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The dirt road leading onto the Triple C Ranch was almost as badly washboarded as the one leading to Martin Scorsby's Pecan Plantation, but compared to the Scorsbys' almost palatial digs, Alton Hosfield's house was far more modest. The gingerbread-frame construction topped by a steep tin roof had Joanna wondering if this larger house and her turn-of-the-century bungalow on High Lonesome Ranch weren't closely related cousins. As she studied the exterior, it seemed to her that, like hers, this was a mail-order Sears Roebuck kit-house that had been shipped west from Chicago by train. Some assembly required.

The woman who came to the gate to meet Joanna's Blazer was a plain-faced blonde with streaks of blatantly untinted gray showing in a utilitarian ponytail. She looked to be in her late forties or early fifties, but under a ruffled apron was a youthfully trim figure in a pair of snugly fitting jeans. Her single best feature-bright blue eyes-sparkled out of a face lined as much by laughter as by the sun.

She smiled, holding out a hand in welcome. "I'm Sonja Hosfield," she said. "Can I help you?"

The woman's firm handshake as well as the unfeigned friendliness in her welcome immediately put Joanna at ease. She held up her badge. "I'm Sheriff Brady," she said. "Joanna Brady. I was hoping to speak to your husband."

"He and my stepson are still out working in one of the fields," Sonja said. "They're cutting hay. It's dry right now, and they need to get it cut, baled, and stacked before it rains again, but it's just about time for them to come in to supper. If you don't mind waiting, I could send my son to tell Alton you're here. I'm sure he'll want to speak to you."

Sonja pulled open the gate. "Come on in," she said. "We can have some iced tea while we wait."

Inside the house, she went to the bottom of a flight of stairs. "Jake?" she called. "Are you up there?"

"Yeah, Mom, I'm here."

"Come down, then," she said. "Somebody's here to see your dad. I need you to go get him for me."

Sonja Hosfield was old enough for Joanna to expect a hulking twenty something son to come down the creaking stairway. Instead, the red-haired boy who bounded down into the entryway was scarcely older than Joanna's Jenny. He started to dart straight past them and out through the front door, but Sonja stopped him.

"Just a minute, young man," she said. "Where are your manners?"

Jake Hosfield stopped in mid-flight, turned, and skulked back into the house, blushing sheepishly as he came. "This is Sheriff Brady, Jake," his mother said.

Flushing to the roots of hair that was almost as red as Joanna's, he wiped one hand on his pant leg, then reached out awkwardly to shake hands. "Glad to meetcha, ma'am," he said.

"I'm glad to meet you, too," Joanna returned.

With the obligatory handshake over, Jake stool for an awkward moment or two and then backed away. "I've gotta go now," he said. "See you later."

"That's better," Sonja called after him. "Hurry, now. Tell your father supper's almost ready, too."

She turned back to Joanna. "He's a little shy," she said. "That's what happens when you raise kids out in the country. Now, I hope you don't mind sitting in the kitchen. You caught me right in the middle of cooking dinner. I was just chopping up some tomatoes and onions to put in the salsa."

As they started away from the entry, Joanna heard the whine of what sounded like a motorcycle starting up outside. "Don't worry," Sonja said over her shoulder. "That's only Jake's ATV. He prefers that to horses, and he only rides it when he's on our property. As far as helmets go, believe me, he knows that if he doesn't wear one, I'll kill him."

Following Sonja Hosfield into her warm and fragrant kitchen, Joanna found the combination of smells utterly tantalizing. There was no mistaking what was for dinner-roast beef, a vat of simmering pinto beans, and a slab of freshly baked corn bread cooling in a thirteen-inch cast-iron skillet.

"Sit right here," Sonja said, shifting aside one of the four place settings already laid out on a pillared round table made of solid, well-worn oak. "Help yourself. The tea's right there in the pitcher," she added, "and here's a glass with ice. Supper isn't going to be anything fancy, but you're welcome to join us if you like."

