Drake sat back with a contented sigh. Exhausted, he sank himself into a large, overstuffed arm chair. Head back on the cushions, he glanced idly around, taking in the informal decor of Rudy Gutierrez’ living room. He found it comfortable, if decidedly masculine. Ranger Gutierrez was obviously a bachelor.
The room’s furnishings weren’t recognizably country, or colonial, or even modern. Nor did the many decorations and pictures covering the walls follow any kind of recognizable theme. Everything was just, well, comfortable; the way a man would choose things—regardless of whether it all matched or not. Drake liked it anyway. He found the place relaxing.
Of course, it would be even more comfortable without the obvious tension between him and Paige. Since returning from their strange odyssey some sort of barrier had fallen between them.
Barrier? He asked himself. Yep, about as subtle as a broken portcullis.
Gutierrez’ bear-like frame lumbered in from the kitchen. “Here’s your coffee,” he placed a steaming mug in Drake’s hand.
“Thanks, but don’t go to any trouble for me. All I really want to do is sleep for the night.”
Gutierrez waved away the irrelevancy. “I’m gonna put on a pot of chili in a few minutes. But for now let’s put our feet up and kick back for a few. Whataya say?”
“Deal.” Drake felt too tired to argue about it. In fact, a bowel of hot chili sounded good. “I’ll go along as long as you promise to take a break too.”
“You got it, Padre.” Gutierrez flopped into an old leather recliner. With a practiced yank of the wooden handle he leaned himself back, elevating his tired feet. “Ahhh!” He sipped dark brew from a chipped Marine Corps mug. “This is the way a long hard day is supposed to end.”
“I’m just glad to be here at all.” In spite of the strain, Drake felt blessed to be alive, let alone warm, dry and comfortable. The entire affair could have ended a whole lot differently. Even at the end, up there on Half Dome’s summit, he and Paige had not been entirely safe. With her help—although she nearly shredded his shirt in the process—Drake had managed to drag his tired body up and over the jagged edge of the crest.
* * *
HALF DOME SUMMIT
“What happened?” Even gasping and weary, Paige’s presence had him baffled. “I thought you got shot?”
“I did, sort of. Anyway, a bullet or something socked the saddlebags I had all the food in. When I hit the ground hard, I had the wind knocked out of me. By the time I could sit up again, that man was there.” She gestured vaguely toward the cliff edge. “Anyway…” she stumbled, “I… guess you… already know about that.”
Drake pulled himself upright. He sat, elbows on knees, head in his hands, and stared grimly at the edge where Parker had fallen. “I’m a murderer.”
“Self-defense is not murder, Stan. You know better than that. Those men were evil. They tried to kill us both a bunch of times. He was trying to murder me when you stopped him. Anyway, don’t take all the credit for the General. It’s not your fault he chose to commit suicide. You heard what he said, who he challenged. I guess he got his answer.”
Afterward, they crawled back from the perilous edge to Hank. The dog lay quietly licking a long, bloody gash down his side.
What with the distractions of cliff hanging and caring for each other and the dog they were completely clueless as far as what might be happening in the rest of the world. The world suddenly and forcibly made them aware of outside considerations. The variably gusting mountain winds abruptly increased in intensity. Suddenly they found themselves in the midst of a howling hurricane. The force of the wind tugged at their clothing, painfully whipped hair into eyes, and pelted them with loose grit and sharp little pebbles. Drake shielded his eyes and peered through the fierce windstorm in time to watch the Marines land.
To the United States Marine Corps it’s known as Vertical Envelopment, a tactic developed in the wake of the Korean conflict, honed in the sweaty jungles of Southeast Asia. Essentially, Vertical Envelopment is accomplished using helicopters to airlift entire rifle platoons, leapfrogging over enemy lines and dropping them in strategic positions.
This enables the Corps to place organizationally intact troops in the enemy’s unprotected rear. That advantage allows the Marines to strike multiple, key locations simultaneously, wreaking havoc and overwhelming their foes, as Marines are wont to do. As far as Drake could see that is exactly what the USMC was doing on the summit of Half Dome that day.
