YOSEMITE HIGH COUNTRY
Just south of the San Gabriel Mountains in sunny Southern California, lies the megalopic burg of Los Angeles; City of the Golden Haired Angels. To most people, it may seem like a harmless sort of place, the quintessential American municipality. To us hard-bitten professional ministers though, it’s the fabled Town of Tinsel, a veritable hotbed of hedonism.
I was sitting in my shabby old office at the Big Downtown Church, pecking at my keyboard, pretending to work. My secretary Euodia had gone out to the local diner to partake in another round of heartburn. So, when the door to the outer office squeaked open I felt it would be polite to get up and greet my unknown visitor. By the time I stood however, the door to my private sanctum swung open and a woman stepped in.
Not just any skirt now, I’m talking about a high-class dame. She was dressed to the nines in a blue satin dress, black spike heels, and a wide-brimmed black hat with a veil subtly obscuring her beautiful face. She wore a large, diamond-studded dove over her left breast, and under her arm she carried a Bible big enough to hold a Billy Graham crusade on. My keen professional eye noticed her Bible had one of those custom-fit leather covers on it; real class. I indicated a hard-backed wooden chair she could sit in and flopped back into my own swivel job.
“What’s on your mind sister?” I asked.
“It’s my husband,” she said in exasperation, “I just don’t know where else to turn.”
“Is the lug doing you wrong?” I asked crudely.
“Oh, no, it’s nothing like that!” she said. She appeared to be taken aback by my blunt insensitivity. Tough for her, I guess. Being a professional hard-boiled minister is a tough racket.
She took a few moments to regain her composure then charged ahead. “You see, it’s like this; lately he’s been watching ‘God Stuff’ a lot on TV. And this morning,” she sniffed, “he told me he had a vision of a 900 foot tall televangelist in a pink tuxedo!” With that sad confession, she broke down in tears right there in my office.
“This is serious,” I said. Leaning over, I pulled out the bottom drawer of my desk, just to check. Good. My trusty Thompson Chain-Reference was still there. From the sound of things I’d probably need it soon…
* * *
“Stan… Stan…! Come on hero wake up! Time to rise and shine.” Drake opened his eyes to see a tousle headed Paige bent over him, shaking him hard. He sat upright, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“Oohh, what a nightmare!” he moaned, “Daffy Drake, PI.”
“Stan, come on!” she said, “It’s morning. We better get moving.” Daylight filtered in through the dark blue fabric of the tent. Even through the dark nylon the light seemed painfully bright. When he stuck his head out the flap he saw why. The low morning sun forced him to squint his eyes shut against the brilliance. He could see that last night’s storm had blown through, dragging a gorgeous, sunlit day in its wake. Paranoia gripped him for a moment as he realized that by the bright uncompromising light of day their secret little glade did not seem to be all that secluded anymore.
“You’re right,” he agreed, “let’s pack up and get moving. We can eat once we’re on the trail.”
“Wait a minute,” she asked, “just where are we planning to go?”
“That’s a good question. I’d really like to get back down to the Valley as quick as we can.
“Do you think that’s such a smart idea?”
“Let’s hope things have blown over enough that we can risk turning ourselves in.”
“That’s not what I meant. Are we going to be safe from the militia while we’re traveling back down to the Valley?”
“Well… I don’t know,” he said thoughtfully. “It seems to me we’re running just as big a risk hanging around up here as going back down to the Valley. The only really safe thing to do would be to dig a hole in the ground and hide. The problem with that is we don’t have enough food to wait everybody out. So, we have to move. But we can still be careful while we’re moving can’t we? I mean, you do know a way to get us down without sticking to the regular trails, don’t you?
“That’s the problem,” she said, “The terrain around here is pretty rough. The established trails are really the only safe way to travel.” She chewed her lip for a moment. “…Well, There is an old back way to Vernal Falls. It’s been closed for years. I think I can find it. I’ll do my best Stan.”