Gratefully sipping her tea, Joanna couldn't help comparing Sonja Hosfield's openhanded hospitality with Martin Scorsby's lack of same. Much as she would have loved to sample some of Sonja's cooking, Joanna knew that in order to maintain a sense of impartiality between the two families, she would have to decline the invitation. Only belatedly did she remember that she also had a date for dinner-with Butch.

"Thanks just the same," she said. "I'm sure I won't be able to stay that long. I happened to be in the neighborhood and wanted to stop by to assure you and Mr. Hosfield that we're taking last night's shooting incident very seriously. My department is doing everything it can to find the culprit. The last thing any of us wants is for this situation to escalate out of hand."

"Isn't that the truth!" Sonja exclaimed. "I know exactly what you mean. When Alton saw that wrecked pump this morning, I thought he was going to come unglued. By the way, Sheriff Brady, call him Alton. If you call him Mr. Hosfield to his face, he'll blush deep purple, the same as Jake. Like father, like son, I guess. The two of them are two peas in a pod, although I tease Alton that his forehead seems to be getting longer these days."

She laughed then-in a gust of straightforward, bell-like laughter-that made Joanna want to laugh right along with her. Moments later, Sonja had to pause in her chopping long enough to dab at her eyes with one corner of the ruffled apron.

"Onions," she explained. "Crying's the best part of making salsa. If there aren't a few tears mixed in, it's not real salsa."

Looking around the room, Joanna saw the usual kitchen clutter and homey counter stuff-a can opener and coffee-pot; an aging toaster oven; an old gray-and-blue crock holding a selection of spoons and spatulas. Across the room sat an old Tappan gas range and a Frigidaire refrigerator, both of which looked like they belonged on the 1950s-era set of I Love Lucy. There was no dishwasher, only a drainboard with an empty wire dish rack sitting to one side of the double rink.

On the ledge of the window stood a series of several handmade clay pitchers. Roughly formed and out of balance, they struck a familiar note-the kind of handiwork that childish hands might create in a Bible school arts and crafts session. Well-used pots and pans dangled from a metal framework attached to the high ceiling. Old-fashioned wooden cupboards complete with white knob handles went all the way to that same ceiling. A worn step stool in one corner of the room hinted that it might be the secret to making Sonja's top shelves more accessible.

Next to the cupboard at the far end of the table was a wall-mounted phone-the old-fashioned dial type. Next to that hung two framed diplomas from the University of Arizona. One listed the recipient as Sonja Marie Hemmelberg. The other had been issued to David Alton Hosfield. Both of them dated from the mid-sixties.

Sonja glanced in Joanna's direction and caught her studying the diplomas. "Looking at the artifacts, are you?" she asked with a smile.

"Artifacts?" Joanna repeated, ashamed to have been caught snooping.

Sonja laughed again. "I was a Home Ec major," she said. "I don't think they make those anymore. Since I was in Home Ec and Alton was an Aggie, everybody thought it was a match made in heaven. We met at a mixer between my dorm and his fraternity the first week of school our freshman year. I was in Pima Hall-sort of an honors dorm for poor but smart girls." She shrugged. "What can I tell you? It was love at first sight."

They've spent more than thirty-five years together, Joanna thought. The stab of hurtful jealousy that passed through her might have been Sonja Hosfield's paring knife plunged deep in her heart. She and Andy never had a chance to come near twenty-five years, much less thirty-five.

The words burst out of Joanna's mouth before she could stop them. "You're lucky to have had so much time together. My husband died on the night of our tenth anniversary.”

Sonja slopped chopping. "I'm sorry," she said.

"I'm sorry, too," Joanna said guiltily. "I shouldn't have brought it tip."

"No, it's fine. But you're wrong about the timing-ours, that is. We haven't had that many years together, either. Alton and I went together all through college, but then we broke up during spring semester of our senior year. We had a big fight over something stupid, and I gave Alton back his engagement ring. He wanted me to take birth control pills, you see. They were fairly new back then. He said he didn't want us to, as they called it back then, 'get in trouble and have to get married.' But birth control pills were against my religion-or at least they were against my parents' religion. I told him if he really loved me he wouldn't even ask me to do such a sinful thing."

