Sunday, November 25, 2012



            Drake found the Happy Isles Nature Center surprisingly crowded. Surprising, because back in the summer of 1996 Happy Isles, located at the southeastern corner of the valley floor, had narrowly escaped catastrophic destruction. A massive chunk of exfoliating granite had thundered down the mountainside from just below Glacier Point. The blast effect had been powerful enough to hurl mature pine trees through Park Service buildings. Choking dust had blanketed the entire valley. Bridges had completely disappeared under the titanic avalanche. The nature center, as well as its many visitors, had been providentially preserved. The avalanche, though by no means unique, had still been the worst rock slide in the recorded history of Yosemite Valley.
            After reflection, Drake realized he should not be surprised at the crowds. After all, the human inability to remember tragedy, for any amount of time, is a matter of record. Here they are—and don’t forget yourself Pal—frolicking at ground zero. The fact is, granite has a nasty habit of fracturing and exfoliating (which is simply a fancy geological term for ‘falling’). The point being, there is really no place one could reasonably call safe in Yosemite. Well, he thought if I wanted to be safe I could have stayed home and played video games instead.
            A hoarse shout drew his attention to the thickly forested slopes to the east. People began moving curiously in the direction of the shout, streaming singly and in knots toward an open-air concession stand. Drake trailed along joining the edges of the migration. True to his loner nature, he quickly found a rocky knoll where he could observe from afar, rather than mingling with the crowd.
            “Hank, heel!” he ordered as his normally docile pup began growling. “You’re acting awfully twitchy.” Drake knelt to calm the dog. “What’s wrong, Lassie? Has Timmy fallen down the well?” He grinned and returned his attention to the commotion.
From his elevated position, through stands of thick evergreens, Drake observed the center of attention. A large, tawny mountain lion stood on a wooden footbridge straddling a small stream. The noisy crowd had obviously disoriented the beast for it kept glancing left and right, agitated and indecisive, tail slashing, seeking an avenue of escape.
            Drake’s forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. That’s unusual. Everything he knew of mountain lions said the big cats assiduously avoid any kind of human contact. Sure, it is barely possible for a lone hiker to encounter a cougar from time to time, but that is an extremely rare occurrence. On the other hand, there has been a series of mountain lion sightings right there in Yosemite Valley; three to his knowledge in just the last month. That called for some sort of rational explanation.
            Perhaps the lion population, with hunting curtailed and no natural enemies, had simply grown too large. A growing lion census would also account for the shrinking deer population as reported by hunters. That might possibly account for a number of lions suddenly appearing in heavily populated regions. Possibly, but Drake’s mind still rebelled against what seemed to be an unbelievable idea. As an afterthought, he pulled Hank’s leash out of his pocket and snapped onto the collar. No sense letting the dumb mutt tangle with an angry cougar, he thought.
            When he looked again, Park rangers began appearing around the fringes of the crowd, seeking to contain and move people away from the agitated beast. Other rangers worked to carefully surround the mountain lion without making it feel cornered; a delicate balance. A green and white Park Service truck slowly approached along a wide footpath. A stocky ranger got out who looked to be in his fifties. Grizzled gray hair showed beneath his green Ranger campaign hat. Drake watched as the ranger loaded a heavy-barreled rifle with a fat tranquilizer dart.
            By this time the Rangers involved with crowd control had succeeded in moving people back about a hundred yards. Walking carefully along the path, his rifle pointed safely at the ground, the ranger from the pickup deliberately prepared to put the lion to sleep. Drake noticed a large, heavy-duty steel cage fitted to the bed of the pickup. It looked sturdy enough to contain a good-sized bear.
            Adjusting the rifle’s strap around his left arm, the ranger removed his hat and deliberately got down on one knee, sharpshooter style. Fascinated, Drake watched as the lion snarled, then quickly moved a few menacing steps toward the end of the footbridge. The rifleman released the safety catch, took careful aim, and prepared to fire.
            A sudden fusillade of shots jerked Drake’s attention to the opposite side of the little stream. Oddly, the small-arms fire made a distinctive, stacatto “popcorn” sound. Hank yelped, and struggled to escape, but merely succeeded in wrapping his leash around Drake’s legs. A group of men wearing woodland pattern, camouflage clothing had crept to within fifty-yards of the bridge. They were firing an assortment of weapons, some fully automatic, at the trapped mountain lion. A hail of bullets struck the bridge, sending chunks of wood and dust flying into the air. Several of the shots connected with the lion as it attempted a mighty leap over the handrails. Struck several times, its limp, bloody body tumbled off the bridge to splash heavily into the shallow, rocky stream.
