Line of Descent Chapter 22
He lay full length on the ground, concealed within a clump of vegetation through which he studied the house and the hastily built positions in front of it. He held a rifle which poked out in front of him, stopping two feet short of the end of the cover. It had been in terrible condition when he had received it from the Provos but it had been a fine gun in its day. He had worked on it patiently, cleaning and repairing the years of neglect until it was almost back to being the superb weapon it had been on the day it left the factory. Czech. They had always made fine hunting guns and this one was exceptional, almost too powerful for this kind of work. He didn’t have much ammunition for it but he wouldn’t need much if he was careful. A swathe of oil‑soaked rags to suppress the flash were wound around the muzzle and the home‑made silencer fixed to it. The rags were held in place by a few elastic bands. He had not managed to get a scope for it but it was not really necessary, open sights were good enough for him, even at this range. He had changed his camouflage again, careful to use pieces of vegetation that matched those around him.
The floodlights came on for a moment, lighting up the house like a Christmas tree in the darkness. A besieged island of light in the darkness of the night, in the darkness of his soul. He had closed his eyes quickly to save his night vision and lay there patiently, resting his cheek on the stock, waiting for them to flick out. With a dimming of the light coming through his eyelids, they did. He opened his eyes and resumed his vigil.
His side hurt. The shattered ends of the ribs broken by Krupmeyer’s bullet grated together as he lifted his head to re‑sight along the rifle. The chest protector he wore had saved his life but had transmitted the bone breaking impact to his rib cage. Tendons in his neck stood out as he automatically grimaced in spasm at the sharp pain. He lay still, waiting, and the pain slowly receded, lost among the welter of others. That was just the meat complaining and he’d learnt to cope with that a long time ago. His eyes were fixed on the position in front of him but the images he saw in his mind were of other places and times.
He thought about the doll’s house and regretted letting Moira, his daughter, down over it. He’d promised to finish it in time for her birthday so she could show her friends but he still hadn’t got around to it. That was important to her, he realised but he’d been so busy at the workshop. It was always the same. The farmers didn’t turn over the engines of the equipment through the winter, so by the time they came to be used, they were seized solid. It was the best time of year for the business and also the busiest. A seven days a week time. Seven. She’d be seven this year and little Sean would be six.
How the years seemed to fly as he got older. It worried him. You just looked around and it was Christmas time again. Christmas was so good nowadays. It was the time of year he had come to like most, when he knew how lucky he was. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of his life, except the colours of his rainbow were wrong. They had started in half remembered shades of black and purple that slowly changed into a hard unremitting grey for most of the rest, before the glorious warm yellows and oranges at the end that were Ruth and the kids. Sometimes it was hard to believe that it was really all his. He didn’t deserve it. It was just too good.
In front of him, there was movement from one of the men sheltering behind the makeshift barricade of plant pots. A head popped out around a side of one of them for a brief, daring look and quickly withdrew. One of them was getting careless and trying to spot him. That was the opening he was waiting for. It all depended on whether the man would appear around the same side again or, being cautious, would choose the other side. Canfield had not fired from this position yet and had taken a guess at how strong the gentle breeze blowing across his front was. He’d adjusted for it but it occasionally gusted, which would be enough to drift the shot off, he knew. He decided that this one was nervous enough to alternate so he took aim at the edge of the other side of the plant pot and waited. His breathing became shallow and his finger pulled gently back on the trigger until he felt the first minute click. Death waited, suspended.
The head finally appeared on the side he had guessed it would and he applied the last few ounces of pressure to the trigger. The powerful recoil from the old rifle travelled down his body while the bullet travelled in the other direction. It found its mark. The head jerked back under the impact, high on the forehead, instantly breaking the target’s neck as the head exploded. A bone hit. Canfield lay still for a moment, thinking he’d judged the wind just right. He worked the bolt, ejecting the shell case onto the earth beside him. He picked it up and carefully put it in one of the many pockets of the assault suit he was wearing. Sniping in windy conditions at this range was always a gamble. There were too many things beyond your control and he hated it. You had to sneak in and take the shot in the little intervals when things were calm and you had a target, two things that rarely occurred at the same time. He rolled onto his back and freed himself from the harness and sling that had cinched the rifle so tightly to his left arm and body. He picked up the small square of cloth he’d laid on the ground beneath the muzzle of the gun to prevent dust rising when he fired. He crawled backwards out of the clump of bushes, ignoring the pain and standing up, walked deep into the forest. He walked head down with the long easy stride of a woodsman.
