No Kind Of Witness: A Mystery Short Story

Aug 31, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by Rhett Shepard

Mystery author Rhett Shepard shares with us this never before published mystery short story.

Late May 1843, Onslow County, North Carolina:

My wails had subsided into hiccups, but my fraternal twin brother, Sterling, continued to grip my right hand with a strength that testified to his determination.

“She ain’t no kind of witness,” growled our Granddaddy Abraham. “Ain’t no court of law that’ll take her word as legal testimony.”

“But she saw Uncle John kill our father!” Sterling protested. “She said so.”

Granddaddy Abraham snorted. “Of course she’d say so–Taney’s more’n your daddy’s house slave. She didn’t just take care of his house–she took care of him too.”

Our granddaddy didn’t have to spell out the relationship between our father and his “girl” in order to make a blush bloom on my cheeks; I felt the heat of embarrassment rise to my face even though I’d long been aware of the intimacy between them.

“Besides,” he added harshly, “she’s a female and she’s an–”

“How can you say it’s not murder when you know there’s a witness?” I burst out in anger. I felt Sterling
squeeze my hand so hard I thought he might break a bone or two if he wasn’t careful, but that didn’t matter to me. I didn’t like it when Granddaddy Abraham spoke of our slaves–especially our house slaves–in such pejorative terms. Daddy had always called them “our people” because they were a part of our extended household. We relied on them and they relied on us, and while Taney had never been my mammy, she’d mothered Sterling and me as no one else had since our mama had died.

Granddaddy Abraham turned on me then. “I can say it about her same as I can say it about you,” he snarled, “’cause you’re a little slip of a gal who loves her daddy. Ain’t no one would take the word of the fourteen-year-old daughter of the deceased neither. I’ve already lost one son. Ain’t you or Taney going to make me lose another. You understand, girl?”

I nodded meekly. His words and his attitude toward me hurt, but what really wounded was the fact that I knew they were true.

I found Taney sitting at the table in the summer kitchen, her head buried in her apron. She didn’t even look up at me before she spoke. “I know what I done seen. I seen Mister John lift that big old axe in his hand while him and your daddy was fighting. I seen him”–her voice cracked–“I seen him bring that axe down on your daddy’s shoulders, right where his neck joined to them. I seen–”

I rested a hand on Taney’s bent head. “I know what you saw. I believe you,” I assured her. I didn’t feel up to hearing all the gruesome details again though.

Sterling slipped into the room then. “Y’all certainly are making yourselves scarce. What’s got you out here? You hiding from Granddaddy Abraham?”

Taney looked up at him. “I know what I done seen.”

My brother stared pointedly at me and extended his hands in entreaty. “Phereby, help me here.”

“Help you? How?”

“Don’t fight Granddaddy Abraham.”

“Don’t fight him? What do you mean? You believe Taney, don’t you?” I heard the high-pitched hysteria in my own voice, but I couldn’t stop it. My world, imperfect though it had already been in many ways, was now falling completely apart.

“I believe Taney knows what she thinks she saw. Would it be so bad to do some looking into it on our own, though?”

I glanced toward Taney and she nodded almost imperceptibly. I trusted her and had faith in her judgment. “I suppose we could do that,” I reluctantly agreed.

“I don’t give two hoots and a holler about Mourning Davis!”

Uncle John’s yelling reverberated throughout the house as I entered the back door. After that I heard the low rumbling reply of someone whose voice I didn’t immediately recognize; I couldn’t make out the words, but the tone sounded placating.

Who would’ve called in someone from outside the family? Daddy had died on our property, his blood mingled with whatever sap might linger on the logs of our woodpile. That’s where Uncle John–or whoever–had found the axe used to kill him.

Sterling and I had arrived home after calling on our neighbors, the Greenes, to discover our household in chaos. Granddaddy Abraham keening with our dead father’s body in his arms out at the woodpile, and Taney wringing her hands in a more dignified form of grief, muttering, “I don’t know why he done it–I only know what I done seen.” Uncle John had not fled the scene, but stood off to one side, holding his head between both hands, as if in dismay and disbelief.

“What do you mean ‘Fancy Davis sent you here?’” demanded Granddaddy Abraham.

I knew Mourning Davis by reputation, but had never been allowed near her. She didn’t attend our church or any other, from what I’d heard. Even though she had a husband, he traveled a lot and whenever he was gone she didn’t stay at a loss for company very long. The name Mourning didn’t exactly fit her. That’s why some in our community had begun to call her “Fancy.” I simply thought of her as The Bad Woman.

“My brother may have enjoyed the occasional attentions of Mourning Davis, but I have never felt the need to go outside my own household to have my appetites fulfilled.”

