It seems that Heaven is slipping, not keeping up with the times. As a culture we seem to have outgrown the need for Heaven as a place of comfort. In the words of Reverend Ike, we no longer desire "pie in the sky, bye-and-bye when we die." We want our pie NOW; "with ice cream on top."
Older Christian spirituals and hymns like "Go Down Moses" and "I'll Fly Away" reflect the sorrow of living in this vale of tears. They express a longing for a better place: Heaven. We don't sing those songs much anymore. There's a good reason for that. After all, what's Heaven got that we havn't got already? Is there universal healthcare in Heaven? Are there DVRs? luxury cars with Bluetooth connectivity, satellite navigation and connected drive?
...Not that I've ever read about.
These days Heaven simply doesn't come off too well in a comparative match-up with modern technology. At least not the pictures of Heaven found in sermons and popular culture. And after a hundred years of Hollywood the pictures of gold streets and pearly gates are... well, sort of lame. The pseudo-Biblical pictures are part of the problem. In fact, the word "Heaven" is itself a misnomer. The Bible never speaks of a place called Heaven. The word used is plural; heavens, and speaks more of all you can see in the night sky than of some sort of Cloud 9.
But the fact is Heaven has become a term for the presence of God. Though it is not specifically Biblical, it is at least useful. But it does not answer the original question; Is Heaven showing its age? is it out of date, passe? Not at all. As a society we are simply focused on the wrong things; things that won't last. We walk by sight and not by faith.
I got a new iPhone 5 this year. For the first time I have a top-of-the-line phone instead of a pay-as-you-go burner. I'm already wondering if I should trade it in for an iPhone 6 when they come out. And that's the problem with technology. There's always something newer, something better. We never reach Nirvana. We are in a relentless, never-ending quest for the best all the days of our lives.
And have you noticed this gollywog, super whamodyne, technologically wonderful world is rather high maintenance? Boy, don't you pay for upkeep, repairs and replacement. To paraphrase the Bible, "the iPhone withers, the leather upholstery fades but the word of our God stands forever."
And that's my point about Heaven. You can ignore it. You can compete with it. You can ridicule the concept. Like it or not Heaven is still there. Heaven is simply code for "where God is." Forget the marvels and toys; when your life wears out, the question of Heaven will enjoy a sharp new reality for you. Jesus said "In my Father's house are many mansions. I'm going to prepare a place for you, that where I am you may be also."
You want Heaven? You need Jesus. That sounds Heavenly.
Saturday, February 23, 2013
Yosemite National Park
Drake managed to keep the Suburban moving long enough to put a mile-or-so between them and Taylor’s Waterloo. At that point jagged bodywork from the smashed front fender finally ripped through the reinforced sidewall of the left front tire. The steel-belted rubber let go with a bang, shredding and thumping around inside the distorted wheel well. That, combined with a shot out rear tire on the right side, steam billowing from under the hood and a virtual Christmas tree of blinking idiot lights on the instrument panel, convinced Drake that Gene’s sport utility vehicle had finally been rendered hors de combat. Think of it like this Gene, he mentally prepared his defense, your truck died heroically.
“Where are we?” he asked numbly, switching off the ignition.
Paige didn’t answer immediately. She sat hunched low, her back against the passenger door watching Drake in an amused, cynical way. Finally she announced in a matter-of-fact tone, “this is the Nature Center at Happy Isles. We’re at the Southeast corner of Valley.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “Happy Isles. …I’ve seen it. Come on, I don’t think we’re safe sitting here. We’d better get moving.” Drake pulled on the door handle but the door refused to yield. Apparently the bodywork had experienced some telescoping as a result of all the slamming and banging. Paige continued to stare, her smile even larger. The door resisted, stuck tight, Drake had to put his shoulder into it, shoving hard, before it opened, squealing in metallic protest. Paige called, “I can’t get my side open at all; looks like we use the same door.” She shooed Hank out of the cab into Drake’s arms, then crawled along the length of the seat to the open driver’s door.
After all that drama, the door to the backseat opened without any trouble at all. While Hank occupied himself sniffing around the remains of the Suburban, Drake began sorting through the jumbled mess in the back; choosing some things, discarding others. He rejoiced in his decision to leave his camping gear in the truck. Now it was available when he really needed it. He turned, arms full, and handed Paige a worn, canvas duffel bag. Then he shouldered his way into a venerable, aluminum-framed backpack. Drake hitched the pack around on his shoulders, shifting the weight to the most comfortable position. Abruptly he stopped fumbling around, his worried eyes meeting Paige’s as she put her hand on his arm. She still wore a smug, superior expression; after all she’d just had another demonstration that this respectable, ordained minister was fundamentally another human male.
“…What?” he finally asked in exasperation.
