Overwhelmed by guilt and hoping to reconcile with his son, Rees immediately follows David to the Shaker community. But when a young Shaker woman is brutally murdered shortly after Rees's arrival, Rees finds himself launched into a complicated investigation where the bodies keep multiplying, a tangled web of family connections casts suspicion on everyone, and the beautiful woman on the edge of the Shaker community might be hiding troubling ties to the victims. It quickly becomes clear that in solving Sister Chastity's murder, Rees may well expose some of the Shaker community's darkest secrets, not to mention endanger his own life.
An atmospheric portrait of a compelling time in American history, A Simple Murder is an outstanding debut from Eleanor Kuhns, Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America's 2011 First Crime Novel Competition Winner.
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By late afternoon William Rees was past Rumford and heading southeast, almost to Durham and the coast. Time to start searching for a place to stay, he thought, eyeing dusk’s purple fingers clawing the rutted track. He’d look for a likely farm where he could camp for the night. Maybe some kind farmer would allow him space in a barn. Hollowed out by fury for most of the day (damn his sister, how could she push David, Rees’s little boy, out?), Rees was tired enough now to fall asleep in the wagon seat.
The cluster of buildings that was Durham appeared suddenly from a bracelet of woods and farms. He plunged into the small village. Choose a road, any road, he thought, noting the possibilities branching off the central square. And he saw a tavern, The Cartwheel, if no generous farmers offered him the use of a barn. He turned onto the road doglegging south and soon after spotted a white clapboard farmhouse, rising from a thin screen of trees on the western slope. A weathered red barn rose behind it, squatting on the edges of the fields wrested from the rocky soil. Rees directed Bessie onto the narrow bridge spanning the muddy creek. Perhaps anticipating fresh water and oats and the comfort of a stall, she jerked into a weary trot.
The house was a narrow clapboard, the boards weathered gray, with a small porch jutting from the front door. At the sound of hooves striking the stony drive, the farm wife stepped out from the front door and stared at Rees curiously. He pulled right up to the small porch and clumsily climbed to the ground. Driven by rage and fear, he’d pushed on without a break all day, and now his body punished him for it. He staggered, awkward with stiff joints and muscles, up the stairs toward her. A tiny woman with gray hair, she appeared younger close up. “Pardon, mistress,” Rees said, pulling off his dusty and travel-stained tricorn, “I’m on my way to the Shaker community and I wonder if you might have space in your barn where I could sleep tonight.” Wiping her hands upon her apron, she glanced at the canvas-shrouded loom in the wagon bed.
“You a weaver?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m not looking for work right now though.” He paused and then, thinking she was most likely a mother, he burst out, “My son ran away from home.” Fatigue and the emotional stew of anger and fear made him more talkative than usual. “My sister said he went with the Shakers.” The woman’s expression softened.
“I’ve lost family to them,” she said. “Of course—”
“What do you want here?” demanded her husband belligerently, stepping out from the house behind her. Much darker than his wife, he was black of hair and eyes. And black of nature? Rees wondered, eyeing the other man’s scowl. Most farmers were hospitable to a traveling weaver.
Putting her pale freckled hand upon his mahogany-dark tanned arm, his wife drew him inside. Rees clearly heard the word “Shakers.” A few moments later the farmer came back outside. “You can sleep in the barn,” he said, pointing with his chin at the red structure. “What’s your name? Mine is Henry Doucette. My wife, Jane.”
“Will Rees,” Rees said, extending his hand. “Thank you.”
“Your horse looks all in,” Doucette said, casting a critical eye over Bessie. “You’re welcome to an empty stall.”
Rees nodded his thanks and climbed back into the wagon. With the day’s journey finally nearing its end, both Rees and Bessie allowed fatigue to overtake them. Rees wasn’t sure they could make even the short trip across the yard to the barn.
Rees got Bessie settled in with fresh water and a nosebag of oats. When he returned to his wagon, he found a boy of about twelve waiting for him with a napkin-covered dish and a jug of water. “My stepmother sent this up for your supper,” the boy said, thrusting the dishes into Rees’s hands. Although fair-haired, the boy was almost as darkly tanned as his father, right down to his bare feet. And of an age with David, Rees thought.
