HALF DOME SUMMIT
“Drop the dog! Run, Paige!” Drake released his own hold on Hank. He spun, gun in hand, ready to fire. He never even saw the General before a huge fist appeared out of nowhere, striking Drake upside his already sore head. A bright light exploded before his eyes and his knees turned to jelly. Drake’s mental faculties were on the point of zeroing out, but he retained a vague awareness that the pistol had slipped from his grip. This is not a good thing. I need that gun for a very important reason. …probably. But where in God’s creation has the silly thing gotten to?
In the midst of his confusion Drake felt Taylor spin his body like a rag doll. Forget the gun, his mind screamed, do something about this grizzly bear who’s mauling you. Drake began grappling with Taylor. The General’s huge right paw palmed Drake’s head like palming a basketball at a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition.
“I got you now, Preacher! I’m gonna slit that scrawny throat and toss your useless
carcass right over the side!” The General shifted his grip, enveloping Drake in a crushing bear hug, squeezing the life from him.
Through an indistinct red haze the words of scripture came to Stan Drake. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for Thou art with me.
Drake was back in business. He spoiled Taylor’s plan for his imminent demise by rounding up and coordinating his few functioning brain cells. He locked his own arms around the General and abruptly lifted his legs off the ground. In an instant, Drake made a present of nearly two hundred unexpected pounds to Taylor. The General’s arms were strong enough, but his bum ankle betrayed him. Taylor broke his bear hug and Drake tumbled to the unyielding rock.
Instantly, Drake kicked his legs out, using his low center of gravity to shove against Taylor, wobbling precariously above him. It worked. The General lost his balance and tumbled over backward, windmilling his arms as he fell. Both men scrambled to regain their footing. Drake knew he had an advantage over the larger man, slowed by a bad leg. But he had to keep out of the General’s reach.
“Move, Paige. Get back from the edge. He’s got a sprained ankle. If we keep moving he can’t catch us.”
“You know everything, don’t you smart boy.” Taylor taunted. “I bet you got straight ‘A’s’ in college too, ain’t that so? Well, you can run, but you can’t hide. I’ll catch you sooner or later. And when I do, I’m gonna break you like a rotten twig.”
By the time Drake regained his footing he saw Paige scrambling over the fractured rocks on hands and knees, looking for-all-the-world as if she were searching for lost a contact lens. Suddenly she bolted upright. Her actions were suddenly clear to Drake. She turned and faced General Taylor with Drake’s .357 revolver in her hands.
“Don’t move, you!” she shouted, a shrill, harsh edge on her voice. “I mean it. I’m mad enough to use this thing.”
Drake cast a quick look over his shoulder. Paige stood to his left, slightly behind him, her dark blond hair wildly disordered. A trickle of blood ran from the corner of her mouth. Her right sleeve, badly ripped, showed the stain of blood on the material. She looked damaged, but she held herself as steady as the rock on which they stood. The pistol in her hands pointed directly at Taylor’s cold heart. Drake prudently stepped aside, giving Paige a safe field of fire. Once again he thought they had come to the end of the day’s troubles. And once again he was dead wrong. Taylor began to move forward, deliberately challenging Paige, forcing her to shoot or back down.
“I warned you!” Paige didn’t hesitate. She pulled the trigger, intending to shoot the General before he could reach her.
The Python didn’t fire.
As she squeezed the trigger, the double-action mechanism simultaneously drew the hammer back and rotated the cylinder. Upon reaching the point of full cock, the hammer rapidly fell forward to strike the piston. The revolving cylinder had been damaged by the fall to the rocks. The gun jammed halfway through the process of rotating the next cartridge into line. When the hammer struck, the floating transfer bar shattered as it punched against the ballistic steel of the cylinder edge, rather than the cartridge primer.
Paige stood immobile, incomprehension replacing her deadly fervor. She tried to pull the trigger again, but the weapon had completely frozen. The only utility it would have
henceforth would be for cracking walnuts.
As the situation became clear, one significant thought registered in three separate minds at the same instant.
Move, right now!