“You’re really one little surprise after another, aren’t you?” she smirked. “I didn’t realize ministers even knew the kind of language you were using back there.”
Shamefaced, he said, “Neither did I.”
“Stan,” she asked him, turning suddenly serious, “are you afraid to die?”
“No,” he said quietly, “it’s not that. I mean, I am afraid of pain of course. But really, I’m more afraid of doing something stupid and getting us both killed. Look,” he said, “God can have my life any time He wants it. I’ve already surrendered it to Him. But I am still human enough to refuse to roll over and play dead just because some clown with a gun wants me to. I’m a Christian, not a masochistic doormat.
“But aren’t you supposed to turn the other cheek or something?” she asked.
“That’s a common misunderstanding. It helps if you understand daily life in the Jewish world of the First Century. The ritual for picking a fight involved tugging the other guy’s beard, followed by a hefty slap across the face. Kind of like kids in my day saying ‘I dare you to step across that line!’ Jesus was simply saying, give the guy a shot at your other cheek and defuse the situation.
“That means,” he continued, “If someone picks a fight, I’m supposed to walk away if I can. It does not mean I’m forbidden from defending my life. Or yours,” he added pointedly. “Okay?”
“Sure,” she said. “That makes sense, I guess.”
Drake gave the Chevy a farewell slap as he turned to go. They began walking back up the road in the direction of Mirror Lake. He had to call Hank twice before the dumb mutt would stop sniffing around and follow them. They hadn’t gone a hundred yards before a flock of scattered headlights appeared in the distance, converging directly on their little spot in the big woods. A few of the lights stopped upon reaching Taylor’s half-submerged RV. But the rest kept right on coming, racing for the brightly illuminated Suburban which Drake had foolishly parked beneath one of Yosemite’s scattered street lamps.
“Well, we sure can’t keep going this way,” said Paige. “We’d be caught out in the open before we could get into the cover of the forest. There’s nowhere to hide this side of the river. I think we should head back toward the foothills and wait for them to pass us by.
“I’m not sure,” Drake said skeptically. “They could be counting on us running away from all the lights; you know, herding us right into one of their little jamborees. No Hank, stick around,” he said warningly. The oncoming lights fanned out after crossing the Merced and came to a stop. Vague shapes could be seen through the intermittent rain. They spread out and began to search the area. The sounds of men drawing nearer, beating the bushes as they came rendered the brief argument irrelevant. They had no choice now but to fall back, heading up the steepening canyon from which the Merced River flowed.
* * *
Ranger Gutierrez’s hand shook as he slowly put the phone’s handset back in its plastic cradle. The dead line filled with an overwhelming sense of dread. What had happened to his niece? Why had the phone been cut off? This whole day had been one long, endless nightmare, starting from the moment Rod Weatherly had been gunned down on the trail beside him; now this. Why had Paige been suddenly cut off? And where had she been calling from in the first place? Only the ‘who’ was certain; it had to be those stinking cochinos who called themselves a Militia.
He picked up the phone again and placed a call to his niece’s cottage. the phone kept ringing with no answer. Of course, he slammed the receiver down. It’s a crime scene! Next he punched the number for Bridalveil Gifts. This time he got a busy signal. Despite his fatigue and worry he knew he had to think the problem through rationally.
Gutierrez dropped his head to his hands, massaging his throbbing temples, trying to decide on a course of action. He still felt kind of punchy after the drawn-out day of warfare and useless, bureaucratic buck passing. The entire office had been buzzing with continual cross-country conference calls between the upper levels of the National Park Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; even the Park Service’s parent organization, the Department of the Interior, had gotten into the act, not to mention Big Daddy Homeland Security. Finally the Secretary of the Interior had been tracked down somewhere in the wilds of Wyoming. Apparently he had screwed up his courage and summoned the nerve to make a decision; Close the Park. About time too, Gutierrez grumped.
Beginning at 3:00 local time, employees at Yosemite’s several entrances had begun turning away all new arrivals. And at that moment Park Service Rangers accompanied by agents of the ATF, were moving through Yosemite’s road-accessible campgrounds, cottages and hotels, prepping campers to leave at first light if not sooner. Once the peripheries were evacuated they would then concentrate on Yosemite Valley itself. Ultimately, heavily armed Park Rangers and ATF agents would have to move into the high country, rounding up stray backpackers and seeking the militia’s whereabouts.
The bottleneck of the whole operation would be the lack of adequate road space. An immediate, all encompassing evacuation was simply going to overwhelm the Park’s existing infrastructure, resulting in utter chaos. Worst case; the Park’s hundreds of miles of roads would become a huge immovable parking lot. That would be a big help. The entire concept seemed improbable and even kind of hopeless, but in reality it was simply a matter of channeling their thinking and actions in accordance with the contingency plan. Rudy’s concern in all the purpose and scramble was that Paige’s welfare might get lost in the shuffle.
