In this riveting novel from award-winning author Shannon Baker, a Nebraska county sheriff's wife investigates a murder-and her husband is the prime suspect.
"...atmosphere so realistically captivating that you'll smell the fresh-cut hay and feel the muddy dirt-path roads. Complicated relationships, surprising twists and a touch of humor make Stripped Bare a must read." -Alex Kava, New York Times bestselling author
When Kate Fox receives a late-night phone call, her seemingly perfect life on the Nebraska prairie shatters in an instant.
Eldon, shirt-tail relative and owner of one of the largest cattle ranches in Grand County, has been killed.
Kate's husband, Ted, the Grand County Sheriff, has been shot and may never walk again.
And worst of all, Ted is the prime suspect in Eldon's murder.
Desperate to clear Ted's name, Kate throws herself headlong into the hunt for the real killer.
When Kate finds herself the victim of several mysterious "accidents" she knows she's running out of time. If she doesn't find out who killed Eldon soon, she-or someone else in town-may be the next to turn up dead.
But a shocking confession throws everything into doubt, and as Kate keeps digging she unearths unfathomable secrets-the kind worth killing for.
About the Author
Baker spent 20 years in the Nebraska Sandhills, where cattle outnumber people by more than 50:1. She now lives on the edge of the desert in Tucson with her crazy Weimaraner and her favorite human. A lover of the great outdoors, she can be found backpacking, traipsing to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, skiing mountains and plains, kayaking lakes, river running, hiking, cycling, and scuba diving whenever she gets a chance.
Arizona sunsets notwithstanding, Baker is, and always will be a Nebraska Husker. Go Big Red.
Read an Excerpt
By Shannon Baker
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Shannon Baker
All rights reserved.
I've never trusted happiness. Just when you think you've corralled that mustang, she busts through the fence and leaves you with splinters. I should have seen it coming.
Still, when I tromped across the back porch, feeling grateful to be out of the frosty night air, I wasn't worrying about my world turning into a sloppy, wet pile of manure. My calving ratio sat at a hundred percent so far this year. Maybe I could convince Ted to take a week off after the election and head down to a beach someplace, anyplace away from cattle and family and sheriffing.
The house lights weren't on when I'd trudged from the barn. Carly was supposed to be home working on the term paper she'd blown off last semester. Using her charm, Carly had convinced the English teacher to give her another chance. If she didn't finish the paper this time, though, she wouldn't graduate, and my dear niece would be living with me forever.
I pried off one cowboy boot and dropped it to the porch floor, wondering how to motivate Carly without pushing too hard. The jangle of the phone penetrated the door to the house. I could have ignored it, but if Ted didn't answer his cell, the county sheriff's number rolled over to the landline installed in our house. I burst through the door and thudded across the kitchen. With one boot on, one boot off, I flew into the closet-turned-office and grabbed the old-fashioned receiver. "Sheriff's phone."
"Listen, Kate, Uncle Bud and Aunt Twyla are planning Easter at their place and I told them you'd bring that seven-layer salad."
As far as the Fox family was concerned, you can run but you can't hide. "Hi, Louise." My older sister. One of them, anyway. "We've talked about you using the sheriff's phone only for emergencies. Right?"
The reminder was as effective as ever. "You won't answer your cell. Let me talk to Carly."
"Carly's not here." Where was she, anyway? And where was Ted?
I stretched the phone cord. Grand County didn't believe in fancy equipment like cordless phones. They sprang for Ted's cell phone, but he wasn't supposed to use it for personal calls. I slapped on the light, squinting into the tiny living room. Several books were scattered on the floor. A potted plant spilled dirt onto the worn carpet and the throw from the threadbare couch puddled in the middle of the living room. The chaos seemed unusual, even for Hurricane Carly.
"Where is she?" Louise asked.
"Not sure." Maybe I wasn't fit to be a guardian, but I thought a girl destined to graduate from high school in a month ought to have a fair bit of autonomy. Course, with Carly's history, I was balancing on barbed wire there.
Louise paused to build up steam. "You should supervise her better. She needs —"
A syllable blanked from her lecture. "Gotta cut you off," I said. "The sheriff's second line."
