With a shove of his shoulder and a twist of the knob, Sidney checked to see that the cabin door had locked securely behind him. By a major effort of will he forced himself to walk away slowly. Commanding himself to look nonchalant, he resisted the urge to glance furtively around and wipe the nervous sweat from his brow. The Sacred Earth Mobile University sat parked only a hundred yards away, near Yosemite Lodge. Sidney casually walked over to it, a completely normal tourist. A few more steps would make his diversion and escape complete. Once inside the relative anonymity and safety of Sacred Earth’s RV, he and the others would simply blend into the general exodus of vehicles leaving the environs of Yosemite at government request.
Dr. Hollingshead might be dead, Sidney reflected, but he has heroically given his life for the cause. Science marches on, he grimaced cynically. If the legal authorities believed the obvious clues he’d so carefully left, then the government would have no other choice but to restrict access to the Park now, just as Dr. Hollingshead had wanted. The icing on the cake was that the Reverend Drake would have an awful lot of explaining to do. At the very least his apprehension should act as a lightning rod, taking the heat off of the Society, simultaneously giving all social conservatives another big black eye. Obviously something had to be done. If these pushy conservatives were ever allowed to take over the whole country would end up wallowing in pollution while being dragged back into the Dark Ages by religious fanatics like Drake.
Sidney had a huge grin on his face as he yanked open the heavy passenger’s door of the RV. This was more fun than the time he’d had put dye in the soda machine at college; half the students on campus were peeing blue for a week! The thought of that self-righteous minister, vainly trying to preach his way out of this one was highly amusing. A man like that is his own worst enemy, he thought smugly.
Sidney pulled the door closed noting the looks of relief on the five other occupants of the RV. He laughed at their fears and, still in a playful mood, he shooed Carl forward to the driver’s seat, flipping his hands and saying, “Scoot, let’s roll!” Carl gave him a sour look before starting the engine. He turned and sent the big green vehicle rolling West down the main Valley road. …At least that had been his intention. The road was jammed with outbound automobiles in both lanes as far as the eye could see. They had joined a massive, crawling parking lot. It was worse than being stuck in an LA traffic jam on a bad day. The lighthearted cheer that Sidney had brought with him swiftly evaporated. Inside the brightly painted RV, creeping slowly along the endless road, the air grew heavy with tension.
It took over an hour just to drive from the Lodge to the valley entrance, a mere five miles. Inside the vehicle, everyone was drenched with tension induced sweat, despite the fact that Carl kept the AC roaring at full blast.
“I think we better forget taking the Big Oak Flat exit,” Carl suggested to Sidney. “That could take, who knows how many hours?”
“What do you suggest?”
“Up ahead of us is the western road following the river to Merced. I’ve only gone that way once, but it’s a good road and we’d be outside the Park boundaries a whole lot quicker.”
“Go for it!” Sidney slapped the driver’s seatback. The others in the back echoed his affirmation.
As they finally drew near the junction Carl spoke up. “More good news; there’s a ranger directing traffic up ahead. It looks like things may be moving better out on the main highway.” That bit of information served to lift some of the gloom. There were even a few subdued cheers from inside the boxy vehicle.
When their turn finally came Carl pulled up to the intersection. He waited as the ranger directing the traffic held up his left hand, palm towards them the common signal to stop. The ranger waved his right arm, motioning another vehicle to cross in front of the RV.
“Uh oh.” Carl pointed at a white Park Service Jeep Cherokee, equipped with a police-type light bar on top. The Jeep pulled diagonally in front of the Sacred Earth Mobile University and stopped. Sidney didn’t catch on at first, but then a big dark ranger got out of the truck and leveled a shotgun at them. A quick glance out the rear showed that Sacred Earth was blocked front and rear.
The big ranger walked up the Carl’s open side window while the erstwhile traffic director approached the window on Sidney’s, side.
“May I ask you all to exit the vehicle?” the ranger on Carl’s side of the vehicle asked politely. Carl and Sidney stared at one another, slack jawed and uncomprehending. Before any of the Sacred Earth members could react to the sudden change of fortune, the passenger door was wrenched open, and a not-so-polite voice ordered, “Everybody out! Single file. Keep your hands on your heads. On the double!”
As they exited the bus the big ranger firmly pulled Sidney aside. His name plate read Gutierrez. “Now my Gringo friend,” he said, gazing darkly into Sidney’s eyes, “just what were you doing back there in the Padre’s cabin, I wonder? Breaking and entering is a real-live crime you know, even on Federal property.” Sidney just gaped back at the man in astonishment. How could he possibly know?
* * *
HALF DOME SUMMIT
Drake stopped in his tracks. Paige’s welfare was uppermost in his mind, but a small nagging sensation warned him of impending danger. He glanced at the head of the cables; nothing there. He turned and glanced over his shoulder: Yes.
