“Let the fire fall!” The lonely cry carried down the cliff face, attenuated by great distance. At the command a blazing tree stump fell loose, plunging majestically down the face of the cliff followed by a glowing comet trail of sparks. As it rushed downward the fiery missle appeared to grow in size until the remains of a massive, ancient redwood were revealed; fully twelve feet in diameter. It struck the rocks at the base of the cliff with a resounding crash, splintering into a million burning torches. The piled firewood waiting below instantly ignited into a gigantic bonfire.
The forbidden spectacle pleased Ted Parker, primarily because of its complete illegality. These days, anything that flaunted the law was near and dear to his heart. The fire-fall had once been a great tradition in Yosemite. That tradition, like so many others, had been discontinued because of pressure from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups bent on ruining anything that somebody might enjoy. Do-gooders always reminded Parker of the harsh, self-righteous, sin-battlin’ preachers of his childhood, always railing against some perceived depravity or other. Who needs ‘em, he grimaced. Nothing but a bunch of whining killjoys, anyway. A man’s got to be free to make his own way in life, or die trying.
Hence the purpose for his presence at tonight’s solemn gathering of the brethren. Parker was about to change his life for the better. He would become one of the Mariposa Militia. He intended to run things his way for a change, instead of always running from the government.
Beyond the leaping blaze of the firelight the surroundings were pitch dark on that moonless night. Pitch dark as can only be experienced high in deep clefts of the mountains, far from industrial pollution and city lights.
The High Council of the Mariposa Battalion had convened before the campfire in this lonely corner of Yosemite. Fear of discovery and arrest forced them to move their encampments daily, lest the Feds pinpoint their location. Parker knew the government would not hesitate to send in military troops loaded with heavy firepower. Government goons had no qualms about massacring him and the rest of these brave freedom fighters.
We can’t afford any kind of permanent base, he understood. All that would give us would be another Ruby Ridge or Waco incident. Another chance for the government’s jackbooted thugs to stage a publicly acceptable bloodbath. And all on Prime Time television, too. Parker clenched his jaw in anger. Get it under control, Boy! You can’t afford to be seen as a weakling. Tonight would be a special Council Fire. The Militia was inducting Ted and some other guy he had just met as fledgling members.
Parker gazed through the shimmering flames of the blaze, watching the militia’s leader. Horace B. Taylor, Commanding General of the Mariposa Battalion, stood tall and ramrod straight. His bearing set an example of power and confidence. Parker relaxed, feeling he had finally found a home.
After hours of patient waiting, ceremony time had finally arrived. Parker watched as the General strode forward in a self-assured manner, taking his position in front of the bonfire. Standing in the place of honor he nodded to the drummers to begin. A dozen men, holding a ragged assortment of drums began hammering out individual rhythms. The pounding, discordant at first, soon melded into a harmonious beat as the drummers became unified in spirit.
The percussive rhythms signaled the traditional commencement of a Council Fire assembly. Rolling booms of the tom-toms reverberated off the nearby stone walls of their secluded encampment, filling the air with the sounds of rampant maleness. From every corner of the campsite men began to gather. Most of them stood silent and expectant as they awaited the evening’s council. A few of the more exuberant men, unable to reign in their testosterone, began to howl like wolves in time to the beating of the drums.
Parker kept his expression stern and impassive as befitted a new guy. Inwardly though, he smiled, his heart swelling with pride. These were real men, and it was his privilege to join them. Sure, most of them came from weak, domesticated stock; indoctrinated in the public schools to grow up as good little consumers. Coddled poodles, pampered when they pleased their government masters, and punished when they showed any sign of independence. Well, not any more, exulted Parker. No, not any more, brother. We’re wild mongrel dogs now. Big Brother can punish us if he wants, but these days he has to work at it. He might just get himself bitten too. After all, even poodles have teeth.
The drums rolled to a sudden stop. The time had come. Parker watched as General Taylor dramatically raised his ceremonial staff into the air. In unison the drummers let out a dramatic roll with another abrupt cut off.
The General peered around to see he had the militia’s attention, “Brothers,” he shouted, his gruff voice booming across the clearing. “I summon you to gather at the Council Fires of the Elders, as have men since the ancient days of honor. We are but a remnant of what remains of the last true Americans. Only a few are left with the courage to stand as free men when all the world has bowed to tyranny. Big Brother, who calls himself our legitimate government, has stripped us of our lawful rights, overruled the will of the people and trampled our sacred constitution.”
