The Gun-Blazing Marionettes of Blue Haven
by Richard Ong
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Donovan crouched near the barrels as he stepped out of the marshal’s office. He pulled out his revolver and was almost clipped by a bullet that struck the iron plating on the window shutters protecting Laura and the operators inside.
More importantly, he hoped that the field telegraph operators strategically positioned around town were adequately protected from stray bullets. These young men were responsible for transmitting precise mobility instructions back to the marshal’s office through the underground wires.
If an automatic gunslinger need to turn a few inches to the left and pull the trigger, that precise information would have to be telegraphed and fed into the controller engines churning and clicking below ground.
The air on the town center’s main street was already filled with gun smoke. He could see an automatic shooter standing on the theater balcony pumping away at the lever of a modified Spencer repeating rifle. A long hollow rod attached to the marionette’s right shoulder supplied fresh ammunition into the rifle stock from a cache of bullets in a utility pack. By eliminating the need to cock the hammer, the marionette was able sustain a continuous rate of fire much faster than any human gunfighter.
Four cavalry soldiers were hit in successive shots. Another automatic shooter lying on its belly from the courthouse rooftop dropped three more soldiers on the intersecting street from the south.
Donovan ran and dropped to crawl on his belly as more bullets were fired in his direction. He fired off two shots from his revolver and saw a cavalry trooper drop from his horse with a grunt from a shoulder hit. Another trooper on foot was shot at close range on the chest by one of the lady marionettes wielding a twin-barreled derringer. Her face was immobile except for the regularly timed blinking and shifting of the eyes using an internal clockwork mechanism. That was Laura’s favorite, Donovan thought.
He raised his spyglass and saw the partially covered face of a telegraph operator smile near the window of the printing office. He was probably signaling Laura back at the marshal’s office the good news.
“Just don’t let yourself get hit by a stray, kid,” Donovan muttered. “Focus on the job and be a teacher’s pet later when it’s over.”
Suddenly, the marionettes on the street were bucking from the impact of multiple projectiles. Laura’s favorite marionette ended its days of service with a shattered face that exploded in a shower of brass gears, cylinders and springs. An automatic gunslinger lost its gun hand as a string of bullets stitched it free from the wrist socket.
Other marionettes continued to fire their revolvers and repeating rifles from the safety of the buildings as the army’s two Gatling gun artilleries peppered the walls of the main street tenements with bullets ejected at up to four hundred rounds per minute from the rotating barrels mounted on a carriage.
Two cavalry gunners with bulging arms and shoulders cranked the rotating lever on the side of each machine gun while other gunners alternately removed and fed fresh magazine cartridges. Since the carriages were cumbersome, it took about a minute to reposition the Gatling artilleries to aim at a different target. A ring of soldiers surrounded the gunners and provided covering fire with their Winchesters.
When one of the Gatling artilleries jammed, Donovan used the opportunity to run towards the nearest telegraph operator posted at the dry goods store. Once inside the building, Donovan brusquely shoved the bewildered young man aside and quickly sent a message to the stables to release Blue Haven’s own artillery. Then he straightened up and gently placed his hand on the shoulder of the wiry bespectacled operator.
“I’m sorry son if my manners seemed rough. There was no time to explain, you understand. We’ve got to send in the electric cab as soon as possible. Well, you’ll see what I mean.”
“No problem, sir,” said the operator who had quickly regained his composure as soon as Donovan mentioned “electric cab.” It was the only chance they had in turning the tables around against the Gatling artilleries by fighting fire with their own brand of fire.
“Well, carry on,” said Donovan.
The young man nodded, resumed his post and picked up his spy glass to survey the situation with regards to his surviving marionettes. One of the rooftop automatic shooters was slumped over the theater balcony. The wall behind the marionette was riddled with bullet holes.
Donovan saw that the cavalry had already managed to put the jammed Gatling artillery back in working order ready to rejoin its twin into the fight. They began to move forward as the opposition diminished with each disabled marionette. Horses and men pulled the gun carriages forward while other soldiers continued to provide covering fire.
Suddenly, there was the sound of a different kind of machine gun. From the opposite end of the street came a silent and fast-moving horseless carriage with a skin of iron. In place of a driver’s cab were two rotating gun turrets over a sloping hood. Twin-barreled Gardner guns spewed alternating jets of fire and smoke at the stunned soldiers.
Except for the staccato of sustained gunfire, the electric cab barely made any sound in the way of locomotion. It proceeded to mow down the soldiers as it turned towards a building while the turrets rotated and continued to fire the guns across two sweeping arcs on either side of the cab unabated. Bullets bounced harmlessly off its curved iron plating while the bodies of soldiers fell around the driverless electric cab.