The beat up phone on his desk jangled shrilly, startling him from his irrelevant mental wanderings.
“Hello!” he shouted into the receiver. What are you, a hysteric?! His mind demanded. Rudy got himself under control, adding in a more professional tone, “Park Ranger office, how can I help you?
“Good evening,” said a confident voice on the other end of the line, “my name is Gene Prentice. I need to speak to a ranger Rudy Gutierrez as quickly as possible, please.”
“This is Gutierrez,” he said jumping out of his chair in uncontrollable excitement. “What have you got for me?”
“I’ve just received a call for help from my pastor, Stan Drake. He’s somewhere in Yosemite.
“The Padre called you?” Gutierrez demanded. “What did he say?”
“Pastor Drake sent me an e-mail asking me to call you immediately. The message is as follows:
THE BATF AND THE MARIPOSA MILITIA ARE HUNTING PAIGE AND I. BOTH GROUPS HAVE DEMONSTRATED A DEFINITE WILLINGNESS TO SHOOT US ON SIGHT, NO QUESTIONS ASKED. WE ARE HOLED UP AT PRESENT IN THE DOWNSTAIRS CLOSET AT BRIDALVEIL GIFTS. WE ARE IN POSSESSION OF A COMPUTER THUMB DRIVE CONTAINING INFORMATION HARMFUL TO THE MILITIA. WE ARE ATTEMPTING TO ESCAPE. WILL TRY TO REACH THE RANGER STATION AT MIRROR LAKE. PLEASE CONTACT PARK RANGER RUDY GUTIERREZ AT THE NUMBER BELOW. SEND HELP QUICK.
“That end’s the message,” said Gene.
Gutierrez thanked him profusely. They exchanged what little information they had, then he slammed the phone down again on its plastic cradle and went looking for help. He found that help in the break room where another ranger, Walt Frazier, sat cooling his heels. Quickly explaining the situation as he yanked Frazier out of his chair, Gutierrez led the way into the stormy night.
* * *
Drake flicked on his flashlight to read the weathered wooden sign at the head of the trail. The words ‘Nevada Falls’ had been carved into its rustic face. It had taken them only two hours to hike up the mist trail, a trip which normally took longer. But as the saying goes, fear lent them wings. Now, within sight of the sign—as if they had not climbed the last mile in sight of the waterfall itself—they had reached a high alpine meadow. The Merced River rushed past to their right, cascading over the rocky falls. As they watched, the moon broke through the clouds, throwing a silvery light over the rugged landscape before them.
Farther upriver sat Little Yosemite Valley, high above and beyond the actual Yosemite Valley floor. Little Yosemite was surrounded by a rocky, forested highland. The moon-swept fairyland vision stretched off into the distance until swallowed up by the shifting clouds of a still rainy night. Though above 6,000 feet, the entrance to Little Yosemite Valley is still far below the glacier-carved rim of the Valley walls. Had the sky been clearer, the twin bulks of Liberty Cap and Mount Broderick would have occluded a sizeable portion of the heavens off to their left.
Hank romped around them while Paige left the marked trail and struck out cross-country, finally able to leave the open, obvious and—as more time passed—increasingly dangerous trail.
“Coming up the canyon we had no choice but to stick to the trail for speed,” she explained. “But up here I think we’d be smarter keeping out of sight. I know a secluded little glade up around the base of Liberty Cap where we should be safe enough for the night.”
By the time they reached Paige’s glade the rain had begun falling again, lightly pattering down on the densely carpeted pine needles under their feet. Drake shivered, knowing they needed to get under shelter soon before they began suffering the effects of hypothermia. The little clearing she led them to backed-up against the towering, rocky majesty of Liberty Cap. A dense stand of trees surrounded the glade on three sides. It looked secluded enough to safely spend what was left of the night there. Drake gratefully dropped his heavy pack to the ground and heaved a well-earned sigh of relief.
From out of the depths of his knapsack he produced the makings of a compact dome tent. Drake proceeded to erect this modern camping marvel as quickly as his cold, wet, numbed fingers would allow. There were rips in the fabric he that suspected were bullet holes; small price to pay for escaping with their lives, while still having a serviceable roof over their heads. At length he ushered Paige ahead of him into the completed shelter. He followed her in dragging their gear behind them. Hank stuck his head into the zippered entrance but showed no inclination to come inside.
“Stick around Hank,” Drake said quietly, giving the pooch a pet before zipping the flap closed.
“You’re not going to leave him out in the rain are you?” Paige’s eyebrows compressed indignantly.
