Yosemite HIGH COUNTRY
Sergeant Larson’s tinny voice squawked from Parker’s radio. “looks to me like you poor ol’ rookie-boys need a hand.”
Parker pulled the radio close to his face, keeping his voice low. “I got it covered. Give me a chance.”
“Nope,” he heard the doubt in Larson’s voice. “I’m sending Schmidt and Morris’s, squads down there. Try not to shoot them.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Parker cast a sour look at Mullins body, sprawled in a tangle of brush. He soon began hearing the two groups picking their way downhill. When the squads arrived Parker showed the direction the ranger had taken. The men spread out and began climbing the slope.
Parker turned to re-check Morris’s condition before leaving him; definitely dead. It shocked him to realize he could just as well be the one lying on the ground. His erstwhile partner lay on the trailside like a huddled bundle of rags, so unlike a living body. Parker swore. He’d never seen violent death before and found it difficult to tear his eyes away. This day just keeps getting worse. Not only had they fouled-up the ambush, but that ranger continued to elude capture. Parker knew the operation was supposed to have been as much a training exercise as a real mission. But the ranger had failed to cooperate.
Parker stepped off to follow the rest of the militia-men. They were enthusiastic but uncoordinated, acting individually rather than as interdependent members of a fighting unit. That hampered the execution of their orders. It got worse. The farther they moved after the ranger the more distance they put between the men and their sergeant.
Parker stopped to catch his breath, scanning the slope above. His eyes caught a slight movement. Slowly, so as not to call attention to himself, he brought his binoculars up, examining the location of that furtive movement. For several minutes, nothing showed. Then, as he quartered the slope in a methodical search pattern, He saw a dark green shadow threading its way cautiously upward through a tumble of granite boulders. Man, This ranger’s good, he grudgingly admitted to himself, Too bad for him we’ve got superior numbers; and radios. Parker crouched behind a tree, quietly alerting Sergeant Larson over his transceiver.
* * *
Larson began giving orders. “Attention Mariposa Battalion, your target is moving eastward, up the hill away from my position. Schmidt? It’s Buck, you listening…?
“Schmidt, roger…” came the static laden reply.
“Gary, I want you to take your boys and start working your way uphill to the right. Take it nice and slow.” Switching channels he issued his next set of orders. “Morris, you there…?
“Yo, Buck!” answered Morris.
“Roy, I want you, Ash and Honneycutt to run south. Go back down the trail for half a mile. Then, cross over the top of that hill and come back to the left. We’ll whipsaw the sucker between us. Careful now boys, stay low and quiet. Let’s not spook the game.”
* * *
Gutierrez’ hyperactive combat instincts warned him the enemy had managed to get back on his trail. The open slope left him dangerously exposed. He dredged through the residue of his memory, searching for a strategy to counter the current tactical situation. He was a single man pursued by superior numbers. That put him at a distinct disadvantage. On the other hand, while Gutierrez had the luxury of firing at anything with a weapon in its hands, the militia boys were forced to use precious seconds identifying their targets, unless they didn’t care about shooting themselves. Rudy hoped that there were no campers in the area. Over the last hour a lot of shots had been exchanged. The running firefight ought to have scared away any sensible civilians, he judged.
Just as long as there are no Bruce Willis wannabe’s out there, aching to prove what big studly heroes they are to their families.
Overhead, Rudy watched the clouds roll by, billowing in the wind. Please let it rain, he prayed. A heavy downpour would be a godsend, dampening sound, limiting visibility, and helping to conceal his movements. But though the clouds were ominously dark and moisture laden, the rain refused to fall.
So, okay, he thought, I have two realistic options. I can move or I can stay right here in these nice rocks. Either way I’m going to have to fight, he mused. I’d rather not sit around on my hands waiting to stage Gutierrez’ Last Stand. I’d better keep moving.
Checking that he had a round chambered in the shotgun, he took a firm grip on both his weapon and his emotions. Gutierrez sucked in a deep draught of air, exhaled, and deliberately began following the path he had chosen. Using their concealing cover, he snaked through the rocks. As he moved he found himself regularly wiping sweat from his forehead, forever trickling down despite the chill.
He decided to split the difference between stealth and calling for reinforcement. Gutierrez switched his radio on, transmitting as he climbed.
“Dispatch, this is Ranger 1040… Dispatch, Ranger 1040. Requesting a 1033-998. Shots fired. Officer down. 998, no! 999! Send in the world! My location is Grid H-7, One half mile east of Lewis Creek midway between Bernice and Merced Lakes.” Gutierrez released the transmit switch. Nothing but random static emerged from the speaker.
