The Year When Stardust Fell
Chapter 14: Mobilization
The two nomads stood glaring and snarling before the drawn revolvers that pointed at them from the doorways of the room. For an instant it looked as if they were going to draw their own weapons and make a pitched battle of it right there in the Council chamber. Then their glances fell on their comrade, writhing in pain on the floor. They raised their hands in slow surrender.
“If we’re not back by sundown, you’ll be wiped out!”
“When will the attack begin if you do go back?” asked Hilliard bitterly. “Two hours before sundown? We thank you for the information about your timetable, at least. We have 3 hours to prepare a defense of the town.” He nodded to the policeman. “Take them away. Put them in cells and tie them up until this is over.”
When they had been removed he turned back to the group. “I’ve had nightmares,” he said, “and this has been one of them. I guess if I had been the Mayor some people think I ought to have been, we would have been drilling and rehearsing our defenses for weeks. I had planned to do so soon. I thought we’d have more time; that’s my only excuse.
“The Sheriff and I have done a little preliminary planning and thinking. We’ve made an estimate of weapons available. From what Jack Nelson and Dan Sims report on hunting licenses issued locally a year ago, there must be about two thousand deer rifles in town. They also guess about four or five hundred 22’s. We’re lucky to live in hunting country.
“Dan and Jack have about two hundred guns of all kinds and sizes in their rental and selling stock, and they’ve got nearly all the ammunition in the valley. They had stocked up for the hunting season, which we never had this year, so their supply sounds as if it would be pretty good. You’ve got to remember the difference in requirements for bagging a deer and carrying on a war. We have very little ammunition when you consider it from that angle.
“The police, of course, have a few guns and some rounds. I’m placing Sheriff Johnson in full charge of defense. The police officers will act as his lieutenants.” The Mayor stepped to a wall chart that showed the detailed topography of Mayfield and its environs. “This is your battle map right here, Sheriff. Come up and start marking off your sectors of the defense perimeter and name your officers to take charge of each. I hope somebody is going to say it’s a good thing we’ve got the barbed-wire defense line before this meeting is over!
“I want a rider to leave at once to bring back the wood detail. All their horses will be turned over to the police officers for use in their commands. I want fifty runners to go through town and notify one man in each block to mobilize his neighbors, with all weapons available, and lead them to the sectors which the Sheriff will designate. Each man will bring all the ammunition he owns. Additional stores will be distributed by wagon to the sectors. Above everything else, each man must be warned to make each shot count.”
The room was silent, and there was no protest or disagreement. Mayor Hilliard, the man who had made fancy speeches, seemed to have vanished. Hilliard, the dynamic, down-to-earth leader had taken his place. For a moment no one in the room was more surprised than Hilliard himself.
“There’s one thing I want to make absolutely clear,” he said after a pause. “You people who are working at the laboratory on College Hill are to keep away from the front-lines and away from all possible danger. That’s an order, you understand?”
“No,” said Professor Maddox abruptly. “It’s our duty as much as anyone else’s to share in the defenses.”
“It’s your duty to keep your skins whole and get back into the laboratories as quickly as you can and get things running again! We haven’t any special desire to save your necks in preference to our own, but in the long run you’re the only hope any of us has got. Remember that, and stay out of trouble!”
The Sheriff made his appointments in rapid-fire sequence, naming many who were not present, ordering messengers sent to them. Ken volunteered to ride after the wood detail.
“I guess it’s safe enough to let you do that,” the Mayor said. “Make it fast, but don’t break your neck.”
“I’ll take it easy,” Ken promised.
Outside, he selected the best of the three police horses and headed up out of town, over the brittle snow with its glare ever-reminding of the comet. When he was on higher ground, he glanced back over the length of the valley. The nomads were not in sight. Not in force, anyway. He thought he glimpsed a small movement a mile or two away from the barrier, at the south end of the valley before it turned out of sight at the point, but he wasn’t sure. Once he thought he heard a rifle shot, but he wasn’t sure of that, either.
As he appeared at the edge of the forest clearing, Mark Wilson, foreman of the detail, frowned irritably and paused in his task of snaking a log out to the road.
“You’ll ruin that horse, besides breaking your neck, riding like that in this snow. You’re not on detail, anyway.”
