Woe to Live On - By Daniel Woodrell


Playing war is played out!



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