HALF DOME TRAIL
Parker’s lips twisted into a sour grimace as he watched their prey scurry quickly out of sight. They might as well have slowed down and saved their strength. He and the General were no longer as formidable as they seemed to fear. He looked at the General and snorted derisively. They weren’t exactly Attila and his howling hoard baying up the trail in hot pursuit.
It was not simply a lack of warm bodies that handicapped the tattered remains of the Mariposa Battalion. The fight between he and the General had resulted in a number of bruised ribs, a bloody nose, a nicely swelling shiner on Parker, and a badly sprained ankle on the General. Parker struggled to support the General’s bulky, limping body as they clomped along the ever-rising trail.
The pathway wound along the steepening north shoulder of Half Dome. Above and below sheer, vertical granite stretched for a long way in both directions. After a long hard climb they reached the base of the first ascent. The route stopped meandering alongside the towering granite. Instead the trail steepened drastically as it climbed a series of narrow, dizzying, bare-rock switchbacks.
“Vince,” huffed Parker breaking a long silence, “this is taking all day. We’re never gonna catch up at this rate.” He stopped to rest for a moment, dumping his gear and bending over, hands on knees, breathing deeply. The altitude was killing him. The General waited, stoic, silent. He rested his muscular body against the rock face to keep the weight off his bad ankle.
“Look,” continued Parker reasonably, “let me leave you here. You can rest that bum ankle and cover the back trail. I’ll climb on up, nail the preacher, get your precious computer drive and come right back down for you. Come on, Whataya say?”
“What I already said,” growled Taylor through clenched teeth. “No way! Now stop stallin’ and get movin’.”
“Come on Vince! Don’t you get it? We don’t have time to futz around all day. I told you, forget the stupid drive. It’s not important any more!”
“No, I think you don’t get it, Mister Parker.” Taylor continued in an odd, almost plaintive tone, “It ain’t just the lousy computer thing no more, I know that. Too many of my boys—good American men—have already died for this. They got to be avenged. I can’t just walk away. I can’t forget my men. I can’t let some crummy preacher dump all over us, then get away clean. He’s gotta pay. And by god, he’s gonna pay me, personally!
“Fine!” snapped Parker, “You’re big and bad. You’re the Terminator, himself. So why don’t you go up there and get him by yourself, General Patton! Not me. Not today. You think I’m fool enough to hang around here, waiting to get popped by the Feds? You’re obsessed do you know that? Well you can just obsess yourself right on up the mountain, you blasted fool! I for one am outta here!” Angry now, Parker reached down to retrieve his gear. He froze in place as the muzzle of the General’s MP5 pressed against his skull; the crisp snap of the three-way safety clearly audible in the thin mountain air.
“Thank you for sharing your puny little feelings,” Taylor announced in a conversational tone. “Now, as I see it, I’m still the Commanding General of the Mariposa Battalion, and you are still one of my troops. We can just hold us a battlefield court-martial right here on the trailside, boy.” With his free hand Taylor grabbed Parker by the scruff of the neck shouting, “I got some real important news for you mister, so listen up! You sure god better fear me more than the lousy Feds! Every day of the week and twice on Sundays. You got that soldier?
“Yeah,” gasped Parker.
“What’s that Grunt?” snarled Taylor, his face contracting like a fist.
“Sir, yes sir!” snapped out Parker, playing the game for his life.
“That’s good boy, real good,” said the General soothingly. “That’s just what I wanted to hear. You understand, don’t you? See, I have to know that you are personally loyal to me, otherwise I have to kill you.” Taylor slowly brought his mouth down close to Parker’s ear, in hushed tones he inquired, “Are you loyal to me, Mister Parker?”
“Yes sir,” gasped Parker, closing his eyes and cringing. Say anything, humor him, he told himself. You know you’re gonna get a bullet in the head after the guy teases you long enough. But after a long, sweating minute, he realized the worst wasn’t going to happen just yet.
“Good,” Taylor repeated gently, as if he could dissolve the tension with a word. He safed his weapon, slung it over his shoulder and picked up Parker’s gear, handing it to him.
“Now,” he said, hopping over to the base of the switchbacks, gesturing Parker to precede him, “let’s put this train back on the tracks.”
Parker obeyed without further resistance. From that point on he lived and moved with the conviction that, one way or the other, he was going to die that day. The only remaining question; would death be administered by the United States Government, or would it come from the hand of his own beloved General?
If I’m going to die anyway, I might as well do it with some semblance of honor—in battle.
