Guest Post: Eleanor Kuhns – DEATH IN THE GREAT DISMAL

As most of you have probably discerned by now, I’m somewhat of a fanatic when it comes to reading. Seriously, if a day goes by and I don’t read I feel as if there’s something seriously wrong. (Okay, there’s probably something wrong with the fact that I’m addicted to reading, but that’s a problem I’m not even thinking about seeking treatment for anytime soon!) My reading style can only be classified as eclectic as I enjoy reading mysteries, suspense, thrillers, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, romance, romantic-suspense, ChickLit, YA, and nonfiction. I read contemporary fiction and historical fiction without a preference for any time period. One of the many things I enjoy about reading historical fiction is that many authors will include interesting historical tidbits that pique my interest in learning more. Eleanor Kuhns writes the Will Rees Mystery series, historical fiction, and Death In the Dismal is the latest addition to this series. I’m incredibly honored to host Ms. Kuhns today. Ms. Kuhns will be providing us with some background on the history and current use of the Great Dismal Swamp. I hope you’ll enjoy learning something new about this swampland, follow the blog tour to read some great reviews, and add Death in the Great Dismal to your TBR list. Dear book people, I give you Eleanor Kuhns. Thank you, Ms. Kuhns, for taking the time to stop by and visit with us today. I look forward to learning more about the setting of your latest book.

The History of the Great Dismal

by Eleanor Kuhns

In Death in the Great Dismal, Rees and Lydia take an unusually long journey. They go south, to the Great Dismal Swamp, at the request of their friend Tobias. He and his wife Ruth are free blacks, born in Maine, but they are taken off the street and sold down south (in Death of a Dyer.) Tobias and Ruth both flee servitude but while Tobias escapes back to Maine, Ruth runs to the Great Dismal Swamp and a community of other fugitives like herself.

Now Tobias wants to rescue her. He believes he will have a better chance returning north if accompanied by White friends.

At first Rees refuses. But Lydia persuades him to agree. After the conflict between them (in A Circle of Dead Girls), the previous spring when their marriage was sorely tested, she feels they need a time away from home to mend their relationship.

But the swamp is much more challenging than either Rees or Lydia expects.

Although native peoples knew of the swamp, it was discovered by Europeans only in 1665, by William Drummond. He was the first governor of North Carolina and the large shallow lake in the swamp is named for him. George Washington visited the swamp when he was a young British Officer. He saw potential for development in this wilderness and later founded the Great Dismal Swamp Canal company, with others, with the intention of draining the swamp.

The original size of the swamp is estimated at between one million and three million acres. It is a peat bog and the water-saturated peat is very thick. Despite the difficulty of draining the water, some of the swamp has been developed. The area that is left, which spans a section of southern Virginia and reaches into North Carolina, is 112 acres. It is now a Wildlife Refuge, a habitat for over 200 species of birds, a large black bear population, deer, bobcats, snakes and turtles, and many insects. (All biting, I think. Insect repellant is a must.) There are no rocks or stones of any kind in the swamp.

This is the environment that fugitives from the surrounding plantations fled to. The runaways were called maroons. (The origin of the name is not known although one theory posits it is from the French marronage – to flee.) They found refuge on the islands of higher ground that dot the swamp. Small villages and farms were established, although most of the fields were little more than an acre in size. Sweet potatoes, corn and squash were the most common crops. Feral cattle and pigs that had escaped from their pens, as well as deer, turtles, and other animals provided meat.

Some of the villages were located on the outskirts of the swamp. As I describe in the novel, the Maroons made regular forays to the plantations to take supplies, especially those items they could not find or make within the swamp. Bands of slave takers and their dogs regularly pursued the fugitives into the swamp, both to recapture what they saw as property, as well as to stop the raids on the plantations.

Other runaways lived deep within the swamp, far away from the reach of the white world. Both men and women escaped bondage, although more men than women. Family groups were established, and children were born. Many of these Maroons did not leave the swamp until after the end of the Civil War; at that point the children and grandchildren born in the swamp had never seen a white person.

Trapped within the small village by the inhospitable ecosystem outside, Rees and Lydia are the outsiders, already distrusted because of their white skins. Within days of their arrival, there is one murder and then another. Who among these few people is a murderer and why?

Death In The Great Dismal

by Eleanor Kuhns

March 22 – April 16, 2021 Tour

Synopsis:

DEATH IN THE GREAT DISMAL - EKuhns

Finding themselves in a slave community hidden within the Great Dismal Swamp, Will Rees and his wife Lydia get caught up in a dangerous murder case where no one trusts them.

September 1800, Maine. Will Rees is beseeched by Tobias, an old friend abducted by slave catchers years before, to travel south to Virginia to help transport his pregnant wife, Ruth, back north. Though he’s reluctant, Will’s wife Lydia convinces him to go . . . on the condition she accompanies them.

Upon arriving in a small community of absconded slaves hiding within the Great Dismal Swamp, Will and Lydia are met with distrust. Tensions are high and a fight breaks out between Tobias and Scipio, a philanderer with a bounty on his head known for conning men out of money. The following day Scipio is found dead – shot in the back.

Stuck within the hostile Great Dismal and with slave catchers on the prowl, Will and Lydia find themselves caught up in their most dangerous case yet.

Kuhns’ vivid portrayal of the community that developed inside the swamp captures a group of naturally cunning and vigilant people who provided a family for one another when most had none. . . the story shines for its historical backbone and atmospheric details.

Booklist

Book Details:

Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Published by: Severn House Publishers
Publication Date: January 5th 2021
Number of Pages: 224
ISBN: 0727890239 (ISBN13: 9780727890238)
Series: Will Rees Mysteries #8
Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

Author Bio:

 

Author - Eleanor Kuhns

Eleanor is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime novel winner. After working as a librarian, she transitioned to a full time writer. This is number eight in the Will Rees Mystery series.

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Book Showcase: A CIRCLE OF DEAD GIRLS by Eleanor Kuhns


A Circle Of Dead Girls

by Eleanor Kuhns

on Tour September 1-30, 2020


Synopsis:


A Circle Of Dead Girls by Eleanor Kuhns




In the spring of 1800, a traveling circus arrives in town. Rees is about to attend, but sees his nemesis, Magistrate Hanson in the crowd, and leaves. On the way home, he meets a party of Shaker brothers searching for a missing girl. They quickly come across her lifeless body thrown into a farmer’s field.

Rees begins investigating and quickly becomes entranced by the exotic circus performers, especially the beautiful young tightrope walker.

Other murders follow. Who is the killer? One of the circus performers? One of the townspeople? Or One of the Shakers?




Book Details:


Genre: Historical Murder Mystery
Published by: Severn House
Publication Date: March 3rd 2020
Number of Pages: 224
ISBN: 0727890085 (ISBN13: 9780727890085)
Series: Will Rees Mysteries #8 (Each book “Stands Alone”)
Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads




Read an excerpt:




Chapter 1



As if God Himself had taken a hand, winter abruptly changed to spring. The six inches of snow that had fallen just last week – the third week of April – was melting in the suddenly balmy air. Instead of hard-packed snow, the roads were surfaced in slush and mud. Only on the north sides of the slopes and under the trees did snow remain and even there green spears poked through the white.

