J. A. Jance

Skeleton Canyon

The fifth book in the Joanna Brady series, 1997


Hands on her hips, youthful breasts outthrust beneath the bulk of her red-and-gray sweater, seventeen-year-old Roxanne Brianna O’Brien, captain of the Bisbee High School pep squad, tossed her long blond hair and led her six- member team in a strutting parade around the end of the football field.

On a clear crisp late-November night, this was the end of halftime festivities and the beginning of the third quarter in a hard-fought football game between two teams whose long-term rivalry stretched all the way back to 1906. A ragtag marching band-comprised of mismatched players from both the Bisbee and Douglas music programs-had just delivered a faltering, musically challenged performance. Now it was time for the uniformed yell squads of both schools to travel to opposite sides of the field. There each would give an obligatory and good- sportsmanlike cheer in front of the opposing team’s fans.

The Bisbee Pumas might have been two touchdowns behind at the half, but there was no sign of that in the proud carriage of their cheerleaders as they marched down the sidelines toward the part of the bleachers reserved for visiting Douglas supporters.

At the fifty-yard line, Brianna, who much preferred her middle name to the old-fashioned Roxanne, glanced toward the reserved-seat section where her parents usually sat. David O’Brien’s wheelchair was parked in the bottom aisle. As the cheerleaders paraded past out on the field, Bree noticed that her father’s silvery-maned head was inclined toward his program, studying it with frowning concentration. Brianna hoped he’d raise his eyes and at least glance in her direction. She longed for some acknowledgment from her father, for some sign of parental pride or approval. As usual, David was too preoccupied with something else to bother noticing her.

The same did not hold true for Bree’s mother, Katherine. She smiled and nodded encouragement as her daughter went by. Katherine’s beaming pride and unfailing enthusiasm were almost as hard for Bree to handle as her father’s studied indifference. Under the harsh glare of the ballpark’s newly installed field lights, Bree was careful not to let the hurt show through. After all, to those around her-fellow students who had elected her head cheerleader, homecoming queen, and the girl most likely to succeed-Brianna O’Brien had it all-money, looks, and brains. Brianna alone knew the hurt and disappointment that lurked behind those outward trappings of youthful success.

Leading; the girls down the field, Bree kept her smiling mask carefully in place. Once at the far end of the visitor section of the stands, she stopped and waited for the other girls to find their proper places. When the line was perfectly straight, she raised her arm like a conductor raising his baton to signal the beginning of a concert.

“Ready, girls?” Bree had to shout to be heard over the rising hubbub in the stands as the teams on the field began to form up in anticipation of the second-half kickoff. “Two bits, four bits, six bits, a peso. All for Douglas stand up and say so.”

A the applauding Douglas fans surged to their feet, the Bisbee girls turned a series of handsprings up and down the sidelines. Then they resumed a parade stance and headed back toward their own side of the field via the end zone holding what were now Bisbee’s goalposts. The cheerleaders’ backs were turned to the players on the field when a referee blew his whistle, announcing the resumption of play.

The second-half kickoff flew high in the air, sending the ball tumbling toward the Bulldog offensive unit, stationed at the far end of the field. Fifteen yards from the goal line, the ball plummeted into the waiting hands of Douglas quarterback and team captain Ignacio Salazar Ybarra. He paused for a moment, searching the field for any sign of weakness among the Bisbee defenders. Seeing a hole, he clasped the ball firmly to his chest and started down the field, deftly dodging between other players-friend and foe-alike-with all the grace and agility of a fleeing white-tailed deer.

As both teams rumbled down the field toward the marching cheerleaders, there was no hint on Roxanne Brianna O’Brien’s shadowless face that in the next thirty seconds her young life would be inalterably changed.

Afterward, newspaper accounts of the game reported that throughout the first half of the game on that crisp fall evening, Bulldog Iggy Ybarra had played nothing short of inspired foot-ball with a confidence that came from knowing every yard gained carried him that much closer to winning a coveted football scholarship, one that would pay his way to college.

Pounding toward the goal line, Iggy angled across the field and then stayed just inside the sideline markers. He had out-distanced most of the Puma defenders and thought he was almost home free when, five yards short of the goal line, he heard someone gaining on him from behind. Dodging out of the way, he went one step farther than he meant to, crossing over the sideline marker in the process. He had just stepped out of bounds when someone smashed into him from behind. The two players crashed to the ground only a yard or so from the cheerleaders.

Bree was close enough to the action that, even over the raucous roar of enthusiastic fans, she heard the bone snap. Turning her head in horror, she saw a Douglas player crumple to the ground with Bisbee defender Frankie Lefthault on top of him. The awful groan that came as the Douglas boy fell seemed to have been wrenched from his very soul. Bree saw him lying there, writhing and helpless, moaning in agony while penalty flags blossomed and referee whistles sounded all over the field.

Long before anyone else reached the injured player, long before Frankie himself scrambled to his feet, Bree O’Brien was kneeling at the fallen boy’s side, holding his hand. She responded out of instinct, out of an inborn compulsion to go to the aid of anything or anyone in need. It was only as she knelt there that she realized player number eleven on the Douglas Bulldog team was someone she actually knew.

The previous summer, Brianna had attended a two-week line arts session at the University of Arizona in Tucson. There, she had net Nacio Ybarra, as he called himself. The two of them had wound up in the same drama workshop. In an honor bestowed by their peers, they had been paired to play the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene for the end of-session grand finale.

In the process of working together, they had established an easy friendship. That night, after the performance, they had taken a long walk, ending up at the fountain by Old Main. There they had exchanged several long unstaged kisses. The next morning, before going their separate ways, they had promised to keep in touch, but they had not done so. The hubbub of respective senior year activities and the twenty-three miles between them had proven insurmountable.

“Nacio,” she whispered. “It’s me, Bree. Hang on. Help is coming.”

He looked up at her, but there was no sign of recognition in his pain-filled eyes. “Oh, God,” he sobbed. “My leg. It’s broken. I know it’s broken.”

“It’s not my fault,” Frankie wailed behind them. “1 didn’t do it on purpose. I didn’t mean to hurt him.”

By then coaches, trainers, managers, and referees were all converging on the scene. One of them brusquely thrust Bree out of the way. She retreated to a spot behind the goal line where, for the next few minutes, she and the other cheerleaders stood rooted to the ground. Around them, the entire ballpark went deathly still. The only sounds to be heard were the heart-wrenching, involuntary moans that periodically escaped Ignacio Ybarra’s tightly clenched teeth.

One of the Douglas coaches popped out of the group huddled around Ignacio and gestured frantically toward a waiting ambulance that spent each home game parked just inside the ballpark gates of the far end of the field. Accompanied by the low growl of a siren, the ambulance picked its way down the visiting team’s sidelines through clumps of stunned players from both teams. Two uniformed EMTs leaped from the ambulance. One brought out a

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