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"So what went on overnight?"

Morning briefing time the next day found Sheriff Joanna Brady closeted in her office at the Cochise County Justice Complex with her two chief deputies, Dick Voland and Frank Montoya. For a change, the burly Voland and the slight and balding Montoya weren't at each other's throats.

Montoya, deputy for administration and a former city marshal from Willcox, had been one of Joanna's several opponents in her race for sheriff. Voland, chief for operations, had been chief deputy in the previous administration and had actively campaigned for another losing candidate. Joanna had confounded friends and critics alike by appointing the two of them to serve as her chief deputies. Almost a year into her administration, their volatile oil-and-water combination was working. The constant bickering didn't always make for the most pleasant office environment, but Joanna valued the undiluted candor that resulted from the two men's natural rivalry.

"Let's see," Voland said, consulting his stack of reports. "Hot time up in the northwest sector last night. First there was a report of a naked female hitchhiker seen on Interstate 10 in Texas Canyon. Not surprisingly, she was long gone before a deputy managed to make it to the scene."

"Sounds to me like some long-haul trucker got lucky," Montoya said.

"That's what I thought, too," Voland agreed. "Then, overnight, somebody took out Alton Hosfield's main pump and two head of cattle over on the Triple C."

CCC Ranch, referred to locally as either the Triple C or the Calloway Cattle Company, was an old-time cattle ranch that straddled the San Pedro River in northwestern Cochise County. The family-owned spread had historic roots that dated all the way back to Arizona 's territorial days. Alton Hosfield, the fifty-three-year-old current owner, was waging a lonely war against what he called "enviro-nuts" and the federal government to keep his family's holdings all in one piece. Meanwhile, neighboring ranches had been split up into smaller parcels. Those breakups had caused a steady influx of what Alton Hosfield regarded as "Californicating riffraff." Most of the unwelcome newcomers were people the rancher could barely tolerate.

"Does that mean the Cascabel range war is heating up all over again?" Joanna asked.

Voland nodded. "It could be all those rattlers are getting ready to have another go at it."

In high school Spanish classes Joanna had been taught that cascabel meant "little bell." But in Latin American Spanish it meant "rattlesnake." No doubt Voland wanted to impress Frank Montoya with his own knowledge of local Hispanic place-names.

"Deputy Sandoval checked to see if maybe Hosfield's cattle had broken into Martin Scorsby's pecan orchard again," Voland continued. "As far as he could tell, the fence was intact, and both rattle were found on the Triple C side of the property line."

Scorsby, Hosfield's nearest neighbor, was a former California insurance executive who had planted a forty-acre pecan orchard on prime river bottom pastureland Alton Hosfield had coveted for his own. During an estate sale, he had attempted to buy the parcel from the previous owner's widow. Years later, Hosfield still read collusion into the fact that Scorsby's offer had been accepted by the former owner's son-yet another Californian-in place of his. In addition, Joanna knew that on several previous occasions, when Triple C cattle had breached the fence and strayed into Scorsby's peccan orchard, Hosfield had been less than prompt in retrieving them.

"It's not just that the cattle are dead," Voland added ominously. "It's how they got that way. This isn't in the report, because I just talked to deputy Sandoval about it a few minutes ago. He managed to recover a bullet from one of the dead cattle. He said he's never seen anything like it. The slug must be two inches long."

"Two inches!" Joanna repeated. "That sounds like it came out of a cannon rather than a rifle."

"Sniper rifle," Frank Montoya said at once. "Probably one of those fifty-caliber jobs."

Both Joanna and Voland turned on the Chief Deputy for Administration. "You know something about these guns?" the sheriff asked.

"A little," Montoya said. "There's a guy over in Pomerene named Clyde Philips. He's a registered gun dealer who operates out of his back room or garage or some such thing. He called me a couple of months ago wanting to set up an appointment for his salesman to come give us the whole sniper-rifle dog and pony show. He said that since the bad guys might have access to these things, our Emergency Response Team should, too. He sent me some info. After I looked it over, I called him back and told him thanks, but no thanks. Maybe the crooks can afford to buy guns at twenty-five hundred to seven thousand bucks apiece, but at that price they're way outside what the department can pay.”

"What can fifty-calibers do?" Joanna asked.

"Depends on who you ask. After I talked to Philips and looked over the info he sent me, I got on the Internet and researched it a little further. Fifty-calibers were first used as Browning automatic rifles long ago. Remember those, Dick? Then the military in Vietnam tried a sniper version. The farthest-known sniper kill is one point four-two miles, give or take. Not bad for what the industry calls a 'sporting rifle.' "

"Sporting for whom?" Joanna asked.