That’s as far as his dazed thinking could take him. With great reluctance he took Taylor’s arm across his shoulders. Parker bore the General’s weight continuing the hopeless climb to infinity. Taylor limped along, helping as best he could. Their progress, though painfully slow, kept in an inexorably upward direction.
“Hey,” said Taylor to projecting a hearty, encouraging demeanor, “look at it this way; it’s like we got ‘em trapped in a boxing ring. You know, they can run but they can’t hide.”
* * *
Drake stood gasping at the top of the last switchback. Gazing upward, his hand shaded his eyes. Half Dome’s monolithic spire soared into the heavens like the tower of Babel. It was almost too immense to comprehend. From where they stood a short drop led to an artificial stairway which crawled up the curving flank. The flimsy-looking contraption all but disappeared as it near the summit. As Paige told him several days ago, in the comfort of her kitchen, Half Dome requires very little in the way of mountaineering skill. It is merely a matter of pulling one’s self up an endless, precipitous ladder with handrails.
Back in 1919 the Sierra Club had strung the first cables, allowing inexperienced climbers to make the dramatic ascent of one of the world’s most impressive natural wonders. Later, during the Great Depression, work gangs from the California Conservation Corps had come along and hooked up a new set of cables. They improved the original design, bolting three-foot long 2X4’s to the granite face, creating a rough but serviceable stairway. Over the succeeding decades the cables had become old, rickety and dangerous, so much so, the Park Service had recently installed a third generation of cordage, consisting of thick, braided wire cable. Paige bent down at the foot of the cables, retrieving two pairs of heavy leather gloves from a wooden box half-filled with them. The gloves had seen heavy use.
“Experienced hikers leave their used gloves here for people who come without any.” She handed a pair to Drake, kneading the stiffness out of the other. “Put these on. Believe me, you’ll need them. Be careful where you put your hands. You don’t want to snag yourself on a jagged piece of wire.”
Drake took a last reluctant look around, seeking some other way, any other way out. Since they obviously had no other choice he mounted the steps after Paige and began the challenging final ascent. At the end of this ladder stood the summit of Half Dome, literally the end of the trail.
“This is surreal,” said Drake, grasping the cable and following Paige. “It’s like climbing some surrealistic Jacob’s Ladder to heaven.”
“I know,” said Paige from above. “It looks sort of like a stairway, but it’s not. On an ordinary staircase you only climb about eight inches up for every twelve inches forward. Here, the pitch is more like two feet up for every one foot forward.”
After thirty minutes of lifting one foot, placing it on the next rung, reaching up the cables to drag his body higher, while shuffling to the next tread, and so on and so forth, Drake felt he had been climbing for an eternity. But it was as Paige had promised, neither technically challenging nor even dangerous. It was arduous, toilsome, endlessly repetitious exertion. That’s all.
Initially, Hank had balked at mounting the crazy contraption. Drake had to start climbing, tugging on the leash, before Hank gave in. He followed along, docile if not happy, hopping from one wooden tread to the next. They stopped to rest on occasion, lungs heaving, legs trembling, but fear hounded them, driving them inexorably upward.
* * *
Before his untimely death, Jastrow, the helicopter pilot, had managed to signal a warning. As his crippled Blackhawk hurtled earthward, he had just enough time to activate the aircraft’s emergency locator beacon. Neither he nor anyone else in the crew had survived the ghastly, terminal plunge, but the transponder had. From the jagged rocks at the base of Liberty Cap, out of the depths of the shattered, twisted wreckage, once a multi-million dollar, state of the art, rotary wing aircraft, the crash-hardened radio beacon sent out its mournful electronic message.
The emergency transmission was received in Yosemite Valley’s central Ranger station, causing quite a stir among the authorities. The BATF, in the person of a wrathful Special Agent in Charge, Wild Bill Gordon, quite naturally wanted blood. Unfortunately, Gordon’s resources, like the Militia’s, were kind of thinning out too. He’d stalled and fretted all morning.
“We’ve got another Blackhawk to play with of course, but if I order it to investigate, it might meet the same fate as the previous sortie.”
“Sir,” said agent Donna Phillips, “intelligence reports suggest the Mariposa Militia may have access to man-portable, surface to air missiles. If a SAM has downed our helicopter, it would be absolute madness to present them with another target.”
“That’s true Donna, but we—meaning me—have to make a decision soon. While we sit here dithering, our second helicopter is flying anyway, as inviting a target as could be. Alright we’ve wasted more time than we can afford. Here’s what we’re going to do. Call back the remaining chopper. We’ll use it to ferry more agents up into the high country. Have we heard from Martin Baker in the last hour?”