Sonja scraped the pile of finely chopped onions across the cutting board into a mixing bowl. Then she absently stirred the contents of the bowl with the blade of her knife. "I'm not sure how I came to all those erroneous conclusions," she said finally. "Here we were sleeping together-had been for years. It seems to me now that risking an unwed pregnancy should have counted as more of a sin than taking birth control pills, but then Home Ec majors always were strong on cooking and short on philosophy."

She stopped stirring and brought the dish of freshly made salsa over to the table. The combination of chopped tomatoes, onions, and cilantro was enough to make Joanna's eyes water as well.

"With everything that's on TV and in the movies nowadays," Sonja continued, "the whole thing sounds ridiculous-almost quaint, doesn't it? But it wasn't ridiculous b then. Not at all, and we broke up over it. Alton and I each married other people and spent the next eighteen or nineteen years in hell. I found someone who didn't want a stay-at-home wife, and Alton married someone who wasn't one. By the time we met again, at our twentieth class reunion, we were both divorced. In our case, it was re-love at first sight. So we haven't been married very long, either. More tea?"

As the jasmine-laced tea poured over Joanna's partially melted ice cubes, she was astonished at the ease with which she and Sonja had fallen into this conversation. They were strangers, and yet they might have been friends forever. Joanna suspected that a good deal of Sonja's volubility had do with plain, ordinary loneliness. Stuck out here on the far fringes of civilized Cochise County, Sonja Hosfield probably didn't have many people to talk to outside the confines circle of her own small family.

"Do you have any children?" Sonja asked.

Sipping her tea, Joanna nodded. "A daughter. Her name's Jenny-Jennifer Ann. She's eleven."

"So she's not all that much younger than Jake," Sonja said. "He just turned twelve this past March. He's ours together, Alton 's and mine, but we both have other kids besides. He has a son, Ryan, and a daughter, Felicia, from his first marriage, and I have two boys-men now-Matt and Jason. When I divorced their father, the boys couldn't understand why I was leaving. They opted to stay with the big bucks-with the house and the cars and the swimming pool. Living in a ratty little two-bedroom apartment wasn't for them. I don't think they've ever forgiven me. Not for leaving then, and certainly not for being happy now."

Taking another knife from a wooden block on the counter, Sonja began to slice up the cornbread. "What happened to your husband?" she asked. "Was he ill?"

Joanna steeled herself to tell the story once again. "He was a police officer," she said. "He was shot."

"In the line of duty?"

Even though Deputy Andrew Roy Brady had been officially off duty at the time of the incident, the county commissioners had ruled his fatality as line of duty. "That's right," she said.

Sonja nodded. "I remember now. He was running for office at the time, for sheriff."

"Yes," Joanna said. "After the funeral, some of his supporters asked me to run in his stead, and here I am."

"I've never been one of those women's libbers," Sonja said. "Being a woman in a man's job must be difficult at times."

Joanna glanced around Sonja Hosfield's old-fashioned and industrious but nonetheless spotless kitchen. It was Sheriff Brady's turn to smile. "I don't know," she said. "I'm not so sure being a woman in a woman's job isn't just as hard."

Sonja shrugged. "Maybe it is."

For a little while it was quiet in the kitchen, except for the noisy hum of a teapot-shaped electric clock on the wall over the stove. The sound of it served as a reminder to Sheriff Brady that she was neglecting her responsibilities. "About last night…" Joanna began.

"I heard them," Sonja told her. "The gunshots, that is. There were several of them, one right after another. Then, after a pause, there were several more. They sounded like the M-80 firecrackers my boys used to like so much when they were kids. It's not the first time I've heard them in the last few weeks. I figured they were just leftovers from somebody's Fourth of July. Now, though, I'm thinking Martin's not much of a shot and this was the first time he’s actually managed to hit something."

Noting that Sonja Hosfield immediately assumed that Martin Scorsby was the person responsible, Joanna let that slide for the moment. "You said you heard shots. Does that mean your husband didn't?"

