Fresh from facing allegations of witchcraft and murder, travelling weaver Will Rees, his heavily pregnant wife Lydia and six adopted children take refuge in Zion, a Shaker community in rural Maine. Shortly after their arrival, screams in the night reveal a drowned body … but is it murder or an unfortunate accident? The Shaker Elders argue it was just an accident, but Rees believes otherwise.
As Will investigates further, more deaths follow and a young girl vanishes from the community. Haunted by nightmares for his family’s safety, Rees must rush to uncover the truth before the dreams can become reality and more lives are lost. Yet can the Shaker Elders be trusted, or is an outsider involved?
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'What is that?' asked Jabez, the Shaker Brother with whom Rees would be sharing his room. Rees turned to the man in surprise. He had previously tried to initiate a conversation by introducing himself, but Jabez had silenced Rees with a sharp reprimand. 'No unnecessary speech!'
'Well?' Jabez said now. Rees glanced down at the canvas-wrapped bundle. 'My loom,' he said.
Or rather, the pieces of one. During the persecution directed at Rees and his family in Dugard, Rees's loom had been purposely broken. He still wasn't entirely sure how serious the damage was.
'You're a weaver?' Jabez asked. Rees nodded. 'Well, I hope you do not intend to weave in here, in our bedchamber. That is work that should be accomplished in the Weaving House.'
'This is my livelihood,' Rees said, feeling irritation burn at the back of his mind. He had spent the last two days driving from Dugard to Zion as fast as he could, and that had been after some very difficult weeks battling constant harassment. He had been blamed for a murder he did not commit, and his wife accused of witchcraft. After she'd been threatened with hanging, Rees had brought her and the children to Zion. And now he was too tired to treat foolishness with courtesy.
'And you're dirty,' Jabez continued, his lip curling as he inspected Rees. 'You'd better wash before supper. As Mother Ann said, cleanliness is a necessary accomplishment for a civilized person.'
'I've been traveling hard,' Rees said curtly, suppressing the urge to strike the other man. Rees had certainly not expected to arrive at this refuge only to jump into another argument. After safeguarding his family's safety, he had spent more than a week running for his life before finally identifying the malicious intelligence behind his persecution. He inhaled a deep breath and added, 'And the loom is broken.'
Jabez, catching the edge to Rees's voice, turned. 'Watch your temper, Rees. We do not approve of anger here.' Rees took an involuntary step forward, his heart beginning to thud in his chest.
With a slight smile, Jabez clapped his straw hat over his reddish-brown curls and left the room. Going to supper, no doubt.
Rees stood there for a few seconds, waiting for his heartbeat to return to normal. He was annoyed with himself for reacting to Jabez's baiting. He knew better. But there was something about this Shaker that got under his skin.
Blowing out a long breath, Rees moved the loom pieces into the corner where he hoped Jabez would not notice them. Defiant now, Rees was determined not to move his loom to the Weaving Shed. He put his satchel on his bed to claim it. Then he went to the ewer and basin on the table assigned to him and began to wash. As he dried his face and hands, a sharp knock sounded on the door and it opened to reveal another of the Brethren. Rees recognized Brother Jonathan, one of the Elders. He was still wearing the navy-blue vest he and all of his fellows wore to Sunday meeting.
'Better,' Jonathan said, eyeing Rees's face and hands approvingly. 'I'll accompany you to supper. Then you'll bathe in the laundry tub before bed.'
Rees nodded, feeling the faint heat of shame in his cheeks. He had not meant to arrive dirty. But since it was Sunday the inn in Durham had been closed, so he had been unable to stop and bathe before continuing on to Zion.
As soon as Rees followed Jonathan into the Dining Hall his gaze went unerringly to the Sisters' side. He found his wife, Lydia, easily as she was the only woman not wearing the square Shaker's cap. And she was still with child. Rees breathed a sigh of relief. He had not missed the birth.
