Murder Picnic & Other Mysteries
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by S. A. Gorden
Description: The Dashiell Hammett Thin Man Award and Minnesota Book Award Nominee Mystery! Murder Picnic features six related short stories in which our two rural Sherlocks solve murder mysteries that baffle even the local law enforcement officers. In "Murder Picnic", they discover that what appeared to be an accident was really a cold-blooded murder. In "Ring", they use their knowledge of country matters, how farm equipment operates, and the behavior of livestock to help Emily's brother, Deputy Tom, solve a local murder. In "Frozen", Emily and Deputy Tom drink a lot of milk shakes and milk a lot of cows before they finally solve a murder mystery. In "Needle", the two amateur sleuths actually deduce that what looks like murder is actually something else. When our hero and his new bride--Emily of course--take off in "Honeymoon with Death", they discover a bullet-riddled car with two corpses inside parked in a ditch and later get in a confrontation with the actual killers. And in the final offering, "Dinner with the Sheriff", our newlyweds, who have now been married for a year solve a case while Emily runs for sheriff and our hero gets to beat up an old high school bully. Reading these stories will make you want to drink smoke-flavored coffee and eat flatbread while you gaze at the natural wonders of northern Minnesota." (review by Chandler McGrew, author of Cold Heart and In Shadow) "S.A. Gorden has a fine and sure touch with the pulp genre. His collection of six fast-paced mysteries, set in the farmlands of Minnesota, brings back the wonderful world of magazine fiction in the 1940s, as well as describing the calm routines of everyday rural life. "Murder Picnic Mysteries" is a well-written walk through a nostalgic time when people were good neighbors, home-cooked meals were simple but mouth-watering, and people did their work with a sense of accomplishment in jobs well-done. With mysteries ranging from farm accidents to graft and corruption in local government, this is a collection that will not only remind you of the glorious pulps of yesteryear, but also of a slower, more caring world; one that counted its time by the lowing of livestock instead of the shrill ring of a cell phone." (reviewed by J. D. Crayne, author of C is for Catnip, and the Lt. Mark Stoddard Mysteries)
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner Editions,
eBookwise Release Date: October 2007
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [140 KB]
Reading time: 95-133 min.
The first time I saw a murder victim was the first time I saw a body before a mortician prettied it up.
The day started like most days on the farm. Pa was plowing the back field and Ma was baking. At breakfast, my brother said that he didn't want to be cooped up in the woodshed on such a warm sunny day. He asked to trade his normal firewood job for checking the fence lines. His school grades were up so Ma nudged me to let him trade. When I got to the woodshed, I realized the reason for the change in chores. He hadn't kept the tools maintained.
Since it takes forever for the linseed oil to dry, I first fixed the wooden handled tools. I blended a large enough mix of turpentine and boiled linseed oil for all the tools in an old quart canning jar. The axes and maul came first. A few minutes with a sharpening stone, a wipe with an oily rag, followed by hand rubbing the linseed on the wooden handles and they were done. Next came the cant hook and pickaroon. The hook only needed an oil wipe of the metal parts and linseeding the wood handle. The pickaroon needed more work.
The spike head was loose on the axe handle. I drove a new wedge into the handle and tested out the pick. A swing lodged the spike into a log and a pull/twist moved the log into position on the saw table. I checked the spike. It was still firm on the handle. I poured the turpentine/linseed mix on the head sealing and swelling the wood handle into position. I leaned the pickaroon against the wall to dry and started getting ready to sharpen the buck saw.
I had the spider guide out and was checking the kerf on the buck saw's teeth when Pa showed up on our Alice Chalmers C.
"Son, we gots-to-go to Frank's. The sheriff wants us there with the tractor and chains. Frank rolled his tractor and we need to pull it off him."
"God. I'll get the chains."
It only took a few minutes to throw our two twenty-foot logging chains into the box bolted to the orange fender of the tractor. Pa started up the tractor and I climbed behind, one foot on the hitch and the other on the axle. I held onto the fender and the back of the seat as we bounced the mile to Frank's farm.
