Drake gradually became self-aware when the early morning sun started streaming through a chink in the curtain directly into his right eye. He rolled over to escape the sun’s glare only to encounter Hank’s anxious, wet tongue on the other side of the bed.
“Okay, okay,” he grumbled, shoving the dog away, “I get the picture. You want to go outside. Just hang on a minute, will ya?”
Wiping the slobber from his face and the sleep from his eyes, he reluctantly arose from bed, stumbled to the kitchenette, flipping on the coffee maker. Drake always felt worthless in the morning before coffee; one of his few vices.
While waiting for the caffeine to brew he shrugged into his sweats and took Hank outside to take care of pressing doggie business. Back inside, he sat down at the kitchen table which he employed as an impromptu workstation. After booting up the computer, he opened the program to check e-mail. Quickly scanning and deleting anything that looked like junk mail or spam, Drake found he had only two personal notes left to read. The coffee maker emitted a series of gurgling noises, signifying the brewing cycle had concluded. Reaching back from the table he poured himself a steaming cup, doctoring to taste.
Sitting back, sipping from the warm mug, Drake opened an electronic message from his deacon, Gene Prentice. Apart from being a generous guy with his vehicles, Gene worked as an aerospace engineer, with a network of on-line friends rivaling the national intelligence agencies. The message came up in standard e-mail format.
05:45:59-0400; at SC-MGN1.EDW
Subject: told you so
I TOLD YOU TO SPEND YOUR VACATION IN TAHITI. My Online spies inform me that the government is moving a huge amount of assets into Yosemite to deal with those Militia kooks. You could be smack dab in the middle of another Waco foul-up. Check out the following Web site: www.maraposa.mil.org/
THAT should give you something to think about. And remember TAKE CARE OF MY TRUCK. ;~}
Drake read the message with a smile. In e-mail context, words written in all uppercase letters signify the sender is being emphatic, not to say screaming. Gene always laid it on thick when he thought he was funny.
The other letter came from a missionary friend on Guam. The typical form letter detailed the latest events with the ministry. A short personal note inquired about Drake’s present state of mind and ministry. Drake dashed off a quick note to both friends. “I’m enjoying my visit. Taking scores of pix to bore you with. More later.”
After he had finished his ‘e-ministrative’ duties, curiosity got the better of him. He selected the world wide web address Gene had included in his e-mail. The computer recognized the jumble of letters as a URL, a legitimate address on the World Wide Web. Drake opened his web browser and accessed the site. The web page that came up on the screen turned out to belong to the Mariposa Militia.
“My, my,” he murmured to himself, “what a surprise.”
Drake watched as several text articles quickly appeared on screen. An official-looking logo for the Mariposa Militia appeared at the top of the page, a patriotic image of a Revolutionary War Minute Man, poised and ready for action. Another image resolved under the Minute Man. The colorful image of a wild west-type wanted poster appeared. The poster rather arrogantly called for the capture of a man it identified as Wild Bill Gordon, Special Agent in Charge for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The particulars had him listed as working out of the Bureau’s Sacramento Field office. Drake’s eyebrows rose in surprise. The photograph on the wanted poster bore a striking resemblance to the intimidating bald man he had spoken to at the foot of Yosemite Falls.
* * *
While mechanically going through the act of shaving, Drake found himself thinking about Gene’s playful warning and the implications of seeing a controversial officer of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in Yosemite National Park. His cellular phone began emitting its familiar electronic warble. Drake went and got it and flipped it on. He heard Megan’s sleep-dulled voice addressing him across the dancing electrons.
“Good morning, Stan,” she began, not bothering to identify herself. “I couldn’t bear the thought of you eating a cold, greasy breakfast at that ghastly café over at the Lodge. Please join Paige and I for breakfast at our place.”
“I don’t know…” he hesitated. “Are you sure that’s going to be all right with Paige?” he asked a little defensively, “I mean, after all, she seemed a little hostile yesterday, don’t you think?”