“Yes, for the moment,” He said firmly. “I’ve camped with this dog before. He likes to explore an unfamiliar place before he settles down. When he wants in, he’ll let us know. Meanwhile, you don’t want eighty pounds of canine insomnia pacing around in this dinky little tent. Okay?”
“You’re sure he’ll let us know if he wants in?”
“You won’t be able to sleep for all the pitiful whining,” he assured her.
Paige gave him some more eyebrow treatment then opened the canvas bag she had carried. She removed a tightly-rolled sleeping bag from its depths. It too displayed evidence of having slowed a few slugs. Goose-down packing leaked from several slits in the bag, spilling out on the nylon floor around them. Their constrained movements created a continual blizzard of tiny downy-white feathers floating around inside the tent. It struck Drake as vaguely humorous, like being stuck inside a giant snow globe.
Paige zipped open the sleeping bag to serve as a blanket. Wrapping herself in its warmth, and avoiding the bullet-hole drips from the tent’s leaky roof, she watched Drake as he rooted around in the rucksack.
“Every time we s-sit down for five minutes,” she said through chattering teeth, “you start pouring hot coffee into me. B-b-brother, if you could produce some nice hot j-java right about now, I’d b-believe you were a real-live m-m-miracle worker.”
Drake looked up with a grin, “Curses!” he said, “foiled again. There’s nothing hot in here I’m sorry to say, but I do have some dry clothes as well as a tasty little ensemble of chocolate bars and trail-mix. All my clothes are going to be way too big for you I’m afraid, but maybe you can find something to sleep in while your clothes dry out some.”
He passed the knapsack over and Paige began rummaging through it, smiling a bit as Drake discretely turned his back. She stripped off her damp, clingy clothing while Drake occupied himself sorting out their meager rations. When he turned at her all clear, he saw that she had chosen an old gray sweatshirt, his Seminary logo emblazoned across the front. It was several times too large, the waistline reaching almost to her knees and the sleeves falling down beyond her hands. She tried pushing the sleeves up past her elbows, but they slipped right back down again. Finally, she resorted to rolling them up a bit. Drake sighed. She still looked better in it than he ever had.
“Here,” he said tossing her some chow, “dig in.”
“Thanks,” she began unwrapping a thick slab of chocolate. “Okay,” she said, taking a small nibble, savoring the chocolate slowly, “now, this is where you tell me that you’re really an ex-Navy Seal or Ranger or something, right? I mean, sure, you retired from the ways of violence to pursue the quiet life of a peaceful country minister. But really, you’ve been taught to annihilate large masses of super-trained ninjas all by yourself, right? …Right?!”
“Well, no…” he said mock-seriously, “but I was in Boy Scouts once. And I probably should warn you that I did earn my pocket-knife-safety merit badge.”
“Great,” she responded. “If we have a sudden need to whittle some emergency crafts I’ll feel very safe.”
Drake’s laughed. “I guess I deserved that,” he said a bit defensively, “I’d feel happier with some protection around here too, but if you’re expecting me to challenge these guys to a shoot-out at high noon well, all I can say is; we’re talking Billy Graham meets Rambo, here.
They lapsed into silence again, studiously concentrating on their skimpy meal. After a while Paige sighed in resignation and lifted a corner of the sleeping bag, offering to share. Drake gratefully accepted her largesse, snuggling in close to keep both of them covered. They sat that way for what seemed like a long while, in a cozy, companionable silence. The steady drumming of rain against the nylon over their heads was like a lullaby. Gradually their chilled bodies began to warm as their combined body heat accumulated under the thick sleeping bag.
It had been a long, exhausting, even terrifying day. It came as no great surprise to either of them when they found themselves wrapped in each others arms. At first, it was simply a reflex action; two scared, cold children reaching out for the warmth and security of the only other person in the world they could trust. Soon however their fearful embrace evolved into something approaching the passionate. It had been many long and empty months since Linda. All the aching loneliness buried deep inside engulfed him at this first sign of intimacy in such a long time. He returned the embrace eagerly.
Necking was one thing. It turned serious though when the warm, tender embrace progressed into something a bit more torrid. That’s when Drake shifted uncomfortably.
“What’s the matter?” she whispered.
“Nothing,” he said, breathing hard and feeling like a jerk; there’s nothing sillier in this day and age than an unattached male fighting off a willing female.
“What do you mean, ‘nothing’?” she demanded. “Are you thinking of her, your ex wife?”
“No, it’s not that.” He said sadly.
“You’re gay!” she said aghast.
The irony of that set him to laughing harshly in spite of the tension of the moment. “I get that a lot here in Yosemite. No, that would make things easier, but that’s not it. Look Paige, I’m supposed to be a Christian; a minister even.”
“So?” she said hotly, “you are aware aren’t you, that Christians make love too. That’s why all those Right-to-Lifers have little babies, you know.”
