Yosemite National Park
Drake slept poorly, awaking late with a nagging Megan hangover. All night long his mind had churned a chaotic whirl, puzzling over the conflict within. He had never considered himself a man overly-impressed by flashy women. Although, he thought, Linda hadn’t exactly been the stereotypical, mousy preacher’s wife, had she? Maybe you just received some divine insight about yourself. Still, he knew there could never be anything serious between them. Megan is an unbeliever, and—despite this present weakness—you are committed to serving Christ. Yet, she’s an undeniably attractive woman. And you’re not the only man around who found her so. She reminded the preacher in him of that line from St. John’s Revelation: Sweet to the taste, bitter on the stomach.
After tossing fitfully all night, the clock hands stood at past eight in the morning when he finally crawled out of the sack, bleary-eyed and cranky. His aching body felt unrested, as if he had slept on a lumpy pile of snow chains. Mechanically, he began going through his morning routine; turn on the coffee, take the dog out for a quick run, prepare a light breakfast and check his e-mail for messages.
When he flipped on the notebook computer however, the low-battery Icon flashed red. He plugged in the wall cord and decided he had better charge the spare as well. But, after rummaging fruitlessly for ten minutes, he decided he must have left the spare battery and charger in the truck.
“Hank stay, I’ll be right back. Good dog.” Hank glanced incuriously from his dog dish and resumed his pressing engagement with breakfast. As Drake scrambled barefoot out to the Suburban, confused thoughts of Megan continued to rattle around his mind like an irritating piece of grit in a shoe. He unlocked the driver’s door and reached in to unplug the charger from the truck’s ashtray.
“That doctor! and that Hollingshead guy too,” he grumped aloud. “What could she possibly see in them?” He groped around the cab, searching for his computer kit bag. It contained his extra gear, backup software, and a small cache of tools and repair parts.
“There it is.” Drake reached over the back seat, almost climbing over the untidy pile of camping gear, and managed to retrieve the kit with its spare battery. That done, he relocked the Chevy and headed back to the cabin. The chilled morning air and his bare feet stumbling over parking lot gravel reminded him of Megan. Beautiful, yet uncomfortable. Okay, so she’s not a Christian… yet, He kidded himself. But why should I take a back seat to some clown from the Sacred Earth Society?
Forehead wrinkled in concentration, he experienced a momentary mental logjam, filling him with a confused and disoriented certainty. You have just had an incredibly important thought, his brain told him. Drake slowly came to a stop in the middle of the parking lot. He had the absolute conviction that something of importance had just gone right over his head. Something was not as it should be—as he had left it—and that thought whacked his wandering subconscious like the proverbial two-by-four up-side the head. Back seat… Something about the backseat of Gene’s truck… Hey, wait a minute… It suddenly came to him. He had definitely not stored his camping gear in the back seat of the Suburban. He positively remembered leaving it in the rear cargo area behind the back seat.
Trudging back to the truck he pulled out the keys again and unlocked the double cargo doors at the back, swinging them wide open. Inside he found some sort of wire enclosure taking up the cargo space. It looked for all the world like a giant hamster cage constructed out of heavy-gauge steel. The rear of the cage held a large wire hatch, facing the doors of the truck. The enclosure had been inexpertly secured into the plastic liner panels of the Suburban. Whoever it was had done a sloppy job, leaving bent and not-quite-seated screw heads sticking up crookedly. The vehicle’s forest-green plastic panels were scarred and cracked by somebody’s clumsy work. On the bed of the cargo area laid a torn, filthy blanket with piles of dried animal droppings.
Drake had a sudden mental image of Gene biting nails in two when he saw the damage to his classic vehicle. As the confusing thoughts began to combine in some sort of rational order though, he realized he was in deep trouble with more than just one angry deacon. In his mind’s eye he saw this cage superimposed over the bullet riddled carcass of the mountain lion at Happy Isles. The implication was clear. This truck had delivered the big cat to Yosemite Valley; making the Reverend Stanley A. Drake, BA, MDiv, and most of the rest of the alphabet, someone with whom the authorities would dearly love to have a long serious chat. What am I going to do? He thought; visions of humiliation and worse jumping up to frighten him. How about you stop the pity party and start praying?
“God please deliver me from the evil one and those who are useful instruments in his hand. Tear down their walls and render their weapons useless. Give me wisdom and guide my decisions. Amen.”
