Allen nodded and squatted down to the rough dirt floor, using a small pipe to sketch a diagram of the hotel, including where the hostages were being held, and which rooms Cavendish had taken over for his own use. Around them, the noncombatant townsfolk were using wrenches and hammers on the barrier machinery. When Allen had finished his detailed explanations, he looked up at Bookworm and Mariah. "You should know--Cavendish has been working on something at the hotel. We've all heard noise coming from there, and Doc and the others commented on it, but we don't know what it is."
Bookworm and Mariah exchanged a significant look. At that moment, though, the sound of running machinery ground to a halt. The three of them rushed to the door, peering outside. The glow of the electrical barrier was gone.
"You did it," Bookworm called back over her shoulder. "Get yourselves out now, and we'll send word when it's safe." Bookworm, Mariah, and Deputy Allen stood guard as Chet led the others outside, and away into the surrounding woods.
"Allen, please find the marshal and let him know Mariah and I are going for the hostages," Bookworm said as the last of the noncombatants made it safely out of sight.
"Right," he said with some enthusiasm. "I can't wait to tackle these things myself!" He dashed off toward the middle of town, where the sounds of combat were loudest.
Bookworm and Mariah exchanged quick grins, and began making their way from shadow to shadow, slowly heading toward the hotel. As they went, they watched the running battles between the townsfolk and the automata. Already, they could see at least two automata were down and unmoving. There were a few people down, too; Bookworm hoped it wasn't permanent. Judging from the combat she saw, though, it looked like the automata couldn't shock people long enough to kill them, not without opening themselves up to attack from behind. People were attacking from above, too--climbing trees, porch roofs, whatever was handy. They did seem to be at least holding their own.
"So what do you think Cavendish has been working on?" Mariah asked as they drew closer to the hotel. Warm gusts of wind were driving clouds across the moon, and carrying a scent of rain.
Bookworm looked up, spying what appeared to be a small shed built up on the roof. "At a guess... a weapon. Hopefully, we'll get to him before he can deploy it."
Mariah nodded. "You going in the front?"
"I think so."
"I'll see if I can find a different way in." Mariah trotted off in a different direction as Bookworm moved cautiously toward the front door.
Second Lieutenant Richards of the 6th Cavalry Regiment looked up from the campfire at the call from Corporal Benson. He stood up, casting the stick he'd been whittling into the fire. "What is it, Corporal?"
Corporal Benson skidded to a stop on the pine needles, saluting even as he regained his balance. "Sir. The electrical barrier around the town has gone up again."
"Has it?" Lieutenant Richards strode off into the dark, heading toward the vantage point they'd found that overlooked the town. Corporal Benson trailed along behind. "Did you see anything before that happened?"
"There was some activity at the other end of town, sir, but it was too dark to make it out."
Lieutenant Richards sighed, staring down from their lookout point, staring at the barrier that was glowing strongly in the night. He and his men, part of Troop C of the 6th Cavalry Regiment, stationed at Fort Laramie, had been sent to find out why the small town of Clarkton had apparently lost communication with the rest of the world. They hadn't thought this would be anything more than a routine check, though the chance to be out and about on an easy mission was welcome. They'd arrived at a spot overlooking the town earlier in the day--just in time to watch two women entering the outskirts of the seemingly-empty town. They watched, startled, as the electrical barrier appeared, cutting off sight of the town. When the barrier went down about 15 minutes later, there was no sign of the women.
Camp was made not far from the vantage point, and someone was always on duty, watching the town. Meanwhile, debate had raged among the troop about what to do. Richards, though, saw no point in approaching the town at that point--they'd only be trapped themselves. He decided to spend the night there, then ride back to the fort in the morning with the news, leaving a few men behind to keep an eye out for any more unusual occurrences.
Now, though, he wondered if the unusual occurrences mightn't be happening tonight. And, indeed, after just a few minutes, the barrier went down again. Shortly after that, sounds of fighting drifted up to their position. Richards grabbed his field glasses, wishing for more moonlight. There were a few lights shining out from windows, though, allowing him to catch glimpses of large, metallic figures, with people swarming around them.
"We need to move now, Corporal," he said tersely. "Looks like the townsfolk are fighting back against whatever's invaded there. They'll need our help for sure. Get the others now!"
"Sir!" Benson spun on his heel and dashed back to their camp. Within minutes, the men were assembled behind him, horses stamping and champing at their bits. He mounted his own horse, which Corporal Benson had brought along.
"Benson, you stay here and watch what happens. If that barrier goes up again with us in there, you'll have to ride back to Laramie yourself with the news."
"Yes, sir." Richards hid a smile at the disappointment evident in Benson's tone. Gesturing to the rest of the troop, he said, "All right, men--we weren't expecting trouble like this, but we've found it. Let's go take care of it!" Accompanied by a blast from Sergeant O'Malley's horn, they spurred their horses down the hill, aiming for the center of town.
((To be continued...))