There are people who feed upon disaster
and grow in their own particular direction as they
would never have grown without it, as does the queen
bee who becomes queen only because of the special food
prepared by the workers for her private use.
Such a man was Henry Maddox.
He would not have admitted it, nor was he ever able
to realize it, for it violated the very principles
he had laid down for Ken. But for him, the comet
was like a sudden burst of purpose in his life.
He had taught well in his career as professor of chemistry
at the State Agricultural College at Mayfield, but
it had become fairly mechanical. He was vaguely
aware of straining at the chains of routine from time
to time, but he had always forced himself through sheer
exercise of will to attend to his duties. There
was never time, however, for any of the research he
used to tell himself, in his younger days, he was
going to do.
With the sudden thrusting aside of
all customary duties, and with the impact of catastrophe
demanding a solution to a research problem, he came
alive without knowing what was happening. Yet
without the imminence of disaster he would not have
found the strength to drive himself so. This
was what he could not admit to himself.
Another who was nourished was Granny
Wicks. She should have been dead years ago.
She had admitted this to herself and to anyone else
who would listen, but now she knew why she had been
kept alive so long past her time. She had been
waiting for the comet.
Its energy seemed to flow from the
sky into her withered, bony frame, and she drank of
its substance until time seemed to reverse itself in
her obsolete body. All her life she had been waiting
for this time. She knew it now. She was
spared to tell the people why the comet had come.
Although her purpose was diametrically opposed to that
of Henry Maddox, she also fed and grew to her full
stature after almost a century of existence.
Frank Meggs was surely another.
He was born in Mayfield and had lived there all his
life and he hated every minute of time and every person
and every event that told of his wasted life here.
He hated College Hill, for he had never been able
to go there. His family had been too poor, and
he had been forced to take over his father’s
store when his father died.
He had once dreamed of becoming a
great businessman and owning a chain of stores that
would stretch from coast to coast, but circumstances,
for which he blamed the whole of Mayfield, had never
permitted him to leave the town. His panic sale
had been his final, explosive hope that he might be
able to make it. Now, he, too, found himself growing
in his own special direction as he fed upon the disaster.
He did not know just what that direction was or to
where it led, but he felt the growth. He felt
the secret pleasure of contemplating the discomfort
and the privation that lay ahead for his fellow citizens
in the coming months.
While personal fear forced him to
the conclusion that the disaster would be of short
duration, the pleasure was nevertheless real.
It was especially intense when he thought of College
Hill and its inhabitants in scenes of dark dismay
as they wrestled in vain to understand what had happened
to the world.
There were others who fed upon the
disaster. For the most part they found it an
interruption to be met with courage, with faith, with
whatever strength was inherent in them.
It was not a time of growth, however,
for Reverend Aylesworth. It was the kind of thing
for which he had been preparing all his life.
Now he would test and verify the stature he had already
On the night they verified the presence
of the comet dust in the disabled engines, Ken was
the last to leave the laboratory. It was near
midnight when he got away.
His father had left much earlier,
urging him to come along, but Ken had been unable
to pull himself away from the examination and measurement
of the spectrum of lines that bared the comet’s
secret. He had begun to understand the pleasure
his father had spoken of, the pleasure of being consumed
utterly by a problem important in its own right.
As he left the campus there was no
moon in the sky. The comet was gone, and the
stars seemed new in a glory he had not seen for many
nights. He felt that he wouldn’t be able
to sleep even when he got home, and he continued walking
for several blocks, in the direction of town.
He came abreast, finally, of the former
Rainbow Skating Rink, which had been converted into
a food warehouse. In the darkness, he saw a sudden,
swift movement against the wall of the building.
His night vision was sharp after the long walk; he
saw what was going on.
The broad doors of the rink had been
broken open. There were three or four men lifting
sacks and boxes and barrels stealthily into a wagon.
Even as he started toward them he
realized his own foolishness and pulled back.
A horse whinnied softly. He turned to run in the
direction of Sheriff Johnson’s house, and behind
him came a sudden, hoarse cry of alarm.
Horses’ hoofs rattled frighteningly
loud on the cement. Ken realized he stood no
chance of escaping if he were seen. He dodged
for an instant into a narrow space between two buildings
with the thought of reaching an alley at the back.
However, it was boarded at the end and he saw that
he would have to scale the fence. A desperate
horseman would ride him down in the narrow space.
He fled on and reached the shadows
in front of the drugstore. He pressed himself
as flat as possible in the recess of the doorway, hoping
his pursuer would race by. But his fleeing shadow
had been seen.