There were two deputy sheriff's cars parked in the yard. A deputy waved us to a back field. We saw Frank's green John Deere lying on its side before we saw the body. Frank was pinned under a spring plow with the tractor over both. The plow had a dozen two inch wide, curved, spring steel blades. Instead of digging into the ground, the blades impaled Frank's body. It looked like Frank had somehow fallen in front of the plow while the tractor was running. The tractor then dragged him across the field and rolled on top of him when it angled into the ditch at the edge of the field.
Our small Alice wasn't going to pull the John Deere upright but we hooked the chains to the front axle and swiveled the tractor off the plow. Pa and I, with the two deputies who followed us into the field, flipped the plow over. The two deputies got sick so we were left to pull the skewered Frank off the plow. We had to wiggle and wrench the body from three of the plow blades that had lodged deep in the torso. Pa and I tried to straighten out the broken bones and torn clothing. It was when I was pulling his wool shirt down his back that I saw the puncture wound. The plow blades were two inches wide and a quarter of an inch thick. The wound was about a half inch across and went deep into the body.
"Pa. Look at this."
"It sure doesn't look right. Wait here. I'll get a deputy."
The green faced deputy looked for a second before backing away and heaving. We shrugged our shoulders and waited for the local funeral parlor's hearse to arrive.
It was another hour before a second tractor came and we flipped the John Deere back on its wheels. We drove back to the farm house. Dad went in to say a few words with the widow. Four more cars, filled with neighbors, had come in our absence. I went to the yard pump. I tried to wash off the smell and feel of the dead body. It didn't work. The afternoon sun was hot, with the farmhouse filled with people, I decided to go into the shade of the woodshed while I waited for father. After my eyes adjusted to the dark, I looked over the tools. Every tool was neatly hung on the walls, cleaned, oiled, and sorted. All except the pickaroon. It was lying on a small pile of split wood. It looked clean but the spike at the head of the axe handle was the same shape as the hole in Frank's back.
I found a deputy. I was unlucky enough to find Joe Czesnic. When I was still going to school, he was the bully two grades ahead. He picked on everyone younger or smaller than he was. I was in eighth grade when I overheard him talking to his friends about turning over Leroy Jenson's outhouse. He was an old man living at the edge of town and two blocks from the school. After school, I stopped by old man Jenson's and told him about his outhouse. He laughed and asked me to help him move the outhouse a few feet back. We then placed thin branches across the smelly hole and covered it with some gunny sacks and dirt. The next day the whole school was buzzing about Joe and his friends falling into the hole. Leroy forced them to promise to never bother him again before he put a ladder down for them to climb out.
I was in tenth grade, an inch taller and twenty pounds heavier than Joe when someone finally told him that I had helped Leroy. Joe wasn't in school anymore but in a small town we still saw each other too often. He's hated me ever since.
It took a bit of palaver but I finally talked Joe into coming down to the shed and pointed out the pick.
"You got to be kidding me. Go back to the plow farmboy and leave the police work to those who know what they are doing."
We got home in time for a quick wash before my date with Emily. My parents wanted me married before officially turning over control of the farm to me. They liked Emily. We had known each other for years but only started dating for the last few months. Emily was fun but I wasn't going to let my parents push me into marriage until I was ready.
Her father had a bit of money and didn't like her going out with a farmer's son so we met at the drugstore. I ordered my usual vanilla phosphate and she had her chocolate shake. I loved watching her with a shake. She had one small dimple that showed on her left cheek every time she sucked on the straw.
"It was a strange day. The sheriff asked us to help pull the tractor off Frank's body."
"Did you hear that John Morgan was also killed today?"
"Supos'da been a logging accident. A tree fell on him. An' yesterday old Jimmy Pike died in a car crash."
Emily just listed the three farmers who lived closest to us. I had to find out more.