Rees had already planted peas and in a few weeks he would begin plowing the rocky fields. He sighed. Although glad to see the spring, he did not like to think about the coming backbreaking toil. He would turn forty this year and his dislike of farm work had, if anything, intensified. His father had died at the age of forty-six, while Rees was away serving with General Washington in the War for Independence, and sometimes he wondered if six years was all he had left. Six years with his arms up to their elbows in mud and manure. Just the thought of it pressed down like a heavy weight. He didn’t think he could bear it.

At least, with the coming warmer weather, he could look forward to a few weeks of freedom as he traveled these roads weaving for the farm wives. Besides the cash he would earn, he looked forward to what he imagined as sunlit days of freedom from the farm.

With a shake of his head, he pushed the gloomy thoughts from his mind. Now he was on his way into town. For the past several days men had been shouting up and down the lanes and byways: Asher’s Circus was coming to town. Rees had brought his children to the Surry road yesterday to watch the circus arrive. First came a man in a scarlet coat and top hat riding a bay. Bells jingled on his harness and feathers danced upon his head. Two carriages followed, the beautiful women seated inside leaning through the curtained windows to wave and blow kisses. At least five wagons followed, wagons that were unlike any that Rees had ever seen. These vehicles looked like the carriages but were bigger and taller and the curtains at their small windows were shut. On every wagon door a bright gold rearing horse glittered in the sunlight. Finally, clowns with colored patches painted over their eyes and vivid clothing walked alongside. One was a dwarf with a pig and a dog and the other a giant of a man. While the little man turned cartwheels, the big fellow walked straight ahead barely acknowledging the crowds lining the street.

Rees’s children were beyond excited, jumping and shouting beside the road. Even Rees, a cosmopolitan traveler who’d visited several large cities, had been enchanted. After a long winter kept mostly inside and occupied solely with mending tack and other chores he was ready for some entertainment.

Now he was on his way into town to see a performance. A sudden wash of muddy water splattered, not only the wagon, but him as well. He swore at the young sprig galloping by, so intent on reaching Durham that he paid no attention to those he passed. But Rees was not really angry. A circus was a grand event and he guessed he could extend a little charity to the eager farmer’s boy. Rees knew Lydia would have liked to join him, and probably the children as well, but no lady would be seen at such rude entertainment, so she must rely on his descriptions.

The streets of Durham were thronged with traffic. Wagons jostled for space next to horses and mules. Pedestrians were forced to cling to the side of the buildings lest they be trampled underfoot. Rees shook his head in amazement; he had never seen the streets so crowded.

And Rouge’s inn! The yard swarmed with horses and shouting men. Rees’s hope – that he could leave his horse and wagon there – died. When he turned down an alley that went to the jail, he found this narrow lane almost as impassible. But he could already see a tall structure in the field that the Durham farmers usually used for Saturday market. It was so early in the season that market was just beginning. Later in the spring the grounds would be in use every Saturday.

Finally, Rees parked his wagon and horse at the jail. He watered Hannibal from a nearby trough and joined the mob streaming toward the large field. Affluent townsmen rubbed shoulders with sunburned farmers in straw hats and dirty clogs. At first, except for the arena built in the center, the fairgrounds looked exactly as normal: an occasional ramshackle hut interspersed with large areas of open ground. The farmers usually set up their wares in one of those small squares; this was how Lydia sold her butter and cheese. Rees lifted his eyes to the tall wooden structure, dazzling with colorful flags flying around the roof, that dominated the field. At first, he did not notice how peculiar the building looked. But as he approached the flimsy construction, the lack of any windows, and the slapdash roof became apparent. An arc of roofed wooden vehicles – the circus wagons – curved around the back.

At several yards distant he could see gaps between the splintered boards that made up the walls. Posters, all designed with a crude woodcut of a horse, papered over the widest of cracks. Rees directed his steps to a bill posted on the wall and paused in front of it. “Asher’s Circus”, he read. “Mr. Joseph Asher, trained by Mr. Phillip Astley and Mr. John B. Ricketts, and just arrived from tours of London, Philadelphia, Boston, and Albany, is pleased to present daring feats of horsemanship, the world -famous rope dancer Bambola, clowns after the Italian fashion and many more acts to amaze and delight.”

Rees grunted, his eyes moving to the bottom. Names and dates scribbled in by different hands, and then crossed off, filled all the white space with the last being Durham, show time five o’clock. Since he didn’t recognize most of the names, he suspected they were for very small villages, not the cities mentioned above. Mr. Asher clearly had grandiose aspirations.

Rees walked around to the front. An opening was screened by a shabby blue curtain, dyed in streaks and with the same look as the boards- used over and over for a long time. Now more curious than ever, he bent down and peered through the gap at the bottom. He could hear the sound of hooves and as he peeked under the curtain he saw the skinny brown legs of a galloping horse thud past.

‘I really must begin my journey.’ Piggy Hanson’s whiny drawl sent Rees’s head whipping around. What the Hell was Piggy doing here?  Rees had not seen Hanson, or anyone else from his hometown of Dugard, Maine, for almost two years, not since the magistrate had written an arrest warrants for Lydia – witchcraft – and for Rees – murder.  His family had had to flee for their lives. He did not think he would ever forgive the people involved, especially the magistrate who had enabled the persecution. Rage swept over Rees and he turned to look around for the other man.

He saw his nemesis – they’d been enemies since boyhood – standing in a cluster of gentlemen, their cigar smoke forming a cloud around them. With every intention of punching the other man, Rees took a few steps in his direction, but then his anger succumbed to his more rational mind. He did not want Piggy Hanson to know he lived here now and anyway there were far too many men for him to take on by himself.

‘I must leave for the next town on my circuit, you know,’ Hanson continued. A magistrate for a large district, he regularly traveled from town to town ruling on judicial issues. He knew Rees was innocent of murder, Rees was certain of it, but he suspected he would still be treated as though he was guilty. And he doubted he could behave with any civility at all, not with this man. He cast around for a hiding place and, quicker than thought, he dashed behind the blue curtain.

He swiftly moved away from the portal, pressing himself against the wooden wall so that no one who came through the curtain could immediately see him. Then he inhaled a deep breath and looked around.

Stones carried in from the field outside marked off a roughly circular ring. The galloping horse thundered past, a woman in a short red frock standing on the saddle. At first scandalized to see the woman’s legs knee to ankle, Rees’s shock quickly turned to admiration. She stood on the saddle in comfort, her red dress and white petticoats fluttering in the breeze. Puffs of dust from the horse’s hooves sifted into the air.

‘Pip,’ said a voice from above. Rees looked up. A rope had been stretched tautly across the width of the enclosure and a woman in a white dress and stockings stood upon it. She wore white gloves but no hat and her wavy dark hair curled around her face. Rees stared in amazement as her white feet slid across the line. She was totally focused upon her task and did not give any indication she saw him. ‘Pip,’ she said again, and went into a flood of French mixed with some other language. Rees understood enough to know she was complaining about the rope.

This, he thought, must be Bambola, the ropewalker, crossing the sky above his head. She was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. As her white dress fluttered around her, all he could think of was angels.

