The Year When Stardust Fell
Chapter 5: Thief

Public Domain

The hall was already filled. Several scores of chairs had been placed in the corridors, and these were occupied also. People were being ushered to nearby classrooms where they would hear the proceedings over the school’s public-address system.

“It looks as if we’ll have to get it by remote pickup,” said Ken. At that moment Sally Teasdale, the Mayor’s secretary, spotted their group and hurried over.

“Mayor Hilliard told me to watch for you,” she said. “He wants you to sit on the platform, Professor Maddox, and also Dr. Douglas and Dr. Larsen. The others of your party can sit in the wings.”

Professor Maddox agreed and they followed Sally to the stage entrance. The platform was already occupied by the Mayor and the town councilmen, the college department heads, and leading citizens of Mayfield. The professors took their places, while Ken and the others found chairs in the wings. It was the best seat in the house, Ken decided. They could see both the platform and the audience below.

It was undoubtedly the largest group that had ever gathered in one place in Mayfield. In spite of the enormous number present it was a solemn group. There was almost no talking or jostling. To Ken, it seemed the faces about him had a uniform appearance of bewildered searching for reassurance that nothing could really destroy the way of life they had always known.

Mayor Hilliard arose and called the meeting to order. “I think everyone knows why we’ve been called here,” he said. “Because of the nature of the circumstances I think it appropriate that we ask Dr. Aylesworth, pastor of the Community Church, to offer prayer.”

Heads were bowed in reverent silence as Dr. Aylesworth stood before the assembly and offered a solemn invocation that their deliberations might receive divine guidance, and their minds be filled with wisdom to combat the evil that had come upon them.

The minister was a big, ruddy-faced man with a lion’s mane of white hair. The unwavering authority of his voice filled the audience with the conviction that they were better prepared to face their problems when he had resumed his seat.

Mayor Hilliard outlined the worldwide situation as he had obtained it through news reports up to an hour ago. He described the desperate situation of the nation’s larger cities. Their food supplies were sufficient for only a few days without any replenishment by rail and truck transportation. Ninety percent of automobile traffic had ceased. The railroads were attempting to conserve their rolling stock, but 70 percent of it was out of commission, and the remainder could not be expected to operate longer than a few days. Air traffic had stopped entirely. On the oceans, only sailing vessels continued to move.

“Mayfield is already cut off,” the Mayor went on. “Our last train went through here 30 hours ago. The trucking companies out of Frederick have suspended operations. We have no cars or trucks of our own here in town, on which we can depend. We’re on our own.

“So far, the scientists have found no solution. Tomorrow, they may find one. Or it may be 10 years before they do. In the meantime, we have to figure out how we, here in Mayfield, are going to carry on.

“Our first consideration is, of course, food supplies. The Council met this morning, and we have appointed a committee to take immediate possession of all foodstuffs and every facility for food production within the entire valley. Beginning tomorrow morning, this committee will begin to accumulate all food supplies into one or more central warehouses where they will be inventoried for rationing.

“All stocks of fresh meat will be salted and cured. Home supplies will be limited to no more than a week’s needs of any one item. Hoarders who persist in their unfair activities will be ordered to leave the community.

“My fellow citizens, these are stringent and severe regulations, but we are not facing a time of mild inconvenience. It may well be that in this coming winter we shall be literally fighting for our very lives. We, as your leaders, would like a vote of confidence from you, the citizens of Mayfield, as an assurance that you will co-operate with our efforts to the best of your ability.”

Instantly, nearly everyone in the auditorium was on his feet shouting his approval of the Mayor’s program.

Mayor Hilliard had known he was taking a long chance in presenting so bluntly such a severe program, but long experience had taught him the best way into a tough situation was a headlong plunge that ignored consequences. The ovation surprised him. He had expected substantial opposition. Visibly moved, he held up his hand for quiet once more.

“Our farms and our livestock will be our only means of salvation after present food stocks are gone,” he said. “A separate subcommittee will inventory all farmland and cattle and dairy herds and plan for their most efficient use in the coming season. Crops will be assigned as the committee sees fit. Farm labor will be taken care of by all of us, on a community basis.

“A third program that must begin immediately is the stockpiling of fuel for the coming winter. Wood will be our only means of heating and cooking because the nearest mines are too far away for us to haul coal from them by teams. The same is true of fuel oil stocks.

“Heating will be at a minimum. Most of you do not have wood stoves. What you have must be converted to use of wood. An additional committee will be appointed to supervise this conversion and the construction, where necessary, of makeshift stoves out of sheet metal, old oil barrels, and anything else of which we can make use.”

Item by item, he continued down the list of problems the Council had considered that day. He mentioned Ken’s suggestion for conservation of batteries. He spoke of the problems of medical care without adequate hospital facilities, of police activities that might be required in a period of stress such as they could expect that winter.

When he had finished, members of the Council detailed plans of the separate programs over which they had charge. President Lewis spoke to pledge support of the college staff. He pointed out the fortunate fact that they had some of the best minds in the entire country in their scientific departments, and also had Professor Larsen visiting with them.