“No need to go bragging about it like a prig,” I heard my grandfather admonish my uncle.

I sidled carefully, quietly into the ladies’ withdrawing room, across the hall from the larger main parlor where the gentlemen were, and hid behind one of the ceiling-to-floor curtains from which vantage point I could easily eavesdrop.

“So, why did Mourning Davis tell me I should ask you, John Vance, why your brother got himself killed?” demanded the voice I hadn’t been able to place earlier, but which I now recognized as that of our local sheriff.

“Well, they sure enough wasn’t fighting over Fancy!” my grandfather responded, sounding half defensive of Uncle John, but also half disgusted with Uncle John’s pious way of talking.

The sheriff left soon after, once it was agreed that our family could proceed with a funeral and burial for my father.

“How my baby be?” Taney had entered my room to check on me later that night.

“I can’t sleep.”

“Oh, baby girl,” she crooned as she ran a cool, comforting hand over my forehead. “I know you misses your daddy.”

That afternoon, after I’d listened in on my uncle and grandfather’s interview with the sheriff, I had sought out Sterling and Taney to tell them about it. “Do you think you could be wrong, Taney, and Granddaddy Abraham could be right? Uncle John sounded so indignant when the sheriff asked him about Miz Davis.”

“I know what I done seen, honey,” she insisted yet again.

I thought back to what Granddaddy Abraham had said before, about how Taney couldn’t be an objective witness because she and Daddy had had a sexual relationship, and I couldn’t be objective about my daddy’s death because I loved him . . . and besides, we were both female, and she was a slave and I was a young girl. “Taney,” I said, “did you love my father?”

She hesitated. “That”–she spoke haltingly–“that be a grown-up matter, baby.”

“I’m not a baby!”

“No, no,” Taney soothed, “’course you ain’t. You is a beautiful young lady, inside and out, and I’d rather you kept it that way, not troubling your pretty little head ’bout these kind of things between men and women.”

I wasn’t quite the innocent that Taney assumed I was. The menfolk in our family were a rough and rowdy bunch. I loved Granddaddy Abraham despite how gruff and crude he could act; I loved Uncle John despite the fact that I never trusted him and his morally superior talk and I had loved Daddy despite my being well aware of his seeming inability to remain faithful to Mama when she was alive, or to Taney now. I even understood enough to realize that Taney had had no choice about accepting my father’s advances; I knew their intimacy didn’t mean that she loved him or that he’d loved her. As his slave, she’d been compelled to cooperate with him. Mama and Taney had both had a gentling effect on our home, though. They’d smoothed the rough edges, and despite the difficulties of life in our household, Mama and Taney had treated all of us with warmth and consideration.

So, did Taney and I care too much about Daddy to remain objective about how and why he’d died?

“Thank you for checking on me, Taney,” I said at last, feeling that there was nothing to be gained by saying any more at that time.

“Well . . . you be my little missy, Miss Phereby,” she replied by way of explanation.

Shortly after she pulled my bedroom door closed behind her, I fell into a deep but troubled sleep.

We held the funeral and burial early the following day. What would have been the purpose in waiting? The pastor had more to attend to than our family’s needs, so getting an early start to the day was no issue for him. And, given the nature of Daddy’s fatal injuries, a funeral for the immediate family in the parlor of our home seemed the wisest course of action there too.

The family burial plot was situated along one of the boundaries of our property, the easier to make it for horses and buggies to transport mourners, and for the hearse or some other carriage to transport the casket containing the dearly departed.

We were a small, pathetic gathering at Daddy’s gravesite that morning.

Although Taney had insisted she was sure that she’d witnessed my uncle killing my father, and although Mourning Davis had suggested to the sheriff that the two of them had shown up at her house prior to that and had argued and made threats to each other as they’d fought over her, Uncle John was nevertheless there at Daddy’s funeral and burial, along with the rest of his family, whose property abutted with ours on the edge with the cemetery. What did the word of two women–particularly those two women–matter, after all, when considered in light of
family loyalty?

The men were throwing dirt atop the casket and the burial was at an end, for the most part, when I noticed a lone rider seated sidesaddle on the road that skirted our property. I couldn’t be positive, from a distance and from the fact that I hadn’t seen her often in the past, but I believed Mourning Davis might be watching.

She was attending to the burial though, not to me, so I eased past a small knot of cousins and slipped into a grove of trees that served as a border between Uncle John’s land and ours and ultimately led to the road.

I nearly reached her before she registered my presence.

“Why are you here?” she asked.

If she wasn’t going to mince words, then neither was I. “Did my Uncle John Vance really go after my father at your house?”