Drake cleared his throat and said as delicately as possible, “we’re not supposed to do it outside of marriage.”
“Oh, I see!” she was really angry now. “You’re judging me. You think I’m some kind of bimbo now—a scarlet letter floozy—don’t you? I’ll bet that just makes you feel righteous and holy all over, doesn’t it?”
“No,” he said ashamed, “actually, I feel pretty much like a jerk right now. Look Paige I was cooperating in this too. I want you. God forgive me, I do. But I can’t, for your sake as much as mine.
“My sake? Don’t dump your guilt on me, thanks!”
“That’s not what I meant. What kind of Christian or pastor would I be in your eyes if we got carried away tonight? A phony; like every other ‘Christian’ you know. And you know it’s true. I want to be a better man than that. Paige,” he said desperately, “I don’t want to be a phony with you of all people. And as far as judging you goes, how can I do that when any judgment due tonight, belongs to me.”
Paige began to weep now. “I feel so cheap. You led me on!”
“Yes,” he confessed, “you’re right, I did. I’m truly sorry Paige, please forgive me.” The simple confession seemed to draw the poison from the wound in a way that arguments and sincere statements of faith never could. He held her again as her tears fell. While they clung to one another tightly, Drake wondered why he felt so miserable. He’d done the honorable thing, after all. Shouldn’t he feel spiritual and righteous? Shouldn’t the heavens roll back so he could hear the angel choirs singing the Hallelujah Chorus? But all he felt was self-pity and the only sound he heard was the lonely pattering of rain in the dark. Drake sighed. After a while he found himself praying for deliverance from their circumstances. He prayed for the healing of Paige’s alienation from God, and he asked about the possibility of a real relationship with Paige.
* * *
Rangers Gutierrez and Frazier approached Bridalveil Gifts in an unprofessional compromise between speed and caution. The light shining from the street lamps showed the front door of the shop closed. However, as they drew near they could see that the door’s window had a broken pane in it. Rudy sent Walt around to cover the back.
“Be real careful,” he warned. “These could be the same guys that took Rod down this morning.”
Walt’s eyes narrowed in renewed anger. “I’ll be careful,” he began making his way around to the back ally. After a few minutes the radio in Rudy’s hand crackled softly, “This is Walt. I’m in position. The back door’s standing wide open but there’s no indication anybody’s home.”
“Okay,” said Rudy, “let me think.” In normal circumstances, it would be a good time to call for backup, but tonight everybody was out evacuating the Park. That left limited manpower here on the Valley floor: Walt and Rudy.
Rudy, made his decision. “This is how we’re going to do it…” They were using lousy radio discipline, but so what? They were operating in an informal, tactical environment and besides, it was working.
Rudy cautiously approached the front door from the sheltered side and reached across to try the knob. The unlocked door easily swung inward. He hastily snatched his arm back before some thoughtless cretin inside decided to shoot it off. Recalling the building’s layout, he drew his weapon and held it close to his chest. Rudy stepped a slow half-circle past the doorway, viewing quadrants of the interior, “slicing the pie.” His quick-view did not reveal any hostiles. He stepped quickly through the door, angling to his right until he reached the front corner of the shop. There he turned and took up position behind a massive oak chest of drawers.
Nobody shot him. Nothing moved. No sound.
“See anything?” he whispered into his radio.
“Not a thing,” came Walt’s quiet reply. “I’m coming in through the back door.”
“I’ve got the back covered from here,” said Rudy. “I’m on your left as you come through the door. Watch your right.”
Walt entered in the same tactical manner as Rudy. Once inside they cleared the shop room by room, upstairs and down. The place was empty. They turned their attention to looking for smaller clues. Walt found the only thing worth finding in the back closet. They found the Reverend Stan Drake’s notebook computer, concealed in a file drawer, connected to the World Wide Web via the shop’s telephone line.
Friday, February 22, 2013
Yosemite National Park
Drake turned the key in the ignition and the old Suburban roared to life. Brother Gene lavished a lot of care on the truck, keeping it in fine condition. Happily, it simply started without any loud, unpleasant, gangland-type explosions; something that had not occurred to Drake until he’d already turned the key.
“Thank you, Lord,” he breathed.
Drake dropped the transmission into first gear and sent the Chevy forward, deriving a sense of security from the restrained power of the heavy body and big V-8 engine.
Glancing to his right he finally took a moment to observe Paige’s bedraggled condition. She sat with her arms wrapped around Hank’s filthy coat for warmth. Paige was no wetter or dirtier than he of course, but Drake was male enough to note her dripping, muddy rags which had started the day as a rather nice pants-and-top outfit. Her bare wet ankles looked unbearably cold to Drake. As soon as the temperature gauge began to move upward Drake switched on the Suburban’s heater, flipping the blower to high. Heated air flowed from the vents, warming them, the very epitome of extravagant luxury.
