Maj. Sara Brannon arrived at her office fifteen minutes before she was due to report to Gen. Henry Powhatan Clarke. She sorted through her mail, looking for a letter from Kevin Kerney. There was no envelope with either a New Mexico postmark or his familiar scrawl. Disappointed, Sara set the mail aside, took off her fatigue jacket, and glanced at her wristwatch. It was evening in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and she wondered if Kerney was home from work. With the demands of his job as deputy chief of the New Mexico State Police and his gloomy description of the small guest house he was renting, she doubted he spent much time at home. Both Kerney and she were working long, hard hours in pressure-cooker jobs, and camping out in less than inviting quarters.
Late March in South Korea had brought a series of cloudy, dreary days that made spring seem a long way off. Sara yearned for sunshine and home. But with several months remaining on her tour of duty, it was too soon to start daydreaming.
Her office desk faced a full wall of situation maps documenting all recent North Korean DMZ incursions, infiltrations, and violations. As commander of allied G-2 ground reconnaissance and intelligence units, she was directly responsible for monitoring North Korean troop activity along and inside the DMZ. Her squads had to catch whatever the electronic eyes in the sky missed. Sara routinely accompanied the patrols to assess their effectiveness and efficiency.
For the last forty-six years, battle-ready armies had faced each other across a swath of rugged mountains two-and-a-half miles wide and a hundred-and-fifty miles long that cut across the Korean peninsula, keeping the zone free of any human activity except intermittent skirmishes. Once blasted by artillery, bombed and strafed by aircraft, burned and left barren by infantry, the DMZ now flourished as a nature preserve. The reforested mountains, abundant grasses, and wildflowers, the deer, brown bears, and wildcats that grazed and fed peacefully in the valleys and the high country, reminded Sara of her family's Montana sheep ranch and Kerney's still unrealized hope to return to his ranching roots in New Mexico.
When G-2 had received advance notice of the itinerary for the secretary of state's South Korean visit, Sara concentrated her attention on Panmunjom, the neutral village within the DMZ fifty miles due north from Seoul. The secretary had scheduled a quick visit to the site, to be accompanied by high-ranking military and civilian dignitaries.
During a series of late-night sweeps at Panmunjom, Sara had spotted the tracks and scat of a Korean wildcat. On a subsequent patrol, under a full moon, she caught sight of the animal, an adult male about the size of an American cougar. Through night-vision binoculars, she watched it lope quickly across the cleared area around the village and move on.
Two nights before the secretary of state's arrival, she saw the animal again on the same traverse. Halfway across the clearing the big cat froze, turned to catch a downwind breeze coming from the village, reversed direction, and quickly retreated.
Whatever startled the wildcat needed looking into. Sara got permission to go into the DMZ for a closer look. Her team jumped off late at night from a staging area in a canyon south of Panmunjom, and belly-crawled to the open perimeter surrounding the village, where they waited for the full moon to set.
Under cover of darkness, Sara spread her people out and put the area under close surveillance. For hours nothing moved, but Sara sensed that the North Koreans were up to something. She ordered a ground sweep into the village. As Sara and her team crawled across the clearing, automatic weapon fire opened up from three hidden positions, taking out her point man.
Sara popped flares into the night sky, called for cover fire from the infantry platoon stationed behind the wire, and kept the team moving forward as rounds whined overhead. The green dots from the AK-47 tracers, the red dots from the M-60 machine-gun tracers, and the searing white of the flares cast carnival colors across the night sky.
Using rocket grenade launchers, the team took out two of the positions and stormed the third, capturing a wounded North Korean soldier.
As Sara pulled back with the wounded North Korean and two shot-up team members, the enemy answered with return fire from behind the village. Another soldier took a round in the exchange, but Sara got everyone out. They hit the safety of the fence and a bank of ten-thousand-watt spotlights lit up the village. All shooting stopped.
Sara stayed with her wounded until the medics got them stabilized and ready to airlift. Then she reported to the command bunker. A South Korean infantry officer was on the telephone in a terse exchange with his opposite number on the other side of the DMZ. The officer hung up and reported to the American colonel at his side an immediate stand-down by the North Koreans.
