The spearhead of the nomad infantry
attack broke through between two lightly manned guard
posts whose garrisons fled in retreat with a few ineffective
shots. The column came through in a widening wedge.
As it met more defenders it fell back, but it appeared
to the nomads that the whole defense line had crumbled
or had been diverted to the south, as anticipated.
They poured along Main Street in the
faint dawnlight until they reached 12th Avenue.
There, they split and fanned along 12th, east and west.
It was their strategy, obviously, to occupy and seal
off this large northern sector of the town, which
amounted to one-quarter of its total area and cut
across a large portion of the business section.
They would solidify their position here, destroy all
opposition, then move to still another sector until
they were in command of the entire town.
It was a strategy that would work,
unless everything Mayfield possessed were thrown against
it, Ken thought. He saw now why 12th Avenue had
been chosen as the line of attack: the defenders
were intrenched there and were offering forceful opposition.
He looked for a moment to the south
again. The defenses there were light, yet the
charge of the mounted nomads had to be contained or
they would drive all the way to the center of town,
burning and killing as they went. If they succeeded
in joining with the infantry they would have split
Mayfield’s defenses in two.
Johnson had mounted his best men,
using the captured nomad horses as well as the town’s
own. Desperately, this small force was trying
to contain and exterminate the fierce-riding enemy.
Picked sharpshooters had been carefully stationed
with the best rifles available. Although the
gunfire was not heavy, Ken could see Johnson’s
men were taking a heavy toll of the invader.
In the north, the lines of fixed battle
had now been established. The nomads had drawn
back to positions of cover in the empty houses facing
12th. Their flanks were more mobile, fighting
for advantage along streets parallel to Main but some
blocks away on either side, and extending all the
way back to the point of breakthrough. While he
surveyed the scene from the roof, Ken watched the stealthy
movement of defenders moving behind the main line
to try to surround the enemy. That was the strategy
of the defense, and the gamble on which their entire
If they succeeded they would have
the breach closed, leaving no retreat for the surrounded
The comet slowly appeared, illuminating
the scene of battle as if it lay upon some other planet.
The day was clear so far, but a band of stratus hung
low over the western hills. It would probably
be snowing by nightfall, Ken thought.
Through the glasses he recognized
the leader of a small patrol that was moving east
on 18th Avenue. It was Tom Wiley, the barber.
His men were mostly students from the college.
They were trying to gain a house farther up the block
to provide a covering point from which a general advance
of the line on both sides of them could hinge.
Tom could not see that an opposing patrol had him
He led his men into the open to cross
the street. Ken wanted to shout for him to go
back, but it was impossible to be heard at such distance.
The enemy patrol moved out slightly. They centered
Tom and his men in a murderous burst of rifle fire.
The barber fell. Two of the others were hit,
but they managed to reach cover with the rest of their
The body of Tom Wiley lay motionless
where it fell in the snow-covered street. Ken
could see the sign, just a block away, that read, “Wiley’s
Barber and Beauty Shop.” From where Ken
stood, the sign, which jutted out over the sidewalk,
seemed to project just above the body of the fallen
Ken hesitated in his resolve to go
down there in the midst of the fighting. He thought
of Johnson’s words and Hilliard’s orders.
Would the defense strategy succeed? The nomads
were trained and toughened by their weeks of fight
for survival, but Mayfield’s men were only weakened
by their strained effort to keep the town alive.
On the eastern side of the encirclement
a burst of smoke with a core of orange flame at its
center spurted upward from a house. This was
followed by a second and a third and a fourth.
Defending fighters ran from the rear of the burning
houses to the row beyond. Behind the screen of
billowing smoke the nomads crept forward to repeat
their tactics and fire the houses where the defenders
now had cover. It was obvious they recognized
the danger of encirclement by forces stronger than
any they had anticipated. They were making a
desperate effort to straighten their lines parallel
to the barbed wire, with their flanks and rear clear
Ken watched the success of their second
incendiary thrust. They could go on indefinitely
unless the defenders succeeded in flanking them.
That was being attempted now. The defenders moved
under the cover of the smokescreen to fire on the
advancing nomads. The latter recognized their
danger and held to solid cover of houses adjacent to
those they had fired.
North of this bulge, however, another
column was forming, and Ken saw in sudden horror that
it was headed directly toward the warehouse! A
house only a half-block from the warehouse burst into
There was a flurry of activity from
the defenders as they, too, recognized the fresh danger
and brought up reinforcements before the threatened
This added resistance seemed to inflame
the determination of the nomads. They answered
the increased fire sharply. Another incendiary
ignited a wooden building a step nearer the warehouse.