“Yes, Chief. He reported in about twenty minutes ago. He and ten men on horseback are halfway up Merced Canyon. That leaves us with another eight—five female, three male—down here.
“Yeah,” said Gordon, “eight agents with nothing better to do than drink coffee. Okay, we use the helicopter to transport our reserves up to Little Yosemite Valley. That way we can leapfrog over the horsemen. We can also keep the chopper a safe distance from the crash site. That decreases the possibility of eating a Militia SAM. Alright Donna, call in the helicopter, we’re going too.” Yes, he thought, rising purposefully from behind the desk, that’s a good plan.
* * *
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was not the only agency in a dither. The Park Ranger’s office experienced its own brand of turmoil. That morning the District US Marshall had arrived with three carloads of deputy marshal’s. They had warrants for three fugitives assumed to be with the militia. That was enough for the Marshalls to claim jurisdiction. Both Chief Fine and S-A-C Gordon had so far resisted the Marshall’s assertion, sparking a new round of long distance conference calls across the continent. All day long the rumor mill had churned out speculation as to when the FBI or some sort of military Special Forces unit would appear.
At the more august levels of government there were State and Federal issues to resolve. The Secretary of the Interior wanted to impose martial law and bring in the military. The state Governor’s office insisted since Yosemite lay within the borders of California, only National Guard troops should be used, as they had been during the LA riots. National Guard troops would remain under the exclusive authority of the State’s Governor of course. Despite Drake’s childlike faith, the mighty power of the government was checked. Log-jammed at the petty narrows of conflicting fiefdoms, a bureaucratic form of paralysis had set in, rendering the marshaled strength of the most powerful State in the history of the world temporarily irrelevant.
* * *
The muscles in Drake’s weary limbs cried out for blessed relief, but there was none to be found on that treacherous slope. He glanced away from the mottled gray stone for the merest fraction of a second, and completely forgot his woes. All the accumulated tension and fear—the intense focus on survival—changed in an instant to inarticulate awe. One moment his concentration focused solely on dragging his body hand-over-hand up those endless cables and treads. The next, he felt overpowered by the enchanted spectacle before him his eyes. What little was left of his breath caught in a suddenly constricted throat.
At his feet, like a wondrous fairytale vision, lay Yosemite Valley. Mighty Half Dome, from which he clung, stood tall and powerful, like a medieval tower, rising from a sweeping panorama of monolithic stone. The enchanting vision surrounded Drake on three sides ultimately disappearing into a vague, misty horizon. At first his brain misinterpreted the overpowering cascade of visual data. It seemed he was viewing a mossy rock garden through which a tiny stream flowed. Then his mind shifted gears, adjusting to the immense perspective, and the sublimity of the creation over which he seemed to float completely overwhelmed him.
The mountains around them looked for-all-the-world like a storm tossed sea, frozen in the action of crashing their rocky breakers against Half Dome’s impregnable shore. Directly beneath, to the west, Yosemite Valley appeared a smooth sided trench gouged from the living stone of the mountains. Against that awe inspiring backdrop Drake’s problems assumed a less than cosmic import. The real and imminent danger they faced was nothing more than a footnote in time compared to these ancient mountains. Whatever the outcome of this day, its end result would not affect the awesome majesty of this setting any more than would his casual stomping of a bug. There in the midst of mortal fear Stan Drake felt less than a microbe clinging to an asteroid hurtling through endless space. In the midst of peril he found himself—incredibly—moved to worship, not the splendid creation before him, but it’s majestic Creator, more awesome still.
With the grating crudity of a deacon snoring in church, Drake’s reverent devotion was harshly interrupted. High pitched hammer blows—lead against stone—slammed into the granite mountainside below. The discordant crashes were followed by attenuated reports that could only be distant gunfire. Drake looked down at the shoulder of the mountain from which they had ascended. Two tiny stick figures gazed upward, shielding their eyes from the sun.
“Looks like the Mariposa Battalion has arrived at last,” Paige called down to him.
“Yeah, all two of them.”
The two men stood at the foot of the cables. They wasted valuable ammunition taking useless pot shots at the climbers far above.
“With a good rifle they might have a fair chance of hitting one of us from down there.” Drake watched as their shots kept missing short and wide of the mark. “At this distance, with an unpredictable wind gusting across the mountain, there’s no way. They’re just trying for a lucky shot.”
It was obvious to Drake the Militia had to be using short-barreled arms. Rapid stutters—sounding more like burst plastic bubble wrap than deadly implements of war—told him at least one of their weapons was fully automatic.
