YOSEMITE HIGH COUNTRY
“Better hurry,” Drake called down to Paige from the trail above. He kept his voice carefully neutral. “We’ve got company.” Drake scanned the back trail through 7X50 binoculars as Paige investigated yet another gully sporting a suspicious clump of brush.
“I see one man…” Drake reported. “He appears to be armed with a shoulder slung rifle. He’s riding a horse along the trail behind us. I’d say—ohhh—he’s about two hundred yards back. I keep losing him in the foliage. No one else in sight. This guy must be their scout. If you haven’t found our secret escape hatch down there,” he said, “we’d better boogie on out of here, pronto.”
“Sorry again,” she called back, frustration rising in her voice. “There’s nothing down here but a sheer drop.” Using her hands as much as her feet she scrambled back up the steep slope to the trail. Stopping to brush the loose dirt from her hands she said, “I’m ready, let’s go,”
Their main difficulty turned out to be that the trail they were following. It simply was not all that distinct. Over the ages, legions of hikers had tramped up and down this route, creating little offshoots, small detours around each tree and boulder. Instead of a narrowly defined path in the dirt before them, they were following a trail that was often as much as six feet wide, with quite indistinct boundaries. That made for a lot of false trails, many of which had to be checked out.
Without warning the trail suddenly emerged from the heavily forested cleft they had been following, out onto the broad, rocky, southern expanse of Mount Broderick. The morning air felt crisp and clear, the sweeping vista before them absolutely breathtaking. Far below, yet giving the illusion of a garden at their feet, they saw the deep canyon of the Merced River as it ran its winding course. The rocky slope above and below the trail was much more exposed here, windswept and bleak. What trees and shrubs grew on the exposed rock were sparse, bare and spindly looking.
Drake grimaced. We couldn’t have picked worse terrain for hiding.
No way around it, the mounted rider would spot them long before they could cross the expanse before them. Even attempting to hide meant they would be forced to scramble up or down a dangerously steep and open slope. No matter what they did they were going to be seen. Drake set his jaw in determination; they had no choice. He looked at Paige and said, “We’re going to have to make a stand. We’ll never make it to the other side before that guy catches up. And he’s probably not the only one following us.
“Wait, wait just a minute,” she said wide-eyed, “you mean fight him—like, an ambush?”
“Are you crazy or just suicidal?”
“Neither,” he assured her, “just practical. If that rider catches us out here in the open he can easily pick us off with that scope-mounted rifle he’s carrying. Hey come on,” he said, trying to break the tension, “where’s your faith?”
They picked a spot where the trail passed through a rocky little outcrop. The stones were not really huge by Yosemite standards, but back home Drake would not have hesitated to call them boulders. After conferring for a few minutes about how they wanted to go about this, they moved into their positions. With Hank seated at his feet, Drake drew his knife, using it to slice off a flimsy branch from one of the stunted pine trees. He pulled a red bandana, along with several other useful items, from his backpack and tied them all to the branch, arranging them artistically.
Peeking through a gap between the boulder and some scanty foliage, with all the stealth he could muster, Drake stood sentinel, crouched next to the path. The rider moved up the trail at a steady but cautious pace. Wisely, He kept checking his flanks both above and below the trail, wary of an ambush. With the tension of the moment it seemed to Drake as if the guy were poking along like an arthritic snail. It’s taking him forever, he raged.
Then, quite abruptly, Drake experienced a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, a certain conviction that this was an incredibly silly scheme, straight out of some stupid television program. Corny stuff like this usually caused him to turn the channel from embarrassment over the moronic actions of the characters on screen. He was convinced that this particular gambit would not work—never in a million years. The unknown horseman would simply ride up to Drake’s boulder, stick his gun around the boulder and blow him away. Game over.
Hello, I’m Marcus Auraelius doing play-by-play here in the booth, along with Anthony of Nyssa performing our color commentary. So, what do you think of today’s games so far Tony?
Whoa Marcus! Looks to me like these man-eating Lions are going to walk off with this one-sided matchup against the Christians. They’re nothing but a couple of crème-filled twinkies.
“Y’know Stan ol’ boy,” Drake whispered helpfully to himself, “It is possible to have an imagination that’s too active.”
