Yosemite HIGH COUNTRY
A biting North wind blew, stirring the tops of tall evergreens, bringing a chill to Ted Parker’s exposed left cheek. He shivered. The lonely sigh of the wind drifting through swaying pine boughs turned the completely familiar forest into a surreal setting for an unbelievable nightmare. For the past two hours he and Mullins, the other new guy, had been making their way through the dense forest, moving as quietly as possible. More concerned with stealth than direction they had stuck to heavy cover avoiding clearly marked trails. The sharp wind helped. Aside from cutting through his heavy coat, it kept him properly oriented, facing east. Thirty yards away, across the Forest Service trail, Mullins starred back at him. With a silent nod Parker signaled his readiness. Parker steeled himself to spring their trap.
At the militia campfire a few nights back General Taylor had charged them with the task they were embarked on today. In a gross parody of the Native American vision quests of old they had been entrusted with a challenge to prove their manhood and worth as militiamen. Mullins and Parker had orders to ambush a park ranger. They were to kill the ranger and deliver the badge as a trophy of victory to the militia council.
Fearful but determined the two rookies had staked out a high-country trail connecting the campgrounds at Vogelsang and Merced Lakes. Militia intelligence reported rangers used this trail for their daily rounds. I wonder how we ever got such precise information?
He and Mullins sat, huddled miserably in their trail side brush. They were armed, dressed in camouflage clothing, and war paint. They were prepared to commit cold-blooded murder in a United States National Park. …And Ted Parker suddenly found his commitment wavering. Just remember, he goaded himself, this is the same government that took your business and destroyed your life without a qualm. Why should you care what happens to any of them? His private pep talk helped to harden his resolve. Parker glanced across the trail. Mullins seemed tense and fidgety, obviously entertaining similar thoughts.
* * *
On the hillside above them Sergeant Buck Larson watched the kill zone through a beat up pair of binoculars. He watched as Parker and Mullins choose their ambush spot, straddling the trail where it crossed a Creek. Sergeant Larson had a squad of militiamen positioned to back-up the two rookies should they blow their assignment. The presence of this backup team was unknown to Parker and Mullins. The General wanted them to gain confidence from the operation. The rookies needed seasoning. But they also needed watching. The Mariposa Battalion could not afford to leave Forest Rangers alive to talk about an ambush.
Down on the trail, Larson saw Parker stiffen involuntarily, his head cocked to one side as he sought to interpret sounds he had heard over the rustling of the trees. Mullins noted Parker’s attentive pose and turned to look up-trail. Two Forest Rangers were coming toward them, already close. The noisy wind had masked the sounds of their progress. They were casually proceeding toward the ambush point, apparently unaware. Mullins and Parker nervously shifted their weapons and prepared to execute the attack.
* * *
Rudy Gutierrez called a halt, gratefully settling on a trailside stump. With an audible, theatrical sigh he massaged his aching knee.
“How you doing, Rudy?” asked his partner, Rod Weatherly.
“Oh, a little stiff. Still walkin’ the kinks out.” Two days out of the infirmary and you’re already volunteering for high-country duty, he scolded himself. Man, gotta get this leg back in shape. Besides, if anyone gets the idea ol’ Rudy can’t hack it, they’ll stick me behind some desk. Rudy found the idea of being chained to a desk intolerable. Yeah, they’d have me processing toilet paper requisitions and pinecone disbursements for the rest of my career.
Rod Weatherly did not appear upset over the break. He leaned comfortably against a towering Sequoia, arms crossed. “Think we ought to report those German tourists up at Vogelsang?”
“Nah,” said Gutierrez, “We told ‘em to stay in approved campgrounds. It was just, y’know, a simple language mix-up, amigo. Hey, you heard ‘em. ‘It looks chust like Einschlagenberg—or something—in Bavaria.’ Man, they were really, really home sick.”
“Okay, by me,” said Weatherly, “Less paperwork for yours truly. And, when you get right down to it, that puts the members of the U.S. Forest Service out there on the cutting edge, promoting International Good Will.”
“Right!” laughed Gutierrez.
Weatherly glanced casually down the trail, “I keep hearing rustling noises in the bushes. And I don’t think it’s just wind; it’s something else. You hear anything?”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact, I been hearin’ noise for a while. It’s probably Boy Scouts stalking us for practice. Hey, no animal makes that kind of racket.”
* * *
Mullins kept his eyes on Parker for the go signal. Parker held up his right hand, three fingers extended. Deliberately, he closed one finger, a second, and then the third, returning his hand to the stock of his weapon. Both Militiamen stood from behind concealment, deliberately taking aim.
Sighting down the barrel of his light, semi-automatic carbine, Parker saw a startled expression on the face of his target. He fought back a sudden surge of humanity and concentrated on making the shot. The weapon fired—three quick pops. Twenty yards to his right he heard Mullins’ shotgun discharge with an authoritative BOOM. He watched Mullins rack the slide of the bucking shotgun, ejecting the spent shell and feeding a fresh one into the chamber.