General Vince Taylor had reached the diving board. He slowly bent down and retrieved the troublesome thumb drive from the rough surface. Drake watched him zip it securely in one of the numerous patch pockets of his camouflaged jumpsuit. Next, he carefully stuck the two forefingers of his right hand into his mouth and blew an ear-piercing whistle. Drake heard a whimper and whipped his head around to see Paige painfully trying to sit up. Its double-cross time, he knew. The General’s summons was obviously a call for the Parker to climb right back up the cables again.
Although he had been expecting it all along, Drake felt renewed anger and frustration at this fresh betrayal. He gritted his teeth, and in his mind’s eye he could see himself calmly walking the twenty yards or so over to Taylor and just popping the jerk before he could make any more trouble. The guy deserved it alright, alright. And he was probably going to keep right on deserving it, too. But, preemptively killing a man? That would be plain and simple murder, wouldn’t it? He couldn’t do that. Not ever. So, instead of doing something—anything—he simply stood there like a dope, once again indecisive and useless.
Taylor smiled, his face displaying a depraved grin as he slowly drew a wicked looking combat knife from a sheath concealed in his boot; the kind with the black, anodized blade and the heavy, serrated top edge. Why, he’s actually enjoying this! Drake thought incredulously. Drake paused for a moment then deliberately drew his own blade, remembering to hold the double-edged weapon like a sword instead of an ice pick.
Taylor stood immobile, starring at Drake’s puny defiance before throwing his head back and laughing uproariously. This did not imbue Drake with a great deal of self-confidence. So, after rethinking the issue, he decided this was not time for a wholesome, all-American fair fight. Instead, he sheathed the knife and withdrew the revolver he had kept concealed at the small of his back.
That seemed to change things as far as the General was concerned. His eyes narrowed and his laugh turned to a sneer. Drake knew hadn’t fared well in the last encounter. Probably thinks I’m a yellow, crème filled twinkie, not a real man at all. In fact, he looks to be enjoying the moment; like it fills him with godlike power.
Drake had faced bullies before. As a kid it often meant bruises or a bloody nose. Now here he was facing the biggest, meanest kid on the block. This encounter could cost both he and Paige their lives.
Taylor suddenly grinned even more wickedly. He sprang suddenly, jerking his arms and legs out like a jumping jack, and yelling, “Boo!” playing with his prey. Obviously, he wanted to prolong the exquisite pleasure before finishing Drake off.
Startled by the sudden movement, Drake fired instinctively, the heavy pistol rearing up in his unsupported hand like an artillery piece. The General yelped then flopped heavily onto the rocks like a sack of wet laundry. Drake cocked his head, peering doubtfully at the inert form on the ground. He hadn’t thought his aim was that good.
He took a few cautious steps in that direction, wary of a trick. The body lay still, but he could hear the General’s breath coming in heavy, wheezing gasps. Drake cocked the pistol’s hammer and held it easily before him in both hands; the mayhem stance his grandfather had once taught him. Shuffling his feet carefully along the uneven surface, he kept his attention glued to the carcass on the ground before him. Deciding to try a little test, Drake used his right boot to kick a small stone up into a nice little arc that struck the rocks about five feet from Taylor, between the General and Drake.
The not-quite corpse rolled over, swinging its knife in a vicious, backwards slash. Drake jumped back but he was still a good ten feet from the General. He kept his pistol up though, as Taylor rolled to his feet still wheezing, but obviously un-shot. Apparently, his twisted ankle had betrayed him and his playful little fall to the ground had thoroughly knocked the wind out of him.
Taylor staggered to his feet wincing as he put pressure on his game leg. Gulping in deep draughts of air he silently warned Drake to keep his distance by waving his commando knife around in a threatening manner. Both men stood facing one another, no sound other than the thin, high pitched mountain breeze filling their ears. The two antagonists watched each other warily, separated by a mere ten feet.
Drake admonished himself when he figured out the reason for all the stalling. A frenzy of barking from Hank, punctuated by a high pitched cry of fear and pain from Paige informed him that he had foolishly allowed himself to forget the other militiaman. He backed up a few feet and turned just enough to be able to keep an eye on both threats. The other guy—Parker, the General had called him—had managed to drag Paige to within mere feet of the precipice. She struggled hard against Parker’s grip. They stopped on the very brink, twenty long feet from where Drake stood. Hank moved in savagely growling at Parker who lashed out with his booted foot, landing a vicious kick. Hank let out a yelp of pain then jumped to attack, but Parker slashed at the dog with his knife and Hank flopped to the ground whimpering. Drake’s tense grip tightened involuntarily on the pistol’s handle, but held his fire. With only five rounds left in the Python he couldn’t afford any more hasty shots that day.
