Line of Descent Chapter 24
As soon as Drayton and his men entered the forest, the pace of their withdrawal slowed as they carefully negotiated each twist and turn of the path, wary of an ambush. They leapfrogged from position to position, always covering the man whose turn it was to go ahead and check out each corner. As soon as he was satisfied, he waved them forward from the spot where they were kneeling and on past him to the next one, while he stayed and covered their back. It was a brisk and nerve-wracking routine. Drayton hurried them as much as possible but it took time. Canfield could be lurking anywhere in the trees and shrubbery that lined the path. The moon became both their friend and their enemy. When it came from behind a cloud, it illuminated the dark threatening hollows of the trees bordering the path but at the same time, made them feel naked and vulnerable in its light.
They were just passing the man who had checked out a bend in the path when Canfield struck. The blast of a shotgun from their right tore through the silence of the night, its hollow boom deafening them. One of the men in the middle of the group was blown clear off his feet and cannoned into another. They both went down while all guns in the group swiveled in the direction the flash of the shot had come from and opened up. Bullets blasted the vegetation there into shreds though there was no sign of Canfield. Drayton kept up a stream of fire while screaming orders at the men to pick up the casualty and get him down the path and away. He and another man acted as a rearguard while the other two quickly grabbed the wounded man by the scruff of his jacket and dragged him ahead. He was unconscious and the toes of his shoes dragged along the gravel path as they pulled him along.
Drayton gave them a head start and then raced after them, randomly spraying the vegetation to his right with the occasional burst. There was no sign of Canfield but Drayton hoped the bursts would make him keep his head down. Drayton passed them and stayed ahead of them to check out each bend as they struggled along behind under the weight of the wounded man. By now they carried him between them, his arms drawn over their shoulders. All eyes and guns were turned to their right, expecting another blast from that direction at any moment. Even the guns, in the free hands of the men carrying the casualty, pointed in that direction ineffectually.
Canfield hit them from the left. He had crossed over the path behind them somewhere. He had timed it well too, picking the moment when Drayton and the guard at the rear were both away from the men carrying the casualty in the middle. He raced across the path and straight through the group, furiously working the slide on the shotgun as he screamed and yelled. By the time Drayton and the man at the back of the group could fire without fear of hitting the others in the middle, he had disappeared into the undergrowth again. Both of the men carrying the casualty had gone down. Drayton raced back to them, furiously firing at the spot where Canfield had disappeared into the shrubbery. They were both obviously dead but the wounded man was still alive. Drayton hoisted him over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift and staggered on while the last remaining guard emptied his magazine into the undergrowth. He slapped in a fresh one and backed after Drayton, roaring at him to move.
Drayton staggered along under the load, still holding his gun but he knew he did not have the strength left to use it properly. His lungs heaved and his injured back screamed in a continuous agony of pain under the weight of the wounded man. His vision blurred and the pain increased with every step. His breath came in ragged gasps and his wounded leg hurt intolerably. Suddenly he was through the barrier. It couldn’t hurt any more, he thought, he’d reached the plateau. He could feel the warmth of the blood running down his leg from the wounds in his thigh that had opened up and did not care.
Ahead of them, the end of the path was just visible. Light at the end of the tunnel, he thought, free associating in a delirious frame of mind. The phrase ran through and through his head like a rosary as he blundered towards the archway of light, like a thirst crazed pilgrim coming out of the desert towards some misty Jerusalem on the far horizon. Drayton staggered onwards in a daze. His vision came and went in blurs and he lurched from step to step. His companion grabbed his arm and hurried him along him while he frantically searched the woods behind them for Canfield.
They got to the edge of the clearing. Drayton stood there for a moment, swaying, on the verge of passing out. He knew he could not put the man down, he would not have the strength to lift him again. He just needed to rest a moment but his companion pushed him on urgently towards the house.
‘I’ll cover you’ he said in a shaky voice, kneeling down beside the path to secure Drayton’s retreat and Drayton saw the fear and dread in the eyes of his unnaturally pale face. He was terrified. But there was something else there too, a steadfastness and a comradeship with Drayton and the wounded man. They were in it together and he was looking out for them. There it was. Common humanity and decency under terrifying circumstances. Drayton just glimpsed it but it shook him to the core. They both knew he was taking a terrible chance. If he survived, there would be no one to cover his back as he followed Drayton across the meadow to the summer house. Drayton turned and staggered towards the house, given new strength by his hate and loathing for the man who had reduced them to this, who brought everything down to a brutal kill or be killed level of savagery in which nothing, absolutely nothing was beyond the bounds.
He hated him with a passion so blinding that his pain disappeared and his legs thrust forward with renewed energy. Behind him he could hear the rattle of the machine gun as the guard opened up. He ignored it and soldiered on towards the door of the house, staggering from side to side. Firing started coming from the windows of it as the defenders put out covering fire. He climbed up the steps to the veranda one by painful one until he stood there swaying at the top. He lurched forward, hardly seeing where he was going by now. All that existed for him was that simple wooden door. The edges of his vision were getting darker as if he were looking at the world through a tube that was slowly getting smaller. Suddenly, the door was in front of him. It started to open as he approached and he collapsed through it, falling flat onto his face while the wounded man rolled off his shoulders and into the room. He lost consciousness.
He woke up to find Krupmeyer working on his leg. He lay there for a while looking about the room at the others. The four remaining guards were kneeling down at the windows on watch while the wounded and the others were assembled in the middle. They sat on the floor, huddled together. The maid was crying quietly and one of them was trying to comfort her. She ignored his words and cried on, in small heartfelt sobs into a handkerchief. His gaze came back to rest on Krupmeyer.