‘Bon.’ A man Rees had not noticed detached himself from the wall and moved forward. He was easily as tall as Rees, if not taller, and lanky. His hair was a peculiar reddish black color. In French he assured the rope dancer that he would fix the rope in a minute.

Holding up his hand, he moved toward the ring. The equestrienne dropped down to the saddle, first riding astride and then moving one leg across so she rode sidesaddle. She pulled the horse to a stop and jumped down with none of the hesitation of a lady. She conferred with Pip for a few moments in tones too low for Rees to hear and then she went out the opening at the back. The man leaped easily into the saddle and urged the horse again into a gallop. He stood in the saddle, balancing even more easily than his female partner, and then, in one fluid motion, dropped to the saddle to stand on his hands. His lean body formed a long streak toward the sky. Rees gasped in amazement. Then the performer began jumping from one face of the saddle to the other, riding diagonally on each side with his feet pointing at the horse’s hindquarters. He was even more skilled than the woman and Rees was so enthralled he forgot why he was there and lost all track of time.

Finally, Pip moved his long body into the saddle and slowed the horse to a walk. He dismounted and, taking hold of the bridle, began to walk the animal around the ring. ‘You,’ he shouted at Rees in a heavy French accent, ‘get out. You must pay.’

Rees half-nodded, listening to the chatter floating over the wall; he could still hear Piggy talking outside, his high-pitched voice carrying over the lower tones of the other men. ‘I didn’t sneak in to see the show,’ Rees told the circus performer in a near-whisper. ‘There’s someone outside I don’t want to meet.’ With a grin – he could also hear Piggy – the other man turned and pointed to the curtain at the back. Rees struck across the ring for the screen. Disappointment – for now he would not be able to stay and enjoy the show – fell heavy upon his shoulders. Another crime to put at Piggy’s door.

Before he dropped the cloth over the opening Rees turned to look back over his shoulder. Now the tall man was scrambling up the pole to the small landing above. Rees wondered if the talented rider was a rope dancer as well as an equestrian but he did not go all the way up. Instead, as the girl withdrew to the landing on the other side, Pip began working with fittings. The rope vibrated.

Rees dropped the curtain and looked around. He found himself in the cluster of the circus carriages, horses, and hurrying people. A dwarf wearing a clown’s short ruffled red pants and with red triangles drawn in around his eyes hurried past, quickly followed by a slender fellow with oiled black hair and an aggressive black mustache streaked with gray. The performance would begin soon. No one took the slightest notice of Rees as he threaded his way through the circus performers.

Close to, the wagons looked beat up, scarred with use. Most of the gold horses on the wagon doors were simply paint and the few that were carved wood or sculpted metal were losing their gilding. Rees distinctly saw the tell-tale red of rust fringing the head of one rearing stallion.

He broke into a run. He would never have expected to meet the Magistrate here in this tiny Maine town. And he prayed Hanson would leave soon. Rees would not dare to return until he could be sure that Piggy Hanson was gone.

Leaving Durham proved just as challenging as entering town in the first place. The streets seemed even more congested now than they had been earlier. Abandoning the main road once again, Rees turned down a side street on the southern side of town. There was a narrow lane, little more than a footpath, that went east, from Durham to the Surry Road. He could follow Surry Road north past the Shaker community and then to his own farm. If he could just reach the lane. The side street was packed with wagons coming from the farms on the southern side of town. It took Rees much longer than it should have to drive the few blocks before he was finally able to turn.

But from what he could see of this winding track, there was little traffic here. Because of the narrow and twisty nature of this lane most of the traffic was on foot. Only a few vehicles were heading into town. Congratulating himself on his foresight, Rees settled himself more comfortably on the hard wooden seat. If one were not in a hurry, this was a pleasant ride through the stands of budding trees and lichen spotted boulders. He glanced at the sky; he’d reach home before it was entirely dark. And, although he had not been able to attend the circus, at least he’d seen enough to make a good story to tell Lydia and the children.

The wagon trundled around the last steep sharp curve. From here the road straightened out, cutting through farmland until it reached Surry Road.

And ahead was a group of Shaker Brothers, walking towards him. Rees was surprised to see them. A devout group that rarely left their well-ordered community, they surely could not be walking into Durham for the circus. He slowed to a stop and jumped to the ground.

Chapter 2



The group of men resolved into individual faces. One man, Brother Daniel, Rees knew well. Daniel had been the caretaker of the boys when Rees and his family had sought refuge here two years ago. Promoted to Elder since then, Daniel was beginning to look much older than his almost thirty years. He’d lost the roundness to his cheeks, his face now appearing almost gaunt, and the gray appearing in his hair made him look as though he were fading like a piece of old cloth. Rees, who’d recently discovered white hairs on his chin and chest, felt a spasm of sympathy.

Now worried lines furrowed Daniel’s forehead. ‘Rees,’ he said. ‘If I may request your assistance?’

‘Of course,’ he said immediately. ‘What do you need?’ Not only was his wife a former Shaker but the members of Zion had helped him more times than he could count.

‘When you came through town did you see a Shaker lass?’ Daniel’s normally quiet voice trembled with fear and desperation. Rees shook his head. He had seen few women or children and none clothed in the sober Shaker garb.

‘What happened? Did she run off to see the circus?’

‘Yes,’ Daniel said with a nod. ‘With one of the boys.’

‘Shem,’ said Brother Aaron. Rees knew the cantankerous old man well. and was surprised to see him here, searching for the girl. Although a Shaker, Aaron was not always kind or compassionate. ‘I fear he was easily led by that girl,’ he added, confirming Rees’s judgement.

‘Apparently they took off right after our noon dinner,’ Daniel continued, ignoring the other man. ‘We wouldn’t know that much but for the fact Shem was almost late for supper.’

‘Well, have you asked him where she is?’

‘Shem had nothing to do with it,’ Aaron said sharply at the same instant Daniel spoke.

‘Of course we did. We aren’t fools.’

Rees held up his hands in contrition. The Shakers were usually the most even-tempered of people. He knew Daniel’s testiness was a measure of his worry. ‘What did he say?’

‘That they were separated.’

‘Shem wanted to see the circus horses,’ Aaron said.

‘Leah wanted to come home,’ Daniel explained, throwing an irritated glance at his fellow Shaker. ‘Well, they wouldn’t allow a woman to enter such a rude entertainment, would they? She was probably bored-.’

‘He is horse mad,’ Aaron interjected.

‘Please Aaron,’ Daniel said in a sharp voice, staring at his fellow in exasperation. Aaron acknowledged the rebuke with a nod and Daniel continued. ‘How could Leah have been so lost to all propriety as to imagine she would be allowed entry, I don’t know.’ For a moment his frustration with the girl overshadowed his fear. ‘What was she thinking? I’m not surprised that rapscallion Shem would behave so carelessly but Leah is soon to sign the Covenant and join us as a fully adult member. The amusements of the World should hold no attraction for her.’

Rees shook his head in disagreement. He didn’t blame the girl. He thought that this was exactly the time when she would want to see something outside the kitchen. After all, he was a man, well used to traveling, and seeing the circus had made him long to pack his loom in his wagon and go. 

‘Like all women, she is flighty,’ Aaron said, frowning in condemnation. ‘Attracted to sins of -.’

‘Did you search Zion?’ Rees interrupted.

