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Bookworm awoke to an all-too-familiar headache and feeling of jangling nerves. She lay still, eyes closed, partly to gather strength and partly to make what assessment she could of her surroundings. A little judicious prodding told her she was lying on a cot. Occasional stirrings nearby indicated there was someone else awake and moving in whatever sort of room she was in. Then she heard a loud groan from Mariah and sat up, carefully but with alacrity.
The two of them were in a jail cell, lying on cots on opposite sides of the small space. Mariah groaned again, and Bookworm hurried to her side. “How do you feel?” she asked.
“Like that buffalo herd stampeded through my head,” Mariah replied a bit petulantly.
“Welcome to my world,” Bookworm muttered wryly.
“Miss Hienrichs?” The incredulous male voice grabbed Bookworm’s attention. She turned around and saw a man locked in another jail cell across from them. The man’s face was quite familiar to her from her first visit to Clarkton.
“Marshal McKenzie!” She rushed to the door of the cell to stand opposite him as he pressed against his cell bars. “What on earth is going on here?” At the same time, he asked, “What on earth are you doing here?”
They both paused. Bookworm recovered first from the confusion of overlapping questions. “Captain Lanfier and I are sightseeing through the West. I thought to bring her here for a quick visit.” She shrugged, smiling a little helplessly.
“I’m sorry you’re caught up in this.” The marshal sighed, running a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. “About ten days ago, a stranger arrived in town, driving a wagon with a dozen long crates and many other boxes. Said his name was Cavendish, and he was going from Bozeman to Cody with some engineering supplies, but had lost his way in a storm. Seemed a reasonable story. He got a room at the motel, and Deputy Allen was going to escort him back to the main road in the morning.
“During the night, though, all hell broke loose. Cavendish must have opened the crates and activated the mechanical men inside–you saw those?” At Bookworm’s nod, Marshal McKenzie continued. “They broke into several homes–Sheriff Taylor, Doc Williams, Sandy Perkins, our reporter, Mabel Gustafson, the motel owner. Got me, too–I was spending the night here in town, at the motel. When they’d brought us all out, Cavendish called the rest of the townsfolk together, and told ’em if they didn’t do as he said, he’d kill us.” He sighed again, regret in his black eyes. “What choice did they have? They agreed. Cavendish kept all us hostages at the motel at first, but moved me here after a couple of days.”
“What about Sheriff Taylor?” Bookworm asked.
The marshal’s face and voice went expressionless. “Dead,” he said baldly. “He tried to argue with Cavendish, and a couple of those mechanical men used their electric canes on him. Doc figures the shock was too much for his heart.”
Bookworm reached out a hand, instinctively trying to express her sympathy. She knew Marshal McKenzie to be a laconic man, and rather guessed his emotionless demeanor to be hiding deeper feelings. “I’m so sorry. He was a good man.”
By this time, Mariah had managed to get out of the cot and join Bookworm at the cell door. “Have you any idea what this Cavendish fellow is up to?”
“I know what work he’s been putting the townsfolk to. He lets Deputy Allen report to me every couple ‘a days. Lets Allen know that I’m still alive, and lets me know the rest of ’em are still all right. First couple ‘a days, he had ’em digging a ditch all around the town, then laying wire and helping to install equipment for the electrical barrier.”
“Oh, you saw that?” Mariah asked grimly.
“Hell, Cavendish proudly showed it off to all of us, to demonstrate how cut off from the outside world we are, and how futile it is to hope for rescue. That was after he cut our telegraph lines, of course–he did *that* first thing.”
“But why?” Bookworm burst in. “Why go to all this trouble for one small, isolated town with no riches?”
“Do you really want to know why, my dear?” said an unctuous, British-accented voice from the next room. “I’ll tell you.”
((To be continued…))