Easing the porch swing back and forth, thirty-year-old Sheriff Joanna Brady closed her green eyes and let the warmth of an early-November Sunday afternoon caress her body. Nearby, on the top step, sat Joanna's best friend and pastor, the Reverend Marianne Maculyea of Canyon United Methodist Church. Without speaking for minutes at a time, the two women watched their respective children-Joanna's eleven-year-old Jennifer and Marianne's three-year-old Ruth-at play.
Both sets of mothers and daughters were studies in contrast. Joanna's red hair was cut short in what Helen Barco at Helene's Salon of Hair and Beauty called a figure-skater cut. On this Sunday afternoon, Marianne's long dark hair was pulled back in a serviceable ponytail. Jenny's fair, blue-eyed face was surrounded by a halo of tow-headed white hair while Ruth's shiny black pageboy gleamed in the warm autumn sun.
The last week in October, a surprisingly fierce cold snap had visited southeastern Arizona, bringing with it a frigid rain that had threatened to drown out most of Bisbee's Halloween trick-or-treating. Two days later, when bright sunlight reemerged, the cottonwood, apple, and peach trees on High Lonesome Ranch seemed to have changed colors overnight. In the sunny days and crisp nights since, dying leaves had drifted from their branches and had fallen to earth, carpeting the yard in a thick mantle of gold, red, rust, and brown.
For little Ruth, recently rescued from life in a desolate Chinese orphanage, the crackly, multicolored leaves were a source of incredible wonder and delight. Together the two girls raked great mounds of leaves into piles, then dived into themwith a chorus of shrieks alternating with giggles.
For a while both of Jenny's dogs-Sadie, a bluetick hound, and Tigger, a comical-looking half pit bull/half golden retriever-had joined in. When Sadie tired of the game, she retreated to the relative quiet of the porch along with Joanna and Marianne. With a sigh, the dog lay down on the top step and placed her smooth, floppy-eared head in Marianne's lap. Tigger, however, continued to throw himself into the festivities with all the antic energy of a born clown.
On Jenny's command to "stay," the dog, quivering with eager anticipation, would lie perfectly still and allow himself to be covered with a mound of leaves. When Jenny shouted "okay," the dog would erupt from the leaves, tuck his tail between his legs, and then race around the yard as though pursued by a pack of ravenous coyotes.
Each time the game was repeated, Ruth clapped her hands in childish delight. "Again, Jenny," she crowed. "Do again!"
Watching the simple game and enjoying the gales of gleeful laughter, Joanna Brady found herself nodding and smiling. She was about to comment on the beautiful afternoon and on the two girls' unrestrained joy. When she looked in Marianne's direction, however, she saw a single tear snake its way down her friend's solemn face. Seeing that tear, Joanna opted for silence. For the space of another minute or so, neither woman said a word while Marianne's hand absently stroked Sadie's soft, velvety muzzle.
"What is it, Mari?" Joanna asked finally. The question wasn't really necessary because Joanna knew exactly what the problem was. In August, Marianne's other newly adopted daughter-Esther, Ruth's twin sister-had died of complications following heart-transplant surgery. It seemed certain to Joanna that watching two little girls at play on this warm, jewel-clear afternoon had reopened Marianne's aching wound.
Joanna Brady herself was no stranger to the grieving process. The death of her husband, Andy, had thrown her own life into a personal hell of pain and loss. She understood how a perfect moment in a gemlike day could darken and then be dashed to pieces by the sudden realization that someone else was missing from the picture, that a certain loved one wasn't present to share that special moment. At times like these, the perfection of the present would fade to a muddy gray, shrouded behind an impenetrable fog of hurt. Watching one daughter at play, Marianne had no doubt been stricken by a terrible longing for the other child, one who wasn't there and never would be again.
Convinced that she knew exactly what was going on with Marianne, Joanna was confused when, after another minute or so, she heard her friend's clipped response. "I'm going to quit," Marianne said.
At first Joanna didn't make the connection. "Quit what?" she asked.
"The ministry," Marianne replied. "I'm going to resign effective immediately."
Somehow Joanna managed to stifle her gasp of dismay. "Surely you don't mean that!" she said at last.
"I do," Marianne said determinedly. "I've never meant anything more in my life. My letter of resignation is all written. It's sitting in the computer waiting to be printed.There's a church council meeting on Wednesday evening.I'll probably turn it in then."
Stunned, Joanna fell silent.Through the turmoil following Andy's death, Marianne Maculyea and her husband, Jeff Daniels, had been never-failing sources of comfort and support.With their help and encouragement, Joanna had slowly battled her way back to emotional stability.They had walked her through months of painful grieving-through the inevitable stages of denial and anger-until she has at last achieved a measure of acceptance.
That summer, when tragedy had visited her friends in the form of Esther's death, Joanna had done her best to return the favor.She had strived to provide the same kind of understanding and strength for them that they had given her.Now, Joanna realized that her efforts had fallen short.She must not have done enough.Why else would Marianne be sitting on the front porch, basking in the warm afternoon sunlight, and drowning in despair? Outlaw Mountain
. Copyright © by J. Jance. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.