Last Man Standing By Dennis McKay
Friday, July 31, 2009
Not rated by the Author.
Old soldier returns to a World War 1 reunion and meets some unexpected guests.
LAST MAN STANDING
Glenwaer, Scotland 1993
Agnes MacKaiy heard the squeak of the steps leading down from the loft. She took the scones from the warming oven and placed them on the table. “Good morning, Ian.”
“Aye.” He took a seat nearest the warm glow of the woodstove.
She placed the copper teapot and a plate of diced fruit on the table and lingered there for a moment, running her finger on the back splat of a chair. “Now, I will be running you down.”
Ian leveled his gaze upon her, the eyes sharp blue, the spare face still vigorous and aware. “I will walk down, and you may pick me up after.”
Agnes looked past the arched opening to the living room, a braided rug running the width of the hardwood floor. At one end sat an oak hutch with a three-tier gallery, across it a fieldstone fireplace. Two Victorian wing chairs with a rustic table in between was the extent of the furnishings. Like her older brother, the house was from another time.
Agnes said, “How many will be attending?”
Ian grimaced as he sipped his tea from a porcelain teacup with an etching of soldiers in kilts. It was a very old cup. “I will see when I get there.”
Agnes placed her hand on the table, waiting for her brother to acknowledge the gesture. She wanted to say that it ended 75 years ago this month. Who will be left? His gaze remained steady and away from hers, and she held her tongue as she always did.
After he had finished eating, she went and got his coat and walking stick from the mudroom off the kitchen. “It’s a long way, Ian, mind your step.”
As her brother made his way down the crooked path toward the hills tinged blue in the morning light, she watched until he disappeared around the bend, and all that remained was the intractable land.
At the front gate of Macintosh Castle, a young soldier dressed in a tartan kilt observed a figure meandering down the ancient north hills, the gait unhurried, like a wanderer from another time, weaving down a winding trail toward the moor.
At the hump-backed bridge crossing the stream, the figure came clear: An upturned collar of a brown, tweed coat buffeted the November wind and mist blowing over the stark land of coarse grass and heather. As is the wont of the old ones, a tam-o-shanter tipped obliquely to the side.
Across the bridge, the man stopped, straightened himself, and shouldered his walking stick. There was an air of antiquity in his weathered face, but his eyes, steady on the castle, had a look of order and regularity. He stepped off, his stride surer.
At the front gate, the soldier came to attention. “Sir, welcome to Macintosh Castle, Corporal Kendrick, at your command.”
The old man leaned his stick against the building and looked up at a banner over the entrance, Welcome Royal Scots 107th Regiment Fighting Brigade. “Ian MacKaiy here, anyone arrive yet?”
“No sir, you are the first. May I take you to the Great Hall?”
“Aye lad, I have many a memory in that room.”
Past a cavernous hallway with dusty portraits of fierce-jawed soldiers hanging on the stone walls, they entered the great room.
Kendrick led him to a long table with starch-white linen and Glasgow Silverware. “A drink, sir?”
MacKaiy removed his tam, his sparse white hair military short. “A stout,” he said as he pulled back the crest rail of a sturdy long-back chair and seated himself.
At a scotch-pine bar nestled in an alcove, Kendrick leaned over the counter and tapped a pint into a tall glass.
“Here you are, sir.” He placed the beer on the table.
The old soldier took a long swig and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. He steadied his gaze on Kendrick. “How many might we expect today?”
The air seemed to leave the room.
Kendrick cleared his throat as if to reveal a secret. “Sir...” Kendrick turned when he heard the sound of footsteps to his rear. Two soldiers came to the table holding an object covered by white muslin.
, “Sir, the 107,th" Kendrick said. "Is proud to honor our walls.” He motioned for the men to remove the sheet.
“What have ye’ got there,” MacKaiy said, his voice lifting. “Aye now, isn’t it something.”
There before him was a hand-crafted gilt framed painting of five soldiers in full military garb—plaid on their shoulders, sporran at the waist, and kilt with high stockings. They stood shoulder to shoulder with hands behind backs. Attached to the frame was a scripted gold plate with 107th Regiment Royal Scots, December 7, 1918.
“Where did you find that?”
“Tucked away in the undercroft.”
MacKaiy placed his hands on the table and leaned close to the painting, in the background a mountain tipped white loomed over the soldiers. “I remember that day. We had returned from the Great War.” He pointed to a figure in the painting. “That would be me on the end, Thomas Coeure next to me and Sergeant McCarran in the middle. The other two..." He squinted and looked off for a moment. "Oh yes, that's Connery and Mumford at the other end." He took another pull on his drink and sat back in his chair as a veil silence fell over him, and with it, reverence came over the young soldiers as Ian MacKaiy sat, drinking his stout, his eyes on the painting, his mind seeing long ago. It was a comfortable silence, one of patient respect for this old soldier—one of their own.
MacKaiy looked up from the painting. “We had our photo taken and it was commissioned for a portrait.” He stared into his glass for a moment. “I had forgotten of its existence.” He threw down the last of his stout and placed the glass on the table. “The regiment paraded from the Castle grounds into the village. A grand day it was, a grand day indeed.... May I indulge you lads in ancient history?”