He wondered, not for the first time that night, why he was here doing this but shied away from thinking about that. That wouldn’t be a good thing to do, he knew. Sometimes you just had to do things. It was better to get on with it. Don’t complain, don’t explain; he’d learnt that lesson early in life. Just do it. Maybe if he took a few days off, he could finish the doll’s house in time. Ruth would like to see a bit more of him, he knew. The work didn’t matter, what was waiting to be repaired would just be fixed a few days later. There was no danger of him losing any business, nobody else for fifty miles around could repair the things and the farmers wouldn’t touch the reps. They were much too expensive for the locals.
Good, he thought at the decision made. He’d spent too much time away from them lately, working on things in the shop to all hours or miles away, out on some God forsaken farm fiddling about in the guts of some gigantic dinosaur of farm machinery. It wasn’t enough to see them between jobs at hurriedly eaten meals or her, when she walked over to the workshop from the house in the evening with a coffee and a plate of sandwiches for him. He owed her too much for that.
He loved her with the intensity of a man who has found love late in his life. A gem where nothing but a solitary slide into middle age had been expected. It was deep and profound, so confident and strong in its passion that the act of love had become almost unnecessary. A token of contact for something that was far beyond physical expression. She was the only person whom he had ever allowed to take control of any part of his life. It was she who had found him and pursued him until he was hers. He’d been a man who’d never looked at any situation without looking for an edge. That’s how you survived, he’d learnt. The world was a threatening and dangerous place that was just waiting to catch you off your guard. Relax for a moment and it would eat you up alive.
But she had gradually shown him a different world. With each small gift of kindness and love that she’d given him, his view had changed. It had been a slow and subtle process. As he’d grown to trust and love her, the world had changed and he’d been changed as well. She’d always been there, gently pushing and encouraging him until finally he’d stood blinking like a wretched prisoner emerging from a dark dungeon into the light and that was when his life had truly began. Life rather than just survival; he’d never known there was a difference. All that had happened before was sloughed away like the discarded skin of a snake and with it went the pain and the loneliness and the smouldering rage that had always got him through. There wasn’t anything she could ask of him that he wouldn’t do gladly and wholeheartedly. Such was his debt to her. She’d wanted the children, when he hadn’t, but she’d had her way. He’d seen terrible things with children and dreaded it as a step too far. He feared he might not be able to handle that step but again, she’d been right, oh so right, he thought, thinking of them.
Beyond her and them, nothing else in the world mattered. Nothing.
When he was far enough in, he changed course abruptly to walk along parallel to the meadow which contained the house. He was looking for a new firing position. As he walked along, his eyes scanned the forest to his left picking out likely locations but his mind was elsewhere. He was worried about young Sean. He was having difficulties settling in at school. It was all a bit too much for him. Canfield had tried his best, patiently showing him the letters and the brightly coloured pictures of the things they stood for, as the little boy sat on his lap in the evenings, but he couldn’t seem to remember it from day-to-day. Maybe if they got him some help he’d find it easier. Kids were so smart these days, he thought. We expect too much from them.
An image of the plot in the graveyard in Coole slid into his mind.
He jerked to a stop, twisting his head violently down and to the side. No, came the denial from deep down inside him, strangled before it could come to his lips. No, they’re OK, he said, comforting himself, that’s just something else, stay away from it, concentrate on the job at hand. It had been happening all night, these strange and disturbing intrusions, unwelcome and distracting. They were coming more frequently, as if there was another person in his head who was nagging at him, getting more and more impatient and prodding him harder and harder to admit to something that he did not want to think about. He felt guilty and scared. Guilty because he knew he was running away from something and scared because he had never done that before. Bad things, he’d learnt, always caught up with you in the end. It was better to turn and fight but this time he knew there was something terrible there and he just couldn’t and that scared him even more.
