air, “All right Marines, mount up!”
Turning to Paige, McKay gallantly gestured to his command copter. “Ma’am, if you’re ready to go home, you’re chariot awaits.”
The helicopter had flown them to Park Service Headquarters. Inevitably there were more questions to answer. The Park Service had questions. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms had more questions. Even the Governor’s aide had some questions. After several hours of intense debriefing they were finally released for the night, assured there would be more grilling the next day. The clock read half-past ten by the time they arrived at Gutierrez’ place.
* * *
“I got an extra room next to the kitchen. Paige is already upstairs,” Gutierrez’ voice came from the depths of his recliner. You’re welcome to flake out here for the night, okay?
“Well, it sounds like a good offer…” Drake hesitated. “I guess I don’t really feel like tramping all the way back to my cabin at this time of night. I believe I’ve done enough hiking in the last two days to last me all month. But…” He knew he had to make a decision. He felt awkward because the decision was how to resolve the strain between him and Paige.
Gutierrez broke into Drake’s labored thoughts, “While you were getting yourself grilled by the ATF boys, Chief Fine told me the last element of the dreaded Mariposa Militia has been rounded up.” His harsh laughter filled the room. “Those hillbilly Locos let themselves get caught out in an open meadow, surrounded by half the Marines in the free world.” The incredibly dim-witted image brought another sharp bark of laughter from the ranger. “Seriously though, I’m real sorry we didn’t get to you sooner, man.”
“Don’t beat yourself up over it. At least you were looking for us. In fact, I’m glad you got there when you did. Think of it this way, you saved us a long, hard eight mile hike all the way back down here.”
“Hey,” Gutierrez remembered. “There’s one more thing. The ATF has decided to drop all their phony proceedings against you. Seems those goofy Sacred Earthers have confessed to spreading a lot of incriminating evidence around about you. We caught ‘em red handed too. Me and Walt Frazier watched ‘em break into your cabin and send a phony Email in your name.
“Yeah, it looks like they been breaking a lot of laws. They been trapping mountain lions, and then transporting them inside a hidden compartment in that Big ol’ RV of theirs. See, they bring the lions to Yosemite and then release ‘em near crowds, trying to cause a big scare. I guess they figured the government would close the Park to protect the mountain lions. Crazy people, huh?”
“Well, it’s nice to know the details. I was pretty sure I wasn’t the guy doing it.”
“Yeah,” Gutierrez laughed again. “You’ll be happy to hear that those sterling employees of a certain unnamed government bureau have single-handedly solved the great environmental-militia mystery of the brand new century. Washington has been informed that the BATF has everything under control.” Gutierrez snorted in derision, “Ol’ Wild Bill Gordon will probably wangle himself a big promotion out of this whole sorry mess, too.” He abruptly straightened his recliner upright. “But what I really want to know is what about you and my niece?”
“I don’t know,” Drake looked away. He had avoided asking that question for several hours now. He took a deep breath and stood. “Maybe I’d better check in with Paige before I give you an answer.”
“Vaya con Dios, Padre.”
* * *
“You’re a hypocrite, honey.” Paige sat at an old, scratched vanity, overwhelmed with self-loathing. Her reflection returned a baleful expression. Paige realized she’d been kidding herself, hoping to escape her family and her past; in her childish longing to start a new life.
“That isn’t possible because you’re still the same old Paige Mitchell. Wherever you go you’ll keep dragging your screwed-up self right along with you.”
She thought she had been thinking in terms of love and commitment, but her motives were suspect. Wouldn’t any unbiased observer call her actions calculated? Wasn’t she taking advantage of Stan Drake’s vulnerability? He was recently widowed and lonely. They had been through an intense emotional experience together. Paige merely found herself jumping in at a convenient moment, like any scheming opportunist.
But hadn’t she made a spiritual recommitment? Paige Mitchell; a fresh new person, ready to start over with her life.
“Does that mean you’ve earned a future with Stan?” She demanded of her image, “like some prize for being good in Sunday School?” Well, that sounded pretty crude. The image repelled her. She hadn’t been thinking in those terms, really.
