HALF DOME SUMMIT
It took Drake some time before he broke down and admitted the harsh truth to himself. It was crunch time; that much was clear.
“Time to do or die, pal. So, okay, what do I do?” In his heart Drake recognized it as a foolish question. He was kidding himself, trying to avoid cashing his reality check. He understood full well what must be done. “The real question is do I have the guts to do it?” Would he take the risk—boldly confront death—or would he stand flatfooted again, paralyzed like a sheep waiting for the slavering wolves to pounce?
Very little of his training or background had prepared him for this moment. He was an ordained gospel minister, not some sort of commando or law enforcement officer. Gazing at Paige, Drake found himself spending precious minutes crying out to God. It’s all so unjust Father. Show me what to do. Make yourself known to Paige, and please deliver us from our enemies.
He finally stirred his sluggish reason, and ordered his rampant emotions to knock it off and take a break. Whining and crying are not going to help anyone but the Militia. And neither is wringing my hands to God saying, ‘I’m a good boy. I don’t deserve this.’ “No,” he said aloud, “the only thing that makes sense is to deal with the immediate situation and worry about the philosophy tomorrow. Right now, that means figuring a way to defend ourselves.”
But as soon as made his decision, his mind started in with a whole slew of objections and questions. Do I have the moral right shoot anybody? And just how far should I go, anyway? Is it okay to use deadly force in the name of self-defense? Maybe I should try wounding them. Could I be arrested and tried for the crime of surviving a deadly assault? Should I try another ‘stick ‘em up!’ routine? Your last attempt Stan can not be rated as a spectacular success.
“Or maybe I should use my amazing marksmanship skills to shoot the guns right out of their hands. Sure.”
Drake may have been limited knowledge and experience, but his education had prepared him to think through problems. He did know how to identify and eliminate crass stupidity. As he thought through the predicament he realized all his half-baked measures were just that: stupid.
None of those things are going to solve our real problem. The Militia has already murdered Megan. They have nothing to lose in killing Paige and me as well. They haven’t exactly hesitated to shoot at us any chance they got. Without a genuine, certified miracle from heaven, the militia is not going to pack up their hand grenades and go home. That means I have no choice but to confront them, one way or another.
Drake’s grandfather had taught him the idea of shooting to wound or disable was idiotic. It only made the other guy mad, gave him the opportunity to shoot back, and maybe kill you.
Boy, granddad had said, using that stern, didactic tone of voice, when you point a firearm at someone, you are already a killer in purpose, if not in fact. Never, ever point a weapon at anyone you’re not willing to kill right now. Drake had already ignored that advice once this trip. It was doubtful he could get away with it a second time. It finally dawned on him he was guilty of trying to have it both ways; save Paige and himself while avoiding violence and bloodshed. But the decision had really been taken out of his hands. The Militia had set the ground rules and Drake had no choice now but to play by the rules and pray.
Drake’s anguished indecision was complicated by his own personal image of the man called Stan Drake. He had always believed himself to be the kind of guy who could take care of himself. Not that he was delusional on the subject. But just giving up, doing nothing would be the same as standing in front of the Militia, waving his arms and saying, “Here I am, go ahead and shoot me please!” He recalled a principle he had learned along the way: pray like it’s all up to God, work like it’s all up to you. It seemed to make perfectly good sense at the moment.
Very well then, he and Paige were trapped at the top of a one way trail with no further retreat possible. The only logical course of action was to find some solid cover, within short range of where the cables terminated and wait for those two Militia oafs to climb fat, happy and dumb, into his sights. At that point he would fire a warning shot over their heads, followed by a challenge. They could surrender, retreat, or attack; the choice would be theirs. If they chose to attack, well then he might just fire a couple of warning shots under their heads before they could climb those last few, nearly vertical feet.
“Okay Paige,” he said aloud after thinking the process through step by step, “What I’m going to need is for you to take Hank and find something big and solid to hide behind.” He handed over the end of Hank’s leash. “You need to psyche yourself up, get tough, there’s liable to be a lot of loud noises and lead flying around soon,” he warned.
“What are you going to do?” she asked him, her blue eyes appearing unnaturally large in her pretty face.
