NORTH BERWICK — Malcolm Hobbs kept his own company.

The youngest of four children born in the family farmhouse atop Bauneg Beg Hill, Hobbs rarely ventured from the woods and fields of his youth. Except for a South Pacific tour with the Army during World War II, he stayed on his hill, earning a meager living by the sweat of his brow, leaving the rest of the world to its own devices.

But just over two weeks ago, the outside world arrived on Hobbs’ stoop. Police say intruders, believing the ramshackle farmhouse empty, broke in looking for valuables. Hobbs’ body was found at the kitchen door, just 20 feet from the spot he was born 79 years ago.

North Berwick, a town of about 4,100 not far from the New Hampshire border, is an unlikely scene for such a killing. It sent a ripple of fear through a hilltop settlement that believed it was immune from the evils of the times.

The sense of vulnerability neighbors feel today has been heightened by a lack of details about the killing. Hobbs’ body was found face up in a pool of blood on Oct. 16 by a neighbor, Dale Clock. Police have said little about the case, except that probably more than one person killed Hobbs.

“At this time, ” says Lt. Dale Lancaster of the Maine State Police, “we’re keeping all information close to our vests.”

With facts in short supply, neighbors eye every passing car with suspicion. They have gone to town to buy dead bolts and floodlights. Clock himself just installed an outdoor light activated by a motion-detector.

“It’s something I haven’t had to do in 30 years, ” Clock says. “I’ve never had a problem here, but we decided to put up the motion-detector light.”

“Malcolm’s death has changed a lot of things, ” agrees Hobbs’ nephew, 72-year-old Jim Hammond, speaking for many of residents of Bauneg Beg Hill. “The people who didn’t lock their doors are locking them tonight.”

In this small community perched on the rugged border between North Berwick and Sanford, Hobbs’ story is one of a stoic, rural Yankee who comes face to face with the worst of the modern world: a sudden end wrought by senseless violence.

DESTINED TO BE A FARMER

Most men spend a lifetime looking for their place in the world, but Malcolm Hobbs was destined to be a farmer. Born to Nathan B. and Rose Allen Hobbs, who came to Bauneg Beg Hill from Lebanon, Malcolm spent as much time as possible outdoors. It didn’t matter whether it was work or play.

“From the time he was old enough to pick up rocks, he was clearing fields and building stone walls, ” says Clock. “They wanted to farm that land and, to do it, they had to move the rocks.”

After eight years in a one-room schoolhouse on what is now Hammond Road, about a mile from his home, Hobbs began to work alongside his father and older brothers. It was low-wage work – chopping, splitting and selling cordwood, raising vegetables and a little livestock, lending a hand on a nearby poultry farm. But Hobbs loved it.

He also enjoyed walking the land, a passion he kept up until the day of his death. That familiarity with the forests and fields paid dividends during the hard times of the Depression. “He and I and my brother used to go hunting a lot, ” Hammond remembers. “He used to get deer pretty easily.”

As he grew older, Malcolm Hobbs and his brother, Vinton, formed an unofficial business alliance. “They owned a lot of land, ” says Hervey Lizotte, 67, who had a 40-year friendship with the two brothers. “They sold lumber. They sold vegetables. And when they needed to, they sold land.”

Vinton generally took the lead on those ventures, dealing with the outsiders while Malcolm stayed in the background. They peddled crops from the back of a pickup truck in Sanford and Springvale, and customers remember seeing Malcolm sitting on the bench seat as Vinton drove. Vinton also fixed clocks for neighbors – Malcolm collected the ones no one else wanted.

“Some people might call Malcolm eccentric, ” Hammond says. “But I say he was just a normal human being who left everybody else alone.”

In 1943, Hobbs left Bauneg Beg Hill for the first time in his life, bound for the South Pacific with the Army. He came home in 1946 with the good conduct medal and ribbons from campaigns in the Philippines and other islands.

After the war years, Hobbs returned to living frugally. Bauneg Beg didn’t get electric power until 1948 – 30 years after Hobbs was born. The roads, such as they were, remained unpaved for much of that time, so Hobbs never bothered to get a driver’s license, never bought a truck or car of his own.

