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Set in the border states of Kansas and Missouri, WOE TO LIVE ON explores the nature of lawlessness and violence, friendship and loyalty, through the eyes of young recruit Jake Roedel. Where he and his fellow First Kansas Irregulars go, no one is safe, no one can be neutral. Roedel grows up fast, experiencing a brutal parody of war without standards or mercy. But as friends fall and families flee, he questions his loyalties and becomes an outsider even to those who have become ...
Set in the border states of Kansas and Missouri, WOE TO LIVE ON explores the nature of lawlessness and violence, friendship and loyalty, through the eyes of young recruit Jake Roedel. Where he and his fellow First Kansas Irregulars go, no one is safe, no one can be neutral. Roedel grows up fast, experiencing a brutal parody of war without standards or mercy. But as friends fall and families flee, he questions his loyalties and becomes an outsider even to those who have become outlaws.
Playing war is played out!
—CHARLES R. JENNISON OF JENNISON’S JAYHAWKERS
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 convictions 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 wrong-hearted 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. He was close to fourteen and still foreign to his toes.
I gave no warning but the cocking of my Navy Colt and booked the boy passage with his father. He did not turn, and the ball tore him between the blades. His death was instant.
My face was profound, I hoped, when I faced Black John.
“Pups make hounds,” I said. “And there are hounds enough.”
Black John nodded, then said solemnly, “Jake Roedel, you are a rare Dutchman.”
Pitt Mackeson glared at me wrinkle-nosed, as if I were something hogs had vomited.
“Did you see that?” he asked. “Shot the boy in the back! Couldn’t shoot him face-to-face. Goddamn Dutchman! Why’d you back-shoot him?”
“I am tender toward boys,” I said. “But I would put a ball in your face, Mackeson, should affairs so dictate.”
There was a silence that gave off steam, then Black John repeated himself on the sort of Dutchman I was and we rode away in the silence of the family’s pain.
Jack Bull sidled his blue-black mount next to mine and we rode together. My near brother had a squared forehead and a narrow chin and manly brown eyes atop an uncrushed nose. The effect was pleasing to most folks. His dark hair had length, and his long, lean body was capable of quickness, but only after careful thought.
“You want to watch that man,” he said quietly.
I was positioned so that Pitt Mackeson’s sweat-targeted blades were ever visible to me. He seemed to know it and took great interest in what he had just ridden past.
“I believe I can,” I said. “He needs hurting.”
“Aw,” Jack Bull said. “You expect too much of him. He is dumb and mean and snaky, but he is a good Yankee-killer.” Jack Bull had, by virtue of the station to which he’d been born, an air of educated understanding about him. “You must admit that he is a fine Yankee-killer.”
“He is a good killer, Jack Bull. And this season he kills Yankees.”
“Comrades can be made of less,” he responded. “Keep it in mind.”
I had many comrades who were made of nothing but the same. I saw the truth of it and would not squawk that they were not made of more.
Our course took us into the bottoms of the Blackwater River. The land was moist there, and the roads were heavy. We were unmilitary in our formation but watchful of everything.
Near on to noon we came to a small farm and halted. We scanned the scene and saw nothing of threat in it.
“Some of you boys go make us known,” Black John commanded. Cave Wyatt, Riley Crawford, Bill House and Silas Mills rode directly to the door and hailed the inhabitants.
An old woman soon came onto the porch. Her dress was gray and thick and smudged, and her boots carried mud.
“Who is it?” she asked.
Most of the country men in this county were loyal to the South and necessary to us, so rough tactics were held back until sympathy had a chance to win.
“Why, we are southern men,” Cave said. “And hungry.”
“You don’t look like southern men,” the old woman said back. “How do I know?”
Riley Crawford was from this county, and being not over sixteen he had a trustworthy face. Jayhawkers had tortured his father with devilish rope tricks and, thus left fatherless, Riley had grown into a killer young.
He spoke. “Woman, my name is Crawford. One of the Six-Point Creek Crawfords—do you know me?”
The woman stomped the mud from her boots on the planks of the porch, then nodded.
“I knew the father,” she said. “Him and plenty more. Come on and eat as what we have.”
We went into the yard and dismounted. The nips of whiskey had built us all appetites, so we were lazy about posting pickets. This was often the case.
We numbered twenty-one men. The woman, who had the name of Clark, was kept hopping. She brought us trays of biscuits and molasses, coffee and milk.
I went to the kitchen to assist her, as I had no vanity about cooking work.
“Are you alone here?” I asked her.
Her face was round and pleasant, but aged by the times. Skin sagged at her throat, yet there was tightness about the eyes.
