By W. Fraser Sandercombe

When the people of Baxter's Harbour began poaching in Malcolm Schofield's hunting grounds, he decided he would have to kill them.

Malcolm was a woodsman. He foraged and hunted for food. He grew pot in small, scattered groves throughout his territory. And he made moonshine. As far as he was concerned, the deep woods around the western end of the North Mountain belonged to him. He dwelt there in a cabin that had no discernable trails to or from it, selling his excess meat and other products up and down the valley to the south.

Baxter's Harbour was an old village on the north side of the mountain, hidden in a small cove where the land plunged into the Bay of Fundy. In season, the people fished for a living. Out of season, they collected unemployment insurance, drank a lot and swapped wives. When the weather was good, they would gather around a bonfire in the grassy town square and party until dawn, dancing, making music, loving.

When the government closed the fishery, when the boats were beached, perhaps forever, some of the people began to roam the woods, snaring game, jacking deer. They sold the meat to restaurants and markets over in the valley towns, saturating the area and depriving Malcolm of a large part of his income.

At first, he was willing to be tolerant. But when the hunters began to harvest his pot and, when one group found his still and stole all of his bottled 'shine, he decided they would have to go. All of them. The entire village.

He had done ten years for a killing once and, while he was in Stony Mountain, he had killed two more men. And he had shot towards people whenever he found them stumbling around the woods near his special places. Killing people didn't bother him. In some ways, he would rather kill people than wildlife. But the method was a problem. There were almost a hundred of them in the village. Getting away with the job would require some serious planning.

If he tried to take them out one by one, somebody would eventually figure out what was going on. After scratching their heads for days, they would realise that only Malcolm could be responsible.

It might take 'em awhile, he thought, since most of 'em are related and have been for a long time. But they'll sure as hell figure it out.

He knew they wouldn't call the law. That was not their way. But they would come looking for him. Malcolm was good in the woods, one of the best. Even dogs hadn't been able to track him, the few times the cops had hunted for him up here. But with that many people searching the woods, one of them might get lucky, might get a shot at him before he noticed them.

He needed a good plan, a way to get them all at once, a method that would not look like murder. A fire might take them out. Or poison in their wells, some kind of natural poison.

He would have to think about it.

He sat in the woods above the village, studying it through a screen of foliage.

It was a collection of weathered gray cottages and shacks, clustered around a small harbour that was dry at low tide, stranding boats on the shingles. Lobster traps and floats were piled around the rotting wharf. It was the sort of place tourists loved, but few tourists ever went there. In fact, few visitors of any kind ever went to Baxter's Harbour. It was at the dead end of a dirt road and the people had no friends or relatives who lived elsewhere. The occasional lost tourist might drive into town, which would bring the Harbour folk shuffling into their dooryards. No greetings would be exchanged. The people simply stared at the invaders until they made a hasty three-point turn and got out of there in a cloud of dust. Even the Post Office didn't deliver to the Harbour. The mail was left in boxes at the beginning of the road.

And the police never went there. But then, the police never went anywhere on the North Mountain unless they were called. Shot-out windshields and punctured tires tended to discourage them.

They were a strange, isolated bunch in Baxter's Harbour. Once Malcolm killed them all, it could be weeks before the bodies were discovered. A more thoughtful man might have felt sorry that the fishery was closed, sorry that the people had lost their livelihood. Malcolm only pondered how to get rid of them so no one would know they had been murdered.

Maybe a fire would be best. The buildings were all close together. The wood was old and dry. It would go up fast. He could get them at night during the high tide when they would be trapped by the cliffs and the blazing woods. Burn or drown. Perfect. He could always bash a few heads later if he had to. Ya, the fire would do it. It would sterilise things, cleanse the area. Baxter's Harbour folk had always seemed strange anyway, even depraved and loathsome. A good, hot fire would cure that.

As he crouched there, be began to feel someone watching him. He sank lower and glided into the underwood, circling through tendrils of mist that broke like cobwebs, with that much substance. The mist did not belong there, not this high up and this early in the evening. Malcolm frowned at it, going up the slope through the spruce woods, gaining higher ground, back- tracking to watch his trail, carbine cradled in his arms.

No one followed him. He had seen no sign of anyone but he had felt the weight of their gaze. He shivered, mouth dry, heart pounding. He tried to analyze what he was feeling and realised it was fear. That was a novelty. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt it, nor could he figure out what was causing it this time.

The sensation of being watched was gone but Malcolm could not shake his nervousness. Anyone who could watch him and remain hidden was worthy of respect. And fear.

He swore softly.

Fingers of mist snaked towards him, writhing, weaving a path through the spruce boles.