He repeated the transmission twice more with the same lack of response. Gutierrez had no time to waste on fruitless activity. He turned his attention to more immediate concerns. He followed a sheltered path upwards, but there were still several hundred tough yards to cover before he reached the top of this ridge. That was not his final objective. He then had to descend the opposite side of the ridge and cross yet another saddle in the next range before he would reach Washburn Lake. He still had to cover a fair distance on a stiffening leg before he reached anything like safety. It seemed like a good time to stop and whittle on the opposition a bit, maybe teach them some caution.
Gutierrez’s path led him into a deep jumble of granite boulders. There were plenty of crevasses, nooks and crannies for hiding; even some pseudo-caves. Right here, he judged, is my best chance for creating confusion with a well planned, lightning-quick ambush. No time for planning Marine, he told himself, you’ll just have to improvise.
* * *
Sergeant Larson had shifted his position along the crest of the hill toward the south. From there he could cover the up-slope exits from the stand of rocks in which the target had disappeared. Through his binoculars he detected vague hints of shadowy movement through clefts in the rocks. He watched as something forest-green—the color of the ranger’s uniform—took a position to cover its back trail. Mister ranger obviously planned to ambush the squad coming after him. Larson’s face broke into a wolfish grin. He saw a way to out-fox the man. Morris’ squad would soon be in a position to attack from the ranger’s unprotected rear.
“Schmidt, This is Buck, come back…”
“Yeah Buck, I’m here. What’s up?”
“Gary, I want you and your boys to make us some noise; a whole lot o’ noise. We need a diversion. The ranger is holed-up in those rocks in front of you. Your job is to make him think you boys are coming after him. Hot on his tail; get it? I want you to keep his attention, while me ‘n Morris sneak up on his backside, Okay?
“Can do, Buck. Me and the boys are all over it.
“Oh, hey, and Schmidt… Better find yourselves some solid cover. There’s liable to be a whole lot of lead flying around. Whatever you do, don’t shoot uphill unless I give the order. Got it?”
“Got it Buck. Go get ‘im, son!” Schmidt’s squad immediately slowed their approach and began stomping on dry twigs, knocking metal against rock, and generally making loud, random, suspicious-type noises.
Meanwhile, Roy Morris’ squad began their approach, having hooked around to the south and making their way along the crest line toward Larson’s position. By making continual use of his radio, Larson coordinated his squads for a two-pronged attack against the ranger’s fixed position. The trick was to keep the man focused on Schmidt’s squad while he and Morris’ people moved in for the kill. Larson checked his compact submachine gun and moved off, leading Morris’ squad into battle himself.
* * *
Rudy Gutierrez satisfied himself he had had found an ideal ambush point. Concealed in good cover he could watch his back trail from a higher elevation. Several paths converged on this point, funneling any outside approach quite naturally to the bait covered by his shotgun. Inside that stone box the range was less than forty yards, certain death for the scattergun he possessed. Gutierrez had used his time effectively, setting the ambush and scouting an egress point through a barely negotiable crevasse in the rocks at the rear of his position. In order to guard against anyone who might sneak up behind him, he had rigged some impromptu rock-and-stick noise makers.
Vague, metal-against-rock noises began to reach Rudy’s ears from downhill. Clumsy, sloppy, the ranger recognized it as a diversionary tactic. All that noise was supposed to hold his fearful attention while the real attackers moved into position. That’s right; come to papa, boys. Rudy shouldered his weapon, but kept his eyes scanning. His ears soon picked up stealthier sounds. At least, he figured, the militia guys must think they are being subtle and stealthy. They really must be city boys, used to the constant sounds of traffic, music, and sirens. The sad fact is they just aren’t as good in the woods as they seem to think.
Abruptly, without any kind of verbal warning, a submachine gun opened up to his left—full automatic—making that ridiculous, puny, popcorn-in-a-pan sound, characteristic of those types of weapons. Bullets ripped into a figure in forest green which slowly slumped down behind a jumble of rocks. The machine gunner, followed by three others, quickly advanced into Gutierrez’ sight picture. The militiaman fired another wasteful burst of ammunition which emptied his magazine. The sudden silence made the forest seem eerily empty. The shooter stopped and took the time to slap a fresh magazine in his weapon. He chambered a fresh round and stepped closer. All four militia-men approached the nest of boulders exercising commendable caution.
Unfortunately for them, twelve feet above and behind them, Park Ranger Rudy Gutierrez, USMC Retired, lay sighting down the barrel of his shotgun. The militia had coldly, efficiently and quite thoroughly ventilated his coat and hat. Gutierrez had artistically draped them over a now-shredded shrub. The machine-gunner, carrying a cheesy little Mac-10, strode up to the rocks. He held the weapon at arm’s length and hosed the target area without exposing himself. When he had emptied the magazine he called in the others.
“Morris, Ash, check it out. Make sure he’s dead!”