Afterward, Drake decided that it might be wise to get properly shaved and dressed; just in case he needed to look good for a mug shot or something. He realized he would have to confront Megan about this. While shaving, it suddenly dawned on him; she had worked awfully hard for the last two days. She had kept him busy, bouncing all over Yosemite. Maybe she had insisted on using her own car just to keep him away from his truck so somebody could mess with it.
Setting me up. That’s a pleasant thought.
She had looked awfully guilt-ridden running away from that mountain lion shooting.
“She must have some part of whatever is going on,” he told his reflection. “Perhaps her hot and cold behavior comes from plain old-fashioned guilt over fooling me.”
* * *
The sign at Bridalveil Gift Shop announced the store hours as 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Drake’s watch read 9:03. I wonder if I can still catch her at home? Hah! The way she sleeps in? It’s a cinch. Drake drove down the road to the little village where Megan and Paige shared a cottage, hoping to catch her before she left. He strode up to the front door and pounded on it a little too vigorously, all the while telling himself—with minimal success—to control his anger and embarrassment.
You’re already in enough trouble, brother. You don’t need to manufacture anymore.
But the fact remained, Drake had been a perfect fool. Again.
Once again Stan Drake had been a sucker for his own blindness. Coming as it did on the heels of Linda’s death, Drake found it nearly impossible to reign-in his runaway emotions. He wanted to lash out, to hurt somebody, but that was just wounded pride talking. Allowing himself to degenerate into a drooling, homicidal maniac wasn’t going to help.
When Megan opened the door Drake stormed right past her, not waiting for an invitation.
“Stan!” she seemed alarmed. “What are you doing here? What do you want?”
“You know why I’m here!” he snapped. “You and your fine earth-happy friends set me up. This whole Park is an armed camp ready to blow like the Middle East. So what happens? you and your noble, Sacred Earth friends set me up as the guy responsible for it all! Thank you very much!
Megan stood unmoving beside the open door. Her face had turned deathly pale.
“Stan,” she said desperately, “please, please listen to me. You don’t understand what’s going on and I can’t tell you either. You must leave here, right now. Please, please go. You have to trust me.”
“Trust you? Trust you to land me in a Federal Penitentiary, you mean? Look, I know about Sacred Earth’s political objective. I had a nice long chat with Doctor Hollingshead and his groupies the other night. You guys want to boot everybody from Yosemite but your own click. And apparently your high moral principles don’t prohibit you from capturing and killing animals or betraying friendships. If you were willing to kill a cougar, I don’t suppose I should expect any kind of mercy. So, exactly how much trust do you think I can afford to put in you?”
“That’s not fair!” she cried. “The mountain lion wasn’t supposed to die. It was only supposed to be seen. We naturally expected it to make its way back into the high country, where it belonged. The Mariposa Militia killed the poor thing! Do you really believe that Sacred Earth would have anything to do with the murder of a sentient being?”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re fine humanitarians, every dedicated one of you. I’m sure you were perfectly devastated when the Militia goons showed up and started blasting the poor critter to pieces. But the fact remains you people did set a dangerous wild animal loose in a National Park full of people. What if it had gotten really ticked off over being tranquilized, trapped and caged, and then maybe mauled or killed some little kid? Did you stop to consider that possibility? I mean,” he continued sarcastically, “wild creatures have no way of figuring out your saintly agenda on their behalf. They don’t understand the part they are supposed to play in your clever plan. Mercy! Don’t you people ever think about the consequences of your actions?”
Megan fought with her own anger. Apparently she decided to swallow her pride, for her attitude changed instantly. She snuggled up to Drake and said; “You’re right Stan, it’s gotten absolutely insane; beyond control. Let’s leave. We could take off right now. Leave everything behind. We could go someplace far away; back to your town maybe, or” she said seductively, “my private loft on the Bay.”
“In Sausalito?” Drake inquired acidly.
Her face paled instantly, “How do you know that? Have you been spying on me?” she demanded.
“How do I know?” Drake laughed derisively. “You’re a walking artist’s cliché, Megan!” She stared at him suspiciously. He returned her look with a level stare. “Look,” he explained, “I went to graduate school right across the water from Sausalito, over on Strawberry Point. I had a view from my dinky little apartment of yacht studded water and a hill full of artist lofts. Where else on ‘the Bay’ would you have your place? No, I’m sorry, I really don’t want to run away with you anywhere. I guess… I guess I just wanted you to tell me how wrong I am. But… I’m not. Am I?”
