Line of Descent Chapter 25
The wounded man’s lifeless eyes stared up at the wooden joists of the ceiling. He had died quietly, slipping away from life unnoticed among the group of people huddled there together in the centre of the room. The maid had been the first to realise he was dead and had backed away from him with a shriek as if death were somehow contagious, reduced again to a fresh flood of tears. Krupmeyer pressed his fingertips against the clammy skin of the guard’s neck, feeling for a pulse but there was none. He reached over and gently pulled the open eyelids down over the eyes with his fingertips and moved across to check on the other wounded man. He appeared to be stable but he was badly in need of proper medical treatment. His breathing was becoming laboured, he needed oxygen. If we aren’t out of here soon, he thought, he’s going to die. He noticed the man’s tie had not been loosened and took it off him and tried to open the collar of his shirt. He had difficulty doing it and eventually pulled it open with a jerk. The tiny white button popped off and ran across the wooden floor.
He looked across the room to where Drayton lay, looking at the scene with a divorced serenity. Krupmeyer was worried about him. He looked too tired and lethargic as if he were slipping away too. His eyes looked back at Krupmeyer calmly and steadily with no expression at all in them. Krupmeyer had seen that look before. There was a point beyond which all the training and effort and courage could not take you. You reached it and just hunkered down and disconnected yourself from it all, sat there and watched the show. Combat fatigue. Maybe that’s how they all looked, he thought. He scuttled over to him, his large bulk looking awkward to Drayton as he approached bent down. Like being crept up on by an elephant, thought Drayton with a spark of humour.
‘How’s it going?’ he asked Drayton with a grin.
‘Don’t worry, I’m not ready to check out yet’ replied Drayton with a small smile. He could read the concern in Krupmeyer’s voice and was grateful to have the company of the big American. He worries so much about others, the big oaf doesn’t have time to worry about himself, he thought. He wished he had some of that dumb insensitivity.
‘How long do you think it’ll be before someone comes down here to check out what’s happening?’ Krupmeyer asked him in a quiet voice.
‘It’s got to be today. Too many people want to talk to him on a day-to-day basis’ replied Drayton looking in Walters’ direction. Krupmeyer hoped it was true, they couldn’t survive another night, he knew.
‘Dawn’s coming up’ said Krupmeyer.
‘Then it’s back to work’ said Drayton, rolling over and climbing painfully onto his hands and knees. His muscles had stiffened and his injuries hurt afresh after the rest. He crawled over to join a guard at one of the windows and looked out carefully. The first faint cherry glow of the dawn on the horizon raised his spirits. It was still very dark outside, especially when the moon went behind a cloud, but if they could just hold Canfield away until it was fully light, then they’d be safe, he thought. The ground around the house was open and they had windows on all four approaches.
The window pane in front of him smashed into fragments as a high velocity bullet missed his head by a fraction of an inch. He had instinctively thrown himself backwards to the floor, before he actually knew what had happened. The guard beside him had done the same. They looked at each other, grins of relief appearing spontaneously as they realised how narrowly they had escaped. Drayton crept back to the window and peered out again carefully. Canfield was somewhere on their side of the house but as usual was well concealed in the forest. At least he’s at a greater range, he thought.
Nothing happened for another few minutes and it was getting brighter all the time. Drayton willed the Sun to get a move on but it stubbornly refused to rise any faster and took its majestic time. Somewhere far off in the forest, a flock of crows started their ugly squawking to greet the dawn. Their noise reminded him of his boyhood on a farm in the wide open rolling countryside of Wiltshire. Wherever there were crops, you’d find a bunch of crows, he remembered his father telling him when he had expressed his liking for the mangy old birds to him. It was true, he reflected, he’d never yet seen a ploughed field that didn’t have an attendant flock hanging around somewhere nearby. They went together, ploughed fields and the screechy caws of the crows.
A shot smashed through the wooden side of the house and crossed the room, hitting the guard at the window on the other side in the back. Krupmeyer scrambled over to help the writhing man. Harting crawled over and picked up his fallen weapon, to take his place at the window while Krupmeyer worked on him. Drayton yelled at the others in the middle to lie down flat. He scrambled over to the side the shot had come from. He was suddenly very frightened at what Canfield could do to them with a few more shots like that. What the hell type of gun was he using, he thought. At this range, an ordinary rifle bullet would have lost most of its sting. That shot had gone clean through the side of the house like it wasn’t there and still managed to wound the guard badly. With a gun like that, he could just sit there, sniping from the woods until the house looked like a Swiss cheese.
He ordered the others to push the furniture in the room, up against one of the walls. There was only a large sofa and two armchairs. They arranged them into a rough circle. He put the wounded and the others not on guard into it. Another shot blasted straight through the house. It entered through one wall, crossed the room and exited through the wall on the other side leaving a swirling cloud of wood chips that slowly settled to the floor like a handful of thrown confetti. Two massive holes were left in the walls with pieces of splintered wood jutting out around the edges. Everyone cringed in fear, it was only a matter of time until another bullet found its mark and there was not a damn thing they could do about it.
