The two nomads stood glaring and snarling
before the drawn revolvers that pointed at them from
the doorways of the room. For an instant it looked
as if they were going to draw their own weapons and
make a pitched battle of it right there in the Council
chamber. Then their glances fell on their comrade,
writhing in pain on the floor. They raised their
hands in slow surrender.
“If we’re not back by sundown, you’ll
be wiped out!”
“When will the attack begin
if you do go back?” asked Hilliard bitterly.
“Two hours before sundown? We thank you
for the information about your timetable, at least.
We have 3 hours to prepare a defense of the town.”
He nodded to the policeman. “Take them away.
Put them in cells and tie them up until this is over.”
When they had been removed he turned
back to the group. “I’ve had nightmares,”
he said, “and this has been one of them.
I guess if I had been the Mayor some people think
I ought to have been, we would have been drilling
and rehearsing our defenses for weeks. I had planned
to do so soon. I thought we’d have more
time; that’s my only excuse.
“The Sheriff and I have done
a little preliminary planning and thinking. We’ve
made an estimate of weapons available. From what
Jack Nelson and Dan Sims report on hunting licenses
issued locally a year ago, there must be about two
thousand deer rifles in town. They also guess
about four or five hundred 22’s. We’re
lucky to live in hunting country.
“Dan and Jack have about two
hundred guns of all kinds and sizes in their rental
and selling stock, and they’ve got nearly all
the ammunition in the valley. They had stocked
up for the hunting season, which we never had this
year, so their supply sounds as if it would be pretty
good. You’ve got to remember the difference
in requirements for bagging a deer and carrying on
a war. We have very little ammunition when you
consider it from that angle.
“The police, of course, have
a few guns and some rounds. I’m placing
Sheriff Johnson in full charge of defense. The
police officers will act as his lieutenants.”
The Mayor stepped to a wall chart that showed the
detailed topography of Mayfield and its environs.
“This is your battle map right here, Sheriff.
Come up and start marking off your sectors of the
defense perimeter and name your officers to take charge
of each. I hope somebody is going to say it’s
a good thing we’ve got the barbed-wire defense
line before this meeting is over!
“I want a rider to leave at
once to bring back the wood detail. All their
horses will be turned over to the police officers for
use in their commands. I want fifty runners to
go through town and notify one man in each block to
mobilize his neighbors, with all weapons available,
and lead them to the sectors which the Sheriff will
designate. Each man will bring all the ammunition
he owns. Additional stores will be distributed
by wagon to the sectors. Above everything else,
each man must be warned to make each shot count.”
The room was silent, and there was
no protest or disagreement. Mayor Hilliard, the
man who had made fancy speeches, seemed to have vanished.
Hilliard, the dynamic, down-to-earth leader had taken
his place. For a moment no one in the room was
more surprised than Hilliard himself.
“There’s one thing I want
to make absolutely clear,” he said after a pause.
“You people who are working at the laboratory
on College Hill are to keep away from the front-lines
and away from all possible danger. That’s
an order, you understand?”
“No,” said Professor Maddox
abruptly. “It’s our duty as much as
anyone else’s to share in the defenses.”
“It’s your duty to keep
your skins whole and get back into the laboratories
as quickly as you can and get things running again!
We haven’t any special desire to save your necks
in preference to our own, but in the long run you’re
the only hope any of us has got. Remember that,
and stay out of trouble!”
The Sheriff made his appointments
in rapid-fire sequence, naming many who were not present,
ordering messengers sent to them. Ken volunteered
to ride after the wood detail.
“I guess it’s safe enough
to let you do that,” the Mayor said. “Make
it fast, but don’t break your neck.”
“I’ll take it easy,” Ken promised.
Outside, he selected the best of the
three police horses and headed up out of town, over
the brittle snow with its glare ever-reminding of the
comet. When he was on higher ground, he glanced
back over the length of the valley. The nomads
were not in sight. Not in force, anyway.
He thought he glimpsed a small movement a mile or
two away from the barrier, at the south end of the
valley before it turned out of sight at the point,
but he wasn’t sure. Once he thought he heard
a rifle shot, but he wasn’t sure of that, either.
As he appeared at the edge of the
forest clearing, Mark Wilson, foreman of the detail,
frowned irritably and paused in his task of snaking
a log out to the road.
“You’ll ruin that horse,
besides breaking your neck, riding like that in this
snow. You’re not on detail, anyway.”
“Get all your men and horses
up here right away,” Ken said. “Mayor’s
orders to get back to town at once.” He
told briefly the story of what had happened.
Mark Wilson did not hesitate.
He raised a whistle to his lips and signaled for the
men to cease work and assemble. One by one they
began to appear from among the trees. The horses
were led along, their dragging harnesses clanking
in the frozen air. “We could cut for 2 more
hours,” they protested. “No use wasting
this daylight and having to cut by lantern.”
“Never mind,” said Wilson.
“There’s something else to do. Wait
for the rest.”
When all had assembled he jerked his
head toward Ken. “Go ahead,” he said.