A restless stir moved through the men around Parker at these words. They responded with murmurs of agreement and shouts of encouragement.
“Most of the common folk in our once great country have meekly surrendered their independence,” General Taylor shook a ham-sized fist. “But there are still a few brave souls willing to fight back… You men,” he pointed with both hands, “are counted among that small but courageous number. Many of our brethren have already paid for our freedom with their very lives. For us it is either victory or death!” Taylor threw back his head repeating the challenge to the world: “victory or death!” He quieted himself and sought eye contact with individual members of the crowd. “Oh, we could give up. That’s right; we could go home, return to a life of peaceful servitude. We could do that. But I say: Death before dishonor!”
The canyon erupted with resounding cheers from the assembly. Parker joined them with enthusiasm.
General Taylor crouched low, peering from side to side as if confiding some deep insight. “Our families aren’t being killed by Nazis or Russkies. No foreign soldier never attacked this sacred soil, driving us from our homes. No, it’s jackbooted thugs—cold-hearted assassins from our own Government—they gunned down an innocent family at Ruby Ridge. Then they went on down to Waco Texas so they could barbecue a bunch of innocent men, women, and children. Those traitors from D.C. paraded the patriots—true Americans—from the Oklahoma City Federal building in front of a kangaroo court to gain a conviction. And let's never forget little Elian Gonzalez, ripped out of his own home by machinegun-toting storm troopers. Never forget,” Taylor slapped a huge fist into his open palm. “Never forget, because the Resistance continues!”
Around him, Parker felt the crowd swelling, alive with ceaseless encouragement, and cheers. He knew the General had his audience. With the murmur of their voices, their active body language, and continuous eye contact they responded to everything Taylor said. Their restlessness increased as Taylor elevated the vehemence of his rhetoric.
“The weak members of society have no future; either with real American’s like us, or with the corrupt excuse for a government back there in Washington D.C. I pity the weak, by God I do! Most of them live out their pathetic lives in their safe little sheep pens. Some are so far-gone that they take their own lives hoping for a ride on an imaginary space ship to Neverland! They are nothing more than human debris who’ve forfeited their right to even be called men!”
A grand, masculine hurrah erupted from the crowd, not unlike the sound that one hears from outside a football stadium as a touchdown is scored. But these men were not cheering a mere game. Their passion was devoted to an objective they believed in with all their hearts, a cause worth dying for. Yes, a cause worth killing for. Parker knew he wanted to be part of that cause.
“And that is what you wonderful guys are,” Taylor abruptly switched styles, lowering his voice so they had to strain to hear. “You are Men," he said with firm conviction, "men who will not bow their necks to oppression. Men who will take a stand against political corruption and police-state thuggery. We, my friends, are the true American patriots.” Taylor’s voice rose to a crescendo. “We will never rest until the day we have restored our beloved country to the rule of the people. Either we triumph gloriously or they’ll have to bury our cold, defiant bodies in our native, blood-washed soil!"
The General paused, stuck his hands in his pockets as if contemplating a moment before speaking quietly. “You know, all those big shots back in Washington promise safety and comfort. Oh, sure, it’s yours for the asking. All you have to do is sit down, shut up, and pay your confiscatory taxes.” Taylor deliberately spat on the ground. “Well,” he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “I’ve got one little question for you: Is comfort so wonderful, or safety so precious that we should surrender ourselves to servitude and prison under a corrupt government?” The General snatched up a brand from the fire and smashed the blazing stick into a shower of sparks. “Never! In the words of our great American forefathers: ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’”
Taylor gestured, his arms outspread in the air, a large “V” for victory, a flamboyant ending for his gaudy speech. The men of the battalion appeared to recognize the gesture, for they broke into thunderous applause. Men gathered into small huddles, spontaneously chattering among themselves about the import of the General’s message. They were pumped. Parker heard snatches of conversation as he continued to watch the General. He appeared mighty pleased with himself.
“At’s tellin ‘em, Gen’rul!”
“We’re with you, General; just say the word and we’ll attack!”
“I’d wade into Hell itself, as long as Eugene Taylor led me!”