“Yes,” she said. Then, jolted by the thought of her lie, “No. My man is at Arkansas with Shelby. My son is in the barn.”
“Is he grown?”
“He was,” she said. “He gave up a leg at Wilson’s Creek. I keep him hid away.” She grabbed a biscuit tray and turned from me. “Jayhawkers have been about here. They would kill him.”
“He should come with us.”
“No,” she said, and shook her head. “He won’t fight. He is done with that.”
In the front room I ate with the men, all squatted about the floor. Our many pistols scraped the floorboards and made sitting thus a skill, but no complaints were ever made of that.
I hunkered next to Jack Bull as usual, and Arch Clay, Bill House and Cave, who looked at me from his plate and said, “You are an interestin’ foreigner, Jake.”
“Why is that?” I asked amiably, as Cave often had me on with jokes.
He wiped a molasses drool from his brown beard and answered, “Because you are loyal to here and not there. Uncommon.”
My eyes met Jack Bull’s, then he shrugged and ate on, looking down.
Soon I had eaten my fill. I tapped Jack Bull on the arm and bid him come with me.
“The barn. There is a son hiding out in the barn.”
The barn had been part burned down, and only one half stood strongly. Some hay was put by there, but little else.
“Halloo inside,” Jack Bull called as we entered. “We are friends, Clark. Show yourself.”
From our backs came some sniggering in a thin tone that was eerie. We turned toward it and instinct had our hands on our pistols.
The sniggering continued while we saw from where it came. A smallish man lay on a hay pile behind the door, a shotgun at his side. The roof half that was gone from flame let in plenty of light. But there was an unwell scent to the room.
“Bushwhackers,” Clark said between sniggers. “I could’ve killed you both.” His hand tapped the shotgun. “But it ain’t even loaded.”
“No need of that,” I said. “We are friends.”
“You s’pose so, do you?” Clark asked. “I don’t.”
His left leg was absent from near the hip down. A red neckerchief was tied to the stump. He looked a hard ride beyond Grim.
“You were at Wilson’s Creek,” I said. “Who with?”
“Why, General Price,” Clark said. He had blue eyes. “The fat glory-hound rebel himself.”
Jack Bull hunkered down and pointed at the stump. “Didn’t see that one coming, eh?”
This set Clark to sniggering again with such force that it ended in coughs. Breathing was a tussle. His face reddened.
“I saw it comin’. I see everything. Don’t think I don’t. I saw it rollin’ past little piles of kindlin’ stuff that I once knew by name. I watched it roll right up to me.”
Jack Bull laughed and spit, then courteously calmed. “You weren’t too quick with both legs, were you?”
“I was plenty quick.” Clark stopped with the mirth and looked dour. “Don’t you believe I wasn’t. But nature borned me smart and that changes things.”
In that war one-eyed, one-eared, two-stumped warriors were not uncommon, so Clark’s pathetic qualities failed to be as touching as he supposed.
“General Price is a good man,” I said. “Would you have us fetch you something to eat?”
“I have a mother for that,” Clark said. “I don’t eat anyway. I’m tryin’ somethin’ different.”
Jack Bull still squatted, staring at the air where the leg once grew, chewing a straw end as he contemplated something. Soon he pointed a finger at the stump and slowly spoke: “Now, tell me this, Clark. If you were plenty quick and saw it coming, how could you not avoid the cannonball?”
Clark tossed his head back deeper in the hay, and gazed up at the sun through the half roof.
“It looked like good luck. There was arms in trees and rebels dropped in sections all about.” He breathed whistly, like a sick bird might sing. “We never been well off here. Never. We never even owned so much as a single spavined nigger. Oh, mister—there was neighbors gone to Kingdom all around me.”
“Wilson’s Creek was a hot one, wasn’t it?” Jack Bull said. He then looked at me. “Arch and Cole were in it. They describe it like that. Hot.”
“Yes,” I said. Then, “But, Clark—your leg.”
“Aw,” he said and part pulled himself up. “I wanted my foot broke so I could head home. The damned little cannonball was goin’ slower’n a fevered rabbit. Do you respect me? I was there, and I put my foot out just hopin’ for a bone to snap.”
“Why, you are a fool,” I said. “A cannonball will rip your leg right—”
“Ho, ho, ho,” went Clark, then followed it up with more of those eerie sniggers. The sound wafted eloquently about the barn and required no accompaniment of further conversation.
Experience had prepared me for all manner of ridiculous misfortune befalling a man. Gopher holes killed governors and tick bites emptied neighborhoods. But this man Clark’s misfortune had been to be who he was and think himself smart in the wrong era for delusions.