At dawn, Sara took a platoon of infantry back into the DMZ to inspect the area. They found three tunnels with shielded ceilings to block any traces of body heat that could be detected by satellites. Dug from the North Korean boundary the tunnels ran to within five hundred feet of the viewing platform that looked over the DMZ, and were positioned to rake the viewing platform in a cross fire. Commando sniper rifles with silencers and telescopic sights were retrieved from the tunnels. Then each tunnel was sealed and destroyed with explosives.
As a result of the thwarted assassination plans, the secretary of state's DMZ visit was cancelled.
Weeks later, Sara was still waiting to hear what the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency had to say about the incident. The Beltway spy shops had taken full control of the investigation and dropped a heavy security blanket over the episode. Since the fire-fight, most of Sara's time had been spent either undergoing intense questioning by teams of Intelligence analysts or debriefing Pentagon and National Security Council officials.
She had put her people in for commendations and medals, but hadn't heard a word back through the chain of command. Perhaps the incident would be buried so deep that there'd be no recognition of her team's outstanding performance. Such a morale-buster wouldn't make the rest of her tour any easier. She would have to think of ways to keep the unit's performance at a peak.
Sara looked at her wristwatch again. She had five minutes before her meeting with General Clarke. She put on her fatigue jacket and walked across the street to the headquarters building.
Upon assuming command of Combined Forces in Korea, Gen. Henry Powhatan Clarke had taken one look at his senior staff dressed in their Class-B headquarters uniforms and issued his first order, making fatigues the duty dress of the day for all personnel regardless of rank or assignment. As commander in chief of a combat-ready army, Clarke wanted the staff that would run the war and the line soldiers who would fight it dressed, equipped, and prepared to respond at a moment's notice.
It was the first of many changes Clarke made to hone his army to a high state of readiness.
In a rare exception to his own policy, General Clarke had worn his Class-A uniform to work. His schedule for the day included a meeting with the United States ambassador and senior members of the embassy staff. Of all the ribbons he wore above his left jacket pocket, his most prized was the Good Conduct Ribbon, awarded only to enlisted personnel. Serving in Vietnam at the age of twenty, Henry Powhatan Clarke had won a competitive service appointment to West Point, and had graduated in time to return as platoon leader during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
At his desk, Clarke thumbed through the Defense Intelligence Agency report that had been delivered to his quarters late last night by a special Pentagon courier. The contents of the report, along with a letter and attached orders from the secretary of defense, had prompted his request to have Maj. Sara Brannon report to him.
A knock at the open door made General Clarke look up. He smiled and moved to the front of his desk. "Come in, Major," he said, gesturing toward the two army-issue, metal straight-back office chairs that, by design, made long sit-down sessions almost unbearable. Clarke liked short meetings that got his people up and moving as quickly as possible.
"Thank you, sir," Sara answered as she sat in the butt-numbing chair with more grace and ease than Clarke would have imagined possible.
She watched as the general gathered papers from the desk and sat across from her. He had pale blue eyes, a round face that belied his toughness, and close-cut, thick brown hair that curled slightly at the ends.
Sara met his gaze directly.
Clarke knew that Maj. Brannon was an exceptional officer. Any man who only saw her good looks -- her sparkling green eyes, strawberry blond hair, and the mischievous line of freckles across her nose -- would be seriously underestimating her.
"We finally received a conclusive Intelligence report on the sniper operation," General Clarke said. "A North Korean diplomat defected and confirmed the assassination plot was mounted by a fanatical element within the North Korean officer corps. They wanted to force Kim Jung II into a war with South Korea."
Sara nodded and waited.
"The three snipers had orders to kill the South Korean president, the secretary of state, and me." Henry Powhatan Clarke smiled. "Personally, I like to think that shooting an American four-star general would have pushed us into a war."
"I'm glad that didn't happen, sir," Sara said, smiling back.
