A Peaceful Place
by Mike Sullivan
At twilight a man in black boots and a black cowboy hat slipped out of the forest carrying a high-powered rifle. He stood on a ridge of rolling foothill directly above Joe Dunmore. Joe waved in a gesture of friendship but the man didn’t wave back. Joe thought it best not to waste time on an unfriendly person. From his folding chair inside the campground he continued to feed the fire with a stack of kindling wood.
A few minutes later he stood up, turned the chair around, and stoked the fire with his back to the stranger. The guy wasn’t very friendly. Joe’s instincts told him the man wasn’t about to go away and was up there now watching him. The sight of the tall gangling stranger with the long bony face and sullen, tight-lipped scowl chilled him as much as the cold wind blowing across the vacant campground.
Joe Dunmore had reached the age where he was too old to fight but confident about the gun he had stashed away inside the tent if there was trouble. It was the same Colt 1911 he’d carried decades ago in the Army during the Vietnam War. In a tight spot, he was sure he could count on the gun for protection.
Sparks flew high into the air and peppered the twilight with clusters of tiny stars. The heat from the fire warmed him. But it wasn’t long before he realized he’d made a terrible mistake. He’d turned his back on the stranger. Some sort of backwoodsman, not right in the head. The woodsman’s unblinking gaze unnerved him, but not as much as the hunting rifle with the wide lens telescope strapped to his shoulder.
The remote Montana wilderness stretched for miles. If it hadn’t been for his wife Martha insisting they stay another night, he’d have hightailed it back to town. The place was supposed to be peaceful, but this far out in the wilds –well, you just never knew what could happen.
A few minutes later Martha, a small, slender, raven haired woman in her late fifties, came out of the tent.
“Hey guy, are you getting hungry?” She joined him at the campfire. “I’ve got steaks, big T-bones ready to go. Just say the word.”
Joe sat quiet as nerves jumbled beneath his skin. When he finally turned back toward the ridge the woodsman had gone. Leaning back with his shoulders pressed against the chair, he exhaled a sigh of relief then froze in terror as the woodsman tramped down the mountain taking long-legged strides toward them.
The rifle came off his shoulder. He gripped it with both hands, marched across a narrow wooden bridge crossing a creek and entered the campground scowling.
Paralyzed with fear, Joe waited. There was no time to think or react. The guy was just there, towering over him, gawking at him one minute and the next leering at him with a menacing snarl.
“Whatcha doin’, boy?” The hillbilly’s small, beetle-browed eyes locked on him with freezing contempt.
“I asked a question. Don’t be ignoring me.Y’all here, squattin’on mah land.”
“It’s, um.”Joe hesitated, his hands shaking. It’s… a public campground.”
“Not here it ain’t.”
The air turned cold around him. Next to the woodsman Joe’s small, compact body was almost diminutive in size. He and Martha were in danger and his gun was back inside the tent.
“What do you want? We’ve done nothing wrong.” Joe pointed to a sign leading into the campground. “Over there. Look. It says the place is public.”
The woodsman’s face sank into a pool of dark lines and wrinkles. One eye drifted off to the side of his head while the other one dipped onto Martha dressed in shorts and a red halter top. Ignoring him, the woodsman pointed back to a place up on the ridge and spoke directly to Martha bragging about having a cabin farther back in the forest.
“It’s mah land up thar too.” He boasted proudly with his chin jutted in the air. Then to impress Martha, he spun around and pointed the rifle in the direction of the ridge where he’d stood.
“If thar was a man up on that ridge now he’d be dead.” He fired a few shots off recklessly in that direction. A flock of birds tore out of the trees. He watched them with a blank look and then moments later, in a delayed reaction, he roared in a fit of laughter.
Joe and Martha exchanged glances. A glimmer of fear entered her eyes as the stranger moved toward her –smacking his lips and narrowing his eyes in a lustful gaze as he walked in a complete circle around her.
Joe heard him mumble something under his breath as he walked back and stood in front of him.
“Scared huh?” The woodsman said.
Joe blinked sweat from his eyes. In the intermittent silence fear threatened to crush him. As he sat shivering nervously in the chair, he thought about all the horrifying stories he’d heard about brutal murders occurring at remote wilderness campsites.
The woodsman thrust the rifle up to Joe’s face, then jerked it back, howling in a fiendish cackle. He leaned forward on the balls of his feet, sliding his left hand up the stock of the rifle, gripping it tightly. His trigger finger inched toward the trigger.
Joe sank lower in the chair and began to squirm. He must have looked old, small and defenseless because before he knew it the woodsman cracked him in the jaw with the rifle butt and he crashed to the ground unconscious.
A while later Joe’s eyes snapped open. His head ached and his ribs were sore on the right side where the woodsman must have kicked him. Thank God, he told Martha, no ribs were broken.
In time he stopped talking and looked at her. Martha’s clothes were torn and soiled and her eyes wore a look of distance. He watched the gloom drain from her face until it turned a pasty white color. Stricken to silence he turned away as his heart sank in grief and pain.
Moving past her, Joe flung the flap of the tent open and went inside. In his backpack, he removed the Colt 1911 and came back outside.
“Joe.” Martha screamed. “No, Joe. Oh, my God, please, please don’t,” she begged. Her hands dropped to her sides and she wilted, about to fall over.