“Well, now,” Jack Bull said as he stood, no longer interested. “Perilous times do not make us all stronger. It is sad to see.”
I stared down at Clark, a cripple by bad choice, and felt certain he would not last long, as death offers so many opportunities to nitwits.
“You will be killed,” I said to him. “Jayhawkers or militia, someone or the other will stop here and kill you.”
“Aw, they been here already and burned the barn. I wouldn’t even move to put it out. Ma done it.” He lay down again, his memories no doubt on the attack back behind his blank face. “As likely you boys will kill me. I don’t much care.”
This comment exhausted Jack Bull’s forbearance, as he had seen too many good men pass over the river who did not care for the trip.
“You want to die, do you?” Jack Bull’s voice was taut and his expression was unlovely. He could be mean. I knew this. “Perhaps you would choose to die now.” He pulled a pistol and held it aimed down. “I have considerable experience in the killing line, Clark. I could do you a fair job of it, this minute.”
Clark pondered this with wretched concentration showing in his face, then said, “No. No. Ma has her heart set on me livin’.”
“Are you sure of that?” Jack Bull asked. “I am here and now and loaded.”
After a few more of those sick songbird breaths, Clark said, “I don’t believe so. I think I’ll wait on it.”
Jack Bull slowly holstered his pistol and we walked to the door. There he paused and turned to Clark.
“Your mother is a fine enough woman. You might help her some, don’t you think? You get yourself a stick to lean on and you could limp around a good bit.”
“Uh-huh,” Clark said. “That could be next.” He was still flat on his back and staring up at the vastness. “That could be the very next thing.”
WHEN EVENING HAD been thrown over us, we were camped at a woods on a farm owned by a man named Sorrells. A brook sang near us, and our pickets had a good view from the mound we occupied. Fires were lit, as we knew the militia feared to travel in this country by night. We ruled the dark roads.
Arch Clay had produced his deck of cards and was trying to teach gambling games to the Hudspeth brothers. Neither of them had turned seventeen and they came of good family, so they possessed no skills in idolatrous pastimes. I did not join them, as I had no spirit for games.
“Now what have you?” Arch asked. Arch was a runtish, dandified man who killed more jollily than I found well mannered. He was Black John’s closest friend and sole confidant.
“Two of these here,” Babe Hudspeth said, holding his cards aloft toward the light. “The black-hearted ones—is that good?”
“We call them ‘spades,’ ” Arch instructed. “And you?” he asked of Ray Hudspeth.
“Three,” Ray said. He was beaming from the ease with which he had become a successful gambler. “All puppies’ feet—do I win the money?”
“Puppies’ feet!” Arch exclaimed. He looked at me sourly, though I was no more than one year senior to the brothers. “Can you fathom that? Puppies’ feet!” He threw his cards onto the blanket. “Them’s clubs, you damned children. No more gamblin’ for me. I can’t enjoy it like this.”
The Hudspeths shared glances, then Babe said, “Just who do you think you’re damning, Clay?”
Arch was half-sized on either of the boys but older and more certain.
“Did I hurt your feelings, son?”
“Well,” Babe answered, not quite convinced of how he should feel. “It was rude of you.”
“Ha,” Arch snorted, and lay back on the blanket, tipping his hat forward across his eyes. “That’s the least bad I’ve been for years. It was good of you children to note it for me. Makes me feel all warm and Christian.”
I left the Hudspeths to their own thoughts and wandered to join another group of comrades. I generally whittled something useless and strolled of an evening. It relaxed me and made me feel at home.
I joined Jack Bull Chiles, Coleman Younger and Pitt Mackeson on the dark ground beneath a tall oak tree. Cole regarded me intensely, watching as I sat and scraped at a branch. His eyes did not leave me when he thrust a whiskey bottle forward.
I sheathed my knife, then accepted the bottle. I appreciated his generosity to the measure of a quarter pint on the first swallow.
“Do not think you are a good man,” Coleman Younger said. “The thought will spoil you.”
“I am a southern man,” I said. “And that is as good as any man that lived ’til he died.”
Coleman Younger was reddish in skin and hair, with the temperament that is wed to that hue, and girth and grit enough to back it up.
“You are a southern man—that is proven,” he said. “But a rare one.”
For Coleman Younger to speak of me so set a glow in me that whiskey could not match, nor doubt extinguish. It was for this that I searched, communion and levelness with people who were not mine by birth, but mine for the taking.