"Right," Sonja said. " Alton went to Vietnam, you see. A land mine blew up close enough to him that it knocked him out. He wasn't badly hurt. Unlike some of his buddies, he didn't lose an arm or a leg, but he came home with a severe hearing loss. Without his hearing aids, he's deaf as a post. According to the VA, his deafness isn't service-related. He's been fighting the benefits people about it for years, but it hasn't done any good. I guess the people in charge of claims are just as deaf as he is."

"I noticed the sign down by the road. No feds allowed. Is that why he's mad at them, because he thinks they mismanaged his VA claim?"

Sonja shook her head. "He's mad at them because every time he turns around, there's some other federal regulation or requirement that gets in the way of his being able to run his ranch. He's sick and tired of governmental interferenc and as far as I'm concerned, the man's entitled to his opinion."

"Does that opinion extend to the Cochise County Sheriff's Department?" Joanna asked.

Sonja smiled. "I shouldn't think so, especially since you're here to help straighten out this mess with Scorsby.”

Somewhat reassured, Joanna resumed her questioning. "So, getting back to that, what time did you hear the shots?

"Ten-thirty, maybe? The ten o'clock news had just gone off and I was getting ready for bed. Alton was already asleep."

Just then there was a rumbling outside the house. It sounded like several vehicles arriving at once. When Joanna lanced out the window, however, she saw only two-Jake Hosfield's ATV and a 1980s-era Ford pickup. While she watched, Jake jumped off the ATV, pulled off his helmet, and dashed toward the house. Two men climbed out of the other vehicle. After what looked like a brief conference across the bed of the pickup, one of the two walked away and disappeared into a barnlike structure, while the other-thee driver-limped toward the house.

Sonja Hosfield peeked out the same window. "I'd better go let him know what's what," she said. With that she slipped off her apron and hung it on one peg of a hat rack just to the left of the back door.

Feeling a little like a voyeur, Joanna watched as Sonja darted out the back door and hurried up the path to meet her husband. Tall and angular, Alton Hosfield doffed his cowboy hat and had to lean down to kiss the top of his wife's head. Then, holding hands, the two of them continued on toward the house.

Except for the hearing aids Alton wore in each ear, he was exactly what Joanna would have expected of an Arizona rancher. Hard physical labor meant that there was no fat on his spare, lean body. His features were as craggy and deeply tanned as the rockbound cliffs overlooking the San Pedro. His dusty boots were worn down at the heels, but even after a day out in the field, his threadbare Levi's still showed a hint of the crease some loving hand had ironed into them, while the back hip pocket bore the unmistakable imprint of a round tobacco can. The sleeves of his plaid cowboy shirt-tan with pearlescent snaps-were rolled up almost to the elbows, exposing bare, work-hardened hands and sinewy forearms. The moment he walked info the house, he removed his sweat-stained Resistol hat, revealing a head of hair every bit as red as his son's-although, as Sonja had mentioned, Alton 's hairline was definitely receding.

With practiced ease, he tossed the straw hat onto an empty peg next to his wife's apron. Then he came striding across the faded kitchen linoleum with his hand extended. "Sorry to kick up such a fuss around here today, Sheriff Brady," he said in a soft-spoken drawl. "But if somebody doesn't put a stop to Martin Scorsby's nonsense, I will, and I guarantee you, he won't like it."

"Now, Alton," Sonja cautioned. "Please…"

"Don't you 'Now, Alton ' me," Hosfield returned. "I mean what I say. That man and that little Birkinstar-wearing bimbo of his-"

"Birkenstock," Sonja corrected smoothly.

"Whatever you want to call 'em," Alton said, "those two have been a pain in my backside ever since they showed up here. Before that, even. And if Scorsby thinks he can sit over in those trees of his and take shots at my property…"

"Did Deputy Sandoval take pictures this morning?" Joanna asked.

"Pictures?" Alton Hosfield repeated. "Of my dead cattle? Why would he? Most everybody with a lick of sense can tell a dead cow when he sees one. Why would anybody want to take pictures?"