Drake turned abruptly and walked out the door, closing it behind him. He wanted to get away before he managed make an even bigger fool of himself; weeping piteously or something. He felt drained of all anger, overwhelmed by the gnawing return of black depression and re-awakened loss. Walking numbly back to the truck he decided to check out of the cabin and go on back to his empty home where he belonged. Go home, He told himself. Just go back to work. Immerse yourself in church, maybe write a book, and try very, very hard to forget about this whole humiliating week.
Hank jumped to greet his master in his usual enthusiastic manner. This time Drake surrendered himself to his dog’s genuine devotion, allowing himself to be mauled and slobbered over. “Thanks Pal,” he said, stroking Hank’s golden coat. “I really needed that. Man’s best friend at his best and friendliest, huh?”
He eventually drew back from Hank’s affections. While starting the Suburban though, another truck came roaring around the corner. It caught Drake’s eye, primarily because it was the same older model Suburban as Gene’s. This one, however, was dramatically thrashed, scraped and dented. It looked like something a kid might have salvaged from a wrecking yard. Drake’s mouth dropped when the driver rudely parked his shabby truck right in the middle of Megan’s little patch of yard, gouging deep ugly ruts in the lawn.
He sat, flabbergasted, as two roughly dressed men got out of the truck and stomped to the door. To his amazement, Megan politely opened the door and invited them inside. Megan Cameron? The dedicated Sacred Earther? Entertaining Militia types? It doesn’t make any sense. Paige said that Megan surrounded herself with odd types of men, he mused. That’s the truth.
The whole crazy predicament suddenly became too much for Drake. No way could he simply turn his back and drive away. He snapped off the ignition, again leaving poor Hank to himself. Walking stealthily he made his way to the shaded side of Megan’s bungalow, feeling like a deranged stalker or something. Guilt pangs teased him as he stood beneath her open living room window. He visualized himself standing full face and profile for the police camera. His imagination supplied the resulting banner headlines: Peeping Thomas! Drake Ducks in Window-Gooses Girl! Passionate Priest or Pastor Pervert?
Drake’s paranoid musings abruptly stopped. He could hear snatches of conversation from inside; rumbling masculine tones interspersed with Megan’s lighter, feminine inflection. He heard Megan, plaintively saying, “But I did exactly what you told me to do.”
A gruff male voice cursed. “What I told you do was to keep an eye on the Feds, not cozy up to those whiny little Save-the-World nuts!”
Obviously the Sacred Earth Society isn’t making any friends at all this week, Drake’s angry face twisted into a smile. Not that I’m a big fan of the militia movement either, he assured himself with a grimace.
Megan’s voice suddenly rose shrilly from inside the room, “You used the information I gave you,” she accused, “You killed that poor defenseless mountain lion!”
Her accusation was answered by what sounded like a sharp, full-hand slap. The sound of the blow, and Megan’s accompanying cry of pain angered Drake, goading him into unthinking action. He quickly moved down the walkway to the rear of the house to the kitchen door. It stood open, blocked only by a wood-framed screen. Drake grabbed the handle and pulled, immediately horrified by the horrendous squealing from the ancient spring hinges. He froze, disoriented, one thought clear in his mind; certain discovery was imminent.
Drake froze, rooted for what seemed an eternity. Distant signals from his brain—seemingly light years away—urgently reached his hand, directing it to gently shut the door. He did, taking one giant step backward behind a storage cabinet on the porch. Drake wiped the sweat from his brow, congratulating himself for not getting caught. The sound of heavy footsteps clomping their way across the kitchen floor forced him to melt into the cabinet as much as possible. The screen door screeched open. At that moment fear of physical danger was not uppermost in his mind. Incredibly, his single ambition in life had become the desire to avoid looking silly. He froze in place, awaiting his discomfiture.
The unseen footsteps moved onto the wooden porch. Drake held his breath. On the next house over the back door swung open with a similar squeal. A man walked out, dumped a plastic trash bag into a bear-proof garbage can, and strolled back inside to the repeated sound of tortured metal. After a moment’s pause Megan’s own door slammed shut again. The sound of heavy footsteps receded and Drake heard a muffled male voice announce, “It aint nothin’ to worry about General Taylor sir, just some old jerk from next door.”