‘No,’ Daniel said. ‘When we couldn’t find the children, we suspected they’d left . . .’ His voice trailed away and he looked from side to side as though expecting the girl to spring up beside him.

‘Perhaps she just wanted to go home to her family,’ Rees suggested.

‘She has no family,’ Daniel said curtly. ‘Neither of those children do. Shem is an orphan and Leah has lived with us since she was a baby. Her mother brought her to us and died soon after. Leah knows no other family but us. She would not leave our community.’

All the more reason for her to want to experience something of the world, Rees thought but he kept his opinion to himself. ‘I drove to town on the main road,’ he said aloud. ‘I did not see any children at all.’

‘When was that?’

‘About four,’ Rees replied.

Daniel nodded and rubbed a shaking hand over his jaw. ‘You were on the road too late, I think. The children left the village right after noon dinner.’

‘That means they would have been on the main road between one and two,’ Rees said. ‘Depending on their speed.’ And if Leah had parted from Shem and started home by two-thirty or three, walking either road, she would have reached Zion by four. Four-thirty at the latest. Anxiety for the girl tingled through him.  He thought of his own children and the kidnapping of his daughter last winter with a shudder of remembered terror. ‘I’ll help you search,’ he said. ‘The more of us the better.’ He already feared this search would not have a good outcome.

Daniel turned to two of the younger Brothers. ‘Search along the road,’ he said. ‘And hurry. We have less than an hour of daylight left.’ They started down the lane, moving toward town at a run.

Rees looked up at the sky. The fiery ball was almost at the horizon, and long low rays streamed across the earth in ribbons of gold. In thirty – maybe forty minutes the sun would drop below the western hill and the pink and purple streamers across the sky would fade into black. ‘I’ll park the wagon,’ he said, jumping into the seat.

He pulled it to the ditch on the left side and jumped down, looking around him as he did so. Farmer Reynard had planted the sloping fields on Rees’s right; buckwheat probably given the sloping and rocky nature of the ground. But on the left the buckwheat straw from last year stood almost four feet high, waiting to be cut down and then turned over into the soil. Rees inspected that field thoughtfully. Tall thick stems such as that could hide a girl who did not want to be found. ‘We should check the fields,’ he said as he rejoined the Shakers. ‘And the pastures.’ When Daniel looked at him in surprise, he added, ‘She might have started back to Zion and when she saw us coming gone to ground. She might not want to be dragged back to Zion in disgrace.’ Daniel nodded, pleased by the suggestion and quickly asked the other Brothers to spread out across the fields. Rees and Daniel started walking down the lane.

But before they had gone very far, one of the other Shakers called out.

‘Hey, over here.’ A young fellow whose yellow hair stuck out around his straw hat like straw itself, began retching. ‘Oh, dear God.’

Daniel did not pause to remonstrate with the boy for his language but vaulted the fence into the field and ran. Rees struggled to keep up. Was it Leah? Was she hurt? His stomach clenched; he was so afraid the situation was far worse than that.

They arrived at the body lying sprawled in its buckwheat nest at the same time. She lay partly on her right side, partly on her back, her left arm crooked at her waist at an odd angle. Her plain gray skirt was rucked up to her thighs and blood spattered the white flesh. Daniel turned around, his face white, and shouted at the Brothers approaching him, ‘Stay back. Stay back. Don’t come any closer.’

‘Oh no,’ Rees said, dropping to one knee. ‘Oh no.’ Although he’d been told Leah was fourteen, she looked much younger. Under the severe Shaker cap, her skin had the translucent quality of the child. Her eyes were open, the cloudy irises staring at the darkening sky. Rees bent over her. Although it was hard to tell in the fading light he thought he saw marks around her throat. ‘She may have been strangled,’ he said, his eyes rising to the worm fence that separated this field from the road that led into Durham. Leah’s body had been dropped only a few yards from the fence but in the high straw it would have been almost invisible, even in daylight. Rees began walking slowly toward the main road, his eyes fixed upon the ground. There did not seem to be any path from the fence to the body; none of the buckwheat stalks were bent or broken in any way. He did not see any footprints in the soft April soil either. But in the setting sun detail was difficult to see and he made a mental note to examine this section of the field more closely tomorrow.

‘The farmer, did he do this terrible thing?’ Daniel cried, glancing from side to side.

‘Perhaps, but I doubt it,’ Rees said. He touched the girl’s upraised arm to see if he could move it. As he suspected, the body was growing stiff. ‘He would be a fool to leave her in his own field.’

‘It was not Shem,’ Aaron said loudly. Rees glanced up at the man. Why was Aaron so protective of that boy?

‘She’s been dead for about some hours,’ Rees said, returning to his examination. Then he thought about the warmth of the day. Leah would have been lying here, in the sun. ‘Maybe since mid-afternoon.’ And that time would be consistent with the time she’d left town.

‘How do you know?’ Daniel stared at Rees in shock, mixed with dawning suspicion.

‘You told me she was seen at noon dinner,’ Rees replied, ‘so we know she was alive then.’ He rose to his feet and looked at Daniel ‘It must be almost six o’clock now.’

‘Probably after,’ Daniel said, looking around at the fading light.

‘A body begins to stiffen a few hours after death and then, maybe half a day later, the rigidity passes off. I saw this frequently during the War for Independence but any good butcher will tell you the same.’ Rees kept his eyes upon the other man who finally nodded with some reluctance. ‘I would guess that Leah was accosted by someone on her way home.’ He paused. The poor child had probably been lying here when he rode past, thinking of the circus. He closed his eyes as a spasm of shame went through him.

‘She knew she was not to leave Zion,’ Daniel said with a hint of wrath in his voice.

Rees sighed. This was not the first time he had seen the victim blamed. And perhaps, for a celibate such as Daniel, anger was an easier emotion right now than horror and disgust and grief as well. ‘Perhaps she behaved foolishly, but she did not deserve this end to her life.’

‘We will take her home -,’ Daniel began. But Rees interrupted.

‘We must send someone for the constable.’

‘No. No. She is one of ours.’

‘This is murder,’ Rees said, staring fixedly at Daniel. Although shocked and horrified, he had witnessed too many violent deaths to be paralyzed by such evil any longer. His calm voice and stern regard had the desired effect. Daniel sucked in a deep breath. After he had mastered himself, he left Rees’s side and joined the group of Shakers.

‘Run back to the village and get a horse,’ he told one of the youngest Brothers. ‘Ride into Durham and fetch Constable Rouge.’ His voice trembled on the final word. Rees looked at Daniel. He was swaying on his feet, his eyes were glassy and his skin pale and slick with perspiration. He looked as though he might faint. Rees drew him away from Leah’s body and pressed him down into a sitting position. Daniel was little more than a boy himself and had lived in the serene Shaker community most of his life. It was no surprise he was ill-equipped to handle such a terrible occurrence. ‘Put your head between your knees,’ Rees said. ‘I’m going to walk to the farmhouse and talk to the farmer. Maybe he saw something.’

‘I’ll go with you.’ Daniel stood up; so unsteady Rees grabbed him to keep him from falling.

‘No,’ he said with a shake of his head.

‘I need to go with you,’ the Brother said fiercely. ‘I need to do something. That poor child!’ Rees stared at the other man. Although Daniel’s face was still white, and he was trembling he had set his mouth in a determined line. ‘I must do this, Rees.’

