SOUTH GATE, YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
EARLY TUESDAY MORNING
Park ranger Tom Grissom gazed at the stars above and wondered if he were about to die...
Moments before he’d been working a particularly dull night shift. In a flash the night had morphed into a screaming nightmare. The stars above blazed and faded in time to the beating of his heart. Again he wondered if death were about to claim him. Grissom thought back over the previous moments. Had he done anything wrong? Had he himself issued an invitation to the old man with the scythe? Maybe he should have chosen another line of work altogether.
As an interpretive ranger, Grissom usually enjoyed manning the Park’s entrance booths. But working three late shifts in the same week seemed like some kind of insult. Normally he performed the traditional ranger tasks, welcoming and guiding tourists around the Park. He preferred that to being a law-enforcement ranger, spending his time writing tickets and arresting drunks. But this was a waste of his valuable time.
Big important job, he thought, pacing the two or three little steps the booth allowed. Not a single car in two hours, he grumped, glaring at his unwanted domain. The southern gateway to Yosemite consisted of two small, rustic cubicles, set in the middle of the road like tollbooths, creating three lanes for traffic. At this time of night even using one always seemed an extravagant waste of manpower to him.
He ceased his aimless pacing and parked his butt on the shack’s government-issue metal stool. The tall stool had only three of its rubber footpads, causing it to rock unevenly. Irritated, Grissom shifted his body, seeking the proper balance point. Once stabilized, he set about reading yesterday’s copy of the local paper, the Merced Register. “Not again! He shook the paper and rolled his eyes.
Across the front page a banner headline proclaimed, “Tourists Go Home!” The accompanying article proclaimed the Sacred Earth Society’s environmental demands for the umteenth time. Ever-expanding tourism, they claimed, was encroaching on the park’s delicate eco-system. The activist’s solution was to shut down Yosemite to all tourism. Though Grissom had some sympathy for their views, he found their means unethical, not to say illegal. The article conveyed their usual mix of arrogant bombast mixed with equal portions of tearful hand-wringing, but it did help him forget his own woes and lose track of time for five whole minutes.
The throbbing, dissonant growls of heavy vehicles approaching from the south gradually invaded his concentration, alerting him to the welcome possibility of acting remotely ranger-like soon. Grissom glanced up over the top of the paper, eyes squinting against the sudden glare of headlights centered directly on his booth. The harsh brilliance of the light dazzled him, but not enough to keep him from appreciating that the lead vehicle deviated neither right or left of where he sat. Great, that’s exactly what I need tonight, he thought; imagining the reams of paperwork attendant to filing an accident report. The year before a drunk driver had plowed his recreational vehicle into the booth at Big Oak Flat, injuring a ranger and several guests. But Grissom’s irritation immediately changed to apprehension as his ears caught the sound of a rugged transmission downshifting, followed by the increased pitch and volume of the engine’s growl as the truck accelerated.
Realizing his peril, Grissom leaped from his stool, flinging himself through the narrow doorway, rapping his left knee in the process. He rolled over on the gritty pavement, staring in amazement as a three-quarter ton stake-side truck slammed into the booth at what must have been forty miles an hour. Like a ski jumper hitting the ramp, the truck’s front end reared up on the tough stone and concrete base of the little shack, headlights illuminating the tops of trees a hundred yards away. The force of the impact shattered the shack’s windows, raining glass over the parking lot, showering the ranger with slivers and shards of tiny, sparkling razors.
The force hurled the booth’s wood and metal roof into the air; its thousand pound deadweight crashing down on Grissom’s outstretched legs. In the midst of this surrealistic nightmare, he heard the shriek of tortured aluminum, the boom-boompf of heavy balks of timber and the loud crack of at least one of his femurs fracturing. In his confusion and pain he couldn’t be sure if one or both legs had been broken. The combination of shock and the sudden adrenaline rush had temporarily numbed him to all sensory input. Grissom lay on the rough, oil-stained pavement in a daze. Loose gravel and dagger-like glass ground into his back. He felt no physical pain but his mind churned in a crazy kaleidoscope of frustration and bewilderment.
What is going on?!
As he lay there trapped and helpless, bodies began to jump from the tilted rear of the truck. Booted footsteps thumped across the pavement toward Grissom, more felt than heard. He watched as a large recreational vehicle drove right up to where he lay. Its right front tire nudged the shattered remains of the roof, wrenching a scream of agony from him. The comforting blanket of numbness had suddenly been stripped from Ranger Grissom’s tortured body. Through the sudden blaze of pain he heard a heavy door open with a protesting metallic squeal. A large man stepped out and slammed the door shut.
Half-blinded by the halogen glare of twin headlights, Grissom saw nothing distinct, only shadowy movement all around him. A booted figure emerged from the gloom, treading heavily through the dazzling white light. The dark, man-shape strode up to where he lay and calmly looked down at the ranger, pinned under the collapsed wreckage.
In spite of the pain and disorientation Grissom was captivated by the stars overhead. They blazed in the black sky, diamond bright. A shadow appeared, occulting the heavens. He lolled his head around to see what caused the shadow. The large man stood over him, dressed in camouflage hunting coveralls, carrying what appeared to be a twelve-gauge pump shotgun. The lunatic play of light and shadow, abetted by a dark bushy beard, obscured the man’s features. Yet Grissom had no trouble seeing the white gleam of eyes and teeth as the stranger stood smiling down at him.
Grissom shuddered as the shadowy, backlit figure, raised the shotgun to its shoulder, racked a shell into the chamber, and addressed himself to the prone ranger.
“My name is General Horace B. Taylor of the Mariposa Militia,” he announced in a voice that sounded like gravel canting from a hopper. “And you are trespassin’ on my property, government boy.”
Taylor sighted down the length of the barrel at Grissom and calmly pulled the trigger.