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Rattlesnake Crossing

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Rattlesnake Crossing

  Rattlesnake Crossing

  J. A. Jance

  As a militia movement invades Arizona 's Cochise County, a gun dealer dies mysteriously, and his stock of high-powered weapons vanishes, Sheriff Joanna Brady investigates two other murders that point to armed separatist Alton Hosfield, a probe that threatens her own life and those of her family.

  J. A. Jance

  Rattlesnake Crossing

  The sixth book in the Joanna Brady series, 1998


  High on a cliff, the shooter panned the nightscope back and forth across the San Pedro Valley. It took a while for him to locate his chosen target across almost a mile of intervening desert. At last, though, he found it. After first putting on his ear protection, he pulled the trigger. In his hands the fifty-caliber sniper rifle roared to life. He felt certain he had nailed the pump, but there was no way to tell for sure. The pump didn't collapse. It just stood there, hit perhaps and with its interior guts shattered, but outwardly the machinery remained unfazed.

  Frustrated, the shooter looked around for some other possibility. That was when he saw the cattle. Taking a bead on a dozing cow, he pulled the trigger again and was gratified to see her legs collapse under her. The shooter smiled in satisfaction. There was something god-like in being able to kill from that far away, to be able to strike without warning, like a thunderbolt. The other cattle, alarmed and frightened, milled about, trying to escape from this unseen threat. Laughing in the face of their stupidity and panic, he dropped another one, just to prove he could.

  Letting the others go, he pulled off his ear protection and was starting to take down the tripod when he heard someone shouting at him, screaming up at him in fear and out-rage. "What are you, crazy? Stop it before someone gets hurt!"

  The shooter could barely believe his ears. Someone was out there in the desert, a woman, standing somewhere between him and the dead cattle. Someone who had heard him shooting.

  "Sorry," he called back. "I was just doing some target practice. I didn't know anyone was here. Where are you?"

  He ducked back down to the tripod. Once again he sent the nightscope scanning across the desert floor. A minute or two passed before he caught sight of the green-hued figure. Moving determinedly, she was trotting away from him, heading toward the river. It stunned him to realize that she must have been on the mountain the whole time he was. Maybe she had seen him and could even identify him. Reaching a spot of fairly open desert, she darted forward with all the grace of a panic-stricken deer. The green image in the high-powered night-vision scope smeared as she accelerated.

  Without pausing to consider, the shooter covered his ears once more and placed a firm finger back inside the trigger guard. The woman was much closer than the cattle had been, so he had some difficulty adjusting his aim. The first shot caused her to trip and duck. As she limped forward, he realized he had winged her, but it wasn't enough to stop her. The second shot did, at least momentarily. She dropped to the ground, but even then, desperate to get away, she scrambled to her feet once more and staggered forward, cradling one arm.

  "Damn!" the shooter exclaimed. "Missed again."

  His third shot did the job. The bullet caught her in the middle of the back. She pitched forward and plummeted facedown on the rocky ground. This time she stayed down. He watched for the better part of a minute, but there was no sign of movement. None at all.

  Up on the mountain, the shooter was barely able to contain his glee as he gathered equipment and shell casings. Killing people did something for him that killing animals didn't. It made him feel all-powerful and all-knowing.

  He didn't rush, though. He took his time. After all, there was no reason to worry that she'd somehow get up on her hands and knees and crawl away from him. No, people shot with fifty-caliber shells weren't mobile enough for that. He had no doubt that by the time he found her-by the time he and his trusty knife arrived on the scene-the woman would still be there, waiting for him.

  Stopping at her mailbox after work on a Monday evening in mid-August, Sheriff Joanna Brady surveyed the heat-shimmering landscape of southeastern Arizona. Off across the mesquite-covered Sulphur Springs Valley, she counted eleven separate dust devils weaving dances and leaving their swirling tracks on the parched desert floor. It had rained hard late the previous afternoon. Now all that remained of that gully-washing downpour was elevated humidity and the vague hope that another storm would blow through eventually. The dust devils and a few fat puffs of cloud on the far horizon were the only visible hint that another summertime monsoon might soon be in the offing.