‘Very well.’ Rees glanced over his shoulder at the body. From here, it appeared to be a bundle of rags dropped among the stalks. ‘Poor chick won’t be going anywhere.’

Daniel looked at Brother Aaron. ‘You were once a soldier,’ he said. ‘You’ve seen violence and death. Please stay with our Sister.’ Aaron nodded and, withdrawing a few steps, sat down in the row between the stalks. In the encroaching shadows he instantly faded from view. Only his pale straw hat remained, shining in the last of the light like a beacon.

Rees and Daniel set off across the fields for the distant farmhouse.

***



Excerpt from A Circle Of Dead Girls by Eleanor Kuhns.  
Copyright © 2020 by Eleanor Kuhns. Reproduced with permission from Eleanor Kuhns. 
All rights reserved.






Author Bio:


Eleanor Kuhns

Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur First Crime novel competition for A Simple Murder. She lives in upstate New York. A Circle of Dead Girls is Will Rees Mystery #8.


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Guest Post: Eleanor Kuhns – THE SHAKER MURDERS


Good day, book people. Today, I’m honored to introduce you all to Eleanor Kuhns, author of the Will Rees Mysteries including the latest addition to this historical fiction series, The Shaker Murders. Ms. Kuhns will be sharing with us insight into the much slower pace of communication in the Eighteenth Century versus the instantaneous connections we seek and crave today. Thank you, Ms. Kuhns, for stopping by and sharing this information with us today. I hope you will all add The Shaker Murders to your TBR list.




Communication – Eighteenth Century

In this hyper-connected world where information is just a few clicks away and communication with another person, even one in another state is as close as a text, it is hard for us to imagine how isolated people were in the eighteenth century. 

In fact, I’ve had questions about this very topic, not just about The Shaker Murders but about all the books in the series.

Why I’ve been asked, isn’t Will Rees hurrying to communicate with the constable? There’s a killer on the loose. (Well, it was night time.)

How can he take out that poor horse again? That horse is worked so hard. (He could walk or use the horse or a mule. There are no other choices.)

Why is Rees driving into town again? (How else is he going to speak to the constable and others?)

Email as a common form of communication is less than thirty years old and texting is even more recent. So, let’s go old school. Telephone. Alexander Graham Bell put in a patent for the telephone in 1876. Welcome to the world of the switchboard and party line. By 1904 there were three million phones in the United States. Cell phones were proposed in 1947 but the technology did not exist then and didn’t until the 1960s. It took several more decades before the cell phone (or the mobile phone) became ubiquitous.

What about the telegraph? Although the telegraph was posited in 1774, the technology didn’t exist at that time. It was not until the early 1800s when several scientists built varying forms of the telegraph. It came into use in the United States in 1861, (using the Morse code) and putting the end to the Pony Express.

Both the telephone and the telegraph were dependent on another nineteenth-century invention: electricity.

The Pony Express was a service that delivered messages, newspapers, and mail and was not an arm of the Post Office. It was instead a private business set up by three men:  William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell. By utilizing a short route and using mounted riders rather than stagecoaches (which were used by the post office) they proposed to establish a fast mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, with letters delivered in ten days.  In these days of instantaneous communication, ten days seems slow. But at that time it was considered too fast to be possible. They did succeed, however.

From April 3, 1860, to October 1861, it became the West’s most direct means of east-west communication before the telegraph was established (October 24, 1861), and was vital for tying California to the Eastern United States.

All of these methods happened decades after Will Rees did his detecting. So, there were only two avenues of communication available to him: the Post Office or face to face.

Yes, there was mail. During the Colonial period, most of the mail went back and forth between the colonies and Great Britain. It took months. In 1775 Ben Franklin was the postmaster who began setting up a postal service to take the place of the Crown Post. He set a standardized rate and set up routes from Maine to Florida. At this point, there were no post offices and mail was delivered to inns and taverns. (By 1789 there were 75 post offices in the United States.) The U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1788, gave Congress the power to set up a Postal Service. In 1789 George Washington appointed Samuel Osgood to the Postmaster’s General position, which he held until 1791.

So, Rees would have had to meet with every person he wishes to question. And he is limited by time of day (no electricity so he does not often drive at night) and weather. In The Shaker Murders, I avoid this problem by setting the murder where Rees and his family are living so they are on-site. But as soon as he wishes to speak to the constable of investigating elsewhere, he must take himself physically to them.

He would be astonished by the variety of rapid communication methods we enjoy.






About Eleanor Kuhns


Photo by Rana Faure
Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel. A lifelong librarian, she received her Masters from Columbia University and is currently the Assistant Director of the Goshen Public Library in Orange County New York. 



Connect with the author:
Website URL: http://www.eleanor-kuhns.com
Blog URL: http://www.eleanor-kuhns.com/blog
Facebook URL: http://www.facebook.com/Eleanor-Kuhns
Twitter: @EleanorKuhns
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/eleanor-kuhns-36759623






The Shaker Murders A Will Rees Mystery by Eleanor Kuhns
ISBN: 9780727888372 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9781448301720 (ebook)
ISBN: 9781974930661 (audiobook)
ASIN: B07KX3C1WZ (Kindle edition)
Publisher: Severn House Publishers
Publication Date: February 1, 2019

A peaceful Shaker community is rocked by a series of bizarre accidents, but is there more to them than first appears? 

Fresh from facing allegations of witchcraft and murder, traveling weaver Will Rees, his heavily pregnant wife Lydia and six adopted children take refuge in Zion, a Shaker community in rural Maine. Shortly after their arrival, screams in the night reveal a drowned body … but is it murder or an unfortunate accident? The Shaker Elders argue it was just an accident, but Rees believes otherwise.

As Will investigates further, more deaths follow and a young girl vanishes from the community. Haunted by nightmares for his family’s safety, Rees must rush to uncover the truth before the dreams can become reality and more lives are lost. Yet can the Shaker Elders be trusted, or is an outsider involved?



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Book Spotlight: THE DEVIL’S COLD DISH by Eleanor Kuhns

The Devil’s Cold Dish, Will Rees Mystery #5, by Eleanor Kuhns
ISBN: 9781250093356 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9781250093363 (ebook)
ISBN: 9781520015613 (audiobook)
ASIN: B018E6TUXE (Kindle edition)
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Release Date: June 14, 2016


In the next 1790s historical mystery from MWA Award winner Eleanor Kuhns, Will Rees’ small farm town begins to suspect his wife of murder by witchcraft

Will Rees is back home on his farm in 1796 Maine with his teenage son, his pregnant wife, their five adopted children, and endless farm work under the blistering summer sun. But for all that, Rees is happy to have returned to Dugard, Maine, the town where he was born and raised, and where he’s always felt at home. Until now. When a man is found dead – murdered – after getting into a public dispute with Rees, Rees starts to realize someone is intentionally trying to pin the murder on him. Then, his farm is attacked, his wife is accused of witchcraft, and a second body is found that points to the Rees family. Rees can feel the town of Dugard turning against him, and he knows that he and his family won’t be safe there unless he can find the murderer and reveal the truth…before the murderer gets to him first. 



