The Sixty 03

Updated: Aug 20

Like a flipping quarter in the air, I caught Silverback's nose out of pure instinct. The thwip of the broadhead that scraped across his maw cued the violent crescendo.


I do not know why, but I was compelled to pocket the fleshy bit before unslinging my Remington. I did not immediately attain anyone to point it at, but my aid would not be required. Grout and Crackhead unfurled a terrible rip of rounds from the rear directly along our adjacent treeline. From the foliage we heard the awful spasming of lungs. They reduced to whimpers and gurgles as we descended upon them. Perhaps 15 seconds had elapsed.


I nominated the name Nosferatu for the unnerving combination of speed and grace with which he moved, but I was not successful. Instead Preacher was named Preacher. Truer to the name I proposed than his own, he was upon the closest before the rest of us could fully lower our muzzles — his handgun inducing gags from a man struck once in the belly and again in the upper chest. Snot unclogged in gasps from the wounded sob's nose.


In total there were three, armed with but bows and knives. Ragged sacks stained with the remnants of empty cans explained the motive behind their doomed and desperate attempt. The first two days of walking had been uneventful. We expected to find our long-term bivouac site by the end of tonight. We would now have something to talk about.


Satisfied he could still breath, Silverback lumbered among the blackberry brambles to ensure that his attacker no longer could. I considered the knife used to be too short to be merciful. Of course, he did not care for what I considered.


//---//


There was no interrogation. Bedsheet used to make public his dissatisfaction with this, but he had grown accustomed.


Patches and Doc did what they could for Silverback. They did not sugarcoat the news that the nose was a lost cause without Crook, even if he struck back towards Bargetown that very instance. Silver took the news as a man who seemed to already know.


The Captain sat with Blacklung and the Two's; Bedsheet, Stonehenge, and Bowie. The temper he hardly harnessed while in the comforts of a garrison seemed more tame out here. Injuries sustained from rebellious pontoon-pilots on the river would guarantee lectures that we weren't getting in response to our ambush today.


However, the rules of the jungle seemed ones by which he was willing to abide. Perhaps here he was not on top of the hierarchy of who decides events. There was something more ancient and primitive in whom compelled that. "Shit happens" is the primordial law. You could not break it if you wanted to.


I joined them at their firepit. We were a day's walk from where trouble would be anticipated yet. The nature of previous Westie captures implied that they did not provision themselves to sustain overnight attacks. We maintained a perimeter still, but all not on watch felt comfortable to remove their boots and loosen their belts. The conversation was brief. Word was that Hayseed had struck further in search of threats but had utilized a pilfered bow to take a doe. Him and Foot-Fetish were dressing the beast somewhere distant enough that the coyotes would not disturb camp. The Captain gave his orders.


"Just our luck" Stonehenge replied robotically. The saying had become automatic for his squad. They were commanded to be camp babysitters. They maintained the watch, they maintained security, they maintained the provisions. For as long as this operation would take.


Blacklung and Bowie would receive their instructions in the morning more fully, but for tonight they were instructed to have their men repack lighter for a three day excursion. They would leave sometime around noon the next day to allow for recovery. The Captain then motioned for Bedsheet to follow him, and they sauntered away from the camp in silence until far beyond our ability to eavesdrop them.


I had a roll of 800 ISO in the camera yet. I milled around making use of it for a while after.


//---//


As was my preference, I chose to bed with Bedsheet's men. Picasso anticipated me and saved me a flat, dry spot near their circle. They did not unpack, but slept light as we had on the road here. I asked, but I would never receive an answer. These were Daggers that wished themselves still Cloaks. If a secret was to be kept, they would be outdone in doing so only by the grave.


We shared a canteen cup with our portions of deer and traded facts about the river we had learned from deteriorating brochures. He asked me if I knew what Shaman had said about the stars on the day we left. He seemed dismayed that I did not.


"I'll bet Squatch has him turning cards every night for us," he offered. Perhaps he needed reassurance. For Picasso, I'd always oblige.


"Only the good ones, I'll raise. He probably ordered it that way." The smile I forced was so weak it likely only materialized in twisted eyebrows.


"If he turns any bad ones, I'll have his ass when we get back."


"That sounds romantic," I joked lazily.


