Puffing like a steam engine, Bonnie collapsed beneath a scraggly ponderosa pine — not atop the yucca, the butt wouldn’t appreciate it — with the deepest interior of the Guadalupe Mountains spread like a bowl below her. Atop McKittrick Ridge meant atop the visible world. Rock walls folded and puckered along the ridgeline on either hand, then plummeted in cliffs to gentler slopes far below that rolled into the shadows like mesas. The mountaintop grasses had burned from the summer’s drought, leaving shades of tan and brown surrounding her. Only the pines splashed green into the neutral tones.
Morning sunshine peeking over Frijole Ridge and the promise of coffee had convinced her to cut short an irritable and restless night. A hurried scan of Pojo’s records while slurping hadn’t found any mention of a microchip, which she might have been able to track via radar. She could still try the radar, of course, but without some method of differentiating the traces, she wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Pojo, the cougar, a mule deer, or a hiker.
Instead, she’d packed the radiotelephone and binoculars along with a quart of water, wrapped the M1’s sling across her shoulder, and cut across South McKittrick Canyon to miss the Grotto and any early tourists. No trail in this area; she’d waded through creosote bushes in the canyon’s depths, danced across the intermittent stream on stepping stones, and pushed herself, step after grim, steep step, up the opposite rise until she’d met the McKittrick Ridge Trail’s lowest switchback. With each foot she’d gained in altitude, she’d cursed Pojo a little worse. By the time she’d scrambled onto the trail, hair plastered to her face and calves screaming for mercy, her language hadn’t been fit for human consumption.
Every hundred yards, she’d stopped and blown that stupid whistle. She’d used as much air on that thing as she had for walking. Except for the glorious view, neither had done much good. If Pojo had barked in response, she hadn’t heard him.
Was he frightened, out in the wilds without backup? He hadn’t seemed the sort of soul to frighten easily. No, he’d seemed — and it bothered her even to consider it — for the few brief hours they’d spent together, he’d seemed like a soldier on assignment. As if he’d had a job to do, something important. And while he’d been glad enough for the expensive dog food, he hadn’t let it distract him long from his self-appointed task, whatever that was.
He’d seemed driven. Obsessed. Like some other soldiers returned from the war, not quite right in the head.
And that didn’t bode well for any future they might have together.
Pale limestone rocks dotted the tawny soil around her. It trickled from her cupped hand between her fingers and past her thumb, leaving the pebbles behind. When she rubbed one rock clean on her fatigue pants, shards of something glinted within. Neal, the senior ranger, had talked about the minerals found in the Guadalupe Mountain rocks, mica, chalcedony, calcite. A geology field guide might be entertaining.
Maybe more so than the dog.
She flipped the pebble into the void and listened. But she never heard it fall.
“I don’t understand you, Pojo.” She scooped up another rock, a bigger one, and polished it on her pants leg. No glittery stuff this time, just monotone dove grey. “I don’t think I can be what you need. And since all I’m looking for is a dog, not a challenge, not a fight, well, I don’t think you’ll be all that good for me, either.”
This rock she hurled over the edge into space. Her pulse thudded twice, three times, four. A distant click and clatter, soon gone.
“And that’s why I think it’s best if you go back to the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, kiddo. Because I already have enough soldiers with weird brains around me. Another one isn’t a good idea, especially not one equipped with teeth like yours.”
In the backpack beside her, the radio crackled. “Whiskey Five Zulu, Whiskey Five Zulu, this is Pine Springs Mobile. Bonnie, you out there, hon?”
Bonnie tossed aside the pebbles, dusted off her hands, and grabbed the handset. “Pine Springs Mobile, this is Whiskey Five Zulu. I’m on McKittrick Ridge, Terri. What have you got?”
More crackling. “I think we’ve got your dog.
Captain Kelly Bonham, a NATO electronics intelligence officer and combat zone veteran, agreed to adopt a war dog, but when Pojo arrives he's not at all what she expected. This German Shepherd isn't interested in rolling over for a tummy rub; he's a working dog, a retired bomb sniffer who saw his handler cut in half by an anti-personnel mine in Afghanistan. That's serious trauma, and Bonnie wonders if his canine brain is still fully functional.
Now she's shaking it down with a dog who has more teeth than the law allows. A dog whose behavior is puzzling, threatening, maybe even unhinged. And battered by the war herself, all she has to bring to the fight is electronic gadgetry and what's left of her self-confidence.
Will the war ever be over, even on the home front? Can she rescue this war dog... or will he rescue her?
Shakedown, a paramilitary adventure by J. Gunnar Grey
Book trailer here.
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