Malcolm cursed again, shouldered his weapon and started home. He would do it tonight. Why waste any time?

The cabin was in a small clearing. Three gutted deer were hanging from the trees outside the only door. It was a windowless, one-room affair cut from spruce logs. The corners were hung with cobwebs. Extra clothes were hung on pegs.

Malcolm kindled a fire in the stone fireplace, heating up a pot of rabbit stew. When it was hot, he took it outside. Turning his baseball cap backwards, he began to eat with a large spoon, straining the food through his flowing moustache, spattering some into his beard. He washed the meal down with store-bought beer that he kept cold in the spring beside the cabin.

He finished the stew and cleaned the pot in the spring.

When the night was nearly full, he made his way back down the mountain, scouting the fringes of the town, making his final plans.

In the woods, he waited, watching until the last light went out. Mist thickened around him. He had the feeling of being watched again. Fear dried his mouth. His heart began to pound and he was sure that whatever was watching him could hear it thumping away like a horny grouse.

From the mist, something touched him.

He jumped up, whirling frantically, a perfect pirouette with his carbine outstretched. The mist had texture, a whisper of sound as the barrel of the weapon tore through it. He stared at the tendrils as they writhed towards him. Slowly, wide-eyed, he backed away, carrying the .30-.30 across his body. This made no sense to him. Once that thought registered, he refused to consider it any further. A long time ago, when he was a kid, he had seen a magic act, had seen a magician with smoke swirling all around him. This must be something like that, he thought, trying to peer through the mist, trying to locate whomever was in it, whomever had touched him.

He backed onto a trail. As he tried to cross the trail into the woods again, fingers of mist raced to cut him off. When he touched them, he jumped back, stifling a howl of pain. White skin showed through a new rent in his jeans. The denim smoked where the mist had touched it.

Malcolm wheeled and sprinted down the path, tried to dodge into the woods further down. The mist was there, reaching out for him. He dove and rolled, tumbling out of the way, getting up fast, doubling back.

Again, the mist cut him off. It was keeping him on the path, guiding him, herding him down the mountain, towards the town.

He stood still, waiting to see what would happen.

The mist touched him again. The contact was longer this time. He fell, thrashing in pain, gasping, groaning.

Then it backed off, as if waiting to see what he would do.

He got up slowly, hand clasped across his belly as he looked around for his weapon. It was gone, somewhere in the mist. He took his hand away from his midriff. Blood glistened in the dark.

Thin threads of mist advanced.

Malcolm backed up, turning. The mist had him surrounded, but it parted with a sound of tearing wet newsprint, for him to continue down the path.

Numb, he stumbled down the mountain.

Rounding a bend in the path, he saw firelight flickering below, from the centre of the village, the grassy area. As he neared, he saw the people. They were standing in a semi-circle around the bonfire.

When he hesitated, a fork of mist prodded him, stinging but not cutting or burning.

He jumped and tripped, falling headlong, panting, sweating. His fear was almost palpable.

The mist prodded him again, harder this time. He jumped up, fell to his knees, howled and jumped up again. There was only one way to go and that was towards the fire and the villagers. Malcolm yelled a curse and charged towards them. As he entered the semi-circle, the mist tripped him again and sent him sliding across the damp grass towards the fire.

As the people began to close in on him, he drew a long knife from under his ragged t-shirt, cutting the air, keeping them away.

"What the hell's goin' on here?" He demanded.

The mist parted and a gnarled old woman said, "You were going to burn us."

"No way," he protested.

She smiled, showing large, yellowed teeth. "For centuries, people burned us. We came here to get away from that and we don't permit it anymore."

"I don't know what you're talkin' about."

"Yes, you do. We left you alone for a long time. We let you live on the mountain but when the time came for you to share the territory, you weren't willing to do it. You were going to burn us in our sleep."

Malcolm Schofield stared at her, saying, "Maybe we can work this out."

"Work what out?"

"Well, you know, I guess there's room for all of us."

"No," she told him. "There isn't."

As the mist began to close in on him, Malcolm threw the knife. It took the old woman in the throat. She crumpled and the mist began to dissipate. Malcolm dashed towards the mountain, falling as a torch crashed down between his shoulders.

The people gathered around him. He fought hard, punching, kicking, holding them at bay until they started hitting him with the torches, igniting his hair, spattering him with hot sparks. When he fell, trying to cover his head, they rushed him, picked him up and threw him into the bonfire as he screamed and thrashed. Once, he almost tumbled out of the flames. They pushed him back in with their torches, his final screams echoing around the mountain.

Smiling faintly, the old woman pulled Malcolm's knife out of her throat and tossed it into the fire after him.

The End

Copyright 1997 by W. Fraser Sandercombe

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