The defenders tried to flank the threatening column
but the latter ran between a row of burning houses
along an alleyway, firing additional incendiaries as
Then sudden flame burst against the
wooden walls of the old skating rink and licked with
red fury along its painted surface. In moments
the warehouse was bathed on all sides in seething
flame, and the nomad column spread beyond it, unaware
of the mortal damage they had done.
Ken turned away. He walked slowly
and decisively down the stairs. He told his father
what had just happened. “I’m going
out there, Dad,” he said. “They’re
going to wipe us out, or destroy every chance we’ll
have to survive even if we drive them off. Half
of our food supply is gone now. What chance have
we got even if we kill every nomad in the valley?”
Ken’s father turned to a closet
and drew out a .30-06. From a hook he took down
a hunter’s jacket. Its pockets were loaded
with shells, and he had an extra box he gave to Ken.
“Johnson left this here,”
he said. “He intended it for our use if
the nomads reached this far. I think maybe it
had better be used before the medical center needs
Ken’s eyes lighted with gratefulness.
“Thanks, Dad,” he said. “I’m
glad you’re willing.”
“I don’t know if I’m
willing or not. However, I think I agree with
you that there’s nothing else to be done.”
Ken ran from the building, clutching
the solid, reassuring weight of the rifle in his hand.
His coat pockets and the hunting jacket were weighted
heavily with the supply of ammunition. There was
a feeling of security in the weapon and the shells,
but he knew it was a short-lived, deceptive security.
He went to Eighth Street and turned
north, which would bring him close to the burned warehouse.
He could see the immense, rolling column of black
smoke and hear the bursting crackle of its flames.
The whole town could go, he thought, if the fire became
hot enough. It would spread from building to
building regardless of the snow cover. He glanced
at the sky and hoped the snow might soon resume.
From the rooftop, it had seemed to
Ken that the small units of the defenders were almost
leaderless, and there was lack of co-ordination between
them. He came up in their rear ranks and confirmed
this suspicion. They seemed to be depending as
best they could on unanimous and intuitive agreement
about a course of action. What had happened to
their sergeants and lieutenants, Ken did not know.
Perhaps in their haste of organization there never
had been any.
There was top-level command, of course,
as appointed by Sheriff Johnson for the entire sector,
but it did not extend to the lower levels in any degree
Ken could see.
The men paid no attention as Ken joined
them. He knew a few of the dozen nearby, but
they seemed to regard him as a total stranger.
The shock of battle was in their eyes, and they seemed
wholly unaware of anything in the world except the
desperate necessity to find cover and to destroy the
Ken followed them into the shelter
of a house flanking the still-advancing incendiaries.
He crouched at a window with an older man whom he
did not know and leveled his rifle through an opening.
A pair of figures appeared momentarily at the edge
of the smoking cloud. The older man jerked his
gun and fired frantically and ineffectively.
“Slow!” Ken cried. “Aim before
The man glanced at him in a kind of
daze. Ken sighted patiently and carefully.
The smoke cloud parted once again and he squeezed the
trigger. One of the figures dropped and the smoke
cloud closed down again.
Ken’s calmness seemed to penetrate
his companion who leaned back for a moment to wipe
a shaking hand across his sweat-stained face.
“I’ve never done anything
like this before,” he murmured helplessly.
“None of us have,” said
Ken; “but we’ve got to do it now.
Watch it! We’re drawing their fire!”
Bullets shattered the window casing
above and beside them. Across the room a man
crumpled. Ken risked a glance through the window.
“We’ve got to get out!” he exclaimed.
“They’re going to rush the house!”
It might have been possible to hold
if he knew what cover and reinforcements they had
in the adjacent houses, but as far as he could tell
the small, 12-man patrol might be entirely alone in
Suddenly, it all seemed utterly hopeless
without communication, without leadership how
could they hope to withstand?
“Let’s go!” he cried.
The others seemed willing to follow him. As they
went through the back he saw that the next house had
indeed been occupied, but they, too, were retreating,
not knowing what strength was near.
A new line of defenders was moving
up from halfway down the block. Ken held back
to shout to the other patrol and to those coming, “Let’s
stand in the next street!”
There were shouts of assent from down
the line and they moved to the shelter of the empty
They were close to the edge of town,
near the barbed-wire barricade, and the nomads would
obviously make their biggest effort here to wipe out
the forces that threatened to close them off.
His own group, Ken saw, would also have to make their
stand here or risk being pocketed by the uncoiling
line of nomads.
“Don’t let them get close
enough to fire the buildings!” he shouted down
the line. The word was passed along with agreement.
They broke into small patrols and occupied the houses,
Ken joining one that took over the top floor of a
2-story house. This gave them the advantage of
good observation, but the added danger of difficult
escape in case the house was set on fire. Its
walls were brick, however, and offered a good chance
of being held.