I punched line two, expecting another one of my siblings, who'd also been warned against using the official sheriff's line. "Sheriff's office."
"Oh God, oh God, oh God!" Sobbing, hysterical. A woman blubbered into the phone. "Oh God!"
It took a moment to recognize the voice. It wasn't one of my favorites. "Roxy?"
More sobbing. "He's dead. He's dead. I think. Oh God."
"It's Kate. Who's dead? Where are you?"
"Kate. Oh my God. Blood!"
My skin chilled and my scalp prickled, despite knowing Roxy's penchant for drama. As Ted's old high-school girlfriend, and by some unfortunate quirk of fate, Carly's stepmother, she'd been plaguing me for years. "Roxy!" I yelled, trying to shock her hysterics away.
It didn't work. "I don't know who to call. I came home and the door was open. There's blood everywhere."
"Whose blood? Where are you?"
She finally sounded as if someone caught her with a grappling hook and dragged her slowly down to the ground. "I'm at Eldon's."
Eldon Edwards was her father-in-law. Their houses were only one hundred yards apart and a good half hour from the nearest town. "Is he hurt?"
She started to sob again. "He's dead. He's been shot."
Dead? Eldon? No. My brain tried to push the words away. This was definitely a job for the sheriff. "Okay, hang on. I don't know where Ted is, but I'll find him and get him out there right away."
"He's shot." Roxy sounded like she jumped on the panic wagon again.
"I'll get an ambulance and find Ted."
She wailed out his name. "Ted."
"Stay calm and he'll be there soon."
"He's bleeding. Oh God, he's dying!"
I'd often wanted to slap Roxy, but this time I could probably get away with it. "I thought you said he's dead."
"No, Eldon is dead." Sob, sob.
"Then who is dying?" Maybe Ted was buying drinks at the Long Branch, since it was campaign season. Or visiting his mother in Broken Butte, more than an hour's drive away. I ran through a list of places he might be.
"Ted!" Roxy shrieked into the phone.
That's when her stampeding words started to make sense. "Ted what?"
"He's shot. And there's blood everywhere!"
I dropped the phone and didn't hear whatever else she said.CHAPTER 2
It took me about ten seconds to push my foot into my muddy cowboy boot, grab my barn coat, jump down the back steps, and hurl myself into the nearest vehicle, my '73 Ford Ranchero.
Night had set in, and with low clouds masking the moon, the headlights of the Ranchero didn't light up much. I wrestled with the phone while maneuvering around the hay meadow in front of our house on Frog Creek Ranch. The Hodgekiss village emergency number picked up after two rings. Rocks pinged from the dirt road and the back wheels slid as I careened around the sharp curves of our one-track ranch road and relayed the scant details.
By the time I hung up, I'd made it the five miles to the highway, burying the speedometer on the straightaway. Speed might be Elvis's finest quality — Elvis being the Ranchero I'd owned since before I could drive.
It took me a couple of tries to get Milo Ferguson, Choker County sheriff. Even though the Bar J was in Grand County, where Ted was sheriff, Milo was closer to the scene than me or the ambulance.
Before I made it to Hodgekiss, twelve miles from home, I punched in Carly's speed dial. No answer.
I didn't let off the gas as I barreled through Hodgekiss. Light spilled from the open doors of the firehouse and the bay sat vacant. The ambulance should be far ahead of me.
A few pickups and four-wheel-drive SUVs lined the highway in front of the Long Branch Bar and Grill, but the rest of the town, population one thousand, had hunkered in for the chilly night. Fortunately I didn't need to dodge any traffic.
Snow sparked in the headlights. The dried-out, sharp kind that couldn't really be called flakes. More like minuscule butcher knives. I'd left the heavies — cows about ready to calve — out in the calving lot for the night. If the snow got after it, as it often did in April, the cows could be in trouble. I could tolerate ears and tails frozen off, a common casualty of spring snowstorms, but on a night like this the calves might freeze to death. I'd planned on going back out after supper to bring in any critters that might be at risk. Nothing I could do about it now. I had to go to Ted.
I sped to the edge of town and jerked the wheel a hard right, catching the highway running north. Elvis's back tires slid on the pavement before I floored it, flattening my spine in the seat and racing down the deserted stretch of road.
