Coming soon! Cold Case at Cardwell Ranch & Boots and Bullets by B.J. Daniels will be available Jul 27, 2021.
Release date: July 27, 2021
Print pages: 384
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Cold Case at Cardwell Ranch & Boots and Bullets
B. J. Daniels
The wind whipped around him, kicking up dust and threatening to send his Stetson flying. Cold-case detective Waco Johnson cautiously approached the weatherworn boards that had blown off the opening of the old abandoned well.
The Montana landscape was riddled with places like this one, abandoned homesteads slowly disappearing along with those who had worked this land.
He hesitated a few feet from the hole, feeling a chill even on this warm Montana summer afternoon. Nearby, overgrown weeds and bushes enveloped the original homestead dwelling, choking off any light. Only one blank dusty window peered out at him from the dark gloom inside. Closer, pine trees swayed, boughs emitting a lonely moan as they cast long, jittery shadows over the century-old cemetery with its sun-bleached stone markers on the rise next to the house. A rusted metal gate creaked restlessly in the wind, a grating sound that made his teeth ache.
It added to his anxiety about what he was about to find. Or why being here nudged at a memory he couldn’t quite grasp.
He glanced toward the shadowed gaping hole of the old well for a moment before pulling his flashlight from his coat pocket and edging closer.
The weathered boards that had once covered the opening had rotted away over time. Weeds had grown up around the base. He could see where someone had trampled the growth at one edge to look inside. The anonymous caller who’d reported seeing something at the bottom of the well? That begged the question: How had the caller even seen the abandoned well’s opening, given the overgrowth?
Waco knelt at the rim and peered into the blackness below. As the beam of his flashlight swept across the dust-dried well bottom, his pulse kicked up a beat. Bones. Animals, he knew, frequently fell into wells on abandoned homesteads. More often than not, it was their bones that dotted the rocky dry bottom.
Shielding his eyes from the swirling dust storm, Waco leaned farther over the opening. The wind howled around him, but he hardly heard or felt it as his flashlight’s beam moved slowly over the bottom of the well—and stopped short.
A human skull.
He rocked back on his haunches, pulled out his phone and made the call. The bones were definitely human, just as the anonymous caller had said. How long had the remains been down there? No way to tell until he could get the coroner involved. He made another call, this one to the state medical examiner’s office, as a dust devil whirled across the desolate landscape toward him.
He tugged the brim of his Stetson down against the blowing dirt, and Waco’s gaze skimmed the wind-scoured hillside as his mind raced. That darn memory teased at him until it finally wedged its way into his thoughts.
He felt a chill as he remembered. His grandfather, an old-timey marshal, had told him a story about remains being found in an abandoned well on a homestead in the Gallatin Canyon near Big Sky. Waco couldn’t remember specifics, except that it had been a murder and it had been on the Cardwell property, one of the more well-known ranches in the canyon.
While more than fifty miles from where Waco was now standing, and a good fifteen years ago, he found it interesting that another body had gone into a well. He rubbed the back of his neck. There was always something eerie about abandoned homesteads—even when there weren’t human remains lying at the bottom of an old well. But right now, he felt a little spooked even as he told himself there couldn’t be any connection between the two cases.
Standing, he walked back to his patrol SUV and slipped in behind the wheel and out of the wind. Taking out his phone again, he called up the Cardwell Ranch case. The story had gone national, so there was an abundance of information online. As he read through the stories, he felt a familiar prickling at the nape of his neck.
Waco didn’t know how much time had passed when he looked up to see a Division of Criminal Investigation van tear up the dirt road toward him. Behind it, storm clouds blackened the horizon. This part of Montana felt as far away from civilization as he could get. But in truth, it was only a few miles north of the Gallatin Valley and the city of Bozeman, one of the fastest-growing areas of the state.
He liked that there were still places that time seemed to have forgotten in Montana. Places where a person could spend a day without seeing another person. Places developers hadn’t yet discovered. Waco often found himself in those places because that was where a person could get rid of a body.
As the DCI van pulled up next to his SUV, he climbed out and felt that familiar prickling again.
His instincts told him that the person in the bottom of this particular well hadn’t accidentally fallen in. If he didn’t have an old murder case on his hands, then his name wasn’t Waco Johnson.
Ella Cardwell sat at the large kitchen table in the main house on Cardwell Ranch as she had done for almost thirty years. She tried to listen to her mother and aunt Dana discuss the ranch garden and what they would be canning over the next few weeks.