“You tell them.”
Ken repeated in detail everything
that had happened. He outlined the Mayor’s
plan of defense and passed on the order for them to
take all mounts to City Hall, to go by their own homes
on the way and pick up such weapons as they owned.
“You’ll get your further orders there,”
The group was silent, as if they could
not believe it was actually happening. Mark Wilson
broke the spell that seemed to be over them.
“Come on!” he cried. “Get the
lead out of your shoes and let’s get down there!
Sunset’s the deadline!”
There was a rush of motion then.
They hitched up the necessary teams and climbed aboard
the half-filled sleds. There was no excitement
or swearing against fate and their enemies. Rather,
a solemn stillness seemed to fill each man as the
sleds moved off down the hard, frozen roadway.
Almost, but not quite the same pervading
stillness was present in the town when Ken returned.
There was a stirring of frantic activity like that
of a disturbed anthill, but it was just as silent.
The runners moved from block to block. In their
wake the alarmed block leaders raced, weapons in hand,
from house to house, arousing their neighbors.
Many, who had already completed the block mobilization,
were moving in ragged formations to the sector ordered
by the block runner according to Sheriff Johnson’s
Ken did not know what was planned
for the many weaponless men who were being assembled.
They would be useless at the frontline. There
was need for some at the rear. He supposed Johnson
would take care of that later when every weapon was
manned at the defense barrier.
He stopped at his own house.
His mother greeted him anxiously. He could see
she had been crying, but she had dried her tears now
and was reconciled to the inevitable struggle that
was at hand.
“Your father came in a few minutes
ago, and left again,” she said. “He’s
been placed in charge of distribution of medical supplies
under Dr. Adams. He wants you and the other boys
of the club to help in arranging locations for medical
care. Meet him at Dr. Adams’ office.”
“Okay, Mom. How about packing
a load of sandwiches? I may not be back for a
long time. I don’t know what arrangements
they are making for feeding the people on duty.”
“Of course. I’ll
make them right away.” She hurried to the
Maria said, “There must be something
I can do. They’ll need nurses and aides.
I want to go with you.”
“I don’t know what they’ve
planned in that department, either. They ought
to have plenty of room for women in the food and nursing
His mother came with the sandwiches
and placed them in his hands. “Be careful,
Ken.” Her voice shook. “Do be
Maria got her coat. Mrs. Larsen
let her go without protest, but the two women watched
anxiously as the young people rode toward town on the
At the doctor’s office, Ken
found his father surrounded by an orderly whirl of
activity. “Ken! I was hoping you’d
get back soon. You can help with arrangements
for hospital care, in assigned homes. The rest
of your friends are out on their streets. Take
this set of instructions Dr. Adams has prepared and
see that arrangements are made in exact accordance
with them at each house on the list.”
“I can help, too,” said Maria.
“Yes. Dr. Adams has prepared
a list of women and girls he wants to assign as nurses
and aides. You can help contact them. Get
the ones on this list to meet here as quickly as possible
and they’ll be assigned to the houses which
the boys are lining up.”
The comet was setting earlier now,
so that its unnatural light disappeared almost as
soon as the sun set below the horizon. In the
short period of twilight, tension grew in the city.
Everything possible had been done to mount defenses.
An attack had been promised if the nomad emissaries
did not return. Now the time had come.
Darkness fell with no sign of activity
in any direction. It seemed unreasonable that
any kind of night attack would be launched, but Hilliard
and Johnson warned their men not to relax their vigilance.
The pace of preparatory activity continued.
Blankets, clothing and food were brought to the men
who waited along the defense perimeter. Medical
arrangements were perfected as much as possible.
Ken and his father made their quarters
in another room of the building where Dr. Adams’
office was. There was no heat, of course, but
they had brought sleeping bags which were unrolled
on the floor. After the sandwiches were gone
their rations were canned soup, to be eaten directly
from the can without being heated.
Maria was quartered elsewhere in the
building with some of the women who were directing
the nurses’ activities.
Through the windows could be seen
the campfires which Johnson had permitted to be built
at the guard posts. Each had a wall of snow ready
to be pushed upon it in case of any sign of attack.
“We’d better get some
sleep,” Professor Maddox said finally to Ken.
“They’ll take care of anything that’s
going to happen out there tonight. We may have
a rough day tomorrow.”
Ken agreed, although he did not feel
like sleeping. After hours, it seemed, of thrashing
restlessly he dozed off. He thought it was dawn
when he opened his eyes again to the faint, red glow
reflected on the walls of the room. He was unaware
for a moment of where he was. Then he saw the
glow was flickering.
He scrambled to his feet and ran to
the window. In the distance the glow of burning
houses lit the landscape. The rapid crack of rifle
fire came faintly to his ears.
Professor Maddox was beside him.
“How could they do it?” Ken exclaimed.
“How could they get through our lines and set
fire to the houses?”
On the southern sector of the defense
line Sheriff Johnson’s men crouched behind their
improvised defenses. The glow of the fire blinded
them as they attempted to pierce the darkness from
which the attack was coming.