"Emily. Would it be alright not seeing the movie? I should check out what happened."
"You're not doing anything until you tell me why this is so important."
"Nope. You tell me or I'll talk to my brother." Her brother, Tom, was the town cop. It was a non-threat she had used before but arguing would take time.
"I don't think Frank was killed by the tractor. Our farm is between Pike's and Morgan's and Frank's is just the next one over. I gotta find out what happened."
Emily had an interested look on her face. "Okay ... You don't have to take me to a movie but you got to take me with you."
"Come on. You can't be serious."
"You'll just slow me down."
"You think so? Do you know where Pike's car is?"
"Okay. Where?" I really didn't want her coming along but one thing I did know about Emily was that once she made up her mind you couldn't change it.
"Behind Ben's garage. We can go after I finish my shake."
Looking at Pike's car was a bust. It looked like a smashed up car. After crawling around the car for a half hour, we decided to look at where Morgan was killed.
I didn't want to worry Mrs. Morgan so I parked down the road from the farm. I started to walk through the woods to where I knew John had been cutting firewood. For the first time, Emily started to slow down. She had dressed for a movie and not a walk in the woods. She hitched her dress up showing her knees. When she heard me chuckle, she gave me a kick in the shin.
We finally got to where the trees were being cut. The tire tracks from the hearse were easy to follow. The last tree cut was at the end of its tracks. The tree was an average size ash. You could see a section cut from the tree twenty feet up the trunk where it had been sawed to remove the body. I checked the stump. The tree fell where it had been notched to fall. I walked up the trunk looking for anything unusual. Nothing.
"Morgan wasn't killed by the tree."
"How do you know?"
"You see the notch on the stump?"
"You notch the stump in the direction you want the tree to fall. It fell where it was suppose to. You have to be at the base of the tree to cut it down. Morgan's body was twenty feet away from the stump. When you drop a tree you watch the direction the trunk moves and back away from the direction it moves. The trunk is sound so the tree didn't split or bounce before falling. John would never have been where he was found. I don't know anyone who would voluntarily stand under a falling tree so he would have to have been placed and the tree dropped on him.
"Frank had a hole in his back that looked like it came from a pickaroon I saw in his woodshed and now we have Morgan placed under a tree..."
"We need to find out what they had in common."
"You're right. Ma knew the Morgans real well so I can ask her about them but we never got to know Pike, and Frank has only been living here for a year."
"My brother knew Pike."
"Do you think you can stand another date tomorrow?"
"I guess I can force myself to see you again."
"Great. We can compare notes at the drugstore."
It was getting dark so I drove Emily home.
Ma was helpful but knew Mabel better than John. I only got a few details about John's life. Ma was making casseroles for Mabel Morgan and Joan Frank. It seemed when anything bad happened Ma would make casseroles to help out. I asked if I could deliver them tomorrow. It would give me a chance to quiz the two women about yesterday.
The morning broke with a purple red dawn. After the morning chores, I talked to Dad about yesterday and the deaths. He looked worried but couldn't tell me much. I got in the car and went to Morgan's farm.
I heard a tractor running behind the barn. When I got there, I saw Mabel pulling the manure wagon out into the fields behind an old Oliver tractor. She saw me and stopped.
"Thought I should stop by and see if you needed help."
"Thanks. Help me spread the load?"
I spent the next half hour standing on a bouncing honey wagon with a fork tossing manure across the fields. When we got back to the barn, I again washed at a pump. Mabel did the same. I saw black and purple bruises on her limbs. Her upper arms and legs had a few marks that could be seen under the edge of her clothes but the nastiest one was under the collar of her blouse. I glimpsed the black mark when she tossed her hair back and washed the back of her neck with the pump water.
She invited me in for a cup of coffee and I took the chance to quiz her about Frank, John, and Pike. Three dying in twenty-four hours was unusual enough for my questions to raise only one or two suspicious glances as she served the coffee.
I left the casserole filled crock pot with the new widow and went to Frank's farm.