“Oh, yes, Roedel,” Mackeson said. “You are proven to be a southern man who eats kraut and kills boys from the back.”
“If the boy had freed the rope, the hanging would’ve been scotched and required doing over,” I said.
“Judas worked quick, too,” said Pitt Mackeson.
Cole slowly savored a swallow of inspirational popskull, then said, “You did right. Dead from the front is no more dead than from the back. It is a question of opportunity.”
“So is chicken stealin’,” Mackeson said. His lopsided face viewed me from my topknot to my toes in a steady glance.
“Do you wish you had more often spoken to your great-grandfather, Mackeson?” I asked. “Tell me.”
My arms ached already from the thought of digging his eternal home, for I was thinking he would soon be in it.
“How could I wish that, Dutchy? I never even knew him.” Mackeson was confused. “He was gone years before I was borned.”
I slid my hand toward my belly gun, and hunched over to shade the move.
“Well, your introduction to him may be close at hand if you so wish.”
“Now, none of that,” Coleman Younger said. His person and voice had authority. “Jake did right. And that is that. We are comrades.”
“I hear you sayin’ it,” Mackeson replied. He stood and looked down on me, then began to walk off. “I’ve heard many a thing said that wasn’t so, too.” He left us then.
“I’m telling you, Jake,” Jack Bull said, “you want to watch that man.”
The whiskey bottle was once more in my hand, so I took a share of it.
“Perhaps I should put him where he’ll not need so much watching,” I suggested.
“Naw, naw,” Cole said. “In a hot place Pitt is a good man to have with you.”
“I hear you saying it,” I answered.
We drank then, on into full dark and hooty-owl time, after which the three of us slept, our bedrolls not a rifle’s length apart. Coleman Younger was not a regular part of our band, and soon he left us, but for that one brief period he was my comrade.
In the morning we shed our blue sheep’s clothing. Our border shirts came out of satchels and onto our backs. We preferred this means of dress, for it was more flat-out and honest. The shirts were large, with pistol pockets, and usually colored red or dun. Many had been embroidered with ornate stitching by loving women some were blessed enough to have.
Mine was plain, but well broken in. I can think of no more chilling a sight than that of myself, all astride my big bay horse, with six or eight pistols dangling from my saddle, my rebel locks aloft on the breeze and a whoopish yell on my lips.
When my awful costumery was multiplied by that of my comrades, we stopped faint hearts just by our mode of dread stylishness.
That morning we dawdled about camp more than usual. Black John squatted up to an oak trunk and consulted long with Press Welch, a rider from George Clyde’s group. We often linked up with Clyde, or Quantrill, or Poole, Jarrett and Thrailkill. By having many captains we kept our bands small for easy hiding, but we could call all together in a few days’ time.
After Press Welch departed, Black John pinched his cheeks together and looked down, lost in some manner of stern thought. He was older than most of us and had lived in Kansas. When being formal he called us the First Kansas Irregulars, which I never heard anyone echo except in his presence. His head was a riot of black tangling hair on the skull and cheeks both. Long-faced, he had a hollowed look brought on by a steady ration of hard days.
“Men…” he finally spoke, raising himself from the ground. “Men, there is work to be done.” His voice was low and thick and Baptist-certain that what it spoke was right. “Hampton Eads and seven other of our comrades were took by the militia out of Warrensburg. You had friends among them.”
This was not a rare sort of news, but we began to pay attention. Something would be done.
Black John spread his arms wide as if to calm us, although we were yet subdued. “They are all murdered.”
Oaths were uttered at this, and Black John commanded us to mount. This we quickly did, and soon we were afield, feeling wolfish, searching for victims.
They were in good supply.
We made trash of men and places. At Sweet Springs we found the houses of two Unionists who had tried to waylay Cave Wyatt when he had visited his mother there. Both men were unaware of us and smug—but not for long. Cave put amens to their miserable existences after delivering unto them a knotty sermon. Their homes became beacons.
Several of the boys were from this neighborhood and had scores to settle. A man called Schmidt thought a fox was in his henhouse but encountered a larger thief than he was prepared for. His end was merciful, as he was a good runner and nearly made the woods.
Following Davis Creek we traveled north by west, swooping on known Union properties and persons. Word of our presence traveled fast, and by midday all we found were empty houses to destroy. Here and there we confiscated silverware or jewelry that had fallen into the wrong hands. But there was not much of it.
Our devotion to revenge began to dull after that, and we yearned to ambush some food and plenty of it.