“Well, I’m going to attempt to scare them off or at least stop them from coming any further,” he said carefully.
“Are you sure you can do that?” she asked somewhat skeptically.
“What’s to worry about?” he asked, trying to sound confident, “all I have to do is hold them off for a while. Somebody’s bound to see or hear us up here sooner or later.”
Under the circumstances, it was probably the best plan he was going to come up with. Unfortunately, when Drake turned to walk back over to the crest, some fifty yards away, the two armed, militia-men were just negotiating the last step at the top of the cables.
* * *
Sidney—the late lamented Dr. Brooks Hollingshead’s graduate assistant—softly closed Drake’s cabin door, breathing a sigh of relief. Taking just two steps into the small room, he carefully placed Drake’s notebook computer on the small wooden dining table in the cabin. Opening the cover and flipping the switch, Sidney wasted no time booting the thing up. He spent a few minutes familiarizing himself with Drake’s system, after which it took him a whole ten minutes to come up with Drake’s e-mail security code, using the process of free association; it turned out to be KJV; standing for the King James Version of the Bible. Amateurs! snorted Sidney.
Sidney immediately accessed Drake’s list of e-mail addresses and selected a few names at random. He chose one as the primary consignee and listed the rest as carbon copy recipients. That done, he composed, what he considered to be a sufficiently subtle, yet still incriminating letter.
From: Stan Drake
To: Gene Prentice
Date: Wednesday, September 23, 1998 04:23 PM
Cc: F. Brown, S. Driver, C. Briggs
Subject: Mission Accomplished!
I have successfully delivered the second mountain lion to Yosemite National Park. Unfortunately, the world renowned Dr. Brooks Hollingshead B.Sc. was brutally mauled to death by this second lion. I am under suspicion so I must lay low for a few days. I’ll contact you about the final payment soon via electronic mail.
Reverend Stanley Drake
Sidney sat back while a satisfied smile played across his face. Using the touch pad he selected and clicked the on-screen ‘send’ button. Had he made a more thorough check of Drake’s programmed preferences, he would have discovered that Drake’s personal e-mail contained a pre-set, mildly humorous signature:
The oft Reverend, Stanley L. Drake,
BA, MDiv. & several other random alphabetic arrangements
This pre-set electronic signature redundantly inserted into the spurious e-mail message—without Sidney’s knowledge—subsequent to the phony signature he had typed.
Retrieving a damp washcloth from the sink, Sidney diligently wiped any and every surface on which he might possibly have left any fingerprints. No sense confusing things for our poor, hard-working law enforcement friends. He then checked over the small cabin to ensure that he had left no positive signs of his presence. Feeling incredibly clever, he left the Reverend’s computer turned on, the incriminating message clearly displayed on screen.
* * *
RIDGECREST NAVAL WEAPONS CENTER
Gene Prentice sat in his standard government-issue cubicle at Ridgecrest Navel Weapons Test Center, located in California’s Mojave Desert. An electronic voice alerted him to an incoming e-mail message on his office PC. Among his peers Gene was renowned for his peculiar sense of humor. One of his many eccentricities concerned his personal computer. It had been configured to announce system events by using catch phrases from Stanley Kubrick’s classic science fiction film, 2001 A Space Odyssey. In this particular case, his computer notified him through the voice of HAL 9000. As it was programmed HAL announced “Excuse me Frank, we’ve got the transmission from your parents coming in.”
Gene took note of HAL’s notification but continued working, unhurriedly finishing his document corrections in red ink. That done, he swiveled his desk chair and clicked open his e-mail program. “Ahh!” he exclaimed softly, pleased when he saw the new message came from his pastor. He hoped this would clear up the puzzle of the previous evening’s ominous distress message. But after reading the perplexing letter through for the third, uncomprehending time, he slowly sat back in his chair, a blank, puzzled look on his face, and said aloud, “Pastor Stan never wrote that!”
Gene leaned forward, returning his attention to the computer terminal. He opened his electronic phone book, scrolling down the list until he found Rudy Gutierrez’s phone numbers. With a click of the mouse HAL automatically dialed the first of several numbers Gutierrez had given him the night before. Gene leaned back in his desk chair again, waiting patiently for the connection to go through.