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Read an excerpt:

Chapter One


When Will Rees finally arrived home, much later than he’d expected, he found his sister Caroline in the front parlor. Again. Since Rees and his wife Lydia had returned from Salem several weeks ago, Caroline visited often and always with the same demand: that Rees support her family. Almost eight years ago, in the spring of 1789 he had surrendered his farm to his sister in exchange for the care of his then eight-year-old son, David. Caroline and Sam had not only used the farm so carelessly it still wasn’t as productive as it had been, they had beaten David. Treated him like a hired man instead of their nephew. Rees had sent his sister and her husband packing over two years ago, but Caroline still felt the farm should belong to her. And she was even more determined since last summer, when Rees’s punch had left her husband, Sam, touched in the head.

This time she’d brought Sam with her, no doubt to impress upon Rees his culpability in Sam’s disability.

“Look at him,” she was saying to Lydia when Rees paused in the doorway. “My husband has no more sense than an infant.” Although Rees did not like his sister putting pressure on his wife, his gaze went unwillingly to Sam. He was trying to catch dust motes floating through a patch of sunlight and humming quietly to himself. “I must mind him just as I would a child,” Caroline continued. “Sam can’t work or help at all.” The truth of that statement sent a quiver of shame through Rees, although he knew he’d had no choice. Sam had attacked Rees and would have beaten him bloody if not stopped. “You see how he is—” Caroline gestured, her voice breaking. Rees eyed his sister. Dark rings like bruises circled her eyes, her hair was uncombed, and she looked as though she hadn’t slept in weeks. Despite himself, Rees felt guilt sweep over him.

“I promised we would help you, Caro,” he said, startling both women and drawing their attention to him. “I promised and we will.” Lydia’s forehead furrowed with worry when she saw his dirt-smudged clothing and the cut on his cheekbone. He acknowledged her concern with a slight nod; they would speak later.

“Finally,” Caroline said. “You disappear for weeks and even when you do return to Dugard, you don’t stay home.”

“I’ve been home this fortnight and more,” Rees said, keeping his tone mild with an effort. “I had an errand.” He’d promised himself while still in Salem that he would try to treat his sister with more understanding and respect. But he was finding that promise almost impossible to keep. “Sometimes I suspect you come calling when you know I’m not at home.” The words slipped out before he could stop them. Caroline’s eyes narrowed.

“I’ve told you more than once your paltry help isn’t enough.” Her shrill accusation rode over his measured tone. She glanced at Lydia. “I’d hoped another woman would sympathize but I’ve been disappointed in that as well.” Her furious countenance swung back to Rees. “Why don’t you understand? I can’t manage on my own. I want to bring my family here. To this farm. We can stay in the weaver’s cottage. You aren’t using it anymore, not since you and Lydia wed.”

Rees sighed, tired of this well-worn argument. He didn’t want Caroline and her family living so close. Rees knew his sister. Caroline would expect her sister-in-law to cook and clean for her family and would order her around like she was help instead of the mistress of this farm. As if that weren’t enough, Caroline would find fault with everything. Her oldest, Charlie, would help David, but the two girls were too little to work much. “We’ve discussed this,” he said. “You own your own farm.”

“Charlie can have that farm. Oh, why won’t you help me?” Caroline wailed. “You have plenty. This farm is rich. You have sheep and cattle as well as chickens and other poultry.”

Rees could not bear to see his sister’s anguished expression and looked at Lydia. She almost imperceptibly shook her head. Although a Shaker when he met her and well-used to offering charity, Lydia had no more desire to see them move in than he did. Lydia knew how difficult Caroline could be.

Caroline, catching Lydia’s negative gesture, turned on her with a furious glare. “You think you’ve fallen into a soft bed, haven’t you?” she shouted. “You greedy—”

“We’ll help you bring in whatever you planted in your fields,” Rees said, his deep voice cutting off his sister’s charge. Caroline sent one final scowl toward Lydia before returning her attention to her brother.

“And what would that be?” she retorted. “Sam can’t work. Charlie planted only a few fields and a vegetable garden.”

“You must have hay,” Rees said. He wanted to point out that she could have put in winter wheat last fall. The wheat, once it was harvested, would have given them a bit of cash. But he elected not to repeat something he’d said several times already. “If the fields went to grass…” Haying should have been finished weeks ago but perhaps something could be salvaged.

“Will you and David bring it in?” she asked. “Maybe I could sell it. I’ve sold the horses and most of the livestock … well, I had to,” she said, catching Rees’s expression.

“I’ll help you in the garden,” Lydia volunteered.

“Most of that’s been eaten,” Caroline said angrily. “It’s not doing well anyway. I couldn’t keep up with the weeds and now the squash has some kind of insect; the vines are withering. There isn’t anything to put by for winter.”

Rees sighed. “We’ll offer you what we can,” he said. “I promise you, you won’t starve. I’ll make sure your family always has food. But you can’t live here. And that’s final.”

Caroline stared at him for several seconds. Rees had the clear sense she did not believe him. “But Will,” she said, tears starting from her eyes, “what happens if it snows and you can’t get to us? And my children are in rags, how will they be clothed? They won’t be able to attend school.”

Rees opened his mouth, but before he spoke his wife rose from the sofa and moved to his side. With the birth of their first child two months away she moved slowly and clumsily. “We will do everything we can do for you,” she said. “Of course we don’t want you and your children to live in privation.”

“But you can’t move in with us,” Rees repeated.

Caroline’s mouth turned down and her eyes narrowed. “You’ll be sorry,” she said. “You and this—this blaspheming wife of yours. Oh yes, I’ve heard what debaucheries those Shakers get up to in their services.” Lydia flinched. “Come, Sam,” Caroline said, sounding as though she was calling a dog. But Sam stood up and meekly followed her from the room.

“Blaspheming?” Lydia repeated. “Debaucheries?”

Rees frowned. “Don’t pay any attention to my sister,” he said. Caroline seemed to think Lydia should be ashamed of her Shaker past.

“Charlie,” Caroline shouted to her son as she ran out the front door. “Charlie. We are leaving.” Rees and Lydia followed Caroline out to the front porch and watched as she climbed into the cart. It, and the oxen Charlie used for plowing, were quite a comedown from the buggy and fine horses she’d once owned.

Charlie came out of the barn with David close behind him. Charlie was almost as tall as his cousin but his fair hair had begun darkening to brown and he had Sam’s brown eyes. He wore the embarrassed and impatient expression of a boy with unreasonable parents. He and David slapped one another affectionately on the back and then he trotted rapidly toward the cart. He waved at Rees and Lydia before scrambling into the driver’s seat. The battered vehicle hurtled down the drive in a cloud of dust.