“Nonsense, darling.” Megan assured him. “She’s a grown woman. She’s forgotten all about that. Hurry along now, I’m famished.”
Since he had taken Megan home the night before he already knew the way to their small home. After he finished dressing, Drake whistled for Hank and they strolled over to the compact two-story cottage, set among a little village of employee cabins not much larger than Drake’s. When he knocked at the door, Paige’s startled face appeared.
“What do you want?” she asked, seeming more surprised than annoyed. Drake groaned, rolling his eyes elaborately. “Oh, uh, Megan invited me over for breakfast,” he stammered. “I guess she sorta forgot to tell you.”
“As usual,” she replied with a wry expression. “Well, come on in. And don’t forget to wipe your feet.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said contritely. “Thank you very much.”
“Oh, stop being so polite,” she said, heading across the small sitting room to an equally compact kitchen. “I’m won’t bite you. You just caught me by surprise yesterday; that’s all.”
“Is it Okay for Hank to come in too?” He asked, “He’s really well behaved.”
Paige looked down to see Hank sitting docilely at Drake’s feet. “Oh, look at the pretty doggie!” she gushed. She dropped to her knees and began fussing over the furry mutt who sat there thumping his tail on the porch, basking in the attention. Paige looked up at Drake and asked, “What did you say his name is?”
“Hank,” he replied.
“Come on in Hank, by all means,” she said with a smile, then added, “Oh, and bring that guy out there in with you.”
Drake followed her back the kitchen and took a seat at the table. Hank sat obediently at his feet. Paige went back to her breakfast preparations at the kitchen counter. Drake tried to act casual, glancing around the room, but Paige remained the obvious center of attention. Looking up suddenly, she caught his eyes and asked archly. “Do you always conceal you identity when you’re on vacation?”
“Look,” he sighed, growing impatient with the game, “I’m the same guy, whether I’m speaking from the pulpit or chowing down in your kitchen. Sure, I happen to be a pastor. But that doesn’t mean I wear an enchanted robe under my street clothes, or carry vials of holy water in my utility belt. I’m just a regular guy.”
“A regular guy?” she asked, then added, “With a holier-than-thou attitude?”
“Wait just one little second,” he laughed, temper giving way to absurdity. “You don’t know me. I could be a total jerk, or Barbie’s dream date. You can’t know that yet; unless of course you have—like me—The Power.
She stared at him for a strained moment, then smiled at his disarming silliness. “I haven’t been too impressed with religious people before. That’s for sure,” she added sotto-voice. “I guess I’m just taking it out on you. I humbly apologize. Truce?” she asked.
“Sure,” he agreed with relief.
Over breakfast, for which the allegedly famished Megan never showed, Paige and Drake chatted in a wary but friendly fashion, sticking to non-controversial subjects. Paige told him about interesting spots to visit. Drake related his store of knowledge concerning the infamous, car-crunching bears of Yosemite. As a Valley resident she already knew about bears. Also, as a Valley resident, it did not surprise him to learn that she had never visited the museum. Polite as each of them were trying to be, the tension in the room made for a strained and uncomfortable meal. Each of them were going out of their way to be extra courteous, seeking to avoid controversial issues. But at least she hasn’t shooed me out the back door with a broom yet.
“Have you thought of climbing Half dome?” she asked, eyes alight.
“Oh, no, you’re not getting me up on some cliff,” he said with mock horror, “I saw those crazy rockhounds, hanging by their sleeping bags, a thousand feet up on El Capitan. That’s not for Mama Drake’s pride and joy.”
Paige laughed merrily at Drake’s tourist ignorance. She explained, “Half dome is that huge rounded formation at the head of the Valley. It’s a tremendous rounded Granite plug. It juts straight up, like 4,000 feet from the valley floor. Eons ago nearly half of it sheared off on the westward side, leaving a cross section of sculpted granite behind. You should do it. Tourists make the climb every day. It is the most beautiful object in the whole world.”