Drake had not realized he was holding his breath until his empty lungs began to signal an urgent reminder. As quietly as possible, he let out his stale breath and gulped in several deep draughts of air. This enabled him to relax and think about his next move. That problem was solved rather easily. The window beside him stood wide open, its curtains gently swaying in the morning breeze. By stepping over the low sill, Drake found himself inside, no muss, no fuss. It looked like Paige’s bedroom. The practical clothes were enough to establish that.
Tiptoeing to the door he felt incredibly sly for having crept in, right under everyone’s nose. He might learn incredibly important information; facts he’d be able to turn over to the ATF boys. That would get him out of the jam Megan and her fine friends had caused. He would save a National Park and be a big hero. Hooray!
“Where is it?” he heard a demanding male voice snarl, followed by violent scuffling sounds. Heavy breathing and high pitched sobs came from the other side of the door. Drake grimly shoved aside his petty, self-serving daydreams. Another sharp slap and convinced him enough was enough. Drake made a quick check of the door and found, though shut, it was not latched. Through a crack between the door and jamb he could see a man standing in front of the door. Taking a silent step back, he violently hurled himself against the door, feeling it smash against the unprepared character on the other side. The man dropped a small automatic pistol as he lost his footing. Drake wrestled for the gun, dropping it as he hit the man with the heavy door. The pistol fell to the floor without discharging. Giving silent thanks, Drake concentrated on disabling the man. He heard a harsh, high pitched, shout of “No!” from Megan. On the heels of the cry came the sharp BLAM of a heavy pistol. Fired in the confined space, the gunshot assaulted his eardrums like a hammer. He waited for a surge of pain, but felt nothing.
A lifetime of TV viewing had prepared Drake for this moment. He knew exactly what to do. He dove for the floor snatched up the fallen pistol and rolled to his feet as graceful as an Olympic gymnast. Then, like any red-blooded, bone-headed, television hero he thrust his pistol out at two-handed arm’s length. He had time to notice it was a dinky little Colt .380. The man he had wrested it from slowly shoved the bedroom door shut and shakily pushed himself upright against the wall. Drake prudently moved to one side in order to cover both militiamen. The second man, the loudmouthed one—General Taylor—the guy who had slapped Megan around, stood over her prostrate body lying on the floor in the middle of the room. The bearded giant stood breathing hard, dressed in dirty, camouflaged coveralls. He stared down at Megan’s body, a look of disbelief on his ugly face.
Crouched over his newly confiscated weapon, knees bent in the approved mayhem stance, Drake yelled, “Freeze, Suckers!” That is when the television script got tossed out the window.
Out on the front porch an unseen hand began pounding on the door. Simultaneously the two militia goons moved apart, making it impossible for Drake to cover them both at the same time. To Drake’s stunned surprise, being a card-carrying, certified member of the TV generation had not prepared him for reality. Everything happened in that absurd, slow-motion state of awareness required of painfully idiotic situations. The two gunmen acted as if they hadn’t even heard him yell “freeze!”
It’s not supposed to happen this way! His mind raged. I’m holding a gun. They have to obey me! In an instant of exquisite clarity it dawned on him that he was acting incredibly stupid, like a kid arguing over the rules of cops and robbers. A gun does not possess any mystical power. It is not some sort of a talisman, a shining crucifix to hold before Count Dracula’s pasty face. It lacks the requisite supernatural ability to wield omnipotent power over other people’s wills. It became painfully obvious to Drake that the only way to accomplish anything useful with a gun is to pull the trigger. And these two clowns were forcing him—against his will!—to do it.
“Open the door! What’s going on in there?” Paige’s muffled voice reached them from beyond outside. Her voice dropped to a guarded whisper. “…Megan, why is the door locked? What are you doing in there?”
Drake knew he had to act before his stupidity got Paige killed as well, but he was already too late. Loudmouth, slaphappy Taylor, had walked forward, calmly standing in front of Drake. The muzzle of Drake’s liberated .380 actually brushed the rough cloth of the man’s camouflage coverall. Drake’s brain sent the belated message to his finger but he found that he couldn’t just shoot a man in cold blood. He was a pastor for heaven’s sake!
Big Vince Taylor laughed in his face. The General looked Stan Drake him in the eye. Without warning, Taylor slammed his .45 against the left side of Drake’s fat head, causing the pathetic charade to reach a merciful conclusion.