From a half-dozen different points
fireballs were being lobbed out of the darkness.
Ineffective on the snow-laden roofs, many others crashed
through the windows and rolled on the floors inside.
Such targets became flaming infernos within minutes.
They were all unoccupied because the
inhabitants had been moved closer to the center of
town for protection.
A fusillade of shots poured out of
the darkness upon the well-lighted defenders.
They answered the fire, shooting at the pinpoints of
light that betrayed the enemy’s position, and
at the spots in the darkness from which the flaming
fireballs came. It was obvious that the attackers
were continuously moving. It was difficult to
know where the launching crews of the fireball catapults
were actually located in that overwhelming darkness.
Sheriff Johnson was on the scene almost
at once. He had once been an infantry lieutenant
with combat experience. His presence boosted the
morale of the defenders immediately.
“Hold your fire,” he ordered
the men. “Keep under cover and wait until
you can see something worth shooting at. Try to
keep the fire from spreading, and watch for a rush
attack. Don’t waste ammunition! You’ll
find yourselves without any if you keep that up.”
Reluctantly, they ceased firing and
fell back to the protection of their barricades.
Patrolman John Sykes, who was lieutenant of the sector,
had been in the National Guard, but he had never seen
anything like this. “Do you think they’ll
rush us?” he asked. “Tonight, I mean,
in the dark.”
“Who knows? They may be
crazy enough to try anything. Keep your eyes
The flames quickly burned out the
interiors of the houses that had been hit. As
the roofs crashed in, their burden of snow assisted
in putting out the fires, and there was no spreading
to nearby houses.
In his room, Ken dressed impatiently.
It was useless to try to sleep any more. “I
wish they’d let us go out there,” he said.
“We’ve got as much right as Johnson or
any of the rest.”
His father remained a motionless silhouette
against the distant firelight. “As much
right, perhaps,” he said, “but more and
different responsibilities. Hilliard is right.
If we were knocked down out there who would take over
the work in the laboratory? Johnson? Adams?
“In Berkeley there are thousands
fighting each other, but with French and his group
gone, no one is fighting the comet. I don’t
think it is selfish to say we are of infinitely more
value in the laboratory than we could ever be out
there with guns in our hands.”
He turned and smiled in the half-darkness.
“That’s in spite of the fact that you
have the merit badge for marksmanship and won the hunting
club trophy last year.”
After an hour the attack ceased, apparently
because the defenders refused to waste their fire
on the impossible targets. Sheriff Johnson sent
word around for his men to resume rotation of watch
and get all the sleep possible before the day that
was ahead of them.
The fires burned themselves out shortly
before dawn. Their light was followed soon by
the glow of the comet rising in the southeast.
Ken watched it and thought of Granny Wicks. It
wouldn’t be hard, he thought, to understand
how a belief in omens could arise. It wouldn’t
be hard at all.
The sky had cleared so that the light
of the comet bathed the entire countryside in its
full, bitter glory. At sunrise the faint trickles
of smoke rose from hundreds of wood fires, started
with the difficult green fuel, and stringent breakfasts
were prepared. A thought went through Ken’s
mind and he wondered if anybody was taking note of
the supply of matches in town. When they ran
low, coals of one fire would have to be kept to light
It was 9 o’clock, on a day when
ordinarily school bells would have been sounding throughout
the valley. The first war shouts of the attacking
nomads were heard on the plain to the south. About
thirty men on horseback raced single file along the
highway that bore the hard, frozen tracks of horses
and sleds that had moved to and from the farms down
Patrolman Sykes watched them through
his glasses. His command rang out to his company.
“Hold fire.” He knew the nomads would
not hope to break through the barbed wire on such
a rush. It looked as if they planned an Indian-style
attack as the line began breaking in a slow curve something
less than 100 yards away.
“Fire!” Sykes commanded.
Volleys of shots rang out on both sides almost simultaneously.
The lead rider of the nomads went down, his horse
galloping in riderless panic at the head of the line.
The hard-riding column paralleled the barrier for
200 yards, drawing the fire of adjacent guard posts
before they broke and turned south again. It was,
evidently, a test of the strength of the defenses.
“Every shot counts!” Sykes
cried out to his men. As the attackers rode out
of effective range he sighted four riderless horses.
Beside him, in the barricade, one of his own men was
hit and bleeding badly. A tourniquet was prepared
until two men of the medical detail arrived with an
Sykes sat down and rested his head
on his arms for a moment. The air was well below
freezing, but his face was bathed with sweat.
How long? he asked himself silently. How long
can it go on? First the comet, then this.
He roused at a sudden cry beside him.
“They’re coming back,”
a man shouted. Sykes stood up and raised his
fieldglasses to his eyes. From around the point
a fresh group of riders was pouring toward the town.
At least three times as many as before.
In a flash, he understood their intent.
“They’re going to come through!”
he cried. “They’re going to come right
through the barrier, no matter what it costs them!”