Book title: A Bull by the Horns
Series: A Coffman Country Art Colony Cozy
Author: Deb Donahue
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Published: August, 2016
Murder mysteries solved by mystery writers are boring. Mystery writers who are murder suspects—much more interesting. Especially if a poet, composer, artist and irascible old farmer have just as much motive and are equally annoying.
A Bull by the Horns is the first novel in the Coffman Country Art Colony series. Protagonist Carina Coffman has worked hard to fulfill her grandmother’s dream of turning the family farm into an artist’s retreat. She thought the only obstacles she had left to deal with were a disgruntled neighbor unhappy with her new venture, and training Larry the goat to stop head-butting his companions Curly and Moe. When a guest ends up impaled by the longhorn of Ferdinand the taxidermied bull, however, she has her work cut out for her.
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“Mark my words, Carina Coffman. You’ll regret this day.” Bill Osterhagen’s finger jabbed at my face like he wanted to poke my eyes out. “Your grandfather would be turning over in his grave.” The sunlight reflected off his white hair with an almost blinding glare.
“Well, my grandmother would be proud of me. She wanted to turn this farm into an art colony for years and you know it.”
We were arguing in front of the barn. Trixie and Leonard barked anxiously beside us. With hands fisted on my hips and my jaw tight, I probably looked like a ten-year-old having a tantrum. Except Bill was the one kicking and screaming.
“The county board should have listened to me when you first came up with this wack-a-doodle idea.” Bill had put his trigger finger away but he still leaned toward me in a tense stance. He spit chewing tobacco out of the side of his mouth and used his hankie to wipe the dribble off his face. “These artsy-fartsy city slickers got no respect for decent folk. Fern told me about that Homer fella calling last minute and pushing his way in here. And I’m telling you that’s just the first sign of disrespect we’ll be putting up with.”
“It’s Horatio, Bill, not Homer. Horatio Herschel.” The harsh rumble of the lawn mower on the other side of the farmhouse matched my mood. “A renowned literary writer with a Pulitzer Prize. His Flight of the Ferryman is studied at Ivy League colleges around the country.”
“I don’t give a donkey’s fart how many prizes he won. I know for a fact the man never sticks his nose out in public no more. Tell me why that’s true ’less he’s got something to hide. What we want with shady characters like that living in our backyard?”
The hens were squawking, the goats bleating, and our Ayrshire milk cow Callie bawled out a mournful-sounding moo. If our first guest arrived during this chaos, Coffman’s Country Art Colony would be doomed to self-destruct. I’d been working for months to get this venture off the ground and I was not going to let this sour old farmer start the day off wrong.
“Bill, your ‘backyard’ is over five miles away. You can’t even see this place from there. If someone murders me and Karl in our sleep tonight, you can say ‘I told you so’ at the funeral. That should make you happy. But for now you get out of here before I call the sheriff’s office. My husband’s on duty today and you know what he’ll say if he has to come all the way out here to calm you down.”
Karl is probably the least daunting deputy since Barney Fife, but invoking his name seemed to do the trick. With one last grumbled “I warned you,” Bill turned on his heel and strode to his Ford pickup. The rusted door stuck on his first try at opening it, thus foiling his attempt at a dramatic exit. He made up for it when he slammed it shut and sped off with a cloud of dust and dirt. The dogs yapped at him all the way down to the mailbox before returning for praise.
“Good dogs.” My hands trembled as I squatted and scratched Trixie behind her ears. When Leonard thrust his slobbery nose between us trying to hog all the attention, she patiently vacated so her neurotic brother could get assurance that he, too, was loved. I buried my face in his soft fur.
The dogs looked like mismatched bookends: Trixie all brownish red with a tuft of cream on her chest, Leonard almost all cream with subtle patches of red across his back. They had shown up on our doorstep as a set one blowy winter day, probably dumped along the road by someone with no patience for puppies. Their dependence on each other was equaled only by their mutual affection.
With a last loving pat to each head, I stood up. The day had started out full of pleasant anticipation. I’d gotten up early, did chores, and put a quick breakfast on the table for Karl. While he did some early planting, I’d showered and selected my attire carefully, a forest-green skirt that reminded me of a dress Gran wore in a photo from the Fifties. This would probably be the last time the residents would see me in anything but blue jeans, so I wanted to make a good impression.
Then Bill had shown up right when the first guest was expected and my anxiety level spiked. He’d been trying to nix the whole art colony idea from the beginning, but I thought by now he’d have accepted defeat.
I lifted my face to catch the spring sunshine. A breeze blew tendrils of hair in front of my eyes like a shredded brown curtain. The smell of fresh-cut grass mingled with earthy loam from the cornfields. The buzz of a nearby bald-faced hornet harmonized with the engine of the John Deere lawn mower. Eddie, our lawn care helper, had moved on to the patch of grass in front of our little house next door.
There went the dandelions. Karl hated having the edible weeds in the lawn but I loved the contrast of yellow bloom against fresh green grass. One of my favorite paintings of Gran’s was a watercolor of a single dandelion in a sea of emerald lawn.
In the feed lot by the barn, Callie now calmly chewed her cud and swished away flies with her tail. Hattie, a palomino, alternately nipped mouthfuls of meadow grass and nuzzled the love of her life, Sherman, a Shetland pony only a third her size. Somewhere, Susie the sow was fast asleep in a mud puddle and I could hear the cackle of Wynken, Blynken and Nod from the henhouse and an occasional bleat from one of the goats. Probably Larry giving Moe and Curly a hard time. I had named the chickens, Karl the goats.
Like counting my blessings, thinking of the animals calmed my nerves, and just in time, too. A small yellow Smart Car turned up the drive and pulled into one of the graveled parking spots.
I was born and raised in a mid-sized town in the Midwest U.S.A. but I always wanted to live in the country. I got my wish when I got married and moved to 80 acres which was an hour drive from the nearest mall. For the first years of our marriage we practiced a minimalist, homesteading lifestyle like raising our own beef, chicken and pork and growing a huge garden which I canned and froze to hold us through the winter. It was a lot of work, but rewarding. I look back on it with fond memories, even though I don’t plan to give up my smart phone, microwave, and laptop anytime soon these days.
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