Up on the mountaintop everything had seemed so clear. She admired Stan. He was tender and genuine, a true friend. Someone she could trust. Once the danger had passed, though, and life here in the valley began to resume some semblance of normalcy, she recognized her self-deception.
“Oh sure, we could make a future together. I could follow Stan back to his small town and disappear. I could build a comfortable life as the wife of the Reverend Stan Drake. But would I be doing either of us any favors? Stan knows my past. One day, when the bloom fades, he’s going to remember what kind of woman I’ve been.”
And sooner or later, she knew, her past would catch up to her. Dear Mommy and Daddy would find her, as they had before. Perhaps they might come for a visit; Imagine, our sweet
daughter married to a minister. They would fawn on Stan and ingratiate themselves with the congregation. Oh, she knew, they would appear to everyone as genuine spiritual giants.
For a while.
But sooner or later Mommy or Daddy would show up drunk, or make a pass at someone, and the whole elegant house of cards would come crashing down. Stan’s reputation would be ruined. And he would look at her every day, knowing he’d chained himself to the person who had destroyed him.
“I don’t think I could bear that.” She swiped a bitter tear away.
From inside the mirror, Paige’s red-rimmed eyes stared back, mocking her. It had been a beautiful dream; a husband, a home, a place where nobody knew….
But that place did not exist. There was only this dingy little life. She’d led them both into trap, following her heart instead of her head. A trap with no end and no escape.
* * *
“Paige?” Drake’s voice and the door’s dry hinges squeaked in unison. The room felt as hushed as a cathedral—or a morgue. Drake felt himself an intrusion, an unwelcome invader.
Inside, Paige sat at a vanity, her back to him. The reflection of her face was visible in the mirror. She sat composed, but obviously she’d been crying. She didn’t turn to meet him, but their eyes met in the mirror.
“Go away,” she whispered, her eyes pleading for his acquiescence.
“If that’s what you want.” He pulled the door to, then leaned back in, “Is it?”
“Yes!” she gasped.
“Okay, but first, I have a confession to make.”
“What? I’m the one who needs to confess.”
“No. I’ve heard about you. You need to know something about me. I’ve spent most of the last year hating Linda and blaming God for her death.”
“That’s not what you said before.”
“I was lying nobly before. Thing is, I wasn’t lying nobly to spare Linda. I did it to boost my own ego. Even when I did my job as a pastor I was throwing it in God’s face, ‘See God, You’re punishing me, unjustly!’ I’ve been a lying hypocrite, and I even managed to convince myself. How’s that for successful pretense?
Drake knelt next to Paige and made a face at his own reflection. He gently took her hand in both of his. She stared at him, eyes wide, waiting. “Paige, there’s more. I’m guilty of manipulating; Linda, God… I guess everyone I’ve had any kind of relationship with. See, I cleverly assumed my will was identical with God’s will. Forearmed with that conviction, I convinced myself that anyone who disagreed with me was really fighting God. Neat, huh? Problem is, I’m not God.
Paige looked at her hand in his. They were getting sweaty. “I don’t understand. What does any of this have to do with me?”
“I know I’m making you uncomfortable. I could be polite, avoid the issue, but it’s too important to me—to both of us. You and I both know we’re attracted to one another. I’m confessing to you that I am the one who bears responsibility for my life. I failed Linda, not vice-versa. I wanted you to know what kind of person I am.”
“And what kind of person is that, Stan?”
“The only kind there is; fallen short of the glory of God, just like you.”
Paige surprised him by looking up with a smile on her face. “That gives me some hope.”
HALF DOME SUMMIT
“Drop the dog! Run, Paige!” Drake released his own hold on Hank. He spun, gun in hand, ready to fire. He never even saw the General before a huge fist appeared out of nowhere, striking Drake upside his already sore head. A bright light exploded before his eyes and his knees turned to jelly. Drake’s mental faculties were on the point of zeroing out, but he retained a vague awareness that the pistol had slipped from his grip. This is not a good thing. I need that gun for a very important reason. …probably. But where in God’s creation has the silly thing gotten to?
