The Widows: New Excerpt
Read an exclusive excerpt from Jess Montgomery's The Widows, then comment below for a chance to win a copy of her thrilling debut novel!
Inspired by the true story of Ohio’s first female sheriff, The Widows by Jess Montgomery is a powerful debut about two women’s search for justice as they take on the corruption at the heart of their community.
Kinship, Ohio, 1924: When Lily Ross learns that her husband, Daniel Ross, the town’s widely respected sheriff, is killed while transporting a prisoner, she is devastated and vows to avenge his death.
Hours after his funeral, a stranger appears at her door. Marvena Whitcomb, a coal miner’s widow, is unaware that Daniel has died, and begs to speak with him about her missing daughter.
From miles away but worlds apart, Lily and Marvena’s lives collide as they realize that Daniel was not the man that either of them believed him to be―and that his murder is far more complex than either of them could have imagined.
Inspired by the true story of Ohio’s first female sheriff, this is a powerful debut about two women’s search for justice as they take on the corruption at the heart of their community.
Six Months Later—March 25, 1925
Lily sweeps the jail cell for the next prisoner, set to arrive in a few hours. There’s so much to do on this fine March day. Besides readying this cell, she needs to turn the garden soil, beat the rugs, and clean the sooty glass shade of the hanging coal-oil lamp in the dining room.
Her side stitches—sudden, hard. Lily gasps, forgetting her list of spring-cleaning chores. She steadies herself with the broom and swallows, fighting back a wave of nausea.
Queasiness has found her early this time around. At twenty-six, carrying a child is harder than when you’re young! That’s what Mama would say—if she knew. Lily has yet to share the news of this child with anyone other than Daniel.
“Hey, lady, gimme more coffee afore you keel over!”
Lily starts sweeping again, harder now, so dust and debris skitter past the tidy pile she’s made in the empty cell and into the occupied one. The prisoner jumps back, giving Lily grim satisfaction. She wishes Daniel hadn’t needed to leave this morning, but duty had called her husband, the sheriff, to fetch another prisoner from the farthest corner of Bronwyn County.
“You trying to ruin my breakfast?”
Usually, prisoners are respectful toward her. But not Harold Johnson. She knows his name because as jail mistress one of her duties is to keep a record of each prisoner who comes through the Bronwyn County jail. Her records are meticulous, to the point of pridefulness.
“I been held too long already. More’n twenty-four hours!”
Less than twelve hours. Every prisoner thinks he’s held longer than is rightly fair.
Lily leans her broom by the cell door and expertly flips the straw mattress.
“And I—I need a doctor!” he yells before belching loudly.
Another wave of nausea hits Lily. She swallows hard again and steps toward the large quilt chest in the corner behind her desk, opens the chest, and pulls out a clean sheet, pillow, and blanket for the just-turned straw mattress. He wolf-whistles at her bent-over form and laughs.
Lily slaps the linens back into the chest. Then she steps to the cabinet against the back wall, opens the narrow drawer labeled “J,” and pulls out Harold’s card. She slams the drawer shut so hard that the cabinet shudders, and then sits down in her chair. She crosses her left leg over her right knee and pulls her skirt up just far enough to reveal the small derringer strapped to her ankle—a gun so compact that it’s nicknamed a stocking pistol. A woman’s gun, with only a single round, but sufficient, should a prisoner get out of hand. So far, she’s never had to use it.
Lily reads from the card the notations made in her own neat, angular handwriting. “Says here, the sheriff brought you in yesterday for public disturbance at the Kinship Inn, where you busted up two of the more elegant chairs in the lobby and left the proprietor with a severely disjointed nose. Hit poor Mr. Williams hard enough to sprain your own wrist!”
Still, the prisoner sure isn’t having any trouble wolfing down his biscuits and gravy, using the hand poking out of the sling she’d given him for his sprained wrist the night before. He had not been rude then, for Daniel had stood by watchfully.
Lily puts the card down on the table, picks up a pencil, and taps its point on the card. “Now, you can choose to either act respectably, or I can add harassment to your charges.”
With a filthy fingertip of his good hand, Harold taps the silver, eagle-shaped Pinkerton National Detective Agency badge on his tattered lapel.
“See this here? This means you can’t treat me like just any prisoner. You hafta show me respect, woman!” He tosses the plate, with his half-eaten breakfast, to the floor. The tin plate skitters, unbroken, toward the bars. “I want a new breakfast! And I wanna see Mr. Ross!”
He doesn’t mean her husband, Bronwyn County Sheriff. He means Luther, Daniel’s half brother and manager of Ross Mining, over in Rossville. Luther would undoubtedly take up for Harold, even egg him on. The very thought of Luther makes her want to shudder.
But Lily does not move. The door to the jailhouse is open, and from outside come the clucks of chickens in her yard—many housewives in town still keep backyard chickens and gardens, a money-saving effort left over from the Great War—and the sounds from Kinship’s main street of foot traffic and horses and the occasional automobile driving by. She allows herself a moment to take in the comforting sounds of an ordinary morning, now well under way. When she speaks, it’s so quietly that the prisoner has to lean toward the bars to hear.
