Tam and I drew wrangler duty together that day. It wasn’t a common assignment fer either of us, but the bronc twisters normally handling the remuda had both come down with a bad case of hoof-in-face caught from Big Red. The cranky old gelding could smell a marauding Injun as good as any mule, or a maverick trying to hide out in a patch of brush most would pass by, but he also had way too little respect for two-legged cowboys.
Naturally, the tall tale teller jist had to slap his A-fork on that monster most of us called Seventeen by Seventeen when we had the time to speak a name that ungodly long. The bay stood near seventeen hands tall and was, according to the trail boss, seventeen years old that summer. He’d made more trips up and down the Chisholm Trail than most of us drovers…and remained, even at his advanced smooth-mouth age, a fair sight tougher than most of us, too.
My partner actually liked the old renegade. Birds of a feather, maybe.
The sun had jist set by the time we had the rope corral strung around the cow ponies. Shanklin, the night wrangler who served mostly as a guard against possible raiders, gave us a two-finger salute to the brim of his hat, and we headed fer the campfire.
“Got a story in mind fer tonight?” I asked it casual-like, but with Tam, stories were never casual things, not really. He took his tale-telling serious.
“Heard one about a bunch of purty slave girls on a planet hidden on the other side of the sun,” he said with a straight face.
The expression on my face broke him, though. He started laughing, and that man’s got a laugh that will lift the sorriest fellow in the world right out of the doldrums. Some said he could get any girl within twenty miles, jist using that laugh, his eyes sparkling like that. I could believe it.
Of course, there weren’t any girls within twenty miles. Not out here on the Trail, chousing 3500 head of longhorn beeves up to Dodge City. Unless you counted a few of the better looking fillies in the remuda, and neither of us was bent in that direction.
Sor far as I knew.
“You oughta seen the look on yer face!” He chortled. “Guess I’d best save that one fer another time. Yep. That’s what I’ll do. Tonight…tonight let’s go with the story of Becky and the HU.”
“The Hugh?” I asked, mildly puzzled. What man called himself “The”? “The Tam?” “The me?” It would be like the trail boss, Donald Becker, going around calling himself “The Donald”.
“Beans first,” he grinned, “Then we’ll chew the fat.”
Rebecca Wettendorf was wife to Robert, mother to three girls under ten years of age, and all Irish. Before marrying Robert, she’d been a Cavanaugh and proud of it. Jet black hair, long and glossy. Blue eyes that mirrored the sky even to the storm warnings when she had her Irish up. Five foot eight, sturdy as a good fence rail, and all woman.
Needless to say, Bob W. was smitten to the hilt with his Becky, and she with him. When the stocky farmer decided he wanted to join the new wagon train that was forming, head out West to pioneer themselves a place of their own instead of tenant farming fer scraps, her heart leapt at the chance. Jill, Colleen, and Elaine, being nine, seven, and six years of age respectively, were easily swept up in the vision of unlimited freedom and land of their own. It was a time of pure enthusiasm.
Turtle Speaker dampened that a bit.
The aged Catawba, whether or not respected among his people, was definitely a Man of Power in the eyes of the Wettendorf family. There were few of his tribe remaining these days, but those few were known to be honest, brave, and–in the case of Uncle Turtle, at least–full of wisdom.
He came the evening prior to their departure, just at dusk. Over a meal of okra soup prepared in a highly prized Catawba pot, he wished them well on their journey…and gave them a gift.
“I wish you to know of the HU,” he said, including them all but, Becky somehow knew, aiming his message straight at her.
“The Hugh?” Bob interjected, raising one eyebrow. “Who’s that?” Turtle Speaker was fluent in English, but–
“Not a who, Bob. A what. HU is an ancient word, maybe as old as Manatou Itself. It is a name for the divine, a sound that is found in every language. In your English language it can be found in your words like HU-mor and HU-man. You sing it for protection, for balance. If you are wise, you sing it silently to yourself, all the time. But most of all,” he looked Becky directly in the eye, “You can sing it for protection. Practice the HU, Rebecca. You will need it.”
With that, the elderly fellow rose from their table, nodded politely to each of them in turn…and was gone.
“What did you make of that, Beck?” Bob looked inquiringly at his wife, scratching his head in puzzlement. “Sounds kind of mystic or something. I never knew old Turtle was a mystic.”
“I don’t know, husband,” she replied thoughtfully, “But I suspect we’d be wise to remember his gift.” Becky came from a long line of those Irish who sometimes knew things. She was already practicing the HU song in her head.
In the arduous months following their departure from the Carolinas, Bob Wettendorf forgot all about Turtle Speaker’s mysterious message. He was a practical sort with little time fer superstitious mumbo-jumbo, and there was more than enough to occupy his time and attention as the wagon train creaked its way slowly across the Great Plains toward the towering Rocky Mountains.
They’d lucked out in their positioning, just the third back in a string of covered conveyances some twenty-one vehicles long. With only two teams ahead of them on the trail–one of oxen, one of mules–their own horse-drawn Conestoga suffered only a moderate amount of dust, kicked up by hooves and infiltrating nostrils from dawn till dusk. Back at the tail end, the dust situation was truly intolerable.
One late summer morning, September first by Becky’s reckoning, though others in the train disputed that, the wagon master called a halt. Three of the wagons had broken down within minutes of each other. A quick inspection showed that the Fenneman family had a broken axle, the Smiths had lost a wheel entirely, and the Grettaslas had a cracked hub rather obviously stemming from Andy Grettasla’s laziness–he hadn’t greased the thing in weeks.