“Don’t feel guilty,” Lydia said, turning to her husband with a fierce glare. “We will help them as much as we’re able. And remember, Will, Sam attacked you. Besides, their farm would be more productive now if he hadn’t spent most of his time gambling and drinking in the Bull.” She did not say that Caroline could work harder but Rees knew she thought it. His sisters hadn’t been raised to work the farm. Both Phoebe and Caroline had gone all the way through the dame school and, unlike many of their contemporaries, could read and write. Caroline fancied herself a poet and believed farmwork was beneath her. Unlike Lydia. Rees didn’t know very much about her childhood and his wife avoided his questions, but he understood she had been raised in an affluent family from Boston. Still, her strong sense of duty and her years spent with the Shakers, where work was a tribute to God, had instilled in her a willingness to turn her hand to anything. Even pregnant, she’d thrown down her cooking utensils to help with the haying at the beginning of the month. And Dolly, Rees’s first wife whom he had lost to illness along with the babe she carried, had loved the farm, just like David did now. David did the work gladly and although only sixteen he worked harder than most men. Thank the Lord, Rees thought now, most of the haying had been done by the time he had returned home. Of all the jobs on the farm, and Rees disliked the majority of them, he loathed haying the most.

“I’ll take some of the cloth I purchased in Salem,” he said, “and add some of the homespun so she can sew clothes for the children.”

Lydia’s lips twisted. “I suppose she’ll want us to do that as well,” she said. And then added quickly, “That was uncharitable of me. I’m sorry.”

“Unfortunately,” Rees said, “you’re probably right. Caro hates sewing too. I swear, my sister could try the patience of a saint.”

Lydia sent Rees a glance indicating she could say more if she wished. But she chose not to, instead closing the door to the parlor and preceding him down the hall to the large kitchen at the back.

Rees felt the familiar lift of his spirits as they entered. This was the room they lived in, a large room with east-facing windows and a door opening to the south. Rees’s parents had added on a room to the side and a large southward-facing bedroom over it. Rees had always used that space for weaving, since the best light streamed through the windows. He and Lydia, once they’d married almost eight months ago, had chosen it as their bedchamber as well. Fifteen-month-old Joseph slept in the crib next to the bed and the other four adopted children occupied the rooms on the old side. But not David. He had moved himself into the weaver’s cottage, claiming it was just for the summer. Rees suspected the boy would not return to the house even with winter. He said there was no room in the house. But while it was true the house was cramped now with five extra children, Rees thought David had moved less because of space and more because he resented these interlopers. Rees groaned involuntarily. David reacted to every perceived slight with hurt and anger, as though Rees had abandoned his son all over again. Rees sometimes wondered if David would ever forgive his father for leaving him with his aunt and uncle as a child.

Abigail, the Quaker girl who came in to help, glanced at them from her position by the fireplace but didn’t speak. She’d returned to their employ with Lydia’s arrival home and seemed even quieter than before. Jerusha, only nine but already a capable and stern young woman—well, she’d had to be with a drunken mother and the care of her younger siblings—looked up as Lydia and Rees approached.

“Where are the little ones?” Lydia asked. Jerusha nodded at the back door. Through it Judah, Joseph, and Nancy could be seen, running around and shouting.

“Nancy’s watching them,” she said. Turning her gaze to Rees, Jerusha said, “Your cheek is bleeding.”

“Yes, it is,” Rees agreed.

“Fetch me a bowl, Abby,” Lydia said. “And put some warm water in it, please.” She urged Rees into the side room and into a chair, despite his protests. “What happened?”

“Oh, Tom McIntyre had another customer. Mr. Drummond, a gentleman from Virginia by his accent. One of those land speculators. He was holding forth on George Washington and why he should have been impeached. I don’t know why people can’t leave the man alone.” With last fall’s election, John Adams had won the presidency and Thomas Jefferson the vice presidency. Washington had gone into retirement, a battered, aging lion.

“Was Mr. Drummond the one who did this?” She gestured to the cut upon his cheek.

“No,” Rees said. Drummond had already left when the argument exploded.

“I suppose you had to speak up,” Lydia said, her voice dropping with disappointment. “I love your sense of justice but I do wish you didn’t feel the need to fight every battle.” A former Shaker, she abhorred violence. Besides, she worried about the consequences, especially now after the serious injury to Sam.

Rees knew how she felt. He was trying to curb his temper, mostly because he wanted Lydia and his adopted children to be happy in Dugard. But so far he’d broken every promise to do better that he’d made to himself.

“We wouldn’t have a country without the president’s leadership during the War for Independence,” Rees said, hearing the defensiveness in his voice. After fighting under General Washington during the War for Independence, Rees would hear no criticism of the man who’d become the first president. Those who hadn’t fought, or who had only belonged to the Continental Army between planting and harvest, could not possibly understand what Washington had achieved.

Rees hesitated, fighting the urge to justify himself, but finally bursting into speech. “Mac and that Drummond fellow both favor Jefferson and the French. Drummond said that President Washington’s actions during the Jay affair smacked of treason. And when I said that the president had done his very best and that if anyone was guilty of treason it was John Jay, Mac said that the problem was that General Washington was a tired, senile old man.” He stopped talking.

When McIntyre had called Washington senile, Rees’s temper had risen and he had pushed the smaller man with all his strength. Since Mac probably weighed barely more than nine stone, he flew backward into the side of the mill. Flour from his clothing rose up at the impact, filling the air with a fine dust. That was when Zadoc Ward, Mac’s cousin, jumped on Rees and began pummeling him. Rees had already had a previous fight with the belligerent black-haired fellow who was usually found in the center of every brawl. Rees had caught Ward bullying Sam in the tavern and would have knocked him down if Constable Caldwell hadn’t broken up the fight and sent Rees on his way.

Rees permitted himself a small smile of satisfaction. At the mill, he’d put down Ward like the mad dog he was. But by then Mac’s eldest son, Elijah, and some of the other mill employees had arrived. They’d grabbed Rees. In the ensuing altercation, Ward, who was looking for revenge, had hit Rees in the face and sent him crashing to the ground in his turn. But Rees had bloodied a few noses before that. He didn’t want to admit to Lydia that he had participated in the brawl just like a schoolboy, but he suspected she already knew. She frowned anxiously.

“Well, you can hardly blame Mr. McIntyre for his unhappiness,” she said, turning Rees’s face up to the light. “The British have continued capturing American ships. Wasn’t his brother impressed by the British into their navy? Anyway, it’s not only the French who were, and still are, angry about Mr. Jay’s treaty. You were the one who told me he was burned in effigy all up and down the coast. And that the cry was ‘Damn John Jay. Damn everyone who won’t damn John Jay and damn everyone who won’t stay up all night damning John Jay.'”

“Yes,” Rees admitted with some reluctance.

“And now, with the Bank of England withholding payments to American vendors, Mr. McIntyre might go broke and lose his mill.”

“But none of this was President Washington’s fault,” Rees argued. “He has always striven for fairness. To be neutral in all things. Personally, I blame Mr. Hamilton.”

“I’m certain Mr. Jefferson bears some of the responsibility,” Lydia said in an acerbic tone. “He is so pro-French.” Rees wished he didn’t agree. Although he concurred with many of Jefferson’s Republican ideals, the vice president was pro-French and a slaveholder besides. And Rees could not forgive Jefferson for turning on Washington and criticizing him. “Discussing politics is never wise,” Lydia continued. “You know better. Passions run so high. And I see your argument resulted in fisticuffs.”

“Mr. McIntyre struck me first,” Rees said as Lydia dabbed at the cut above his eyebrow. The hot water stung and he grunted involuntarily. “You know how emotional he is.” Mac had spent his life quivering in outrage over something or other, and for all his small size he had been embroiled in as many battles as Rees. But now, with the wisdom of hindsight, Rees was beginning to wonder why Mac had been so eager to quarrel with him. They’d always been friends. Yet Mac had been, well, almost hostile.