The powerful but localized storm forced the pair to screw their eyes shut to
avoid being blinded. What Drake did manage to see were three mismatched, olive green helicopters, bearing the label MARINE, hovering in the darkening skies above. Among them was another of the ever-present Blackhawks, and one of those old, banana-shaped things he thought had gone out of service decades ago. Even the wicked, snake-like shape of a Cobra attack helicopter circled far above. The Blackhawk and the ‘flying banana’ quickly set down on the rocky summit, while the ‘snake’ continued to orbit overhead, riding shotgun over the landing zone. Ironically, after all they had already survived, the helicopter’s propwash threatened to hurl the intended rescuees right back over the edge. Paige and Drake clung desperately to the rocks, managing to hang on until the engines wound down, the flashing rotors slowing to a stop.
The blades were still spinning as troops began to dismount, expertly deploying over the craggy surface. A third of the soldiers remained close in, establishing a security perimeter around the landing zone. The rest of the marines spread out, probing Half Dome’s numerous crevasses for the presence of possible hostiles.
Out of the midst of the purpose and bustle, three men strode to the spot where Drake, Paige and Hank lay, dazed, wounded and exhausted. The man in the lead was US Park Ranger Rudy Gutierrez, USMC Ret.; temporarily restored to active duty.
“Thank God you’re safe,” he exclaimed, immense joy spreading across his large brown face. He stooped to engulf Paige in his arms, gently lifting her.
The other two—big husky Marines—gave Drake a more aggressive assist to the vertical, Hank still clutched in his arms. Paige clung to her uncle, but stretched an arm out towards Drake. Even dazed, Stan Drake understood the gesture and came into her embrace. He returned it with one of his own. Rudy Gutierrez stood at the top of Yosemite, grinning, clutching both of them in a great bear hug.
After graciously allowing a moment for tenderness, one of the Marines put a gentle hand on Drake’s shoulder. “Excuse me Sir, I’m Lieutenant McKay, Fifth Force Recon, Thirty-first Marine Expeditionary Unit. My men and I are currently on a training rotation at the Mountain Warfare Training Center, Pickle Meadows. That’s over on the next pass north of here,” he pointed off to his right. “Sir, I’ve been ordered to assist the National Park Service in their efforts to deal with subversive Militia activities within the confines of Yosemite National Park.”
Drake nodded his head, trying to keep up with the flood of new information. The young officer continued, “Would you be so kind as to fill me in on the situation here, as you understand it, Sir?”
“Well Lieutenant,” Drake manfully attempted to draw himself upright. “Ms. Mitchell and I were chased up here by an unknown number of armed men from the Mariposa Militia. By the time we reached the summit only two were left.” He gestured vaguely toward the cliff edge. “I, uh…” he cleared his throat before starting over, “I shot one man over there. Then we struggled with the last one, Vince Taylor—he called himself ‘the General.’ In the scuffle Taylor fell from the precipice over there.
“Whooee!” exclaimed the other marine, a tough-looking Gunnery Sergeant with the name Nyberg sewn over his right breast pocket. He stood fearless on the brink, gazing over the edge. “Just like Wyle E. Coyote, huh?” His bold look challenged Drake. “Straight to the bottom of the canyon: Pow!”
Drake compressed his lips at that bit of grim humor, but made no attempt to rebuke the man. Instead he turned back to Lieutenant McKay. “There’s only one other man that we know about. We left him lying on the old Vernal Slide trail, down one of the switchbacks. We think he has a broken leg. I don’t have any idea what shape he’s in by this time, but he was wide awake, mad as a rattlesnake last time we saw him.”
“I know where that trail is, L-T,” Gutierrez volunteered.
“Be careful uncle Rudy,” Paige warned. “That man shot at us when we left him.”
“Armed with what?” McKay wanted to know.
Drake handled that one. “He has a high-powered hunting rifle. It’s got a scope on it, too,” he added. “Oh, and I know its 30-06 caliber, because we found a box of cartridges in the saddlebag. That’s what you’re up against, Lieutenant.”
“Thanks for the Intel Sir, and thanks for whittling down the opposition for us.” The Marine took a step back, giving Drake a good, hard look. “Gutierrez here tells me you’re a minister.”
“That’s right,” Drake replied evenly.
“Well Sir,” McKay fought to suppress an impudent grin, “I just thought you’d like to know, if you’re maybe thinking about a career change, that is; the Marines are always looking for a few good men.” McKay came to attention and saluted. “Semper Fi, Sir!”
