Melancholy, Idaho Territory, 1882. Hennessey Reed learns a reclusive family has been shot dead and dumped on the outskirts of town. Were they chosen at random, left as a warning, or, as members of a burgeoning religion, murdered because of their beliefs?
Encouraged by past success as an amateur sleuth, Hennessey barrels headlong into the search for the killer. Unfortunately, a laudenum addiction and penchant for Irish whiskey can be most unhelpful when hunting a murderer. So, too, strained relations with the town marshal, a cagey Pinkerton agent, and an independent wolfhound who follows her nose, but rarely instruction.
Hennessey knows present-day events are often rooted in the past. When her investigation leads her across societal boundaries and county lines, she is pitched against villains ready and willing not only to pay the ultimate price tp wreak havoc and exact revenge, but also to kill whomever gets in their way . . .
Release date: September 9, 2021
Publisher: Red River Pony Publishing
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Dying Grass Moon
Each bird loves to hear himself sing.
To the best of my knowledge, Evangeline Muir harbored no suspicion in her thirteen-year-old head that I was her mother. On the morning of her bawling, miraculous entry into this world, those destined to become most important to her agreed to withhold this information from her as long as possible—in a perfect situation, forever. Amongst manifold, pressing reasons we decided it was unfair and ultimately even cruel to foist upon her the burden that the woman who birthed her was a bordello madam: a woman ruinously dependent on the false-hope promises of laudanum and Irish whiskey; a woman harangued by ghosts real and imagined; a woman who, notwithstanding this, drank in the sight of her and rejoiced in her companionship on all available occasions.
Not long since, Evangeline near died at the hands of Jedidiah Cannon, an iniquitous creature whose essence haunted me still. Many a night I bolted upright in bed, confused by what must be determined fantasy, and what reality, when Cannon and his demons wreaked havoc with my tormented mind.
While under Cannon’s governance Evie was mostly delirious, for which I remained eternally grateful, although this proved both blessing and curse. Her physical scars healed, including the nub left glossy and pink where Cannon had cut off her finger which he then mailed me as a warning—this a constant, shocking reminder of her abduction.
Never by nature a fearless child, despite her lineage, this ordeal spun her inward, wounds undetectable by the naked eye persecuting her spirit. Evie was loath to stray from the skirts of my dear friend Lizzie who, in partnership with her husband Clay, performed the role of her parent, but I trusted one fine day she might develop a measure of independence, of bravery. Until that day, those privy to our secret pledged to fight until the last breath to protect her, to assuage our guilt and atone for what we perceived gross negligence of our collective duty in the recent past.
Evie caught me staring at her so, musing interrupted, I sought to allay worriment she might experience with my single-minded observation, plucking a benign avenue of conversation out of a basket holding rationed supplies, and said: “I believe I neglected to pay compliment on your pretty dress, Evie.”
“Thank you, Miss Reed.” She loosened a rare, shy smile, and ran a palm down her cotton pinafore dress, unconscious mimicry of a habit Lizzie demonstrated when steeling her nerves.
Lizzie, the girl’s foundation stone, rested a hand on Evie’s arm and bestowed a reassuring pat.
After Evangeline’s rescue, convinced a divine entity stood guard over her daughter for the duration of her abduction—and, fundamentally, this was the practicable explanation of how and why Evie survived—Lizzie started attending church. She feasted on the Bible, working stolidly through it cover to cover, returning to the beginning directly on completion. Owing to this scrutiny her clothing and cosmetic favors transformed, crossing the border into austerity, the unadorned pinafore and bonnet Evie wore visual manifestation of her mother’s newfound probity, as Lizzie cast aside gewgaws and indecorous living with vigorous, unrelenting purpose.
In garish contrast to Lizzie and Evie, my attire consisted of an emerald-green satin dress that glowed with a rich, luxurious sheen. Lace frothed at my wrists. Perhaps not of equal status to the latest fashion practices of those who cut a dash in more populous centers of the country—disciples certified at the forefront of prevailing taste—with hair pinned in a chignon I was exceptionally presentable, all the same. A French parasol, tassels of knotted silk dangling, lent itself to my ensemble more as an indulgence than an object of practical usage, and reflected particular attention spent on my appearance that morning.