In the midst of Roxy's hysterics I'd learned that Eldon was dead. The thought bounced in my brain, not settling into reality. Someone must have called Ted out to the Bar J when trouble broke out. Sheriffing was supposed to be an easy job in Grand County, not one where you got shot.
The more worried and wrapped up I got, the slower the drive to the Bar J felt. It was like Elvis's wheels spun in molasses.
Dizzying ground blizzards swirled along the black highway. The twenty miles north only took seven years before I swung a quick right onto the dirt Bar J ranch road. The wheels rattled across the AutoGate, the steel bars embedded in the road at the fence line, designed to keep cows on one side or the other. The back tires slid and the momentum smacked the Ranchero's bed into an anchor fence post. The post didn't break, but it tilted out, drawing barbed wire with it and snapping the line post six feet away. "Sorry, Elvis."
The Ranchero rode low, like an El Camino. Too bad I hadn't jumped into a four-wheel-drive pickup, instead.
I fought to stay on the slightly raised dirt road but bounced into frozen pasture. Elvis didn't hesitate, especially since I kept pressing on the gas. I raced alongside the road, swerving to avoid the biggest soap weeds. The rough ground and clump grass ricocheted me from the seat to bump my head on the ceiling and back down. Each time, it forced my foot lighter on the gas and then pressed it back down. The engine roared and faded. I finally found a shallow entry spot and climbed back to the relative smoothness of the road.
Three miles from the highway I reached another AutoGate and a sharp turn to the left that led around a shallow lake the size of the Broncos' stadium in Denver. The ranch headquarters snugged under a hill on the other side. Red and blue flashed against the barn and houses with frantic urgency. Eldon's boxy two-story, built in the early twenties, looked like a shack compared to Roxy's McMansion, which dominated everything at the other end of the compound. I gunned across the frozen yard to Milo Ferguson's police cruiser. He hadn't wasted any time getting to the crime scene.
Crime scene. In Grand County? Here, "crime" meant an angry kid egging Principal Barkley's car. Or Leonard Bingham getting another DUI. A bad crime was a fistfight at the annual street dance.
Not murder. Not a cop shot.
I sailed over the final AutoGate, into the ranch yard, and skirted the barn with the calving lot behind. Two dozen cows bedded down in fresh hay. Tire tracks showed in the damp sand. Someone had been out checking the heavies recently. Why would I even notice that, when every thought should be on Ted?
Harold Graham and Eunice Fleenor, two of the best EMTs on the squad, wheeled a gurney out the front door and hauled it down the steps. The floor of the Ranchero probably buckled, I stomped the brakes so hard.
Roxy followed them out of the open door She sobbed with abandon and clutched a wool blanket to her chest. One of the EMTs had probably handed it to her, and for once her pride-and-joy of a cleavage disappeared.
I rammed the gearshift into Park and pulled the door latch. It didn't catch. I pulled harder and slammed my whole one hundred and twenty pounds into the door. Still, it didn't budge. The temperamental SOB sometimes balked for no good reason. "Not now, Elvis!"
I struggled out of the driver's bucket seat, across the console, and into the passenger seat. I threw myself against the door and it creaked open.
By the time I ran around the Ranchero, Eunice Fleenor slammed the back doors and sprinted for the cab.
Ted was inside. I wasn't. "Wait!"
Eunice jumped in the ambulance and turned the key. "Meet us at the hospital."
I gripped the ambulance door with both hands. "Let me go with you."
Eunice wrenched the door from my hands like she was swiping a cigarette from the mouth of one of her teenagers. "Can't. Got Roxy riding along already."
She gunned the motor and jerked away, closing the door on the run.
I darted back to Elvis. Before I could pry the door open to follow the ambulance the ninety miles to Broken Butte, Milo Ferguson stopped me.
"Kate," he hollered above the frosty wind, from the front porch of the old house.
Like a worn guitar string, I vibrated, ready to snap. I needed to get to Ted, but I had no information. All Roxy's Oh my Gods didn't tell me much. How badly was he hurt? Who shot him? Why was he out here? Was Eldon really dead?