They set about dressing and repacking their gear. Because of the sunlight Paige decided to wear her own, still slightly damp clothes. This morning she noticed, there wasn’t any trace of last night’s blushing timidity from Drake. After pulling a well worn pair of jeans on, Drake took the time to loop an eight-inch Arkansas Toothpick to his belt. Though not really a big fighting knife like Jim Bowie once carried, Drake found it handy to have around on the trail.
Paige giggled when she saw it. “That be yer whittlin’ knife there, Dan’l Boone?”
“Yes’m,” came the mountain man’s stalwart reply.
* * *
The gauges all showed green as Bob Jastrow pulled up on the collective and eased the cyclic forward a hair, rotating his Blackhawk off the ground. Normal readings or not, he was flying with some serious misgivings. The airframe had taken some really good hits yesterday—well, good or bad depending on your point of view. The damage, considered “minor,” had simply been sanded down and covered with flight-grade metal tape. Had there been any serious damage, Jastrow would have red-X’d the airplane no matter how important the mission. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms might not like that, but the Bureau seemed singularly ignorant of just how tricky an aircraft could be in normal flying conditions. And these were hardly normal flying conditions.
“You’d think we were flying combat missions in the glorious days of’ Desert Storm or something,” he groused over the intercom to McKay, his co-pilot, seated in the left-hand chair.
“Could be worse, Boss.” McKay kept his eyes on the gauges. “I’ve flown with soda cans pop-riveted over the holes,” he exaggerated. “‘Spect you have too.”
Both of the pilots understood they were flying in a virtual combat zone. If yesterday’s mountaintop firefight hadn’t been warning enough, today’s official orders served to make the point. Jastrow wasn’t about to forget the object lesson those militia creeps taught him yesterday. The single bullet hole near the bottom edge of his windscreen had been repaired with epoxy, but it still remained ominously visible. He couldn’t allow himself to get sloppy today. However, that didn’t change the fact that he was piloting a less-than-hundred-percent aircraft which might need to boogie in and out of Dodge City real quick.
Apart from the aircrew the chopper carried two BATF agents and a park ranger in the back. Their impromptu patrol force had been tasked with eyeballing the rough terrain over the high country. The ranger rode along as liaison and guide. Had they had been sent out on a legitimate Search and Rescue mission that would have been one thing. But they were supposed to be looking for two fugitives; male and female. It bothered Jastrow that the mission required them to search for quote, fugitives, unquote while remembering to keep a wary eye open for hostile activity from the so-called Mariposa Militia at the same time.
In a real combat operation they would be flying in the company of a wingman. After all, having someone watching the bushes while you had your mind on other things just made good sense. But this wasn’t considered ‘real combat’ by the big shots making the big decisions. Jastrow wondered how else you defined ‘lots of people shooting at you while you have to stick around and do your job.’ Sounds ‘real’ enough to me.
Climbing to a cruising altitude of 6,000 feet the UH-60 wound its way up the narrow gorge of the Merced River. In back, the passengers had their binoculars out, busily scanning the various hiking trails that criss-crossed the rocky chasm below. In the process they saw several hikers moving downhill, none of whom matched the fugitives’ descriptions.
Finally, while flying over Nevada Falls, they spotted a couple of backpackers high up on the flank of a formation the ranger designated as Liberty Cap. The hikers were following a trail leading to the high, broad shelf that lay around the base of Half Dome. Jastrow brought the helicopter in for a closer look. As the distance closed and details became sharper the people on the ground began to conform to the official descriptions. At that point The BATF guys in back started to get excited. They began shouting commands and waving firearms around. Below them on the trail the couple began waving enthusiastically up at them as the Blackhawk hovered over their position.
While Jastrow kept the chopper in tight, McKay flipped on the external speakers, speaking into his helmet-mounted microphone.
“We are officers of the Federal Government. Keep on moving, all the way to the top,” he commanded. “We will pick you up there.”