The rider whirled and reined the horse
to a furious stop. The animal’s front legs
pawed the air in front of Ken’s face. Then
Ken saw there was something familiar about the figure.
He peered closer as the horseman whirled again.
“Jed,” he called softly. “Jed
The figure answered harshly, “Yeah.
Yeah, that’s me, and you’re you’re
Ken. I’m sorry it had to be you. Why
did you have to come by here at this time of night?”
Ken heard the sound of running feet
in the distance as others came to join Jed Tucker.
Jed had not dismounted, but held Ken prisoner in the
recess with the rearing, impatient horse.
Ken wondered how Jed Tucker could
be mixed up in a thing like this. His father
was president of the bank and owned one of the best
homes in Mayfield. Jed and Ken had played football
on the first team together last year.
“Jed,” Ken said quickly,
“give it up! Don’t go through with
“Shut up!” Jed snarled.
He reined the horse nearer, threatening Ken with the
thrashing front legs.
When Jed’s companions arrived,
Jed dismounted from the horse.
“Who is it?” a panting voice asked.
A cold panic shot through Ken.
He recognized the voice. It was that of Mr. Tucker
himself. The bank official was taking part in
the looting of the warehouse.
The third man, Ken recognized in rising
horror, was Mr. Allen, a next-door neighbor of the
Tuckers. He was the town’s foremost attorney,
and one of its most prominent citizens.
“We can’t let him go,”
Allen was saying. “Whoever he is, we’ve
got to get him out of the way.”
Mr. Tucker came closer. He gasped
in dismay. “It’s young Maddox,”
he said. “You! What are you doing
out this time of night?”
Under any other conditions, the question
would have seemed humorous, coming from whom it did
now. But Ken felt no humor; he sensed the desperate
fury in these men.
“Give it up,” he repeated
quietly. “The lives of fifteen thousand
people depend on this food supply. You have no
right to steal an ounce that doesn’t belong
to you. I’ll never tell what I’ve
Tucker shook his head in a dazed,
uncomprehending manner, as if the proposition were
too fantastic to be considered. “We can’t
do that,” he said.
“We can’t let him go!” Allen repeated.
“You can’t expect us to risk murder!”
“There’ll be plenty of that before this
“Our lives depend on this food,
you know that,” Tucker said desperately to Ken.
“You take your share, and we’ll all be
in this together. Then we know we’ll be
Ken considered, his panic increasing.
To refuse might mean his life. If he could pretend
to fall in with them....
“You can’t trust him!”
Allen raged. “No one is going to be in on
this except us.”
Suddenly the lawyer stepped near,
his hand raised high in the air. Before Ken sensed
his intention, a heavy club smashed against his head.
His body fell in a crumpled heap on the sidewalk.
It was after 2 a.m. when Professor
Maddox awoke with the sensation that something was
vaguely wrong. He sat up in bed and looked out
the window at the starlit sky. He remembered
he had left Ken at the university and had not yet
heard him come in.
Quietly he arose from the bed and
tiptoed along the hallway to Ken’s room.
He used the beam of a precious flashlight for a moment
to scan the undisturbed bed. Panic started inside
him and was fought down.
Probably Ken had found something interesting
to keep him from noticing the alarm clock on a shelf
in the laboratory. Perhaps someone had even forgotten
to wind the clock and it had run down.
Perhaps, even, the bearings of its
balance wheel had finally become frozen and had brought
it to a stop!
Mrs. Maddox was behind him as he turned
from the door. “What’s wrong?”
He flashed the light on the bed again.
“I’d better go up to the laboratory and
have a look,” he said.
Ken’s mother nodded. She
sensed her husband’s worry, and wanted not to
add to it. “Take Ken’s bicycle,”
she said. “It will be quicker, even if
you have to walk it uphill. I’ll have some
hot chocolate for you when you come back.”
Professor Maddox dressed hurriedly
and took the bicycle from the garage. He did
have to wheel it most of the way up the hill, but it
would be easier coming down anyway, he thought.
He wondered how much longer the bearings in it would
hold up without freezing.
As he came within view of the laboratory
building he saw that the windows were utterly dark.
He knew that even with the shades down he would have
been able to see some glow of the oil lamps which they
used, provided Ken were still there.
He waited a full 10 minutes against
the chance that Ken had put out the lamps and was
on his way out. Then he knew Ken had gone long
ago. He ought to call the Sheriff and have the
police cars search for him, but there were no phones
and no cars.
He mounted the bicycle in fresh panic
and rode recklessly down the hill to town. At
Sheriff Johnson’s house he pounded frantically
on the door until the Sheriff shouted angrily through
an open window, “Who is it?”