“You have no authority. That badge means nothing here.”
As sheriff, Daniel was supposed to handle any miners who caused property damage or committed other crimes on Ross Mining land—which encompassed all of Rossville. But the rest of Bronwyn County was also under the sheriff’s jurisdiction. With only a part-time deputy, Daniel had grudgingly accepted Luther’s decision to bring in hired police agents from the Pinkerton agency, as restlessness grew after the Widowmaker deaths.
Lily has overheard Daniel complain to Martin Weaver, his deputy, that the Pinkertons are desperate men who can’t get work elsewhere either because of their own dark pasts or lack of skills or because they are immigrants no one wants to hire outside of mining.
“You know, I been watching you, and not just ’cause you’re a pretty thing. You’re fixing up that cell, but there’s two cots in here. So why not just have your husband”—somehow, he turns the word lurid—“toss the new fella in with me? Easier on you. I figure either you got a woman prisoner coming, and that’s mighty unlikely, or the prisoner ain’t someone you want mixed in with me.” He widens his grin, wolflike. “I reckon the sheriff got himself a coal miner.”
With that, he spits a foul wad through the bars, into the cell Lily has just cleaned.
For a long moment, Lily stares at the man. He’d pieced together a good bit. For last night, after they’d locked up him up, they’d had a surprise visitor come during suppertime. Another Pinkerton man whom Daniel talked to in the parlor.
When that Pinkerton had gone she asked Daniel, What does he want with you?, and he muttered, Gotta fetch a new prisoner from Rossville. Usually Daniel just drove to Rossville a few times a week to collect any miners held for violations of the law, but when she said, Why did a Pinkerton come here? That’s never happened before … he’d uncharacteristically snapped, Enough! Then Daniel had been quiet through supper with Lily and their two young children, leaving Lily to muse how agitated he had seemed for the past week.
Now Harold lunges to the cell bars, as if he wants to squeeze through them and come for her. “You think mixing me and a dirty-dog coal miner up in one cell would be bad? Well then, you better tell your husband to start coming down harder on those miners. Everyone knows he harbors a soft spot for ’em since the Widowmaker.”
Lily keeps her expression placid. She’s learned, over the years, that silence invites the guilty and the nervous to talk too much. Sometimes that yields only gibberish. Sometimes it yields vital information.
“It’s gonna be war.” The glint in Harold’s eyes turns from lusty to needful. He’s world-weary, but she estimates he’s younger than her, too young to have served in the Great War. Like too many who romanticize battle, he thinks it would be exciting.
Lily could tell him it would not be. Daniel doesn’t speak about his time in the army. But even seven years later, he still occasionally calls out at night from some terror-filled war dream. As a good wife, she’d learned to calm him and then not speak of it in the brightness of morning.
“A real war,” Harold says. “And then, rule of law won’t matter. Those miners who resist, why, we’ll put ’em down like rabid dogs.”
Lily returns the prisoner’s card to its proper place in the “J” drawer. Then she walks back to Harold’s cell door. “Hand me the plate.”
Instead, he reaches his good hand through the bars to grab for her. But Lily seizes his wrist before he can touch her breast and yanks him so hard into the bars that one side of his face smashes into the iron. He glares at her through his narrowed, bruised eye, like a walleye fish. He tries to jerk away, but Lily, stronger than her five-foot-three frame suggests, holds tight. He brings his sprained arm around to grasp a bar, but pain stops him.
Still, he gasps: “I’m telling Mr. Ross!”
She twists his wrist. He quiets, except for whimpering.
“Tell Mr. Ross anything you like. I’m only defending myself, as is my right,” Lily says. “You and your kind will not bring war down upon my county. Sheriff Ross will see to that.”
For a moment, he is a trapped, wounded animal waiting for its next opportunity to strike back. Lily had seen that, hunting with her daddy. Lily calculates: she will need to jump back and let go of his wrist at the same time. She counts to three and does so.
Harold stumbles backward, falls to the floor. He scrambles over to the tin plate and slings it at her through the bars, missing widely.
“When the sheriff returns, you will clean that up. And you’ll scrub the other cell’s floor.”
He curses her as she lifts the key ring off the peg by the jailhouse door. Quickly, she steps out and then closes and locks the door, sliding the ring over her narrow arm like a bracelet.
Lily gives herself a moment to adjust to the brightness of this early spring morning. She gazes west, over the roof of the old carriage house that now shelters Daniel’s automobile and her garden tools, past the outhouse and water well, over to the bell tower of the court building next to their home. Then she walks the few paces from the jail, an L-shaped attachment to the sheriff’s residence, and opens the back door. It squeaks loudly behind Lily as she steps into the screened mudroom. Daniel has been promising for weeks now to take a look at that faulty hinge.
In the kitchen, as she thoroughly washes her hands with bar soap under the cold water at the pump sink, she tries to calm herself by refocusing on the tasks at hand: it is nearly time to rouse the children, get them washed up, dressed, and ready for the day. There’s laundry; Jolene can tend Micah while Lily uses the wringer washer in the mudroom. Both children can help hang clothes and linens to dry on the line out back. But she’ll read to them, too, one of her favorite activities with the children.
