The Year When Stardust Fell
Chapter 13: Stay Out of Town!
It took a surprisingly short time to ring Mayfield with a barbed-wire barricade. A large stock of steel fence posts was on hand in the local farm supply stores, and these could be driven rapidly even in the frozen ground. There was plenty of wire. What more was needed, both of wire and posts, was taken from adjacent farmland fences, and by the end of the week following the Mayor’s pronouncement the task was completed and the guards were at their posts.
In all that time there had been no occasion to turn anyone away, but sentiment both for and against the program was heavy and bitter within the community.
On the Sunday after completion of the fence, Dr. Aylesworth chose to speak of it in his sermon. He had advertised that he would do so. The church was not only packed, but large numbers of people stood outside in the freezing weather listening through the doors. Even greater excitement was stirred by the whispered information that Mayor Hilliard was sitting in the center of the congregation.
The minister had titled his sermon, “My Brother’s Keeper.” He opened by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper? We know the answer to that question, my friends. For all the thousands of years that man has been struggling upward he has been developing the answer to that question. We know it, even though we may not always abide by it.
“We know who our brothers are--all mankind, whether in Asia or in Europe or next door to our own home. These are our brothers.”
As he elaborated on the theme, Ken thought that this was his mother’s belief which she had expressed when the fence was first mentioned.
“We cannot help those in distant lands,” said Dr. Aylesworth. “As much as our hearts go out to them and are touched with compassion at their plight, we can do nothing for them. For those on our own doorstep, however, it is a different matter.
“We are being told now by our civil authorities in this community that we must drive away at the point of a gun any who come holding out their hands for succor and shelter. We are told we must drive them away to certain death.
“I tell you if we do this thing, no matter what the outcome of our present condition, we shall never be able to look one another in the eye. We shall never be able to look at our own image without remembering those whom we turned away when they came to us for help. I call upon you to petition our civil authorities to remove this brutal and inhumane restriction in order that we may be able to behave as the civilized men and women we think we have become. Although faced with disaster, we are not yet without a voice in our own actions, and those who have made this unholy ruling can be persuaded to relent if the voices of the people are loud enough!”
He sat down amid a buzz of whispered comment. Then all eyes turned suddenly at the sound of a new voice in the hall. Mayor Hilliard was on his feet and striding purposefully toward the pulpit.
“Reverend, you’ve had your say, and now I think I’ve got a right to have mine. I know this is your bailiwick and you can ask me to leave if you want to. However, these are my people six days a week to your one. Will you let me say my piece?”
Dr. Aylesworth rose again, a smile of welcome on his face. “I think we share the people, or, rather, they share us on all 7 days of the week,” he said. “I will be happy to have you use this pulpit to deliver any message you may care to.”
“Thanks,” said Mayor Hilliard as he mounted the platform and stood behind the pulpit. “Dr. Aylesworth and I,” he began, “have been good friends for a long time. We usually see eye to eye on most things, but in this we are dead opposite.
“What he says is true enough. If enough of you want to protest what I’ve done you can have a change, but that change will have to include a new mayor and a new set of councilmen. I was elected, and the Council was elected to make rules and regulations for the welfare of this community as long as we were in office.
“We’ve made this rule about allowing no more refugees in Mayfield and it’s going to stand as long as we’re in office. By next summer, if the harvest is even a few days late, your children are going to be standing around crying for food you can’t give them, and you are going to have to cut your supplies to one-fifth their normal size. That’s the way it adds up after we count all the people in the valley, and all the cases and sacks of food in the warehouses.
“It’s just plain arithmetic. If we keep adding more people we’re all going to get closer and closer to starvation, and finally wake up one morning and find we’ve gone over the edge of it.
“Now, if that’s what you want, just go ahead and get some city officers who will arrange it for you. If anybody in this town, including you, Dr. Aylesworth, can think of a more workable answer or one that makes better sense than the one we’ve got I’d like to know about it.”
It snowed heavily that afternoon out of a bitter, leaden sky. It started in the midst of the morning service, and by the time the congregation dispersed it was difficult to see a block away.
There was little comment about what they had heard, among the people leaving the church. They walked with heads bowed against the snow toward their cold homes and sparsely filled pantries.