He shook his head once, as if to lose the image, and it went away. He sat down with his back against a tree to busy himself repairing the damage done to the makeshift flash suppresser by his shot. Laying the gun across his legs, he took off the elastic bands holding the cloth in place. He kept them on his wrist while he worked, rewinding the rags tightly until he was satisfied. He slid the bands back down his wrist to secure the wrappings in place and stood the gun up on its stock to examine the job. What should have been a cursory glance, gradually stretched into minutes as he sat there transfixed.
He sat so still that after a while, the small nocturnal creatures in the forest about him unfroze and began to come alive with almost inaudible rustles but his ears weren’t hearing them. The moon passed behind a long straggly cloud and its light varied, brightening and dimming, as it shone through different parts of it but his eyes hardly registered the subtle changes. It illuminated a face set in the fixed repose of recollection. He was remembering things, recalling people and places from far back in his life, for strangely there was more comfort to be found there than there was in his life now. The faces of people he hadn’t thought of for years came into view, like a playful party of swimmers in a glass sided pool looming up one by one to a window through which he was looking. They came and said things to him and left, courteously ceding their place to the next when they’d said hello. They were all happy and smiling, glad to see him again after all this time.
He saw Billy Oates, the best and greatest friend of his early boyhood. He was there again, still a thin bony boy but now he glowed with a good health that he’d never enjoyed in life. He’d died one brutally cold winter in the upstate orphanage in which they’d both grown up and it had broken the young Canfield’s heart. With every clot of blood that Billy had coughed up in the last days of his young life, Canfield had died as well. But now he was here again, smiling his toothy ear‑to‑ear grin and his bright clear eyes literally sparkled with happiness. Canfield’s heart swelled and he loved him.
And there was Grigoriev, the Georgian he’d shared a cramped cell with for three years. He was fine. He was free now and wanted to talk to Canfield about the legendary fruit grown in his home village. It was an old and familiar topic of conversation that had whiled away many cold nights. He talked on in Russian with his thick Georgian accent while Canfield listened with pleasure but he was elbowed aside with ill grace by Peterson, the Master Sergeant who never did like foreigners anyway. Things were OK with him too. Canfield listened as he explained how he’d pulled a cushy number and things were fine, really fine. Canfield gradually became inveigled into conversation with him. They spoke together, as old comrades do, about the good times, never about the conflicts. Did he remember the time they’d drunk their way from one end of the Bang Toi strip to the other? Of course he did and what a time they’d had, but do you remember that Spec 1 from the red legs, the one they’d ‑ he shook himself out of it, he didn’t have time for them now.
No, there was work to do. He knew he was having difficulties focusing and it worried him. His mind seemed to be working in compartments, in modes. Some of them were good and some were ones he could only stay in for a while before he just had to get out. They were like rooms with no air in them, he couldn’t stay in them long before bolting for the door.
He stood up, going from repose to action so quickly that the forest creatures, who had forgotten his presence, froze into petrified silence instantly. He approached nearer the edge of the forest and could see the next outpost. The easy stride was gone. He was on his toes now, a hunter in search of prey, carrying the rifle. There it was. The perfect firing position. A clump of bushes around the base of a mature tree with an even bigger darker clump behind. Concealment and Cover, the two Cs every sniper looked for. He studied the vegetation there carefully before retiring deep into the forest to look for its match. He found some and stripped off the old pieces of vegetation from his clothes to replace them with a few selected fronds of the new. Satisfied, he walked back to the tree. He crawled into position behind it and after spreading the square of cloth onto the ground, started wrapping the sling of the rifle about his left arm.
His ribs were hurting again but he ignored the pain as he attached the rifle to the body harness and cinched it tight. He squirmed around, digging his left elbow into the dirt and sighting down the barrel. The range to target had increased and the wind had picked up so he adjusted the sights again, taking a guess for the lateral vernier. Nobody was moving behind the barricade of pots. He settled down to wait. His mind was in a different mode now. He was the talented specialist again, patiently unravelling the problem presented by the house and its defenders. They were doomed and he knew it.