I stroked the head of my giant wolfhound, Raven, stationed as usual at my hip, and returned to the festivities spread before me.
I held no recollection of who proposed the residents of Melancholy should take it upon themselves to play host to the inaugural county fair, this seen as a joint endeavor, heralded as a celebration and reclamation of normalcy.
Following the discovery of four young girls defiled then murdered the previous spring, emotional trauma endured, brash and offensive, scabs worried as a child picks a grazed knee. Hardened to threats furnished by outside forces, townsfolk were left reeling on finding these atrocities originated with a member of our community.
Memories were starting to dull, to blur, with the fair being seen as wiping a slate clean, a show of solidarity to make clear—to ourselves as much as anything—that although we may have suffered the whims of insanity we had survived, a little battered and bruised but quite a ways from broken. Along this vein I chose to believe those folks around me who laughed and chattered, a rout of blue jays, did not agonize to preserve normality or present a valiant façade; that their enjoyment was heartfelt.
Behind me, dressed like a celebration turkey, Main Street complemented those garbed in church-going finery. An industrious minion had cobbled together cerise triangles of bunting, in support of what organizers intended an annual fixture, and painted a welcome sign on an oblong stretch of canvas that was then hoisted across the street. Unfortunately, not only did the person in charge of the sign inadvertently misplace the ‘h’ in Melancholy, they ran out of room toward the right-hand edge, so the town’s name required condensing, its last three letters squashed, accordion-style, to fit.
When these jarring mistakes were pointed out to the appropriate supervisors few took exception; besides, it was too late to remedy them. Nevertheless, in such cases there is invariably a minority who cannot be pacified, who refuse to sanction blatant inaccuracies. Mrs. Coltrane, an enthusiast of rules and self-proclaimed expert on correct procedure—her specialties running the gamut from how to tie a bow through to English language regulations and the limitless vagaries of grammar that lay within its perimeters—led dissenters.
Fierce in her determination to uphold linguistic standards she had dallied in the center of Main Street, tutting, and it was here, due to the reflexes of her nimble-witted companion, that she narrowly avoided being mown down by Henry Tippet’s buckboard, requisitioned by the fair overseer to cart tents and tables to land delegated the fairground at the southern end of town.
My gaze fell upon a wooden sign propped against a pole supporting a nearby tent. The image painted on the sign depicted a fortune-teller swathed in purple fabric, bejeweled hands hovering above an unnaturally luminous crystal ball. This portrayed that with the unsurpassed spiritual powers in her possession, those close-held secrets gullible patrons tried their darndest to conceal might be revealed like magic, to corroborate her authenticity, and that a wonderful future awaited, undetermined without her valuable and well-priced assistance.
Below this disingenuous portrait twirling script declared:
can see you now.
A gentleman posted out front of the tent paced with the contained steps of a captive bear in a futile attempt to disguise a pronounced limp. He passed out handbills, broadcasting Madam Beaulieux’s prowess in a booming voice that battled for dominance over the cacophony of the fairground. When Lizzie and I made to go by him, my pointed dismissal saw him indolently withdraw an offered bill, expression deadpan. Lizzie accepted the bill instead, firing stern admonition my way, her caution to my rudeness. She should be well-accustomed to it by now.
An image similar to although not an exact replica of that gracing the board decorated the handbill, the element of skill evident in this rendition flying close to crude or, poetically, naïve in execution.
A woman rotund as a harvest pumpkin, outfitted in clothing better suited to a person half her age and size, exited the tent. Her obsequious manner saw her do everything save genuflect to a shadowed figure glimpsed past the flap, on whom she piled effusive thanks.
