Stripped Bare by Shannon Baker stars a female Longmire in the atmospheric Nebraska Sandhills (Available September 6, 2016).
Kate Fox is living the dream. She’s married to Grand County Sheriff Ted Conner, the heir to her beloved Nebraska Sandhills cattle ranch, where they live with Kate’s orphaned teenage niece, Carly. With the support of the well-connected Fox Clan, which includes Kate’s eight boisterous and interfering siblings, Ted’s reelection as Grand County Sheriff is virtually assured. That leaves Kate to the solitude and satisfaction of Frog Creek, her own slice of heaven.
One night Kate answers a shattering phone call from Roxy at the Bar J. Carly’s granddad Eldon, owner of the ranch, is dead and Ted has been shot and may never walk again. Kate vows to find the killer. She soon discovers Ted responded so quickly to the scene because he was already at the Bar J… in Roxy’s bed. And to add to her woes, Carly has gone missing.
Kate finds out that Eldon was considering selling his ranch to an obscenely rich environmentalist. Some in town hate the idea of an outsider buying up land, others are desperate to sell… and some might kill to get their way. As she becomes the victim of several “accidents,” Kate knows she must find the killer before it’s too late….
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.
Copyright © 2016 Shannon Baker.
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Shannon Baker lived for twenty years in the Nebraska Sandhills, where cattle outnumber people by more than 50 to 1. Baker was named the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers 2014 Writer of the Year. She now makes her home in sunny Tucson. She is the author of Tainted Mountain, Tattered Legacy, and Broken Trust, among other books.