Within minutes, the nomads had occupied
the houses just abandoned. Ken fired rapidly
and carefully as he saw them exposed momentarily in
their move to new positions. His marksmanship
had a telling effect on the enemy, and encouraged
his companions. As soon as the nomads had obtained
cover however, it was a stalemate.
It was mid-morning already, and Ken
wondered how it had grown so late. For an hour
or two they exchanged shots with the enemy. Twice,
attempts were made to hurl firebombs. Both were
Beyond this, however, the nomads seemed
in no mood to make further attack. They were
waiting for darkness, Ken thought, and then they would
advance with their firebombs and grenades and have
free choice of battle setting. If that happened,
Mayfield might be a huge inferno by midnight.
They had to seize the initiative from the invaders.
He called his companions and told
them how it looked. They agreed. “What
can we do?” a tired, middle-aged man asked.
“We’ve got to take the
initiative before they come at us again.”
Ken glanced at the sky. “Within an hour
it may be snowing hard. That will make it more
difficult to hit a target. When daylight is almost
gone we’ll attack them instead of waiting for
them to come after us. It can be done if we hit
hard and fast enough. We’ll lose some men,
but not as many as if we wait and let them pick us
off with their grenades and incendiaries as they feel
The men considered it dubiously.
“We’ve got a better chance to hit them
as they break from cover,” someone suggested.
“Not after dark, and that’s
what they’re waiting for. They’ll
burn our houses and drive us back all night long if
we give them the chance. We must not give it
Reluctant nods of agreement came from
his group. “The way you put it, I guess
it’s the only chance we’ve got,”
the former objector agreed.
“I’ll talk with the other groups,”
He moved down the stairs and out the
back door of the house. The space between the
two houses was entirely open. He flung himself
down and crawled. Twice, he heard the whine of
bullets above his head.
After heated argument, the group in
the next house agreed to the plan to rush the invaders.
He moved on down the block, regretting his own lack
of authority that made it necessary for him to have
to plead for co-operation. He wondered what was
happening in the rest of the town. There had
been gunfire all day, but it seemed incredible there
had been no communication from any other sector or
any evidence of command. No one he talked to
had any idea what had happened to their command.
There had been some in the beginning, but it had simply
seemed to vanish. Ken’s pleading for co-operation
in an attack was the nearest thing to leadership they
had seen for hours.
The snow was swirling hard and the
sun was almost beyond the hills, what little of it
was visible in the clouds. It was getting as dark
as he dared allow before giving the signal for attack,
but there was one more group to contact. He debated
and decided to go to them.
Then, as he entered the rear of the
house, he heard the cries of alarm from those houses
he had been to. The invaders were breaking out
for an incendiary attack.
He seized his gun and fired the signal
for their own advance. He ran into the street
shouting for the others to follow. The nomads
were concentrating their fire charge at the other
end of the row of houses, and there the defenders
fell back without an attempt to advance.
Like watching a wave turned back by
a rocky shore, Ken saw his companions fleeing in disorderly
retreat through the rear of the houses to the block
beyond. A bullet whizzed by his head. He
dropped to the ground and crawled on his stomach to
the safety of cover behind a brick house.
For a long time he lay in the snow,
unmoving. He could not hold back the sobbing
despair that shook him. He had never before known
what it was like to be utterly alone. Mayfield
was dying and taking away everything that was his
own personal world. He had listened to news of
the destruction of Chicago and of Berkeley without
knowing what it really meant. Now he knew.
For all he knew, the nomads might
even now be in control of the major part of the town.
He could not know what had happened to his father,
to Maria, to anyone.
The crackling of flames in the next
house aroused him. He crawled inside the brick
house, which was still safe, for a moment of rest.
He knew he should be fleeing with the others, but
he had to rest.
He heard sporadic shooting. A
few nomads were straggling after their companions
at the other end of the street. It was too far
to shoot. However, one nomad stopped and swung
cautiously under the very windows of the burning house
next door. Ken leveled his rifle and fired.
The bullet caught the man in the shoulder and flung
him violently against the wall. Ken saw that
he would be buried by the imminent, flaming collapse
of that wall.
The man saw it, too. He struggled
frantically to move out of the way, but he seemed
injured beyond the power to get away.
Ken regarded him in a kind of stupor
for a moment. The man out there was responsible
for all this, he thought, for the burning and for the
He swung his rifle over his shoulder
and went out. Brands were falling upon the wounded
enemy. Ken hoisted the man under the arms and
dragged him to the opposite side of the adjacent house.
The nomad looked at Ken with a strange fury in his
he said painfully. “You’re the one
who shot me?”
“You’ll be cut off.