“Okay,” said Drake, “You’ve intrigued me. And I agree it is beautiful, but since it’s so steep and round, how can anybody climb it without being a mountaineer?”
“That’s easy,” she said, “the Park Service rigged a stairway of sorts up the rounded backside of Half Dome for tourists. It isn’t strictly rock climbing,” she said, “merely good hard labor. Of course the hardcore rockhounds would rather climb the sheer face any day of the week. Oh, but once you reach the summit,” she rhapsodized, “from the crest, you’ve got a terrific view of the whole Valley, and a panorama of most of the National Park, not to mention,” she added playfully, “a four thousand foot dive, straight down.”
Drake found the idea of climbing that ancient monolith to be both intriguing and sobering. I bet the view is worth it, but the thought of staring straight down a four thousand-foot precipice scared the bejeebers out of him. I get nervous painting the steeple on the church.
“It sounds like a trip worth making. But it also sounds like I ought to make it while I’m still based down here in the Valley, instead of when I’m packing all my camping gear up to Merced lake.”
“Now there’s a picture,” laughed Paige. “A tenderfoot hauling a pack full of gear straight up Half Dome’s backside. That’s an idea almost worth painting,” she mused. “But actually, a lot of people make a two day, overnight trip of it. So, when do you think you’ll go?” she asked.
“Whoa,” he said. “I haven’t decided if I’m going yet. Besides, I’m taking it slow and easy this week. I’m supposed to be on a relaxing vacation, not the Bataan Death March. After all, as we theologians say; ‘The seat of the Vatican did not complete it's fabrication during the course of a sidereal interval.’”
She made a face, “Sorry, I don’t speak Latin,” she said dryly
“I'm merely recalling the adage that Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
“Now I’m starting to wonder if you really are a pastor or not,” she sighed. “You’re way too human.”
“Thenk yew,” drawled Drake in a horrible Elvis impersonation, “Thenk yew very mooch.” Switching back to his normal voice he said, “I wish people could really understand that.”
“But how can you be any kind of spiritual leader if you’re not other-worldly?” she asked.
“I’m not other-worldly. Would you be impressed if I pretended to be? Besides, how am I supposed to communicate with people in this world if I’m living in another?” he countered reasonably. God could easily have given the job of proclaiming the Gospel to sinless angels. Do you know why God chose to use fallen, imperfect people?”
“No,” she said warily, “why?”
“Because He doesn’t have any other kind to work with. Ha, ha. I mean, don’t get me wrong, my life has changed drastically since I gave it to Jesus Christ. I’m committed to serve God and repent when I fail. I simply don’t see the point of pretending to be Hollywood’s ideal clergyman, as if they had one. The way I figure it, God called me, not my impersonation of Reverend Do Right. Isn’t that right Hank?” Hank didn’t look up from the plate he was licking clean, but he did wag his tail. It could have been agreement.
* * *
The conversation had made Paige decidedly uncomfortable. Stan Drake shattered her personal convictions about phony religious folk. She did not like it one little bit, either. She had summarily tried, convicted, and sentenced her childhood faith to insignificance. That battle was over. Religion was a joke. The courtroom of her heart did not appreciate fresh evidence for the defense cropping up at this late date. Until today Paige believed she had Christians all figured out; neatly pinned, labeled, and compartmented. Either they were blatant hypocrites, like her parents, or weak, humorless nobodies, like her old minister.
Stan Drake, just by stepping into her life, had burst her bubble. He was personable and easy to talk to. There was no hint that the face she saw might be any different from the one his congregation knew. Moreover, she liked him, and it scared her. That thought frightened her more than the knowledge that Mother and Father had found her again. She did not want to find out there might be real Christians out there, believers who weren’t playing some sort of meaningless game for empty points.
“I will not let that happen,” Paige assured herself, with a somewhat vague promise.