“That’s my ace in the hole,” Donovan winked at the telegraph operator. “The sound of those light machine guns is like music to my ears.”
Within five minutes, the entire column of cavalry men and officers had been defeated. The gunners slumped over the silent Gatling artilleries with blotches of red on their dusty uniforms.
The invasion of Blue Haven was over.
* * *
Donovan stepped out of the dry goods store and surveyed the field of battle. He holstered his revolver and took out a pencil and a notebook. He made notes and occasionally scratched the skin of his grizzled face with a frown as if working on some difficult problem. He casually stepped over the red-stained bodies of a few cavalry soldiers, made notes of their positions and counted the number of hits on their uniforms.
He continued on this way until he came upon a familiar figure lying on the street. For a second, he considered turning around and hoped to avoid the inevitable confrontation. Then he sighed and approached the supple figure of the commanding officer and nudged her boot with his own. He turned her over revealing blotches of red on her uniform.
Colonel Harriett Cassidy opened her eyes and blinked back at him. Donovan extended a hand to help her up. Harriett waved him away and used her saber to lean on as she got up on her feet. She received three successive shots at close range from one of the turrets. If Blue Haven had opened fire using live rounds she would have been in real trouble, if not dead.
“Christ, Carter,” Harriett winced. “That damn splatter shot of yours really stings even with the leather vest on.”
“Did you like it?” Donovan smirked. “It’s the latest in high-powered, gas-propelled pistols. I’m sorry but those uniforms may be unsalvageable. The red stains are so damn difficult to remove from the fabric. The good news is we have plenty of soap and water for you and your men to wash up at the inn next to the saloon.”
Harriett ignored the note of sarcasm in his voice. There would be plenty of time later to account for their long separation from each other. For now, she had better see to her mean.
The rest of the “bloodied” army slowly got up to nurse their bruised muscles and pride.
Captain Rainier supported Sergeant Howe on his shoulders as the latter limped towards them.
“What the blazes happened to you?” Harriett asked.
Howe refused to look her in the eye with obvious embarrassment. Rainier laughed in spite of his friend’s predicament.
“The gun carriage rolled over his foot. By accident, of course,” Rainier said.
“It hurts like the devil,” muttered Howe.
“Not to worry, Sergeant,” said Donovan as he clapped the burly man on his shoulder. “We’ll have you fixed up in no time. Oh, Captain. Please bring the good Sergeant at the inn across the street and ask for the doctor at the front desk.”
“Much obliged, sir,” saluted Rainier.
Donovan nodded and turned to face Harriett.
“Colonel Cassidy, once you and your troops have cleaned up at the inn, I will be honored if you can join us at the saloon for some refreshments. It’s the least we can do after the long trek you made for this war game.”
“Of course,” said Harriett. “Captain Rainier will see to it. I... may come a bit late. I want to look around your town to see what I’ve missed all these years.”
Donovan looked at her and said nothing. Then he turned around and walked down the street towards the sound of music of the saloon.
* * *
“Sweet Jesus,” whistled Howe as he opened the doors to the Hidey-Hole Saloon. His lower jaw dropped and his eyes darted across the lavishly decorated room quite unlike the rustic scene he was used to visiting in the frontier.
Marshal Donovan did not spare a single cent of the taxpayers’ coffer in transforming a drinking man’s hideout into a rich man’s refuge fit to receive the President himself, except of course, for the evening ladies that sat or paced back and forth in the same corner of the room with a dim-witted smile on their faces. Their fine legs flashed with uncanny smoothness high up just below the hips where a garter dangled a derringer.
One of the saloon girls standing near the bar turned with mechanical stiffness and batted her eyes at Sergeant Howe, who leaned by the front door with a heavily bandaged right foot. The saloon girl raised her right hand and blew a kiss in his direction. Howe couldn’t stop admiring the rise and fall of her bosoms above her red bodice.
“These marionettes just keep gettin’ better and better,” he breathed.
“Are you crazy?” Captain Rainier, impatient to get into the saloon for some drinks, slapped the injured sergeant hard on his back, nearly toppling the latter if not for his desperate grip on the door handle. “They’re not even real, Howe!”
“Looks real enough to me,” whistled the sergeant after he recovered his composure.
“Aren’t they though, Sergeant?” Donovan said with paternal pride as he stood up from one of the card tables with a glass of drink in his hand. “They’re my latest models... enticing, supple to the touch, but deadly. You’ve already witnessed how one of them easily scored a kill shot at one of your men this afternoon.”
