Alex Archer paused, wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, leaving the ax head in the stubborn pine deadfall. The day was cloudy and warm for so late in October. In Cross, Massachusetts winter usually arrived early and stayed late.
With a sigh, Alex sat down on the floor of the forest, the sound of his brother’s ax ringing out among the trees, the smell of pine sap thick in the afternoon air. Through the trees, Alex caught glimpses of the soft, pleasant blue sky. Along his back and under his arms he felt his flannel shirt clinging to him. Down his temple, a trickle of sweat made its way towards his unshaven cheek.
Mike’s ax stopped abruptly, and Alex looked up.
Mike leaned on the handle of his ax, a grin on his flushed face, his strawberry blonde hair clipped short and damp with sweat.
“Tired already?” Alex asked, laughing.
Mike shook his head and sat down, resting his ax against a tree. “What time is it?”
“A little past four,” Alex said, glancing at his watch. “Want to call it a day after these two?”
He nodded at the pair of pines lying between them.
“Yeah,” Mike said, “we can hitch up the team tomorrow and drag’em out in the morning.”
“Sounds like a plan to me. Where do you want to eat?”
Alex nodded again, climbing back to his feet.
“Might as well,” his voice trailed off as the sound of movement reached his ears. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mike rise cautiously, ax in hand.
With the bear and mountain lion sightings, Alex thought, we’re a good two miles into the forest. A helluva long way.
He reached out, working the head of the ax free from the stubborn pine.
Out of a copse of fir trees, perhaps fifty yards away, an old man appeared. Wearing an orange vest over his clothes he held a Winchester rifle, an army surplus canteen slung on his hip. He waved as he drew closer.
Squinting Alex recognized Lee, the caretaker of the cemetery. Alex relaxed, sighing.
“Hey, Lee!” Mike said, waving back to the old man.
“Boys,” Lee said, nodding. A smile broke his sharp features as he made his way through the underbrush. At nearly eighty the man still moved with confidence, his eyes always searching, head sweeping left to right, right to left in tireless vigilance. Lee stopped beside Mike.
“How’s the hunting?” Alex asked.
“Couldn’t tell you,” Lee said. “I just like to be out in the woods now. Miles and miles of forest on Duncan’s land. There’s nothin’ quite like it durin’ an Indian Summer.”
Alex nodded. “Have you seen the Old Man around today?”
“Yeah, out by the pumpkin patch, cutting some paths for the kids.”
“Damn,” Mike said, “I love that old man.”
“What old man?” a voice asked from behind them.
Alex nearly jumped as he turned around and saw Old Man Duncan leaning against a thick white birch tree. Duncan stood shorter and stouter than Lee. He carried a pump-action shotgun in the crook of his arm.
Alex opened his mouth to speak, closing it as the words died in his mouth upon seeing Duncan’s grim expression.
“We’d best be gettin’ in,” Duncan said, looking out beyond them into the woods. “There’s trouble in the air.”
“How so?” Mike asked, resting his ax upon his shoulder.
“Just trouble,” Duncan said, lowering his voice, his eyes never leaving the trees. “It’s a bad day to be out and about.”
Alex felt the curious, unpleasant sensation of someone watching him. A glance at Lee, then at Mike, showed they felt the same. In silence, the three of them hastened towards Duncan.
Holding his ax with both hands Alex stepped over severed branches. He felt an urge to look over his shoulder, but he didn’t, trusting in Duncan’s judgment.
The noises of the forest stopped, the sounds of the men’s haste to leave disturbingly loud. Alex felt uneasy and picked up his pace. His heart quickened and his mouth dried, his palms sweating on the worn haft of the ax. With great discipline, Alex fought the desire to break into a sprint.
The roar of Duncan’s shotgun, along with a shout to “Run!” shattered that discipline.
Still clutching the ax, Alex hurtled past Duncan, the shot-gun bucking and roaring again. A sharper, quicker sound followed the echo of the blast.
Lee’s Winchester, Alex realized as the weapon sang out twice more. Behind him Alex heard the pounding of feet, and he risked a glance.
Through the soft, ebbing light Alex caught sight of Mike and Lee, and heard the blast of Duncan’s shot-gun and gasped at what he saw beyond the men.
Alex slammed into the hard packed earth of the forest floor, his ax skidding along into a small briar patch. He scrambled to his feet, not believing what his eyes told him.
Dozens of them. Young men with soft brown skin dressed in leather clothes, armed with war clubs and tomahawks.
Lee’s Winchester barked again, further off, as did Duncan’s shot-gun. Thorns bit into Alex’s hand as he pulled the ax clear, blood welling up on his tanned hands. Lifting his ax, Alex looked behind him.
Fear pumped adrenaline into his system as an Indian, probably not out of his teens, leaped over a dead elm. An angry shout broke free as Alex swung the ax at the club-wielding youth. The young warrior ducked the blow and tried to bring his weapon to bear.
With the momentum of his swing, Alex felt his legs tangle in the underbrush and fell, back first, upon the briar patch. Ignoring the pain of the cuts, he tried to stand as the Indian stepped forward, raising his club for the death blow.
Duncan’s shotgun roared and the Indian vanished.
No blood. No body.
Gone, Alex thought numbly.
With his heart thundering, Alex rolled out of the briar patch. Lee and Mike, both pale and panting from their dash, stood on either side of Duncan, who lowered his smoking shotgun. He nodded at Alex.
“Indian Summer, boys. When the weather’s warm and it should be cold,” Duncan continued, his eyes sweeping the forest, “then Indian dead remember the past, when the Trickster let them raid late in the season against the English.
“Indian Summer’s not a good thing, boys,” Duncan said, motioning them to follow as he turned away. “Wasn’t then, and isn’t now.”