"So am I, Major. I understand you've been asking my chief of staff about the status of your request for promotions and commendations for your team."
"I have, sir."
"I like an officer who goes to bat for her people."
"They've earned the recognition, General," Sara said.
"Agreed, Major," General Clarke said, as he put some papers in Sara's hands. "Each enlisted rank gets a meritorious promotion and the Army Commendation Medal. Additionally, the wounded men receive Purple Hearts."
"That's good news, sir," Sara said breaking into a smile as she scanned the orders and citation documents.
"There's more," General Clarke said, handing Sara another sheet of paper. "At the request of the secretary of state, and upon the recommendation of the secretary of defense, you are to receive the Distinguished Service Medal."
Stunned into silence, Sara read the citation. Finally, she raised her glance. "I don't know what to say."
"Congratulations, Colonel Brannon."
"Excuse me?" Sara said incredulously, forgetting protocol.
General Clarke laughed. "We couldn't promote everyone else on the team and leave you out, now could we? I can't think of anybody in your academy class who is walking around as a light colonel."
"A few are on the short list, General."
"Well, you'll have seniority over all of them. You'll get orders for your next duty assignment within the week. You're going home early."
"Where to, sir?"
"After you report from leave, you'll be attending the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth."
"I wasn't scheduled to attend C and GS until next year," Sara said.
"We can't have a highly decorated, new light colonel running around without her C and GS College ticket punched," General Clarke replied with a warm smile. "You'll need it in your personnel jacket for your next promotion to full colonel. Considering that you kept the North Koreans from sending me home in a bodybag, it was the least I could do."
"Thank you, sir."
"No sweat, Colonel. Meet me at the Officers' Club tonight at twenty hundred hours. I'll pin on those silver oak leaves and douse them with beer, as tradition demands."
"I'll be there, General."
General Clarke stood and walked to his office door. "Any time you want to return to my command, Colonel Brannon, just give me a holler. I want nothing but stud officers serving with me, and I don't give a damn what gender they are."
Sara stood outside the headquarters building in the drizzle paying no attention to the enlisted personnel who walked past snapping off salutes. She recovered her composure and started moving in the direction of G-2, across the street. A convoy of troop carriers held her up.
Sara remained on the sidewalk after the convoy rumbled by, trying to calculate the miles from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Santa Fe. She guessed it to be seven hundred miles. It certainly put Kerney within striking distance.
She smiled as a thought crossed her mind. They had been writing to each other more frequently as the time for her to rotate stateside grew closer, making plans for a visit. Maybe she'd just show up in Santa Fe unannounced and early.
Sara's smile turned into a slightly wicked grin. She had hammered her sexuality into submission by working eighteen-hour days and avoiding even those men who were not off-limits under the current sexual relations policies. Avoiding the whole sex issue had been the most realistic way to survive with her career intact in a combat-ready command, and she was damn tired of abstinence.
A young soldier gave Sara a salute and a sidelong glance as he passed by, and Sara wiped the grin off her face. The cloudy day had turned cold. Sara zipped up her fatigue jacket, yearning for the dry desert heat that she'd bitched so much about during her tour of duty at White Sands Missile Range.
She stepped off the sidewalk and hurried to find her Field Intelligence and Reconnaissance Unit squad leaders. She wanted to be the first to tell her people about the promotions and citations before word leaked out from other sources. Then she'd finish her workday and celebrate after General Clarke pinned on the silver oak leaves that evening.
It was, Lt. Col. Sara Brannon thought, one of the best days in her ten years as an officer in the United States Army.
Kevin Kerney sat in the passenger seat of Dale Jennings's truck with the window rolled down, while his old friend from the Tularosa Basin drove down a San Miguel County dirt road in Northern New Mexico, about fifty miles due east of Santa Fe.
It was an unusually warm and pretty early April morning, but Kerney wasn't paying any attention to the weather or the vistas. His thoughts were on Erma Fergurson.
Erma was his mother's college roommate and lifelong friend. When his parents died in an auto accident over twenty-five years ago, Erma became one of the few people left in Kerney's life with a link to his boyhood on his family's Tularosa ranch.