Her gaze quickly grew hooded. “You know all you need to know.”

“Please!” I begged.

She said no more, but turned her gelding with a sharp tug on its reins, and after she gave it a swift flick with her crop, horse and rider galloped down the road until they’d vanished.

I managed to corner Sterling privately after the burial. “Come with me, please?”

“Aw, Phereby, you don’t need to make yourself sound so desperate,” he told me. “I want answers as much as you do.”

Thankfully, the two of us going for a ride was a common enough occurrence that no one suspected we had a specific reason for going off together on horseback.

“If she wouldn’t talk to you before, how do you propose we get her to talk to us now?” Sterling asked, as we drew closer to the Davis property.

I thought about it for a minute. Visiting Mourning Davis at her home and quizzing her about Daddy’s final hours was an inspiration that had come over me in a flash. I had no good idea why I thought it was a strategy that might help us get the information we needed, except for the intuition I’d felt when I’d observed her watching Daddy’s burial from a distance. It was a sort of sixth sense which suggested to me that either Mourning Davis had been fond of my father and wanted to say her own farewell to him, or else she and Daddy had had unfinished business or a shared secret that she wanted to make sure was buried along with him. “I don’t know,” I replied. “It’s just a feeling I have.”

Once the Davis homestead came into view, we slowed our horses to an easy canter; when we turned onto the lane that led to the house, we slowed our animals further, to a walk.

In retrospect, I suppose that the way Sterling and I had slowed and quieted our rides had everything to do with our learning what we did that day, because such shameful secrets are often kept all the way to the grave.

We heard the violence before we saw evidence of it.

“Slut!” A man’s yelling was immediately followed by the sickening sound of a fist connecting hard with flesh. “Whore!”

More sickening than before was the new sound of a whip whistling through the air right before it landed on flesh.

“Jezebel!” came the next roar and it, too, was followed by the sound of whip upon skin.

Nary a whimper from the victim carried on the air to our ears, as if she were used to such treatment and thought little of it.

We had no idea how truly horrible had been Mourning Davis’s treatment at the hands of the man until she yanked open the front door of her home in an effort to flee.

Even from where we sat atop our mounts, barely halfway up the lane, we could see thin streaks of blood trailing down her body in several places, the fabric of her gown rent by the force from her beating, ugly bruises already beginning to splotch her delicate complexion.

Behind her and advancing rapidly upon her was a man whom we recognized as her husband, Ned Davis. Size-to-size, they were a good match, I suddenly realized. Mourning Davis was not a petite lady. Ned Davis, though, appeared as powerful as a bull in his full-blown ire, and the way his wife shrank within herself as she sensed his impending nearness caused her to seem much smaller than she was. I found myself transfixed by the awfulness of it all.

I was having difficulty catching my breath. “When did he get home?” I finally managed to wonder aloud.

As was typical for us twins, Sterling voiced my next thought: “And if he arrived back here yesterday in time to see his wife cheating, was Daddy’s fight really with Uncle John–or was it with Ned Davis?”

Seeing the damage one person could inflict upon another in anger–hearing and seeing it while it was yet happening, as Sterling and I had done–made me rethink the accusations against Uncle John.

True, I’d considered Uncle John to be a hypocrite to speak as if he were a pure, upstanding family man, but then to show himself hard drinking and prolific in his fathering of slave babies (no, he didn’t need to go “outside his household” to slake his lust, if one included his female slaves within his extended household), I struggled to visualize him attacking his brother, my father, with a viciousness similar to that which I’d seen Ned Davis unleash on his wife.

What of Mourning Davis’s intimations that it had been a crime of passion, a competition between jealous brothers for one woman’s affections? She puzzled me. How could a woman so bold as to behave indiscriminately with multiple men, and so open about it as to suggest to the sheriff that two of her paramours had been battling over her, then become such a meek victim when confronted by her husband?

Then, too, what of Taney’s eyewitness account? She admitted that she’d seen the deadly dispute from a distance. Neither man had been aware of her presence as she had been in one of the side yards near the house, far from the woodpile. She told Sterling and me that she’d fled to the cellar near the front on one side of the house when the hollering and threats between the two brothers became too frightening for her, and that she’d opened the cellar door a crack to peer outside when she’d heard Daddy cry, “Aw, you’ve got me where you want me now, anyway! Do you have to kill me?” That was when she’d seen the man she’d assumed to be Uncle John pick up the axe and bring it down on Daddy’s neck. Had my father and uncle been alone the whole time they were fighting, or could another man–Ned Davis, say–have arrived while Taney was escaping to the cellar and hiding there? Could Taney have witnessed something different than she believed she had?

