Preview: “A Coffin Full Of Stars” – part 2
This is part two of the alternative-history Wild West short story. If you haven’t read part one yet, go here.
All of them jumped up in alarm, their chairs toppling backwards with a crash.
Four new figures had entered from the back yard, and stood warily, eyeing the four in the hotel lobby.
One was a giant of a man, obviously Mexican, who stood perhaps six feet six in his sandals and stained farm laborer’s clothes that were little more than rags held up by a bullet-belt. Burning eyes glared out of a broad, swarthy, mustached face.
The other was almost as large, as well as broad and barrel-chested. He was clad in aged buckskins and high-topped boots, and his face was obscured by a bushy grey beard and a broad-rimmed campaign hat. His skin – what little Jakes could see of it – was tanned almost the same color as the buckskin jacket.
The third was lean and wiry, just over six feet tall, with a fleshy prominent nose, dark brown hair, and fierce black eyes. Even, tobacco-stained teeth glinted beneath a thick moustache as he scowled at Jakes and the others. He brandished a kitchen knife in his hands, like he knew how to fight with it.
The fourth was a marked contrast to the others. He was a rail-thin man of about sixty, in funeral black, bloodshot eyes behind wire-rim spectacles perched on a long bony nose. His threadbare and frayed black suit was beginning to take on a silvery shine. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he announced in a strident, scholarly voice. “Please forgive the uncouth appearance of my … er … new friends. We’ve been walking around this town all morning, except it feels like forever.”
The huge Mexican ignored the speech and pushed open the door to the kitchen. Jakes edged forward to follow his movements. The big man put down the saddlebags he was carrying and started to open cupboards and barrels. He pulled out small bundles wrapped in cloth, sniffed at them, and began to stuff them into the bags.
“Hey, you!” shouted Maxwell. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“What does it look I’m doing, gringo? I’m taking food and canteens of water. I’m getting out of here.”
“We’re getting out of here,” corrected the man in buckskins.
The Mexican ignored him and stood up, leering at all of them from inside the kitchen. “There are no horses. We checked. We looked all around the town this morning.”
“Why don’t we all wait here?” Belle said suddenly.
The lean-faced man grinned at her mockingly. “Wait for what?”
“Wait for someone to come by.”
“There ain’t no-one coming by here, lady,” said the lean-faced man. “Maybe not ever.”
“We cannot stay here,” growled the Mexican. “We cannot ride. I’m going to walk out of this town. Walk until I reach the next town, or until I drop dead.”
“Now hold on a second,” said the man in black. “We agreed to discuss this thoroughly before we -”
“You stay and talk all you want, senor. As for me, I have to move, and keep moving. That is my way. That is how I have kept alive.”
“Maybe so, but you ain’t taking all that food,” said the lean-faced man threateningly. “We share it.”
The Mexican continued scavenging along the shelves. “You want to share my food, then you walk with me, amigo.”
“Why, you -”
Jakes saw the lean-faced man reverse his grip on the knife, and pull his arm back to throw it. Before Jakes could shout a warning a long dark cord lashed out from the kitchen, uncoiling like a steak of lightning and finding its target in the attacker’s hand. The lean-faced man screamed in pain and dropped the knife. He hunched over and almost fell.
“You son of a bitch!” he yelled.
In answer, the huge Mexican held up the whip in his hand and chuckled. “I gave you a chance, capullo. Walk with me, and share my food. But you chose to attack me with something that looks like a small cheese knife. Perhaps you should learn to control your temper, and restrict yourself to cutting cheese.”
Jakes looked at Maxwell in surprise. The Sheriff was laughing too. “I’ll be damned,” Maxwell said. “It all fits. Mexican … about six foot six … skilled with a whip … I should have guessed when I first saw you!”
“Guessed what?” asked Belle.
“You’re looking at Jose Zamora, otherwise known as El Cougar,” said Maxwell, with more than a hint of wonderment. “Mexican rebel and freedom fighter. Last I heard, you were somewhere between El Camino Real and San Diego de Alcala. What’re you doing here?”
The man known as El Cougar stared coolly at Maxwell. “I wish I could answer you, senor, but none of us know where ‘here’ is.” Then he turned back into the kitchen.
“My goddamned hand!” gasped the wounded man.
“I suppose I could help him,” said Martha timidly. “I know a little about medicine …”
“Hear that, feller?” Maxwell said firmly. “This angel of mercy is going to tend to your wound. I suggest you accept graciously and mind your manners, because if you don’t, then I’ll be the next one who attacks you, and I’ll attack more than just your hand.”