Erma taught art at the state university in Las Cruces for almost forty years. After her retirement, she became one of the most renowned landscape artists of the Southwest. She'd never married, never had children.
Kerney had last seen Erma in November on a visit to Las Cruces. In her seventies, she remained a head-turner. She was vibrant, vital, elegant, and classy. They went out to dinner, reminisced about Kerney's parents, and talked about his college years when Erma served as his surrogate mother.
A massive stroke had killed Erma in early February, and now Kerney was about to take his second look at the ten sections of high country ranch land she had left to him. He'd known that Erma owned property she once used as a summer retreat. But the size of it -- 6,400 acres -- came as a complete surprise, as did her bequest of the land and the old cabin that stood on it.
Kerney glanced quickly at Dale, now the last living person connected to Kerney's childhood years on the ranch. Dale's arm rested on the open window and he steered the truck with one hand. His fingers were blunt and calloused, and his long forehead, covered by the bill of a cap pulled low, hid his thinning hair. His closely cropped sideburns showed a hint of gray and his face was weathered from years working in the scorching sun of southern New Mexico.
Dale ranched near the Tularosa, on land handed down through three generations. He'd been Kerney's closest neighbor and best boyhood friend.
They passed through the village of Ojitos Frios. An adobe church and a cluster of homes -- some of stone and others coated with cement or plastered with stucco -- sat among irrigated fields that rimmed the base of flat-topped Tecolote Peak. The small valley seemed frozen in the late nineteenth century.
"What is this place?" Dale asked as he drove through the settlement.
"What?" Kerney asked.
"What's the name of this place?"
Dale glanced at Kerney with amused brown eyes.
"What's so funny?" Kerney asked.
"Cold Springs, huh? If we find one, maybe I'll give you a good dunking to wake you up."
"I'm here," Kerney replied.
"Not hardly," Dale said. "You've been off in dreamland since I rolled up to your door early this morning."
Kerney laughed. "I guess I have. I still can't believe Erma put me in her will."
"That lady loved you like a son," Dale said. Up ahead a fast moving stream ran across a dip in the road. He dropped the transmission into low gear and rattled the truck through the water, keeping an eye on the trailer hitched to the truck.
The trailer held two horses Dale had brought up from his ranch in the San Andres Mountains. One of the animals, Soldier, was a mustang Kerney had trained and later named in honor of his dead godson, Sammy Yazzi.
Sammy had been murdered while serving in the army at White Sands Missile Range, on land that once belonged to Kerney's family. Working with Sara Brannon, an army officer at the base, Kerney solved the crime, and the men responsible for Sammy's murder were dead.
Even though Kerney had given Soldier to him, Dale always planned to return the horse. Now, maybe soon he could.
Across the stream, the road curved and climbed the crest of a small hill that opened up on overgrazed grassland. Along the streambed Dale could see deep erosion furrows, a sure sign of poor range management.
"Where exactly is this mesa you now own?" Dale inquired.
"A little farther down the road," Kerney answered, starting to feel a bit antsy.
Only three weeks had passed since he'd been informed of Erma's bequest of the land and the cabin, and due to the demands of his job as deputy state police chief, he'd been able to manage just one quick trip up from Santa Fe to look over his unexpected windfall.
What Kerney had seen looked promising. The foot of the low mesa held rich grassland, and a live stream wandered near a ramshackle cabin. But most of the land was on the mesa, and Kerney didn't have a clue what to expect in the high country.
With Dale supplying the horses and coming along for the ride, Kerney planned to see it all before the weekend ended.
The road turned east then north as the valley widened, and a long ridge line popped up, dense with trees that climbed steep slopes. Beyond, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rolled back into the horizon, peaks still capped in deep snow.
"That's my mesa," Kerney said, when the cabin came into view.
"That's a pretty dinky mesa," Dale replied, tongue in cheek.
"Don't be a spoilsport," Kerney said. He directed Dale through the open gate and got out of the truck as soon it came to a stop.
