this is the opening chapter from “A Coffin Full of Stars”, the ninth story in the Futurist Manifesto series. For more information about Futurist Manifesto, go here.
The hotel room was silent, apart from the buzzing of flies at the window, the wind blowing outside, a door banging open and shut in the distance, and the deep, labored breathing of the man on the bed.
He lay on his back with one arm crooked defensively across his face. His breathing caught and he coughed, his chest jerking upwards as he returned to consciousness.
He moved his arm and opened his eyes. For a few moments he stared blankly at the cracked plaster ceiling above him. He frowned, turned his head, and saw his pocket watch lying on a wooden stool by the bedside.
He picked it up, shaking his head to find his way out of the fog of sleep. The hands said five minutes to ten, but the watch had stopped. He shook it. No movement.
He lay peering at the watch for a few seconds more and then sat up convulsively, jerking his head around in alarm. He wasn’t at home. His wife Anne wasn’t lying next to him. He was in a room that he had never seen before.
His heart pounded like a runaway horse and he looked down at the off-white longjohns he had been wearing in bed. Calm down, he told himself, you’re dreaming. Just lie back and go back to sleep, and you’ll wake up back in your own bed at Lakeside.
He grunted with anger and twisted over the bed, feeling for the chamber pot. He pulled it from under the bed, threw aside the unfamiliar bedclothes, unflapped his longjohns and did his business.
Maybe I had an accident, he thought afterwards, as he stood and looked around himself. Maybe I got taken to some mission hospital …
His memories and his bodies told him otherwise. He felt the nagging grind of the pain in his lower back and the tingling of the scar on his leg, but that was nothing new, only the relics of the War. As his head cleared, he remembered going to bed last night with Anne, lying with her face against his chest and feeling her breath cool on his skin. It was the time of day he prized above all others, the two of them, holding each other tight.
She had been taken from him. No, he had been taken from her.
His hands clenched into fists and he started pacing the room like a caged coyote, running his hands through his hair, his eyes searching for any clues. No pictures on the wall, no calendar, no ornaments of any kind. Basic hotel furniture, with oil lamps and candles for the night.
He noticed something heaped on the chair, and he recognized his own clothes – with his holster. Three paces took him there; the holster was empty. His Colt .44 was missing.
He stood completely still, and he now noticed the sweat oozing up from his brow, his armpits, the palms of his hands. The room was hot. It was the cloying heat of summer, but he wasn’t sweating because of the heat.
A sound came to him, not carried by the wind but instead by the fabric of the hotel. Not a sound; more a vibration. The walls thrummed and the plaster creaked, and glasses jangled on the washstand.
He put his hands to his face and roared – a full-throated, incoherent cry of rage.
He crossed to the washstand. There was a full porcelain jug of cold water and he filled the basin then plunged his face into it. He straightened up, rubbing his face vigorously with the towel, trying to rub the confusion out of his head.
He forced himself to breath deeply, and he closed his eyes, listening to the reassuring sound of his own voice.
“My name is Jethro Jakes. I’m not an outlaw, or an alcoholic. I’m just a homesteader, and I’m going to get back home, ’cause that’s where I should be.”
He dressed quickly and sat back down on the bed. Despite his efforts to steel himself, his fingers were shaking, and he sat, waiting, until the trembling had passed. Then he walked with slow paces to the window.
With a few strong pushes, he heaved the sash window upwards; it felt like it hadn’t been opened in a long time.
He looked out into the dry dirt track of a main street empty of life. His room was on the third floor of a wooden-fronted hotel with a bare porch and weathered boardwalk below. The street was filled with other two-story buildings, all aged and anonymous, like the hotel. A harsh desert sun glared mercilessly down upon the scene.
A flicker of movement made him look to his right. The wind was blowing a lump of tumbleweed the size of a dog across an intersection, further down the street. The sight filled Jakes with nameless despair.
He stood at the window, listening to the wind. Could he hear voices? If he listened, there seemed to be something human, along with the relentless banging of a door or a loose shutter somewhere … Prayers? Pleading? He leaned further out of the window, feeling the hot breeze on his face. Now the voice didn’t seem to be English at all. Was it Spanish?
Had he gone insane? Was this all the curse of a brain fever, and he was really lying in bed somewhere, Anne weeping at his side?
He twisted around in shock, his hand going to a gun that wasn’t there.
A woman’s voice. Clear and unmistakable.
“Anne,” he muttered, then heard a man’s voice joining her.
“Hey! Anyone up there? Anyone in the rooms?”
He crossed to the door. He recognized his own boots immediately inside the entrance, and jammed them on. Preparing himself for anything, he walked out into the dusty air of the hallway and looked for the stairs.
