Read B.J. Daniels the Cardwell Ranch Collection Online

Authors: B. J. Daniels

Tags: #Fiction, #Retail, #Romance

B.J. Daniels the Cardwell Ranch Collection (6 page)

There was time if she hurried. She’d heard that her dad and uncle were playing with their band at the Corral Bar tonight. If she left now she might be able to talk to both of them and still get back in time for her date with Lanny.

She was anxious to talk to her father—before he and her uncle had time to come up with a convincing story. The thought surprised her. Why had she just assumed he had something to hide? Because, she thought with a rueful grin, he was her father and she knew him.

By now the canyon grapevine would be humming with the news about the body in the well. After all, Jordan had heard all the way back in New York City.

She’d just have to weather the blizzard—the storm outside as well as the arrival of her brother tomorrow from New York.

She groaned at the thought as she took her coat from a hook by the door. It was a good ten miles down the road to the bar and the roads would be slick, the visibility poor. But she knew she wouldn’t be able to get any sleep until she talked to her father.

She just hoped
it was early enough for him to be halfway sober, but she wasn’t counting on it.

from the ranch, he kept saying the words over and over in her head.

She isn’t engaged. She isn’t engaged.

He smiled to himself. Admittedly, it was a small victory. But he’d been right. She wasn’t engaged to Lanny.

Maybe even after all this time, he knew Dana better than she’d thought.

As snow continued to fall, he drove across the narrow bridge that spanned the Gallatin River and turned onto Highway 191 headed south down the Gallatin Canyon, feeling better than he had in years.

The “canyon,” as it was known, ran from the mouth just south of Gallatin Gateway almost to West Yellowstone, ninety miles of winding road that trailed the river in a deep cut through the steep mountains on each side.

It had changed a lot since Hud was a boy. Luxury houses had sprouted up all around the resort. Fortunately some of the original cabins still remained and the majority of the canyon was National Forest so it would always remain undeveloped.

The drive along the river had always been breathtaking, a winding strip of highway that followed the river up over the Continental Divide and down the other side to West Yellowstone.

Hud had rented
a cabin a few miles up the canyon from Big Sky. But as he started up the highway, his headlights doing little to cut through the thick falling snow, his radio squawked.

He pulled over into one of the wide spots along the river. “Savage here.”

The dispatcher in Bozeman, an elderly woman named Lorraine, announced she was patching through a call.

“Marshal Savage?” asked a voice he didn’t recognize. “This is Dr. Gerald Cross with the crime lab in Missoula.”

“Yes.” Hud wondered why it wasn’t Rupert calling.

“I have information on the evidence you sent us that I thought you’d want to hear about right away.” There was the fluttering sound of papers, then the doctor’s voice again. “We got lucky. Normally something like this takes weeks if not months, but your coroner was so insistent that we run the tests ASAP…The bullet lodged in the skull of the victim matches a bullet used in a shooting in your area.”

Hud blinked in confusion. “What shooting?”

Another shuffle of papers. “A Judge Raymond Randolph. He was murdered in his home. An apparent robbery?”

Hud felt the air rush from his lungs. Judge Randolph. And the night Hud had been trying to forget for the past five years.

He cleared his throat. “You’re saying the same gun that killed the Jane Doe from the well was used in the Randolph case?”

“The striations
match. No doubt about it. Same gun used for both murders,” the doctor said.

“The Randolph case was only five years ago. Hasn’t this body been down in the well longer than that? The coroner estimated about fifteen years.”

“Our preliminary findings support that time period,” Dr. Cross said.

Hud tried to take it in: two murders, years apart, but the same gun was used for both?

“We found further evidence in the dirt that was recovered around the body,” the doctor was saying. “An emerald ring. The good news is that it was custom-made by a jeweler in your area. Should be easy to track.”

Hud felt hopeful. “Can you fax me the information on the ring along with digital photos?”

“I’ll have that done right away,” the doctor said. “Also, three fingers on her left hand were broken, the ring finger in two places. Broken in the fall, I would assume, unless she tried to fight off her assailant.

“But what also might be helpful in identifying the woman is the prior break in the Jane Doe’s radius, right wrist,” the doctor continued. “It appears it was broken and healed shortly before her death. The break had been set, indicating she sought medical attention. She would have been wearing a cast in the weeks prior to her death.”

A woman with a broken wrist in a cast.

“I’ve sent the information to both the dentists and doctors in your area,” Dr. Cross said. “All her teeth were intact and she’d had dental work done on several molars not long before her death, as well. You got lucky on this one.”

Lucky? Hud
didn’t feel lucky. Again he wondered why Rupert hadn’t made the call. “Is Dr. Milligan still there? I wanted to ask him something.”

