Daniel Woodrell Woe to Live On

ISBN 13: 9780671001360

Woe to Live On

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9780671001360: Woe to Live On

In 1861, sixteen-year-old Jake joins the secessionist group known as the First Kansas Irregulars, and partakes in brutality excused in the name of retribution.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Five of Daniel Woodrell's eight published novels were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Tomato Red won the PEN West Award for the Novel in 1999. Woodrell lives in the Ozarks near the Arkansas line with his wife, Katie Estill.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

We rode across the hillocks and vales of Missouri, hiding in uniforms of Yankee blue. Our scouts were out left flank and right flank, while Pitt Mackeson and me formed the point. The night had been long and arduous, the horses were lathered to the withers and dust was caking mud to our jackets. We had been aided through the night by busthead whiskey and our breaths blasphemed the scent of early morning spring. Blossoms had begun a cautious bloom on dogwood trees, and grass broke beneath hooves to impart rich, green odor. The Sni-A-Bar flowed to the west, a slight creek more than a river, but a comfort to tongues dried gamy and horses hard rode. We were making our way down the slope to it, through a copse of hickory trees full of housewife squirrels gossiping at our passing, when we saw a wagon halted near the stream.

There was a man holding a hat for his hitched team to drink from, and a woman, a girl in red flannel and a boy who was splashing about at the water's edge, raising mud. The man's voice boomed to scold the boy for this, as he had yet to drink. The language of his bark put him in peril.

"Dutchman," Mackeson said, then spit. "Goddamn lop-eared St. Louis Dutchman." Mackeson was American and had no use for foreigners, and only a little for me. He had eyes that were not set level in his hatchet face, so that he saw you top and bottom in one glance. I watched him close when crowds of guns were banging, and kept him to my front.

"Let us bring Black John up," I said.

I turned in my saddle and raised my right hand above me, waved a circle with it, then pointed ahead. The main group was trailing us by some distance, so we had to pause while Black John brought the boys up. When they were abreast of us the files parted and Black John took one column of blue to the right, and Coleman Younger took the other to the left.

This movement caused some noise. The Dutchman was made alert by the rumble of hooves but had no chance to escape us. We tightened our circle about the wagon, made certain the family was alone, then dismounted.

The family crusted around the Dutchman, not in fear, but to introduce themselves. Our uniforms were a relief to them, for they did not look closely at our mismatched trousers and our hats that had rebel locks trailing below them. This was a common mistake and we took pleasure in prompting it.

Most of the boys couldn't be excited by a single man, so they led their mounts to the stream, renewed their friendship with whiskey and generally tomfooled about near the water. Black John Ambrose, Mackeson, me and a few others confronted the Dutchman. He offered his hand to Black John, whose stiff height, bristly black curls and hard-set face made his leadership plain.

"Wilhelm Schnellenberger," the Dutchman said.

Black John did not extend his own hand, but spit, as Americans are wont to do when confident of their might.

"Are you secesh?" Black John asked, ever so coaxingly. "Are you southern man?"

"Nein," the Dutchman responded. He gradually dropped his hand back to his side. "No secesh. Union man."

I spit, then pawed the glob with my boot.

"Dutchman," Mackeson said. "Lop-eared Dutchman."

"Are you certain you are not at all secesh?" Black John asked once more, his lips split in a manner that might be a grin.

"No, no, no," the apple-headed Dutchman answered. His baffled immigrant eyes wandered among us. He smiled. "No secesh. No secesh. Union man."

The woman, the girl and the boy nodded in agreement, the boy beginning to study our uniforms. He was about four years younger than me and looked to be a smart sprout despite his snubbed nose and loose jaw. I kept a watch on him.

Black John pursed his lips and poised to speak, like a preacher caught breathless between the good news and the bad.

Some of the fellows were in the shallows kicking a stick to and fro, trying to keep it in the air, whiskey to the winner. It was a poetry moment: water, whiskey, no danger, a friendly sun in the sky, larks and laughter.

"Aw, hell," Black John said. "Stretch his neck. And be sharp about it."

The woman had some American, and the Dutchman had enough anyway, for when she flung her arms about him wailing, he sunk to his knees. His head lolled back on his neck and his face went white. He began mumbling about his god, and I was thinking how his god must've missed the boat from Hamburg, for he was not near handy enough to be of use in this land.

Mackeson goaded me. "What's he babblin'?"

"He is praying to Abe Lincoln," I answered.

A rope was needed. Coleman Younger had a good one but would not lend it as it was new, so we used mine. Mackeson formed it into a noose with seven coils rather than thirteen, for he had no inclination to bring bad luck onto himself. Thirteen is proper, though, and some things ought to be done right. I raised this issue.

"You do it then, Dutchy," Mackeson said, tossing the seven-coiled rope to me. "Bad luck'll not change your course anyhow."

The rope burned between my fingers as I worked to make the Dutchman's end a proper one. The situation had sunk in on the family and they had become dull. The Dutchman saw something in me and began to speak. He leaned toward me and wiggle-waggled in that alien tongue of ours. I acted put upon by having thus to illustrate my skill in oddball dialects, lest I be watched for signs of pride in the use of my parents' language.

"We care nothing for the war," the Dutchman said. He had lost his hysterics for the moment and seemed nearly sensible. I respected that, but fitted the noose with thirteen coils around his neck. "We are for Utah Territory. Utah. This is not a war in Utah, we learn."

"This war is everywhere," I said.

"I am no Negro-stealer. I am barrel maker."

"You are Union."

"Nein. I am for Utah Territory."

I gave the long end of the rope to Mackeson, as I knew he wanted it. He threw it high up over a cottonwood branch, then tied it to the trunk.

Jack Bull Chiles was standing between Mackeson and the water; and as he was my near brother, raised on the same bit of earth, he hustled the Dutchman toward the wagon for me. Some of the other boys joined him, and they lifted the center of attention to the seat of the wagon, startling the team, and setting off screeches of metal on wood, mules and women.

I stepped back from the wagon's path, then turned to Black John.

"He says he is not a Union man," I told him. I was flat with my voice, giving the comment no more weight than a remark on the weather. "He was codded by our costumes."

"Sure he says that," Mackeson said. "Dutchman don't mean 'fool.'"

"Now he says he is sympathetic to our cause, does he?" Black John said. He was remounted and others were following suit. "Well, he should've hung by his extractions rather than live by the lie." Black John swelled himself with a heavy breath, then nodded to Mackeson. "He's just a goddamn Dutchman anyhow, and I don't much care."

Mackeson winked meanly at Schnellenberger, then stepped past him and slapped the mules on the rump.

The immigrant swung, and not summer-evening peaceful, but frantic.

"One less Dutchman," Coleman Younger said.

They all watched me, as they always did when wronghearted Dutchmen were converted by us. They were watching me even as they faced away, or giggled. Such an audience compelled me to act, so I mounted my big bay slowly, elaborately cool about the affair.

The woman was grieved beyond utterance, her eyes wide and her mouth open and trembling, as if she would scream but could not. The little girl was curled in behind Mutter's big skirts, whimpering.

The boy I watched, as I'd pegged him for smart. With his hands hanging limp at his sides he walked beneath his father's dancing boots, then gave a cry and made a move to loosen the rope about the cottonwood trunk.

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