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Will Rees feels at home. It's been a long time since he last felt this way―not since before his wife died years ago and he took to the road as a traveling weaver. Now, in 1796, Rees is back on his Maine farm, living with his teenaged son, David, and his housekeeper, Lydia―whose presence contributes more towards his happiness than he's ready to admit. But his domestic bliss is shattered the morning a visitor brings news of an old friend's murder.
Nate Bowditch and Rees hadn't spoken in many long years, but as children they were closer than brothers, and Rees feels his loss acutely. Asked to look into the circumstances surrounding Nate's death, Rees simply can't refuse. At the Bowditch farmstead, Rees quickly discovers that everyone―from Nate's frosty wife to his missing son to the shy serving girl―is hiding something. But are any of them actually capable of murder? Or does the answer lie elsewhere, behind stones no one even knew needed unturning?
Death of a Dyer once again proves Eleanor Kuhns's remarkable ability to spin a captivating story of a fascinating era and capture the light and darker sides of human nature on the page.
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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. Death of a Dyer is her second novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“Dead?” Rees repeated, staring at George Potter in shock. “Dead?” A spasm of unexpected grief shot through him. Although he hadn’t seen Nate Bowditch for eighteen years, not since Rees had marched away with the Continental Army in 1777, as boys they’d been closer than brothers. “Are you sure?”
Potter put down his cup with a clink. “Of course I’m sure. His wife herself told me of his death.”
“I’ve never met her,” Rees said.
“After almost twenty years? He lives—lived on the other side of Dugard, not the Atlantic Ocean. What happened? You were such good friends.”
Rees shrugged; that story was too long to tell. “We … went in different directions.”
“Nate has children, too, did you know? Two sons and a daughter,” Potter continued, his expression stern. “I’m sure they’d like to know what happened to their father.”
Rees expelled his breath as Lydia Jane entered with more coffee and cake. Potter cast her a glance, his eyes lighting curiously upon the square linen cap covering her dark red hair. Rees did not introduce her, although his eyes involuntarily lingered upon her face. He didn’t know what to say. He’d met Lydia, a former Shaker, when he’d pursued his runaway son to the Shaker village of Zion this past summer. Although Rees had fallen in love with her, he was reluctant to marry again, but he hadn’t wanted to give her up either. When she had nowhere else to go, he’d invited her to stay with him—as his housekeeper—just until they sorted out their feelings.
Potter turned his attention back to Rees. “It looks like he was beaten to death with a scutching knife, Will. It’s murder. And the constable believes Nate’s eldest son is the murderer.”
“His son,” Rees repeated. He was still struggling to digest the news of Nate’s death. Nate remained in Rees’s memory as the laughing dark-haired boy of his youth, not a middle-aged man with a wife and family. “Why does he suspect Nate’s son?”
“They were always at loggerheads, those two,” Potter said. “Nothing serious, I’m sure. But everyone knew. And Caldwell, with Richard in his sights, won’t look at anyone else. The constable is a drunken lout and the crew he hires to help him is worse, tavern rats from the Bull.” He paused and when Rees said nothing, went on in a rush. “You know Caldwell will take the easy way, Will. Is that what you want for Nate’s son?”
Rees sighed. “And what if he’s guilty? Have you thought of that? It won’t be the first time a son murdered his father.”
Now Potter lapsed into a thoughtful silence, staring off into the distance for several moments. “Yes, I know,” he said at last. “But if he is, I would prefer knowing you were the one to come to that conclusion.”
“If I look into this, secrets—secrets kept by anyone with the slightest connection to Nate—will come into the light,” Rees warned. “You live here, George. Do you want to know everyone’s dirty laundry? Know all the little ugly things about the people you love? Including Nate?”
“Nate was my friend. I want his son cleared if he’s innocent and the guilty man punished. Besides,” Potter added “we have no secrets in Dugard. We’re too boring and know each other too well to have secrets.”
Rees shot his friend a scornful look. “Everyone has secrets, George, large and small. Illuminating them will bring out anger and fear.”
Potter shook his head. “I’ll risk it.” After a short silence, he said, “Please, Will. You’ll work impartially. I know that. Please. I’d look upon it as a favor.”
Now, although Rees thought to refuse, he couldn’t. Without Potter, Rees wouldn’t have been able to recover his farm from his sister Caroline and her husband, Sam. And he’d loved Nate once.
“Very well,” he said. “But not tomorrow nor the next day. We’re still bringing in the hay, or what there is of it after Caroline’s and Sam’s poor stewardship.” Potter nodded, and the two friends sat again in silence. Rees recalled the expulsion of his sister and her family from the farm a month back. An ugly experience. He hadn’t seen Caro since then, but he thought of her every day with regret.