* * *
HETCH HETCHY WILDERNESS
With the absence of the General, and the untimely death of Sergeant Larson, the intrepid men of the Mariposa Militia were reduced to leadership under a relative non-entity. Ray Branson’s only claim to leadership was that he happened to be Vince Taylor’s cousin. At his somewhat ineffectual command were twenty-three nervous, fidgety men, the remnant of a once proud band of hardy mavericks. They sat despondently around the fading coals of a dying campfire contemplating the end of their seemingly futile rebellion. The cocky arrogance they had exhibited just a few days before had dried up and blown away, as defunct as Yosemite’s ancient glaciers. A more dispirited group of men could hardly be imagined, bringing to mind the disillusioned members of the Confederacy following the disastrous War Between the States.
“We’ve got to do something, fellas,” Branson thumped his fist on his knee, trying to buck up the troops. “You don’t wanna just give up do you? Come on you guys, what have we got left to go home to? Most of us sold everything when we decided to come up here. I think we oughta do something. What do you say?”
The small group of men barely looked around, each afraid that the others might see the defeat in his own eyes. Finally one of them spoke hesitantly.
“I don’t know Ray…” mumbled Will Brooks, a tall, spare individual with a long, straggly beard and a hangdog look on his lean face. “I don’t feel like fighting nobody, no more. I come up here to start a new life, get away from society and government regulations and all, not take on the whole world. Can’t we just pack up and go somewhere else?” There was muted but general agreement from the rest of the men at that statement. Will had finally put the thoughts of most of the men into undeniably true, but truly unwelcome words. On the whole these men had reached the breaking point. Outright rebellion was now a distinct possibility.
“You wanna just pack up and go, huh?” asked Branson in exasperation. “If that don’t beat all! Here I thought you little boys was men; ready to die for your freedom. Why you’re nothin’ but a bunch o’ yella cowards, that’s what you are!”
The men of the Mariposa Militia hung their heads in shame at that stinging accusation. Though it was indeed true that none of them were feeling particularly brave at the moment. It was hard to face the fact that a bare two days ago this forlorn company had been composed of fire breathing he-man types just itching for a fight.
“Just look at you!” bellowed Branson, working hard to stir them up the way Vince could do so easily. “Our beloved General Taylor has gone out to risk his life for your honor. And you sit here with your sissy little tails between your legs. You oughta be ashamed to call yourselves men!” Ray Branson punctuated his speech by deliberately spitting on the ground to demonstrate his utter contempt.
“Okay Ray, okay,” said Brooks with a touch of unimpressed sarcasm in his voice. “Don’t go and have a heart attack on us, now.” From his stump seat by the fire he looked Branson in the eye and put him on the spot by asking, “Just what do you want to go and do about it?”
“Well…” Branson sputtered to a stop. “I… I think we should go and… and back Vince up. Yeah!” he said brightening. “Vince needs our help. We should go help him.”
“What?” demanded an exasperated Brooks. “Vince is thirty miles from here, man! And not only that, its five whole miles just to get to any kind of road from here. How are we supposed to go help the General?”
“Well… we could start some trouble around here. That would make the rangers come here and take some heat off of Vince and the other guys.” That cleaver idea pleased Ray. “Alright boys!” he jumped up, enthusiastically again attempting to rally the troops. “Are you with me?!”
The response of those twenty-three men was not what you might call overwhelming, he thought. But at least they didn’t say, ‘No’.
* * *
HALF DOME SUMMIT
Despite the image that Hollywood promotes, fifty yards is awfully long range for an accurate shot with a pistol. Drake didn’t even attempt it, concentrating instead on moving toward Paige. Taylor though, armed with a quick firing submachine gun, designed to rip out a barrage of loosely aimed shots, fired with absolutely no hesitation. Inexpertly, he clamped his finger down on the trigger and kept it there. Three seconds were all that was necessary to completely empty the thirty shot magazine. Before Taylor had even fired Drake broke into a run toward Paige. Still, he knew he was too late as he heard the now familiar sound of bullets zipping past him, at least one of which made a wet slapping sound as if slamming into human flesh. Drake knew Paige had been hit. His heart broke as he watched her slump to the rocks before he could even reach her. Anger boiled up inside him as a tortured gasp of pain escaped from her lips where she lay limply on the hard, cruel stone. For his part, Taylor stood in puzzlement. He appeared perplexed that his burst had failed to perforate both targets.