But a tomboy who preferred being outside with the critters, Ella had never been interested in what went on inside the ranch house. Since college, she’d made her living wrangling with her cousins, Brick and Angus. Until recently. Both had fallen in love and settled down, leaving her at loose ends.
She’d returned to the ranch, where there was always plenty of work to be done, and moved into one of the small cabins on the mountain overlooking the spread. This morning she was waiting for her cousin to pick her up. The two were driving south to buy a new bull—and Angus was late.
Ella noticed that her mother didn’t seem to be paying any more attention to the canning plan than she was. Stacy Cardwell was staring out the kitchen window, as if a world away.
It was a look Ella had seen all her life. Her mother had secrets. Even at a young age, Ella’d sensed something dark in her mother’s past. When she was older, Ella had tried to get her to talk about it. But Stacy had always brushed off her concerns and questions, denying anything had ever been wrong.
Her mother had brought her to Cardwell Ranch when she was a baby. Ella had never known her father. The ranch and her extended family were all she’d ever known. Over the years, her mother had occasional relationships with a man, but none that had led to marriage. Not that Stacy hadn’t been married before. Her mother’s apparent wild years weren’t something the family talked about.
Just as they didn’t talk about Stacy’s disappearances for days at a time. No one knew where she went or why she’d left. Aunt Dana always said that Stacy just needed to get away sometimes.
“Not away from you, Ella,” her aunt would say and hug her. “You’re my sister’s world. But we all need to escape once in a while.” Except that Aunt Dana never had run away from the ranch or her children.
Ella suspected that her mother was feeling restless again. She’d always sensed it long before it happened. She knew what it meant. Stacy was about to disappear, never warning anyone or even telling Ella where she’d been once she eventually returned.
She realized Aunt Dana had asked her something. “Sorry?”
Her aunt smiled. “I just heard Angus honk. He must be anxious to go pick up that bull. Didn’t you say you were going with him?”
She shot up from the table, nearly tipping over her coffee cup.
“I’ll take care of that. You better get going.” Dana laughed. “Have fun.”
Ella shot a look at her mother, wondering if she would be there when Ella got back. After a lifetime of worrying about her mother and her dark secrets, she reminded herself that Stacy had always come back. Why would this time be any different?
At loose ends waiting to hear something from the DCI investigators, Waco headed for Gallatin Gateway at the mouth of the canyon. “Gateway,” as the locals had called it since 1917, had gotten its name from the Milwaukee Railroad when the town had become an entryway to Yellowstone Park.
The anonymous call about the bones in the well had come from a phone at the local bar in the town. It had been bothering Waco that the caller had refused to give a name. That brought up even more questions about how the person had happened to just stumble upon the bones in the well and recognized them as human remains. It made him think that maybe the caller had known the body was down there. Otherwise, why not leave a name?
Waco had listened to the recorded 9-1-1 call. The voice had been so well muffled that it had been difficult to tell if the caller had been male or female. The call had been short and to the point, a lot of bar noise in the background. “I saw some human bones in an old well on the Hanover place near Maudlow.” That was the extent of it. The operator had tried to get a name but the caller’d disconnected. When she’d called back, no one seemed to know who had used the bar’s landline because it was Saturday night and the place had been packed.
Waco drove into the small community originally started by the family who owned the sawmill, and parked in front of the bar. While there was a school, a bar, and at one time a service station and a place that made cheese, Gateway had never really taken off.
He entered the dimly lit tavern and talked to the bartender. He learned that there were two landline phones on the premises—one behind the bar, the other in the office at the back. No, the office wasn’t normally locked during business hours. No, the bartender couldn’t remember if anyone had used the phone behind the bar.
Leaving with the names of the servers who’d been working that night, Waco was driving back to Bozeman when he got the call from the state medical examiner telling him to come to the morgue.
He’d wanted the best, so he’d asked for Henrietta “Hitch” Roberts the moment he’d seen the skull at the bottom of the well. He’d worked with her before on a lot of the cold cases in rural areas that barely had a coroner, let alone a medical examiner. It just surprised him that she’d arrived so quickly—not that she’d gone right to work. That was Hitch.
As he walked into the Gallatin County morgue, she shot him a narrowed green-eyed look.
“I hope you don’t mind that I asked for you,” he said, holding up his hands as if in surrender. “And, yes, I did pull a few strings to get you. But I should have known, after your last rough case and what’s going on with your personal life, that maybe you weren’t up to this one.”