In the midst of his confusion Drake felt Taylor spin his body like a rag doll. Forget the gun, his mind screamed, do something about this grizzly bear who’s mauling you. Drake began grappling with Taylor. The General’s huge right paw palmed Drake’s head like palming a basketball at a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition.
“I got you now, Preacher! I’m gonna slit that scrawny throat and toss your useless
carcass right over the side!” The General shifted his grip, enveloping Drake in a crushing bear hug, squeezing the life from him.
Through an indistinct red haze the words of scripture came to Stan Drake. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for Thou art with me.
Drake was back in business. He spoiled Taylor’s plan for his imminent demise by rounding up and coordinating his few functioning brain cells. He locked his own arms around the General and abruptly lifted his legs off the ground. In an instant, Drake made a present of nearly two hundred unexpected pounds to Taylor. The General’s arms were strong enough, but his bum ankle betrayed him. Taylor broke his bear hug and Drake tumbled to the unyielding rock.
Instantly, Drake kicked his legs out, using his low center of gravity to shove against Taylor, wobbling precariously above him. It worked. The General lost his balance and tumbled over backward, windmilling his arms as he fell. Both men scrambled to regain their footing. Drake knew he had an advantage over the larger man, slowed by a bad leg. But he had to keep out of the General’s reach.
“Move, Paige. Get back from the edge. He’s got a sprained ankle. If we keep moving he can’t catch us.”
“You know everything, don’t you smart boy.” Taylor taunted. “I bet you got straight ‘A’s’ in college too, ain’t that so? Well, you can run, but you can’t hide. I’ll catch you sooner or later. And when I do, I’m gonna break you like a rotten twig.”
By the time Drake regained his footing he saw Paige scrambling over the fractured rocks on hands and knees, looking for-all-the-world as if she were searching for lost a contact lens. Suddenly she bolted upright. Her actions were suddenly clear to Drake. She turned and faced General Taylor with Drake’s .357 revolver in her hands.
“Don’t move, you!” she shouted, a shrill, harsh edge on her voice. “I mean it. I’m mad enough to use this thing.”
Drake cast a quick look over his shoulder. Paige stood to his left, slightly behind him, her dark blond hair wildly disordered. A trickle of blood ran from the corner of her mouth. Her right sleeve, badly ripped, showed the stain of blood on the material. She looked damaged, but she held herself as steady as the rock on which they stood. The pistol in her hands pointed directly at Taylor’s cold heart. Drake prudently stepped aside, giving Paige a safe field of fire. Once again he thought they had come to the end of the day’s troubles. And once again he was dead wrong. Taylor began to move forward, deliberately challenging Paige, forcing her to shoot or back down.
“I warned you!” Paige didn’t hesitate. She pulled the trigger, intending to shoot the General before he could reach her.
The Python didn’t fire.
As she squeezed the trigger, the double-action mechanism simultaneously drew the hammer back and rotated the cylinder. Upon reaching the point of full cock, the hammer rapidly fell forward to strike the piston. The revolving cylinder had been damaged by the fall to the rocks. The gun jammed halfway through the process of rotating the next cartridge into line. When the hammer struck, the floating transfer bar shattered as it punched against the ballistic steel of the cylinder edge, rather than the cartridge primer.
Paige stood immobile, incomprehension replacing her deadly fervor. She tried to pull the trigger again, but the weapon had completely frozen. The only utility it would have
henceforth would be for cracking walnuts.
As the situation became clear, one significant thought registered in three separate minds at the same instant.
Move, right now!
From above it must have looked like a football scrimmage. Paige jumped back to evade Taylor, who gave a bellow of rage, lowered his head and charged.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Drake, with less distance to cover, threw himself forward, tackling the General around the knees. Viciously, he wrenched Taylor’s bad leg just as dirty as he could. Both men crashed heavily to the rocks. Taylor twisted around and brought his meaty hand up, slashing at Drake with his combat knife.