The lean-faced man grimaced, nodded, and sat down at a back table. Miss Harvey picked up her bag and walked nervously over to him. “I do believe I have some lotion in my bag,” she said. “My handkerchief could do as a bandage, I suppose …”
“I feel that we’ve got off on the wrong foot,” said the preacher, walking over to Maxwell. “The least I can do is introduce ourselves. It seems like you’ve met Mr. Cougar already. This wild gentleman in the furs is Hank McGrath, the man with the injured hand is Jeff Bagley, and my name is Jedediah Ives, minister of Ellsworth, Kansas.”
Jakes introduced them all, finishing with Maxwell. “This here’s the Sheriff of Kosse, Chet Maxwell. He says he’s gonna get us out of here.”
McGrath snorted with laughter. “You ain’t in Kosse any more, lawman.”
“It don’t matter,” said Maxwell, glaring at McGrath. “I’ll still get you out.”
“Estoy listo!” the giant yelled from the kitchen. “This is the last you have seen of El Cougar. Vete al infierno, ustedes!”
He walked out, pushing the doors open dismissively, and began trekking down the street. Everyone followed him out. Maybe nobody wanted to be left alone in the hotel lobby.
“Are you going to let him leave with all that food?” Belle asked angrily.
“If that’s El Cougar, I’m not gonna be the one to tell him to stop,” Maxwell said with a faint smirk.
“I saw through to that kitchen when the door was open,” Jakes said placatingly. “It looks like there’s a whole lot more food in there.”
“What for?” Martha said, looking pained. “I’m not staying. I’m not going to stay in this horrible place.”
“He said there were no horses,” Jakes told her.
“You gonna take his word for that?” Belle demanded.
“Whether he’s lyin’ or not,” said Maxwell hastily, “I reckon we should all stay together.”
“Are we being punished by the Lord?” said Martha quietly wringing her hands. “Why? I’ve tried to live a good life, I have never done anything to deserve this!”
Belle put her hand on the other woman’s shoulder, offering words of comfort. Feeling even more helpless, Jakes looked upward into the shimmering sky, his hand shielding his eyes.
“It’s past noon,” Bagley said from behind him.
Jakes turned round. “Guess it was that obvious, huh?”
“I was thinking the same thing myself,” Bagley said, keeping his eyes on Jakes. “Wondering how long exactly we’ve been here. I guess I missed breakfast. Lunch, too.”
“Well, don’t you worry none,” guffawed McGrath. “Mr. Lawman here reckons he’s gonna get us home for dinner.”
“Dinner,” said Belle longingly. “Speaking of that, I could do with some lunch.”
“I reckon I could do a lot more on a full stomach,” said the Preacher wistfully.
“Amen to that,” said Jakes, his stomach rumbling and his nausea returning.
The group entered the hotel kitchen that El Cougar had raided and busied themselves emptying cupboards. To Jakes’s surprise, it contained a huge iron wood-burning stove with a Dutch oven and a skillet placed on top. The grate was already stacked with kindling, and a pile of chopped dry hickory stood in the nearby corner.
The larder contained salted pork, beef and venison jerky, sourdough biscuits, cornbread, onions, potatoes, fresh cobs of corn, apples, and a pan full of soaked pinto beans.
“Somebody made darned sure we won’t starve to death,” observed Maxwell.
An hour later they were eating pork and beans, succotash and cornbread on relatively clean china plates. They ate mostly in silence, letting the visceral pleasure of a good meal distract them from what they were afraid to think about.
Maxwell wiped the last of the gravy up with a hunk of cornbread, then cleared his throat. “Now that our bellies are happy, maybe we should nourish our brains by finding out more about each other. Like I said, I’m a lawman. What about you, Jakes?”
Jethro closed his eyes and thought. He hated talking about himself; there never seemed to be any point in talking. It was work he preferred, the simple mechanics of moving his body around, doing something productive. If there were a Lord above, Jakes hoped that was what he would be judged on.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said, opening his eyes but keeping them downcast. “These days my wife and I just run a small farm in Lakeside, near San Antonio.”
“These days?” said Bagley. “What’d you do before?”
