Three days later, Mayor Hilliard died.
It was on the same day that Maria’s mother was
Maria had watched her mother day and
night, losing strength and finally lapsing into a
coma from which she never emerged.
Maria and her father did their best
to control their grief, to see it as only another
part of the immense reservoir of grief all about them.
When they were alone in their section of the house
they gave way to the loss and the loneliness they
There were no burial services.
The deaths had mounted to at least a score daily.
No coffins were available. Each family dug its
own shallow graves in the frozen ground of the cemetery.
Sheriff Johnson posted men to help, and to see that
graves were at least deep enough to cover the bodies.
Beyond this, nothing more could be done. Only
Dr. Aylesworth came daily to hold prayer services.
It was little enough to do, but it was all there was
left for him.
When the death of Mayor Hilliard became
known, Sheriff Johnson called an immediate session
of the councilmen and announced himself as Hilliard’s
successor. Visitors were invited, and Professor
Maddox thought it of sufficient importance to attend.
The tension in the air was heavy as
the group sat in thick coats in the unheated hall.
Johnson spoke without preliminaries. “There
are some of you who won’t like this,”
he said. “Our town charter calls for an
emergency election in case of the Mayor’s death,
and some of you think we should have one now.
“So do those out there.”
He waved a hand toward the window and the town beyond.
“However, we’re not going to have an election,
and I’ll tell you why. I know the man who
would win it and you do, too. Frank Meggs.
“He hated Hilliard, he hates
us, and he hates this town, and he’ll do everything
in his power to destroy it. Today he would win
an election if it were held. He’s used
the discomfort of the people to stir them to a frenzy
against Hilliard’s policy of protection for College
Hill. He’ll stir them up against anything
that means a sacrifice of present safety for long-range
survival. Meggs is a dangerous man.
“Maybe this isn’t the
way it ought to be done, but I don’t know any
other way. When this is all over there will be
time enough for elections, and if I don’t step
down you can shoot me or run me out of the country
or anything else you like. For the time being,
though, this is the way things are going to be.
It’s what Hilliard wanted, and I’ve got
his written word if any of you care to see it.”
He looked about challengingly.
There was a scuffling of feet. Some councilmen
looked at their neighbors and back again to the Sheriff.
None stood up to speak, nor did any of the visitors
voice objections, although several of Frank Meggs’
lieutenants were in the group.
“We’ll carry on, then,”
Sheriff Johnson said, “just as before. Food
rations will remain as they are. We don’t
know how many of us there will be after this epidemic
is over. Maybe none of us will be here by spring;
we can only wait and see.”
Although his assumption of power was
accepted docilely by the Council, it sparked a furor
among the populace of Mayfield. Frank Meggs fanned
it with all the strength of his hatred for the town
and all it stood for.
Granny Wicks’ fortunetelling
business continued to grow. Considerations had
been given to the desirability of putting a stop to
it, but this would have meant literally imprisoning
her, and, it was reasoned, this would stir up more
fire than it would put out.
Her glory was supreme as she sat in
an old rocker in the cottage where she lived.
Lines of visitors waited all day at her door.
Inside, she was wrapped in a blanket and wore an ancient
shawl on her head against the cold of the faintly
heated room. She cackled in her high-pitched voice
with hysterical glee.
To those who came, her words were
solemn pronouncements of eternal truth. To anyone
else it would have been sheer mumbo jumbo, but her
believers went away in ecstasy after carefully copying
her words. They spent hours at home trying to
read great meanings into her senile nonsense.
It was quite a time before Frank Meggs
realized the power that lay in the old woman, and
he berated himself for not recognizing it earlier.
When he finally did go to see her, he was not disappointed.
It was easy to understand how she, with her ancient,
wrinkled face and deep-black eyes, could be confused
with a source of prophecy and wisdom in these times
of death and terror.
“I want to lead this people,
Granny,” he said, after she had bade him sit
down. “Tell me what to do.”
She snorted and eyed him sharply.
“What makes you think you can lead this people?”
“Because I see they have been
led into disaster by selfish, ignorant fools,”
said Frank Meggs; “men who believe that in the
laboratories on the hill there can be found a way
to dispel the power of the great comet. Because
they believe this, they have persecuted the people.
They have taken their food and have given it to the
scientists. They have protected them, and them
alone, from the disease that sickens us.
“You do not believe these men
can overcome the power of the comet, do you, Granny?”
Wild flame leaped in the old woman’s
eyes. “Nothing can overwhelm the power
of this heavenly messenger! Death shall come to
all who attempt such blasphemy!”
“Then you will give your blessing
to my struggle to release the people from this bondage?”