"Probably not for the cattle," Voland replied.

"We'll be running forensic tests on the slug?"

Voland nodded. "You bet."

"I don't suppose there's any way to tell who some of Clyde Philips' other local customers might be," Joanna suggested.

Montoya shrugged. "You could ask him, I suppose, but I don't know how much good that'll do. Fifty-calibers may be lethal as all hell, but they don't have to be registered. Anybody who isn't a convicted felon is more than welcome to buy one, including, incidentally, those Branch Davidian folks from over in Waco. But just because felons can't buy then doesn't necessarily mean they don't have them. All the crooks have to do is steal one from somebody who does."

"Great," Joanna said. She glanced at her watch. "I guess I'll take a run over to Pomerene later today and have a little chat with Clyde Philips. Anybody care to join me?"

“Can't," Montoya said. "I've got a set of grievance hearings with jail personnel lined up for this afternoon."

"I've got meetings too," Voland said, "although if you need me to go…"

"Then I'll make like the Little Red Hen and do it myself," Joanna said firmly. "While I'm at it, I may stop by and visit both Hosfield and Scorsby. Maybe I can talk sense into one or both of them. The last thing we need is for all those wackos up around Cascabel to choose sides and start throwing stones."

"Orr bullets," Frank Montoya added.

"Right," Joanna said. "Now, what else is going on?"

"Just the usual," Voland replied. "An even dozen undocumented aliens picked up on foot over east of Douglas. A stolen pickup down in Bisbee Junction. Two domestics, one in Elfrida and another out in Palominas. A couple of DWIs between Huachuca City and Benson. In other words, no biggies.”

Joanna turned to Montoya. "What's happening on the administration side?"

"Like I said before, those grievance hearings are set for this afternoon. I should have the September rotation and vacation schedules ready for you to go over by tomorrow morning, and next month's jail menus by tomorrow afternoon. Also, there are two new provisioners, one from Tucson and one from Phoenix, interested in bidding on coming our food supplier. I'm trying to set up meetings with their sales reps for later this week. You should probably be in on both of those."

Joanna nodded. "All right. Anything else?" Both deputies shook their heads. "Okay, then," she told them. "Let's go to work."

Voland and Montoya left Joanna's office. Running one hand through her short red hair, Joanna contemplated the hard nut of uncompleted paperwork left over from the day before when her private phone rang. It was a line she had installed specifically so family members-Jenny in particular-could reach her without having to fight their way through the departmental switchboard.

"Hello, Joanna," Butch Dixon said as soon as she picked up the phone. "How are things with the Sheriff of Cochise?"

Blushing, Joanna glanced toward her office door and was grateful Frank Montoya had closed it behind him when he went out. She didn't like the idea that anyone in the outer office, including Kristin Marsten, her secretary, might be listening in on her private conversations.

"Things are fine," Joanna said. "But I've barely heard from you the last few days. What's going on?"

"I've been as busy as the proverbial one-armed paper hanger," Butch replied. "Or maybe a one-legged flamenco dancer. What about you?"

Joanna recognized that his joking response was meant to gloss over the lack of real information in his answer, and that tweaked her. On the one hand, she couldn't help wondering if his being so busy had something to do with some other woman. On the other hand, since she and Butch had no kind of understanding, Joanna realized she had no right to question him, and no right to be jealous, either.

"Just the usual," she said, matching the vagueness in his answer with her own.

"The usual murder and mayhem, you mean?" he asked. She could almost see the teasing grin behind his question.

"More meetings and paperwork than murder," she admitted with a laugh.

That was one of the things that had dismayed her about being sheriff. Her officers often balked and complained at the amount of paperwork required of them. Joanna found that she certainly had more than her own fair share of it, but what seemed to chew up and squander most of her time, what she resented most, was the never-ending round of meetings. She despised the necessity of attending one mindless confab after another-endless, droning conferences where little happened and even less was decided.

"What are you doing tonight?" Butch asked.

"Tonight? Nothing, but…"

"How about dinner?"

"Where?" Joanna asked, trying not to sound too eager. Several times in the past few months, she and Butch had split the two hundred miles between them by meeting in Tucson for lunch or dinner, but she wasn't sure she wanted to make that trip on a weeknight.

"Eight o'clock in the morning comes mighty early," she said.