“Thank her for me,” Rees said, staring down at the plate in grateful surprise. “This is very kind of her. What’s your name?”
“Oliver. She says stop by tomorrow morning and she’ll give you some breakfast,” the boy said with a flash of white teeth.
“Thank you.” With an awkward nod, the boy fled back down the hill at a run.
Rees sat down on a seat of fresh straw, his back to the wagon wheel, looking upon the green valley before him. The road on which he’d arrived unwound like a silvery ribbon in the last rays of sunlight. The lowing of the cattle sounded from a nearby pasture and Bessie’s contented whicker floated out from the barn. Peaceful. Dolly would approve. He sighed. Eight years since Dolly’s death in 1787, six of them spent as a traveling weaver. Two years he had struggled to keep his farm going without Dolly—two solid years. But he couldn’t do it without her. And since he made more money weaving than farming, he’d offered the management of his land to his sister and her husband in exchange for raising his David with their own kids. He’d thought his eight-year-old son would be safe with them while he worked. Sighing, he lifted off the napkin and dug into the stew. For five years and more he’d gone home intermittently. Not often enough, he saw that now, and he’d do his best to make it up to David.
When he tried to sleep, the rage he’d tamped down during the day flared up again, hotter and fiercer than before. He’d begun yearning to see David again after his experiences on the western frontier, during the Rebellion two years previously, and as soon as winter ended he headed north. Several profitable weaving commissions delayed him in Massachusetts, so he arrived home to Maine the summer of 1795, a year later than he expected, but he rode home with a strongbox almost too heavy to lift.
Caroline greeted him with hostile surprise. “We weren’t expecting to see you until winter,” she said. She did not at first admit that David was gone. Instead she forced him to ask several increasingly agitated questions until he realized the truth.
Then, when he exclaimed in furious disbelief, “David’s gone? How could you allow that to happen?” she and her husband stood shoulder to shoulder and defied him.
“He’s a man grown,” Sam said. “We couldn’t stop him.”
“He’s not yet fourteen,” Rees snapped.
“There’s nothing for him here,” Charles, his oldest nephew, said. Rees glared at the boy as he added, “Let him seek his fortune elsewhere.” Neither of his parents reprimanded the lad for his unmannerly behavior.
“He couldn’t wait to leave,” Caroline said. He knew then that David was simply an inconvenience. He pressed them again and again until they were all shouting, but all they would say was that they thought David had gone off with the Shakers. Rees flung out of the house he and Dolly had shared and raced toward Durham and the Shaker settlement near it.
For most of that day, as he traveled south, he replayed the fight with his sister in his mind. Each time he formulated increasingly cutting remarks. He should have reminded Caroline that he owned the farm; in fact, he carried the deed with him in the strongbox, right next to his leather sack of coins. He should have threatened her and her family with eviction. But all he could think of just then was David. He kept remembering the little boy who had followed him so trustingly into the barn to help with the milking.
Now, staring at the starry sky outside the barn, Rees understood that his sister and her family felt his farm belonged to them. So, as soon as he felt sure of his son’s safety, Rees must return to Dugard and make his sister understand the farm belonged to Rees and would someday be David’s. And then, whispered a little voice, Would they leave? Or would they fight him on it?
Suddenly aware of his pounding heart and of the blood throbbing in his ears, Rees took several deep breaths. He forced himself to relax, listening to the lowing of the cattle and the faraway rooster crow. Gradually his thoughts scattered, and as the moon climbed into the sky he finally slept.
He awoke when Oliver clanked by with the milk pail, so early the sun just peeked over the horizon. Mist filled the valley below and dampened Rees’s clothing. He sat up and yawned, his eyes gritty with insufficient sleep. Cows mooed and Oliver’s soothing voice carried clearly to Rees’s ears.
Stumbling to his feet, he went into the barn and fetched Bessie. He hitched her to the wagon and they began trundling down toward the house. Mrs. Doucette popped out with such suddenness Rees knew she’d been watching for him.