            “Drop your weapons!” shouted one of the rangers, drawing his sidearm and aiming at the camouflaged figures, only partially visible through the dense stand of trees. Other rangers reacted as well, drawing pistols and quickly seeking cover behind trees and rocks. The men in the trees—obvious militia types, thought Drake—opened fire on the rangers. Drake watched the officer who had given the command to surrender quickly dive for the ground and roll into cover as a spray of lead erupted gouts of dirt near him.
            Obviously, the Park rangers, armed with only short-range pistols were woefully outgunned against the heavier firepower carried by the militia boys. They could do little more than hold their ground and try to cover the civilians, many of whom were making the ranger’s job more difficult by their frantic movements. In the meantime the men of the Mariposa Militia were having a grand old time playing Rambo. Firing wildly and running from rock to tree they re-enacted every cliché of last year’s blockbuster action films.
The crowd, screaming in panic, fled from the gunfire as they had not from the mountain lion. Drake, who had prudently taken cover on his rocky knoll, looked up, mouth agape, as Dr. Hollingshead scurried past, dignity abandoned. He rushed toward a boxy green recreational vehicle in the parking lot. Drake was even more amazed to see Megan, hampered by a fashionably tight skirt, following in the good Doctor’s wake, futilely calling, “Brooks, Brooks, wait for me!” Hollingshead either ignored her or, in the feverish excitement of the moment, simply didn’t hear. He quickly jumped into the RV. The engine had to be running, because the vehicle immediately raced way. Gravel sprayed from the rear wheels as it slued around, accelerating from the parking lot.
            Megan came to a confused halt on the concession patio, stunned by the doctor’s self-serving abandonment. Drake, fearing for her safety, raced down the slope. He grabbed her by the arm.
“Come on, Meg, you can’t stay here!” He shouted. She looked at him with wild, uncomprehending eyes, and remained rooted in place. “Come on!” he yelled again, this time in fear. Megan—unbelievably—resisted. He ended up nearly dragging her, protesting loudly, back to the shelter of the stony hillock. They were blessed. They reached shelter—barely—before the militiamen altered their aim a hair. Stray slugs began whizzing randomly through the air around them. Megan screamed and Drake winced as several projectiles struck nearby rocks and trees, spraying them with stinging fragments and splinters.
“Ahhh!” Drake heard from the other side of the knoll. The shout of pain was followed by a heavy thud on the ground. Goaded by conscience, Drake peered around the safety of his nice solid rock. He saw the sharpshooter, sans rifle, painfully dragging himself toward Drake’s knoll. The ranger’s left leg trailed useless behind him, his progress painfully slow. Drake summoned his courage, sent up a quick prayer and reminded himself to keep low. Swallowing hard he scuttled across the intervening ten yards, grabbing the wounded man by his wrists. Keeping himself in a low crouch Drake dragged the wounded ranger into cover, his painfully arched-over back aching with the unaccustomed strain.
            Once he and the ranger had reached relative safety, Drake dropped to his knees, breath rasping in and out of his winded lungs. When his breathing slowed he looked at the ranger’s leg. “Is it broken? Do you need a tourniquet?
“Can’t feel nothin’ at all!” gasped the ranger, both hands gripping his leg.
Drake found no sign of blood on the trousers, and the angle of the leg looked normal. Drake brought out his pocketknife and slit the ranger’s trouser leg up past the knee, searching for a wound.
“Thanks,” the ranger—his nametag read Gutierrez—grunted. He grimaced while Drake grimly worked, “I think I musta’ caught a tumbling ricochet,” he grated through clenched teeth. “With all these branches and whatnot, nothin’s gonna travel in a straight line for very long.”
Puzzled, Drake looked but found little; only a smear of blood, but no gaping wound on the leg. Then his searching hand encountered something solid on the ripped material. He discovered an oddly misshapen lump of lead clinging to Gutierrez’s pant leg, in the approximate area of the knee. Drake plucked it from the green fabric. He examined it for a moment, bouncing the still warm slug in his hand. It was flattened and distorted with a maze of sharp little wrinkles. It did not look like any kind of bullet to Drake. Amazingly, though it had struck the hard flesh and bone just below the knee-joint, on the outside of the leg. It had done so without any penetration.
“It must have bounced around for a while,” said Gutierrez, “I’m tellin’ you, a round travelling at full power would have shattered my knee socket.”
Even so, the joint was already swollen and darkening, but only a trickle of blood came from the impact point. “Thank God,” gasped Gutierrez, “no penetration. Numb now, but it’s gonna hurt like a sonovagun later on.”
“You need help,” said Drake. We’ve got to get you to a doctor pretty quick.
“It’s nothin’,” Gutierrez grunted, “I had it lots worse than this in Nam!”
