First peek at “A Simple Murder”

By late afternoon Rees was past Rumford and heading southeast, almost to Durham and the coast. “Time to start looking 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 the barn. Hollowed out by fury for most of the day (damn his sister! How could she push David, Rees’ 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 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 he 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 towards 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 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 work ‘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’ 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 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 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 could just slap his sister!  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 in 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 cried angrily. “We couldn’t stop him.”

“He’s fourteen,” Rees snapped.

“There’s nothing for him here,” Charles said. Rees glared at his oldest nephew as the boy added rudely, “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 sneeringly. 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 went off with the Shakers.  Rees flung out of the house he and Dolly had shared and raced towards Durham, and the Shaker settlements near it.

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