The floor was turned over then to members of the audience for comment and questions. Most of them were favorable, but Sam Cluff, who owned a hundred and sixty of the best acres in the valley, stood up red-faced and belligerent.

“It’s all a pack of nonsense!” he declared. “This is just an excuse for certain people in this town to get their hands in somebody else’s pockets, and to tell other people what to do and how to live.

“I’m not going to have anything to do with it. Anybody who sets foot on my land to tell me what to raise or to take my goods away is going to have to reckon with a double-barreled, 12-gauge shotgun.

“If there is any real problem, which I doubt, them Government scientists will be on the job and get things straightened out so that trains and automobiles will be running by next week. My advice is for everybody to go home and let them take care of it.”

Mayor Hilliard smiled tolerantly. “I shouldn’t have to remind you, Sam, that some of the best scientists in the world are right here in our own town, and they say the situation is serious enough for emergency measures. I hope you won’t be foolish with that shotgun, but we’re coming out to see you, tomorrow, Sam.”

Granny Wicks seemed to erupt from her place to which she had crowded in the center of the hall. All eyes turned at the sound of her scratchy, birdlike voice. “I told you,” she shrieked. “I told you what was coming, and now maybe you’ll believe me. There’s nothing you can do about it, Bill Hilliard. Nothing at all. There’s death in the air. The stars have spoken it. The signs are in the sky.”

Mayor Hilliard interrupted her. “Perhaps you’re right, Granny,” he said gently. “I don’t think any of us are going to argue with you tonight. We’re here to do what we can, and to make plans to stay alive just as long as possible.”

At the close, Dr. Aylesworth took the stand. His commanding presence seemed to draw an aura of peace once more around the troubled group. “We are civilized men and women,” he said. “Let us see that we act as such during the months that are ahead of us. Let us remember that we may see a time very soon when there will not be enough food, fuel and clothing for all of us. When and if that time comes, let us prove that we are able to be our brother’s keeper, that we are able to do unto others as we would have others do unto us. Above all, may we be able to continue to call on divine assistance to bring a speedy end to this disaster, so that when it is over we can look back and be proud that we conducted ourselves as men and women worthy to be called civilized, and worthy of the divine approval and aid which we now seek.”

It was decided to keep classes going in the various schools as long as possible, releasing those students who were needed to take assignments in the emergency program. Ken and the rest of the science club members obtained immediate permission to devote their full time to the research program.

On the morning after the town meeting, Ken dressed early and rode his bicycle toward Art’s garage to arrange with the mechanic the details of the gathering and storage of automobile batteries. On the way he passed by Frank Meggs Independent Grocery Market, the largest in Mayfield.

Although it was only a little after 7 o’clock, an enormous crowd had collected outside and inside the store. Curious and half-alarmed, Ken parked his bicycle and made his way through the crowd. Inside, he found Frank Meggs ringing up sales of large lots of food.

A red-faced woman was arguing with him at the check-out stand. “A dollar a pound for white beans! That’s ridiculous, Frank Meggs, and you know it!”

“Sure I know it,” the storekeeper said calmly. “Next winter you’ll be glad I let you have them for even that price. If you don’t want them, Mrs. Watkins, please move along. Others will be glad to have them.”

The woman hesitated, then angrily flung two bills on the counter and stalked out with her groceries. Ken shoved his way up to the stand. “Mr. Meggs,” he exclaimed. “You can’t do this! All foodstuffs are being called in by the Mayor’s committee.”

He turned to the people. “Private hoards of food will be confiscated and placed in the community warehouse. This isn’t going to do you any good!”

Most of the shoppers looked shamefaced, at his challenge, but Meggs bristled angrily. “You keep out of this, Maddox! Nobody asked you to come in here! These people know what they’re doing, and so do I. How much do you think any of us will eat if townhall gets its hands on every scrap of food in the valley? If you aren’t buying, get moving!”

“I will, and I’ll be back just as soon as I can find the Sheriff!”

With telephone service now cut off to conserve battery power, Ken hesitated between seeking Sheriff Johnson at his office or at home. He checked his watch again and decided on the Sheriff’s home.

He was fortunate in arriving just before the Sheriff left. He explained quickly what was happening at Meggs’ store. Johnson had been assigned one of the few remaining cars that would run. With Ken, he drove immediately to the store. They strode in, the shoppers fanning out before the Sheriff’s approach.

“Okay, that’s all,” he said. “You folks leave your groceries right where they are. Tell the others they had better bring theirs back and get their money while Meggs still has it. Not that anybody is going to have much use for money, anyway.”

“You’ve no right to do this!” Meggs cried. “This is my private property and I’m entitled to do with it as I choose!”

“Not any longer it isn’t,” said Sheriff Johnson. “There isn’t such a thing as private property in Mayfield, any more. Except maybe the shirt on your back, and I’m not sure of that. At any rate, you’re not selling these groceries. Accounts will be kept, and when and if we get back to normal you’ll be reimbursed, but for now we’re all one, big, happy family!”

Most of the crowd had dispersed. The armloads and pushcarts full of groceries had been abandoned. Ken and the Sheriff moved toward the door.

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