Drake gave a sheepish grin and a thumbs-up, “Give ‘em Heaven, Lieutenant.”
Gutierrez moved around the two, putting his big hands on Drake’s shoulders. “Well Padre, looks to me like you raised some perdition here today.” Drake winced at the analogy. “Yup, jacked it up and put a chunk under it!” He engulfed Drake in a hearty, masculine embrace, laughing at his own joke.
McKay turned as a young Marine approached. The soldier saluted and made his report. “Sergeant Lee says to tell you; ain’t nobody up here but us, Lieutenant.”
“Very well, Corporal. Carry on.” Lieutenant McKay returned the salute. “Sergeant,” he addressed himself to Nyberg—still out on the ledge, “recall the troops. Let’s move it out.”
“Aye, aye Sir!” snapped Nyberg. Raising his voice, he whirled his right arm in the air, “All right Marines, mount up!”
Turning to Paige, McKay gallantly gestured to his command copter. “Ma’am, if you’re ready to go home, you’re chariot awaits.”
The helicopter had flown them to Park Service Headquarters. Inevitably there were more questions to answer. The Park Service had questions. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms had more questions. Even the Governor’s aide had some questions. After several hours of intense debriefing they were finally released for the night, assured there would be more grilling the next day. The clock read half-past ten by the time they arrived at Gutierrez’ place.
* * *
“I got an extra room next to the kitchen. Paige is already upstairs,” Gutierrez’ voice came from the depths of his recliner. You’re welcome to flake out here for the night, okay?
“Well, it sounds like a good offer…” Drake hesitated. “I guess I don’t really feel like tramping all the way back to my cabin at this time of night. I believe I’ve done enough hiking in the last two days to last me all month. But…” He knew he had to make a decision. He felt awkward because the decision was how to resolve the strain between him and Paige.
Gutierrez broke into Drake’s labored thoughts, “While you were getting yourself grilled by the ATF boys, Chief Fine told me the last element of the dreaded Mariposa Militia has been rounded up.” His harsh laughter filled the room. “Those hillbilly Locos let themselves get caught out in an open meadow, surrounded by half the Marines in the free world.” The incredibly dim-witted image brought another sharp bark of laughter from the ranger. “Seriously though, I’m real sorry we didn’t get to you sooner, man.”
“Don’t beat yourself up over it. At least you were looking for us. In fact, I’m glad you got there when you did. Think of it this way, you saved us a long, hard eight mile hike all the way back down here.”
“Hey,” Gutierrez remembered. “There’s one more thing. The ATF has decided to drop all their phony proceedings against you. Seems those goofy Sacred Earthers have confessed to spreading a lot of incriminating evidence around about you. We caught ‘em red handed too. Me and Walt Frazier watched ‘em break into your cabin and send a phony Email in your name.
“Yeah, it looks like they been breaking a lot of laws. They been trapping mountain lions, and then transporting them inside a hidden compartment in that Big ol’ RV of theirs. See, they bring the lions to Yosemite and then release ‘em near crowds, trying to cause a big scare. I guess they figured the government would close the Park to protect the mountain lions. Crazy people, huh?”
“Well, it’s nice to know the details. I was pretty sure I wasn’t the guy doing it.”
“Yeah,” Gutierrez laughed again. “You’ll be happy to hear that those sterling employees of a certain unnamed government bureau have single-handedly solved the great environmental-militia mystery of the brand new century. Washington has been informed that the BATF has everything under control.” Gutierrez snorted in derision, “Ol’ Wild Bill Gordon will probably wangle himself a big promotion out of this whole sorry mess, too.” He abruptly straightened his recliner upright. “But what I really want to know is what about you and my niece?”
“I don’t know,” Drake looked away. He had avoided asking that question for several hours now. He took a deep breath and stood. “Maybe I’d better check in with Paige before I give you an answer.”
“Vaya con Dios, Padre.”
* * *
“You’re a hypocrite, honey.” Paige sat at an old, scratched vanity, overwhelmed with self-loathing. Her reflection returned a baleful expression. Paige realized she’d been kidding herself, hoping to escape her family and her past; in her childish longing to start a new life.
“That isn’t possible because you’re still the same old Paige Mitchell. Wherever you go you’ll keep dragging your screwed-up self right along with you.”