* * *
Ranger Rudy Gutierrez felt as much as heard the tragically remembered sound of lead striking flesh. He knew without looking that high velocity rounds had impacted his partner, mere feet from him. Without hesitation he rolled backwards off his tree stump. Though caught by surprise his combat instincts were still functioning after a twenty-five year hiatus. Horrified he saw his partner slump to the ground in a bloody heap. His mind automatically analyzed the situation. First, evade the ambush: Gutierrez remembered to keep moving, as he scrambled through heavy brush. Second, evaluate the opposition: obviously more than one, two weapons had been fired. Third, decide whether counterattack and/or evacuation of Weatherly is possible. Fourth, execute plan.
He paused to get a look at Weatherly. Though badly wounded, he could see Rod still breathing; albeit raggedly. Too fast, he thought. He thought briefly about dragging his partner to cover. That would only get both of them dead. There was no time to help anyway, Gutierrez heard heavy boots thumping along the trail. Weatherly seemed unconscious by that time. Rudy whispered a short prayer for him anyway. I’ll be back for you man, he promised. Hang on. As he began to move, Gutierrez thought with regret of Weatherly’s revolver and spare ammunition. Too late now, Man. Nothing you can do about it. He didn’t want to leave Weatherly, but he was awfully exposed there at the trailside.
Gutierrez quickly belly crawled into the dense cover offered by the forest. Combat instincts or not, his body rebelled against the physical abuse. His body did what his mind commanded though, and he managed to resist the temptation to run. That would only give the enemy a clear target to shoot at.
Gutierrez stopped to catch his breath in the cover of a thick stand of trees. He rolled over, pulled his pistol, and prepared to defend the position. He watched two armed men appear, slamming to a halt upon reaching Weatherly. They had erred badly, Gutierrez knew, both men shooting the same target. The jerk with the carbine stood looking down at the wounded man. With brutal precision he aimed and shot Weatherly through the head. Gutierrez’ knuckles gleamed bone white as his hand tightened on the pistol. He resisted the urge to shoot. The thick brush would certainly deflect a bullet. He decided to wait patiently for a clear shot. The murderer with the shotgun began to search the area. He showed caution, knowing an armed ranger was somewhere nearby.
“Yo, Mullins!” Hissed Weatherly’s killer, “Look sharp. We better not let the other one get away or the General is gonna have our hides.”
Thanks for the information boys, thought Gutierrez, that means Mullins is the one with the shotgun. He had a name to track down should he survive. He watched as Mullins probed the bushes in widening circles. These killers may be dopes, he thought, but nothing so terrified the soldier in Rudy Gutierrez as a scattergun in the brush. Without remorse he raised his pistol, took aim from thirty-yards, and loosed two quick shots—a double-tap—at Mullins. Mullins yelped, more in alarm than pain. He dropped the shotgun, awkwardly hugging his side. Nuts, thought Gutierrez as the target rolled out of sight.
From up on the hillside Rudy Gutierrez heard the sound of men crashing downhill through the forest. He realized that he had to move before they had him flanked. That meant he must vacate his present spot and get someplace where he could call for help. But first he had to evade or eliminate the two killers in front of him.
Crouching low, Gutierrez carefully wove through the underbrush, angling west. He needed to cross both the trail and the creek to reach the shelter of the forest beyond. Perhaps, he thought, by God’s good grace there are no bad guys on the other side yet. A movement to his right caused him to fire off several unaimed covering shots in that direction while he kept moving. Gutierrez continued pulling the trigger until his pistol ran dry, rendering the weapon temporarily useless. He dumped the empty magazine and fed a loaded one from his belt. Then he slipped the Beretta into its holster. Changing direction He moved left, but that didn’t help either. As Gutierrez rushed through the undergrowth Mullins suddenly confronted him. The wounded man popped out from behind a tree, painfully raising his heavy weapon to bear on Gutierrez.
A mental image flashed through Rudy’s mind across thirty-some years of space and time. Lance Corporal Gutierrez had been leading a squad of Marines in a flanking maneuver around a Viet Cong position. Directly in front of him, a black-pajama clad guerrilla had magically appeared from the ground right at his feet. Rudy had broken the composite stock of his M-16, clothes-lining the guy in the soft spot under his chin. He then proceeded to stomp right over the dumbfounded VC like an enraged bull trampling a hapless matador.
Without pause Gutierrez leaped forward, surprising the killer. Grabbing Mullin’s twelve-gauge with both hands, Gutierrez slammed the weapon into the man’s startled face. Mullins, though stunned, stubbornly refused to relinquish his weapon. So, using it as leverage, Gutierrez kicked him in the chest and proceeded to walk right over the guy, finally breaking his grip; real Jackie Chan stuff, he thought.