Butch laughed. "Don't worry," he returned. "I promise I won't keep you out late. I'll pick you up at the ranch at seven, I've got something I want to show you. See you then.”

"Wait a minute," Joanna interrupted before he could hang up. "What kind of dinner are we talking about? How should I dress?"

"Casual," Butch said. "Definitely casual."

"This doesn't include going someplace on your motorcycle, does it?" she asked warily. Butch Dixon was inordinately proud of his Goldwing, but riding motorcycles was something Joanna Brady didn't do. And she didn't intend 1 start.

"No," Butch answered. "We won't be winging it. I'll have my truck. See you then."

Just as Joanna put down the phone, her office door opened and Kristin marched up to her desk carrying that morning’s stack of mail, which landed on top of the previous day's leftovers. Shaking her head, Joanna dived into it. She wondered if she'd ever achieve the kind of organizational skill where she handled paperwork only once without having to sort it into stacks and piles first.

Kristin stood for a moment watching Joanna work, then she turned to go. "Do me a favor if you would," Joanna called after her. "Look up the number for Clyde Philips over in Pomerene. Call him and ask if I can stop by to see him for a little while early this afternoon, say around two o'clock. And then double-check with Marianne Maculyea and see if we're still on for lunch."

The Reverend Marianne Maculyea, pastor of Canyon United Methodist Church, was not only Joanna's minister, she was also her best friend. The two had known each other from junior high on, and once a week or so, they met for a girl-talk lunch at which they could let down their hair. In Bisbee, Arizona, the two friends were well known for their nontraditional jobs. As women doing "men's" work, both were often targets of small-town gossip, jealousy, and criticism. Set apart from most of the other women in the community, they used their weekly get-togethers as sounding boards and pressure valves. Huddled in the privacy of one of Daisy Maxwell's booths, they could discuss issues neither could mention to anyone else.

While Kristin went to make the calls, Joanna settled in to answer the correspondence. Over the months, Kristin had finally accepted the fact that Joanna preferred to type her own letters on her own computer, rather than going through what she regarded as the cumbersome process of dictating them and having them typed. Dictation might have been fine for a hunt-and-peck typist like Sheriff Walter V. McFadden. For Joanna, however-a former insurance-office manager whose personal typing speed was about one hundred and twenty words a minute- dictation simply didn't make any sense. Whenever possible, the sheriff typed her own correspondence.

One after another, Joanna ripped through the letters, keying one letter in, printing it, and signing it before going on to the next. All Kristin would have to do when they landed on her desk was type the envelopes, stuff the letters inside, and run the stuffed envelopes through the postage meter.

An hour and a half passed with blinding speed. Later, on her way to the coffeepot in the outside office, Joanna stopped at Kristin's desk. "Any luck with Clyde Philips?" Mlle asked.

Kristin shook her head. "I can keep trying, but so far there's no answer at his place."

"What about Marianne?"

"She says it's Cornish Pasties Monday at Daisy's, so she wouldn't miss it for the world."

By eleven-thirty, Joanna was settled into one of the worn Naugahyde booths in Daisy's Cafe. Arriving ahead of Marianne, Joanna sat and waited, stirring her iced tea and replaying her conversation with Butch Dixon. There was a part of her-the old, loyal to Andy part-that enjoyed his company immensely but still wanted to hold the man himself at arm's length. Then there was the other part of her-the new Joanna-who didn't want to run the risk of losing Butch to someone else.

That was one of the reasons she was looking forward to this particular lunch with Marianne. She wanted to have the opportunity to discuss the Butch Dixon dilemma. Marianne Maculyea was a skilled minister and counselor as well as a trusted friend. Joanna hoped Marianne would help sort through some of her jumbled emotions and make sense of what she was feeling.

Unfortunately, the possibility for the two women to have an intimate little chat disappeared the moment Marianne opened the door. She arrived with her two-year-old twins in tow.

Months earlier, Marianne and her husband, Jeff Daniels, had adopted Ruth Rachel and Esther Elaine from an orphan-age in China. Ruth had quickly bounced back from the inhumane deprivations of her infancy, while Esther continued to suffer lingering health difficulties, one of which had placed her on the waiting list for a heart transplant. That painful subject was one Marianne and Jeff seldom discussed with anyone outside their immediate family, Joanna Brady included. It was easy to understand why. For one thing, doctors hadn't held out much hope. Potential donors who might match Esther's ethnic background were few and far between. Without the transplant, Esther would inevitably die, but a successful transplant for her would automatically mean a lifetime of heartbreak for some other devastated family.