The community chapel was near the edge of town. One of the boundary fences lay only two blocks away. From that direction, as the crowd dispersed, there came the sudden sound of a shot. It was muffled under the heavy skies and the dense snow, but there was no mistaking the sound.
Ken jerked his head sharply. “That must have been one of the guards!” he said. His father nodded. Together, they raced in the direction of the sound. Others began running, too, their hearts pounding in anticipation of some crisis that might settle the unanswered questions.
Ken noticed ahead of them, through the veil of snow, the chunky figure of Mayor Hilliard running as rapidly as he could. As they came to the fence they saw the guard standing on one side, his rifle lowered and ready. On the other side of the barbed-wire enclosure was a stout, middle-aged man. He wore an overcoat, but there was no hat on his head. His face was drawn with agony and uncomprehending despair.
He staggered on his feet as he pleaded in a tired voice. “You’ve got to let me come in. I’ve walked all the way in this blizzard. I haven’t had any food for two days.”
A group of churchgoers lined the fence now, additional ones coming up slowly, almost reluctantly, but knowing they had to witness what was about to take place. Ken exclaimed hoarsely to his father, “That’s Sam Baker! He runs the drugstore and newsstand in Frederick. Everybody in Mayfield knows Sam Baker!”
Sam Baker turned in bewildered, helpless pleading to the crowd lined on the other side of the fence. Mayor Hilliard stood back a dozen yards from the wire.
“You’ve got to help me,” Sam Baker begged. “You can’t make me go back all that way. It’s 50 miles. There’s nothing there. They’re all dead or lost in the snow. Give me something to eat, please...”
“You’ve got to move on,” the guard said mechanically. “Nobody gets in. That’s the law here.”
Along the fence, people pressed close, and one or two men started hesitantly to climb. Mayor Hilliard’s voice rang out, “Anybody who goes on the other side of that fence stays on the other side!”
The men climbed down. No one said anything. Sam Baker scanned them with his helpless glance once more. Then he turned slowly. Fifty feet from the fence he fell in the snow, face down.
Mayor Hilliard spoke slowly and clearly once more. “If anyone so much as throws a crust of bread over that fence the guard has orders to shoot.”
As if frozen, the onlookers remained immobile. The guard held his fixed stance. Mayor Hilliard stood, feet apart, his hands in his pockets, staring defiantly. On the other side of the fence, the thick flakes of snow were rapidly covering the inert form of Sam Baker. In only a few moments he would be obliterated from their sight. That would be the signal for them all to turn and go home, Ken thought.
Impulsively, he took a step forward. He looked at his father’s face. “Dad...”
Professor Maddox touched Ken’s arm with a restraining hand. His face was grim and churned by conflicting desires.
The utter stillness was broken then by the crunching sound of boots in the snow. All eyes turned to the powerful, white-maned figure that approached. Dr. Aylesworth was hatless and the snow was thick in his hair. He paused a moment, comprehending the situation. Then he strode forward to the fence.
He put a foot on the wire, and climbed. His coat caught on the barbs as he jumped to the other side. He ripped it free, ignoring the tear of the fabric.
Mayor Hilliard watched as if hypnotized. He jerked himself, finally, out of his immobility. “Parson!” he cried. “Come back here!”
Dr. Aylesworth ignored the command. He strode forward with unwavering steps.
“It’s no different with you than it is with any other man,” Hilliard shouted. He took the gun from the guard. “You’re breaking the law. If you don’t stop I’ll shoot!”
The majestic figure of the minister turned. He faced Hilliard without hesitation. “Shoot,” he said. He turned back and moved once more to the fallen druggist.
There was sweat on Mayor Hilliard’s face now. He brushed it with a gloved hand. His hat fell unnoticed to the ground. He raised the gun no higher. “Aylesworth,” he called, and his voice was pleading now, “we’ve got to do what’s right!”
The minister’s voice came back to him, hollowly, as if from an immense distance. “Yes, we’ve got to do what’s right.” Dr. Aylesworth could be seen faintly through the veil of snow as he bent down, raising the druggist’s heavy form to his own back in a fireman’s carry, then turning to retrace his steps.
Mayor Hilliard let the gun sag in his hands. At the fence Dr. Aylesworth paused. “Separate those wires,” he ordered those standing near.