Dale eyed the cabin from the cab of his truck. Old stone walls sagged under a rusted, pitched tin roof. The front door and small windows were boarded up with scrap lumber. It looked completely useless.
He heard the sound of hoofs on metal and left the truck to find Kerney leading the horses out of the trailer and down the ramp.
"In a hurry?" Dale asked as he reached for Pancho's halter. Pancho was his best trail horse, sure-footed and with endurance suited for long rides. Soldier stood nearby, pawing the ground and shaking off his confinement in the trailer.
"You bet I am," Kerney said, reaching for the riding tack in the trailer storage compartment.
Dale stretched his back to ease the tightness from the long drive and looked around. Off in the distance, he could see the outline of Hermit's Peak, two massive summits that stood like the hindquarters of a prehistoric animal. His gaze traveled to some smaller button-nose peaks that dipped off at the front end, and suddenly Hermit's Peak looked like an upturned face with a gaping mouth staring into the sky.
He switched his gaze to Kerney and found him saddled and mounted.
"Let's get going," Kerney said.
"Slow down, cowboy."
"Slow down, shit," Kerney said with a grin. "I want to cover it all before sundown. Saddle up."
Dale grinned back. It had been a long time since he'd seen Kerney look so damn happy.
An old ranch road petered out at the base of the mesa where a stock trail began, winding through a dense thicket of juniper and piñon pine trees. Halfway up the trail got rocky, and the horses picked their way carefully through loose stones and small boulders. They hit the top and encountered a stand of young ponderosas that gradually thickened into a dense climax forest. Kerney turned to look at the rolling valley below. His eyes followed the cuts defining the deep running streams that converged in the village of San Geronimo. Nestled in a shallow depression, the village was mostly in ruins, kept barely alive by the few ranching families who still lived there. The church stood, as did a vacant school and a few homes. But the remaining buildings were weathered empty shells surrounded by piles of hand-cut stone rubble.
The hills beyond the village cut off from view all but the uppermost third of Hermit's Peak, and the mountain looked like two giant loaves of homemade bread set out to cool on a windowsill.
"Every time I look at that mountain, it seems different," Kerney said.
"You're not wrong about that," Dale said, buttoning his jacket. A broad stream of clouds blocked the sun and chilled down the air. "It will be the last nice view we have if these woodlands don't give way to some open country pretty soon."
"You don't like fighting your way through the brush?"
"Nope. Reminds me too much of work."
"Pray for open country," Kerney said.
They came out of the trees a thousand yards from the ridge line, where the ponderosas dwindled away and grassland took over. A barbed-wire fence barred their passage and they followed it, looking for an opening.
As he rode, Kerney eyed the wide mesa. There were small stands of pinon and juniper trees sprinkled over the land and folded rock outcroppings along the edges of shallow depressions. The land sloped westward and several wandering arroyos had cut through the thin layer of soil down to the rock plate before draining into intermittent catchment basins.
From the map Erma's lawyer and executor, a man named Milton Lynch, had supplied, Kerney knew there was no live water on the mesa. But two windmills tapped groundwater, and Kerney was eager to find them. If they were in working order, it would ease the expense of putting cattle on the land.
They entered the grassland through an old cedar pole gate, and moved down an arroyo into a dry basin. The open range, Kerney guessed, took up four thousand acres of the ten section tract, and showed no sign of recent use. He figured the neighboring rancher who leased the grazing rights had decided to rest the land for a season or two.
As they came out of the basin, Kerney caught sight of a windmill and stock tank. A black dog with brown stockings limped away from a grove of trees, carrying something in its mouth. Even from a good distance away, the dog looked skinny under its thickly matted fur.
It heard the horses, stopped, turned, and retreated in the direction of the trees. Kerney couldn't quite make out the object in the dog's mouth. As he closed in for a closer look the dog froze, dropped the object, skirted around Soldier, and scampered for cover, yelping in pain as it ran.
"That pooch isn't doing too well," Dale said.