“Yes!” Granny Wicks spoke
with quivering intensity. “You are the man
I have been waiting for. I can see it now!
You are appointed by the stars themselves!
“I prophesy that you shall succeed
and drive out those who dare trifle with the heavens.
Go with my blessings, Frank Meggs, and do your great
Elation filled him as he left the
house. It was certain that Granny Wicks would
pass the word of his “appointment” to all
who came to her audience chamber. The way things
were going, it looked as if that would be nine-tenths
of the people in Mayfield.
The occupation of the Mayor’s
chair by Sheriff Johnson gave Frank Meggs a further
opening that he wanted. The crowds grew at his
torchlight harangues. Even though one-third of
the population lay ill with the flu, the night meetings
“Sheriff Johnson has no right
to the office he holds,” he screamed. His
appreciative audience huddled in their miserable coldness
and howled their agreement.
“This is not the way things
should be done. Our charter calls for an election
but when will there be an election? My friends,
our good Sheriff is not the real villain in this matter.
He is but the tool and the dupe of a clever and crafty
group who, through him, are the real holders of power
and privilege in this town.
“While we have starved, they
have been fed in plenty; while we have been cold,
they have sat before their warm fires; while we sicken
and die of disease, they are immune because the only
supply of vaccine in this whole valley was used by
“You know who I am talking about!
The scientists who would like to rule us, like kings,
from the top of College Hill!
“They tell us the comet is responsible
for this trouble. But we know different.
Who has been responsible for all the trouble the world
has known for ages? Science and scientists!
The world was once a clean, decent place to live.
They have all but destroyed it with their unholy experiments
and twistings of nature.
“They’ve always admitted
their atom experiments would make monsters of future
generations of men, but they didn’t care about
that! Now they’re frightened because they
didn’t know these experiments would also destroy
the machines on which they had forced us to be dependent.
They try to say it is the comet.
“Well, the world would have
been better off without their machines in the first
place. It would have been better off without them.
Now we’ve got a chance to be free of them at
last! Are we going to endure their tyranny from
College Hill any longer?”
Night after night, he repeated his
words, and the crowds howled their approval.
On College Hill, morale and optimism
were at their highest peak since the appearance of
the comet. On the roof of Science Hall there was
being erected a massive, 30-foot, hyperbolic reflector
whose metal surface had been beaten out of aluminum
chicken-shed roofs. At its center, and at intervals
about the bowl, there projected a series of supersonic
generating units, spaced for proper phasing with one
another in beaming a concentrated wave of supersonic
Power to this unit was supplied by
a motor generator set constructed of decontaminated
parts, which had been operating for a full week without
sign of breakdown.
Ken and his companions had worked
day and night on the rough construction, while the
scientists had designed and built the critical supersonic
generating equipment. In a solid, 24-hour shift
of uninterrupted work they had mounted and tested
the units. It was completed on their second day
of work. Tomorrow it would be turned on for a
full week’s run to test the practicability of
such a method of precipitating the comet dust.
Laboratory tests had shown it could
be done on a small scale. This projector was
a pilot model to determine whether it would be worthwhile
building a full-size machine with a reflector 250 feet
Ken’s father looked completely
exhausted, but his smile was broader than it had been
for many weeks. “I’m confident we
will prove the practicability of this machine,”
he said. “After that, we will build a really
big one, and we’ll tell the rest of the world
how to do it. I don’t know how long it
will take, but this will do the job. We’ll
get them to build big ones in Tokyo and Pasadena and
Stockholm, wherever there’s civilization enough
to know how to do it; they can decontaminate their
own metals and build new engines that will run as long
as necessary. We’ve got the comet on the
He hadn’t meant to give a speech,
but he couldn’t help it. They were right,
and their staggering labors were nearly over, in this
phase, at least.
They slept from exhaustion that night.
Ken was awakened in the early-morning hours by the
glare in his bedroom window. He sat up and looked
out. It seemed to be a very long time before he
could let his mind admit what his eyes saw.
Science Hall was in flames, the entire
structure a mass of leaping, boiling fire.
Ken ran from his room, crying the alarm.
In their separate rooms, his father
and Dr. Larsen stared stupidly at the flickering light
as if also unable to comprehend the vastness of the
ruin. In frenzy of haste, they donned their clothes
and ran from their rooms.
Maria was awake as was Mrs. Maddox.
“What is it?” they called. Then they,
too, saw the flames through the windows.
The men ran from the house, hatless,
their tousled hair flying in the night. Halfway
up the hill, Ken called to his father, “You’ve
got to stop, Dad! Don’t run like that!”
