Read Chapter 18. Witchcraft of The Year When Stardust Fell, free online book, by Raymond F. Jones, on ReadCentral.com.

Three days later, Mayor Hilliard died. It was on the same day that Maria’s mother was buried.

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 felt.

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?” she demanded.

“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 work!”

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 went on.

“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 them.

“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 energy skyward.

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 in diameter.

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 run!”

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 building!”

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 at them.”

“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 scientists!”

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 fury.

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 stop them.”

“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 you think?”