The Sixty 01

Updated: Nov 8

THE SIXTY


For seven years I have been accounted among The Sixty, and shall for fifty-three more.


After the decay, all professions of protection and policing became mercenary work. Perhaps they always were. As is tradition, we chase compensation where it is promised.


We the company, being only ten winters old, are a young mob. We carry only three rules by which to live utmost. First, we are Sixty, and no more. Second, a man’s service is Sixty years, and no more. Last and the most grave, no one here cares who you used to be.


Our reputation is mixed, but known. Our tactics are haphazard, yet effective. We bear the symbol of the three legged coyote. Somewhere, behind, lie the traps that contain a piece of which we were all willing to leave behind. If we did not we would be dead.

BARGETOWN, Year 12


The coming spring melt will be the twelfth since the decay, and the first anniversary of the employment of The Sixty to the Baron of Bargetown.


Many things are different now, and many are the same. The tolls are still collected under threat of violence, but the bureaucracies of the old rules are no longer the buffer they once were towards preserving an image of civility.


The Mississippi is ancient beyond personality. Her indifference compounds the hopelessness of the drowned, and errant deservedness of those whom she irrigates. She will take from them just the same, without notice, without regard.


//---//


Shivering in the Arch sat four. Boho, myself, Cousin, and Happy. Six stories tall and only dozens of yards from the waterfront. The Gateway to the West purposed itself with equal value as an observation point. Baron Dumond’s military mind displayed itself. He’d done well to select this plot.


The pre-dawn chill planted restlessness within us. One position held too long gave the structure opportunity to steal heat from any place that it touched. We kept busy shuffling our equipment. Then reshuffling it.


Cousin spent long periods of time peering through the glass atop his prized rifle. The reticle in his scope contained much more than just the crosshairs I had known from the hunting guns of my youth. He could pull ideas from these lines and dots like a visual morse code. His eye became a yardstick, and the world was a graph in which the coordinates could be easily passed along to Boho.


I likened Cousin to a chess grandmaster in life before. His face in calculation seemed as relaxed as if he were reading the morning paper. He would have been terrifying across the board. He was like this in all situations. It mattered not how the pieces lay before you, his face never betrayed the idea that he felt in control.


I dared not ask where he attained this skill, of course. The question would break our final most sacred rule. Cousin displayed his skill well enough that the company found no cause to worry about how they were accrued. He was one of the Sixty now. What else beyond this need matter?


Below, men tended “The Line.” Equally utilitarian as the Arch - and simple - was The Line. Or so the boys had taken to calling it.


Anchored by large steel beams and a manual winch, a 4” steel locked coil of bridging support cable had been stretched across the width of the massive river. When taut, it hung only two feet above the water when the Mississippi was its normal self. Often, however, the water would submerge the cable after a rain.


On two occasions I have seen the Baron’s favorite tactic employed. The cable left slack enough to bend below the water, then men would winch hard upon contact with the hull of a ship trying to pass without submitting to the toll; only to find itself trapped. These were negotiating terms that favored the brutes of Bargetown. One does not often talk themselves out of a trap without parting more than they wanted to give.


Thus was the nature of our employ. Bargetown was a toll station, and we were its enforcement. The pay was scant, but the lodging and food was plentiful. That was pay enough for many of us.


Boho sketched, as he tended to do. Happy was just happy to watch. Speculation about each other’s prior lives was the secret past-time we all shared. I supposed Boho had less secrets to keep than most. His ability to sketch the world as accurately as Cousin could describe it betrayed any mystery. An architect or designer in some fashion. We all thought it, but did not say.


Mornings were often spent like this. I would climb the Arch and receive the report from some collection of the Slothlord squad. I’d allow myself to lounge with them a while. Lounging was a specialty of theirs. I was tasked to compile what was important for the Log. Such was my duty as the Scribe. At some point, before the morning mess, I would descend again and find the Captain or On-Deck. The boys in the Arch would ask about goings-on they missed back on earth. Rarely were there.


This morning, however, the excitement would mostly be felt at 630ft.




//---//



“Must be a returning customer.” Boho remarked. Those begrudging of the toll often milked the approach for all it was worth. The riverboat moved as slow as the current would allow.


“Tough band-aid to rip,” I muttered to no one in particular. I exchanged lenses on my camera. I did not feel rushed to find the longest one in my satchel. The meandering attitude of this group was infectious.


Happy smiled. He was in possession of the binoculars and observed the coming break from monotony. He raised an eyebrow. The smile twisted into a smirk. “You seeing this, Cousin?”


“Saw them a couple minutes ago but lost them in the treeline. Fine time to pop back up. I suppose we have ourselves a decision in need of making.” Cousin never pulled his eye from the scope atop his rifle.


I finally caught on to what was unsaid. Easties. Bandits from the other side of the river. Boats have the choice of paying the toll or taking the Missouri River detour to avoid it. It’s a longer path, filled with yet more bandits. The toll offers peace of mind with swift passage. Usually.