Following Paige’s subdued, monosyllabic directions, Drake drove through the areas of Yosemite Village reserved for employees and residents. They planned to make their way to small ranger station located at Mirror Lake, near the head of the valley. Hopefully the frantic manhunt would not have reached the same shoot-on-sight insanity that existed in Yosemite Village. In order to reach their destination without being spotted, Paige directed Drake to a network of dirt roads near the sheer northern walls of the Valley. Years ago the Park Service had sealed those roads to vehicular traffic to allow them the chance to return to their pristine, pre-internal combustion engine condition.
They proceeded slowly through the rain without headlights, looking for the gate marking the old entrance. Drake would have preferred speed, but the limited visibility forced him to drive at a crawl. Paige was familiar with the roads, often used as foot trails, but between the rain outside, and the humidity inside, the windows were nearly opaque. She finally resorted to rolling her window down a crack, shivering at the intrusion of the cold, wet exterior world.
Paige turned her head away from the open window, “There it is,” she murmured in a low, subdued voice. Drake almost missed her words under the sustained pattering of the rain.
He stopped the vehicle and reached over the seatback, retrieving his heavy coat which he belatedly handed to Paige. He also grabbed an old brown windbreaker. It was pretty lightweight, but at least it was somewhat water-resistant. Tugging on an old, worn Stetson, he jumped out into the rain, shrugging into the jacket.
Drake splashed over to inspect the gate; nothing elaborate—a couple of eight-foot triangles, made of three-inch iron pipe. These were mounted on hinged uprights and secured in the middle by a sagging padlocked chain. A welter of signs and notices of an official nature proclaimed the road closed—but definitely—listing the Federal statutes naughty drivers were in danger of violating. Well, I’m already wanted for murder; I’ll have to take my chances with the National Park Service. Drake bent down and examined the husky padlock, clipped to a heavy, rusty chain—all that stood between them and access to sanctuary. His glance traveled from the locked gate over to the massive, chrome brush guard mounted to the front of the truck. Stan Drake’s face broke into a lopsided grin.
“That ought to do it.”
He climbed back inside. “Hang on to Hank,” Dropping the lever into four-wheel-drive, he engaged first gear and shoved the nose of Gene’s truck right up against the point where the triangles met. The chain gave a few inches but did not break. He backed up, pushed in the clutch pedal, raced the engine, and let out the clutch with a bang. The ¾ ton truck leapt forward like a charging bull. It snapped the heavy chain easily crashing through the barrier. Paige jumped in her seat and Hank squirmed frantically as one of the gate arms swung back, squealing and thumping hideously down the right side of Gene's classic vehicle. Drake kept the truck rolling down the grassy roadway, heading for their refuge in the rocks.
“Forget the ATF,” he said through tightly clenched teeth. “Pay no attention to the Sacred Earth Society. And never mind the Mariposa militia, too. I am one hundred percent dead meat when Gene sees what I’ve done to his truck.”
* * *
Ted Parker winced at the volume emanating from the phone handset. “What do you mean they ‘just disappeared’!?” roared General Taylor. “You two morons were supposed to be watching the guy’s truck. You screwed up!” That was unfair. The General himself had switched them to the gift shop. The General was not finished; “I ought to come there and slap you two incompetents—just a little bit—to demonstrate my profound displeasure.” Since they were at the other end of a phone connection, all the General could do was rant. Parker was angry too, wanting to lash out, break something, hurt someone. The General’s ranting did not change the situation.
The General’s big van-type recreational vehicle pulled up at the roadside. Taylor liked to call it his ‘command track.’ Parker and Fosdick climbed in and took seats in the back, sullen as two naughty school boys. The van lurched forward, moving through the steady downpour.
Taylor announced he was personally leading the manhunt for the Preacher. Parker suppressed a laugh. Half the boys were already prowling the Park. Who would have thought that one little wuss of a clergyman could be so much trouble? But they needed to get their hands on that lost thumb drive before the Feds did. There were just too many names, places, and dates on it. They couldn’t afford let the government boys get hold of it.
“Shoulda’ popped the little jerk when I had the chance,” he grumbled for the hundredth time.
“Hey Gen’rl,” shouted Al, the driver, “take a look over there.” Al pointed to their right where the ground began rising to meet the valley walls. A Chevrolet Suburban, running without lights was nosing its way up to a barrier. They watched the SUV press forward, ramming the barrier and snapping its flimsy chain. Taylor stared for a moment, not quite believing his eyes.
“Move!” Taylor’s voice came out a high pitched squeal. He slapped the driver’s crew cut head petulantly. “Stop that guy!”