Then he looked to the children's tables, and found Simon and Jerusha in their respective seats. The three youngest were harder to discover in the midst of the bigger children, Joseph most difficult of all. His head barely reached above the table.
With his family found, Rees claimed the nearest empty seat and sat down for supper. Sisters began bringing out platters of beef, johnnycake, and beans from the garden. As a young girl deposited the plates upon the table, she met Rees's eyes. He recognized her; she was the Sister who upon his arrival in Zion had taken him to Brother Jonathan. She made a quick motion as though washing her face. Rees shared a smile with her as he remembered the woman they had seen on their way to the Meetinghouse.
The road that ran north to south through the center of the village had been so crowded with vehicles of all descriptions that Rees and his Shaker chaperone had had to pick their way around them. All these people from the World had come to see the Shaker service, as though it were some kind of show.
Rees almost collided with one of the visitors, a well-dressed woman making her way toward her own carriage. Garbed in one of the unstructured pastel gowns from Paris and a large feathered hat, she had buried her face in a handkerchief. Her shoulders shook uncontrollably and at first Rees, who had jumped quickly aside, thought she was weeping. But as a new gust of hilarity shook her, he realized she was laughing. When she looked up, Rees had seen tears of mirth running down her face, streaking her rouged cheeks. The woman was made up after the French fashion, à la Josephine, that upstart Napoleon's wife. While her maquillage might be the latest word in Europe, it was an unfamiliar sight in Maine and Rees grinned as he remembered the woman's strange appearance.
But his amusement faded as he recalled his subsequent behavior.
'Oh dear me!' the woman had said, barely able to force the words through her giggles, 'I did not see you there.' She attempted to wipe away the tears from her cheeks, and red paint stained the white linen in her hand. Although Rees knew it was only carmine, he couldn't help thinking of blood and shuddered. 'Forgive me, please.' Another gust of merriment shook her. 'I found the scene in the Meetinghouse so risible.' Although gowned and made up like a fashionable Parisian woman, she spoke English without an accent.
'I'm certain,' Rees had said in such a sharp tone she took a step backwards, 'that you would not care to have your services the subject of ill-informed amusement.' Although he found some of the Shaker beliefs and practices odd, he was irritated that she should laugh at people he saw as human beings. 'I know them as good neighbors and honest men. Your response displays your ignorance.' Offended, the woman had brushed past him and climbed into an elegant coach with a medallion on the door.
Rees shook his head at himself, embarrassed by his anger. Such a powerful response for something so minor. Why had he been so rude? Although he had spoken only what he felt was the truth, he was not usually so disrespectful.
The Sister, once the platters were delivered to the table, gave him a final twinkling smile before departing for the kitchen. Rees's comment that the painted visitor should wash her face had elicited a chuckle from the Sister and she was still enjoying it.
The hearty meal, instead of energizing Rees, had the opposite effect and he felt almost too tired to eat the bowl of blueberries and cream that was put before him. He ate more and more slowly. When he glanced to the other side of the room, he saw that the children and Lydia were watching him. The cut on her forehead had healed and left a white scar that was visible even from this distance. Rees smiled at them, and applied himself to his dessert. He had come for them and wanted to spend a little time with them before Jonathan drew him away.
Elder Solomon rose to dismiss his Family from the meal. He was gray-haired and, although the Shakers did not use ranks, Rees suspected Solomon was senior to Jonathan. Solomon also wore a long gray beard. Rees was surprised to see it. Although the Shakers, like the people in the World, followed their own internal fashions, and sometimes beards were approved, most of the other Brothers here in Zion were clean-shaven. Had Solomon won special permission from the Maine Ministry? The gray beard marked Solomon as different, and that was unusual.
As the community scattered to their evening chores, Rees quickly finished his berries. Lydia was trying to keep the children on the other side of the Dining Hall, but they were not obedient. Although Lydia had a grip on Judah's arm, Nancy and Joseph had already begun running toward Rees. He scraped his spoon over the bottom of the bowl for the last morsels and stood up. As he started for his children, he was conscious of raised voices behind him. Angry voices. They were a shocking sound in the silence of the Shaker Dining Room. Rees turned. Jonathan and Jabez were leaning in toward one another. Jonathan's cheeks were scarlet. Jabez, smiling in a condescending manner, said something in a low voice. It caused Jonathan to interrupt, his words carrying clearly to Rees's ears.