  Rolling up the window of her county-owned Blazer, Joanna retreated into air-conditioned comfort. Quickly she thumbed through the mail, hoping to see a postcard from Jenny, her daughter. Finding none, she tossed the mail-bills and advertising circulars-onto the seat beside her. Then she put the Blazer in gear, rumbled across the cattle guard, and headed up the narrow track that led to her home on High Lonesome Ranch.

  Usually the road wound through a forest of mesquite sprouting out of hard-packed red clay that resembled adobe far more than it did dirt. But that summer's rainy season had broken all previous records, and it had turned High Lonesome Ranch into a jungle of waist-high weeds. The desert greenery was a life-affirming miracle that left Joanna Brady fascinated. All her life she had heard about how in the early days, when Anglos first came west, that part of the Arizona desert had been a lush grassland. When over-grazing gave rise to water-greedy mesquite, the native grasses had all but disappeared. One of Andy Brady's life-long dreams had been to clear away the forest of mesquite on High Lonesome and restore the depleted grassland. Unfortunately, Deputy Andrew Brady had fallen victim to a drug lord's hit man long before that dream came true.

  The herculean task of clearing the mesquite was something Joanna and Andy might well have tackled together, but on her own-with an eleven-year-old daughter to raise alone and with a demanding, time-consuming job-the stand of mesquite on High Lonesome Ranch was safe. At least for now.

  Within a quarter mile of the cattle guard, Tigger and Sadie, Joanna's two dogs, came galloping down the road to meet her. Sadie was a long-legged bluetick hound who ran with all the easy grace of a greyhound. Tigger, a stocky half pit bull /half golden retriever, had to struggle to keep up. Twenty yards from the Blazer, their noisy approach rousted a long-eared jackrabbit out of the undergrowth. When the rabbit exploded from the brush and set off cross-country, the dogs forgot about welcoming Joanna and pounded after him. That oft-repeated nightly ritual chase-a contest the dogs always lost and the rabbit always won-never failed to make Joanna smile.

  By the time she had pulled up and stopped next to the gate of the fenced yard, the dogs were back. Tongues lolling, they raced around the parked Blazer, searching frantically for something they were convinced must be hiding some-where in the car.

  "You can look all you want to," Joanna told the dogs. "Jenny’s still not here."

  Eva Lou and Jim Bob Brady, Joanna's in-laws and Jenny's paternal grandparents, had taken Jenny with them on a two-week trip that included a Brady family reunion in Enid, Oklahoma. Eva Lou and Jim Bob had wanted to show off their only grandchild. They had offered to take Joanna along as well, but she had declined: time was doing some of its healing work. Over the past few months, the curtain of grief and hurt of Andy's loss had gradually begun to lift. Still, Joanna had feared that being tossed into a virtual army of her dead husband's sympathetic relatives would cause a relapse. Pulling herself out of the suffocating morass of grief had been far too hard for her to risk falling into it once more. Against her better judgment, she had let Jenny go on the trip without her, mostly because Jenny herself had wanted to.

  From the corral, Kiddo, Jenny's horse, voiced his
whickered objection. He was looking for Jenny, too. With the dogs gamboling around her, Joanna went over to the corral and pulled a sugar cube out of her blazer pocket. Clayton Rhodes, her octogenarian neighbor and handyman, was good about feeding the animals, but he wasn't long on socializing with them. After giving Kiddo the sugar, Joanna scratched the sorrel gelding's nose. "You're not the only one who’s lonesome," she told the horse. "I miss her, too."

  When she finally headed into the house, the phone began ringing as she unlocked the back door. Dropping her briefcase, keys, and mail on the washer/dryer, Joanna raced into the living room to pick up the receiver. The name on the Caller ID box belonged to Melvin Unger, Andy's second cousin's husband. Joanna knew that while the Bradys were in Oklahoma, they were staying on the Ungers' farm a few miles outside Enid.

  "Hi, Mom," Jenny said. "Did you just get home?"

  Phone in hand, Joanna kicked off her heels and dropped onto the couch, where she could stretch out with her stockinged feet up on the cushioned armrest. "Yes," she answered. "Just now. I was unlocking the door when I heard the phone ring."

