The four men cradled their rifles in front of their chests. Two Hawkens, a Sharps, and an old decrepit Kentucky long rifle by the look of them, but they were still too far to be sure of calibre.
“That’s far enough, son,” the burliest amongst them called, “I told you, we can’t take that little one. She got the pox.”
“Nigger!” added one of the men.
James overlooked the epithet and called from atop his mare, “She’s not sick.”
“A vote was taken amongst the families,” the burly man called back, “Her and her kin was cast out for the good of the wagon train. I take it they’re not with you?”
“They died some ways back. But the girl doesn’t have smallpox.”
The burly man hefted his Hawken in his hands.
“Don’t matter. They could still be carrying the cholera.”
“I thought you said it was pox?”
Burly man rolled his eyes and stood resolute, “One’s the same as t’other.”
“Uh, no,” the young rider said, “Cholera is mainly an intestinal issue spread through tainted water. Smallpox is more systemic and highly communicable. Leaves a lot of outward signs in the skin, too. Blisters, you know? Hence the name pox?”
His response prompted only speechless bewilderment amongst the men. After several seconds, the smaller of the two men with the Hawkens broke the silence.
James shot him an odd look but otherwise ignored the man’s taunts.
“Look, she’s an orphan. She’s just twelve and needs a family to take her in. I’m headed up into the high country to trap. Ain’t in no position to look after her.”
The burly man tilted his head in irritation, “It’s rough going where we’re headed. Can’t take on no children.”
James screwed up his face.
“What? Y-you’ve got a bunch of families in wagons. I counted seventeen kids running around.”
“Those are midgets,” said the man, “Grew up malnourished and such.”
He stood up in his saddle to look over the tops of the tall grass to where a woman with tangled, sweaty red hair was squatting, her blue skirts hiked up to expose tense, meaty thighs, below which a man wearing a bloodied apron kneelt with hands outstretched.
“That woman over there is having a baby!”
“That’s my girl Sally. She just taking a dump,” the man assured him.
An ear piercing shriek sailed over the grass, followed by several muffled cuss words.
“Sounds like a painful dump,” said James.
“Sally got anal fissures.”
There was another long screeching wail, followed by a gushing sound, and James stood higher in his stirrups again to peer over at her.
“Ok that’s clearly an umbilical cord!”
“Sally eats a lot of fibre,” the man said.
The man in the apron held the bloody bundle in one arm, turned to face them and gave the man a resolute thumbs up.
James gave him a long look, “When you say ‘my girl’, do you mean your daughter or your wife?”
The burly man thought about that for a time and finally replied, “Yes.”
“Ugh, that’s so gross,” said the little girl.
“Look, the girl ain’t sick and she ain’t carrying anything!” James said, “Y’all are who she came west with…”
“Nigger!” piped the smaller man with the Hawken rifle.
James turned to him deftly, “Do you have Tourettes?!”
“We can’t take the risk,” said the burly man, gruffly, “I’m sorry.”
James frowned, “No you’re not.”
“No. We’re not.”
One of the other men – the one with the Kentucky long rifle, who had until then apparently been in a coma, held a hand up to shade his eyes.
“H-hey! Is that little Henny Watkins I see?”
“Why you darn well know it is, Jim Halligan!” the little girl called out, “And if my Pa were here – Lord rest his soul – he’d grab you by the balls and- ”
The man cut her off, “Christ Almighty! Don’t let that girl in, O’Brien!”
“I told you, she don’t have the cholera!” the young rider called out, “Or smallpox…. Or syphilis, or plague, or rabies or…. Parkinson’s..…”
“Or an off switch!” Kentucky said, “That girl will talk the ears off a mule, Jake! I don’t care if she has the cure for cholera! You can’t let her in!”
The burly man looked down, shaking his head with what must have been a slight chuckle as the man with the Sharps weighed in.
“Lord in heaven! That little girl once told me about her mother’s birthing peculiarities for six miles straight. I don’t think she took a breath.”
The shorter man with the Hawken joined the commiseration, “She follers me around crittercizing the way I tahrk.”
The girl fairly shouted at him. “If you’d learn the proper pronunciation of the King’s English, Johnny Wells, you might have more luck attracting a wife who ain’t your blood kin!”
Mr Wells stared at her with a look of pure spite and then turned to James and yelled, “Nigger!”
“Dude, seriously, I’m fucking whiter than you are.”