When she leaped back as though branded to avoid collision with me, a display of enviable agility, I did nothing to mask my amusement, gratified to see this noticeably flustered her. I walked a step ahead of Lizzie, but Mrs. Humphrys—for I recognized this eddy of dust after observing her waddle around town—subjected me to the decidedly peevish arrogance of the righteous then spurned me.
I remained indifferent to this impertinence. I owned the Fleur-de-lis saloon and cathouse, so her attitude toward me was not a rarity; it was rife amongst the parsimonious flock domiciled in Melancholy. If Mrs. Humphrys ever learned of Lizzie having shared my profession when younger, I toyed with how her face might contort in distaste before she ran as speedily as her short fat legs consented to carry her in the opposite direction.
“I thoroughly recommend a sitting with Madam Beaulieux if you are debating whether to do so, Mrs. Muir,” she said to Lizzie. “It’s sure to bring comfort. Can you believe she channeled my beloved Charles, who disappeared without a trace? She beheld his death as well, which she assured me was quick and painless, this of marvelous benefit for heartsease.”
“I understood Mrs. Humphrys married a wainwright named Harold, now deceased,” I said, once the elderly lady had left us, mincing steps taking her to the refreshment area. “Who is Charles?”
“Charles was her pet hog. Wretched beast kept breakin’ outta her yard and runnin’ wild causin’ all sorts of mischief.”
“I wondered to whom that animal belonged. I frequently spied it being chased along Main Street which, admittedly, I found enormously entertaining.” I looked after the stout woman who dabbed tears dry with a kerchief stitched with royal blue thread, while awaiting a mug filled with a bracing medicinal potation. “When I think on it, that explains why I have not seen him for some time.”
“I’d heard he vanished, as Mrs. Humphrys says. I’m bettin’ Charles ran into the wrong yard and got himself made into a pork dinner, never to be seen again. Except on a plate.”
“You have no intelligence of the whereabouts of this boisterous missing hog, Lizzie?”
“Not a smidge.” Lizzie licked her lips, winked, then studied the colorful representation of Madam Beaulieux on the handbill. “Well, this could be interestin’. You wanna come too, Ness?”
An arched brow conveyed my answer.
“Ah. ’Course, you see ghosts enough without huntin’ ’em out.”
“Does this spiritual diversion not fly in the teeth of your new beliefs?”
“Maybe. Though I’m doin’ it in fun—and remember, I’ve seen the truth behind your gift.”
“You seriously intend to waste money and precious time on a soothsayer who will fabricate all manner of airy predictions, which can then be manipulated and interpreted so they fit any puzzling happenchance you experience later?”
“Might reply in kind if I could make sense of anythin’ you just said.” Lizzie drew her daughter closer. “Meantime, can you watch Evie?”
“I shan’t be long, darlin’,” she said to the girl inclined to stick to her like a limpet. “You’ll be fine here with Miss Reed.”
Required to duck when entering the tent, Lizzie paused and waved to us before the man with the crippled leg lowered the flap to deliver privacy for Madam Beaulieux and her latest customer. Nary a word nor warmth befriended his taciturn, bewhiskered features as he secured the tent and resumed distributing handbills.
Her mother distracted, Evie forfeited allegiance posthaste and hurried to my side, an indescribable, extrinsic joy consuming me when she slotted her hand into mine.
Next to the fortune-teller, a strongman contraption garnered who knew where taunted and beckoned. The game required the participant wield a mallet with all the power he could dredge and wallop a pad at its base, to send a metal globe skyrocketing to strike a bell high above our heads.
Evie stood enthralled, fascinated by the spectacle of men who, one after another, pitted their strength against a machine I conjectured, with normative cynicism, cannily weighted against them succeeding to their true ability. Even so, never averse to an exhibition of masculine superiority and disported by their showboating, I was content watching them, too, until the event touted the fair’s main event.