Parker slowly nodded his head, judging the speech a rousing success. General Taylor gave them all time to revel in the moment, then called for their renewed attention. It was time for the next item on the agenda.
The General gestured to his sergeant, Buck Larson. Larson grabbed Parker and the other new guy, manhandling them to a position before the council fire. Larson gave a wicked grin as he whipped out leather thongs and bound their arms behind them. “You boys are gonna love this,” he cackled. After that he covered Parker and Mullen’s heads with shabby black hoods and Parker saw no more.
This is it, he exulted. I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get here. I had to turn over my property to the Militia. I had to submit to intensive background checks and wait like a daddy in the delivery room. And I wasn’t the only one either. Other men had applied as well, he knew. But just me and one other guy have the honor of standing here before the Council Fire. All the tests he had passed to this point were merely the preliminaries. Tonight, before the assembled Battalion, he had to demonstrate his courage and manhood by passing the final test before total acceptance.
The rowdy throng hushed as their General called for attention again. “Brothers,” he began, “these two men desire to join our ranks as brothers-in-arms. On my right hand is Ted Parker, on my left, Ev Mullins. Parker here, found himself maliciously accused of child abuse. Without any evidence or even a warrant, government goons busted right into his home and took his precious babies away. He lost his children, his wife, and his job. He wants nothing more than the chance to fight back against that kind of evil, authoritarian oppression.”
Parker felt the slap as Taylor clapped a large hand on the man to Parker’s left. “Brother Mullins used to run a successful small business. It was destroyed and confiscated from him by deceit and outright lies from our supposedly kinder and gentler Internal Revenue Service.” General Taylor spat into the fire. “Men, these brothers have suffered unjustly just as we all have. Just like the rest of us, they want some pay back. They desire to take up arms and stand shoulder to shoulder, fighting the battle with us.
Taylor paused for effect before asking dramatically, “Well, what say you?”
Sergeant Larson spoke up on cue, “General, I move that we accept these good men as brothers in arms, providing they prove their worth.” A voice from the crowd seconded the motion. A vote was taken and Mullins and Parker were immediately elected by acclamation.
Under the heavy hood, Parker listened as best he could to the muffled proceedings. He nearly missed it as the General put a ceremonial question to them, “Are you ready to demonstrate your worth as men?”
“Yes!” Parker responded. He heard Mullin’s muffled response leak from beneath the stout hood.
“So be it,” The General decreed. “I now command you both to take one step forward.”
At this order Parker felt two threatening points of pressure pushing against the dirty fabric over his eyes. Maybe they were only fingers, but they could be knives. This is a test of courage, he realized. Hesitating but a moment, Parker steeled himself and took a good step forward. As he did the pressure disappeared, followed immediately by a cheer of appreciation from the assembly. Apparently he and Mullins had both passed the test.
“You have demonstrated your bravery but you must pass one last test,” proclaimed the General. “You must survive the Gauntlet!” The cheering men quieted. Parker could hear them forming into two columns, facing one another. Sergeant Larson checked their heavy black hoods to ensure they were still in place. He roughly grasped Parker by the upper arm. “Run for your lives, you Sissies!” he ordered. With that Parker felt himself shoved down what he guessed was a living corridor of waiting militiamen.
Ted Parker stumbled, running blind through the savage gauntlet. From either side, men struck out at him with fists and open handed slaps. Some kicked with heavily booted feet, trying to trip the two inductees. Mullins fell, taking Parker down with him. But the heavy tumble brought no respite from the hail of blows. Both men helped each other, staggering to their feet to continue their passage through the maliciously cruel ritual.
How much longer can this go on? Parker wondered as he struggled to keep moving. Working together the two finally dragged each other out the other side of the living, mass punishment. Head bowed, chest heaving, knees trembling, Parker stood resolute, waiting for more. Instead, he felt a knife slice through his bonds. The smothering hood was yanked from his battered head. Eyes blinking in the glare of the firelight, Parker grinned at Mullins and the welcoming throng, their faces swollen and bloody. General Taylor strode up to them and grabbed each in turn in a bone crushing bear hug, welcoming two more converts to the fold.
Twenty-four thousand miles overhead, in geostationary orbit, a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration weather satellite mapped the ever-changing weather patterns over North America. As a matter of course it noted the thermal signature from the Mariposa Battalion’s council fire. The satellite was a data collection platform operated by NOAA and designated as GOESDCS-1995#4. For ease of usage the technical name was shortened to GEO-95/4.