Despite being smack dab in the middle of Sioux country on the oft-disputed Bozeman Trail, it was decided to leave the train strung out rather than circling the wagons. After all, they hadn’t seen an Indian in weeks, it was a balmy morning with not a cloud in the sky.
What could go wrong?
Wagon master Harkins even gave Bob Wettendorf permission to go hunting. “Be back by midafternoon, Bob,” he said. “It’ll take that long to get these repairs all done properly, but we’ll need to get moving a few hours before dark. As you know, I’ve been this way before. There’s a decent creek with a fine meadow, about five, six miles ahead. We’ll want to be there and circled up by dark.”
“Got it,” Wettendorf nodded, and went to fetch his family. Tim Harkins hadn’t suspected he’d be taking Becky and the girls off toward that patch of woods to the south, riding all four horses from the wagon team with Colleen and Elaine riding double-up on Dolly, but he wasn’t about to leave his women nor his horses with the train.
Robert Wettendorf came from Welsh stock. Not Irish, but not prone to ignore those inner warnings, either. They’d saved his life more than once already.
By early afternoon, they were headed back, still one low ridge and something like two miles away from the wagon train, when they heard the shooting. Bob and Becky looked at each other jist once, a look of complete understanding. He took the lead as always, with the girls between and his wife bringing up the rear.
That small stand of trees provided cover for topping the ridge. Tying off their mounts in the center of the woods, they crept forward until they could see out toward the wagon train.
My God. It was already over. No more shooting, which could only mean they were all dead. Timothy Harkins, the Smiths, the Fennemans, the Gross–all of them. That shouldn’t have been possible, but…yes, from here you could see it. There was a little brush-choked draw, invisible from the train’s position, that ran right up next to them, parallel to the whole bunch. Bob could see it in his mind’s eye: An ambushing force had readied themselves in that draw. An open attack from the other side of the train had encouraged every white man, woman, and child to scurry around to put the wagons between them and the attackers.
Whereupon the Indians in the draw had quietly risen up and shot them all in the back.
That was bad. Real bad.
Worse, they were coming toward the trees. The wagons had been set afire, the oxen and mules slaughtered in their traces. Horses had been cut loose and were being herded toward the stand by nearly two hundred mounted, whooping warriors.
Some of them were wearing white people’s clothing looted from the train. Four or five had even donned gingham dresses, no doubt garments that had belonged to Mrs. Fenneman. That had been one big woman.
Bob quietly checked his rifle, then his revolver. Good to go. He forced himself to remember to save four rounds, one for his beloved wife and each of his kids. No way those–
Becky’s hand lightly resting on his forearm brought his gaze whipping around. Her lips were pursed almost like she was puckering up for a kiss. Fer jist an instant, he thought she must want him to do that, kiss her goodbye…then it hit him. She was singing the HU, the word old Turtle had gifted to them back in Carolina, jist not making any noise doing it.
He snapped a glance at the three girls, crouched close to their Mom but hardly looking afraid. They all had that kissing-mouth going, too.
Well, all right. It wasn’t going to do one danged bit of good, but it wasn’t like they had anything to lose by it, either. He nodded at Becky, pursed his own lips–which he figured had to look downright foolish on a full-bearded man–and turned his attention back to the approaching enemy.
HU-U-U-U-U-U….He had to admit, focusing on such a simple word did at least let him worry a bit less about Death and how painful it might be fer his girls to git there. HU-U-U-U-U-U….
The huge war party changed direction. Not suddenly, jist sort of gradually veering off until it became clear the warriors and their spoils of war would be passing by the woods rather than running right through them. Time seemed to…warp? Stand still? Man, it seemed like it took forever, and then again it seemed like it weren’t but a moment.
The Indians were gone.
Bob looked at Becky. “I never been a religious man, Beck. You know that.”
She took his hand, the one that wasn’t still frozen tight to the stock of his rifle, squeezing softly. Her voice was jist as soft. “I don’t believe this had much to do with religion, husband.”
They sang the HU aloud on the way down to the remains of the train. They sang it while they dug graves fer 83 men, women, and children slaughtered by the red men who had done what they could to resist the invasion of their homeland by the whites. Miners had caused this, of course. Gold miners, leaving the Trail instead of passing through, gallivanting off to dig fer gold in the Black Hills known to be sacred to the Sioux.
Miners, and an experienced wagon master who’d made a rookie mistake, one time.
They sang the HU while they searched the burned wagons fer survivors (none) and fer things they might be able to use (plenty), it being clear the original owners weren’t going to be needing them. Bob Wettendorf was a fair hand, and he managed to scrape together enough unburned wheels and axles and boards to cobble together one complete wagon. Some of the leather harness had survived under the toasted bodies of oxen and mules, and he assembled a complete set of harness for the team from that.
Always, they watched fer the attackers to come back, but always they also sang the HU, and no one came.
In the end, it is said, their lone wagon made it on over the mountains, then on into Oregon Territory, where they finally drifted south to settle and build a ranch. Not a big one, but a fine operation, with the girls all grown into true heartbreakers who soon enough brought home three strapping young men to help on the HU Quarter Circle ranch.
What’s that, Clint? You ain’t never heard of no big Carolina wagon train getting wiped out like that? Huh! Sounds like yer doubting my story, boy.
Well, yer free to do so. Call it a tall tale if you like. There’s a lot of things out there we civilians don’t git told about, lessen we happen to know somebody who knows somebody. Bet you hadn’t heard about the HU, neither.