“Come in for breakfast, Mr. Rees,” she called out, flapping her hand at him. He pulled to a stop but declined to enter the house; he didn’t want to be drawn into a long conversation. Only when he knew David was safe would Rees relax. He did accept a bowl of mush and a cup of coffee, eating quickly in his seat on the wagon. “If you come this way again, Mr. Rees, and plan to stop for a few days, I could use your help with some weaving,” she said.
Rees nodded. “Wool or linen?”
“Both. But more wool than linen.”
Rees didn’t expect to be in the area for very long but he said politely, “Of course. I’ll be glad to help.”
She smiled. “Now, for Zion. Just follow the road out front. When it splits, turn left. That will take you directly into the Shakers’ community.”
Rees followed her directions and reached the divergence in the road very shortly thereafter. The main road continued, straight as an arrow. He turned left. At first trees hemmed in the track in walls of green, but forest soon gave way to orchards and then orderly fields. Men in dark clothing and straw hats bent over the green fuzz visible from the road. Rees thought he smelled the sea’s faint salty tang in the air, and white flocks of gulls screeched above. The Shaker farm stretched from well inland almost to the coast.
The road cut through the center of the village, a scattering of red, brown, and yellow buildings dominated by the large white meetinghouse at this end. Few people walked the street, mostly women, and they avoided Rees’s eyes. He pulled up in front of a yellow building, since he saw nothing like a general store, and waited for someone to notice him. Since he’d visited several religious communities he knew they usually discouraged visitors.
It was so quiet he could almost hear the dust of his passing dropping back to the ground in tiny whispers. If he hadn’t seen the women walking to and fro he could almost imagine this place abandoned. Where were the sounds of normal life, of the normal chatter that went with a cluster of people? Where were the voices of children? There must be children. Although the Shakers themselves were celibate, they were famous for taking in orphans and the unwanted.
“Good morning to you,” said a male voice very unexpectedly by Rees’s side. He jumped and turned. A man had come around the side of the building. Dressed like the other men in dark pants, broad-brimmed hat, and linen shirt, he had clearly left some task in the barns. The smell of horses and cows eddied out from him, especially from his boots, in a pungent wave. Both hair and beard were a startling white. “I’m Elder White. What are you doing here?” Not hostile but not friendly either.
“I’m William Rees. I’m looking for my son. I’m hoping he is here.”
“Are you planning to take him away, if he is?” Elder White asked.
“No,” Rees said in surprise. “Not if he doesn’t want to come with me.” Elder White stared at Rees for another disturbingly long moment.
“What’s his name?”
“David Rees. He’s thirteen, almost fourteen, and has red hair like mine.”
“He’s already fourteen,” White said, his tone faintly patronizing. (What a poor father you are, you don’t even know the age of your son.) “He’s in the fields right now but will return soon for the midday meal. Please join us. You must be hungry after your long journey.” His speech rolled out in formal, almost stilted cadences. “You may speak to your son afterward, if he wishes, under my eye.” Rees stared at him. What was this man expecting? That he would kidnap David and carry him away? Rees nodded in reluctant agreement. Elder White continued to wait and Rees realized he must verbally agree.
“Very well,” he said ungraciously.
Then the Elder said, “I’ll show you where to wash up. You may stable your horse across the street.” He pointed at the stables and waited patiently while Rees released Bessie from the traces. While he led her into the stable, two men, silently directed by the Elder, hauled the wagon after them. Rees left his mare in their capable hands and returned to the yellow building.
They went inside. A series of doors lined the left side. Elder White opened the first one; it led into a small room with two identical cots, two chairs hanging on wall pegs, and two small wooden chests. Matching jugs and basins sat upon them. Elder White nodded to the right side. “I will send someone with fresh water,” he said and withdrew. Rees stood awkwardly in the center of the room for the few moments it took for a Sister to appear. She replenished the water and withdrew so quickly Rees had no image of her face.
He scrubbed his hands and face, wondering whose possessions he made use of, and rejoined the Elder waiting in the hall. As they walked to the end, the clang of a deep-throated bell reverberated throughout the village. White put Rees into a small room with a second door opposite. “Wait here,” the Elder said and withdrew. The tantalizing aromas of roast beef and fresh baked bread drew the water into Rees’s mouth and he suddenly realized he was very hungry. He cautiously opened the door into the dining room. Except for many tables, each with a necklace of chairs, the room was empty. He quietly closed the door, the sound echoing through the uninhabited room.