"If Deputy Sandoval was following proper procedure, he would have," Joanna said. "Photos would have shown exactly how the cows were situated in the field. They would also give us the positions of entrance and exit wounds. With that kind of information, we can begin to develop a sense of trajectory of the bullets. Knowing where the shots came from will help us identify who the shooter is."

"Well," Hosfield conceded, "your deputy may have-taken pictures, that is. I just don't remember."

"What about the pump?"

"When Sandoval got here, I gave him the smashed housing, but I had already replaced it by then. I'm not going to sit around all day with a broken pump while I'm waiting for a cop to decide whether or not he's going to show up. Sometimes they don't, you see. You call and maybe the deputy will turn up that day and maybe he won't.

"Still, the new housing is the same as the old one. They had discontinued that model when I bought them. I was able to get the two-one and a replacement-for almost the same amount of money as a new one would have cost. So if you look at the one that's on the pump now, you should be able to get a pretty good idea of what happened."

Outside, a vehicle started. Joanna looked out the window in time to see an old panel truck, a rust-spotted blue one that looked as though it might have once belonged to a dairy, rattle out past the gate. "Where's Ryan going?" Sonja asked her husband with a frown.

"Into town, I guess."

"What about dinner?"

"He said he had plans."

For the first time since Joanna had met Sonja Hosfield, she saw a look of real annoyance wash across the other woman's face. "He didn't have plans this morning," she said. "Don't you remember? I asked him at breakfast be-cause I wanted to know how much meat to get out of the freezer."

"Well, I don't know where he's going," Alton Hosfield said. "All I know is he said he was going."

With her lips set in a thin, angry line, Sonja came over to the table and removed one of the four place settings, slamming the plate back in the cupboard, dropping the silver-ware into the drawer. "It would have been nice-it would have been good manners-if he had told me," she said pointedly.

"I'm sorry, hon," Alton said. "I should have made him…"

"You shouldn't have done anything, Alton," she told him. "It's not your fault. He's twenty-two years old. He should have thought of it himself."

"Now, Sheriff Brady, getting back to this pump business…"

At that precise moment, Joanna's cell phone rang. While Sonja and Alton Hosfield looked on in some surprise, Joanna reached into her purse, removed the phone, and answered it. "Sheriff Brady here. I'm in the middle of an interview. What's up?"

"Sorry to interrupt," Larry Kendrick said. "We tried several times to raise you on the radio. I finally decided we'd better try the phone."

"Why?" Joanna asked. "What's happened?"

"Search and Rescue just found a body," Larry Kendrick said. "A woman who's been shot. I thought you'd want to know."

A knot, like a sudden, sharp cramp, gripped Sheriff Brady's insides. Sonja Hosfield claimed that she had heard several shots. The pump and the two dead cattle accounted for three of the several bullets. She wondered if the dead woman accounted for another.

Larry, the chief dispatcher, sounded as though he wanted to add something more, but Joanna cut him off without giving him a chance. "Tell them I'm on my way, Larry. Where do I go?"

"Where are you now?"

"With Mr. and Mrs. Hosfield at the Triple C."

"Search and Rescue set up a command post just inside the gates to Rattlesnake Crossing Ranch. It's another three miles or so up Pomerene Road from where you are."

"I know where Rattlesnake Crossing is," Joanna said. "I'll be there just as soon as I can make it."

"Detective Carbajal's still in Pomerene and tied up with the lady from the Pima County Medical Examiner's office," Larry continued, "so I called Ernie Carpenter at home. He's still a little woozy from whatever medication he took for his migraine, but he said to tell you that he's on his way."

Sighing, Joanna ended the call and slipped the phone back into her purse. "Sorry," she said to the Hosfields. "There's been an emergency. I have to go."

"They must've found that woman," Alton said, turning to his wife. "I probably forgot to tell you. Her husband came around looking for her right after breakfast this morning. He came by while Ryan and I were working on the pump. Said she'd been missing since yesterday afternoon."

"Is she okay?" Sonja asked.

"No," Joanna told them. "She's not okay. She's dead."

CHAPTER FIVE | Rattlesnake Crossing | CHAPTER SEVEN