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:
“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.

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