"It doesn't seem so," Kerney said as he broke Soldier into a trot toward the object on the ground. He looked down, fully expecting to see a dead rabbit. It was a chewed-up athletic shoe.
He dismounted and retrieved it. It carried a name brand and seemed to be sized to fit a woman. The faded label inside the tongue, barely readable, confirmed it.
Dale caught up, looked at the shoe in Kerney's hand, and shook his head. "That dog sure isn't much of a hunter. A retriever, maybe. Do you want to leave it here and move on?"
"No, it's hurt. Maybe it got dumped or left behind by campers. We'll round it up."
As Kerney started to remount the dog broke cover, carrying another shoe, moving as quickly as the lame hind leg allowed.
Kerney took his boot out of the stirrup, looked up at Dale, made a face, and shook his head.
"Now what?" Dale asked.
"A dog carrying one shoe I'd call mildly curious. But a dog with two shoes piques my interest."
Dale laughed. "Maybe it just likes to collect shoes."
"Maybe." Kerney looked around the empty mesa. "But from where?"
"Think you can fetch that dog for me?" Kerney asked.
"Sure thing," Dale said, reaching for his rope.
"Bring the shoe back with you."
"What are you going to do?"
"Check out that stand of trees."
"Don't you ever stop thinking like a cop?" Dale asked as he broke Pancho into a trot.
Kerney walked Soldier to a lone juniper at the edge of the grove, tied him off, looked into the shadows, and saw nothing. He pushed his way through some low branches, and knelt down on a thick mound of needles, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light. The dog had dug out a small hollow at the base of a piñon tree. Kerney's eye caught a touch of color in the loose dirt. Using a twig, he brushed away the dirt and uncovered a comb. He backed away and scanned the ground of the surrounding trees. He saw a scrap of fabric that looked like denim. Next to it was a half-buried bone, with a human foot still attached.
Kerney had seen enough. Whatever else there was to be found, he would leave to a crime scene unit and the District State Police Office in Las Vegas. He came out of the grove as Dale rode up, carrying the dog over his saddle.
"Find anything?" Dale asked, as he handed Kerney the shoe. It matched the first one.
"The shoes were left here," Kerney replied, "with some human bones."
"What are you going to do?"
"I left my cell phone in your truck. We'll head back and call the district office."
"What about the dog? It's a neutered male. I make him to be about five or six years old. He needs a meal bad and he has a gimpy hip."
Kerney looked at the mutt. Mostly black, with brown markings around the eyes that matched his stockings, he had flecks of gray on his chest and a salt-and-pepper tail. He was hairy, filthy skinny, and scared.
"I'll keep him," Kerney said impulsively.
"You need to give him water, food, and a name," Dale said.
"I'll call him Shoe, for now," Kerney said, as he opened his saddlebags and reached for one of the sandwiches he had packed for lunch.
He handed it to Dale and the dog wolfed it down. Dale cupped his hands and Kerney poured water from his canteen into them. Shoe lapped it up and Kerney gave him more.
He untied Soldier's reins and mounted up.
Dale held Shoe out to him. "He's your dog. You might as well get used to his smell."
Kerney sided Soldier over to Dale, took the dog, put him across the saddle, sniffed, and wrinkled his nose. "We'll head to that stock tank and clean him up a bit before we turn back."
"Good idea," Dale said.
"We should still have part of the day to explore after things settle down."
"What happens next?"
"Officers and a crime scene unit will come out and search the area."
"Damn, I'd like to see that."
"I'm sure you will."
"You sound grumpy."
"This is not the way I wanted to spend my weekend."
"Do you think you've got a murder on your hands?"
"I always think the worst when people turn up dead."
"Maybe you should call this place Skeleton Mesa."
"That's cute, Dale."
Dale shrugged his shoulders. "Just a suggestion. I think that dog likes you."
Shivers ran through the dog as it laid across the saddle. Kerney could feet it breathing heavily. He ran his hand over the dog's back to calm him and scratched his ears. The dog looked at him with serious eyes. "Not yet. But I think he will."
Copyright © 1999 by Michael McGarrity