She thought she had been thinking in terms of love and commitment, but her motives were suspect. Wouldn’t any unbiased observer call her actions calculated? Wasn’t she taking advantage of Stan Drake’s vulnerability? He was recently widowed and lonely. They had been through an intense emotional experience together. Paige merely found herself jumping in at a convenient moment, like any scheming opportunist.
But hadn’t she made a spiritual recommitment? Paige Mitchell; a fresh new person, ready to start over with her life.
“Does that mean you’ve earned a future with Stan?” She demanded of her image, “like some prize for being good in Sunday School?” Well, that sounded pretty crude. The image repelled her. She hadn’t been thinking in those terms, really.
Up on the mountaintop everything had seemed so clear. She admired Stan. He was tender and genuine, a true friend. Someone she could trust. Once the danger had passed, though, and life here in the valley began to resume some semblance of normalcy, she recognized her self-deception.
“Oh sure, we could make a future together. I could follow Stan back to his small town and disappear. I could build a comfortable life as the wife of the Reverend Stan Drake. But would I be doing either of us any favors? Stan knows my past. One day, when the bloom fades, he’s going to remember what kind of woman I’ve been.”
And sooner or later, she knew, her past would catch up to her. Dear Mommy and Daddy would find her, as they had before. Perhaps they might come for a visit; Imagine, our sweet
daughter married to a minister. They would fawn on Stan and ingratiate themselves with the congregation. Oh, she knew, they would appear to everyone as genuine spiritual giants.
For a while.
But sooner or later Mommy or Daddy would show up drunk, or make a pass at someone, and the whole elegant house of cards would come crashing down. Stan’s reputation would be ruined. And he would look at her every day, knowing he’d chained himself to the person who had destroyed him.
“I don’t think I could bear that.” She swiped a bitter tear away.
From inside the mirror, Paige’s red-rimmed eyes stared back, mocking her. It had been a beautiful dream; a husband, a home, a place where nobody knew….
But that place did not exist. There was only this dingy little life. She’d led them both into trap, following her heart instead of her head. A trap with no end and no escape.
* * *
“Paige?” Drake’s voice and the door’s dry hinges squeaked in unison. The room felt as hushed as a cathedral—or a morgue. Drake felt himself an intrusion, an unwelcome invader.
Inside, Paige sat at a vanity, her back to him. The reflection of her face was visible in the mirror. She sat composed, but obviously she’d been crying. She didn’t turn to meet him, but their eyes met in the mirror.
“Go away,” she whispered, her eyes pleading for his acquiescence.
“If that’s what you want.” He pulled the door to, then leaned back in, “Is it?”
“Yes!” she gasped.
“Okay, but first, I have a confession to make.”
“What? I’m the one who needs to confess.”
“No. I’ve heard about you. You need to know something about me. I’ve spent most of the last year hating Linda and blaming God for her death.”
“That’s not what you said before.”
“I was lying nobly before. Thing is, I wasn’t lying nobly to spare Linda. I did it to boost my own ego. Even when I did my job as a pastor I was throwing it in God’s face, ‘See God, You’re punishing me, unjustly!’ I’ve been a lying hypocrite, and I even managed to convince myself. How’s that for successful pretense?
Drake knelt next to Paige and made a face at his own reflection. He gently took her hand in both of his. She stared at him, eyes wide, waiting. “Paige, there’s more. I’m guilty of manipulating; Linda, God… I guess everyone I’ve had any kind of relationship with. See, I cleverly assumed my will was identical with God’s will. Forearmed with that conviction, I convinced myself that anyone who disagreed with me was really fighting God. Neat, huh? Problem is, I’m not God.
Paige looked at her hand in his. They were getting sweaty. “I don’t understand. What does any of this have to do with me?”
“I know I’m making you uncomfortable. I could be polite, avoid the issue, but it’s too important to me—to both of us. You and I both know we’re attracted to one another. I’m confessing to you that I am the one who bears responsibility for my life. I failed Linda, not vice-versa. I wanted you to know what kind of person I am.”
“And what kind of person is that, Stan?”
“The only kind there is; fallen short of the glory of God, just like you.”
Paige surprised him by looking up with a smile on her face. “That gives me some hope.”