Drake’s hands were sweaty with tension as they gripped his puny little pine bough. Fresh pitch from the branch’s severed end met his sweat, creating a sticky mess. The Militia 7th Calvary rode up to Drake’s boulder all right, but before he ever saw Drake, Paige went into action above and beyond them, slipping artistically down the slope, some 20 yards ahead, she flopped into a shapeless heap in the middle of the path. Drake thought she looked quite helpless indeed. The militia outrider abruptly reigned in his horse, perhaps sensing the trap, but his attention, was solidly focused on Paige.
Drake bounded like a jack-in-the-box from behind his sheltering rock. Shouting at the top of his lungs he waved the brightly decorated pine bough right in the horse’s startled face. Hank scrambled onto the middle of the trail barking and nipping viciously at the horse’s skittish hooves. The horseman, seeing Drake, reacted quickly drawing a sidearm from his holster.
“Don’t move!” he commanded. Drake had purposely chosen the horse’s left flank for his attack. It kept the horseman’s pistol on the side of the horse opposite Drake. The reigns, pommel and shying horse all prevented him from bringing his weapon to bear.
The horse reared up on its hind legs causing the horseman—like a suddenly reluctant Roy Rogers—to wave his arms wildly. He dropped his pistol, reaching desperately for the saddle’s pommel. It was a nice try, but his hands must have been just as sweaty as Drake’s. He slipped. His hands slipped from the pommel, his feet slipped from the stirrups and his para-military butt slipped right out of the saddle. The frightened horse brought its forelegs to the ground and reared up again to avoid the yapping dog. Shying, the horse bucked its unfortunate rider completely off. Gravity finished the job, carrying him over the downhill side of the trail. The panicked horse bolted along the path, though even in the grip of fear it managed to avoid Hank and jumped gracefully over Paige, lying right in its path.
Drake peered over the edge. He watched the erstwhile horseman sliding uncontrollably down the precipitous slope. Since the rider was of no immediate concern Drake turned his attention to their back trail, alert for any sign of reinforcements. He caught a glimpse of the rider still sliding backwards, downslope, waving his arms like a windmill, completely helpless. He slipped and rolled for what must have been a good hundred yards, all the way down to where a switchback trail below rose up to meet the one Drake and Paige were on. Though Drake was concentrating his attention back down the way they had come, he heard the man come to a sudden stop. The sounds of the crashing, brush-rattling slide abruptly ceased, punctuated by a loud distinctive ‘crack.’ The kind of sound one might well expect to hear from a compound fracture of the femur.
“Ye-Ouch!” exclaimed Drake in unthinking empathy.
“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” said Paige. She stood some feet up trail, staring down at the man below. After a moment she said in a totally different tone of voice, “Stan, I think he’s lying right in the middle of our Vernal Slide trail.” She looked at him with horror on her face. “We’re cut off!”
With no sign of an approaching posse, Drake left his post and looked down to where she pointed. The rider lay sprawled on the trail, his left leg twisted into an impossible angle. That was the good news. He wasn’t going to come after them without first spending months in traction with an itchy cast. The bad news; he soon sat up, hurt but conscious. Worse, he had his rifle in his hands, aiming it up slope at them.
“Keep back from the edge!” said Drake quickly, as the man below fired a round, closely followed by two more evenly spaced shots. Drake realized then He was not shooting at them at all, though he probably wouldn’t have grieved deeply if he had hit them. Drake recognized the three spaced shots as the universal, wilderness distress signal.
“Great, just great! That’s going to bring the rest of the posse down on us real soon,” Drake groused. Grabbing two handfuls of rough soil he used them to crudely scrub the sticky tree sap from his hands. Next he stooped down and retrieved the rider’s fallen pistol. “Spoils of war,” he quipped to Paige. The gun was a classic piece of hardware, a nicely blued, Colt .357 Python. He thumbed the cylinder catch to check the loads: six-rounds: full house. Using his bandana Drake cleaned the Colt of loose dirt and grit. He carefully ejected the cartridges and worked the action to ensure it hadn’t been damaged by its fall to the rocky ground. Everything seemed in good working order. His last maintenance task began with drawing a mechanical pencil from his pocket. With it he ran his bright red kerchief back and forth through the barrel to clear it. All the while he continued looking anxiously over his shoulder. With the hardware finally taken care of he said, “Let’s move.”