After several more days asking questions of Taney and talking things through with each other, Sterling eventually concluded that Daddy’s death was a mystery that would probably remain unsolved, but I only grew more obsessed. We had a murderer somewhere among us and needed to root out that person if we were to stay safe in the future.

I began to trail Uncle John from a distance, unbeknownst to him, and to outright spy on Ned Davis.

Uncle John’s behavior, as a small-scale farmer, didn’t seem much different than Daddy’s, I had to admit to myself. Daddy had been no saint either, although Uncle John did play slap-and-tickle more openly with his female slaves than I’d ever seen my father do. All in all, though, I was forced to own that, unlikeable as he could act sometimes, Uncle John was not a bad man when compared to other men of my acquaintance.

Ned Davis was another story. I soon discovered how shielded my upbringing had really been when I saw how he treated not only his wife, but everyone around him. He called himself a “merchant”; he made his frequent trips supposedly to buy, sell and trade various goods. As far as I could tell, however, he never held any legitimate business dealing with anyone from our community. I took frightful risks with my life, I realize as I think back on it, for I got close enough to him to peek through windows and see him steal things he’d later swear were legally acquired goods, and to listen at keyholes and hear him threaten and blackmail otherwise upstanding gentlemen of Onslow. And I observed further beatings through which he punished his wife.

To my way of thinking, Mourning Davis became a sympathetic, tragic figure. Knowing as I now did how she’d suffered from her husband’s abusive rages, how could I blame her for seeking tenderness elsewhere? Morally her behavior was wrong–no doubt about that–but emotionally she was impoverished and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her, for that.

It was yet another of those evenings when I was perched on my haunches beneath one of the Davis home’s open parlor windows when I heard Ned advancing on Mourning with the whip again. I’d heard and observed open-palm slapping, beating with fists and even hitting with a birch switch, a belt or a wooden paddle in the weeks since I’d begun to monitor Ned Davis, but this was the first time since the night of Daddy’s funeral that I’d been aware of his using the
whip on Mourning again.

“Not that! Not that, I beg of you!” Mourning tremulously whispered.

“A fit punishment for my own Whore of Babylon!” Ned railed, as he cracked the whip at empty air and allowed the shrill whistle of the leather to suggest its own threat.

“Tell me what to do–anything, anything!” pled Mourning, still in a whisper.

“I did tell you what to do! I told you to disguise yourself in my clothes and kill the brother you loved. Law”–he paused and gave a bitter chuckle–“how I wish I could’ve been a witness when Vance looked up at the man he thought was fighting his brother for the chance to get at him, and then discovered that he was looking into the face of his illicit lover raising the axe to kill him.” He roared in laughter, and then paused again before he continued, “But still you mourn for him! You force me to compete for your affections with a man who’s now no more than a stinking pile of buried bones!”

The harsh clap of whip against flesh proved as horrifying as it had the first time I’d heard it, those weeks before, but the noise blessedly covered the sound of my gasp when I learned the truth about who my father’s murderer had been.

I wept in Taney’s arms that night while Sterling comforted us both by wrapping soft summer-weight blankets around our trembling shoulders and tried to assure us that all would now be well.

“I feels so guilty I accused a innocent man,” Taney moaned.

“I became sure that Ned was the killer,” I reminded her, “but he was innocent of the crime too.”

“Ned Davis might not’ve killed Daddy with his own hands, but he forced Miss Mourning to do the deed. She probably feared he’d kill her if she didn’t kill Daddy first,” remarked Sterling.

“Still don’t make it right.” Taney sniffed. “Your poor daddy, caught in the middle, same way he always been . . .”

“Should we go to the sheriff?” I asked the other two. “We could clear Uncle John’s name.”

“What would it matter to him?” Sterling replied. “So far, at least, the sheriff’s saying the case is ‘inconclusive’ so there’s no formal charge to clear Uncle John from.”

“And what do you think would happen to poor Miss Mourning if one of us pointed a accusing finger at her?” Taney asked.

“Ned Davis would get away with murder,” I concluded, “the same way he did with Daddy.”

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Rhett Shepard grew up in North Carolina, attended Hollins College (Virginia) and graduated from the University of Rochester (New York). Rhett and her husband have lived in southern California, the Caribbean island of Trinidad, and now New York City—thankfully, writing is a career that travels well. She writes mysteries as Rhett Shepard, and “sweet” fiction as Maggie Adams; she also writes poetry, literary fiction and short nonfiction as Margaret Birth, and has spent over a decade freelancing for multiple publishers as a manuscript reader, proofreader, and copy editor.


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