The senior agent in the back got on the intercom demanding to be winched down. He was concerned that the subjects might try to escape. Jastrow put the kibosh on that dumb idea. Only a suicidal moron would attempt to winch somebody while hovering over a windy mountain slope without an experienced crew chief on board. The broad tableland at the crest offered plenty of room to land the bird safely. That’s exactly what Bob Jastrow intended to do. Besides, those folks on the ground were obviously glad to see them. They weren’t even trying to evade. Jastrow automatically backed off a bit to lessen the downwash from the main rotor on the hikers below. Jastrow expertly paced them as they slowly made their way to the top of the pinnacle of rock.
When the hikers reached the summit, Jastrow brought the Blackhawk around in a large sweeping curve. He carefully quartered the area looking for a likely place to land. The ground was indeed flatter, but composed of exfoliating granite; the kind that has a nasty tendency to slide off into infinity for no good reason. He didn’t want to be sitting on one of those precarious slabs of stone if it perversely decided to take a plunge into the abyss. Jastrow decided he would not actually land. It would be better to have the rotors turning to keep the weight off the landing gear, just in case the rock was not solid enough to support the aircraft’s bulk. He reminded himself to also be wary of danger from the dense stands of trees covering the crest.
Jastrow concentrated on spotting a likely spot to stage an extraction. Meanwhile, McKay kept the bird in a hover, slowly rotating to scan the terrain. Holding a helicopter in hover is not exactly the same as idling an automobile at a red light; Not even with a manual clutch on a steep hill. Hovering requires the pilot to make constant, minute corrections with the collective pitch, cyclic, and tail rotor pedals. It is an ever-changing juggling act to maintain the aircraft’s position over the ground. Hovering over a high mountain peak with the ever-shifting wind changing direction every moment, Jastrow really had his hands full.
With both pilots busy flying, neither had the slightest warning. Suddenly, high-speed projectiles began pinging into the already battered airframe. Briefly Jastrow saw fire coming from a crowd of riflemen perched on a ledge below, enthusiastically hosing his aircraft. McKay instinctively jerked up on the collective and slued the big UH-60 around in an attempt to throw off their aim so he could get out of range. However, like Drake on the bridge, Jastrow simply had too many variables to deal with. The sudden violent movement caused the Blackhawk’s long tail boom to swing through a short savage ark, striking the rocky crest. The integrity of the boom was unable to withstand that kind of violence. It crumpled as if made of aluminum foil. Fatally damaged, the helicopter cart-wheeled over the edge of the peak. It collided with rough granite outcroppings on its terminal plunge into the canyon of the Merced River, more than a thousand feet below.
* * *
Paige gaped in horror as their hope of rescue suddenly vaporized before her eyes. The wounded aircraft full of doomed men lurched violently over the edge of the chasm and out of her sight. Out of the blue a rescuing angel had appeared, just as suddenly taken away. She watched Drake move down the trail to where it topped the crest. Looking over the jagged edge she saw men on the switchbacks below. They had weapons and horses and were trying to calm the skittish beasts while taking cover at the same time. She saw a lot of helicopter debris raining down on them.
Drake ran back up the trail and grabbed Paige by the hand. “Run!” he urged her. Again, they had no time to stay and mourn the latest dead. Self-preservation demanded they clear the area as quickly as possible.
The Mariposa Militia was coming.
Paige raced along the left-hand fork. Behind her, Drake stopped on the trail. “I’m going to leave my hat as a false clue.”
Paige nodded agreement. “Don’t make it too obvious.” She watched him find a likely spot. He stooped and dropped his hat on a small sunlit patch of rock by the side of the trail. Maybe that would fool their pursuers into going the other way. Yeah, and maybe not, too. At the very least it ought to buy them some time.