Within the hour my stallion, Samson, was to challenge several worthy opponents on an oval racecourse pegged out on flat land near the river. Expected by most to ride him myself, I pretended to bow to persuasion, consenting to repose elegantly on the sidelines to allow a man appointed by the fledgling Melancholy Race Committee to perform service as jockey. A week ago, I also commandeered a neutral go-between to covertly broker a wager on Samson’s placing before his odds shortened, thereby rendering it a next-to-pointless exercise.
Until the horse race, crowds gathered to champion favorite contestants at the wood-chopping competition, exultant cheers resounding above hordes of onlookers when the dull thunk of ax meeting stump ceased and a sweat-drenched, jubilant axman raised his fist in triumph. Others chose genteel pursuits, wringing hands and jiggling in place, tracking progress of those in the pivotal office of judge as they tasted and prodded, circling tables smothered in home produce and baking.
Endued with glorious weather—to describe it as heated afforded more credit than it deserved—the fair was a last celebration, the uncontested harbinger to fall, and to snow and ice that before a body could say ‘Jack Robinson’ would sheathe Melancholy and the outlying county in ermine white.
A batch of horses, mules and a single donkey saddled or, more commonly, arriving in the traces of buggies and wagons, were divested of harness leather then tethered or corralled in rope pens. Youths seconded to patrol the animals strutted in their midst, chests puffed with importance and responsibility, their duty to supply pails of water to the thirsty and ensure scuffles pioneered by the bored, or feisty, were dealt with swiftly.
Families spread rugs or canvas in shade beneath ancient cottonwood boughs, where they unpacked comestibles, beverages, and relevant dining utensils. The air chimed with noise; musicians tuned screeching fiddles, a backdrop to children who giggled and squealed as they played chase, giddy with indulging in activity that did not involve arithmetic or endless chores.
When Lizzie’s consultation with Madam Beaulieux ended and she stepped from the tent’s dim interior into sunlight, Evie decamped, resuming her customary post near her mother.
“So, tell me, Lizzie. What pearls of wisdom did Madam Beaulieux relate?” I asked. “Is a handsome stranger going to gallop into town and sweep you off your feet? Your husband must respond to this with proprietorial vigor. Or are you to be wary of wolves in sheep’s clothing?”
“She said nothin’ like that.” Lizzie could not meet my eyes. “Didn’t tell me much. You were right, Ness. Might as well’ve thrown my money to the four winds.”
“You appear upset.”
“Got nothin’ more to say.”
“You are certain?”
“I told you. Come.” She made a fuss of retrieving Evie’s hand and tucked unruly strands of hair behind the girl’s ear. Evie’s braid, which reached her waist, was boot-black and shiny as obsidian. Inherited from my family, the color startled me anew, for in this detail Evie favored me rather than her father. “Samson’s race is gonna start soon. Let’s go find a good spot to watch it.”
Samson ran a gallant race, however to the disappointment of his legion of backers he galloped across the finish line in second place. I patted his neck, ribbed with froth, and praised the efforts of his jockey. When Lizzie and I encountered the owner of the triumphant horse Zeus in the makeshift winner’s circle, it took all my willpower to act courteously toward him.
Clearly on the lookout for me, Joshua Hughes stood immovable as a pillar of bedrock, a wealthy, successful landowner who, in my opinion, reveled childishly in coercing me to come to him. On our approach his eyes crinkled, his mouth bowed, creasing freckled cheeks, and the closest relation to a grin I had ever witnessed on him rose then burst on his thin lips.
Hughes’s wife, Charlotte, killed four defenseless girls, their bodies stumbled upon the spring just gone, the means by which they met their deaths primeval and disconcerting. By her actions Charlotte subjected the inhabitants of Melancholy and vicinage to months linked by fear and suspicion. In the tumultuous afterclaps of the murders she also tried her utmost to remove me from the land of the living which, understandably, was an ambition to which I took grave exception. During a showdown I preferred not to re-examine, Charlotte died in my presence and this, I presumed, neither sat well with nor endeared me to her husband.
The rational part of me, typically blindingly conspicuous by its absence, acknowledged it preposterous to visit the sins of the wife against the husband. The irrational, maverick side of my nature did not allow this to muddy the waters of pre-existing low regard of Hughes.