Professor Maddox came to a halt, his
breath bursting from him in great gasps. Ken
said, “There’s nothing we can do, Dad.”
Dr. Larsen stopped beside them.
“Nothing except watch,” he agreed.
Slowly, they resumed their way.
Behind, they heard the sounds of others attracted
by the fire. As they came at last to the brow
of the hill, Ken pointed in astonishment. “There’s
a crowd of people over there! Near the burning
He started forward. A shot burst
in the night, and a bullet clipped the tree over his
head. He dropped to the ground. “Get
down! They’re firing at us!”
As they lay prone, sickness crept
through them simultaneously. “I know who
it is,” Ken cried. “Frank Meggs.
That crazy Frank Meggs! He’s got a mob
together and fired the college buildings!”
In agony of spirit they crawled to
the safety of the slope below the brow of the hill.
“We’ve got to go after Sheriff Johnson,”
said Ken. “We’ve got to fight again;
we’ve got to fight all over again!”
Dr. Larsen watched the fire in hypnotic
fascination. “All gone,” he whispered.
“Everything we’ve done; everything we’ve
built. Our records, our notes. There’s
nothing left at all.”
They moved down the hill, cautioning
others about the mob. Sheriff Johnson was already
starting up as they reached the bottom. Quickly,
they told him what they’d found at the top.
“We shouldn’t let the mob get off the
hill,” said Ken. “If we do, we’ll
never know which ones took part.”
“There are as many down here
who would like to be up there,” said Johnson.
“You can be sure of that. We don’t
know who we can trust any more. Get your science
club boys together and find as many patrolmen as possible.
Ask each one to get fifteen men he thinks he can trust
and meet here an hour from now. If we can do
it in that time we may stand a chance of corralling
them. Otherwise, we’ll never have a chance
“We can try,” said Ken.
By now, others had been fired upon
and driven back, so that the situation was apparent
to everyone. A great many townspeople, most of
those well enough to leave their houses, were streaming
toward College Hill.
It would be futile to try to find
the patrolmen at their own homes, Ken knew. They’d
be coming this way, too. He soon found Joe Walton
and Al Miner. They mingled in the crowd, calling
out for other members of the club. Within minutes,
all but two had been found. Word was passed to
them to carry out the Sheriff’s instructions.
It was easier than they anticipated.
Within 20 minutes a dozen officers had been given
the word to find their men. At the end of the
hour they were gathered and ready for the advance.
The spectators had been driven back.
The armed men fanned out to cover the entire hill
in a slowly advancing line. They dwindled and
became silhouettes against the flames.
At the top, Sheriff Johnson called
out to the mob through an improvised megaphone.
“Give up your arms and come forward with your
hands up!” he cried. “In 10 seconds
we start shooting!”
His command was answered by howls
of derision. It was like the cries of maniacs,
and their drifted words sounded like, “Kill the
Bullets accompanied the shouts and
howls. The Sheriff’s men took cover and
began a slow and painful advance.
There could be a thousand mobbers
on top of the hill, Ken thought. The Sheriff’s
men might be outnumbered several times over. He
wondered if they ought to try to get reinforcements,
and decided against it unless word should be sent
down from the top.
There was no way of telling how the
battle was going. Gunfire was continuous.
A freezing wind had come up and swept over the length
of the valley and over those who waited and those
who fought. It fanned the flames to volcanic
Ken touched his father’s arm.
“There’s no use for you to stay in this
cold,” he said. “You ought to go back
to the house.”
“I’ve got to know how it comes out up
there, who wins.”
The cold starlight of the clear sky
began to fade. As dawn approached, the flames
in the college buildings had burned themselves out.
But the gunfire continued almost without letup.
Then, almost as quickly as it had started, it died.
After a time, figures appeared on
the brow of the hill and came down in a weary procession.
Sheriff Johnson led them. He stopped at the bottom
of the hill.
“Was it Meggs?” Ken asked. “Did
you get Frank Meggs?”
“He fell in the first 10 minutes,”
said Johnson. “It wasn’t really Meggs
keeping them going at all. They had a witch up
there. As long as she was alive nothing would
“Granny Wicks! Was she up there?”
“Sitting on a kind of throne
they’d made for her out of an old rocking chair.
Right in the middle of the whole thing.”
“Did she finally get shot?”
Sheriff Johnson shook his head.
“She was a witch, a real, live witch. Bullets
wouldn’t touch her. The west wall of Science
Hall collapsed and buried her. That’s when
they gave up.
“So maybe you can say you won,
after all,” he said to Professor Maddox.
“It’s a kind of symbol, anyway, don’t