“Just a minute,” she said suspiciously. “That’s quite an impressive performance. Did you learn that in Boy Scouts too, or is that something you picked up at seminary?”
Drake laughed. “No, my grandfather was a sergeant with LAPD, back in the sixties when old Chief Parker ran things,” he explained. “Gramps taught me firearms etiquette and other important things, like don’t shoot my foot off. Looks like it’s finally paying off.”
Paige arched an eyebrow and, turning, led off along the path. Sure enough, they found the brushed-over Vernal Slide trailhead a mere hundred yards farther along their present path. It had been a good effort even if it had been in vain. But with a wounded rifleman on the trail below, it was useless to them now.
“Oh well,” said Drake, “‘there’s a time for everything sayeth the Preacher,’ and right now it’s time to split.”
They had no choice but to continue following the main trail hoping to find some place or other to elude their pursuers.
As they hurried along, Drake frequently looked over his shoulder, keeping an eye on the back trail. He never saw anyone there. And that was beginning to worry him.
“What in Creation is keeping them from catching up? I’m worried, Paige. Maybe they’re being clever, trying to outflank us.”
Looking down at the pistol in his hand, he couldn’t help feeling like a major fool. The last time he’d held one he hadn’t managed to accomplish anything useful with it. He knew—deep in his heart—there was no way he would ever be capable of shooting someone in cold blood. But you’ve already failed Megan; his conscience hammered him mercilessly. Would he be able to use deadly force to protect Paige? And if he failed to use it to protect his own life, what would happen to Paige then?
* * *
Ironically, Ted Parker found himself thinking along the same lines. Where is that Preacher and his girl Friday? Confronted at Liberty Cap’s summit with a fork in the trail, Taylor had been forced to divide what was left of his troops. After giving the matter some thought, he had dispatched Larry Fosdick on horseback up the left-hand path. Ted and the General had taken the other.
The right-hand trail, where they had recovered the Preacher’s hat, had seemed the more probable route. However, after an hour’s fruitless searching, Taylor came to the frustrating conclusion that he had underestimated this simple country parson again.
The chase for the computer drive had gone way beyond recovering valuable stolen property. Now it was war. Parker had followed Taylor and the Militia at first light that morning with a mounted force of twelve men. They had looked impressively marital, a formidable force which could easily deal with two lousy amateurs. But that was not the whole story. Those twelve men had been the only members of the Mariposa Battalion left in Yosemite Valley. True, there were still others—maybe twenty or thirty at present—up in the hills, but not so many that he could afford to keep losing them at this rate. Three good men, including Taylor’s personal driver, had died in fierce collisions with the Preacher the night before. And they were still mourning the troops who had been cravenly cut down yesterday at the hands of that Boy Scout Ranger.
All our brave patriots lying cold and dead. That ought to give those mercenary government thugs something to crow about, he reflected sourly. But that was not Parker’s immediate concern. Right now he had his mind on a certain nosey minister who had chosen to mess with the wrong ‘ol boys. They’d settle their score with Mr. Ranger sooner or later, right now though, the mission was to hunt down Preacher Drake and make him pay some dues. Parker allowed his mind to dwell happily on the savage, drawn-out punishment he lusted to inflict on the Right Reverend Stanley Drake.
But as far as their present circumstances were concerned, Parker’s revenge might as well be part of some far distant future. Their immediate situation did not look nearly so cheery. Twelve good men rode up the canyon this morning, he reflected bitterly. Now there are only three left. At present, the entire militia contingent consisted of Parker, the General, and Larry Fosdick. Just three men left alive out of twelve.
Parker looked back at Taylor stumping along the trail behind him. The General was royally ticked off. Ted understood. He could not purge the terrible image of that brush with death from his mind. His imagination kept replaying the images over and again. The stricken helicopter—moments before so proudly shot down—had ironically tumbled down right on top of their position, taking most of the boys with it. Bounding and crashing down the mountain face, it had smashed directly onto the very plateau they had been on. The crippled Blackhawk’s multi-ton deadweight had gruesomely smeared nine men and all but one of the horses into unrecognizable paste. Parker shook his head trying to rid himself of the horrible vision. The Mariposa Militia couldn’t afford any more victories like that.
