That night, Ken reported to his father
the fate of the engine assembled by Art.
“It did seem too good to be
true,” said Professor Maddox. He stretched
wearily in the large chair by the feeble heat of the
fireplace. “It bears out our observation
of the affinity of the dust for metals.”
“How is that?”
“It attaches itself almost like
a horde of microscopic magnets. It literally
burrows into the surface of the metal.”
“You don’t mean that!”
“I do. Its presence breaks
down the surface tension, as we had supposed.
The substance actually then works its way into the
interstices of the molecules. As the colloid
increases in quantity, its molecules loosen the bond
between the molecules of the metal, giving them increased
freedom of motion.
“This can be aggravated by frictional
contacts, and finally we have the molecular interchange
that binds the two pieces into one.”
“The only metal that would be
clean would be that which had been hermetically sealed
since before the appearance of the comet,” said
Ken. “Look wouldn’t this
affinity of the dust for metal provide a means of
purifying the atmosphere? If we could run the
air through large filters of metal wool, the dust
would be removed!”
“Yes, I’m very sure we
could do it that way. It would merely require
that we run the atmosphere of the whole Earth through
such a filter. Do you have any idea how that
could be done?”
“It would work in the laboratory,
but would be wholly impractical on a worldwide scale,”
Ken admitted. “How will we ever rid the
atmosphere of the dust! A colloid will float
forever in the air, even after the comet is gone.”
“Exactly,” Professor Maddox
said, “and, as far as we are concerned, the
whole atmosphere of the Earth is permanently poisoned.
Our problem is to process it in some manner to remove
“During the past few days we
have come to the conclusion that there are only two
alternatives: One is to process the whole atmosphere
by passing it through some device, such as the filter
you have suggested. The second is to put some
substance into the air which will counteract and destroy
the dust, precipitate it out of the atmosphere.”
“Since the first method is impractical
what can be used in carrying out the second?”
“We’ve set ourselves the
goal of discovering that. We’re hoping to
synthesize the necessary chemical compound to accomplish
“It would have to be a colloid,
too, capable of suspension in the atmosphere,”
“If we do find such a substance
we still have the problem of decontaminating existing
metals. We couldn’t build a moving piece
of machinery out of any metal now in existence without
first cleaning the dust out of its surface.”
“That’s part of the problem, too,”
said his father.
Ken resumed his duties in the laboratory
the following morning. Dr. Adams had warned him
not to walk up College Hill, so he had borrowed the
horse Dave Whitaker still had on loan from his uncle.
He felt self-conscious about being the only one enjoying
such luxury, but he promised himself he would go back
to walking as soon as Dr. Adams gave permission.
On the third day, the horse slipped
and fell as it picked its way carefully down the hill.
Ken was thrown clear, into the deep snow, but the
horse lay where it had fallen, as if unable to move.
Ken feared the animal had broken a leg. He felt
cautiously but could find no evidence of injury.
Gently, he tugged at the reins and
urged the horse to its feet. The animal finally
rose, but it stood uncertainly and trembled when it
tried to walk again.
Ken walked rather than rode the rest
of the way home. He took the horse to the improvised
stable beside the science shack. There he got
out the ration of hay and water, and put a small amount
of oats in the trough. The animal ignored the
food and drink.
After dinner, Ken went out again to
check. The horse was lying down in the stall
and the food remained untouched.
Ken returned to the house and said
to his father, “Dave’s horse slipped today,
and I’m afraid something serious is wrong with
him. He doesn’t seem to have any broken
bones, but he won’t eat or get up. I think
I should go for the vet.”
His father agreed. “We
can’t afford to risk a single horse, considering
how precious they are now. You stay in the house
and I’ll go to Dr. Smithers’ place myself.”
Ken protested. He hated to see
his father go out again on such a cold night.
Dr. Smithers grumbled when Professor
Maddox reached his house and explained what he wanted.
As one of the town’s two veterinarians, he had
been heavily overworked since the disaster struck.
The slightest sign of injury or illness in an animal
caused the Mayor’s livestock committee to call
“Probably nothing but a strained
ligament,” Smithers said. “You could
have taken care of it by wrapping it yourself.”
“We think you ought to come.”
When the veterinarian finally reached
the side of the animal, he inspected him carefully
by the light of a gasoline lantern. The horse
was lying on his side in a bed of hay; he was breathing
heavily and his eyes were bright and glassy.