“It’s Dr. Maddox.
You’ve got to help me, Johnson. Ken’s
disappeared.” He went into details, and
the Sheriff grunted, holding back his irritation at
being disturbed, because of his long friendship with
“I guess I should have gone
down to the station,” said Professor Maddox,
realizing what he had done. “I had forgotten
there would be men on duty.”
“It’s all right. I’ll come
The Sheriff’s car had broken
down days before. He kept a horse for his own
official use. “You can ride behind me,”
he said. “Sally’s a pretty decent
gal. You get up there on the porch railing and
climb on right behind me.”
Professor Maddox maneuvered himself
behind the Sheriff on the horse, balancing unsteadily
as Sally shied away. “Where do you think
Ken could have gone?” asked Johnson. “Don’t
you suppose he’s over at one of his friend’s?”
“He wouldn’t do a thing
like that without letting us know.”
“He went up the canyon with
the wood detail 2 or 3 weeks ago.”
“I know but that
was different. Aren’t there any policemen
on the streets now? What happened to the ones
who used to patrol in the radio cars?”
“They’re walking their
beats, most of them. Two are mounted in each
district. We’ll stop by the station, and
then try to find the mounted officers. It’s
the only thing we can do.”
They moved down the dark, empty streets.
It seemed as if there never had been any life flowing
along them, and never would be again. They passed
the station, lit by a smoking oil lamp, and left word
of Ken’s disappearance, and moved on. They
came to the edge of the business section, where street
lamps used to shine. This area was even more
ghostly than the rest, but policemen patrolled it,
perhaps out of habit and a conviction that failure
to do so would admit the end of all that was familiar
As they rode on, the clatter of other
hoofbeats on the cement sounded behind them.
Johnson turned and halted. A flashlight shone
in their faces. It was Officer Dan Morris, who
identified himself by turning the light on his own
“The warehouse has been broken
into,” he said. “Over at the skating
rink. Somebody has busted in and made off with
a lot of food.”
The Sheriff seemed stunned by the
news. “What idiots!” he muttered
self-accusingly. “What complete, pinheaded
idiots we turned out to be. We didn’t even
think to put a special guard around the warehouse!
Do any of the other patrolmen know?”
“Yes. Clark and Dudly are
over there now. I was trying to round up someone
else while they look for clues.”
“I’ll have to get over there,” said
“But Ken ...” Professor Maddox said.
“I’ve got to keep looking.”
“You come with us. I’ve
got to look into the robbery. Ken can’t
have come to any harm. I’ll pass the word
along and we’ll all keep watch for him.
I promise you we will.”
“I’ll keep on,”
said Professor Maddox. He slid from the horse.
“I’ll keep moving along the street here.
If you find anything, I’ll be somewhere between
here and home.”
Unwillingly, Sheriff Johnson turned
and left him. The sounds of the two horses echoed
loudly in the deserted street. Professor Maddox
felt a burst of anger at their abandonment of him,
but he supposed the Sheriff was doing what he had
He recognized that it was foolhardy
to be afoot in the deserted town this time of night.
Without a single clue to Ken’s whereabouts, what
could he hope to accomplish? He strode on along
the sidewalk in the direction the policeman had disappeared.
It was as good a direction as any.
After he had gone a block he stumbled
in the darkness. Some soft, resilient object
lay across the sidewalk before Billings Drugstore.
In anger at the obstacle, Professor Maddox caught
himself and moved on. A sound stopped him.
A groan of agony came from the object upon which he
had stumbled. He turned and bent down and knew
it was a human being. Faintly, under the starlight,
he glimpsed the dark pool of blood on the sidewalk.
He turned the body gently until he could see the face.
It was Ken.
He didn’t know how long he knelt
there inspecting the motionless features of his son.
He was aware only of running frantically in the direction
of the warehouse. He found Johnson. He clutched
the Sheriff’s arm. “They’ve
killed him!” he cried. “I found Ken
and they’ve killed him!”
Johnson turned to the nearest officer.
“Ride for Dr. Adams. Dudly, get that horse
and wagon that’s at Whitaker’s place.
Where did you say you found Ken, Professor?”
“At Billings. Lying on
the sidewalk with his head smashed in.”
“You others meet us there,” he called.
Clumsily, they mounted the Sheriff’s
horse together again. It seemed to take hours
to ride the short distance.
They dismounted and Johnson knelt
and touched the boy tenderly.
Then Professor Maddox heard, barely
audible, the sound he would remember all his life
as the most wonderful sound in the world.
lips moved with the word. “Dad....”
His voice was a plea for help.