Turner Rawls had family on the creek, so we stopped in there for dinner. All horses but two were secreted in a ravine behind the house. Turner’s father had been shot in Warrensburg for buying more lead than one man could need, and his two brothers were somewhere in Arkansas with Price. This made him the only protector of his mother and two sisters. He was tender in attitude when about them, a level of temperament he had never before displayed. It made me fonder of him.
The women set us a fine table: chicken fried the way mothers do it, and ham with sweet potatoes, biscuits and coffee. I was zealous about the ham and sweet potatoes, and soon had my fill. Having my fill made me sleepy, so I went onto the porch. It was a fine, sunny day and I decided to count the nailheads in the porch ceiling. To do this I lay on my back, but quickly I lost the count.
Sneezing horses awakened me. I sat up, but they were there: Four militiamen stared at me from behind carbines. A good distance off there was a larger gaggle of bluebellies.
The house had gone silent.
“Where’s the other, you devil?” asked one of the militia. He had puppy cheeks and foam at the mouth. He gestured at the two horses we had left out front. “Speak up and maybe you’ll live yet.”
This brought haw-haws from his brethren, who were a pink-jowled lot of bad citizens.
My comfort was diminished. The full gullet made me feel slow and perhaps stupid.
“Get his guns,” the foamy man said. One of the others acted as if he would come forward to disarm me, but hesitated. “Halloo inside! Come out and show your parole or surrender.”
Southern men who would not fight could post parole bonds to walk about with a little freedom. I had no parole, and I was armed, as no paroled man could be.
The main body was now coming forward, and a quick scout told me there was fifty or more of them. The numbers were not favorable.
“I am alone,” I said. “That’s my daddy’s house. He was shot off it three days back.”
“He lies,” said a shrewd militia. “Let’s parole him to Jesus, and right now.”
I was still seated, and that saved me. The house exploded in the militia’s faces, and four saddles were instantly unburdened. I pulled to my knees and grabbed the reins of our two horses and began to run to the rear of the house.
“Get in here!” voices called to me, but I knew we needed the horses, though neither was mine.
My course was changed when the troop of militia opened up on me. I heard the enchanting whack of bullet on meat. Both horses screamed and spasmed, one dropping dead while the other spun in a tight agonized whirl, the rear legs useless.
The bullets were coming in gangs, as I was a lonely target. The little finger on my left hand, a fairly useless digit, was cleaved from me. I saw it land pink and limp in the dust of the chicken pen but made no move to regain it.
Two more strides put me in the house.
At every window there were guns pointing out. Black John stood at the front one, a man cool and plausible.
The women were on the floor and not in the right spirit for the adventure that had befallen them. Turner Rawls crouched nearby his family, pistol pulled, as if the center of the floor was his last stand.
“Do you kill women?” Black John called out the window. “There are women in here!”
The militia was on three sides of us now, and from the house to the wooded ravine and horses there was a clear patch of fifty yards.
Running it would be hot.
“You know we don’t,” came back a bossy honk of a Yankee voice. You might fight a voice like that for any small reason, let alone for invading your neighborhood. “Send them out now and they’ll be safe passaged!”
A bone-and-pulp nubbin was all of my finger I had left. My blood spotted the floor and walls. Someone told me I was hit, as if I might have overlooked it myself. I took a rag and wound it firm about the aching nubbin. The pain was shrill enough, but the idea of a finger of mine twitching about, lost in chicken-pecked dust, was more terrible.
“Please, Ma, you got to go,” Turner Rawls was pleading.
Ma Rawls looked at him somewhat berserkly, then waved a hand in his face.
“We’re goin’, son,” she said. “You best believe we’re goin’. There ain’t no way we’re not goin’.”
She and the sisters were soon on the porch. We watched as they walked to the militia. There was a pinch of dignity to their stride but a peck of pace to it.
Once the courtesies were out of the way, the militia sent a hurricane of bullets to batter the house. We stayed low and returned the weather as best we could.
Holes began to be chewed through the thin planks, and splinters flew about plenty.
It was not a situation we had wanted for ourselves.
“We cain’t hold them from here,” Turner Rawls said. He reflected the desperation many of us were beginning to feel—mouth agape, skin paled, features gorged with concern.
Black John was still cool, as always, but he was well known to be sane only in a peculiar way.
Excerpted from Woe to Live On by Woodrell, Daniel Copyright © 2012 by Woodrell, Daniel. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 14, 1999
I read a library copy of this book years ago, and have been looking for it ever since. I am excited it is back in print. Buy it while you can find it! Woodrell presents a side of the conflict largely neglected in the popular press. While his language can be over the top in modern writing, for this period piece his voice is effectively authentic.
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