Yet as she dries her hands, she’s still rattled, not so much from the distasteful encounter with the prisoner. Such occasional bouts are to be expected. She just can’t shake his cruel glee at the prospect of a coal miners’ uprising and the bloody battles that would surely follow.
Lily slips back out to the mudroom, pulling on an old sweater of Daniel’s kept on a peg by the door; it may be spring bright, but the day still holds the chill of winter not quite past. She grabs a basket and eases the back door open to mute the hinge’s squeak. She starts the small trek up the slope of their backyard, her focus drawn to slender jonquil stems and buds poking up by the jailhouse’s stone foundation. Has her daughter seen them? She’d told six-year-old Jolene last fall that they’d never grow there and immediately regretted it when her little girl’s face fell. Jolene had insisted on planting the bulbs anyway. Such faith.
The hens cluck and stir as Lily gathers eggs. A smile finds her lips, even as she fusses back at them, as the morning—before the nastiness with the prisoner—comes back, whole: the floor creaking as Daniel rose before dawn to prepare for his journey to fetch a prisoner. She had reached for him, pulling him to her. His hesitation, concern writ across his brow: Lily, he’d said, letting her name fall like a sigh; then the baby, and she’d smiled and shaken her head to show she found his concerns sweet but foolish. They had, after all, made love through all but the first of her other pregnancies.
So she’d unbuttoned his pants. He’d blushed. How she managed to make a man like him blush she never could figure, but it pleased her. They’d made love after all, reconciliation after the previous night’s squabble, the past week’s uncharacteristic tension. They’ve never been able to deny each other.
After, he’d smoothed back her hair, kissed her forehead. I’ll be back by lunch, he’d said, and I’m hankering for buttermilk pie.
She’d laughed. She’s the one who should have cravings, yet Daniel’s been fussing for days for that pie. His favorite. But also his ploy to get her to eat more. Even a queasy stomach can handle buttermilk pie.
Now, still smiling at the memory, Lily glances into her basket. Six eggs. There, in the nesting box, a seventh! Enough for the children’s breakfast and Daniel’s buttermilk pie.
So Lily gently scoops up the seventh egg. She envisions this afternoon, how Daniel will proclaim this bounty of eggs a good sign, part of the lore he’d learned from his own mama. She’ll tease him, tell him such things are old wives’ nonsense, that likely she’d missed some eggs the morning before. He’ll tease her back—such a modern woman—and she’ll pout playfully until he moans appreciatively at the first bite of pie.
But as she latches the coop door, a man’s hand falls heavily on her shoulder, and her daydream dissolves. Lily’s right hand reflexively forms a firm fist: thumb outside, knuckles up, as Daniel has taught her. She spins around to see it’s Elias.
Lily, relieved at not upsetting the basket of eggs, smiles as she always does at her husband’s uncle, an uncle who is more like a father to Daniel. She is about to greet him when Elias says, “Daniel’s been found.”
Then she sees the daub smeared across the chest of Elias’s gray overcoat, the smudge of blood on his cheek, sees the shake in his hand as it falls from her shoulder and returns to the brim of his hat. He pulls the hat up to block the stain on his chest. The hat is not big enough.
“I wanted to be the one to tell you.…”
She looks from the spot rising like a blood moon above his hat’s brim to Elias’s face. In the sudden, stunted silence she hears the men—Martin, Daniel’s main deputy, is speaking, and there’s a quiver to his voice, and she hears another man grunt a reply—coming around the side of the house, past the jail, up the rise of the yard.
Only then do the stiff planes of Elias’s face crack and wrench, as if this is what is too much: that he’s failed to be the one to bring her the full news of Daniel’s fate.
But he needn’t say more. She knows. She knows just what Daniel’s been found means.… Daniel isn’t lost; he knows every damned rut and route and turn and stream and hill and holler of the Appalachian Mountains in Bronwyn County, Ohio. He hasn’t run off. He isn’t ill.
Lily hears a smack, sees that her arms have fallen to her sides, her basket of eggs to the ground. She drops to her knees, tries to scoop the eggs back up. She digs at the goop, clawing so hard that her nails quickly fill with yolk and cold spring dirt.
“Lily, Lily, stop, please.…” Elias’s voice, as if from a great distance.
Then a loud squeak—the back door that Daniel had promised to fix.
“Mama?” Little Jolene’s voice, piping up the rise from the back stoop like an echo of that back door hinge. Somehow as near as if Jolene whispers in her ear.
As Lily turns from the broken eggs, her eyes scrape past the carriage house and jail, her gaze seeming to take forever in its trek down to the back stoop and to their children—Jolene and Micah—standing there, still in nightgowns, no doubt awoken by that damned squeaking door and the men tromping around the front of the house.
Four-year-old Micah leans into his sister. Normally Jolene would push him away, annoyed, but now she pulls him to her. Jolene says again, cracking the word in half: “Ma-ma?”
Daniel’s been found.…
Lily stands, rubs her hands on her skirt, rushes down the hill to her children, reaching for them even as she runs.
Copyright © 2019 Jess Montgomery.
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