Hitch laughed and shook her head. “You aren’t really using reverse psychology on me, are you, Waco?”
“If that didn’t work, I was not above using flattery if necessary,” he answered tongue in cheek. “Seriously, Hitch, I need you on this one. But I don’t want to put you in a spot with your new family.” He paused briefly before getting right to the point. “DCI drop off everything from the well?”
“As soon as I got the call, I went out to the site to have a look for myself. But, yes, they delivered the obvious pieces of evidence. They are still sorting through the dirt and debris, but the main discoveries are here. Lucky for you, I’ve already found something that might interest you.”
“Great.” He nodded at the large, beautiful diamond engagement ring on her finger. “By the way, when is the wedding?” He’d heard that she was engaged to Ford Cardwell, a cousin of the Cardwell Ranch Cardwells. Soon they would be her new family.
“Good for you. You seem happy.”
“I am. Now, do you want to hear about what I’ve discovered?”
He chuckled. “Marriage isn’t going to change you, is it?”
That was another thing Waco loved about working with Hitch. Once she got her teeth into a case, she didn’t let go until she got answers. Waco was the same way, so it was no wonder the two of them worked well together.
He took a breath and stepped deeper into the room. With his job, he’d become familiar with a lot of morgues around the state. They all had that sterilized smell with just enough of some underlying scent to make most people queasy. Not that it seemed to bother Hitch as she motioned him over to a long metal table covered with human bones.
There was no one quite like Hitch, he thought as he watched her pick up the skull in her gloved hands and inspect it for a moment. Hitch was a petite brunette with keen green eyes. Her long curly hair was pulled into its usual bun at the base of her neck. It occurred to Waco that he’d never seen her wear her hair down on the job. Because, he knew, like always, her focus was on her work, not her physical attributes. This was a woman who loved what she did and it showed.
“You said there is something interesting about this one?” Waco asked anxiously. He needed to know if his instincts were right. If so, he had a killer to catch and enough time had already been lost. He suspected that whoever’s bones these were had possibly died years ago. Not that the “when” concerned him as much as the fact that someone might have gotten away with murder all this time.
“Patience, grasshopper,” Hitch said and went into medical-examiner mode. “The remains are male, midfifties,” she said, carefully setting down the skull and picking up a leg bone. “Average height, six-one. Average weight, one eighty-five. Walked with a slight limp,” she noted. “An old tibia break that didn’t heal right, which tells me he didn’t have it properly seen to by a doctor for whatever reason. He wore glasses, nearsighted.” She looked up as if anticipating his surprise. “The glasses were found in the bottom of the well. Black plastic, no-nonsense frames.”
“Nice job. Now just give me a cause of death.”
Hitch shook her head. “You’d love a bullet hole in the skull, wouldn’t you? Even better, an old pistol that had been tossed into the well after him?”
Waco admitted that he would. “So what are you telling me? This guy just stumbled into the well, died, and that was that?” he asked, wondering why she’d said there was something interesting. More to the point, why he’d been so sure it had been a homicide.
“It could have been an accident,” Hitch said. “Just not in this case. If you look at the lower cranium—”
“Remember, speak English.”
She smiled. “What I’m saying is that someone bashed him in the back of the head.” She picked up the skull again and turned it under the overhead lamplight. “See these tiny fractures?”
Waco nodded. “Couldn’t those have been caused by the fall into the well?”
Hitch was shaking her head. “If it had been any other part of the skull, maybe. But not this low, just above the spine. This man was hit with something that made a distinct pattern in the fracture.”
“Something like what? A chunk of wood?”
“Something more narrow. More like a tire iron.”
“Was it enough to kill him?”
Hitch gave him an impatient look.
“Wait—are you saying he didn’t die right away?”
“If the blow didn’t kill him eventually, then the fall into the well and being trapped down there certainly would have,” she said. “But he was alive for a period of time before he succumbed to his injuries.”
Waco rubbed his neck, the prickles stretching across his shoulders and down his arms. “So someone hit him with an object like a tire iron in the low part of the back of his skull, then knocked him into the well.”
“It’s one theory.”
“Well, we know that they didn’t go for help.” He thought again of the Cardwell Ranch case. “Any idea how long he’s been in the well?”
“I’d say just over thirty years.”
“You can call it that close?” Hitch only smiled at him. “Any way to get DNA to identify the remains?” he asked.