“Told you I’d catch you, didn’t I, preacher! Guess you’re not so smart after all.”
Stan Drake kept his peace, focusing his whole being, all his remaining strength, on seizing and immobilizing that knife-hand. Clear and sweet, the words of the Psalmist came to him, and he remembered the promise with confidence. Though a host encamp against me, My heart will not fear; Though war arise against me, I shall be confident.
Drake clutched at the hand with renewed conviction. As they grappled for possession of the knife, rolling and thrashing over the uneven ground, their desperate movements carried them to the edge of the precipice. Taylor feinted, quickly shifting his leverage. With a mighty lunge he wrenched his knife hand from Drake’s grip. The General’s arm jerked back in a short, savage arc and thrust directly at Drake’s heart.
“Here it comes, Preacher. Bye, bye!”
Inside the vise-like grip of Taylor’s legs Drake twisted violently, fighting for his life. When the knife struck, it plunged hilt deep into Drake’s backpack. The sharp blade transited the thickness of the pack’s contents. A millimetric portion of the blade’s tip protruded far enough from the pack to score Drake’s back. It pricked the skin, but not by much. Drake cried out and his body twisted again, this time in reflex, instinctively seeking escape from pain.
Drake’s involuntary response carried both men over the brink.
* * *
“Stan!” Paige cried. She lurched to the edge, wincing in pain as her body protested the rough activity. Paige dropped to her knees. She had to look, to know what had happened. It was almost more than she could do to force herself. She knelt on the cliff edge for what seemed an eternity, eyes clamped shut. Paige Mitchell knew the sheer face of Half Dome well. There were no ledges on which a falling body might land.
Paige wanted to cry out to God for hope, but she couldn’t do it. There was no hope. And for all her faults, she wasn’t a hypocrite. Why should God answer her prayers anyway? What had she done for Him lately?
Sobbing in frustration and fear, her hands scrabbled over the rock, seeking a solid purchase. They encountered a strap of nylon material. Eyes still closed, Paige plucked at the strap. It was tightly wedged against stone. Paige opened her eyes to see a pack strap caught on a small horn of rock. Four feet below, Stan Drake stared back up at her.
“Help!” he called. “Please.”
“Stan! Oh, thank you God! Hold on. Don’t move. I’ll get a rope or something and try to help you up.”
Drake dangled, his left arm entangled in a twisted loop of his back pack. The other strap had ripped free. Drake and the ripped strap swung lazily, like laundry flapping in the breeze. Paige shuddered. General Taylor hung just below. His left hand clutched tightly at Drake’s painfully dragged-out belt. As Paige watched, Taylor slowly worked his knife free from the shredded remains of Drake’s backpack. She assumed he intended to use it on Drake. With no other weapon to hand, Paige raised the wrecked pistol over her shoulder. With all her might she hurled the bulky hunk of metal at the commanding General of the Mariposa Militia.
“Ha! Take that, you bruit!” Paige pounded her fists on the rock, willing the missile to connect. The heavy Python slammed into the tough bone and muscle of Taylor’s left shoulder. Paige watched the General’s neck muscles twitch in agony, but his precarious grip held. The solid blow elicited a deep, bestial grunt from the man, nothing more.
Paige realized she’d been wrong. Taylor did not want his knife to attack Drake. He was too busy concentrating on personal survival. Killing Drake would have been as useful to the General as gutting himself. She watched, helpless, as Taylor jammed his commando knife into a crevasse in the vertical rock face. With that leverage he began to inch his way upward. Once he got high enough he would have no further reason to spare Drake. She screamed at Taylor in rage. She picked up rocks and threw them at him, anything to slow him down.
When he gets to the top he’ll yank me over the side too, if I don’t have enough sense to get out of his way. I’ve got to do something to stop Taylor and help Stan.
Suddenly Paige’s heart began convicting her. Her heart? No, God’s Spirit was speaking.
Paige, you’re doing what you always do, honey.