Gutierrez knew the brief scuffle had undoubtedly attracted the attention of the rest of the militiamen. Experience made him hit the ground rolling. He grabbed the shotgun and a shoulder bag from the fallen militiaman, hoping it contained ammunition. Crawling to the other side of the trail Gutierrez cleared the known location. Mullins had not experienced the tough, on-the-job training Rudy had been through. He angrily drew a large revolver from his belt and painfully staggered to his feet to pursue the ranger. In doing so he stood up right into the line of fire from his own militia buddies. Haphazard gunfire sprayed the forest with lead. The militiamen weren’t aiming, they were simply counting on the law of averages to work for them. Mullins died, messily perforated by multitudes of ‘friendly’ rounds.
The event had a sense of black humor to it, but Rudy managed to restrain himself from laughing maniacally. Though he experienced the euphoria that accompanies a narrow, successful escape from death, he was not a psychotic killer. Another man had died of course and in the normal scheme of life that was a bad thing. But, since this particular dead guy happened to be a ranger-murdering jerk, engaged in hunting Gutierrez at the time of his death, se la guerre!
Rudy splashed across Lewis Creek and ran straight into the forest for five minutes. Badly winded, he stopped to catch his breath. On the plus side he found a good place to belly-up for a while. He holed up in the hollow of a burned-out giant Sequoia left over from some ancient fire. What remained of the stump stood upright to a height of about fifty feet. The forest was filled with similar snags. Around the sequoia several trees and a mass of shrubs had grown in a clump, masking the burned-out scar. Gutierrez crawled inside, finding about as much room as an old-fashioned phone booth with unlimited headroom. Through the concealing foliage, he had a clear view of the steep hillside which he had just climbed.
While his lungs were busy replenishing their depleted oxygen supply, Gutierrez inventoried his assets. First, Mullins bag contained fifteen double-ought shotgun shells. Second, he had his personal radio, not much more than a good walkie-talkie. With it, he had intermittent contact with the Park Service radio network, depending on the terrain. His present location in a valley rendered it useless. He had to reach higher ground. A quick check brought nothing but static. Not that he could afford to make that much noise yet, anyway.
Finally, Gutierrez checked his sidearm, after ejecting the spent magazine and loading a spare he had two full mags left. Each magazine carried fifteen rounds. The Beretta 92F could carry a sixteenth cartridge, safely loaded in the chamber, but he’d fired that one back down the trail.Gutierrez quietly pulled the slide back to ensure a round was chambered. He checked the leather pouch on his belt. Yep; one more magazine of nine-millimeter ammunition to fall back on.
Next he looked over the liberated shotgun with a professional eye: Remington Model eight-seventy, twelve-gauge, pump-action shotgun with a twenty-inch slug barrel. He unscrewed the magazine cap to see that the wooden bird plug had been removed, making room for five shot shells. There were two rounds of number 2 buckshot in the magazine and an extra bonus round in the chamber. The late Mr. Mullins had been way too slow. Too bad for you, Gringo.
Outside his cozy little nook the woods were being combed in a sloppy manner that would have had any good sergeant apoplectic with rage. That was okay with Gutierrez. These guys were just toy soldiers as far as he was concerned. They even had their facial camouflage wrong; more the scary-war-paint variety rather than actual protective coloration. Real camouflage is supposed to disguise the natural highlights of the face until it no longer looks like a human face at all.
He couldn’t allow himself to get too cocky though. Surely these clowns had some men among them who knew how to act in the woods; probably some of them had military training. They can’t all be clumsy city-boys, can they? If he allowed himself to feel smug and superior he would be much more likely to get popped by accident.
What a way to go; survive the VC so I can get wasted by play-acting amateurs.
When he judged the militia’s search party had moved past his position he forced himself to wait another thirty minutes by the clock. Gutierrez found it a necessary, but grating exercise in self-control, expecting every moment a shout of discovery. More likely a sudden bullet would smash through the side of the rotten tree stump. An event he would never even know about in this life. However, in his heart he really didn’t believe a bunch of greenhorns would have the patience or discipline to wait him out properly.
Time’s up. Rudy Gutierrez slithered out of his shelter on knees and elbows, shotgun cradled in the crook of his arms. He planned to double-back and head south over a saddle in the hills to Washburn lake. He expected to use his radio when he reached higher ground.
He decided to avoid the site of the original ambush. After all, two men had been shot at that location and others might still be hanging around. He crawled down the hillside to a bend in the trail where the view was obstructed from both directions. After waiting, listening, and watching for another ten interminable minutes, Gutierrez silently rolled across the trail and back into the undergrowth.
Gutierrez cautiously made his way up the rocky slope on the other side of the trail. As he had been trained so many years before, he used the natural cover and concealment offered by the terrain to mask his movement. But the higher he went the thinner the trees got until finally he faced a jumbled expanse of fractured, treeless granite forming the top of the ridge. This is where things get tough. He went to ground again, thinking the problem through, mapping a wandering route offering the best cover.