I took off for the house. A slash of light from the open front door silhouetted Milo as he stood at the top of the wide wooden porch steps. His stomach billowed over the top of his pants, belted so far down on his hips it was a wonder they stayed on. Like other old cowboys I knew, when Milo's belly got bigger and his butt disappeared, he simply hitched his Levi's lower and kept the same pants size.
Squinting into the driving snow pellets, I stopped at the base of the stairs to hear the story and dash. "Roxy said someone shot Ted. Is that true?"
He descended the steps. "Come on inside."
No. I had to get on the road. I inched backward.
"Let's get out of the storm." He clamped a beefy hand on my arm and pulled me up the stairs.
I resisted, but short of throwing a punch, I couldn't escape. To the right of the front door, yellow crime scene tape blocked the steps leading to the second story. I didn't see any blood or bodies or signs of struggle.
Rope Hayward and his wife, Nat, sat on two vinyl kitchen chairs across the room. Nat was Dad's mother's sister's cousin by marriage, twice removed. She'd gone to grade school with Dad and married Rope when he got her pregnant, around the time Buddy Holly fell from the sky. They moved out to the Bar J, where Rope took up the job of ranch hand for Eldon. Nat cooked for the hay crew in the summer, for the extra calving help in the spring, and for Eldon, after his wife died.
Looking like a faded scarecrow, Rope rested his hand on the back of Nat's bent head. Her weeping sounded like a hungry kitten. I dipped my head in their direction. Rope nodded back in a disjointed way. Nat blew her nose.
The ranch house appeared even older and less modernized than ours. Cracked, dry leather covered the couch and recliner. They might be pieces purchased by Eldon Edwards's parents, the original homesteaders. Dark, glossy, varnished wood outlined the window sashes and served as floorboards. Whatever color the wall-to-wall carpet started out, it was now a dirty gray, worn nearly to the backing in some places. The living room opened into a kitchen, with a two-burner gas stove visible, sitting on cracked linoleum.
Mom would say the house had good bones. It certainly had plenty of space. Bedrooms and Eldon's office filled a second story, with only Eldon to occupy them.
This was the house Eldon grew up in, and from what everyone around town said, he hadn't changed a thing since. They said — and I didn't hold much with what "they" said — he hadn't let his bride spend a dime on upgrades. But that saintly woman — again, a "they said" sentiment — had passed away so many years ago I had only a vague recollection of her. The house had the musty basement smell old houses are prone to. Tonight, a faint odor of burned meat and gunpowder lingered in the air.
I shivered and stayed close to the front door. I wrenched my arm free from Milo's grasp and decided I'd give him three seconds. "What about Ted?"
Milo clicked the front door against the rising wind. "Not sure."
My heart bounced to my stomach floor. Two seconds down. "How bad is it?"
Milo sucked on his teeth. "He was shot from the front. Bullet went into his midsection but there wasn't an exit wound. He was unconscious."
Two seconds more than I was willing to give. "I've got to go!" I lunged for the door.
Milo leaned against the front door so I couldn't leave. "He was breathing, and the EMTs'll git him stable. Nothing you can do, for right now."
I fidgeted like a horse in the starting gate. Even if I shoved him, I'd probably not be able to do more than jiggle his belly.
"Just listen to me a sec. You're gonna have to tell Carly that her granddad is gone. Sooner the better, before somebody spills the news first."
His words smacked me upside the head. Of course. Carly. She'd already lost her mother, my oldest sister, Glenda. When her father died, Eldon's son, a couple of years after that, it had nearly broken her. Would she hold up after she learned her granddad was murdered? With her mother and father dead and a stepmother like Roxy, I was the closest thing to a parent she had. Poor girl.
"I don't know where Carly is." I blurted it out before thinking.
He narrowed his eyes. "Aren't you her guardian?"
My fingers closed on the doorknob.
He frowned. "Seems a girl like that might bear a little closer watching."
I'd been accused of negligence in the matter of my niece twice in the course of an hour. I focused on the door, thoughtless words dribbling from my mouth. "She's much better these days."
Excerpted from Stripped Bare by Shannon Baker. Copyright © 2016 Shannon Baker. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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