Dr. Smithers sucked his breath in
sharply and bent closer. Finally, he got to his
feet and stared out over the expanse of snow.
“It couldn’t be,” he muttered.
“We just don’t deserve that. We don’t
deserve it at all.”
“What is it?” Ken asked
anxiously. “Is it something very serious?”
“I don’t know for sure.
It looks like it could be anthrax.
I’m just afraid that it is.”
Dr. Smithers’ eyes met and held
Professor Maddox’s. Ken did not understand.
“I’ve heard that name, but I don’t
know what it is.”
“One of the most deadly diseases
of warm-blooded animals. Spreads like wildfire
when it gets a start. It can infect human beings,
too. How could it happen here? There hasn’t
been a case of anthrax in the valley for years!”
“I remember Dave Whitaker saying
his uncle got two new horses from a farmer near Britton
just a week before the comet,” said Ken.
“Maybe it could have come from there.”
“Perhaps,” said Smithers.
“What can we do?” asked
Professor Maddox. “Can’t we start
a program of vaccination to keep it from spreading?”
“How much anthrax vaccine do
you suppose there is in the whole town? Before
we decide anything I want to get Hart and make some
tests. If he agrees with me we’ve got to
get hold of the Mayor and the Council and decide on
a course of action tonight.”
Hart was the other veterinarian, a
younger man, inclined to look askance at Dr. Smithers’
“I’d just as soon take
your word,” said Professor Maddox. “If
you think we ought to take action, let’s do
“I want Hart here first,”
said Smithers. “He’s a know-it-all,
but he’s got a good head and good training in
spite of it. Someday he’ll be a good man,
and you’ll need one after I’m gone.”
“I’ll go,” said
Ken. “You’ve already been out, Dad.
It’s only 4 or 5 blocks, and I feel fine.”
“Well, if you feel strong enough,”
said his father hesitantly. Fatigue was obvious
in his face.
Dr. Hart was asleep when Ken pounded
on his door. He persisted until the veterinarian
came, sleepily and rebelliously. Ken told his
Hart grunted in a surly voice.
“Anthrax! That fool Smithers probably wouldn’t
know a case of anthrax if it stared him in the face.
Tell him to give your horse a shot of terramycin,
and I’ll come around in the morning. If
I went out on every scare, I’d never get any
“Dr. Hart,” Ken said quietly.
“You know what it means if it is anthrax.”
The veterinarian blinked under Ken’s
accusing stare. “All right,” he said
finally. “But if Smithers is getting me
out on a wild-goose chase I’ll run him out of
Smithers and Professor Maddox were
still beside the ailing horse when Ken returned with
Dr. Hart. No one spoke a word as they came up.
Hart went to work on his examination, Ken holding
the lantern for him.
“Here’s a carbuncle, right
back of the ear!” he said accusingly. “Didn’t
anybody notice this earlier?”
“I’m afraid not,”
Ken admitted. “I guess I haven’t taken
very good care of him.”
“Ken’s been in the hospital,” Professor
“I know,” Hart answered
irritably, “but I think anybody would have noticed
this carbuncle; these infections are characteristic.
There’s not much question about what it is,
but we ought to get a smear and make a microscope
slide check of it.”
“I’ve got a 1500-power
instrument,” said Ken. “If that’s
good enough you can use it.”
Hart nodded. “Get some sterile slides.”
Afterward, Smithers said, “We’ve
got to get Jack Nelson first and find out how much
anthrax vaccine he’s got in his store. Nobody
else in town will have any, except maybe some of his
customers who may have bought some lately. What
about the college laboratories? Do they have any?”
“I don’t know,”
said Professor Maddox. “We’ll have
to contact Dr. Bintz for that.”
“Let’s get at it,”
said Hart. “We’ve got to wake up the
Mayor and the Council. The cattle committee will
have to be there. Nelson and Bintz, too.
We’ll find out how much vaccine we’ve got
and decide what to do with it.”
Two hours later the men met in the
Council chambers of City Hall. Because of the
lack of heat, they retained their overcoats and sheepskin
jackets. The incrusted snow on their boots did
not even soften. In soberness and shock they
listened to Dr. Smithers.
“Nobody grows up in a farming
community without knowing what anthrax means,”
he said. “We’ve got a total of twenty-eight
hundred head of beef and dairy cattle in the valley,
plus a couple of thousand sheep, and about a hundred
“Jack Nelson’s stock of
vaccine, plus what he thinks may be in the hands of
his customers, plus some at the college is enough to
treat about a thousand animals altogether. Those
that aren’t treated will have to be slaughtered.