Al the driver pressed his foot against the gas pedal. The RV lurched then lumbered forward, not really designed for instant acceleration or hairpin cornering. Taylor, recognizing the limits of his ‘command track,’ got on his cell phone and began issuing orders to his men; some he called in to intercept the preacher, others he moved to block possible escape routes. From all over Yosemite Valley pickup trucks, full size vans and beat up old automobiles began to converge on the preacher and his yuppie mobile. Taylor ordered the boys in the ‘Command Track’ to break out the weapons and prepare to assault the preacher’s vehicle.
* * *
“Oh, great,” Drake growled, “another gate.” Again, he sent the truck forward at ramming speed, shearing another ancient chain securing yet another rusty gate. “Okay, which way now?” he asked.
“Left,” she directed him, “That way. There’s a bicycle path along the creek. It runs out of Mirror Lake—Stan, look out!” she cried suddenly.
Drake had turned the wheel to follow her directions, but immediately yanked it back to the right, accelerating hard to avoid a hulking recreational vehicle roaring out of the mist. He yanked the transfer lever out of four-wheel-drive sending the Suburban accelerating forward. Struggling to get the bucking, sliding machine under control, he barely managed to avoid a furious collision with the RV.
“Seat belts!” Drake shouted, “Get ‘em on, quick!”
“Seat belts?” Paige protested, “what if we have to bail out?”
“Lady, with this kind of demolition derby, your seat belt might keep you from bailing more suddenly than you like!”
The RV roared through a clumsy turn and moved in for another attack. The massive steel bumper struck Drake’s left quarter panel with the high-pitched screech of rending metal. The Chevy slued, throwing Drake, Paige and Hank toward the right side of the cab. In the reflected glow of their instrument panel Drake caught a fleeting view of the bearded driver with another man hanging over his shoulder. Fleeting glimpse or not, Drake recognized the other man as the guy who had murdered Megan; definitely. Then there was the matter of Drake's still-sore head. It was General Vince Taylor of the high and exalted councils of the Mariposa Battalion.
While Paige clung to a highly agitated Hank, Drake stomped on the gas, sending the truck crashing diagonally through a wooden railing alongside the bike trail. The RV tried to pursue but it’s mass made it difficult to play off-road tag among all those trees. Drake slalomed through the glade, throwing muddy rooster tails and putting distance between himself and the General’s RV. He saw a road coming up on the right and took it, accelerating through the gears. With the General trying to catch up, Drake and Paige flew down the wet road at sixty miles an hour, trailing clouds of atomized vapor in their wake.
“I think we lost him,” Paige finally said, looking over the seat back.
“That’s fine,” said Drake slowing down, “but he’s not the only one who’s lost. Where are we? Where do we go now?”
Paige looked around, suddenly realizing that in the dark she had no idea where they were. Well, she thought they were obviously somewhere on the Main Park Road, but the lousy atmospheric conditions had her confused. Before paige could get her bearings straight, a clunky old pickup truck roared out of the murk, attempting to ram their right side. Drake, who had been coasting, quickly downshifted to third gear, accelerating rapidly, rear wheels spinning for traction on the rain-slick pavement. His evasive maneuver narrowly managed to avoid a collision with the other vehicle, but both trucks found themselves sliding over the waterlogged pavement.
The Chevy’s headlights bounced back from the overhanging trees, creating the illusion of driving through an immense, arboreal cave. Ahead Drake saw a shimmering expanse of water rolling across the road from one side to the other. The day’s rain had created a temporary creek running through a dip in the road. Both vehicles were approaching much too rapidly to avoid it. There was no way of gauging how deep the instant creek might be, and by this time it was way too late to safely brake.
“Hang on!” he yelled, tensing his body and tightening his grip on the steering wheel. The Suburban hit the river traveling at fifty miles an hour. Drake remembered to keep his big feet off the brake and concentrated on retaining control of the steering wheel, fighting the wild shimmy as his tires encountered various conflicting forces. The massive truck instantly slowed but still carried enough momentum to hydroplane across to relatively dry pavement, throwing up a bow wave like a speedboat.
The other driver apparently never even saw the water hazard. He remained unaware of his peril until Drake’s shockwave splashed across his windshield and the pickup’s wheels suddenly dug in. Drake watched as the driver tried to power through the junior-grade river. Big mistake. The rear wheels slipped and spun, hydroplaning across the rushing water, spinning the pickup violently around. Centrifugal force wrenched the truck rotating it to the left. The truck’s mass and inertia compounded the force, slinging it off the road. It careened across the muddy shoulder, slamming head-on into a towering pine at the side of the road.
Once across, Drake geared down and brought his heavy vehicle to a sliding stop. The pickup truck was obviously a total wreck. A lone headlight shone at a bizarre angle through the sheeting rain. No way of telling the passengers condition; and it was death to stop and play angel of mercy. Drake clenched his jaw in frustration and turned back in the seat, sending the Chevy down the road again.