Gutierrez had waited patiently for this. They had clearly shot at what they thought was a U.S. Forest Ranger. He had no qualms now about shooting back. When all four of them were in the clear, while the leader reloaded again, he opened fire. His first shot took out the tough guy who had been doing a Rambo with the Mac-10. In addition to hitting the shooter, the shot pattern spread wide enough to knock down the man standing beside him. Both men fell, shredded and still, on the stony ground. Gutierrez calmly pumped the shotgun’s wooden slide, chambered another round and looked for his next target. The remaining two militiamen broke and ran in opposite directions, seeking cover. Gutierrez aimed low, knocking the legs out from under one of them, then racked the slide again and took down the last would-be killer, employing the same simple principle used for taking two crossing ducks; the sound of the shotgun a swift BLAM-clackity-BLAM. Whether or not any of them were still alive was not his concern at the moment. He was still dangerously out-numbered.
Adrenaline pumped through his veins, speeding his reactions. Rudy’s senses felt hyper-alert. Sounds seemed louder; he even caught a whiff of body odor from the group below him. Time to go, he told himself. Gutierrez rapidly egressed from his tight little hidy-hole, using the previously scouted route. There were still, he knew, more of the enemy below and possibly on the crest above him. He remembered to move carefully but swiftly, clearing the site of the ambush. He had only a short time to take advantage of the confusion just created. Soon, some of these over-confident, toy-soldiers would figure out what had happened. He figured they would very likely want to take revenge on Gutierrez. Reaching the crest of the ridge, he pulled out his radio again and began transmitting. This time he got an immediate response.
“1040, Dispatch-Delta six.” Came the tinny voice over the speaker. “Roger your 999. Be advised; ATF has a helicopter working the Tuolumne Meadows area. I have directed them to your general location. ETA, five minutes. Please advise your exact location and present situation.”
Gutierrez looked the ridge top over and took up a defensive position in another pile of rocks. “Dispatch, 1040,” he called back, surveying the hillside below him. “I am on the Eastern edge of Grid H-7, one mile east of Lewis Creek, midway between Bernice and Merced Lakes. I am on top of a stony ridge in good ground cover. I have engaged elements of what I believe to be the Mariposa Militia in squad strength, approximately three-hundred yards downhill from my position. Shots have been fired. Officer Weatherly down, presumed dead. I am not, repeat not, engaged at this time.”
“Roger, 1040,” came the calm reply. “Can you mark your position?”
Under the circumstances, Gutierrez thought his patient restraint commendable. “I can jump up and down and wave my arms, Dispatch!” he said acidly. “Over!” He spat at the dust in disgust. Yeah, like everybody carries colored smoke flares in the wilderness!
The angel sweet sounds of an approaching helicopter cut the conversation short. Gutierrez glanced up and spotted a large Blackhawk in olive drab, bearing US Government livery. It came in from the north, looking just as pretty as any Huey ever had out in the bush. Keeping a wary eye out for the enemy, he scooped up handfuls of the fine alluvial soil and began tossing them in the air, creating a dust cloud. The pilot spotted the dust, immediately angling the chopper toward it. Gutierrez began moving cautiously toward the spot he expected it to land. He held the shotgun ready, still covering his back trail. No sense taking any stupid chances at this point, he thought.
For whatever reason, the remaining militiamen did not respond to the helicopter’s approach. Perhaps they were simply biding their time or maybe they had not recovered from Gutierrez’ little welcoming party, yet. But that didn’t mean he could not feel their eyes on him, silently watching. The Blackhawk flared as it touched down and Gutierrez ducked under the spinning rotors, dashing for the door. Stinging grit assaulted his squinting eyes. It felt great, just great. Deafened and blinded, the remaining militiamen chose that moment to open fire.
Unlike the Huey’s of Southeast Asia, no pintle-mounted, .30 caliber machine gun offered covering fire. But an ATF agent armed with an assault rifle sat in the open door. He leaned out, trading shots with the attacking gunmen. The helicopter vibrated like a tuning fork as several shots dinged the airframe. Miraculously, it kept hovering. One bullet starred the windshield, directly in front of the pilot’s nose, still no one on board took a hit. The Blackhawk touched down barely long enough for Gutierrez to throw himself through the open cargo door and secure a death-grip around one of the bench mounts. As soon as Gutierrez latched on, the pilot immediately yanked his collective, soaring out of Dodge City.
Dusting off a hot LZ just like the old days, thought Gutierrez as he watched the hilltop drop away beneath his feet. Reaction suddenly set in, knotting his stomach. Gutierrez had to lean out the door to rid himself of the acid in his belly. Once again he marveled at how getting out alive, after leaving someone behind, can make one feel inexpressible joy and crushing grief at the same time.