Over a lifetime of cruelty Parker had arrogantly inflicted his own brand of punishment and suffering on others. But now he was on the receiving end. Tough, brutal, soulless Ted parker found himself shuddering as chills slithered down his spine. In his mind’s eye, with inhuman clarity he saw the look of vindictive glee on the face of the ill-fated pilot as his crippled helicopter smashed into the Militiamen, before bounding over the ledge.
Ted Parker was beginning to wonder if he had bet more on the game than he could afford to lose. His mind churned with vain musings of ‘what if?’ What had begun last night as an unfocused spark of anger, had become frustration, fueled by hours of resentment, futile endeavor and plain old exhaustion. His frustration had now matured into a smoldering accumulation of rage. And, as time passed that rage became more and more focused on the person of the General. Abruptly, Parker stopped dead in the middle of the trail, causing Taylor to run right into him.
“What the...!” exclaimed the startled General.
“I got a question for you, Vince,” said Parker coldly. “What in God’s name are we doing here, anyway? We both know this whole mountain is gonna be swarming with G-men soon. If they’re not already here, they will be soon. Why is finding this preacher so blasted important?
“I already told you why,” snarled Taylor. “We gotta get that computer drive back!”
“What for?” Parker threw his hands in the air, “just change our organizational structure and move the base camp and the information on the disk is irrelevant, you idiot!”
That did it. Taylor, bellowing like an enraged grizzly, put his head down and charged. Parker was ready and met the rush, slamming his locked-together fists down hard on the back of the General’s head. Taylor faltered, but his greater weight and momentum carried them both to the ground. Once there they rolled around for a while, scuffling, punching, and gouging one another without accomplishing much in the way of permanent damage. They did manage to to work out quite a bit of nervous tension.
After several minutes of vigorous exercise they gasped on the ground next to one another, panting in the thin mountain air. As they lay recovering, breath wheezing in and out of their laboring lungs, they heard a distant sharp report which echoed off the surrounding mountains.
“Listen!” commanded Taylor, unconsciously bolting upright. Two other gunshots immediately followed the single report. Three tightly spaced shots was the agreed upon danger signal. But the distant reports echoed all around them, making it impossible to tell where they had come from. Parker knew they had just received a valid danger warning but had no clear idea of what it meant.
* * *
Paige led the way across the open rock face of Mount Broderick. For the first time this trip Drake put his dog on the leash. He didn’t want Hank chasing the horse any further. They came upon the mare just inside the tree line, grazing on a small clump of greenery at the trailside. The path had left the cliff edge and now wound its way through thickly forested tableland around the base of Half Dome’s soaring peak. The horse greeted them cautiously with a sideways glance and a swish of its tail, wary of what these crazy humans might do next. “Hank heel,” Drake commanded. He didn’t want the dog to go spooking the poor thing all over again. They took their time and sauntered up to the mare casually, trying not to startle it. Drake felt that trying to sneak up on it would merely convince the mare they were up to no good. For whatever reason, the horse simply continued her complacent grazing, ignoring their approach.
“Do you know how to ride?” asked Drake, keeping his voice low and easy while running his hand softly down the horse’s chestnut flank. He reached smoothly around the creature’s velvety nose, gently but firmly taking hold of the plain leather bridal.
“Of course I do,” Paige replied with some asperity as she rubbed the mare’s long neck. “How about you?”
“Well, I did some riding as a kid—Boy Scouts again, you’ll be happy to hear. But it’s better than ten years since I’ve sat a horse.”
Paige laughed, “it’s not something your body ever forgets, just like riding a bike really.”
“Hey, girl,” Drake soothed, “Take it easy, we’re not going to hurt you.
While Drake played horse-whisperer, Paige rummaged through the saddlebags. In one she found several boxes of ammunition, one for the pistol, and a box of .270 rifle cartridges. Drake pocketed the .357’s while she opened the other bag with a whoop of joy.
“Stan, there’s real food in here,” she exclaimed happily. They found a couple of plastic-wrapped sausages, some hard cheese and a package of flour tortillas. It amounted to a veritable feast, and they dug in hungrily.