'How dare you say that? I will ...' And then Solomon reached them, his back concealing Jonathan's face, and the younger Shaker's voice ceased. Losing interest, Rees turned around and started toward his children.
Nancy hurled herself into Rees's arms and Joseph clutched him around his knees. Jerusha and Simon were not far behind. With an exasperated sigh, Lydia released Judah so he could join his siblings.
'I'm in school,' Jerusha said. 'I'm learning to read.'
'Me too,' Nancy said in an excited voice. 'Me too.'
'When can we go home?' Simon asked at the same moment. 'I miss David.' Rees almost did not hear Simon's admission in the cacophony of other voices. Looking down at the boy, Rees put his hand on Simon's head. He worshipped David and, like Rees's older son, loved farming, something Rees would never understand.
'Children,' Lydia said, 'be quiet, please. We must speak one at a time. Jerusha, Simon.' She eyed them sternly. When the chatter had subsided a little, she leaned forward. 'Is the crisis in Dugard over then?' she asked with a frown.
Rees hesitated a few seconds, not sure what he could tell her. 'Mostly,' he said finally, reaching across the space to run his thumb lightly over the white scar on her forehead. Worry flooded her eyes.
'I know your family missed you and are grateful for your safe return.' Jonathan's voice came from behind him. Rees turned, Nancy clutched in his arms. Red still tinted Jonathan's cheeks and the tip of his nose, but he seemed calmer. 'There will be time to visit with them tomorrow.'
Rees tried to set Nancy down but she clung to him, her hands clutching at his shirt and her legs tightening around his waist. Lydia came forward. To Rees's eyes, she appeared far more pregnant than she had just a few weeks ago. She smiled at him, but Rees saw the shadow in her eyes.
'Come, Nancy. Come, children. Your father will still be here tomorrow.' She detached Nancy and put her on the floor. Rees reached out to touch her wrist. Jonathan clucked disapprovingly.
'The water is hot now,' he said. 'It is time to go.'
'I'll see you all tomorrow,' Rees promised his family as he reluctantly turned to follow Jonathan.
Rees paused at the men's door and looked back over his shoulder. All of his family watched him as he left. Lydia had caught her lower lip in her teeth and Joseph was wailing loudly, his face screwed up and his mouth wide open. Rees realized how hard the separation had been on them. They couldn't know what had been happening to him – and he was glad of that – or when he would return. And now he was leaving again, and every face betrayed the fear he would not come back. Rees lifted a hand in reassurance and followed Jonathan from the Dining Hall.
The two men walked down the main street in silence. Although Jonathan did not speak, Rees felt as though he was the target of the Brother's serious disapproval. Once they crossed the bridge over the creek and went into the thicket of trees, the shadows made it almost too dark to see. 'You have about an hour of light left,' Jonathan said. Rees nodded. He hoped he would not be expected to do anything else today; he was so tired he thought he might go to bed immediately after his bath.
Inside the laundry shed the Brother gestured to the large tub, which in Rees's opinion resembled a stone coffin with the lid missing. Rees examined it doubtfully. 'What is this usually used for?' he asked. The last time he'd visited the laundry shed, several years ago now, the space had been filled with large copper cauldrons.
'Laundry,' Jonathan said, sounding surprised. Rees examined the tub with more attention. Constructed at the proper height for washing clothes, the tub's edges had been smoothed and rounded so the Sisters could bend over it comfortably. Steam rose into the air from the hot water. 'With a community this size,' Jonathan continued, 'a lot of laundry is produced. A washtub this size enables the Sisters to wash many pieces at the same time. Cleanliness is one of the instructions from our Mother, Ann Lee.' His gaze lighted briefly, but pointedly, upon Rees. 'You know the way to the Dwelling House,' he added as he left.
