Ennio Morricone Homage: “A Coffin Full Of Stars”

After Maestro Ennio Morricone rode off into the sunset on July 6th, we thought we would post this as a tribute … an excerpt of a Weird Western story from the forthcoming “Machineries of Chaos”, Volume Two of the the “Dimensions Unknown” series.

The year is 1888.

You wake up in a deserted ghost town somewhere in the Arizona desert.

You have no idea how you got there.

The story begins …



   The silence of the hotel room was gradually infiltrated by the buzzing of flies at the window and the wind’s fitful howling. Somewhere in the distance, a door slammed open and shut repeatedly. The breathing of the man on the bed was deep and labored.

    The man 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 fight 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 he’d never seen before.

   His heart pounded like a runaway horse and he looked down at the off-white long johns he’d 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, unbuttoned his long johns and did his business.

   Maybe I fell off my horse and struck my head, he thought afterwards, as he stood and looked around himself. Maybe I got taken to some mission hospital …

His memories and his body 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 his time in the army. 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’d been taken from him. No – he’d been taken from  her.

   His hands clenched into fists and he started pacing the room like a caged coyote, his eyes searching for 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 single-action army revolver was missing.

   He stood completely still, and he now noticed the sweat oozing 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 a crazy man, or an alcoholic. I’m 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 wooden false-front commercial buildings, all aged and anonymous, like the hotel. On the horizon, mountains lay beneath a harsh desert sun that glared out of a brittle, cloudless void. The faint tang of woodsmoke hung upon the air.

   A flicker of movement made him look down and to his right, into a main dirt road wide enough to turn a horse and carriage around. The wind was blowing a lump of tumbleweed the size of a dog across an intersection, further down. Dust blew along with it like smoke from phantom cookfires. 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 and hat immediately inside the entrance, and jammed them on. Preparing himself for anything, he walked out into the musty 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 walnut brown, a heavy dragoon mustache covered his mouth like crow’s wings, and his eyes glimmered dark and searching under his narrow-brimmed hat as he studied Jakes intently. He wore an aged duster over a white shirt and denim pants. Like Jakes, he had a belt and 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.

   “Were you alone up there?” the man called.

   “As far as I know,” Jakes replied.

   “Where is this place?” the saloon girl asked angrily.

   “I was kind of hoping you could tell me,” Jakes said.

   By now he’d 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 saloon 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.”

   “Jethro Jakes.”

   “Belle DeRosa, out of Louisiana,” said the saloon girl.

   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 lobby, a face appeared behind the glass window in the doors. Another Negro face, sharp eyes under short cropped hair. There looking in for a second, then gone.

   Jakes strode over to the 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’re 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 in the hotel lounge, 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 for me,” 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 she 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 Two Pines, Indiana.”

   “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,” Martha 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 group in the hotel lounge.



   One was a giant of a man, obviously Mexican. He 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 sharp nose, dark brown hair, and fierce black eyes. Even, tobacco-stained teeth glinted beneath a thick mustache 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 funereal black, bloodshot eyes behind black-rimmed pince-nez perched on a long bony nose. His threadbare and frayed black suit had a silvery shine to it.

   “Brothers and sisters!” 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, and it feels like an eternity.”

   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 carried, and started to open cupboards and barrels. There was food in the pantry; Jakes saw cans and small bundles wrapped in cloth lining the shelves. The Mexican pulled them out, 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 like 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 straightened 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.”

  “Across that desert out there? 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 among 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 streak 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 in the Pinos Altos. What’re you doing here?”

  The man called El Cougar stared coolly at Maxwell. “I wish I could answer you, senor, but none of us knows 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 your hand.”

  The lean-faced man grimaced, nodded, and sat down at a back table. Martha picked up her bag and walked nervously over to him. “I do believe I have some lotion,” 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.

  “More like the wrong hand,” Belle said to Jethro, shaking her head in disbelief.

  “The least I can do is introduce ourselves,” continued the preacher. “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 Two Pines, Chet Maxwell. He says he’s gonna get us out of here.”

  McGrath snorted with laughter. “You ain’t in Two Pines any more, lawman.”

  “It don’t matter,” said Maxwell, glaring at McGrath. “I’ll still get you out.”

  “I am ready!” 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. The others slowly shuffled toward the door. They were too afraid to follow him, but they watched him go in baffled fascination.

  “Are you going to let him leave with all that food?” Martha 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, ma’am,” Jakes said. “It looks like there’s a whole lot more food in there.”

  “What for?” Martha said, looking pained. “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 Jakes 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 supper.”

  “Supper,” said Belle longingly. “Speaking of that, I could do with some lunch.”

  “I’m sure I could do a lot more praying with something in my belly,” said the preacher wistfully. “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. Corinthians One, 10:31.”

  “Amen to that,” said Jakes, his stomach sending stabs of nausea down through his gut and up to his throat.

  The group entered the hotel kitchen that El Cougar had raided. The kitchen 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, dried apples, canned meat and fruits, 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, with 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 satisfied, maybe we should nourish our brains by finding out more about each other. Like I said, I’m a lawman. What about you, Jakes?”

  Jakes closed his eyes and thought. He hated talking about himself; there never seemed to be any point. It was work he preferred, the simple mechanics of moving his body around, doing something productive. If there were really 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 … last year, 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 … the courts listened but nothing happened. The bankers and railroaders paid them to look the other way, of course. Things got so bad that … a group of persons unknown took some powder up there one night and blew up the mill, then the dam.”

  “Is that so,” said Bagley, chuckling quietly. “Persons unknown. 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.

  “Bison,” Jakes said automatically.


  “Bison. Ain’t that the proper name for ’em? I kinda remember that from my schoolin’ days.”

  McGrath didn’t answer. From the look on his face, he considered the comment beneath his notice. “Forty years ago, there were more buffalo than powder could kill. But every year, the hunters get thicker, and the herds get thinner. Each hunt they get less, until one day you’ll be able to count them on your fingers. I spent six years lookin’ for something to shoot, and living off the land … until I found the trail of the last ones, on their way up to Canada.”

  “What’s the last thing you remember?” asked Maxwell.

  McGrath frowned. “I was in a town called Citadel, in Oregon.”

  “Oregon?” Bagley exclaimed. “How the hell could you get across country overnight to wake up in a desert like this?”

  “Spirited away,” intoned Jedediah. “There are supernatural forces at work, and the Hosts of Midian are abroad.”

  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. “You know … maybe I wouldn’t be all that surprised.”

  “Theaters are haunts of vice, corruption, lewdness, and filth,” Ives reproved loudly.

  Belle smiled charmingly. “I take it that means you won’t be buyin’ tickets for my next show, Padre.”

  Maxwell waved the comments away. “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?”

  Martha looked at him in surprise, and then beamed widely. “Oh, you read the pamphlets!”

  “Pamphlets?” Jakes frowned. “Some drifter told me in a bar when he was passing through Lakeside.”

  She looked around the table and started to explain. “Larry and I had some pamphlets printed up by 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. For the first time, Jakes noticed the tiny blue specks peppering the left side of his face, beneath the leathery skin. Some time or another, he had narrowly missed having his head blown off by a shotgun blast.

  “I’m just a cowhand,” Bagley muttered.

  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.”

  “I gave up smoking years back,” Maxwell said to all around the table, a little defensively.   “What about you, Padre?”

  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 the 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 came from the other side of town; the direction opposite to the one El Cougar had taken.




About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
This entry was posted in Alternative History, Horror, Literature, Music, Science Fiction, Short Stories, Steampunk, The Occult. Bookmark the permalink.

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