The Hidey-Hole Saloon was rapidly filling up with soldiers eager to slake their thirst at the bar as a consolation to their defeat at the hands of the sophisticated marionettes that now serve their drinks, entertain the boys as unnervingly beautiful saloon girls and even play a standup oak piano with the familiar upbeat tune of “Oh! Susanna.”
Rainier took this all in with growing apprehension while Howe ordered a whiskey from the smiling bartender puppet. In spite of its abrupt and unnatural movement, the marionette poured the whiskey into the glass with precise measurement up to half an inch below the rim. Not a single drop of alcohol fell onto the polished surface of the bar. The marionette sported a black handlebar mustache on its perpetually smiling face. A voice that sounded like a gramophone emanated from its mouth.
“YOUR DRINK... SIR.”
The bartender paused, then continued as it carefully moved the glass of whiskey with a whirring and clicking sound of its extended arm across the bar in front of Howe.
“BOTTOMS UP... SIR.”
Howe swallowed hard though he did not touch the glass. Instead, he grabbed the bartender by the shirt and pulled it towards him until Howe could see his own reflection from the glass eyeballs of the marionette. He thumped the hapless bartender on its forehead with his knuckles and listened to the sound of a hollow wooden shell.
“Anyone home up there? Hah!” Howe laughed, spraying the bartender’s waxen face with his saliva.
“Sergeant,” Rainier said with a firm voice. “Don’t mess with the locals, please.”
“Sir,” said Howe, suddenly releasing the bartender as it titter-tottered back to an upright position as if held by a spring.
“So how do they actually work, Marshal?” Rainier turned to Donovan who observed the sergeant’s manhandling of his expensive creation in tense silence. “I mean, I don’t see any wires or any person controlling these things.”
Carter Donovan blinked and forced himself to remain calm. He grinned at the captain and pointed at the mirror behind the bartender.
“Behind these walls, Captain, lies the secret that gives life to my marionettes. Truly, there is a person that pulls the ‘invisible strings.’ The mirror behind the bartender conceals a room where the puppeteer sits and telegraphs the instructions needed to provide the illusion of life that stands before you.”
He paused and snatched the glass of whiskey still held by the bartender. He drained the contents in one gulp then wiped his lips with the sleeve of his coat. Before he could resume his discourse, Laura Middleton entered the saloon and surveyed the loud and energetic gathering of soldiers inside. Her eyes rested on Carter Donovan who beckoned her to approach the bar. She saw that Donovan was already reaching for the bottle of whiskey and knew from the flushed look on his face that it would only be a matter of time before he said something that he might regret.
“Thank you, Carter. That will be enough of that,” Laura said as she grabbed the bottle from his hand. She then gave a short nod to each of his companions. “Sergeant. Captain.”
“Ma’am,” said Howe and Rainier at the same time.
The captain, at least, had enough sense to straighten himself and remove his hat, thought Laura approvingly.
Donovan drawled. “Gentlemen, this is Professor Laura Middleton who I often mistook to be my mother especially when I’m misbehavin’ at the bar. But more importantly, she is also the great genius who designed the vast array of underground machinery whirring and clicking beneath our feet that selects and transmits the appropriate response through a long cable attached to the back of our cheerful bartender. Here, I’ll show you.”
Donovan spun the bartender marionette around and undid the knots of its apron strings. He lifted the back of its shirt and revealed two sets of cables coated in rubber protruding just below where the spine would have been on a real person.
“What is the nature of the second cable, Marshal?” asked Rainier.
“It is used to electrify and thus bring locomotive power to the marionettes,” answered Laura.
“Take a look around you, Captain,” she said. “You notice that we don’t use oil or gas to ignite any of the lamps in the saloon. Within each wall are hundreds of yards of cables that deliver electric current to the lights, the piano-playing marionette, the evening ladies whom I’m sure didn’t escape your notice and the bartender.”
“Excuse our simple-minded ignorance, Professor Middleton,” said Rainer. “But how is it that you are able to produce so much power continuously without fail?”
“Dynamos, my dear Captain,” answered Laura. “Immense dynamos driven by the cascading mountain rivers of Colorado can produce enough electricity to sustain this town for many years, if necessary.”
Suddenly, a trooper burst through the front doors of the saloon and ran towards the captain at the bar.
“There’s trouble down the street,” he said, darting a suspicious glance at Donovan. “The colonel might be in danger.”
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Richard Ong