  "Why so late?" Jenny asked.

  "It's not late," Joanna corrected. "Just six. You're in Oklahoma. There's a time zone difference, remember?"

  "Oh," Jenny said. "That's right. I forgot."

  "So how are you?" Joanna asked. "Was the reunion fun?"

  "I guess so," Jenny said.

  Joanna heard the uncertainty in her daughter's voice. "What do you mean, you guess so?"

  "It's just that some of the kids were… well, you know…"

  “I don't know," Joanna said as Jenny's voice trailed off. "They were what?"

  "Well, mean," Jenny said finally.

  "Mean how?"

  "Rodney and Brian, from Tulsa. They kept making fun of me the whole time. They said I talked funny and that since we go to a Methodist church instead of a Baptist that I'd probably go to hell when I die. Is that true, Mom? Is Daddy in hell and not in heaven? And how come Baptists are so mean?"

  Joanna felt a sudden surge of anger rise in her breast. Had she been at the reunion, she might well have told Rodney and Brian a thing or two. "Who are Rodney and Brian?" she demanded. "Isn't their dad's name Jimmy?"

  "I think so," Jenny said.

  "That figures, then," Joanna said. "Your dad used to tell me how, whenever he was back in Oklahoma visiting, his older cousin Jimmy always made his life miserable, too. Remember, 'Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.' " Joanna knew those words of consolation weren't entirely true, but they were worth a try. Predictably, they were greeted by dead silence on the other end of the line. "That is all, isn't it?" she asked then. "The boys saying mean things?"

  "Well…" Jenny said.

  "What else?"

  "You know, just stuff."

  Joanna sighed. "Rodney and Brian aren't mean because they're Baptists, Jenny. Most likely they're mean because that's how they were raised. And then, too, they're boys. Remember that old nursery rhyme Daddy used to read to you, the one about what boys and girls are made of? Girls are sugar and spice and everything nice and boys are frogs and snails and puppy-dog tails."

  "I know," Jenny said. "Are frogs in there because of the legs?"

  "Legs?" Joanna asked. "What do you mean?"

  "'That's something else Rodney and Brian do-they catch frogs and bugs and pull their legs off. And then they watch to see what happens.,"

  Joanna felt suddenly sick to her stomach. She was a mother, but she was also a cop. She knew about the kinds of profiling done by investigators of the FBI. She knew how often things like torturing small animals had been dismissed as harmless little-boy stuff, when in fact it had been a clear warning signal that something was seriously haywire and the little boy was actually taking his first ominous steps on a journey that would eventually lead to serial homicide.

  Joanna's biggest concern right then wasn't so much that Rodney and Brian Morse were already junior serial killers. But it did seem possible that, bored with verbal abuse and tiring of helpless animal victims, the boys had turned their propensity for physical torture on Jenny. If so, Jenny wasn't saying.

  Joanna was careful to keep her voice steady. "How long are Rodney and Brian going to be there?"

  "I don't know for sure," Jenny answered. "I guess the rest of the week."

  "And are they staying out there on the farm?"

  "No. They're at a motel in town each night, but they come out to the farm during the day."

  Mentally, Joanna closed her eyes and tried to remember the school photos accompanying letters in Christmas cards past. It seemed as though the boys were close to Jenny's age, but she couldn't be sure. "How old are they?" she asked.

  "Rodney's twelve. Brian's eleven."

  "Listen," Joanna said. "And I mean listen carefully. The rest of this week, I don't want you to spend any more time alone with those boys than you absolutely have to. But if you end up with them and they give you any more lip about being a Methodist or whatever, I want you to go after Rodney and punch his lights out. Use that thumb hold Daddy taught you for starters."

  "But is that okay?" Jenny asked. "Don't I have to forgive them? Aren't I supposed to turn the other cheek?"

  No, you're not, Joanna thought. And you don't have to be a victim, either. She said, "'They've pulled these name-calling stunts more than once, haven't they?"

  "Yes," Jenny replied. "The whole time they've been here."