“Aren’t we going to stop and help?” Paige asked him, aghast at his apparent callousness.
“And get a bullet for our trouble?” he shot back. “Nothing doing. Before you start feeling all humanitarian, don’t forget; there is still a battalion of gun-totin’ loonies out there in the dark.”
In punctuation, a cluster of intense off-road lights appeared from behind, illuminating the truck’s interior. Looking back, Paige’s face betrayed a paralyzed, deer-in-the-headlights expression. Drake did not find it the least bit comical. He kept the truck moving, realizing the awful truth of his just-spoken words.
To his dismay he found the road on this side of the creek badly washed out. Organic debris and sudden potholes littered his path. One such obstacle almost swallowed the left front tire whole, bouncing them both as high as the headliner. After slamming through several bottomless chasms, Drake realized he had no choice but to slow down. As the distance between the vehicles closed, they heard a sound of hammering against the sheet metal of the Suburban. Paige screamed as a rear window exploded. Drake realized they were being chased by a barrage of gun shots.
“Scootch down!” he commanded. “All the way down! That’s it.” Paige took a firm hold on Hank, crouching to make sure the seat back supported her neck. Drake scooted down too, reaching up to adjust the rearview mirror from his uncomfortable position. Watching the approaching headlights he suddenly hit the brakes hard, accelerated, then stomped the brakes again. His actions sent the Chevy swerving and skidding around the road as if driven by a mad man. He hoped the pursuing driver got the idea that poor, sheltered Pastor Drake was real scared and panicky. The approaching vehicle drew nearer. Drake could see it was the General again. Taylor’s RV roared up from behind, heedless of the lousy road conditions.
“Okay,” said Drake “Here they come. Hang on, I’m gonna try something. You might try catching up on your prayer life.”
“This is no time to go all spiritual on me,” she snapped.
“On the contrary, now is the perfect time to get spiritual.” To himself he muttered, “I sure hope this works.”
It did work; like an answer to prayer. The brace of lights continued to intensify as the distance between the two vehicles closed. Drake jerked forward as if terrified by the approach of the speeding recreational vehicle.
“Come and get me General!” Drake shouted. “Come on tough guy, you’re Baron Auto-Matic right?” Drake let them come in nice and close, preparing to slam the door on them.
As the General cut the distance, gunfire erupted from his vehicle again, shattering the remaining rear glass. The fusillade chewed up Gene’s expensive coachwork even more. Hank whined loudly as incoming rounds pierced the back seat, ripping into the piled-up camping gear. By God’s grace the camping equipment acted as a backstop, arresting most of the bullets. One slug did connect with a can of beans, exploding it, sending it pin-wheeling crazily around the passenger compartment. A few strays starred the windshield, but nothing penetrated the truck’s front seat.
“That’s enough of that nonsense!” Drake snapped angrily. He dropped the transmission into neutral, stomped his left foot hard against the spring-loaded parking brake. This radically slowed the vehicle, without giving a telltale warning from the brake lights. Drake’s move took the driver in the RV by surprise. He reacted much too late to avoid a collision. Drake released the manual brake pedal and stood heavily on the power brakes with both feet. He blessed Mister Chevrolet’s ancient pre-anti-lock brake system as smoke poured from the protesting tires and the Suburban shuddered to an emergency stop. This caused the truck to assume a nose down, tail high attitude. The RV, also nose down from panic braking, violently rear-ended the sport utility vehicle, impaling itself on Gene’s heavy trailer hitch. The long chrome hitch lanced through Taylor’s cheap plastic grill and fragile radiator, splattering precious coolant and more importantly destroying the fan, water pump and the timing gear behind it. The RV’s racing engine, fatally wounded, seized to a raspy halt.
A spreading cloud of steaming vapor enveloped both vehicles as Drake once again hit the gas. His rear wheels spun, seeking traction before digging in and dragging the chromium spear from the gutted recreational vehicle. Drake realized he’d terminally wounded Gene’s truck as well.
Scattered shots chased them out of the spreading fog of coolant. The side passenger door of the RV flew open and muzzle flashes appeared from inside. Drake was mad now. He instinctively spun the steering wheel left, then right executing a wide U-turn. The men who had been pouring out the door, shooting from the hip, saw Drake’s turn and flung themselves back. Drake dropped the transfer lever back into four-wheel-drive and chased them inside the vehicle. Gathering speed he rammed Gene’s truck into the side of Taylor’s shattered RV.
Yelling at the top of his lungs, Drake plowed the General right off the road onto the miry shoulder. Already undercut by the heavy rains, the edge of the road abruptly collapsed, tumbling the RV with all hands into the rain-swollen Merced River.