Ruth's plump arms and legs as well as her constant tornado of activity stood in sharp contrast to Esther's wan lethargy. Crowing with joy at seeing Joanna, Ruth ran headlong into the restaurant and scrambled eagerly up onto the seat beside her. Marianne followed, carrying Esther, a purse, and an enormous diaper bag-one Joanna had given her on the day the twins arrived in Tucson.

"I hope you don't mind," Marianne apologized, slipping Esther into a high chair the busboy quickly delivered to the booth. He returned a moment later with a booster seat. Beaming up at him, Ruth climbed into that. "Jeff had to make a run up to Tucson to pick up some parts, and in this heat…" Marianne continued.

For years Jeff Daniels had served solely as househusband and clergy spouse to his full-time pastor wife. The arrival of the twins, along with Esther's ongoing medical problems, had put an extra strain on the couple's already meager finances. Faced with the real possibility of financial ruin, Jeff had taken his hobby of restoring old cars and turned it into a thriving business, Auto Rehab Inc. Most of the time he won able to keep the girls with him, but Joanna agreed with Marianne: in the scorching heat of mid-August Arizona, a two-hundred-mile round-trip jaunt in a vehicle without air-conditioning was no place for even healthy two-year-olds. For an ailing one, that kind of trip was absolutely out of the question.

Moderately disappointed at having her plan for an intimate chat scuttled, Joanna didn't have to struggle very hard to put a good face on it. "Don't worry," she replied, pulling the irrepressible Ruth into a squirming hug. "Jenny's been gone for over a week now. Being around the girls will help bring me back up to speed in the motherhood department."

Gratefully, Marianne sank into the booth and began opening the cellophane wrapper on a package of saltine flickers. By the time the crackers were peeled, Ruth was demanding hers in a raucous squawk that sounded for all the world like a hungry, openmouthed nestling screeching for mommy's worm. As soon as Marianne put the cracker down on the table, Ruth scooped them up, one in each hand, and stuck them both in her mouth at once. But Ester's lone cracker had to be placed directly in her hand. Even then, she sat holding the treat, watching Marianne with a wide-eyed, solemn stare, rather than putting the cracker into her mouth.

The lack of that instinctive gesture worried Joanna. So did the grayish tint to the little girl's pale skin. Having missed church on Sunday, Joanna had gone more than a week without seeing either one of the girls. It shocked her to realize that Esther seemed noticeably weaker. Meanwhile, the usually well-composed Marianne appeared to be utterly distracted.

Daisy Maxwell, owner of Daisy's Cafe, appeared just then with her towering, beehive hairdo as well as a long yellow pencil and an outstretched order pad. "What'll it be today, ladies?" she asked. "We've got pasties, you know. They'll probably go pretty fast."

"They always do," Joanna said with a smile. "Sign me up for one."

"Me, too," Marianne added, pulling two empty and spill-proof tippy cups out of her diaper bag. "And a grilled cheese divided into quarters for the girls. A grilled cheese and a large milk."

"Sure thing," Daisy said, slipping the pencil back into her hairdo.

Watching the woman walk away, Joanna struggled to find something inconsequential to say. "That's a magic time to be a mommy," she said finally. "You walk into a restaurant and all you have to know is how to order a grilled cheese sandwich. Believe me, once little kids get beyond their love for grilled cheese, it's all downhill."

Joanna had meant the comment as nothing more than lightweight conversational filler. She was dismayed when her friend's gray eyes clouded over with tears, which Marianne quickly wiped away.

"Esther's worse, then?" Joanna asked.

Marianne nodded wordlessly. Joanna reached across the table and grasped her friend's wrist. "It'll be all right," she said comfortingly. "I know it will."

"I hope so," Marianne murmured.

Daisy chose that moment to reappear, bringing with her the girls' milk and an extra glass of iced tea. "You didn't order this," she said, setting the tea in front of Marianne. "1 figured you probably just forgot, but if you don't want to drink it, there'll be no charge."

Instantly Marianne's tears returned. This time they came so suddenly that one of them raced down her cheek and splashed onto the tabletop before she had a chance to brush it aside.

"Thanks," she said,

"'Think nothing of it, honey," Daisy Maxwell told her. "Believe me, if I had anything stronger back there in the kitchen, I'd give you some of that. Just looking at you, I'd say you could use it."

PROLOGUE | Rattlesnake Crossing | CHAPTER TWO