If they prove to be uninfected they can be processed
for meat storage.
“Some vaccine will have to be
held in reserve, but if we don’t clean up the
valley before next year’s calf crop we won’t
stand a chance of increasing our herds. That’s
the situation we’re up against, Gentlemen.”
Mayor Hilliard arose. “The
only question seems to me to be which animals are
of most worth to us. I say we should let all the
sheep go. A cow or a horse is worth more than
a sheep to us now.
“That leaves the question of
the horses. Which is worth more to us: a
horse or a cow? We can’t haul logs without
horses, but we won’t need to worry about staying
warm if we haven’t got food enough.”
Harry Mason of the fuel committee
stood up immediately. “I say we’ve
got to keep every horse we’ve got. It would
be crazy to give any of them up. There aren’t
enough now to haul the fuel we need.”
“A horse is a poor trade for
a cow in these times,” protested the food committee’s
chief, Paul Remington. “Every cow you let
go means milk for two or three families. It means
a calf for next year’s meat supply. We
can freeze and still stay alive. We can’t
starve and do the same thing. I say, let every
horse in the valley go. Keep the cows and beef
An instant hubbub arose, loudly protesting
or approving these two extreme views. Mayor Hilliard
pounded on the desk for order. “We’ve
got to look at both sides of the question,”
he said, when the confusion had died down. “I
know there are some horses we can lose without much
regret; they don’t haul as much as they eat.
What Paul says, however, is true: Every horse
we keep means trading it for a cow and the food a cow
“I think we need to keep some
horses, but it ought to be the bare minimum.
I’ve got an idea about this log hauling.
Right now, and for a long time to come, we don’t
need horses once the logs are on the road. It’s
a downgrade all the way to town. When the road
freezes hard we can coast a sled all the way if we
rig a way to steer and brake it properly. There
are only two bad curves coming out of the canyon, and
I think we can figure a way to take care of them.
Maybe a team at each one.
“This would leave most of the
horses free to snake the logs out of the hills to
the road. I’m for cutting the horses to
twenty-five, selecting the best breeding stock we’ve
got, and including the ones needed for emergency riding,
such as the Sheriff has.”
For another hour it was argued back
and forth, but in the end the Mayor’s plan was
adopted. Then Dr. Aylesworth, who had not previously
spoken during the whole meeting, arose quietly.
“I think there’s something
we’re forgetting, Gentlemen,” he said.
“Something we’ve forgotten all along.
Now that we are faced with our most serious crisis
yet, I suggest that you members of our city government
pass a resolution setting aside the next Sabbath as
a special day of prayer. Ask the ministers of
all our denominations to co-operate in offering special
prayer services for the safety of our animals, which
we need so badly, and for the success of those who
are working on College Hill and elsewhere to find
a solution to this grave problem.”
Mayor Hilliard nodded approvingly.
“We should have done it long ago,” he
agreed. “If no one has any objections I
will so declare as Dr. Aylesworth has suggested.”
There were nods of approval from everyone in the room.
By dawn the next morning the crews
were ready to begin the vaccination program.
One by one, they examined the animals to make sure
the best were saved. The rest were slaughtered,
examined for signs of anthrax, and most were prepared
On Sunday, while the cattle crews
still worked, Ken and his parents attended services
in Dr. Aylesworth’s congregation. A solemnity
was over the whole valley, and the only sound anywhere
seemed to be the tolling of the bells in the churches.
The anthrax outbreak had seemed to
the people of Mayfield one more, and perhaps a final,
proof that their hope of survival was beyond all realization.
Before, with severe rationing, it had seemed that they
would need a miracle to get them through the winter.
Now, with the brutally lessened supply of milk and
breeding cattle, it seemed beyond the power of any
Dr. Aylesworth’s white mane
behind the pulpit was like a symbol testifying that
they never need give up hope as long as any desire
for life was in them. In himself there seemed
no doubt of their eventual salvation, and in his sermon
he pleaded with them to maintain their strength and
hope and faith.
In his prayer he asked, “Father,
bless our cattle and our beasts of burden that this
illness that has stricken them may be healed.
Bless us that our hearts may not fail us in this time
of trial, but teach us to bear our burdens that we
may give thanks unto Thee when the day of our salvation
doth come. Amen.”