They moved in haste over the saddle in the mountain and along the footpath separating the two peaks. Hank ranged up and down the trail, running far ahead and then arrowing back to find them. Paige kept her eyes open, searching for an overgrown trail closed years ago by the Park Service. Standard practice is to cover the former trailhead with a dense growth of plants. This has the virtue of disguising its presence, keeping otherwise honest people from walking right over a ‘trail closed’ sign, as folks are wont to do. This particular former trail, the Vernal Slide, followed a notch running between Mount Broderic and Liberty Cap all the way down to Vernal Falls.
Paige’s finger found its way to the curl of hair behind her ear. She tugged and twirled in frustration. The Park Service seemed to have done an excellent job of covering up the old trail spur. From the air, the natural cleft between two mountains might have been obvious. But on the ground every crack in the trailside seemed just as likely. There were many such clefts and a lot of dense underbrush in the area. Paige found it hard to remember the right spot.
“Look, there’s another one,” said Drake.
“Another what?” asked Paige.
“Another sign saying we’re heading for Half Dome. I’m pretty certain that we don’t want to go there. You did say the trail we’re looking for goes down, not up, didn’t you?”
“You’re certainly a crabby pessimist today, aren’t you?” she challenged. “I told you,” she explained patiently, “we have to follow the Half Dome trail in order to find the old Vernal Slide trail. That doesn’t mean we’re climbing Half Dome itself.” Giving another of her impish smiles she added, “Come on now, don’t you have any faith?”
“Ouch!” he said. “Nothing like being instructed in faith by a skeptic, I always say.”
“If you want coaching in faith, how about learning from the Mariposa Militia?” she asked innocently. “They seem to have a lot of faith in their ability to conquer Yosemite, despite the ATF and the National Park Service.”
Drake made a rude noise. “Come on! Those clowns in the Mariposa Militia are delusional. It’s like they have no connection with reality at all. I don’t want to make the same mistake. Don’t think they’re simply letting their imaginations run wild. In my opinion, they don’t have nearly enough imagination. They haven’t really thought through whom it is they are fighting here.
“What do you mean?” she asked, “You and God?”
“No,” he snorted. “It’s a thought, but that’s not what I’m trying to say. I mean, these guys seem to think of themselves as noble, revolutionary patriots, casting off the cruel yoke of imperial tyranny. But we’re not talking about some Sixteenth Century revolt against King George at the other end of a three thousand-mile supply line. The British had to move troops and supplies clear across the whole North Atlantic. Our government doesn’t have to do that. We already have troops, supplies, and the means to deliver them rapidly right here on the West Coast. These Militia idiots seem to think they only have the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, to fight; like the rest of the government doesn’t count or something. If you ask me, I think they’ve been watching too many Kung Fu Blood Match movies. You know, where fifty-seven bad guys politely take turns fighting the one good guy.”
“But you have to admit,” said Paige, “They have managed to keep everybody on the run. Maybe they think they can keep their rebellion going indefinitely by hiding out and using guerrilla warfare tactics.”
Drake gave a “Humph!” of disgust. “They might, but I don’t think so. So far—all over the country—all these different Militia groups have only seen small stuff. They hear about a bunch of government agents with rifles at Ruby Ridge. Later, on television they watch the FBI, using one measly tank—shooting tear gas, for Pete’s sake—fumble around with some fanatics in Waco. Why, right here in Yosemite all they’ve really done is play tag in the forest with unsuspecting rangers and a couple of helicopters.
“I’m telling you, if they think the government is going to pick up its marbles, go home and forget about the whole thing, they are seriously kidding themselves. Do you realize that the Marine Corps has their Mountain Warfare Training Center located just one pass to the north of us? How long do you think these bozos could hold out against a division of Leathernecks?”
They lapsed into silence as they came upon another likely looking gully. Drake watched their back trail while Paige checked it out. After prowling through rocks and brush she decided this one wasn’t the jackpot either. The rising sun beat down on them from a cobalt blue sky. The new day was coming on hot.