The Easties did not enjoy the full bellies that the Westies did. We named them as such bluntly. Easties occupied the east side of the river. Westies the west. Desperation drove the Eastern bandits to test the boundaries of our domain. We regarded them as raccoons sniffing out our discards. Like raccoons, we only considered their cleverness much too late and much too rarely.


Recently, they had embarked on boarding ventures outside the range of our guns. They understood that ships on these waters come prepared to pay toll. That meant a toll to steal. They swim the river and arrive on deck, appearing as drowned rats. They thrash in conflict with the same resolve.


“I’m tuned in, Happy. You can change the channel.” Boho peered through the spotter’s scope. They had a lingo that at times I could follow, but more often I could not. Happy lowered his binoculars and immediately draped a series of red shirts and rags out the west side of the Arch.


Those at camp could see, but the Easties could not. Happy watched for a return signal. The team did what they all seemed to be most expert at doing; they waited.



//---//



I considered returning back to the ground floor after some time. I had an inkling that the decision would be a mistake and tussled with it alone. I was not in the proper crowd to him and haw openly. I shuffled my equipment again and resituated my frozen backside upon my pack. Eventually, my indecision paid off.


“Well, if that doesn’t butter my biscuit,” announced Happy after a truncated eternity. “We got greenlit, the show finally gets airtime.”


A green flag was raised in response in front of the main tent. I inquired as to what all this meant as I fumbled for my pocket watch. I needed to record these times for the Log.


Happy slapped his knee he was so excited. “Well you see, Fixer,” Fixer being my name, “every time those Easties had poked out at the edge of our range, we’d been scaring them off with the peashooter.”


I took that to mean the Colt M16A4 that leaned near Boho’s squat most often. A fine weapon, but severely lacking in the capabilities to reach out and touch someone that Cousin’s rifle did. I had seen Boho taking half-hearted lobs at the Easties occasionally. I took these as simple warning shots at the time.


“Now we can bring in our starring act,” Happy nodded in a direction that all eyes followed.


But everyone already knew who Mona was, the name given to Cousin’s dearest possession. Happy finished with, “The stage is set, my friends.”


No time was wasted. “Lights?” Cousin asked immediately


“To the stern I range seven hundred and eighteen yards. 91” drop, make that...” Boho referenced a cheat-sheet filled with numbers and gave Cousin a figure, which he corresponded to clicks on his scope.


Cousin adjusted and beckoned for more information. “Alright. Camera?”


Again, Boho looked through the scope and referenced his sheet. “I read 10 miles per hour at roughly 90 degrees East. Hold right side 4th hash.”


Cousin breathed in deeply as he pulled the rifle into the pocket of his shoulder. He leaned forward and put slight pressure onto the springs of his bipod. He pursed his lips and allowed a sharp exhale.


“Action.” Boho said almost inaudibly.


All in the Arch held their lungs so still that the air in them wouldn’t dare churn. I cursed the deafening tick of my watch. I counted five of them before the crack of Mona broke the tension.


I then watched the corner of Happy’s lips curl in a devilish manner.



//---//


The boat’s laborers thought a ghost had descended. The Easties thought it a demon. To them, one man lay inexplicably and suddenly dead. All had paused long enough to witness the second man drop. No man aboard continued counting as the panic ensued. The way one of the workers aboard the boat retold the story, he stood on the deck with peace in his heart. He was convinced of divine intervention. He held the cross he wore around his neck. I had not seen a believer in at least three years. In that time, his God must have held a sense of humor. The worker’s other hand held a bandage to his skull. He slipped in the blood of the second Eastie shot.


Stoic aided me. We kept the details logged as the crew was debriefed. He was my favored understudy, and not just by virtue of being my only. Where his dispassion championed truth, my passion made champions. His abacus of a mind held timelines and round counts. I accredited our dear Cousin his deeds and stifled my impatience to develop the roll of expired Ilford HP5 film I knew held images of him upon his landmark perch.


In total, we interrogated a dozen survivors. They were willing participants. Upon being informed their toll would be waived as reward for tolerating an Eastie attack under our purview, all attitudes became cooperative. This wasn’t purely necessary, but as was the mantra of On-Deck, “myth is marketing.” This tale would follow the river, of that no doubt existed.


Their lot moved the usual cargo that men of the northwoods moved. Ore, of course, with furs and syrups; but mainly, and most precious, ore. Such was the only thing a vessel as wide and flat as they piloted carried; as only such a vessel could manage such a weight in waters so shallow. Word of the great new age of mining near the Great Lakes had graced us in passing rumor. We had not been north of the river crossing at Dubuque since our inception.


Unusual, though, were testimonies of the crewmates lost prior to today. Kidnapped and enslaved boatmen were not concepts new to us, except upon reveal that bold bandit operations had moved much further upriver than the split. The Westies have grown impatient on their stretch of muddy, brown river. The Captain’s furrow was not difficult to read. Informing the Baron would be an unpleasant task. He would demand action, and who else but The Sixty to engage in it?


//---//










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