After breaking their fast they checked the horse’s worn tack, tightening the cinches and buckles. The mare had a cruelly twisted bit which Paige took time to readjust. Chores done, they climbed up on the mare’s broad back. Drake tried to be a gentleman, letting Paige ride in front, but in practice it worked better with him in the saddle and her hanging on behind. Riding double they set off at a good walking pace across the forested tableland. Drake set Hank loose to range along the trail. He ran back and forth, in and out of the forest, like a destroyer screening a slow moving convoy.
“This gives us a real advantage,” Drake said. “I figure we have a pretty good chance of staying out ahead of our pursuers. Maybe we can beat them to the trailhead.”
“Stan, there’s usually a ranger in Little Yosemite Valley. If we can reach it we ought to be safe.”
Twice along the way, they were overflown by a helicopter. But whether it was the same one twice or two different aircraft they had no way of knowing. The actual numbers made no difference. The forest was so dense there was little chance of being spotted from the air anyway. Several times they came upon clearings in the woods. They waited, hoping, but saw no more aircraft.
Sometime around noon the trail made a gradual emergence from the forested tableland. They were back on wide open, windswept rock. The trail led right to a sheer craggy drop-off, facing north. They came to an abrupt dead end as the path ran into a cross trail, paralleling the cliff’s edge. There a metal Park Service sign, mounted on a 4X4 post, identified the trail: Half Dome up to the left, Little Yosemite Valley down to the right.
“Looks like we’re going to make it.” Drake gratefully nudged the mare’s ribs and tugged the reins to the right, choosing the downward trail.
“Ride, cowboy, let’s disappear into the sunset.” Paige tightened her arms around Drake’s chest in a rib-crunching hug. It began to look like they were going to make it, until a gunshot from down trail spoiled it all, alerting them to the ubiquitous presence of the militia. Drake spread his legs, prepared to spur his mount around. With the horse’s speed they could ride out of trouble quickly. Before the horse could begin to react, a wet, slapping sound followed by a heavy wheezing groan from the mare informed them that this particular beast was going nowhere except horsey heaven.
At the sound of the bullet striking the horse, Paige reacted instinctively, tightening her grip around Drake’s waist. She pressed her heels against the saddle and threw herself backward, dragging Drake with her. Both tumbled roughly off the tail end of their dying mount. Drake landed heavily on top of Paige, but it was better than having the mare’s deadweight crushing both of them.
Painfully sprawled on hands and knees they looked frantically for shelter. Clearly they were in mortal danger on that exposed slope.
“Hank! Come here boy,” Drake called. The dog scurried up, tail between his legs. He smelt death, knew he didn’t like it, but had no training or experience for dealing with it. Hank’s cold wet tongue sneaked in a few quick licks, establishing a tiny little touchstone with normalcy.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Drake, “I’m glad you’re alive too. Now, stay down. Stay!”
For the moment they were hidden by the rise-and-fall of the trail below them. But that would only serve them for the time it took the gunmen below to rush up the path. Paige began scuttling back the way they had come, hoping to reach the safety of the forest. A fusillade of bullets splattered against the rocks in that direction, scattering splinters of granite and dust. Clearly, they were cut off from two different directions. That left only one way; up.
Drake grabbed Paige by the hand and almost dragged her after him. “Come on, this way!” he urged desperately. Following the left-hand branch of the trail they sprinted around a curve of the mountainside. This temporarily shielded them from anybody downhill.
“We don’t have any choice left,” exclaimed Paige, the fear mounting in her voice, “we have to climb, Stan!”
Drake had been resisting the thought and tried to fight it now, but his mind could not contrive any other alternative. They might try holding up their hands and surrendering, but the bad guys had not demonstrated a high degree of interest in that. They could try climbing straight down the rocky cliff face, but one look over the side convinced Drake he might just as well try to fly. That left no other options. They had to follow this trail, even if that meant climbing Half Dome. Perhaps there might be another trail further on, or maybe they could find a good place for another ambush. But for the moment all they could do was hurry along the steep trail leading to the massive granite knob. Even if it was a dead end they had no other choice.