“With bones that old, probably not. But, fortunately, we don’t have to.” Hitch reached into a plastic bag and pulled out something brown, dried and shriveled. For a moment, Waco thought it was a dead animal. “He had this leather wallet on him when he went into the well.” The ME grinned. “Inside, I found his Montana state-issued driver’s license tucked in a plastic sleeve. Luckily the well was dry. Even the money in his wallet is intact.”
“You’re enjoying dragging this out, aren’t you,” he said, understanding how Hitch had been so certain about his age and weight and the rest.
“His name is Marvin Hanover, and if the wedding ring found at the site is any indication, he was married.” Hitch produced another plastic bag. “The ring’s engraved. ‘With all my love, Stacy.’”
Hitch gave him a look he’d come to know well. “Stacy is also the name Marvin carved into a sandstone rock at the bottom of the well before he died.”
Waco was about to let out an expletive before he caught himself. “He named his killer?”
“Or he planned to leave her a message and didn’t live long enough to write it.” She handed him a photo taken at the bottom of the well by a crime-scene tech. It showed the crudely carved Stacy followed by smaller letters that hadn’t been dug as deep in the stone.
Waco stared at the photo. “It looks like Stacy don’t... But ‘Stacy don’t’ what?”
“‘Don’t forget me’?” Hitch suggested.
“Or how about ‘don’t leave me here’?” Waco said.
“What makes this case interesting, and also a problem as far as my being involved, is that Stacy Cardwell Hanover was still married to him when Marvin disappeared and—I suspect—went into the well. Coincidentally, as you know, I’m about to marry into the Cardwell family.”
Waco stared at her, goose bumps rippling over his skin. “Stacy...” He could hardly speak. “So there is a connection.”
“I already checked. She wasn’t living on the ranch at the time her husband disappeared,” Hitch said. “I looked up the date of their marriage.”
“So did I,” he said. “The marriage took place before the body was found in the well at Cardwell Ranch. So she would have known about that case. Three months later, Stacy reported her husband missing. She and her brothers were in a legal battle over the Cardwell Ranch at the time.”
Hitch nodded. “So she would have known about the body in the well on the old Cardwell homestead.” The remains of a young woman had been found at the bottom of the well. She’d been shot in the head, but apparently only wounded. She’d tried to scratch her way out after being left there to die.
Waco swore under his breath. No wonder the case had stuck in his mind after his grandfather had told him about it.
“Don’t tell him those stories,” his mother had chastised her father at the time. “You’ll give him nightmares—or, worse, he’ll grow up and want to be like you.”
He hadn’t gotten nightmares, but he had grown up to become a lawman. It was his grandfather’s stories that he hadn’t been able to forget. Waco’s love of history had proved to be effective at solving cold cases. He partly put it down to his good memory skills when it came to crimes. That and his inability to give up on something once he felt that prickling on the back of his neck.
He still couldn’t believe it. The cases had felt similar, but damn if there wasn’t a connection between them—just not the one he’d expected. “I’m sorry for bringing you in on this case,” he said to Hitch. “I figured it might be a copycat ‘body dump in an old well’ kind of case. I had no idea it might involve someone from your future family.”
“Stacy is my fiancé’s father’s cousin. I’ve barely met her, so I’m not worried. I can notify the family for you or do anything else you need done. If it gets too close to home, I’ll bow out.”
He nodded. “Sorry.” He could tell she’d hate to have to walk away from this one.
“It sounds like it could turn into a really interesting case.”
“What can you tell me about Stacy?”
She shrugged. “She’s been living on the ranch since her daughter, Ella, was born—almost twenty-seven years now,” Hitch said. “She doesn’t have a record, and from what I know, she babysat all the Cardwell-Savage kids. She now helps with the cooking, canning and gardening. Not really murderer material.”
“You know that’s not an indication,” he said.
“I know, but just because there was a similar case on the family ranch doesn’t mean she did this. That old case got a lot of media attention. It could have given anyone the idea.”
Hitch was clutching at straws and they both knew it as he pulled out his phone and called the ranch. He couldn’t wait to talk to Stacy Cardwell, the former Mrs. Marvin Hanover.
Early the next morning, Ella buttoned her jean jacket as she left her cabin on the mountainside overlooking the main ranch house. She stopped on her large porch overlooking the ranch. She and Angus had gotten back late from picking up the new bull. All the lights had been out, including her mother’s, so while she hadn’t been tired, she’d gone up to her cabin alone and read late into the night.