Two people, and two alone, knew the sequence of events that preceded what transpired at the Sweet Venus Too mine the day Charlotte died: I being one, the second being dead. Could Charlotte’s death have been avoided? Must I shoulder a tittle of accountability for aggravations that surrounded it? When all aspects were pared to a skeleton she chose her destructive course without encouragement. Her memory and family left behind must ever carry her shame; her step-children reconciled to tolerating residual fury spat at them by a community fractured by deceit.
Ever since that period, deep and dank as the coyote hole Charlotte fell into, I had spent considerable energy observing a generous distance between Joshua and myself unless unavoidable, wanting to circumvent interaction with him that had potential to become . . . problematic. Until now he, most assuredly, had endorsed the sentiment.
“Good afternoon, Joshua.” I inhaled an emboldening breath and tried not to choke on my good wishes when freeing them into air. “Allow me to extend congratulations on Zeus’s win.”
“Thank you, Hennessey.” Hughes took my words at face value and responded accordingly, magnanimous in victory. “Samson ran a commendable race although, to my advantage, that wasn’t enough.”
“The faster, better horse won.”
“Yes, he did.”
Hailed by an ale-infused well-wisher Joshua bid Lizzie and me farewell and dipped his chin to supplement his adieu, a chanticleer preparing to bask in further glory.
“Well, that was a surprisingly cordial exchange. Considerin’,” Lizzie said when we resumed maundering, her equilibrium restored. “You sickenin’ from somethin’?”
“I strive to always be graceful in defeat, Lizzie.”
“That’s utter claptrap, Hennessey Reed,” she said. Her brows knitted when I turned to her, my expression exaggerated innocence. “Don’t you go lookin’ at me with those big blue eyes, all harmless as a kitten. You’re up to your elbows in some kinda skullduggery.”
“Whatever gives you that impression?”
“Years of association, that’s what.”
“My tutors taught it mannerly to give due credit. Zeus ran a blue-ribbon race.”
“I gather with that eloquent response you remain unconvinced.”
“You must’ve lost a bundle with Samson comin’ in on Zeus’s heels, yet there you are actin’ like all you lost was a measly fistful of bits.”
“Ah, but there you make a fundamental error, Lizzie. You assume my winnings depended on Samson beating Joshua’s stallion. And the other horses, of course.” I dangled the clue under her nose, intrigued how long it would take my percipient friend to figure to what I alluded. It seemed I must shunt her in the right direction. “If nothing else, Samson’s second placing makes for an exciting rematch, with him at considerably better odds to win, do you not agree?”
Lizzie cast about us to make sure no one lingered within hearing then, with affected casualness, squeezed out the corner of her mouth: “Did you order that unsuspectin’ jockey fella to hold Samson in?”
“Can you appreciate a rider unused to Samson’s idiosyncrasies would find that beyond his skills? Besides, that sort of behavior is frowned upon—and if brought to light, repercussions are far-reaching—and is not terribly sportsman-like.”
“You don’t normally care about those things, ’specially with Joshua Hughes. You never took to him and he’s no more hoodwinked by your polite congratulations than me.” I went to reply but she barged in with: “No! Don’t tell me. ’Round you, ignorance is best.”
“As you wish.”
We wandered a dozen or so yards, Lizzie feigning disinterestedness until her craving for details got the better of her, as we both knew all along it would.
“Don’t know why I’m askin’ this, and Lord knows I’m gonna regret it. What did you do?”
“Imagine, if you will, Samson became thirsty prior to the race.”
“What’s bein’ thirsty got to do with it?”
I held passing acquaintance with the jockey, so felt it judicious to neither count on nor trust his aptitude to weave and duck around the truth while under pressure if an inquiry were requested by a disgruntled mob unhappy with the race results.
