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.