The Devil's Cold Dish by Eleanor Kuhns is book #5 in the Will Rees Mysteries series (Available June 14, 2016).
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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.
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.
Copyright © 2016 Eleanor Kuhns.
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Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel competition. She lives in Campbell Hall, New York, received her master's in Library Science from Columbia University, and is currently the Assistant Director at the Goshen Public Library in Orange County, New York. She is the author of A Simple Murder, Death of a Dyer, Cradle to Grave, and other mysteries.