“Get all your men and horses up here right away,” Ken said. “Mayor’s orders to get back to town at once.” He told briefly the story of what had happened.
Mark Wilson did not hesitate. He raised a whistle to his lips and signaled for the men to cease work and assemble. One by one they began to appear from among the trees. The horses were led along, their dragging harnesses clanking in the frozen air. “We could cut for 2 more hours,” they protested. “No use wasting this daylight and having to cut by lantern.”
“Never mind,” said Wilson. “There’s something else to do. Wait for the rest.”
When all had assembled he jerked his head toward Ken. “Go ahead,” he said. “You tell them.”
Ken repeated in detail everything that had happened. He outlined the Mayor’s plan of defense and passed on the order for them to take all mounts to City Hall, to go by their own homes on the way and pick up such weapons as they owned. “You’ll get your further orders there,” he finished.
The group was silent, as if they could not believe it was actually happening. Mark Wilson broke the spell that seemed to be over them. “Come on!” he cried. “Get the lead out of your shoes and let’s get down there! Sunset’s the deadline!”
There was a rush of motion then. They hitched up the necessary teams and climbed aboard the half-filled sleds. There was no excitement or swearing against fate and their enemies. Rather, a solemn stillness seemed to fill each man as the sleds moved off down the hard, frozen roadway.
Almost, but not quite the same pervading stillness was present in the town when Ken returned. There was a stirring of frantic activity like that of a disturbed anthill, but it was just as silent. The runners moved from block to block. In their wake the alarmed block leaders raced, weapons in hand, from house to house, arousing their neighbors. Many, who had already completed the block mobilization, were moving in ragged formations to the sector ordered by the block runner according to Sheriff Johnson’s plan.
Ken did not know what was planned for the many weaponless men who were being assembled. They would be useless at the frontline. There was need for some at the rear. He supposed Johnson would take care of that later when every weapon was manned at the defense barrier.
He stopped at his own house. His mother greeted him anxiously. He could see she had been crying, but she had dried her tears now and was reconciled to the inevitable struggle that was at hand.
“Your father came in a few minutes ago, and left again,” she said. “He’s been placed in charge of distribution of medical supplies under Dr. Adams. He wants you and the other boys of the club to help in arranging locations for medical care. Meet him at Dr. Adams’ office.”
“Okay, Mom. How about packing a load of sandwiches? I may not be back for a long time. I don’t know what arrangements they are making for feeding the people on duty.”
“Of course. I’ll make them right away.” She hurried to the kitchen.
Maria said, “There must be something I can do. They’ll need nurses and aides. I want to go with you.”
“I don’t know what they’ve planned in that department, either. They ought to have plenty of room for women in the food and nursing details.”
His mother came with the sandwiches and placed them in his hands. “Be careful, Ken.” Her voice shook. “Do be careful.”
Maria got her coat. Mrs. Larsen let her go without protest, but the two women watched anxiously as the young people rode toward town on the police horse.
At the doctor’s office, Ken found his father surrounded by an orderly whirl of activity. “Ken! I was hoping you’d get back soon. You can help with arrangements for hospital care, in assigned homes. The rest of your friends are out on their streets. Take this set of instructions Dr. Adams has prepared and see that arrangements are made in exact accordance with them at each house on the list.”
“I can help, too,” said Maria.
“Yes. Dr. Adams has prepared a list of women and girls he wants to assign as nurses and aides. You can help contact them. Get the ones on this list to meet here as quickly as possible and they’ll be assigned to the houses which the boys are lining up.”
The comet was setting earlier now, so that its unnatural light disappeared almost as soon as the sun set below the horizon. In the short period of twilight, tension grew in the city. Everything possible had been done to mount defenses. An attack had been promised if the nomad emissaries did not return. Now the time had come.
Darkness fell with no sign of activity in any direction. It seemed unreasonable that any kind of night attack would be launched, but Hilliard and Johnson warned their men not to relax their vigilance.
The pace of preparatory activity continued. Blankets, clothing and food were brought to the men who waited along the defense perimeter. Medical arrangements were perfected as much as possible.
Ken and his father made their quarters in another room of the building where Dr. Adams’ office was. There was no heat, of course, but they had brought sleeping bags which were unrolled on the floor. After the sandwiches were gone their rations were canned soup, to be eaten directly from the can without being heated.