“Prairie nigger!” Wells shouted.
I hate settlers, James thought.
“If my Mammy was here, Johnny Wells, she’d warsh your mouth out with soap for speaking to us like that! I knew a boy who had his mouth warshed out with soap once, and he went blind and you know what folks say about blind folk, don’t ya? Most folks just assume it’s their own fault they went blind cuz they was probably touching themselves too much, and folks just all concede that that’s shameful and I don’t know if that’s really shameful or not but at least they’re not out raping and killing other folk if they’re at home with their hands in their pants. That is to say of course, if they are at home at all, cuz Pa and I once saw this deranged Irishman playing with hisself on the back of the wagon in front of us as we were travelling by and Pa spit and said he was just polishing his tools and my Mammy slapped him and yelled out to the Irishman that it took a full quart of blood to fill that thing up and he was draining all that blood out of his head when he did that and sooner or later, his eyes would shrivel up and the man hollered back that it was more like a quart and a half and then my Mammy got Pa’s squirrel gun and – ”
James, who had been eyeing the girl throughout the rant, called back to the armed wagon men.
“So….there was never any cholera outbreak, was there?”
“Had to find some excuse….. before somebody bludgeoned that one.”
“You just kicked us out cuz you wanted our food and wagon, Jake O’Brien!” Henni shouted at him, “Maybe if you weren’t so damn fat, you could hunt and feed your ownself without stealing, ya waddling hog!”
James turned again to her, “Have you considered that your gracious and charming manner of relating to folks is perhaps why we can’t get anyone to adopt you?”
She blew a tuft of hair from her eyes and fixed him with a powerfully angry glare.
“And possibly why your old man hung hisself,” he muttered under his breath.
“My Pa died of water sickness!” the girl screeched at the top of her lungs.
“Yeah,” snorted Kentucky, “Fire water sickness! If you had to listen to that day and night, wouldn’t you drink?!”
Three of the men turned to head back to the wagon train while O’Brien threw his buffalo gun over a shoulder and stepped closer to offer some advice.
“If’n I was you, I’d drop her at the nearest trading post. And whip that horse as fast as she’ll get before anyone realizes what you saddled ’em with.”
“And if’n I were you,” Henni told him, “I’d lose some weight and quit fucking my own daughter!”
“Cuts straight to the marrow, don’t she?” he said to James before he turned to leave with the others.
“He’s been jerking off into the porridge,” she called out for the benefit of the rest of the wagon train, “Just thought you all should know that. This flabby kidfucker right here!”
She held up both hands, pointing at O’Brien as he strode away.
“Plays hide-the-weasel with little Maddie Winger too! And the retarded Atkins boy! Look out! He’ll stick his porky little dick in you and steal your food, too!”
She paused for a breath.
“It’s a tiny, ugly, little caterpillar dick, too,” she said, holding up a thumb and forefinger with but a half inch between, “…like a shrivelled, deformed, muskrat dick….. with leprosy.”
“Trade her to the Indians!” shouted Sharps, “She’d make some poor bastard a fine wife!”
“Christ! She’s twelve,” James said.
“Yeah well she’d give some young brave a compellin’ reason to fight to the death.”
“I’m trying to make peace with the Pawnee, not start another war.”
“Then feed her to a grizz!” the man chuckled.
“No,” the rider said looking at the girl, who was glaring at him with a vein bulging in her left temple, “I wouldn’t do that to an animal.”
“Chink-Nigger!” yelled the retreating Wells.
“What the fuck??” James muttered softly, shaking his head in confusion and defeat, as he reined the little black mare around and past the girl’s sorrel, to grab the lead rope and lead them away towards a butte.
“Inbred sister-fucking ball-lickers!” shouted the little girl as they trotted away to the northwest, two fists held aloft with middle fingers extended as she continued to hail them with a streak of profanities until long after they were out of shouting distance.
For a time, the pair rode along a rise silhouetted against a mural of dying light, and a few of her more novel insults, such as “eel-faced, possum-eating, cum dumpster!” and “shit fingered, sheep-fucking, squirrel dick” would waft along a gentle, lavender-scented evening breeze to fall upon the wagon train’s many ears.
Finally they crested a hill and disappeared by a garrison of lodgepole pines as young Henrietta Watkins’ final heartfelt goodbye echoed across the valley.
“Roast in the hottest depths of hell you gangrenous, child-raping, parasites!!!”