Paige was not making it easy on Parker but the man stood like a rock, his legs solidly planted for stability, his left arm locked around her slender neck. With his right hand he brandished his own commando knife in Paige’s face. They must’ve gotten a whole bushel of them wholesale, Drake thought inconsequentially.
Paige wriggled and twisted in his grasp like an eel. Both of her hands tore at the constricting forearm which brutally choked her throat. She finally managed to twist her head far to the left. She sunk her pearly whites into the meat of Parker’s upper arm, biting down good and hard. Parker let out a yell that must have been heard clear down at the Ahwahnee hotel on the Yosemite Valley floor. But he didn’t loosen his grip. Instead he brought the evil looking knife right up to her face, placing the gleaming edge against her nose. Using the leverage of fear, Parker forced Paige to release her grip on his shoulder.
The deadly drama served at least one good purpose. It made Drake mad—fighting mad. Glancing right to make sure Taylor hadn’t moved he deliberately began walking to his left. Parker saw him coming and brought the knife back up, this time to her throat.
“Stop right there, Preacher!” he yelled, “or the pretty lady gets her throat cut!” Drake could hear the General clumsily moving in behind him. He ignored Taylor, keeping his eyes on Parker, deliberately closing the distance.
“I’m not kidding!” Parker screamed. He cruelly slid the knife a teensy bit to nick the soft skin of Paige’s neck, drawing a little blood, just to demonstrate his seriousness.
Drake abruptly stopped five feet away, bringing a momentary look of triumph to the other man’s face. Parker shook Paige’s body, indicating that he could easily throw her over the side. Drake waited, standing absolutely still, calculating his chances. From behind he could hear the general coming, but judged him still some thirty feet away. In front of him, Parker was acting too cocky for his own good. Figuring he had won, and wanting to keep the Preacher cowed, he slid the knife along her throat, nicking Paige again. Drake resolutely raised his right arm, and from a distance that had now narrowed to just about two feet, he waited a beat. When Parker continued to draw blood Drake shot him through the shoulder.
The .357 magnum is a powerful cartridge, and Drake was prepared for tons of gore and buckets of blood. But the soft nosed bullet cleanly pierced Parker’s upper body and exited out the back without performing any spectacular special effects. Parker’s body instantly went limp as a dishrag, releasing its grip on Paige. Drake grabbed Paige’s arm, pulling her to safety. The militiaman's arm stabbed down as he fell, aiming his knife at Paige. The knife sliced the edge of her sole and shattered on hitting rock. Parker released the haft and scrabbled frantically at the rock. His wounded arm failed to find a purchase and he rolled over the edge, a thin scream trailing after him.
Drake swallowed his rising gorge. Shooting a human being had been a depressingly easy thing to do. Suppressing his urge to puke, Drake curled his left arm around Paige’s waist, intending to drag her away from that dangerous cliff edge. With Parker out of the picture only the limping General remained to deal with. Drake had no intention of dealing with him at all. One stiff per day was the National Park bag limit as far as Drake was concerned.
He didn’t feel dashing and heroic in the least. He felt like a murderer. That didn’t alter the fact that Paige had nearly died and now she was free. It had seemed like the right thing but it didn’t feel right. The role of a ruthless killer created a new unpleasant feeling. Drake supposed the recriminations and nightmares would come later. For now, years of experience dealing with people’s incredibly horrendous problems had taught him to meet sudden tragedy with a strong dose of grim humor. For good or ill it would sort itself out in time.
Right now, in order to keep their hard-earned freedom they merely had to keep their distance from the General. Despite his impressive strength he was virtually a cripple, armed with only a fighting knife. Unless he turned out to be some kind of circus knife thrower or something all they really had to do was stay out of his reach. Drake reasoned they could easily reach the head of the cables with a good lead on Taylor. Once they started descending the worst he could do was throw rocks at them. …Unless there were more militiamen awaiting them below. Otherwise, Drake figured they were home free.
However, as so eloquently stated by Bobby Burns, Scotland’s beloved poet, ‘The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft agley.’ Paige wouldn’t leave Hank behind. With her eyes tightly shut, and her arms wrapped around the weakened dog, she struggled to lift his dead weight. But fifty pounds of canine is a hefty load. She strained on her knees, her arms quivering with the effort. Drake stooped to take the burden from her, at the same time shoving her, far from gently, in an attempt to get her moving.
“Come on, Paige!” he urged, “We’ve got to go!” She resisted, clinging to Hank in Drake’s arm, weeping over his pain and most likely the whole loused up day in general. By then Drake realized it was too late to run. Their hesitation had cost them too much time. He was going to have to deal with Taylor, like it or not.