Not specifically a spy satellite, it kept only the Northern Hemisphere of the Americas in view. Its photographic imaging capabilities were not designed to resolve small objects, nor did it directly link its data to any Defense Department satellite. It was simply a wide-field, low resolution, atmospheric data collection platform.
However, GEO-95/4 was not completely useless for domestic surveillance. It was quite capable of activities not strictly meteorological in nature. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration designated GEO-95/4 as a random reporting platform. It had been programmed to record and report when certain pre-defined sensor thresholds were triggered by environmental events; earthquakes, fires and tornadoes would fit those parameters. The disastrous 1988 Yellowstone fire had taught the US Forest and National Park Service the value of advanced fire warning and prediction. Since then those services regularly received notification from the National Weather Service concerning potential forest fires.
At 2318:37 Eastern Daylight Time GEO-95/4 noted a thermal bloom at an unauthorized site within the confines of Yosemite National Park. Unfortunately, there are more thermal sources within the view of any given weather satellite than their programming could ever handle. The elaborate systems would be constantly overloaded had they been required to report everything they were capable of detecting. That problem had been solved by software, which automatically eliminated known thermal sources from the satellite’s search parameters. Signal strength was also set at a pre-programmed threshold so that minor thermal sources, such as toasters and garage door openers, were not reported. Additionally, the search areas were limited by pre-defined criterion. In the case of GEO-95/4, the satellite’s primary tasking had it monitoring the large tracts of forested land under government authority.
At the National Environmental Satellite Data Information Service operations center, the automatic observation systems recorded a random data dump from GEO-95/4. NESDIS’s Satellite Analysis Branch is located at Wallops Island, on Maryland’s Delmarva Peninsula, The Satellite Analysis Branch is primarily tasked with supporting disaster mitigation and early warning services to Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government agencies.
That night an on-site junior analyst, alerted to the random report, was working the swing shift. Her immediate analysis of the data showed that the thermal bloom was in an area restricted to camping and camp fires. The image did not appear to be expanding. Therefore, it was most likely an unauthorized campfire, and a large one, at that.
Checking her standing orders, she noted that the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms were all on the notification list. She prepared a standardized notification form and set the fax machine to send the data to the interested agencies. The machine hummed to life and began dialing the first programmed number. The analyst took the opportunity to leave the room for a quick break.
When she returned, ten minutes later, she saw that the fax had gone through to the USFS the NPS and the BLM, but the BATF had not received notification. She dialed up the number by hand but the BATF fax line simply did not respond. Probably a heavy print queue, she thought. Oh, well. She left the machine to continue its repeated attempts and went back to the ever-increasing pile of data awaiting analysis.
Ten minutes later the fax machine let out a triple beep. A printed message emerged informing her that the machine had made twenty unsuccessful attempts and now switched to standby mode. Telling herself to try again in ten minutes, she turned away from the fax machine and went back to work. She did not think of the BATF fax for another hour and a half.
By the time the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms received the requested data, which then had to work its way through the cumbersome routing network all the way to a sleepy BATF Special Agent in Charge, it was already 04:00 local time in Yosemite.
Bill James, the SAC, sat up in bed, rubbing crusted sleep from his eyes. He forced his fuddled brain awake, then gave the local duty officer his orders; “Roust the field agents out of their beds and call up the aircrews. I want helicopters in the air by first light.” James dropped the phone into its cradle. Probably another wild goose chase, he growled. He kicked his feet over the side and stepped onto an inhumanly cold floor. The chill helped him dress quicker.
Just over ninety minutes later, two bureau helicopters lifted off from Yosemite Village. Bill James sat behind the pilots as they clawed for altitude. The UH-60’s roared over the mountainous terrain, crossing Tioga road as they sped north. The fire had been detected near the Hech Hechy reservoir. As they approached the area, the co-pilot spotted a thin curl of smoke ascending through a thick stand of trees. James had his men dropped in clearings on either side of the smoke spiral. They closed in while the helicopters rode shotgun, watching for militiamen.
It was to no avail. By the time James and his agents reached the spot the Mariposa Battalion had doused their council fire and cleared out hours ago.