Well, it won’t matter much anyway. By tomorrow
your town will be burned and dead. Soon, we’ll
all be dead.”
Ken kneeled on the ground beside him,
as if before some strange object from a foreign land.
“What were you?” he asked. “Before,
The man coughed heavily and blood
covered his mouth and thick growth of beard.
The bullet must be in his lungs, Ken thought.
He helped wipe away the blood and brushed the man’s
mouth with a handful of snow.
the nomad said again. “I guess we’re
all crazy. You’re just a kid, aren’t
you? You want to know what I was a million years
ago, before all this?”
“Yes,” Ken said.
The man attempted a smile. “Gas
station. Wasn’t that a crazy thing?
No need of gas when all the cars quit. I owned
one on the best little corner in Marysvale.”
“Why are you with them?”
Ken nodded in the darkness toward the distant attackers.
The man glared, twisting with the
pain. Then his glance softened. “You’d
have done it, too. What else was there? I
had a wife, two kids. No food within a hundred
miles after we used what was in our own pantry and
robbed what we could from the supermarket downtown.
“We all got together and went
after some. We got bigger as we went along.
We needed men who were good with rifles. We found
some. We kept going. People who had food
fought to keep it; we fought to take it. That’s
the way it had to be.
“We heard about your town with
its big hoard of food. We decided to get it.”
“Did you know you burned half of it this morning?”
“No. That’s tough.
That’s tough all the way around. Don’t
look at me that way, kid. You would have done
the same. We’re all the same as you, only
we didn’t live where there was plenty of food
on hand. We were all decent guys before.
Me, those guys out in the street that you knocked
off. I guess you’re decent, too.”
“Where’s your family now?”
“Twenty miles down the valley,
waiting with the rest of the women and children for
us to bring them food.”
Ken rose slowly to his feet.
The man was bleeding heavily from the mouth.
His words were growing muffled. “What are
you going to do?” he asked.
“Get on with what has to be
done,” said Ken wearily. He felt sure he
must be walking in a nightmare and in just a little
while he would awaken. “If there’s
a chance, I’ll try to send somebody after you.”
“Never mind me!” the nomad
said with sudden fierceness. “I’m
done for. You’ve finished me. If our
outfit should be unlucky enough to lose, see my wife
and try to do something for my kids. Get some
food to them. Tom Doyle’s the name,”
the man said.
A fit of coughing seized him again
and blood poured from his mouth. His eyes were
closed when he lay back again. “Tom Doyle’s
the name,” his bloody lips murmured. “Don’t
forget that, kid. Tom Doyle’s Service,
corner of First and Green in Marysvale. We were
all good guys once.”
The snow was so heavy it seemed like
a solid substance through which Ken walked. In
spite of it, row upon row of houses burned with a fury
that lit the whole scene with a glow that was like
the comet’s own. Above this, the blanket
of black smoke lay as if ready to smother the valley
as soon as the light was gone.
Ken didn’t know for sure where
he was going. A kind of aimlessness crept over
him and there no longer seemed any rational objective
toward which to move. He crept on from house
to house in the direction his group had gone, but
he could not find any of them. Somewhere he touched
the edge of combat again. He had a nightmare
of going into a thousand houses, smashing their windows
out, thrusting his rifle through for a desperate shot
at some fleeing enemy.
The night was held back by a hundred
terrible fires. He shot at shadows and ghosts
that moved against the flames. He sought the companionship
of others who fought, like himself, in a lonely vastness
where only the sound of fire and gunshots prevailed.
Later, he moved through the streets
stricken with cold that he could not lose even when
he passed and stood close to a mass of burning rubble.
He had stopped shooting quite a long time ago, and
he guessed he was out of bullets. The next time
he met someone, he thought, he would ask them to look
in his pockets and see if any were left.
He kept walking. He passed streets
where the black, charcoal arms of the skeletons of
houses raised to the sky. He passed the hot columns
of smoke and continued to shiver with cold as they
steamed upward to the clouds. He passed others
but no one spoke. After a while he threw his
gun away because it was too heavy to carry and he was
too tired to walk any more.
The falling snow was covering the
ruins with a blanket of kind obscurity. Ken kneeled
down and was surprised to observe that he wasn’t
cold any more. He lay full length in the whiteness,
cradling his head on his arms, and peace and stillness
such as he had never known before closed over him.
It seemed an eternity later that there
was a voice capable of rousing him, a familiar voice
calling out in anguish, “Ken, Ken this
is your dad.”
He responded, although it was like
answering in a dream. “Take care of them,
Dad,” he said. “Don’t let anything
happen to them. A woman and two children.
Tom Doyle’s the name don’t forget
that, Tom Doyle.”