A few more minutes passed. Gradually the Shaker Brothers began sifting into the room. Each one looked at Rees curiously but no one spoke, not even to ask him what he was doing there. Then David entered in the company of a young man with brown curly hair. When Rees cut through the male barrier, David threw his father a furious glance and retreated to the other side of the room. “David,” Rees said hopefully.
“We do not speak unnecessarily,” one of the older men said, turning upon the weaver. Rees felt heat rise into his neck; he felt like a kid being reprimanded by his teacher.
A bell tinkled inside and the Brother closest to the door opened it. Quietly the throng entered the dining hall. From another door the linen-capped Sisters entered, just as silently as the men. Rees tried to approach David but he scuttled away. Rees stopped, wounded. Elder White caught Rees’s eye and sternly pointed at one of the tables. Rees hesitated, fighting the urge to protest. But he obeyed. If he were to have any chance of speaking to David, he must not allow himself to be expelled from the village.
Elder White led prayers, much shorter than Rees would have expected in a religious community, and they sat to eat. Sisters brought laden trays from the kitchen to each table: roast beef and potatoes and gravy and the fresh bread Rees had smelled outside in the hall. He choked down a few bites, watching David all the while. Even the children ate in an unnatural silence, as well behaved and as self-contained as the adults.
After a delicious vinegar pie ended the meal, Elder White dismissed his community. He collected Rees from his table and they went into the hall and up the stairs. The Elder’s quarters contained an extra room fitted out as an office with a table and several chairs. He directed Rees to sit. “Please wait here,” White said and left again. A few minutes later he returned with David. Rees stood up abruptly, the chair clattering to the floor.
“David,” he cried. “Thank God you’re safe.” David’s sullen expression softened for a moment and then hardened once again.
“I’m not leaving,” he said flatly. “I am not going back to that farm.”
“I didn’t come to take you away,” Rees said. Awkwardly he moved forward to hug his son but David’s belligerent stance warned him off. Where’s my little boy? Rees wondered. As a little boy David greeted him with wild cries of delight and ferocious hugs. But not recently, Rees realized, not for several years. And now he stood eye to eye with Rees, a reddish fuzz fringing his chin, and with the dour expression of a stranger. But it was David’s gray eyes that made Rees’s heart turn over; they were Dolly’s eyes staring out of David’s masculine face. “I wanted to see you and know you were safe.”
“Well, you’ve seen me now,” David said. “I’m safe. I plan to stay here. You can go away again.” Rees swallowed painfully.
“I’m sorry, David. I-I didn’t know.”
David stared at his father from eyes as flat and cold as a winter pond. “May I be excused now?” he asked Elder White.
“Of course,” said the Elder gently. He waited until David had left the room before turning to Rees. “You are now assured of your son’s safety and his desire to remain with us?” Rees did not reply immediately. He heard the thread of disapproval running through White’s tone. Guilt sparked a burst of temper. How dare this man, this minister, condemn someone he didn’t know?
“I think I’ll bide hereabouts for a while,” Rees said. The Elder gestured him from the room and down the stairs. “Just to be sure he’s happy.” White heard the break in Rees’s voice and looked at him sharply.
“Hmmm.” He paused on the porch outside. “Well, we have no room for the casual visitor but you might find a bed in Durham.” Rees nodded, recalling the Doucette farm. He’d drive north, back to that home, and take on Mrs. Doucette’s weaving. He knew he could expect an invitation to spend the night in the barn. And once in Durham he would rent a room at the tavern. “You can visit your boy as often as you like.”
“Thank you,” Rees said. “Thank you. I know, well, I should have visited home more often.” Shame wrung the admission from him.
“God forgives,” White said. “Surely David will too, eventually.”
Within the hour, Rees and Bessie were back on the road, heading north. They reached the house just at dusk, a little later than his arrival the evening before. Mrs. Doucette came out upon the porch, smiling and waving when she saw him. “You found our barn that comfortable?” she teased. Rees smiled.
