The Year When Stardust Fell
Chapter 8: Attack
There are people who feed upon disaster and grow in their own particular direction as they would never have grown without it, as does the queen bee who becomes queen only because of the special food prepared by the workers for her private use.
Such a man was Henry Maddox. He would not have admitted it, nor was he ever able to realize it, for it violated the very principles he had laid down for Ken. But for him, the comet was like a sudden burst of purpose in his life. He had taught well in his career as professor of chemistry at the State Agricultural College at Mayfield, but it had become fairly mechanical. He was vaguely aware of straining at the chains of routine from time to time, but he had always forced himself through sheer exercise of will to attend to his duties. There was never time, however, for any of the research he used to tell himself, in his younger days, he was going to do.
With the sudden thrusting aside of all customary duties, and with the impact of catastrophe demanding a solution to a research problem, he came alive without knowing what was happening. Yet without the imminence of disaster he would not have found the strength to drive himself so. This was what he could not admit to himself.
Another who was nourished was Granny Wicks. She should have been dead years ago. She had admitted this to herself and to anyone else who would listen, but now she knew why she had been kept alive so long past her time. She had been waiting for the comet.
Its energy seemed to flow from the sky into her withered, bony frame, and she drank of its substance until time seemed to reverse itself in her obsolete body. All her life she had been waiting for this time. She knew it now. She was spared to tell the people why the comet had come. Although her purpose was diametrically opposed to that of Henry Maddox, she also fed and grew to her full stature after almost a century of existence.
Frank Meggs was surely another. He was born in Mayfield and had lived there all his life and he hated every minute of time and every person and every event that told of his wasted life here. He hated College Hill, for he had never been able to go there. His family had been too poor, and he had been forced to take over his father’s store when his father died.
He had once dreamed of becoming a great businessman and owning a chain of stores that would stretch from coast to coast, but circumstances, for which he blamed the whole of Mayfield, had never permitted him to leave the town. His panic sale had been his final, explosive hope that he might be able to make it. Now, he, too, found himself growing in his own special direction as he fed upon the disaster. He did not know just what that direction was or to where it led, but he felt the growth. He felt the secret pleasure of contemplating the discomfort and the privation that lay ahead for his fellow citizens in the coming months.
While personal fear forced him to the conclusion that the disaster would be of short duration, the pleasure was nevertheless real. It was especially intense when he thought of College Hill and its inhabitants in scenes of dark dismay as they wrestled in vain to understand what had happened to the world.
There were others who fed upon the disaster. For the most part they found it an interruption to be met with courage, with faith, with whatever strength was inherent in them.
It was not a time of growth, however, for Reverend Aylesworth. It was the kind of thing for which he had been preparing all his life. Now he would test and verify the stature he had already gained.
On the night they verified the presence of the comet dust in the disabled engines, Ken was the last to leave the laboratory. It was near midnight when he got away.
His father had left much earlier, urging him to come along, but Ken had been unable to pull himself away from the examination and measurement of the spectrum of lines that bared the comet’s secret. He had begun to understand the pleasure his father had spoken of, the pleasure of being consumed utterly by a problem important in its own right.
As he left the campus there was no moon in the sky. The comet was gone, and the stars seemed new in a glory he had not seen for many nights. He felt that he wouldn’t be able to sleep even when he got home, and he continued walking for several blocks, in the direction of town.
He came abreast, finally, of the former Rainbow Skating Rink, which had been converted into a food warehouse. In the darkness, he saw a sudden, swift movement against the wall of the building. His night vision was sharp after the long walk; he saw what was going on.
The broad doors of the rink had been broken open. There were three or four men lifting sacks and boxes and barrels stealthily into a wagon.
Even as he started toward them he realized his own foolishness and pulled back. A horse whinnied softly. He turned to run in the direction of Sheriff Johnson’s house, and behind him came a sudden, hoarse cry of alarm.