Rees knew he'd been judged and found wanting. For a moment he considered calling after Jonathan but elected not to. Not tonight, when he couldn't trust himself to remain calm. Stripping off his clothing, he dipped his hand in to test the hot water. It felt wonderful. He climbed inside the enormous tub and leaned back with a sigh. He was accustomed to bathing with his knees up to his chin, unless it was summer and he could swim in the pond. But in this long hollowed-out obelisk he could stretch out full length. He dunked his head below the surface of the water and used the hard yellow soap to scrub his hair and body. Then he lay back with his head resting on the tub's edge. As he reclined in the warm water, he allowed his worries about David, still in Dugard and alone, to recede. For the first time in several weeks, Rees felt safe. No one would threaten him or his family here. They had found a refuge. He relaxed and before he knew it, he was asleep.CHAPTER 2
Rees awoke with the sound of screams ringing in his ears. David, he thought in terror. He was half out of the bed before he remembered he was safe in Zion, and David was far away in Dugard. Despite Rees's fatigue and the relaxing bath, his fear for his son had taken over his sleeping mind and his dreams had been filled with running and hiding from angry pursuers. As his memory of arriving at the Shaker community returned, Rees turned to look for his roommate. Brother Jabez was already gone and his bed was empty.
Another scream sounded outside and now Rees could hear the sobbing that followed. He swung his legs over the bed's side. He was still in his borrowed Shaker's shirt. As another scream ripped through the still early morning air, he quickly pulled on his borrowed breeches. In too much of a hurry to bother with socks, he thrust his feet into his shoes. Then he ran out of his room, running toward the source of those wild cries.
It was just daybreak and the Brothers who were emerging from the stable and the barns, as well as the Sisters from the kitchen, had already begun their daily work. A sobbing Esther stood in the road, at the center of a cluster of Sisters. Despite the disapproving looks directed Rees's way, he joined the circle of women.
'What happened?' he asked Esther. He had never seen her so distraught. An escaped slave, she carried herself with the air of one who has seen everything and survived and so was not prone to displays of emotion.
'Something happened in the laundry room,' said Lydia, cutting through the crowd to join her husband. She put a hand on the sobbing woman's arm and shook it gently. 'Esther, Esther. Tell us what happened.' Esther sniffled and tried to pull herself together.
'A body,' she quavered. 'In the l-laundry tub.' The Shaker Brethren drew closer.
'Bathing?' Rees said, although he knew that could not explain Esther's distress. She shook her head.
'There was blood on the stone.' She tried to still her shivering by wrapping her arms around herself.
'Sister Esther,' Jonathan said sternly, 'calm yourself. I'm certain there is some simple explanation. Do you know who is in the tub?'
She shook her head. Jonathan's tartness had some effect, though, and when she spoke again her voice was steadier. 'He's face down in the water.' Now her gaze went to Rees. 'I know he's dead. He couldn't be turned over like that and still live.' She gulped and clutched at Lydia's hand.
Rees directed a look at Jonathan. He was frowning at Sister Esther and appeared more irritated by her emotion than anything. Elder Solomon, standing behind Jonathan, brushed a hand over his eyes. The silvery beard softened the lines of his chin, but Rees could see the older man's lips trembling. 'This is monstrous,' he said, turning away from the cluster of people. 'Such upset.' Rees glanced at him but spoke to the others.
'I'm going to the laundry shed,' he said. 'This may be a prank but I want to see for myself.'
'It is not a prank,' Esther said in a sharp voice. She sounded almost like her usual self.
Rees started down the street with Jonathan. Daniel, young but already a Deacon, and far too young for that post in Rees's opinion, fell into step with them. Rees glanced at the youth, wondering why this boy had chosen to join them. His face was contorted with both revulsion and fascination.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Shaker Murders"
Copyright © 2018 Eleanor Kuhns.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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