“I can’t let this go,” he said, staring into her bloodshot eyes. “I couldn’t live with myself if I did.”
“Joe, stop,” she cried. “Stop and think for a minute. I don’t want anything happening to you. Think about Ricky, Mary and the grandkids. We can report this to the police, press charges. In time I can…” She stopped, her body quaking, unable to speak.
Angry and bitter, Joe left Martha standing hunched over near the edge of the tent.
The bridge creaked under his weight as he crossed quickly to the other side and scampered up the mountain. His gun was in one hand, his flashlight in the other. Light skimmed over the ground, mingling with patches of moonlight as he traversed the mountain looking for the woodsman’s cabin. He had an idea it wasn’t far. He pressed on. His anger and resentment drove him deeper into the woods.
Eventually, he smelled smoke. A clearing appeared in a pale patch of moonlight at the edge of the forest. A stove pipe chimney glowed red hot on the roof of a log cabin. On the other side of the clearing he dropped to his knees. A dog barked in a kennel out back of the cabin. Joe crouched down and waited.
A dog, it figured. There had to be a dog. The barking could alter his plan to get close to the cabin without being seen. He waited in silence, dousing the flashlight. Within several minutes the back door to the cabin opened and banged shut. Later the barking stopped and the door to the cabin banged shut again.
Joe stood up slowly. The dog was feeding inside the kennel, not barking. The woodsman was back inside the house. It was time to make his move.
Joe crept to the side of the cabin and stared through a window into the kitchen. The woodsman sat at a wooden table sipping a half pint of whiskey, smacking his lips and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
Joe shouldered the front door open, catching the woodsman off guard and jammed the gun in his face. “I should pull the trigger, you pig. Blow your brains out.” Not exactly sure he could do it.
Just then the door to a back bedroom opened.
Joe turned and glanced over his shoulder. A thin, mousy woman with dark, ratty hair and a headscarf stood in shock, staring at him with her mouth agape. A freckle faced boy and a little girl with honey blonde hair hid behind her. The boy stared at Joe with sad brown eyes and lips quivering, about to cry. The little girl clutched the hem of the woman’s dress and peeked out from behind it.
The woman scooted the children back into the bedroom and closed the door behind them.
At the table the woodsman slouched down in the chair. Eyes skittered back and forth nervously inside his head. Joe kept the gun leveled on him. The woodsman squirmed in alarm and panic, leaning far back away from the gun. Joe’s hand shook. He fought hard not to pull the trigger.
Soon the door to the bedroom opened and the woman stepped back into the room.
“Wait, please.” She pleaded and came over and stood next to Joe. “Please, don’t do it. I know. I know how he is. Sometimes he ain’t right in the head. But he’s all we got.” She spoke excitedly with tears in her eyes. He noticed a few missing teeth. “If you shoot ‘em, I –I just don’t know what we’ll do…me and the kids. He ain’t so bad when he’s off the booze.”
She leaned over and snatched the whiskey bottle off the table and shoved it into a pocket at the side of her dress. The woodsman’s glazed eyes shot up at her. “Hey, you. That’s mah whiskey.”
Joe could smell the alcohol on his breath, but he’d already made up his mind about him. He lowered the gun. The woodsman’s eyes dropped to the floor. His head sank into his chest, and for a moment Joe thought he saw a look of guilt and shame enter his eyes.
Joe said to the woman. “Are you alright? I gotta go.”
The woman nodded. “I’m fine. He’ll be asleep in a while and I got chores to do around the house.” She left and closed the door to the bedroom behind her.
Joe found a trail out of the woods. On the way down the mountain he mulled over his decision. He felt the layers of anger peeling away. In the beam of light crawling across the ground he saw Martha’s face and heard her voice. “Joe, stop and think for a minute. I don’t want anything happening to you. Think about Ricky, Mary and the grandkids.”
The sharp cry of a large bird overhead snapped him back to the present.
His family was important. Family was all he had. He thought about the woman up in the cabin. She was a sad, lonely person, but like him, her family was all she had. He’d been through a war where there’d been so much killing and destruction it was hard to think of ever killing again. He couldn’t kill the woodsman, and he couldn’t leave the woman alone and stranded with the kids.
He made his way out of the forest and crossed the bridge into camp. In the years to come he had no idea how often he would remember what had happened here, no matter how hard he tried to suppress the memory. It would take a long time for Martha to get over what had happened and a long time for him to forget how close he’d come to killing a man. He’d be there to support Martha through the dreadful ordeal and there to nurture her during the coming months when she needed him most. Eventually he knew things would get better, as they always do. He could go on with his life and put the tragedy behind him, because in the end, he knew he had made the right decision.
Switching off the flashlight, he entered the tent.
“What happened?” Martha sprang to her feet.” Are you alright?” She threw her arms around him. He could feel her shivering and weeping as he held her. They embraced for a long time, then separated.
“We better pack up in the morning and get out of here,” he said. “There are safer places for camping down below.”
She grabbed him by the shoulders. “What happened, Joe?”
He didn’t reply and laid the gun down inside the backpack and zipped the bag shut.
“Tell me what happened?” Martha’s eyes were wide and anxious.
He glanced down at his trembling hands and didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
Mike Sullivan is a freelance writer and his work has appeared in Country Squire (UK), Sunlight, Gravel, and Sports Digest magazines. He’s had four novels published in the US under the heading Thrillers From Foreign Lands.