“Sorry, but Rupert left some time ago. He said he had an appointment.”

Hud thanked him and hung up the radio, wondering what was going on with Rupert. Why hadn’t he been the one to call? It wasn’t like him. Especially since he’d been right about everything. He would have called if for nothing else than to say, “Good thing you didn’t bet me.”

Because, Hud thought, Rupert wanted to get the information to someone else first? For instance, his friend the former marshal, Brick Savage?

Hud stared out at the falling snow. The night was bright, the scene past the windshield a tableau of varying shades of white and gray. Next to him the Gallatin River ran under a thick layer of ice. He couldn’t remember ever feeling this cold.

He reached over and kicked up the heat, letting the vent blow into his face.

The same gun used to murder the woman in a red dress was used during what had appeared to be a robbery of Judge Randolph’s residence. The Judge had been shot and killed—the two incidents years apart.

Hud rubbed his hand over his face. No, he didn’t feel lucky in the least. Judge Randolph had been one of Brick Savage’s most outspoken opponents. Hud had never known what had spurred the judge’s hatred of Marshal Brick Savage. The two had butted heads on more than one occasion, but then his father butted heads with a lot of people, Hud thought.

The difference
was the judge had been in a position to make his threats come true. There had been talk that Judge Randolph was determined to see Marshal Brick Savage fired.

If the judge hadn’t met such an untimely demise, who knows what would have happened, Hud thought as he pulled back onto the highway, the snow falling now in a dizzying white blur.

He hadn’t been looking forward to going back to the cabin he’d rented near Big Sky. The cabin was small with just the bare essentials—exactly what he’d thought he wanted.

Except tonight he had too much on his mind to go back there yet. He turned around and headed for Bozeman. He wouldn’t be able to sleep until he looked at the case file on Judge Raymond Randolph’s robbery-murder.

He thought again about the anonymous note he’d received. Someone had wanted him back here. Someone with an agenda of their own?

As he drove down the canyon, the snow falling in a blinding wall of white, he feared he was being manipulated—just as he’d been five years ago.

Chapter Five

Dana brushed snow from
her coat as she pushed open the door to the Corral Bar. The scent of beer and smoke hit her as she stepped in, pulled off her hat and, shaking the snow from it, looked around the bar for her father.

It was early. The place was relatively empty, only a few locals at the bar and a half-dozen others in booths eating the burgers the Corral was famous for.

A country-western song played on the jukebox, competing with the hum of conversation. The bartender was busy talking with a couple at this end of the bar.

Dana spotted her father and uncle at the far end on adjacent stools. They each had two beers in front of them and hadn’t seemed to notice her come in. That was because they had their heads together in deep conversation.

As she approached, she saw her father look up and catch her reflection in the mirror. He sat up straighter, pulling back but mouthing something to Harlan as if warning him of her approach. Uncle Harlan turned on his stool to flash her a smile, both men appearing nervous. Clearly she had interrupted something.

“Dana,” Harlan
said, sounding surprised. “Haven’t seen you for a while.” Like his brother, he was a big man with a head of dark hair peppered with gray.

“Uncle Harlan.” She patted his arm as she passed, her gaze on her father.

While Angus Cardwell resembled his brother, he’d definitely gotten the looks in the family. He’d been a devastatingly handsome young man and Dana could see why her mother had fallen for him.

Angus was still handsome and would have been quite the catch in the canyon if it wasn’t for his love of alcohol. Thanks to the healthy settlement he’d received from Dana’s mother in the divorce, he didn’t have to work.

“How’s my baby girl?” Angus asked, and leaned over to kiss her cheek. She smelled the familiar scent of beer on his breath. “Happy birthday.”

Dana had always been his baby girl and still was—even at thirty-one. “Fine. Thank you.”

“Is there someplace we could talk for a minute?” she asked. Angus shot a look at Harlan.

“We could probably step into the back room,” her father said. “I’m sure Bob wouldn’t mind.” Bob owned the place and since Angus was probably the most regular of the regulars who frequented the bar, Bob probably wouldn’t mind.

“Guess I’ll tag along,” Uncle Harlan said, already sliding off his stool.

The back room was part
office, part spare room. It had a small desk and an office chair along with a thread-bare overstuffed chair and a sofa that looked like it might pull out into a bed. The room smelled of stale cigarette smoke and beer.

“So what’s up?” Angus asked. Both he and Harlan had brought along their beers.

She studied them for a moment, then said, “I’m sure you’ve heard about what happened at the ranch today.” She could see by their expressions that they had.

“Hell of a thing,” Angus said.

Harlan nodded in agreement and tipped his beer bottle to his lips.