From above it must have looked like a football scrimmage. Paige jumped back to evade Taylor, who gave a bellow of rage, lowered his head and charged.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Drake, with less distance to cover, threw himself forward, tackling the General around the knees. Viciously, he wrenched Taylor’s bad leg just as dirty as he could. Both men crashed heavily to the rocks. Taylor twisted around and brought his meaty hand up, slashing at Drake with his combat knife.
“Told you I’d catch you, didn’t I, preacher! Guess you’re not so smart after all.”
Stan Drake kept his peace, focusing his whole being, all his remaining strength, on seizing and immobilizing that knife-hand. Clear and sweet, the words of the Psalmist came to him, and he remembered the promise with confidence. Though a host encamp against me, My heart will not fear; Though war arise against me, I shall be confident.
Drake clutched at the hand with renewed conviction. As they grappled for possession of the knife, rolling and thrashing over the uneven ground, their desperate movements carried them to the edge of the precipice. Taylor feinted, quickly shifting his leverage. With a mighty lunge he wrenched his knife hand from Drake’s grip. The General’s arm jerked back in a short, savage arc and thrust directly at Drake’s heart.
“Here it comes, Preacher. Bye, bye!”
Inside the vise-like grip of Taylor’s legs Drake twisted violently, fighting for his life. When the knife struck, it plunged hilt deep into Drake’s backpack. The sharp blade transited the thickness of the pack’s contents. A millimetric portion of the blade’s tip protruded far enough from the pack to score Drake’s back. It pricked the skin, but not by much. Drake cried out and his body twisted again, this time in reflex, instinctively seeking escape from pain.
Drake’s involuntary response carried both men over the brink.
* * *
“Stan!” Paige cried. She lurched to the edge, wincing in pain as her body protested the rough activity. Paige dropped to her knees. She had to look, to know what had happened. It was almost more than she could do to force herself. She knelt on the cliff edge for what seemed an eternity, eyes clamped shut. Paige Mitchell knew the sheer face of Half Dome well. There were no ledges on which a falling body might land.
Paige wanted to cry out to God for hope, but she couldn’t do it. There was no hope. And for all her faults, she wasn’t a hypocrite. Why should God answer her prayers anyway? What had she done for Him lately?
Sobbing in frustration and fear, her hands scrabbled over the rock, seeking a solid purchase. They encountered a strap of nylon material. Eyes still closed, Paige plucked at the strap. It was tightly wedged against stone. Paige opened her eyes to see a pack strap caught on a small horn of rock. Four feet below, Stan Drake stared back up at her.
“Help!” he called. “Please.”
“Stan! Oh, thank you God! Hold on. Don’t move. I’ll get a rope or something and try to help you up.”
Drake dangled, his left arm entangled in a twisted loop of his back pack. The other strap had ripped free. Drake and the ripped strap swung lazily, like laundry flapping in the breeze. Paige shuddered. General Taylor hung just below. His left hand clutched tightly at Drake’s painfully dragged-out belt. As Paige watched, Taylor slowly worked his knife free from the shredded remains of Drake’s backpack. She assumed he intended to use it on Drake. With no other weapon to hand, Paige raised the wrecked pistol over her shoulder. With all her might she hurled the bulky hunk of metal at the commanding General of the Mariposa Militia.
“Ha! Take that, you bruit!” Paige pounded her fists on the rock, willing the missile to connect. The heavy Python slammed into the tough bone and muscle of Taylor’s left shoulder. Paige watched the General’s neck muscles twitch in agony, but his precarious grip held. The solid blow elicited a deep, bestial grunt from the man, nothing more.
Paige realized she’d been wrong. Taylor did not want his knife to attack Drake. He was too busy concentrating on personal survival. Killing Drake would have been as useful to the General as gutting himself. She watched, helpless, as Taylor jammed his commando knife into a crevasse in the vertical rock face. With that leverage he began to inch his way upward. Once he got high enough he would have no further reason to spare Drake. She screamed at Taylor in rage. She picked up rocks and threw them at him, anything to slow him down.
When he gets to the top he’ll yank me over the side too, if I don’t have enough sense to get out of his way. I’ve got to do something to stop Taylor and help Stan.