Yes. I’m always trying to solve my problems by my own strength, and this time my own strength is not enough. Please God, I know I’ve been running from you. I know I have sinned. Forgive me. Don’t take your wrath out on Stan. I’m asking you to help. Please.
Paige stretched herself out, lying flat on her stomach on the cliff top. She spread her legs for balance and extended both arms, reaching out to Drake. He reached back up to her, and their hands clasped at the wrists.
“Pull, Stan!” she urged him. “Climb. He’s coming up.”
* * *
Drake didn’t need to look down to confirm Paige’s warning. He could feel the weight shifting as the General climbed his body like a rope ladder. Taylor’s hand moved from the belt to the trailing pack strap. Drake couldn’t even begin to climb. Taylor’s dead weight had him pinned to the rocks. On the other hand, while the General needed both hands to climb, Drake had one hand free to fend the guy off. He released his grip on Paige’s hand and clutched the rock face for leverage.
Drake kicked out, violently slamming his feet into Taylor’s unprotected side. The General grunted in pain, his grip on the strap suddenly broken. Taylor swung free, suspended by nothing but a steel blade embedded in granite. Drake immediately reached upward to Paige and began climbing. But Taylor made a quick cat-like twist, his powerful body turning in midair. His free hand snatched the flapping pack strap. Stability restored, Taylor resumed his climb to the top.
“Where’s your all powerful god now, huh preacher?” Taylor gloated, absolutely confident of victory. The General yanked at the pack strap, dislodging Drake’s hold from the rock. “Ha, ha! Come on God,” he cried to the sky. “What are you waiting for? Aren’t you gonna save your boy, here? Hey preacher, what have you got to say for a god like that?”
Drake looked the General square in the eyes. “Repent, the end is near.”
Taylor paused, astonishment playing across his craggy face. Then he snarled an oath and resumed his assault.
Drake’s left arm was still caught in the twisted strap. He was more or less secure, but it left him with only one hand to fight with. He clamped that free hand back on the granite and resumed his foot attack on Taylor. The General kept making progress but Drake continued to deny him ultimate victory.
From above, Paige shifted both hands to Drake’s trapped left wrist. She tugged at his arm with no effect. He appreciated the effort, but knew Paige had nowhere near the strength or leverage to budge the combined weight of two men.
“My knife!” Drake rasped suddenly, mouth dry with fear. He released his grip on the rock and drew the small bowie knife from its belt sheath. He brought the sharp little blade up over his head and brought it in contact with the pack strap, tautly suspended from the cliff top.
“What are you doing?” Paige cried, her eyes widening in puzzlement. Puzzlement changed to comprehension, then horror as she understood Drake’s purpose. Paige clamped both hands onto Drake’s wrist so hard he felt her nails digging into his flesh. He sawed at the tough nylon, watching Paige. Her eyes were closed and her lips moved in what looked like a prayer. He had time to add his own, a short, Save me Lord, before the tightly woven material yielded. The twin influences of blade and human weight ripped the strap from its granite perch. Free of the pack’s pinning constriction, Drake swung his body around and swarmed upward.
Taylor had reacted defensively when Drake drew his knife, obviously thinking in terms of a direct attack. He seemed to miss Drake’s actual intent, but when pack strap came suddenly loose comprehension dawned. Drake saw the heavy pack catch The General square in the face. Taylor flung the useless strap away from him, twisting again to gain a new purchase. His free hand swung wildly, but his knife blade held fast in the crevasse. The General was still in business.
“How many lives does this guy have?!” Drake cried out in frustration.
“I’m indestructible, preacher! You better believe I am. And I’m coming for you!” He fixed his cruel eyes on Paige, taunting, “And you’re next little lady!”
At the very moment of defeat Drake felt Half Dome’s expanse give a sudden, sickening lurch. Slowly, inexorably, the ancient granite exfoliated. Like a limpet clinging to the great slab of tilting stone, General Vince Taylor exfoliated right along with it, plummeting down Half Dome’s lethal precipice.