"Fuck you."


We were yet boys in the woods at times. And as boys, just as clueless. I remembered I hadn't washed my hands from earlier. I wiped the black and dried bits of Silverback off my palm and rolled over to sleep.


//---//


I watched Bedsheet and the five under him depart just after sunrise. Hayseed spent the walk up collecting dandelions and boiled them into a tea. He donated to me half a cup in return for the concoction being immortalized in photo.


//---//


I packed in a hurry. I was informed that I was joining the other expedition about an hour before they stepped off. I crossloaded in a hurry with a pair of the Slothlords and took every lens and roll I had. You just never really knew.


When we did depart, the pace was lazy and meandering. After three-days march we all lamented leaving the relative comfort of our bivouac site. The Captain did not join us on this trip, and so I walked between the men as they would have me. Technically, I would be ranking officer on this trip being from the Headquarters section. However, Blacklung and Bowie were clearly in charge. My role was important, but my rank was perfunctory.


The makeup of our outfit left me confused as to our purpose. Bowie's half of the Slothlords often acted as our scouts. They were comfortable pathfinders and woodsmen. We relied on them often to hunt and to perform our recon. Blacklung's half of the Daggers were sophisticated brutes. They were not like the Bad Luck Club, they did not have belt feds and explosives. If a man had killed in the Daggers, it was just as often with poison or a blade.


We fought through the brambles with an odd assortment of handguns, daggers, bows, hunting rifles, my shotgun, and perhaps a couple of rifles truly purposed with protection. I assumed our purpose to be observation and reporting.


We hugged the water through a sunflower field grown rampant and soggy wetland until we came across a bridge to take us north across the Missouri. We had avoided the city that used to be St Louis through this route. Once we took the bridge, we would not have the luxury of avoidance any longer.


//---//


We did not open our packs to sleep that night. Where we found shelter to hold up, we'd lay on the floor restlessly. The disparity in areas that were producers and areas that were consumers became dire within a year after the Decay began. When the local grocery went bare and no trucks came to resupply, what then does a population center do?


Most left. With no where in particular to go, most didn't survive long. Those that stayed rummaged and pilfered. Some formed gangs and outright plundered. The standing buildings made such outskirts attractive reprieves for wanderers with foolish hope that there were still valuables yet to find.


We crept through the alleys and streets unbothered and with healthy paranoia. Foot-Fetish thought he caught scent of a campfire. We detoured downwind further to put some distance between us and continued forward. We'd come more than half the way. The hope we had of exiting the series of apartment buildings and strip malls before needing to rest receded under the weight of reason and reality. We picked the carcass of a carwash atop a highway exchange. Easy to see all around. Easy to abandon in haste. We tried for sleep. Few succeeded.


//---//


When dawn teased on the horizon we all stirred. We were ready to get outside the metro-suburban area. We scoured the business for anything useful. We were able to find some pens and other office supplies. I huddled those in what room I had in my pack. Bowie and Garmin checked around the property and left all that was in the shed unbothered with the body that hung there. Items layered in stale death carried omens. We knew this well.


//---//


The relief washed through us once we entered wider country again. We resumed our normal tactics and walked without so much caution under each heel. We crossed a wide road with clearings on either side. I huddled on the short side with most of the men. We sent one across every two minutes. One man is less easy to spot, and the interval invited any onlooker to move too fast upon us or become confused as to how our outfit numbered truly.

Garmin was bent as the waist and following the natural depressions in the field. He had crossed the old road and was well on his way to the opposing treeline. "Just what is it we're out here to do?" I whispered to Blacklung.


I felt a pressure on my back. He'd placed his paw on the middle of my pack and pushed with some insistence. "It's your turn, Fixer."


I did my best to follow Garmin's footsteps like a ghost.


//---//


We created a loose perimeter and camped cold. From where we lay we could see the airfield. Fires were lit openly and we could not see any defenses. The Westies felt safe, beyond our ability to touch them. We would fan out slowly over the course of the next day and night to observe and confer with each other to be sure.


We measured every one of their number and their resources as we did. They walked confidently, their eyes fixed north from their tower in observation of boats on the river headed their way.


Blacklung said they got too cocky. I felt uneasy about the smile he wore when he said that.


//---//




19 views0 comments