The people who once came to Sugarloaf Mountain Market to buy a soda or a newspaper, pick up the local gossip and see the friendly face of owner James Kweku Essel, came instead yesterday to grieve and express shock at his violent death last Sunday.

"If there was one thing he was not, it was violent -- he was a kind man, the nicest man," said Anne Hurwitz, her eyes wet.

Hurwitz was one of dozens of people who pulled into the driveway of the white-tin-roofed country store yesterday to read a sign giving details of Essel's funeral and burial. Others added to the cluster of flowers and bouquets that have been laid ceremonially before the market's door and its two gasoline pumps.

The people of Comus, a tiny community of spread-out farms and close-knit relations in northern Montgomery County, are angry about the stabbing death of Essel, 57, who was found on the floor of his market by a customer last Sunday evening.

Widely described as friendly, generous, beloved by children and often willing to extend store credit, Essel had made many friends in the two years since he bought the store. In the wake of his death, Essel's friends and neighbors have put together a reward fund and offered to give the money to anyone who can help the police find his killer.

"People want to do the right thing. They're all so upset that something like this could happen here," said Maurice Daugherty, a neighbor who frequented the store.

"The proprietors of three small stores in neighboring Clarksville are all little old ladies," said Barbara Pachner, another patron of Essel's store. "They got together and gave $1,000."

Although police initially suggested that the motive for Essel's slaying was robbery, Montgomery County police spokeswoman Anne Evans said the investigation is "still wide open" because of "the unusual circumstances" of the crime.

Although it is not far from Interstate 270 and has felt the influx of wealthy newcomers, Comus is still a remote collection of homes at a crossroads not far from Sugarloaf Mountain. As Evans put it, "there's hardly anything there."

Police said Essel, who was divorced and had four children, was stabbed repeatedly in the upper body between 5 and 6 p.m. on Sunday. County police spokesman George Ludington said "a small amount" of money was missing from the cash register.

Asked if they had any suspects, Evans replied, "They haven't pulled anybody in."

While the killer remains at large, residents are agonizing over the crime and fearing for their safety.

"Everyone is quite frightened," said Judy Cadwell, a manager at the nearby Comus Inn. "Now, we never send anyone out of here after a shift without sending somebody along for security."

As the yellow barricade tape put up by police flapped in the wind, Elizabeth Gallagher scanned the store bulletin board, seeming reluctant to leave. The board was plastered with cards, the flier offering the reward and farewell messages to Essel. "You weren't just a friend, you were family," someone wrote. "We loved you."

Even the person who delivered Hostess Cakes to the store felt moved to leave his thought: "He was a kind man."

Still others rattled the doorknob of the closed store, thinking it was still open and dumbfounded to learn that Essel was dead.

"Killed? He was killed? Oh no, he was a good man," said a man who drove up in a blue Mercedes. "Why killed? I liked him. Who would do this?"