‘Did the man covering me make it?’ he asked. His mouth felt dry and the words came out in a croak. Krupmeyer looked up from his work, noticing for the first time that Drayton had come to. He shook his head slowly.
A wave of tired sadness washed over Drayton as he recalled that last desperate stand at the edge of the clearing. He felt guilty, realising that he did not even know the man’s name. And yet he had sacrificed himself to give us a chance, he thought. I’m here and he’s dead, he thought with simple finality. He was bone tired and his thoughts came and went with a listless wandering, refusing to dwell with any feeling on anything. He felt washed out and empty. Even the pain from his injuries was a dull and far away thing that he was hardly conscious of. Krupmeyer finished on his leg and looked up at him, his eyes hard as he examined his patient.
‘How’re you feeling?’ he asked, wadding up the old bloodstained dressings.
‘Angry. Angry and bloody tired’ replied Drayton correcting himself listlessly. Krupmeyer changed from the kneeling position he had been in and sat down on the floor beside Drayton and leaned his back against the wall. He looked for a moment for somewhere to put the soiled dressings. There was nowhere. He put them down on the floor carefully and leaned his head back against the wall. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
‘Is this how it always is?’ asked Drayton.
‘Yes, war. That’s what it is, I suppose’ replied Drayton momentarily amused at the ludicrous idea. War in the Home Counties.
‘Yes’ answered Krupmeyer his head tilting forward onto his chest. ‘It’s the same old shitty business.’
Outside in the darkness of the forest, the nagging and insistent voice had finally got through. Something human started baying and howling like a timber wolf. It was Canfield. They listened to it in total silence. The howls bounced about in the emptiness of the forestry, reaching them as a frightening and distorted perversion of a human voice. He cried out his pain and agony to the night and the white moon overhead. It was all there, the loss and the suffering, the sorrow and the powerless rage at the last fleeting shards of his humanity disappearing, of what made him different from the wild animal he was unconsciously imitating.
It was the end, his last act of human defiance before he surrendered himself to madness. There could be no answer to his cries, no animal born of mother earth could follow him down to that well of despair. Krupmeyer’s skin crawled as the howling reached a peak and trailed off disconsolately. Canfield had finally tipped over. Whatever was out there now, it wasn’t a man any more, he thought. All that was gone.
‘Poor bastard’ muttered Krupmeyer softly, breaking the silence. About the room, pale faces turned in the darkness to regard him with surprise and incomprehension.
‘How could you feel sorry for him?’ asked Drayton in stunned astonishment. He stared at Krupmeyer, unable to understand how anyone could feel sympathy for a murdering savage like Canfield. ‘How could anyone?’ he asked again.
Krupmeyer closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. His words came back to Drayton in small tired phrases.
‘Oh, it’s easy. Somewhere out there is a man who’s lost everything. Anything and everything he’s ever had or loved. His youth, his wife, his kids, his future, everything.’
‘That’s the excuse, is it?’ asked Drayton bitterly, remembering the face of the guard who had covered his entry into the summer house. He would never forget the look in the man’s eyes.
‘No it’s not’ said Krupmeyer jerking his head forward off the wall and opening his eyes to look at Drayton. All the old anger he’d kidded himself he didn’t have any more was suddenly there again, fresh and powerful as ever. ‘It’s not an excuse, it’s an explanation. It’s how you can turn an ordinary guy into a homicidal animal. Just keep smashing him down enough times and you’ll end up with that. Keep offering him the glimpse of a decent life and as soon as the sucker gets comfortable, pull it out from under him. Jesus, you and I wouldn’t have survived half of what that poor bastard’s gone through.’ He lapsed into silence for a moment before continuing. He was calmer but his voice was hard and bitter, brooking no interruption.
‘He fought for his country, unfashionable I know, and rotted in a prison camp for years after, while his country looked the other way like a bunch of whores and got stuck into the “me” generation.’ His lips curled in a savage sneer of contempt and Drayton could hear the outrage and disgust in his voice.
‘He made it back himself, and they told him to forget it. They dusted him off, patched him up and pushed him back out the door as quick as they could. He was an embarrassment, you see.’ He turned to look at Drayton and his voice took on the merciless hard-driving tone of a cigar chewing politician. ‘Here’s a buck kid, go lose yourself and don’t clutter up our goddamn country. You’re not supposed to be alive, understand? Go away, disappear and don’t appear another day.’
‘So the poor sucker does it, sets up a real mom and pop life with a couple of kids in the rear end of nowhere and the whole bloody lot gets blown away. Whatcha think, Drayton old son? Whose fault was all that? Where the fuck did he go wrong?’ He addressed the question to Drayton savagely, but Drayton had no answers. He was too tired to argue any more. They both lapsed into silence, Krupmeyer running down after the tirade. He stared moodily at his feet.
‘It doesn’t matter anyway’ said Drayton eventually. ‘All that matters is getting out of here in one piece.’ He rubbed a hand across his tired face and looked at his watch. Nearly half five in the morning. He wondered what time the sun was due to rise that morning. Would he see it, he wondered?
‘It’ll be dawn soon’ he said to Krupmeyer. Krupmeyer was still in a subdued mood. He took his time answering.
‘He’s got to have a try before then. One way or another, he’s got to finish it.’ He crawled over to the middle of the room where the wounded lay, to check up on them.