He saw three people staring up at him as he stood at the landing and stepped slowly down the bare wooden staircase.
One man. Two women.
He studied the man first, searching for any potential threat. His skin was chestnut brown, a black mustache covered his mouth like crow’s wings, and his eyes had the black shimmer of strong coffee as he studied Jethro intently.
He wore an aged duster over a white shirt and denim pants. Like Jakes, he had a holster, but no gun.
The women looked like studies in contrast. In front of a bare wooden table stood a Negro woman dressed like an East Coast saloon girl. Her low-cut bodice had no sleeves to hide her bare arms, and her bottle green ruffled skirt stretched down to her kid boots. Wide eyes stared in surprise at Jakes from beneath a mass of frizzed hair and above full, shapely lips.
Next to her stood a white woman who looked like she was doing her best not to cower in fear. Her long blond hair was pulled back severely from her brow, and wire-rimmed reading glasses perched on her thin nose. She wore a two-piece gray floral jacket over a calico top and long flounced skirt. She could be a schoolteacher, Jakes thought. A prim schoolma’am standing next to a saloon girl and a gunfighter.
“Are you alone up there?” the man called.
“As far as I know,” Jakes replied.
“Where is this place?” the Negro woman asked angrily.
“I was kind of hoping you could tell me,” Jakes said.
By now he had reached the foot of the stairs. The four of them stood in a rough circle, eyeing each other with caution, distrust … and fear.
“Who are you?” the other man asked.
“Well, who are you?” Jakes replied.
“Boys,” said the Negro girl, “be civil. I guess things would be a lot easier if we knew each other’s names.”
The other man looked shrewdly at the woman, then Jakes, and said, “Name’s Maxwell. Chet Maxwell.”
“Belle DeRosa, out of Louisiana,” said the Negro woman.
The schoolmistress looked at them all shyly. “You can call me Martha Jessup.”
“Well, Miss Jessup, what do you think we’re -”
Jakes froze in mid-speech. Over the other side of the saloon, a face appeared above the swing doors. Another Negro face, sharp eyes under short cropped hair. There looking in for a second, then gone.
Jakes strode over to the swing doors, pushed them open, and stomped onto the boardwalk. The whispering wind blew dust along the empty street.
“I hate this place,” he muttered.
“Hey, what you doing?” Maxwell called.
“I saw someone.” Jakes walked back into the saloon. “We’re not the only ones here.”
“Okay,” said Maxwell. “Why don’t we all just sit down and try to figure this out?”
He pulled up a straight-backed wooden chair slowly and waved everyone else to a seat. They sat around one of the round tables, staring at each other.
“So who goes first?” asked Jakes.
“Why don’t we all say the last thing we remember?” countered Maxwell.
“I had dinner last night at home, had a couple of whiskies to settle my mood. That’s all,” Jakes told them. While speaking, he felt the despair return to claw at him. Anne! he thought. I can’t stay here jawing. I’ve got to get back to her …
“Same here,” said Belle. “I went to bed after a show in New Orleans, and woke up here.”
“The country dance,” said Martha clearly, “and beef stew for dinner. Oh my lord,” she said, pulling out a lace handkerchief, her voice breaking. “My poor babies! My poor husband! They’ll be looking for me, what will they think? They can’t … I’ve got to …”
She stopped, choked by a fit of sobbing as he covered her face with the handkerchief. Belle looked embarrassed. Maxwell got up and stood behind Martha’s chair, placing a hand gently upon her shoulder.
“Now, now,” he said, aiming for a soothing tone of voice that didn’t quite work. “Don’t you go fretting like that. I’m a Sheriff. I’ll get you out of here.”
“Sheriff of what?” asked Jakes.
“Sheriff of El Paso, Texas.”
“I don’t see your badge.”
Maxwell flashed a warning look back at Jakes. “It’s probably the same place my gun is. Yours, too.”
Martha clutched her nose, wiping the tears out of her eyes. As she visibly made an effort to calm down, Jakes felt it again, over the noise of the young woman’s ragged breathing.
The walls rattled. The chandelier above them chimed and tinkled as the glass vibrated. Beneath their boots, the ground trembled, and Jakes heard the faint, distant swoosh of displaced air.
“What the hell was that?” said Belle crudely.
“Earthquake?” asked Maxwell.
“There ain’t no earthquakes around these parts,” said Jakes reflexively.
“We have no idea where these parts are,” Miss Harvey said.
“Why don’t we all go out and take a look?” called a new, loud voice from the back door.
All four 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 saloon.
TO BE CONTINUED …
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