Horses’ hoofs rattled frighteningly loud on the cement. Ken realized he stood no chance of escaping if he were seen. He dodged for an instant into a narrow space between two buildings with the thought of reaching an alley at the back. However, it was boarded at the end and he saw that he would have to scale the fence. A desperate horseman would ride him down in the narrow space.
He fled on and reached the shadows in front of the drugstore. He pressed himself as flat as possible in the recess of the doorway, hoping his pursuer would race by. But his fleeing shadow had been seen.
The rider whirled and reined the horse to a furious stop. The animal’s front legs pawed the air in front of Ken’s face. Then Ken saw there was something familiar about the figure. He peered closer as the horseman whirled again.
“Jed,” he called softly. “Jed Tucker--”
The figure answered harshly, “Yeah. Yeah, that’s me, and you’re--you’re Ken. I’m sorry it had to be you. Why did you have to come by here at this time of night?”
Ken heard the sound of running feet in the distance as others came to join Jed Tucker. Jed had not dismounted, but held Ken prisoner in the recess with the rearing, impatient horse.
Ken wondered how Jed Tucker could be mixed up in a thing like this. His father was president of the bank and owned one of the best homes in Mayfield. Jed and Ken had played football on the first team together last year.
“Jed,” Ken said quickly, “give it up! Don’t go through with this!”
“Shut up!” Jed snarled. He reined the horse nearer, threatening Ken with the thrashing front legs.
When Jed’s companions arrived, Jed dismounted from the horse.
“Who is it?” a panting voice asked.
A cold panic shot through Ken. He recognized the voice. It was that of Mr. Tucker himself. The bank official was taking part in the looting of the warehouse.
The third man, Ken recognized in rising horror, was Mr. Allen, a next-door neighbor of the Tuckers. He was the town’s foremost attorney, and one of its most prominent citizens.
“We can’t let him go,” Allen was saying. “Whoever he is, we’ve got to get him out of the way.”
Mr. Tucker came closer. He gasped in dismay. “It’s young Maddox,” he said. “You! What are you doing out this time of night?”
Under any other conditions, the question would have seemed humorous, coming from whom it did now. But Ken felt no humor; he sensed the desperate fury in these men.
“Give it up,” he repeated quietly. “The lives of fifteen thousand people depend on this food supply. You have no right to steal an ounce that doesn’t belong to you. I’ll never tell what I’ve seen.”
Tucker shook his head in a dazed, uncomprehending manner, as if the proposition were too fantastic to be considered. “We can’t do that,” he said.
“We can’t let him go!” Allen repeated.
“You can’t expect us to risk murder!”
“There’ll be plenty of that before this winter’s over!”
“Our lives depend on this food, you know that,” Tucker said desperately to Ken. “You take your share, and we’ll all be in this together. Then we know we’ll be safe.”
Ken considered, his panic increasing. To refuse might mean his life. If he could pretend to fall in with them...
“You can’t trust him!” Allen raged. “No one is going to be in on this except us.”
Suddenly the lawyer stepped near, his hand raised high in the air. Before Ken sensed his intention, a heavy club smashed against his head. His body fell in a crumpled heap on the sidewalk.
It was after 2 a.m. when Professor Maddox awoke with the sensation that something was vaguely wrong. He sat up in bed and looked out the window at the starlit sky. He remembered he had left Ken at the university and had not yet heard him come in.
Quietly he arose from the bed and tiptoed along the hallway to Ken’s room. He used the beam of a precious flashlight for a moment to scan the undisturbed bed. Panic started inside him and was fought down.
Probably Ken had found something interesting to keep him from noticing the alarm clock on a shelf in the laboratory. Perhaps someone had even forgotten to wind the clock and it had run down.
Perhaps, even, the bearings of its balance wheel had finally become frozen and had brought it to a stop!
Mrs. Maddox was behind him as he turned from the door. “What’s wrong?” she asked.