A whining ricochet buzzed past them. Drake’s mind kicked belatedly into gear, urging him to get back to work. He tugged on Hank’s leash and resumed the ascent. He stopped within five feet as he came alongside Paige. She stood immobile, hands frozen to the cables. Drake gently put his arm around her waist and said, “Come on Paige, we’ve got to keep climbing. Let’s go, okay?”
“Aren’t you going to shoot back?” she asked, turning a pale, sweat-sheened face to him. “You’ve got a gun, why don’t you use it?”
“From here?” he asked, managing to put some false bravado into his voice. “I might as well slide the gun down the cliff face and try to pick them off like bowling a spare! Forget about those clowns. Their just shooting to hear the guns go bang! Look, they aren’t even hitting anywhere close to us.”
Paige peered into his eyes, seeking some sort of answer to an unasked question. She sighed and resumed her climb. Drake followed, resuming the wearying ascent. The curving horizon gave the continuing illusion that they were forever on the verge of cresting the summit. It proved a false hope, constantly denied. Though the sun had passed the zenith, they had to make that climb without a shred of shade to cool them. A brief glance at his wristwatch showed Drake that it was already 3:30 in the afternoon. They would reach the top soon. And with too much daylight left to hide from their hunters. Just keep moving, Stan, he told himself. One problem at a time.
At length, their breath coming in forced, ragged gasps, they reached the summit of the cables. They had arrived at the crest of Half Dome; eight thousand, eight hundred and forty-two impressive feet in the air. On any other day it would have been time to gratefully lay out on the sunbaked stone, stretching tired muscles and glorying in the conquest behind them. But not today. The rolling surface before them revealed an undulating sea of exfoliating granite sheets, like massive stacks of slightly crumbled, unevenly layered soda crackers. Hank raced across the broken landscape, elated to run on a horizontal plane. Straight ahead, to the west, the dangerous, sheer face of Half Dome loomed. From there it was a long, long plunge, some four thousand feet to the surface of Mirror Lake far below. To the right, some hundred yards away, an oddly dipping slab of rock overhung the precipice, a natural formation known as the ‘diving board’. Drake cast his eyes about for some place—anyplace—that might offer refuge, but the open, windswept summit obviously left nowhere to go in any direction, except straight down.
A distant reverberating sound—helicopter rotors—gradually came to their ears for the third time that day. So gradual had the volume increased it had taken some minutes before the far off sound registered. Somewhere to the east, below the visible rim of Half Dome, another chopper flew past. Paige perked up immediately as she recognized the sound. With a shout of joy she embraced Drake, jumping into arms and planting a big kiss. Paige threw herself back against the circle of his arms and shouted to the world “We’re saved! Stan, the helicopter is going to see us up here for sure. They’ve got to!”
Drake joyously kissed her back before systematically scanning the immediate horizon. Their ecstatic rejoicing turned out to be premature. They stared at the sky from horizon to horizon, shielding their eyes from the sun’s glare. They strained until their eyes hurt, but it proved only vanity, striving after the wind. For all of their searching and hoping they never saw any kind of aircraft.
Drake resorted to pointing his liberated Python in the air, carefully firing a series of three spaced shots. But even the universally accepted distress signal had no apparent affect. When his stock of cartridges had been reduced to a mere fourteen rounds and his ears rang like Notre Dame’s cathedral, he decided to knock that foolishness off. He loaded the pistol fully, leaving only eight rounds in reserve. By that time all helicopter sounds had receded to the South.
For a long breathless minute they stood stock-still, holding hands, silently staring after the faded sounds of rescue. As if on cue they turned and saw the disappointment in one another’s eyes.
“Sounds like they’re heading back down to Yosemite Valley using Merced Canyon, like we came,” said Drake, trying to keep his composure.
“They won’t be coming back, will they?”
“Don’t give up just yet. It is time to get caught up on my prayer life, I can tell you that.
Then Paige managed a rueful laugh. “Okay, so this is the place where you tell me that since you’re a holy, reverend kind of guy, you have a super-powerful guardian angel assigned to you. And this angel follows you around and protects you, right? And he’s not just going to stand around and let evil bad people hurt the guy he’s supposed to protect, right? Oh, no, he’s gonna swoop down with a flaming sword from heaven to foil the evil miscreants, right?” She came tearfully into his arms and held him tightly, seeking comfort. “Right!?” she demanded through a tear choked voice.
“Well…” Drake replied slowly, feeling her body trembling in his arms and knowing his own vulnerability, “I have survived some pret-ty dicey church business meetings, if I do say so myself.”