“Any idea how the bones got into our well?” she asked, wondering how much they’d heard on the canyon grapevine.

“Us?” Harlan said, sounding surprised. “Why would we know anything about her?”

Her. So they’d heard it was a woman. She couldn’t believe how quickly word spread.

She hadn’t meant to sound so accusing. “I just thought you might have some idea since you were both on the ranch during that time.” Her parents were still together then, kind of, and her uncle had been working on the ranch and living in one of the spare bedrooms.

A look passed between them.

“What?” she asked.

“We were just talking about this,” her father said.

“And?” she prodded.

“And nothing,” Angus said.

“Anyone could have come
onto the ranch and done it,” Harlan said. “Could have driven right by the house or come in the back on one of the old loggin’ roads. Could have been anyone.” He looked embarrassed, as if he’d spoken out of turn. Or maybe said too much. He took a drink of his beer.

“So you two have it all figured out,” she said, studying them. “That mean you’ve figured out who she was? Seems she went into the well about fifteen years ago.”

“Fifteen years?” Clearly, Angus was surprised by that.

“Bunch of cowhands on the ranch back then,” Harlan said. “Anyone could have known about the well. There’s old wells and mine shafts all over Montana. Usually an old foundation nearby. Not that hard to find if you’re looking for one.”

Dana thought about the homestead chimney still standing and part of the foundation visible from the ranch house. Stood to reason, she supposed, there would be an old well nearby.

“All this seasonal help around here, the woman didn’t have to be a local,” Harlan said. “She could have been working in the canyon for the summer or even at the ski hill for the winter.”

“Wouldn’t someone have missed her, though?” Dana said, noticing her father was nursing his beer and saying little.

Harlan shrugged. “If she had family. If her family knew where she’d gone to in the first place. You know how these kids are who show up for the seasonal employment. Most move on within a few weeks. Could have been a runaway even. Wasn’t there some bones found in the canyon a few years ago and they never did find out who that guy was?”

She nodded. The
other remains that had been found were male and no identification had ever been made. Was the same thing going to happen with the woman’s bones from the well?

She started to ask her father about his .38, but changed her mind. “You all right?” she asked her father.

Angus smiled and tossed his now empty beer bottle into the trash. “Fine, baby girl. I just hate to see you upset over this. How about I buy you a drink to celebrate your birthday and we talk about something else?” he asked as he opened the door to the bar. The blare of the jukebox swept in along with a blue haze of smoke and the smell of burgers and beer.

Dana met his gaze. His eyes were shiny with alcohol and something else. Whatever he was hiding, he was keeping it to himself whether she liked it or not.

“Maybe some other time,” she said. “I have a date tonight.”

“I heard Hud was back,” he said, and grinned at her.

“I’m not with Hud, Dad.” How many times did she have to tell him that she was never getting back together with Hud? “Lanny’s taking me out to dinner for my birthday.”

“Oh,” Angus said. He’d never been fond of Lanny Rankin and she’d never understood why. All her father had ever said was, “I just don’t think he’s the right man for you.”

and justice
center, Hud sat with the file on the Judge Raymond Randolph killing, still haunted by that night. Most of the night was nothing but a black hole in his memory. He couldn’t account for too many hours and had spent years trying to remember what he’d done that night.

He shook his head. It was one of the questions he was bound and determined to get answered now that he was back in Montana.

How strange that his first case as acting Gallatin Canyon marshal was tied to that night. Coincidence? He had to wonder.

He opened the file. Since he’d left town right after the judge’s death, he knew little about the case.

The first thing that hit him was the sight of his father’s notes neatly printed on sheets of eight-and-a-half-by-eleven, lined white paper. Brick Savage had never learned to type.

Hud felt a chill at just the sight of his father’s neat printing, the writing short and to the point.

The judge had been at his annual Toastmasters dinner; his wife, Katherine “Kitty” Randolph, was away visiting her sister in Butte. The judge had returned home early, reason unknown, and was believed to have interrupted an alleged robbery in progress. He was shot twice, point-blank in the heart with a .38-caliber pistol.

A neighbor heard the shots and called the sheriff’s department. A young new deputy by the name of Hudson Savage was on duty that night. But when he couldn’t be reached, Marshal Brick Savage took the call.

Hud felt his hands
begin to shake. He’d known he was going to have to face that night again when he’d come back, but seeing it in black and white rattled him more than he wanted to admit.

Brick reported that as he neared the Randolph house, he spotted two suspects fleeing the residence. He gave chase. The high-speed chase ended near what was known as the 35-mile-an-hour curve, one of the worst curves in the winding canyon road because it ended in a bridge and other curve in the opposite direction.

The suspect driving the car lost control after which the car rolled several times before coming to stop upside down in the middle of the Gallatin River.