Jakes frowned. Should I tell them? he asked himself. Feeling the heat of so many eyes upon him, he kept talking, the words tumbling out. “Served a stretch in the 9th Cavalry. After that … when I came home, a couple of years back, I had to sort out some trouble. A syndicate of railroad and mining companies had set up a sawmill to the west and built a dam to divert the river. That flooded some of the Lakeside farmlands and made them worthless for growing. The townsfolk complained to everyone they could find but, well, the courts would listen but then nothing would happen. The bankers and railroaders would pay them to look the other way, of course. Things got so bad that … a group of persons unknown took some powder up there on night and blew up the mill, then the dam.”
“Is that so,” said Bagley, chuckling quietly. “Of course, you had nothing to do with that yourself, did you?”
Jakes shrugged. “Makes no difference now. Everyone in Lakeside is trying to forget it, but they can’t get rid of the rumors that big business is going to get its revenge on us one day.”
Maxwell grunted, then turned to McGrath. “So what about you?”
“I hunt buffalo,” McGrath said through a mouthful of beans.
Maxwell frowned. “I thought there weren’t any more buffalo. We’d killed ’em all off.”
“There’s one left.” Maxwell stared into the distance as if he were looking across the prairies, the knife and fork suddenly forgotten in his hands. “There’s one left. A white one. And I’m gonna be the man who takes it down.”
Maxwell turned his head to Jakes, and rolled his eyes. “What about you, Ma’am?” he said to Belle.
She fluttered her eyelids and looked coy. All she needed was an Oriental fan to complete the pantomime, thought Jakes. “Well, I don’t rightly know. I’m a musician, a singer, and a dancer, born on the Missouri frontier but for the last few years, based in New Orleans.”
“You’re an entertainer,” sneered Bagley.
She stared back at him defiantly. “Well I may be, but I ain’t a saloon girl. And I sure ain’t never worked in a cathouse. I’ve met some pretty rich and powerful people backstage at my theater. You might be surprised to hear some of their names.”
“Is that right?” Maxwell narrowed his eyes. “Yeah … I reckon I might be surprised, at that. What about you, Martha?”
The blonde woman leaned forward to make her point more emphatically. “I’ll have you know I am a perfectly normal, respectable, post office employee. I am the town telegrapher of Rita Blanca, with a loving husband Bill, a younger brother who has made quite a name for himself as a deputy sheriff, a young daughter Nellie, and …” Her voice caught on the words. “Baby Andrew …”
Jakes nodded in recognition. “Deputy Sheriff of Rita Blanca? What’s your brother’s name?”
“Larry. Larry Ainsworth. That’s my maiden name, of course.”
“Well, I’ll be!” Jakes sat back in his chair, looking at the slightly built woman in a new light. “He was the man who took down the Estleman gang all by himself, unless I’m mistaken?”
“Oh, you read the pamphlets!” Martha beamed at him and then looked around the table to explain. “Larry and I had some printed up with the machine in the post office. I had to fight tooth and nail to stop him exaggerating the fight, because he did have the sheriff backing him up, but what you read in the pamphlet is … mostly correct. I’m so glad they got as far as San Antonio, Mr. Jakes!”
“Hmmph.” Maxwell brushed a few cornbread crumbs from his lap. “What about you, Bagley?”
The lean-faced man shrugged. “I’m just a cowhand.”
Maxwell shifted position in his chair, setting his shoulders back to take a long look at Jeff Bagley. “Well now, there’s no need to go hiding your lights under a bushel, Mister. They – whoever they are – came into our houses, took us away, and spirited us through the night to put us down here. So there’s gotta be something special about you. There’s gotta be something that gives you an edge.”
Bagley glared back at him. “I’m just an Arizona cowhand. That’s all.” He pushed back his chair and stood up. “And I need a smoke. At least I’ve still got my tobacco – they didn’t take that away.”
“I gave up smoking years back,” Maxwell said to all around the table, a little defensively. “What about you, preacher?”
Jedediah Ives spread his hands and grinned. “As I said, I tend the flock of the town of Ellsworth, Kansas, and help their sins to be forgiven. I do not wish to be as taciturn as Mr. Bagley, but there is simply nothing I can add to – ”
“Wait.” Maxwell held up a hand for silence. “Sorry to cut you off, Padre, but do you hear something?”
Jakes listened, his senses alert. Yes … noises, carried on the wind. A shout. More shouts, followed by curses, the scuffing of dirt, and the jangling of spurs.
They stood up from table and moved as one to the door. Jakes was first out, joining Bagley on the boardwalk, who was staring intently down the street, a rolled cigarette cupped in his hand. The noises were coming from the other side of town; the direction opposite to the one El Cougar was taking.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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