This morning she’d awakened to sunshine and the scent of pine coming in her open window. The early Montana summer day still had a bite to it this deep in the Gallatin Canyon, though, not that she noticed. She’d awakened to birds singing—but also a bad feeling that she’d had since yesterday.
She needed to check on the new foal before heading to the main house for breakfast with Aunt Dana and her mother. The two should be busy at work canning by now. Yet she’d stopped on the porch to look out across the valley, trying to shake the anxious feeling that her mother hadn’t shown up to can this morning.
As she headed for her mother’s cabin through the shimmering pines, Ella caught glimpses of Big Sky in the distance. The resort town would soon be busting at the seams with tourists for the summer season. She’d noticed that traffic along Highway 191 had already picked up. Locals joked that the area had only two seasons: summer tourists and winter tourists. The only break was a few weeks in the fall before it snowed and in early spring when the snow melted and the skiing was no longer any good.
Here on Cardwell Ranch, though, only a slight hum of traffic could occasionally be heard through the trees. This morning she could hear the murmur of the river below her, the sigh of the pine boughs in the breeze and an occasional meadowlark’s song. The state bird sounded quite cheerful. Normally that would have put a smile on her face.
She loved living on the ranch, working with the rest of the family. While her mother had always liked cooking in the kitchen with her sister or helping out in the garden or with the kids, from a young age, Ella had taken care of the horses and helped round up the cattle. She’d made a good living as a wrangler, traveling all over the state and beyond with her Savage cousins Angus and Brick.
But now Angus and his wife, Jinx, lived on the ranch. Brick and his fiancée, Mo, would be building a place on the spread, both of them in law enforcement rather than ranching. It had surprised Ella when her cousins had settled down so quickly. She knew it was because both had finally met women who were their equals. Love had struck them hard and fast.
She’d never had that kind of luck when it came to men and love. Not that she had been looking. With branding over, the family would soon be rounding up the cows and calves and herding them to the land high in the mountains for the summer. It was one of her favorite times of the year, now that the snow had melted enough in the peaks to let them access the grazing lands.
Ella was content here, so it was no wonder she didn’t care that she hadn’t met anyone who made her heart pound. But her mother had never been settled here, she thought, realizing why she’d hesitated on her porch this morning. She’d tried her mother’s cell first thing this morning, but it had gone straight to voice mail. If her mother was in the kitchen busy canning with Aunt Dana, she had probably turned off her phone.
Still, Ella couldn’t shake the feeling that her mother wasn’t there...
Aunt Dana answered on the third ring. Ella could almost feel the warmth of the kitchen in her aunt’s voice. By now, there would be canning pots boiling on the stove, as well as a cake or cookies baking in the oven. She could practically breathe in the scents.
“Is Mom there?” Ella asked, already knowing the answer deep in her chest where worry made her ache.
“No. I was going to call, but I decided to let her sleep. She’s been running tired lately. Are you headed down? I’ve got corn cakes and bacon for you.”
“In a minute.” Ella disconnected as she continued across the mountain. Hers and her mother’s cabins were two of a half dozen perched above the ranch.
As she neared her mother’s place, she tried to understand why she’d been so worried about her mom lately. Since Ella had come back to the ranch after a wrangling job in Wyoming, her mother had been distant. Stacy swore she was fine, but Ella didn’t believe it. She sensed it was something much deeper and darker. And that was what worried her. She knew her mother’s mood swings better than anyone. Not that she could say she knew her mother any more than she knew the woman’s well-guarded secret past.
Reaching her mother’s cabin, she climbed the steps to the porch and stopped to listen. Maybe Stacy really had slept in this morning. From here, Ella could catch glimpses of the Gallatin River, the water a clear pale green rushing over granite boulders as it cut through the narrow canyon. Pines soared toward the massive blue sky overhead, broken only by granite cliffs that glistened gold in the sunlight. The smell of pine and the river wafted through the crisp, clean air.
Ella heard no movement from within the cabin. She tapped at the door. When she got no answer, she knocked harder. Still no answer.
Opening the door, she called, “Mom?”
The cabin had a hollow feel.
She stepped deeper inside, a chill moving through her. The place felt empty. She went toward her mother’s bedroom. The door was ajar. “Mom?” Pushing it open, she saw that the bed had been made.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the open closet doors and the empty hangers. Her stomach dropped. Even before she checked, she knew her mother’s suitcases wouldn’t be there. Stacy was gone.
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