“He can’t weigh much more than one hundred twenty or so pounds soaking wet,” Lydia added in a reproachful tone.

“I know. This,” he gestured to the cut, “came from his cousin, Zadoc Ward.” In fact Ward would have continued the fight, but Elijah had held him back. “I knocked him down, though,” Rees said in some satisfaction. Lydia did not speak for several seconds, although she gave his wound an extra hard wipe. “Ow,” Rees said.

“I hope Mr. McIntyre will still grind our corn,” Lydia said after a silence.

“Of course he will. Politics doesn’t have anything to do with business,” Rees said. “Tomorrow I’ll ride over to pick up the three bushels I brought over this morning.”

A scrape of a shoe at the door attracted Rees’s attention and he looked over. “What did Aunt Caroline want?” David asked. As usual, seven-year-old Simon stood at David’s elbow. After Rees and Lydia had adopted Jerusha and Simon and the other three last winter and brought them home, Simon had developed a severe case of hero worship for David. Now one was rarely seen without the other.

“Same thing as usual,” Rees said. “To move in.” Since Rees’s return from Salem, David spoke to him only when necessary—or when he was shouting accusations. He hadn’t forgiven his father for abandoning the farm during a very busy time when Rees traveled to Salem. Besides, Rees had left David to bear the censure of the neighbors. Rees knew many people in Dugard blamed him for Sam’s condition, but it was David who’d suffered for it. In fact, during one of Rees’s frequent arguments with the boy, he’d accused his father of running away and leaving his son to face the name-calling and worse. How much worse Rees didn’t know. David refused to say but Rees could see how much it hurt him.

Nonetheless, David and Rees saw eye to eye about Caroline.

“I better count the chickens then,” David said.

“Why?” Rees asked, catching Lydia’s frown. “What’s the secret?” For a moment no one spoke. David fixed his eyes upon Lydia.

She capitulated with a sigh. “Every time Caroline comes here, something goes missing, usually a chicken,” Lydia said.

Rees stared from his wife to his son. “She’s stealing from me?”

“Your sister’s family is hungry,” Lydia said. “I think they’re eating them. And of course they need the eggs.”

“Why didn’t anyone tell me?” Rees asked. He had the clear sense that the entire story remained untold. And although he usually loved his wife’s ability to see and sympathize with other people, in this case he wished she’d told him about his sister outright.

“This time Sam never left the parlor and Caroline went straight to the cart,” Lydia said, turning to David. “I think the chickens are safe today.”

“Charlie…?” Rees suggested reluctantly.

David shook his head. “No. Charlie would never steal from us.” He hesitated a moment and then blurted, “I hired him on to help us and promised we’d help with whatever little work he has. He’s trying to support that family all on his own.”

“I offered something similar to my sister,” Rees said, directing a warm smile at his son, “but she turned me down.”

“Charlie was glad of the offer,” David said. He added with a wicked glint in his eye, “He hasn’t finished his haying. You escaped most of that job here but I’m certain you won’t refuse to help him bring in his hay.” He knew his father hated this job above all others. Rees fought with himself, torn between the urge to refuse and the desire to placate his son. Finally, surrendering to his wish to please David, Rees nodded and stretched his lips over his teeth in what he hoped David would see as a smile. But he didn’t fool his son. David laughed.

A fusillade of knocks sounded on the front door. Now what, Rees wondered, starting down the hall. Before he reached the door it crashed back against the wall. Sunlight streamed into the hall. Lit from behind, the figure was identifiable only by his odor: Constable Caldwell.

“Zadoc Ward has been found murdered,” he said.

“What?” Rees said “When? How?”

Caldwell came into the hall and shut the door behind him. Although his shabby clothing was as dirty as Rees remembered, the constable had made some recent attempt to clean up. He’d washed his face and hands and tied his hair into a neat queue. “Where have you been these past few hours?” he demanded of Rees.

“You can’t think I had anything to do with it,” Rees said. He and the constable had worked together to solve Nate Bowditch’s death last summer, and Rees counted the constable among his friends. In fact, one of his best.

Caldwell’s muddy eyes flicked to Rees and focused on the scabbed cheekbone. “Earlier this morning witnesses saw you and Ward engaging in fisticuffs at the mill.”

“Yes. So?” Rees said belligerently.

“If the positions were reversed, you would wonder about me,” Caldwell said, keeping his gaze fixed on Rees’s face. Unwillingly Rees admitted that was true. “So, where were you?”

“Here,” Lydia said, the whisper of her skirts coming up behind him.
Caldwell nodded at Lydia respectfully but said, “Can anyone else confirm that?”

“My husband arrived home while his sister, Caroline Prentiss, and her husband were visiting,” she said. Rees thought visiting was far too polite a term for his sister’s scene but did not protest. “Also,” Lydia continued, “Abigail Bristol is here. As you know,” she added as a reminder of the many times Caldwell had visited and eaten at their table, “she comes every day but Sunday to help.”

Caldwell heaved a sigh. “I had to check. You understand.”

“How did Ward die?” Rees asked, brushing off the apology.

“He was shot.” The constable grinned at Rees’s stunned expression.

“It wasn’t a brawl. That would be no surprise since Ward bullied so many men in town. I’d have a lot of suspects then. But how many would take the time to plan a murder?”

Rees nodded. It was odd that Ward’s murder occurred so soon after their fight this morning. Their previous brawl in the tavern had taken place only a few days earlier, but no doubt Ward had quarreled with many others between then and today.

“I won,” Rees said. “I’d have no reason to go after Ward again.”

“It would be more like Mr. Ward to try and murder my husband,” Lydia pointed out. Rees, who knew she worried about his safety, put his arm around her and drew her close.

“I didn’t really think you had anything to do with the death,” Caldwell said, meeting Rees’s eyes. “Are you coming to see the body then?”

“Of course,” Rees began. At that moment David came into the hall with Simon at his heels.

“What’s going on?” David asked.

“I have to go out,” Rees said, purposely vague. “I’ll tell you about it when I return.”

David’s mouth turned down. “Come on, Squeaker,” he said to Simon. “Let’s go outside and count the chickens.” He threw an angry glance at his father before turning around and disappearing into the kitchen. Rees sighed with regret. But he had begun to find this placid life at the farm mind-numbing, although he’d tried to ignore his boredom for David’s sake, and the lure of an unexplained death was too enticing to resist. He followed Caldwell out of the house.



Excerpt from The Devil’s Cold Dish. Copyright © 2016 by Eleanor Kuhns. All Rights Reserved. 



Other books in the Will Rees Mystery Series

A Simple Murder – 2012
Death of a Dyer  – 2013
Cradle to Grave  – 2014
Death in Salem   – 2015
The Shaker Murders – to be released February 2019



Meet the Author

Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel. A lifelong librarian, she received her Masters from Columbia University and is currently the Assistant Director of the Goshen Public Library in Orange County New York.





Connect with the author via Facebook, Twitter, and her Website.




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The Devil's Cold Dish



The Devil's Cold Dish: A Mystery



The Devil's Cold Dish :  A Mystery



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The Devil's Cold Dish



The Devil's Cold Dish