Suddenly Paige’s heart began convicting her. Her heart? No, God’s Spirit was speaking.
Paige, you’re doing what you always do, honey.
Yes. I’m always trying to solve my problems by my own strength, and this time my own strength is not enough. Please God, I know I’ve been running from you. I know I have sinned. Forgive me. Don’t take your wrath out on Stan. I’m asking you to help. Please.
Paige stretched herself out, lying flat on her stomach on the cliff top. She spread her legs for balance and extended both arms, reaching out to Drake. He reached back up to her, and their hands clasped at the wrists.
“Pull, Stan!” she urged him. “Climb. He’s coming up.”
* * *
Drake didn’t need to look down to confirm Paige’s warning. He could feel the weight shifting as the General climbed his body like a rope ladder. Taylor’s hand moved from the belt to the trailing pack strap. Drake couldn’t even begin to climb. Taylor’s dead weight had him pinned to the rocks. On the other hand, while the General needed both hands to climb, Drake had one hand free to fend the guy off. He released his grip on Paige’s hand and clutched the rock face for leverage.
Drake kicked out, violently slamming his feet into Taylor’s unprotected side. The General grunted in pain, his grip on the strap suddenly broken. Taylor swung free, suspended by nothing but a steel blade embedded in granite. Drake immediately reached upward to Paige and began climbing. But Taylor made a quick cat-like twist, his powerful body turning in midair. His free hand snatched the flapping pack strap. Stability restored, Taylor resumed his climb to the top.
“Where’s your all powerful god now, huh preacher?” Taylor gloated, absolutely confident of victory. The General yanked at the pack strap, dislodging Drake’s hold from the rock. “Ha, ha! Come on God,” he cried to the sky. “What are you waiting for? Aren’t you gonna save your boy, here? Hey preacher, what have you got to say for a god like that?”
Drake looked the General square in the eyes. “Repent, the end is near.”
Taylor paused, astonishment playing across his craggy face. Then he snarled an oath and resumed his assault.
Drake’s left arm was still caught in the twisted strap. He was more or less secure, but it left him with only one hand to fight with. He clamped that free hand back on the granite and resumed his foot attack on Taylor. The General kept making progress but Drake continued to deny him ultimate victory.
From above, Paige shifted both hands to Drake’s trapped left wrist. She tugged at his arm with no effect. He appreciated the effort, but knew Paige had nowhere near the strength or leverage to budge the combined weight of two men.
“My knife!” Drake rasped suddenly, mouth dry with fear. He released his grip on the rock and drew the small bowie knife from its belt sheath. He brought the sharp little blade up over his head and brought it in contact with the pack strap, tautly suspended from the cliff top.
“What are you doing?” Paige cried, her eyes widening in puzzlement. Puzzlement changed to comprehension, then horror as she understood Drake’s purpose. Paige clamped both hands onto Drake’s wrist so hard he felt her nails digging into his flesh. He sawed at the tough nylon, watching Paige. Her eyes were closed and her lips moved in what looked like a prayer. He had time to add his own, a short, Save me Lord, before the tightly woven material yielded. The twin influences of blade and human weight ripped the strap from its granite perch. Free of the pack’s pinning constriction, Drake swung his body around and swarmed upward.
Taylor had reacted defensively when Drake drew his knife, obviously thinking in terms of a direct attack. He seemed to miss Drake’s actual intent, but when pack strap came suddenly loose comprehension dawned. Drake saw the heavy pack catch The General square in the face. Taylor flung the useless strap away from him, twisting again to gain a new purchase. His free hand swung wildly, but his knife blade held fast in the crevasse. The General was still in business.
“How many lives does this guy have?!” Drake cried out in frustration.
“I’m indestructible, preacher! You better believe I am. And I’m coming for you!” He fixed his cruel eyes on Paige, taunting, “And you’re next little lady!”
At the very moment of defeat Drake felt Half Dome’s expanse give a sudden, sickening lurch. Slowly, inexorably, the ancient granite exfoliated. Like a limpet clinging to the great slab of tilting stone, General Vince Taylor exfoliated right along with it, plummeting down Half Dome’s lethal precipice.