The Howling Cliffs
Human bones are occasionally sighted along mountain streams in the Hawaiian Islands where Sara Mason had recently purchased a second home. Ancient burials at remote sites are washed away over time by the effect of torrential tropical rains on eroding lava cliffs and steep hillsides. Since those Hawaiian graves were never identified with markers, such bones could belong to a commoner or a King or Queen. No one could know, but bones along Hawaiian streams were more common than finding remains of American servicemen and women in the Vietnam jungle where Sara Mason, Esmerelda Talbot, Huxley Keane and the veterans' search party presently found themselves.
“The Yards found Palmer.” Sara glanced across the small clearing to the veteran who had become Huxley's best aide.
“Yes, the Montenyards, the Hmong people that Huxley told us about.” Esmerelda looked up into the treetops. “To think they used to live in this jungle.” Not that much to see existed anymore except struggling new trees, brush and scrub.
Sara, with Huxley's help, had developed the Orson Talbot Foundation in the Sacramento River Delta in California, named after Esmerelda's murdered husband. Beside the cold cases they worked on at home, Huxley had gotten her and Esmerelda approved to be included in the searches in Vietnam. Huxley and his team of retired veterans made at least one trip each year searching for his brother's remains, those of Esmerelda's daughter, and the other MIAs in the group of abducted medical personnel.
Animals previously found in Vietnam, such as elephant herds, Bengal tigers, crocodiles, and a variety of monkeys and birds, could easily have carried any human remains far away or even eaten them.
Then the forested areas were laid waste by the aerial spraying of Agent Orange and other defoliants. When Agent Orange was sprayed on a plant or tree, it sped up the growth through the trunks and stems and into the leaves at a rate the live plants couldn't handle and thus forced them to die. With no food growing anywhere, animals and other creatures starved and died.
“You know what I noticed, Esme?” Sara and Esmerelda sat detached from the group in a moment of private conversation.
“The vets in this group, in these trips we've made with them, I've seen them age drastically.”
“I noticed that too.”
“It's as if this is their last objective in life and it's taking a toll on them.” Sara motioned with her eyes toward one of the men they had seen go completely gray over the few years since they had first met him.
“But not your Huxley. He's the mainstay here. He's much younger than these vets and he's strong and aggressive, just what these guys need.”
Sara glanced at Huxley in admiration. He stood tall and erect with broad shoulders and a determined expression. He was the picture of strength and endurance, the type of leader that kept morale buoyant. Framed by a full head of dark hair that he refused to shave off regardless of the present-day trend among many men, and dark brows, his blue-topaz eyes sparkled, even in the filtered sunlight of the forest.
April had passed, the time of year the majority in the group preferred to be in the jungle. The dry season was over and now gave way to escalating temperatures, causing the moist jungle floor to become insufferably humid.
Since the first trip they made with the group, Sara and Esmerelda accepted the sight of the crew, especially the Vietnamese in their camp, who would strip down to shorts and boots. They were on a mission and would do whatever necessary to accomplish their goal. The group had packed an enormous supply of bug repellant. Sara, Esmerelda and one-half of the photographic duo were the only women along and wouldn't be taking off much of their clothing. Sara and Esmerelda rested on some rocks at the edge of a stream. They removed their waterproof hats to give their perspiration soaked scalps a chance to breathe.
The search team followed a well-worn and widened trail through dense jungle and rocky terrain southwest of Krong Klang below Quang Tri in central Vietnam; the same trail used by the Viet Cong to escape with the MIAs for which the team searched. The ever-present fog and fine drizzle gave the forest a mythical aura during the daylight hours and an eerie cast under moonlight. Soon, it would be typhoon season north of the 18th Parallel. Hopefully no storm that strong would hit their location.
The sun broke through with penetrating heat stirring up the humidity and adding an additional bit of discomfort. In place of the majestic triple canopy of trees that stood before chemical defoliation, after the war mangroves were planted near all the streams and waterways. The Mangroves should have invited the return of birds. Yet, closing in on half a century later, not many were sighted or heard.
The estimate was that the normal forest would take well over one hundred years to grow back. Whole herds of wild elephants and other creatures died out from Agent Orange and other defoliants. It was hoped that any survivors crossed over to Laos and Cambodia. Not many elephants existed presently in Vietnam except in zoos. However, wild herds had recently been reported around Dac Lac, a Central Highlands province.
Sara and Esmerelda eyed each other's matted hair and chuckled. They were a pair! Sara's long natural sun-streaked blond hair with a few premature grays contrasted to Esmerelda's short, dyed jet-black waves. For convenience sake, Sara kept her hair braided. Esmerelda, having been away from a beauty shop for many weeks, had a lot of telltale gray beginning to show through her short coiffed strands.