It did not take long. Harting jerked back from his post at the window as if he had been hit in the chest by a giant invisible sledge-hammer. He crashed spread‑eagled onto his back in the centre of the room and lay still. Krupmeyer scrambled over to check him but he was dead. His glasses hung awry on his thin face and Krupmeyer straightened them distractedly. Somehow, it would have been a pity to leave him lying there in disarray like that. He had been a tidy man in life. As he did so, another shot blasted its way through the wall and caught the kneeling Krupmeyer high on the left side of the chest. He was spun violently to the left and backwards, feeling the shattering impact of the bullet on a bone somewhere deep his shoulder. He came to a crashing rest, face downwards on the floor as another shot passed through the house.
He waved Drayton back, as he crawled painfully towards the upended sofa in jerks, pulling himself along with his good arm. The cook and the butler grabbed his outstretched arm when he got near enough and dragged him quickly into cover behind it. He rolled onto his back and ripped the buttons off his shirt to look at the wound. He could not move his left arm at all. It hung at his side, numb and useless. There was not much blood and he stuffed a wad of dressing over the entry hole. It wasn’t hurting much, he thought, realising he was going into shock and being grateful for its numbing effects. That wasn’t going to last for long.
Canfield continued shooting randomly into the house. In the next ten minutes he hit another guard and the cook. The fear in the room was solid and heavy as each of them waited, stiffened and tense, in dread of the bullet that was going to get them. As each round blasted through the house, they gave involuntary screams and yelps of terror. Krupmeyer looked around him with agonised eyes. His wound was starting to throb like a second pulse. He checked it, imagining for a moment that it was pumping out his life’s blood. It was OK.
For the first time, he felt they might not make it. The feeling was suddenly there, enveloping and smothering him totally, paralysing him into helpless pinned inaction. It grabbed his heart with icy fingers of cold certainty and squeezed it cruelly. Another shot smashed through the house, showering flinders of wood on the prone Drayton’s back. Krupmeyer ducked. He could hardly breathe by now, his chest compressing under the anxiety. He felt an urgency, a rush to put his affairs in order, to make his peace in readiness for what was just about to happen. He thought of Helen and regretted bitterly that they would not have the time together he had promised her. His thoughts raced, coursing over people and times he was going to miss. Suddenly, there was a rough sliding sound and something bumped into his good hand, abruptly snapping his attention back to his surroundings. He looked down and saw it was a pistol. He looked back to where it had come from and met Drayton’s steady gaze.
‘Well, don’t just lay there bleeding, pick it up’ he hissed in an impatient tone of voice but his eyes were watchful and knowing. After a moment, Krupmeyer grinned shakily, coming out of the panic attack that had gripped him. Drayton grinned back in return, relieved to see him coming back to normality.
One of the windows was unguarded. Krupmeyer shuffled his way over to it and peered out. It was getting lighter every moment. He smiled at himself. No matter how much you see, no matter how old you get, you always think you’re immortal, he mused. Somewhere, deep in the back of your mind is the old survivor. Not me, buddy. Not today, not ever, never.
Another shot hit a guard on one of the windows and he spun away from it. He rolled into the centre of the room like a child rolling down a hill in play. But it was not play, he lay still. Krupmeyer did not have the strength to crawl over to him. He looked dead, Krupmeyer could not see any signs of breathing. He turned back to the window.
They did not have enough people left to cover all four windows. After a while, Drayton crossed from his window to look out of the unguarded one. It took him a moment to realise that the black figure sprinting towards the house in the dim light of the dawn was Canfield. He was already half way to them.
‘It’s him’ he yelled standing up and smashing the glass to poke the machine gun through. The one remaining guard rushed to his side and Krupmeyer climbed to his feet to join them. Drayton opened up but his burst was short and erratic, ploughing up spurts of earth in front of the frantically zig zagging figure. The guard joined in. Krupmeyer saw the figure veer to the left and the impact points of the bullets change to track him. He jerked right and the bullets continued in the wrong direction, overshooting. Krupmeyer raised his pistol and fired off carefully aimed shots but still the sprinting figure came on.
The guard stopped to replace his empty magazine. He was in such a hurry, that he dropped the replacement, cursing and swearing as he bent to pick it up. Suddenly the figure jerked in mid stride as a bullet hit home but still it came on, moving far off to their left, making it difficult for all three of them to get a firing position at the single window.
The guard rushed to the window on the left and frantically smashed the glass before opening fire. He had just started, when a burst from Canfield knocked him back into the room. Krupmeyer tore across to the window, just in time to see Canfield barreling towards that side at a range of about forty yards. He got off a shot and saw it hit him, raising a tiny cloud of dust as it went in somewhere in the chest. Still he came on, seeming to shrug it off in his manic determination to reach the house. Krupmeyer fired again but it was wide. Canfield reached the porch and without stopping rolled straight underneath the raised house to safety.