  "'Then you've already turned the other cheek as much as you need to," Joanna assured her daughter. "The next time they look at you cross-eyed, let 'em have it."

  "But what will Grandpa and Grandma say?" Jenny objected. "What if they get mad at me?"

  "'They won't, not if you tell them what's been going on."

  Joanna heard a sound in the background. "That's Grandma Brady now," Jenny said. "It's time for dinner. Do you want to talk to her?"

  Joanna took a deep breath. "Sure," she said. "You go eat, and I'll talk to Grandma." Moments later, Eva Lou came on the line. They chatted for a few minutes before Joanna brought up Rodney and Brian. "What's going on with those boys?" she asked.

  "'That's it," Eva Lou said. "They're just being boys."

  "It sounds to me as though they're out of control."

  "Well, maybe a little," Eva Lou agreed.

  Joanna didn't want to step over any lines, nor did she want to make it sound as though Jenny was being a tattletale. "Try to keep an eye on them," Joanna said. "Some extra adult supervision never hurt anybody."

  Long after she put down the phone, Joanna lay on the conch, staring up at the ceiling, her heart seething with a combination of worry and anger. Why do kids have to be such monsters? she wondered. The incident reminded her of the little flock of leghorns Eva Lou used to keep out in the chicken yard. Among chickens, even a small difference from the rent of the flock would be enough to provoke an unrelenting attack. After a while, the different one would just give up. It wouldn't even bother to fight back.

  From that standpoint, Joanna had no doubt that she had given Jenny good advice. The last thing bullies like Rodney and Brian expected was for a helpless victim to turn on them and beat the crap out of them. Which Jenny was fully capable of doing. Andy had seen to that. He had taught his daughter both offensive and defensive moves, making sure she knew how to use them.

  Shaking her head, Joanna rolled off the couch. Carrying the phone with her, she made her way into the bedroom and stripped off her clothes. Only when she was standing there naked did she realize that her favorite set of summer attire-sports bra, tank top, shorts, and undies-was still in the dryer, where she had left it on her way to work early that morning.

  Eleanor Lathrop, Joanna's mother, had done her utmost to inculcate Joanna with the same kinds of repression and overweening modesty in which she herself had been raised. In Eleanor's scheme of things, walking naked through her own house-even a good mile from the nearest neighbor-would have been utterly unthinkable. But Eleanor was o
ut of town this week, on a belated Alaskan honeymoon cruise with George Winfield, Cochise County 's new medical examiner and Eleanor's new husband of some three months' standing. No, if Joanna happened to walk around naked in her own home, who was going to give a damn? Certainly not the two dogs.

  With that Joanna flung open the bedroom door-closed out of habit-and strode through the living room and kitchen and on into the enclosed back porch that doubled as a laundry room entryway. There she pulled the clothes out of the dryer and put them on. Then she went back to the kitchen and switched on Jenny's boom-box CD player. Patsy Cline's distinctive voice came wafting through the speakers in her trademark song of falling to pieces, a roadmap for how not to move beyond the loss of a love.

  The CD was new, a birthday gift from Butch Dixon, a friend of Joanna's from up near Phoenix. It was a never-before released recording of a concert Patsy Cline had given shortly before the plane crash that had taken her life. Listening to Patsy sing from across all those years was like hearing from Andy as well. Patsy Cline was dead and yet, through the magic of her work, she lived on in much the game way Andy was still a part of High Lonesome Ranch and of Jenny's and Joanna's lives as well.

  Joanna had been taken aback by her strong emotional reaction to the music. She had been surprised. To her dismay, Butch Dixon hadn't been surprised in the least.

  With the music still swirling around her, Joanna opened the refrigerator door and stared at the contents, wondering what to fix for dinner. It came to her all at once. Closing the refrigerator door and opening the cupboard instead, she plucked out the box of Malt-o-Meal. She had always wondered what it would be like to have hot cereal for dinner.

  That night, with no one there to criticize or complain-with no one to consider but herself-Joanna Brady found out. She cooked the cereal in the microwave, covered it with milk and brown sugar, and then ate it standing there by the counter. Eleanor would have been aghast.

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