Drake’s first instinctive thought was to go to Paige’s aid. He stopped immediately, knowing it was a dumb idea. He had to move, he had to draw Taylor’s fire away from her. A quick glance to his left showed Taylor ejecting a spent magazine, pulling a fresh one from a pouch on his belt and inserting it in the weapon. The General appeared a bit unsteady, having some trouble with the process. The other man with the General appeared to be doing nothing other than supporting him. Drake recognized him as one of the men from the bridge ambush.
Drake took advantage of their preoccupation, sprinting back to his left. By the time he reached the ‘diving board’ clear over on the sharp edge, Taylor was tracking him with his freshly loaded weapon. The General held his fire, curious to see what the preacher might be up to. Drake looked over at Taylor, then took a brief look down, and just as quickly averted his eyes. The dizzying view made him feel as if he had no control over his balance. From where he stood, on the lip of Half Dome’s overhang, he could see straight down to the Valley floor some 4,000 feet below. Drake shuddered and fixed his eyes on his unrelenting adversary.
“That’s far enough, Preacher!” the General called out over the sound of the wind whipping past them. “Just what in the he—oh, excuse me, Reverend—what in the world do you think you’re doing?”
Drake showed him. He extended his left arm, holding the Militia’s precious thumb drive out over the infinite void. There in the bright light of a late fall afternoon, the disk’s distinctive blaze orange color was clearly visible to everyone there on the summit of Half Dome. Drake knew it wasn’t much of a threat. But it did serve as something of a conversation stopper.
The General took a deep breath. “Alright, take it easy now,” he called, trying to make a shout sound reassuring. He reinforced his kinder, gentler, peaceful attitude by lowering the MP5. “We can make a deal. What do you say?”
“Cap ‘im!” hissed the man standing beside the General. “Forget the lousy drive!”
“Shut up,” said Taylor easily, glancing back over his shoulder. “Okay Preacher,” he called out again, “You’re the boss. What do we do now?”
“Leave!” yelled Drake. “That’s all I want.”
“Nope.” Said Taylor, shaking his head sadly. “I ain’t leaving without that drive.”
“You want this?” called Drake over the whine of the gusting wind. “Fine, just toss your guns over the side and we’ve got a deal.”
General Taylor turned to discuss the proposition with Parker. For several minutes they held an animated but muted conversation before Taylor faced Drake again. “You win!” Taylor called. Both militiamen held their weapons high. Keeping his eyes locked on Drake, Taylor deliberately flung his submachine gun backward over his shoulder. It hit the rocks below with a metallic clatter, sliding over the edge. Parker followed suit, tossing his automatic pistol over too. The General’s MP5 had simply disappeared quietly, but the pistol wasn’t so cooperative. It discharged on striking the rocks. The pistol gave two sharp reports, followed by the whining screech of a ricochet. Everyone flinched at the realization that it’s not wise to toss loaded firearms around like beanbags.
Drake had reflexively stiffened when the pistol had popped off. He relaxed slightly now and yelled, “That’s very good, real smart! Now, I want both of you to turn around and let me see your back sides!” Taylor and Parker obeyed unhesitatingly, which made Drake suspicious. “Okay, General, one last thing. Send that Toady of yours back down the cables.”
You got it, Preacher!” shouted Taylor. He turned and loudly ordered Parker to comply. “You heard the man, Parker, move out!” Parker moved, carefully walking over to the head of the cables, then beginning his slow descent down the steep slope.
The General waited in silence. Drake, exercising supernormal restraint, managed to refrain from looking over to where Paige lay. His peripheral vision told him she was awfully still, but he did not want to do anything to draw Taylor’s attention to her.
Drake waited until Parker had been out of sight for several minutes. Then he carefully stooped and set the thumb drive on the rock at his feet. He took the time to anchor it securely with a fist-sized stone. When he had done that he stepped away, keeping a wary eye on both the General and the cables, where he expected Parker to reappear. Taylor made his way slowly over to the ‘diving board,’ limping painfully on his bad ankle.