Krupmeyer jumped back from the window, screaming to Drayton that Canfield was under the house. Pushing the pistol into his belt, he picked up a discarded machine gun and pointed it at the floor in the general direction of the place where Canfield had disappeared under the house. He looked across at Drayton who quickly put his forefinger up to his lips. After the thunder of the guns in the confined space, the sudden silence was unreal. Somewhere beneath them was Canfield, literally feet away, listening as hard as they were for the slightest sound. Nobody moved but the guns in their hands made slow speculative sweeps at the floor as their eyes stared fixedly at the wooden planks beneath them as if they could see him through them.
The silence stretched and Krupmeyer noticed the maid. Her eyes were wide and her face was white with terror. She had her small hand pressed against her mouth as if she were holding in a shriek. It was balled into a tiny fist and the tendons on the back of it stuck out in white. He prayed she would not make a sound. One of the wounded men groaned and the floor beneath him immediately erupted upwards as a stream of bullets blasted their way through in a shower of wood fragments. The wounded man died, jerking about on the floor like he was having a fit, as the bullets tore into his back.
Drayton and Krupmeyer replied immediately, their guns blowing random, searching lines through the floorboards as they tried to hit the spot they estimated the fire had come from. They ceased fire and the cloying silence descended on the room again. Drayton was out of ammunition. There was a pile of spare magazines dumped on the floor near the sofa. He pulled the empty magazine out and made urgent gestures to the others there to throw him a fresh one. He stuffed the old one into his belt and held out a hand, ready to catch its replacement.
The butler reached down carefully and silently picked one off the top of the heap. He made three small throwing motions with it before sending it on its way across the room in a tumbling arc. Drayton caught it cleanly to his immense relief and slipped it quietly into place. Before he could use it, he would have to cock the first round home. Canfield was sure to hear that. Krupmeyer, watching him from across the room, realised the dilemma Drayton was in. He made urgent gestures to him, pointing at the empty magazine sticking out of his belt and indicating to a spot in an empty corner of the room. Drayton nodded in understanding. He pulled the empty magazine out of his belt and tossed it underhand into the corner, where it landed with a clatter. The floor there immediately splintered upwards into jagged holes as Canfield sprayed the area with bullets. Krupmeyer opened up and Drayton quickly cocked the machine gun and joined in. Once again, their fire petered out.
They stood there in silence. The room was filling up with a thin haze of blue smoke from their gunfire. Krupmeyer’s useless left arm throbbed at the shoulder and he had the almost irresistible impulse to change weight from foot to foot. He knew he did not have much ammunition left in the gun and he had no hope of catching a replacement magazine nor of fitting it in place one-handed. He waved the gun at Drayton, looking at the magazine, hoping he would get the message. Drayton made a grimace and held up a hand with fingers spread. Just stay there, was the message. Minutes ticked by with not a sound from anyone.
Krupmeyer turned around awkwardly to look out the window behind him. The thought had suddenly occurred to him that Canfield might crawl out from underneath the house and attack them from outside. Drayton started doing the same thing, hoping that a squeak from the floorboards beneath his feet would not give him away, as the weight shifted. Where was he, he wondered, what was he doing? His wounded leg began to ache and throb. The muscle hardened into a lump and started twitching uncontrollably as the minutes dragged by. How long could he stand there before it collapsed on him, he wondered despairingly? Maybe they had got him with the last burst. He began to hope.
The silence was broken by Krupmeyer. As he turned back from the look out of the window, the floorboard beneath him gave a loud squeak. He instantly dived to the side at the same time as a stream of bullets tore through the floorboards beneath his feet, disintegrating them. Drayton opened fire, spacing his bursts around the areas he hoped Canfield might be in. He was running low on ammunition as well. Krupmeyer rolled over back onto his feet and started blasting away, his face white and shocked, at the narrowness of his escape. He had got away from the spot just in time. His machine gun was soon empty. He put it down at his feet and pulled the pistol out of his belt and waited. There were only a few rounds left in it, he knew.
Minutes passed in rigid silence. Drayton racked his mind, ignoring the steadily increasing pain from his leg as he searched for a way out of this terrible situation. He had nearly despaired when Canfield had fired that last burst. How could he still be alive down there, he wondered looking at the floor which was covered in a mass of bullet holes and splinters of shattered wood.
He was still looking at it in amazement, when Canfield detonated the explosives beneath it. For an instant, he actually saw the floorboards peel back like the skin of an orange before he was blown violently back across the room to crash into the wall. Krupmeyer was knocked off his feet as he was hit across the face by a large lump of floorboard. The centre of the floor disappeared in a white and red explosion which blew out the remnants of the glass in the four windows and knocked the door clean off its hinges onto the veranda. The walls bulged outwards and the roof seemed to lift for an instant as the blast wave seared their faces and popped their eardrums. All that was left, was a very large hole in the floor and a rapidly expanding cloud of black choking smoke that filled the room.
Krupmeyer regained consciousness slowly. He did not know how long he’d been out but guessed it hadn’t been long, smoke was still rising from the massive hole in the floor. He was lying on his side waiting for his head to clear when he saw movement in the middle of the smoke. In front of him, through half closed eyes, he saw a black ominous figure rising up through the hole.