And he would never hold the kind of 8-hour-day job most people would regard as “work.” But Hobbs labored harder than most to survive, woods work in the winter, farming in the spring and summer, harvesting strawberries and blueberries in the summer and fall. His life struck many as idyllic.

“He was a quiet old man – so happy, ” says Hobbs’ niece, Joan Hobbs. “He never bothered anyone.”

As he got older, Hobbs farmed less and relied more on a small pension from the Army. In time, his knees began to give him trouble. Vinton died in 1988. The old farmhouse began to collapse around him, and soon Malcolm was occupying just two rooms – the living room, where he slept, and the kitchen, where he ate. But he never gave up his farmer’s way of life, rising at dawn, never turning on lights at night.

“He lived on lack of expense, ” says Glenn Wildes, a fellow farmer. “Some people make money by not spending it.”

ACREAGE WORTH $95,000

When Malcolm Hobbs died, he owned about 240 acres worth about $95,000.

No known enemies. No debts. Land rich and cash poor. One of the hardest things to figure is why anybody would ever want to kill Hobbs.

“None of us can understand how anyone could harm such a gentle, kind, meek man, ” the Rev. Robert Cole said at Hobbs’ funeral. “For the life of such a gentle man to end in such a tragic way.”

Police have few answers to that question. But they have begun to outline a theory, based upon a few known facts.

Hobbs was last seen alive at 7 p.m. on Oct. 15. When he failed to appear for his regular walk along Bauneg Beg Hill Road the next day, friends began to worry about his safety. Clock, who has looked after Hobbs for the last few years, went to his farmhouse and found the elderly man’s body in a pool of blood just inside the doorway at 7:15 p.m. Oct. 16.

“It was a very brutal murder, a savage murder, ” Maine State Police Sgt. Michael Sperry said, refusing to detail how Hobbs was killed.

Police believe Hobbs’ death is connected to a burglary that took place next door – at an unoccupied house belonging to his niece, Joan Hobbs. Joan Hobbs said someone took a shovel from the barn and broke through a rear window. The intruders then went through the house, turning it upside down, apparently in search of valuables.

“I think they were looking for money, ” Joan Hobbs said. She believes that the burglars then moved next door, where they were surprised by Hobbs.

Police seem to agree. They theorize that more than one person was involved in the killing and have hinted that the suspects were likely strangers to Hobbs.

State troopers have set up roadblocks around town, asking motorists to remember anything suspicious they may have seen on Bauneg Beg Hill. They’ve copied the guest book from Hobbs’ funeral. Noble High School in Berwick is littered with posters offering a $2,000 reward from Hobbs’ estate for clues leading to an arrest.

When no one is a suspect, everyone is a suspect. Even Clock has had to undergo a couple of interviews, including a polygraph test. “That’s because I was the one who found the body, ” Clock says.

Police say one of the reasons they’re keeping the facts to themselves is because the killers may trip themselves up by revealing details nobody else would know. But neighbors contend that the lack of concrete news makes them nervous.

“I still don’t know how he died, ” Jim Hammond says, “whether he was bludgeoned to death or shot. I don’t know when he died. The police aren’t saying anything.”

FLOODLIGHTS, DOOR LOCKS

Many of Hobbs’ neighbors say the death heralds a change in the country life they’ve come to enjoy. Like Clock, those who live in the immediate area have installed floodlights and added locks to doors.

“People are worried, ” Peggy Curtis, another neighbor, said last week. “Especially not knowing the whole story – not knowing what went on.”

“There’s always concern in any neighborhood when something like this happens close to home, ” says North Berwick Town Manager Dwayne Morin, who lives just 10 houses away from the old Hobbs homestead. “Everybody locks their doors at night and takes notice when a stranger shows up on the hill.”

North Berwick Police Chief Randolph Jones said he understands how the severity of the crime could shake up the community.

“Does this mean North Berwick is no longer a safe town? No, it doesn’t mean that, but we will work to make it a safer town, ” he said.

The area’s older residents say they’re not likely to change habits ingrained for years.

“Life has to go on, ” Lizotte says. “You can’t bring Malcolm back. What happened over there could have been anywhere. You can’t call police every time a car goes by.”