“I decided to accept your job. I’ll carry your yarns back to Durham with me.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” she said. “I’ll ask Oliver to stable your horse in the barn. You come inside and wash up for supper.”
So Rees stiffly climbed down from the wagon, trying not to groan with the burning in his legs. As he stumped painfully up the front steps, Oliver grasped Bessie’s bridle and drew her up the hill toward the barn.
Rees left his boots upon the porch and walked inside. The main room was kitchen, dining room, and parlor all at once. The large oaken table where meals were prepared also served as the dining table and was bracketed by eight chairs. Five dark-haired children occupied five seats. Rees thought Mrs. Doucette did not seem old enough to bear so many children. Rees looked at the three remaining chairs. “Mr. Doucette isn’t here,” Mrs. Doucette said quickly. “A farm meeting in Durham. Sit down, please.”
Rees obeyed, awkwardly perching on a corner of an empty bench. Although he dealt with women regularly, he felt uncomfortable sitting at another man’s table with that man far away. But when Oliver stumped in, his hands and face still wet from washing, and they all sat down to Grace, Rees lost his awkwardness. Six children, three on each side of him, and all watching his every move, proved as effective a chaperone as any duenna. Mrs. Doucette placed a large pewter dish before him. The children ate from worn wooden plates.
Once the simple supper of stewed chicken and biscuits was over, Mrs. Doucette bundled the two youngest to bed. “Please don’t leave yet,” she said to Rees. “I’ll give you the yarns when I return.”
“Very well,” said Rees. He moved the kettle over the fire to heat water for washing dishes.
“My father never helps,” Ruthie said disapprovingly. At seven, the eldest after Oliver and the only daughter, she already behaved like a matron. “He says it’s women’s work.”
“I’m not married,” Rees said. “I’ve had to learn.”
“But you have a son,” Oliver said.
“Yes. About your age, I think.” In the sudden sharp pause Rees realized they were wondering about his wife and family. “My wife died,” he explained.
“I’m sorry,” Oliver said.
“It was a long time ago,” Rees said. “Come on,” he said, pulling Ruthie’s brown braid teasingly, “you can help me wash the dishes and surprise your mother. And I’ll tell you a story. Once upon a time, a young Indian maiden was sent to live with her auntie in another village.” Rees hoped he could remember this tale. Many years had passed since Philip, Rees’s Indian tracker, had told it to him. Fortunately, this audience was not a critical one. The youngest stood stock-still, listening with big eyes and a finger in his mouth. Even Ruthie was so caught up she stopped moving with a dish in her hands and had to be reminded on her way.
When Mrs. Doucette came downstairs Ruthie was just putting the last plate into the cupboard. Mrs. Doucette stared around in astonishment. “Oh my, oh my.”
“Mama, there was this Indian princess,” Ruthie began, running to her mother.
“Later, child,” Mrs. Doucette said, smiling at Rees over Ruthie’s brown head. “Let’s help carry the yarns out to Mr. Rees’s wagon. It’s getting late and will soon be bedtime for all of you.”
“I’m not tired,” her five-year-old said flatly, ruining his declaration with a jaw-cracking yawn.
Mrs. Doucette led the way into a small room off the kitchen, little more than an enclosed porch, that contained her spinning wheel. She had rolled the spun yarns into balls and piled them upon a square of canvas. Even Rees found it too heavy to lift. But the children eagerly grasped a corner and, with Ruthie holding a lantern so they could see, they half carried and half dragged the canvas up the slope to the barn. Mrs. Doucette, whose skinny arms proved surprisingly strong, and Rees hauled it into the wagon.
“I’ll return the canvas,” Rees said, panting. Mrs. Doucette nodded.
“Good night, Mr. Rees,” she said. The family started down the hill, the lantern throwing a soft glow on the ground ahead of them. Rees looked up at the sky. Only a faint lavender streak glimmered above the horizon and the stars were beginning to appear overhead. He threw his blanket upon a bed of straw and lay down. The moon was climbing into the sky and he thought the hour must be about nine o’clock. Sighing as he recalled the anger in David’s eyes, he rolled over and prepared for sleep.
Copyright © 2012 by Eleanor Kuhns