Drake noted that the firefight had faded into the distance. The endless barrage of gunfire slowed to occasional sporadic pops and stutters. Judging by the sound the militia appeared to be withdrawing. As the gunfire eased, Drake became aware of a confusing cacophony of noise. Hysterical cries, shouted orders and loud wailing came from all around. He couldn’t tell whether the Park Rangers were pursuing the militia or not.
As he and Megan were tending to the ranger, a harsh voice shouted from behind them, causing Drake to nearly jump out of his clothes.
“Federal Government!” they heard. Then, with more menace, “Don’t move, Pal!”
Drake froze in place, holding his hands well away from his body without turning to look. He didn’t want to do anything that might make anyone nervous. Gutierrez didn’t seem to mind though. “Federal Government?” He shot back. “Like you got any kind of jurisdiction here. This is National Park Service authority!” Drake carefully lowered his hands to the ground, waiting tensely while the Feds hotly debated exactly who had authority over whom.
Suddenly, he felt a firm hand on his left shoulder. It pulled him backwards, frog-marching him on his knees, away from the dispute. “All right,” a calm voice commanded him, “place your hands on the back of your head and lace your fingers.” Drake complied and a large hand slid its fingers roughly between his hands and head, clamping Drake’s hands by taking hold of a healthy hank of hair. The grip effectively immobilized him. At the same time another disembodied hand expertly frisked him in an embarrassingly thorough manner. Finally he found himself released and told to stand easy.
Drake stood and turned to face a solidly built man of approximately his own age, dressed in jeans and another of those cheap blue law enforcement raid jackets. Everybody had them. The man stood where he could easily cover the whole group, speaking quietly into the microphone of an expensive-looking radio headset. The letters ATF were printed in yellow block on the left breast of his jacket. Drake couldn’t help but notice that the man held a large automatic pistol pointed safely at the ground. He waved a leather-bound identification folder Drake’s face. It contained a shiny gold badge and a colorful Identification card, proclaiming the bearer to be Federal Agent Martin Baker of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
A wholly predictable identity verification routine followed. Drake carefully removed credentials from his wallet identifying himself. He attempted to gain some credibility by deliberately stressing the ‘Reverend’ part. It appeared to make no difference to Agent Baker. The man asked questions in a professional manner, ranging from Drake’s purpose in the park to his eyewitness account of the shoot-out. He dutifully wrote everything down in a pocket notebook.
Again without warning, Drake felt ill-mannered hands on him. He again felt jerked roughly around to faced the man who had originally screamed at him. Dressed in the same windbreaker and radio as Baker, he nevertheless had a younger, tougher and much cooler presence. He wore one of those soft, pork-pie hats in an ugly shade of green and yellow. His sharp face, sporting a skimpy goatee, displayed a less than professional visage, contorted by anger.
“Why didn’t you identify yourself, you fool?” he demanded. “The last thing we need around here is an idiot civilian traipsing around in the middle of a firefight!”
“Hey, I told you to knock it off, Mister Dexter!” Gutierrez jumped in again, physically as well as verbally, “This guy just saved my valuable, Federal butt!” 
Drake wanted none of this; like that made any difference to anyone else.
“Dex,” said agent Baker in a calm, authoritative voice, “we’re wasting time. The bad guys with the guns are gone.”
            “But Marty, you heard what the boss said; this guy was…”
            “Never mind!” Baker interrupted quickly, then to Drake; “Sorry to have detained you Reverend. We just had to be sure of your identity. Let’s go agent Dexter.” They moved off in the direction of the retreating Militia, Dexter’s plaintive arguments fading into the distance.
            Several other rangers had quietly arrived during the altercation. Two of them knelt to attend to their fallen comrade while a third radioed for medical assistance. Drake and Megan just stood around with the rangers. Drake found himself with nothing else to do and little to say. Presently, a Park Service ambulance arrived, loaded the wounded ranger aboard, and made its careful way back down the walkway. The other rangers dispersed, leaving Megan and Drake alone on the deserted path.
             “Now,” said Drake, turning to address Megan, “just what were you and Doctor Greenpeace doing here anyway?”
            “What do you mean, Stan?” she asked innocently.
            “What I mean,” he explained patiently, “that you two ran past me looking like you had just TP’d the principal’s office.”
            “Well, we were running from those militia terrorists of course. We were scared—terrified. I still am! Aren’t you, darling?” 
            Drake shifted uncomfortably, his heart still racing. “As a matter of fact,” he said, “yes. I’ve never been in the line of fire before. I didn’t like it one bit.” Megan threw her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. “Oh Stan, that poor mountain lion, it was horrible!”
            “Yes,” he said, stroking her hair, “it was pretty bad. I don’t think ranger Gutierrez enjoyed it much either. C’mon, let’s get out of here. If we walk back to the parking lot I think we can catch a shuttle bus to the village.”

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