“You had to recover your property,” Potter said, reading his old friend’s expression without difficulty. “You had no choice. You had to do it for your future and for David’s.” Rees said nothing. After a pause Potter said, “So, you never visited Nate?”
Rees shook his head. “I wish I had,” he said. But the break between them had been so abrupt, he could never figure out how to bridge the chasm. “Didn’t he inherit the Bowditch family farm?”
“Yes, but he didn’t live there. Thomas farms that one. You remember Nate’s brother?”
“Yes,” Rees said. Thomas, a paler and younger version of his brother, had tagged after them like a shadow.
“Nate may still own it.…” Potter stopped and thought. “Well, no matter. Besides working the farm, Nate served as our local weaver and kept ten to fifteen of the local housewives spinning for him. He required a larger place with a separate cottage.”
Rees heard Potter’s reproof, but knew that settled life would not suit him. As soon as good weather arrived with the spring, the road would sing its siren song and he would pack his wagon and head out again. Born under the traveling foot, that’s what his mother always said.
“Good for Nate,” he said.
“Do you know where it is?” Potter asked, extracting a piece of paper from his waistcoat pocket and handing it over. “I’ve written out the directions. I suggest you drive out first thing tomorrow; Molly is waiting on you and will not bury Nate’s body until you’ve taken a look at it.”
“Your confidence in my acquiescence astounds me,” Rees said, not entirely joking.
“Your passion for justice, if for no other reason, assures your compliance,” Potter said, clapping his friend upon the shoulder. “Besides, you loved Nate once. You’ll want to do right by him.”
Rees inclined his head in acquiescence. Guilt and regret could be powerful spurs. “Yes, all right.”
“Good.” Rising to his feet, Potter added, “David can manage the harvest. Hire help if you must. Molly will pay a goodly sum to save her son from hanging.”
“Wait,” Rees cried, gesturing at Potter to resume his seat. “I need more information.”
“I don’t want to influence you with my opinions,” Potter said, remaining upright.
“How old is the boy? Tell me about Nate’s wife. I don’t remember anyone named Molly.”
Potter sighed. “I have an appointment, so I must leave you. Quickly, then. Molly is Margaret Brown. You must remember her older brother, Billy? She was the little tagalong, always at his heels, copying everything he did.”
Rees cast his mind back into the past, recalling Billy and the sister who rode and fought as skillfully as any boy. “The bootmaker’s children. Nate married her, that little rooster in a hen’s body?”
“Yes. You’ll scarcely recognize her now. She grew into a lovely and very feminine woman. And Richard, who is just seventeen, was born a few months early, if you catch my meaning, when his mother was but sixteen.” Potter grinned at Rees, who nodded. Many girls stepped up to the altar, pregnant, at fifteen or sixteen. Potter clapped his tall hat upon his head. Despite the day’s heat, he wore a cutaway swallow-tailed jacket over his pantaloons and glossy riding boots.
Rees, also standing, suddenly felt self-conscious in his rough tow shirt and loose breeches. At least he’d dropped his old shoes with the stink of the barnyard clinging to them on the porch. Called in from the fields and fearing an emergency, he’d raced in without stopping even to wash his face and hands. He followed Potter out to the porch and watched him mount his fine bay gelding. The law had proved a successful career for Rees’s old friend.
“You’ll do this for Nate,” Potter said from his elevated seat on horseback. “And you need this puzzle. Admit it, you crave a challenge. The four walls of this farmhouse must already be pressing in upon you.” Without waiting for Rees’s response, he wheeled his mount in a circle and galloped down the drive. Dust rose behind him in a cloud.
Rees remained upon the porch, staring into the distance until his friend was long out of sight and the dust had fallen back to earth. He still could hardly believe that Nate was dead.
“Will you do it?” Lydia asked, coming up behind him.
Rees turned and looked at her. She’d left her home with the Shakers to follow him here and seemed to be struggling with the adjustment. She’d been unusually subdued of late. “Of course,” he said. “It’s the final favor I can offer an old friend.”
“You loved him, and when you love you’re loyal,” she said. “Once you knew about your friend’s death, Mr. Potter did not need to ask. And I think he’s right about you. You’ve been a bear with a sore head lately.” Rees frowned in disagreement. “Yes, you have. Don’t worry. You won’t be abandoning us. You’ll still be able to help David with chores in the mornings and evenings.”
“Potter said Mrs. Bowditch promises to pay me enough to hire help.”<...
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