Both the driver and the passenger were killed.

Marshal Brick Savage called for an ambulance, wrecker and the coroner before returning to the Randolph house where he discovered signs of a break-in and the judge lying dead in the foyer.

According to Brick’s account, evidence was later found in the suspects’ car that connected the two to the robbery-murder. The suspects were Ty and Mason Kirk, two local brothers who had been in trouble pretty much all of their lives.

The case seemed cut-and-dried. Except now the murder weapon appeared to have been used in the murder of a woman in a well a good decade before.

Tired and discouraged, he photocopied the file and drove back up the canyon. Still, he couldn’t face the small cabin he’d rented. Not yet.

He drove to his office in the deepening snow. His headlights shone on the evergreens along each side of the road, their branches bent under the weight of the snowfall. A white silence had filled the night. The streets were so quiet, he felt as if there wasn’t another soul within miles as he neared his office.

Had he made a
terrible mistake coming back here, taking the job as marshal even temporarily? It had been instantaneous. When he’d gotten the offer, he’d said yes without a moment’s hesitation, thinking it was fate. After the note he’d received, he was coming back anyway. But to have a job. Not just a job, but the job he’d always said he wanted….

He pulled up to the office, turned off the engine and lights, and sat for a moment in the snowy darkness, trying to put his finger on what was bothering him.

Something about the Judge Raymond Randolph murder case. Something was wrong. He could feel it deep in his bones, like a sliver buried under the skin.

As he picked up the copied file from the seat next to him, he had that same sick feeling he’d had when he looked down into the dry well and seen human bones.

Dana returned home from the bar that she noticed the tracks on the porch. She stopped and turned to look back out through the falling snow.

Someone had been here. The tire tracks had filled with snow and were barely visible. That’s why she hadn’t noticed them on her way in. Plus she’d had other things on her mind.

But now, standing on the porch, she saw the boot tracks where someone had come to the door. She checked her watch. Too early for it to have been Lanny.

Her breath caught
in her throat as she realized the tracks went right into the house. She’d never locked the front door in her life. Just as she hadn’t tonight. This was rural Montana. No one locked their doors.

Carefully she touched the knob. It was cold even through her gloves. The door swung open.

The living room looked just as she’d left it. Except for a few puddles of melted snow where someone had gone inside. Her heart rate tripled as she trailed the wet footprints across the floor to the kitchen.

That’s when she saw it. A small wrapped package on the kitchen table.

A birthday present. Her relief was quickly replaced by anger. She had a pretty good idea who’d left it. Hud. He’d come back and, knowing the door would be unlocked, come in and left it.

Damn him. Why did he have to come back? Tears burned her eyes. She wouldn’t cry. She…would…not…cry.

Her heart was still pounding too hard, the tears too close after the day she’d had. She turned on the lights, shrugged out of her coat to hang it on the hook by the door and wiped angrily at her eyes.
Damn you, Hud.

She had to get ready for her date. Stumbling up the stairs, she went to the bathroom, stripped down and stepped into the shower. She turned her face up to the water for a moment. The memory of the Hud she’d loved filled her with a pain that almost doubled her over. A sob broke loose, opening the dam. Leaning against the shower stall she couldn’t hold back the pain any longer. It came in a flood. She was helpless to stop it.

After a while
she got control again, finished showering and got out. She’d have to take care of the package on the kitchen table. She quickly dressed. Her eyes were red from crying, her face flushed. She dug in the drawer looking for makeup she seldom if ever wore, but it did little to hide her swollen eyes.

The doorbell rang. Lanny was early. She’d hoped to get back downstairs and throw away Hud’s birthday present before Lanny arrived.

She ran downstairs without glancing toward the kitchen and Hud’s present, unhooking her coat from the hook as she opened the door and flipped on the porch light.

Lanny looked up from where he stood about to ring the doorbell again. He was tall and slim with sandy-colored hair and thick-lashed brown eyes. Any woman with good eyesight would agree he was handsome. Even Dana.

But she’d never felt that thumpity-thump in her pulse when she saw him. She didn’t go weak in the knees when they kissed, hardly thought about him when they were apart.

She enjoyed his company when they were together, which over the past five years hadn’t been very often. Her fault. She’d put Lanny off for a long time after Hud left because she hadn’t been ready to date. And then she’d been busy much of the time.

She’d thought that
in time she would feel about him the way he felt about her. She’d wished she could feel more for him, especially after he’d confessed that he’d had a crush on her since first grade.

“So it’s true,” he said, now looking into her face.

She knew her eyes were still red, her face puffy from crying and she’d done enough lying for one day. “It’s been a rough birthday.”

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