Part 1 Edit
I had a mission.
I was to book passage as a hand on a sloop bound for the Canal, and meet with a man in a Georgetown flophouse: 'Kurtz'. Real fucking cute, references to a half century old film ham-fisted into the planning of a clandestine operation bound for a port full of spies, cutthroats, and outlaws. That was the Old Man though.
So I booked passage on the 'Maggie Farrell' among the skipjacks at St. Michael’s landing. She was weighed down low with tobacco and barrels of salted fish. For March, we had fine weather, and enjoyed a calm, almost pleasant trip across the Bay. The spring weather fouled, however, as crawled up the Potomac. Rain fell and a fog descended around us as we passed under the old 301 bridge. We glided quietly past the tidal basin with only the sound of creaking wood and groaning rope accompanying us.
I stood on the deck with my possibles sack and leaned over the rail, smoking. I strained to catch a glimpse of one of those marble mausoleums among the dead city. Just as I caught a brief glimpse of the great spire, a horn blast ripped out of the fog, and, in a start, I nearly pitched overboard. An old deckhand sitting on a barrel and smoking a corncob pipe began to cackle at me, when the Maggie’s horn gave two toots in response. Suddenly the deck was a hive of activity as the crew made ready to dock. Already, the cargo was being hauled topside, and I joined the column of men rolling barrels to the far end of the deck. Once the cargo was assembled, we were made to heave to and allow for ADF inspection. All goods bound for the Canal through ADF territory were subject to inspection by their authorities, we were never happy about the "taxes" these inspectors collected, but we needed the coal barges to continue coming the opposite way to keep the engines turning in the east. This inconvenience was written off as the price of doing business.
Having finished their inspection, and levied an armload of cigarette cartons each, the ADF shoved off and we docked in Georgetown. Like any good river port town, the city was awash on a sea of booze with commerce, opportunity, and danger around every corner. Garishly clad whores beckoned me from balconies, a man selling "soap with a prize inside" accosted me repeatedly, and a shoeless young boy assured me of an incredible economic opportunity “just down this alleyway”. They made me for a pilgrim because of the pack on my back.
Oil lamps gleamed in windows by the time I reached the predetermined flophouse. By night, the town reminded me of St. Louis in the fur trade era, at least what I could remember from my childhood mountain men books. The boarding establishment's name may have been French, but its accommodations were Spartan. Though it was early, sailors, stevedores, canal men, mercenaries, and rounders carpeted the floor in inebriated slumber, all snuggled in flea ridden hay. My contact sat in a corner of the large dining room off of the back of the building. Kurtz’s slouch hat bobbed as he tucked into a thick barley stew as I crossed the room. He looked up and flashed a stupid friendly smile as I pulled up a chair, his gold tooth shining in the candlelight confirmed to me that this was my contact. "C'mon, pull up a chair" he sarcastically beckoned to me, then he tore off a piece of brown bread and offered it.
In spite of the squalor in the other side of the building, the smell from the stewpots was intoxicating, making me quickly realized I was famished. I accepted his hunk of bread. He produced a second glass and poured me a rye from a jug at his feet. My contact was living like a king on our taxes. He dropped his spoon into his empty bowl, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, exhaled, belched, slammed back the remainder of his glass of rye, exhaled again, and then leaned forward across the table to be heard over the murmur of the common room at dinner.
"Let's get down to brass tacks, then" he glanced side to side suspiciously, "you're bound for old New Mexico, Lone Fort territory, the Ashlands." Why in God's name would they be sending me clear across the continent into a wasteland? I let him continue. "As we aren't seein quite eye to eye with Caroline these days, you're goin up the canal to Cumberland, overland to the Ohio, down the Ohio and into the ash to the Big River, Get off down Vicksburg, and find away clear across Texas to somewhere in the mountains of New Mexico. That's all I got for ya boss. You ship out with a man name of Keene on a canal boat; first light. Your team is waiting in Cumberland. You should be making town within a week. Best get you a rifle, been word of raiders hitting boats around Monocacy Aqueduct. ADF’s sent pickets, but the boat men are still spooked, they know them hill militia boys are more’n likely to be the selfsame rabble of bandits. Anyways, Keene’s taken you on as a hired gun for the northern trip, so we best fix you up with something to shoot with” he paused, winked, “asides from that hand cannon tucked under your coat.” I fingered my old .45 Auto sheepishly.
Kurtz led me through the winding rowdy streets of the waterfront. He stopped outside of a dockside warehouse, where he rapped three times on a window pane. After a moment, a tired old man in a stained union suit cracked the door with a lantern drawn up to our faces. “JB, I got you a silver payin customer”, Kurtz playfully hollered. JB sighed and beckoned us inside. We followed him past rows and rows of canvas covered crates and barrels to a back room with a stout padlock. JB grumbled as he sorted through a ring of keys, finally sighing as he found the correct key. He lazily beckoned to a rack of rifles against the far wall and collapsed onto a bar stool, suddenly producing a newspaper that he read by lantern light a yawned.
Most of these were standard bolt guns: cracked stocks, frozen actions, no sights, rusted barrels, etc. Kurtz fingerfucked some ADF produced pot metal Sten clones; his lack of trigger discipline sent shudders down my spine. I saw myriad shotguns in equally rough shape, a whole mess of rusty lever actions leaning in a corner, a genuine Springfield Trapdoor, and a score of basement gunsmith Shelly-esque monsters of amalgamated parts. Then I saw it high up on top of a shelf of ammunition, the unmistakable art- deco lines were instantly recognizable: a Savage 1899! As I brought it down and inspected it closely, my heart sank, it was a finely crafted rifle, the bore was clean, the action smooth as butter, but it was chambered in .300 Savage and its stock was cracked as the design was too weak to handle that chambering’s recoil. Dejected, I returned the rifle to its place on top of the shelf and looked about the room, trying to decide what to settle on. The old- timer, noticing my disappointment, nodded his head to above the door he had led us through a few minutes ago. On a single shelf above the doorframe was a rifle length oil cloth bundle; I stood atop a box and took it down from its perch. It was a bit heavy for its size, and I was overwhelmed with curiosity as I undid the knot and took the rifle out of the cloth. When I finally had the bundle undone, I could not believe my eyes. I held in my hands a 1941 Johnson Rifle, a semi- auto rotary fed .30-06! The finish was worn off of the stock, and the bluing was rubbed off in some spots with rust in others, but by God it was a perfectly functional Johnson! These were rare as hen’s teeth before the eruption.
I figured I would have to dip into the personal fund for this purchase. I began to bundle the rifle, but the old man stopped me and reached for it. I handed it to him and he turned it over in his hands and cycled the bolt one last time and slightly smiled. He handed it back, Kurtz grabbed a few boxes of .30-06 soft points and some .45 auto, JB locked up, and we followed him to an office where we squared up on the scale. A couple months pay in Washington silver later, and I was back on the raucous streets of Georgetown, my bundle of joy tucked under my arm and my possibles sack weighted with cartridges. I told Kurtz to take me to a reputable place to rent a room, I wouldn’t wake up with my throat cut because someone was eying my possessions with envy. Outside of the hotel, a grabbed the bottle of rye Kurtz had been toting around, took a couple healthy swallows, handed back the bottle, and bid Kurtz farewell. “Good luck on yer secret mission, Huckleberry!”, he jested after me as I headed into the lobby. How I hate that man.