“We would be honored, sir.”
“Gather me another stout.”
Sitting with beverage in hand, MacKaiy began, “First Sergeant, Andrew McCarran was a pit bull of a man who trained me right on these castle grounds in 1914. At The Battle of the Somme, his leadership guided me, a fifteen-year-old private, through the horror of war.” MacKaiy looked off reflectively, a glimmer in his pale eyes, but mingled with it was a shadow of anguish. “The fighting was hand-to-hand in the trenches. Smoke everywhere from the mortar fire that lit up the sky.” He shook his head and stole a quick drink of stout. “I shall never forget the sounds I heard that day, the screams of men dying and the rat-a-tat of machine guns.”
MacKaiy folded his hands, leaned forward on the table, and looked at the soldiers rapt in his story. “I killed a German with my bayonet. I remember the shock in his eyes as he lay dying. Afterwards, I went through his things and found a picture of his wife and son. I will never forget my words that day…. ‘I just killed a man, a man with a family, First Sergeant.’”
MacKaiy leaned back in his chair, his lips crimped tight. “I was on the verge, but Sergeant McCarran would have none of it. He grabbed me by the chin and said, ‘Lad, I’ll tell you once—kill or be killed.’” He cleared the emotion from his throat. “You will have to forgive me, I have never spoken of this.” He finished his stout and motioned for another. Another moment of silence came upon him until one of the soldiers handed him his refill.
MacKaiy nodded a thank you. “I must…yes, I must speak of Thomas Coeure, my best friend and fellow soldier for 30 years, a wonderful chap with eyes that twinkled no matter the situation. He saved my life in Bahral, during a tribal uprising in the Southern Sudan.
“He died at Normandy.” He dropped his gaze and let out a deep sigh. “I must get through this.” He lifted his head and said to the soldiers. “The day of his burial at the Castle, during the eulogy, I said his death represented a break in the chain that bonded the 107th, and we would soldier it back strong, for he would want it no other way.”
“Aye, sir,” the soldiers said in unison.
MacKaiy looked at each of the soldiers, one, then another. “Yes, lads, for it is our way. Always remember that.” MacKaiy stood, nodded his head in finality, and looked around the room. “It appears I am the last man standing.”
Kendrick drew back into a military posture. “Sir, it is our honor to be in your presence.” He then motioned to one of the soldiers. “Bring him in.” The soldier left the hall and returned with a military bagpiper playing The Widow’s Walk, a haunting piece of the many men lost in The Great War.
The old soldier, still standing with glass in hand, raised it in salute. Battling his emotions, he offered a toast.
“To the young, valiant men who died in battle and to all the men who ever walked these Halls, may the grace of God be at your side.”
Two men served haggis with neeps and patties to the empty chairs.
After serving MacKaiy, he said, “If you lads don’t mind, I would like to be alone with my thoughts.”
Kendrick clicked his heels together. “Yes sir, ring if you need anything.” The soldiers turned and departed.
Feeling the flush of the moment rising in his cheeks, the old soldier quaffed a long swallow of the dark beer; his heart beat nostalgia. Standing, he straightened as if the shackles of time were releasing its grip. “A toast to the Ladies From Hell— to all the great men I had the honor to serve alongside.” He then quoted Robert Burns.
“’Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!
Let us do, or die!’”
MacKaiy felt a chill in the air and to his astonishment, he saw a light mist fall from the ceiling and shroud the room. He heard the faint clinking of glasses mixed with the murmur of men, not any men—but men of war—whose voices in close company says to a listener, We Are One. MacKaiy saw a form emerge from the mist wearing high boots and a khaki uniform with a rolled collar and rifle patches on the shoulders.
“Thomas Couere, is it you?”
“Ian my friend, I want to thank you for my eulogy. I could not have said it better myself.”
MacKaiy felt a tap on his shoulder and turned.
“You did us all proud, me laddie,” said a small figure with a thrash of fiery hair.
“1st Sergeant McCarran? Do you remember my first day?”
“How could I forget. You were the best I ever had. After that first battle… you grew every day as a soldier and as a man, young as you were.” The red head nodded and a thick, freckled hand raised a pint to Ian MacKaiy. “The day we returned from the Great War and paraded into the village... oh lad, what a time it was.” The bright eyes glimmered at Ian. “That night we could not buy a drink. It is good to see you again, Ian.”
MacKaiy stepped lively about the room talking with one-and-all. Toasts to battles fought and ancestors from long ago and the old way seemed to echo off the stone walls and linger in the oak rafters.
MacKaiy returned to his chair, raising his glass in a final salute. “Hear! Hear!” He heard from the ethereal soldiers. The voices began to fade, then the men.
Turning to leave the Great Hall, MacKaiy heard a voice whisper in his ear. “We’ll be seein’ you soon, laddie.”
At the gate, Corporal Kendrick stood at attention. “Sorry you were the only one in attendance, sir.”
“I never had better company in all my ninety-four years.”
His step now measured again, Ian MacKaiy walked to a waiting motor car. It, like its passenger, was from another time. He rode off toward the craggy hills from which he came. Fading into the horizon never to be seen again, but never forgotten, for he was The Last Man Standing.