“Withholding water from him then giving the horse a drink just before he races is an old horseman’s trick my uncle taught me. It slows him down.” We paused to greet a cluster of men cockeyed drunk, valued clients of the Fleur sown amongst them, continuing our discourse when well out of earshot. “I will leave it there, for the less you are sentient of, the more peaceful your conscience shall be.”
“May that go straight from your mouth to God’s ear.”
We wound through stalls and games. Clear for all to see, townsfolk were enjoying themselves and I grew pleased, for despite my misgivings it demonstrated they were coming to terms with the horrors of the deaths at the Sweet Venus Too, expressing positivity in looking forward, not behind them. If parsing on what those girls endured at the mine I was vulnerable to disintegrating into flakes, for was existence not tough and dangerous enough without a child forced to submit to the loathsome penchants of murderous individuals?
“What are you thinkin’?” Lizzie relinquished calculation of an impressive array of biscuits and bottled fruit, green eyes studying me from her superior height; her countenance revealed the question a formality—she divined on what I ruminated.
“I am sure you can guess. It is never far from my mind.”
“Nor any of ours,” she chided, not without empathy. “I know it ain’t easy but put it aside, please do, for yours and all our sakes.”
“I shall try.” My glaring, barefaced untruth lacked conviction. Even so, I did not fret over expanding it.
Farther on, Lizzie elbowed me in the ribs. Hard.
“Ouch! Dash it, what the deuce has gotten into you?”
“Marshal’s headin’ this way.”
“I can see that for myself. There is no need to bruise my ribcage to bring it to my notice.”
Inexplicably, after everything that happened last spring, Marshal Rafael Cooper persisted in behaving markedly ill-disposed toward me. I had expected our apprehending Jedidiah Cannon, who abducted Evie and assisted Charlotte in killing girls at the mine, would bind us closer together. Regrettably, the opposite occurred, continued to be the case, and exhibited no sign of abatement in the foreseeable future.
Couched in an addendum to his crowded song sheet with regard to me, during our investigation I was railroaded into telling Raff—until then, in the dark—that Evie was my daughter and naming her father, a famous politician recognized across America. When thrown into the titanic, rocky mix of our relationship, this did not sit well with him.
Irrespective of approach, Raff’s and my coupling prior to the deaths at the Sweet Venus Too could not be gauged traditional and, true to our history, further complications bubbled to the fore once the perpetrators of those horrendous crimes were dead.
Willing to grant him the space he requested to rassle with the thunderbolt of Evie’s true parentage, as weeks dragged by my frustration amplified until I raised the matter with him. He changed the subject. With patience a virtue of which I did not consider myself particularly well-endowed, and on account of his reluctance to engage in conversation to redirect us to relations beyond mere civility, I was resigned to his dealing with it in his own way, in his own time, exasperating as that, and he, was proving.
With Raff more hellacious to turn than usual, his obstinacy saw me choose not to dwell on how, if I were frank, the cause behind my sickness of being rested wholly within this unresolved malaise and pangs of sadness that riddled contact with him.
Still and all, rumors circulated about Raff’s employment as upholder of the law in Melancholy. Well-advised folks ignored gossip of how Cannon met his death and what, precisely, led to his being interred in a grave left unmarked. In shooting Jedidiah Cannon, Raff relieved humanity of a man whose depraved proclivities included molesting and killing children. These factors outweighed criticisms skeptics raised with citizens of astute mind around what facilitated the madman’s death; the skeptics of the ilk to pack a picnic lunch and bring extended family to watch Cannon hanged from the sturdy branches of an infamous cottonwood tree or sturdy gallows.
“Good afternoon, Marshal Cooper.”
“Afternoon, Miss Reed.” Raven left my side and rubbed her head against Raff’s thigh in welcome. He caressed her ears. “Lizzie.” Raff’s tone when he spoke to my friend rang notches warmer than when he greeted me. “Interestin’ horse race. Not the result some expected.”
Lizzie stepped away to allow Raff and me latitude, expending actorly attentiveness on a display of quilts sewn with delicacy and precision. ...
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...