Ah, the not-so-glorious parts of horse care . . .
The next day, after breakfast, Deborah found her way to the horse barn as the others got helmets and things to go ride three-wheelers ATVs. Corey showed her how to clean the saddle pads and horse blankets, checking them for worn places and stickers. “Don’t let them drag the ground. They find thorns.”
“Yes, sir.” She could believe that. Sort of like how white shirts found tomato sauce, or her mom and dad’s black clothes attracted white and pastel anything. She didn’t really like the fleecy saddle blankets and pads. They really found the hair and dust and things. As she studied one fancy, thick pad, she wondered if anyone had cleaned it since it came home from the shop. Corey left his task and frowned at the pad as well.
“Bring it out here.” She followed him outside, into the sun, and they flipped it over and set it on a wooden hitching rack, upside-down. She pulled her hat brim down to shade her eyes better as she looked over the pad. “Hmm.” His fast, thick and sturdy fingers pulled two small twigs out of the fake wool fleece. “I’ll get the stickers out, then we’ll wash it. Finish the others, please.”
“Yes, sir.” She liked working with him. He reminded her a little of Mrs. Schmidt. They were both self-contained. By the time she finished checking the ordinary blankets and things, and put them away, he’d gotten almost a handful of little sticks and thorny leaf pieces out of the pad. “Did something make a nest, sir?”
He smiled a little. “It tried.” He pumped some water into the metal wash tub, and they worked the pad and rinsed dirt and stuff out of it. Whatever tried to settle in must have been disappointed to hit the mesh under the fake fleece, Deborah giggled to herself. As heavy as the thing felt wet, she could see why Corey didn’t mind the help. They wrestled the pad onto the hitching post to dry, then carried the tub to the garden and carefully poured the water onto some of the vegetables. “Good. Tomorrow we go ride a little, check some water holes. Do you remember how to ride?”
“Not much, sir. Sit tall, weight in the middle, and I remember how to fall off safely if I need to.”
Corey smiled, a big smile, and nodded. “Honest is good.” He made a small wave-like motion with his hand, and she nodded and went to wash her hands and see about dinner.
The next morning, Uncle Nathan met her at the horse barn. “Deborah, what are you doing?” He didn’t sound angry, yet, just not happy.
Corey spoke first. “I asked her to come with me, check the water in the Rocky Creek section. She’s land-minded, has a good eye.”
Her uncle tipped his hat back and really looked at her, almost the way some of the other magic users did. “Hmmm. I wonder. You do have a lot of Grandmother Judith in you. A bit of Dad, too. You can go with Mr. Corey, but be careful, and take a lot of water.”
She nodded. “Yes, sir. Dad—my dad—sent his water back-pack with me, in case we went hiking or something.”
“Did he? Or did Cousin Rodney pester him until he remembered to have you bring it.” Her uncle winked.
She tried to look innocent. The adults both chuckled, and she giggled a little.
Half an hour later, with the sloshy back-pack on her back, she stared up and up at the black and white horse. He looked as tall as the farm house! It would be a long way down if she fell off or had to emergency dismount. “No, you won’t be riding Leopard,” Corey said. She turned and saw him leading a smaller, brown and white horse with calm eyes. “This is Brown.”
“Brown.” She introduced herself, letting the gelding sniff her palm, then puffing gently into his nostrils the way she remembered to do. Brown puffed back, then let her check the cinch. Corey showed her the mounting block, and she used that to get on board. He adjusted the stirrups a little.
The brush and spiky plants gave way to grass and the creek valley widened into a flood meadow of sorts. They passed an old beaver dam that explained the meadow. A few red and white Hereford cows stared at them with half-closed eyes as they rode past. The cows chewed their cud and looked thoughtful. Not that cows thought, unless it was thinking up new ways to be stupid and make trouble. She’d heard enough farm stories from the clan cousins, as well as here-cousins and other relatives, to know that. The cows blended in with the reddish-brown rocks around the lush meadow. Pika pika, pika pika! A black and white magpie flapped by. A large hawk or eagle circled far overhead, and a raven flew ahead of them for a few yards, then went about his business. The wind made the ankle-to-knee-high grass shiver.
About the time she needed a break, they stopped at a pond. Deborah hesitated, then remembered—dismount to the left, just like mounting. She eased her right foot free of the stirrup, then the left foot, and swung her leg over the pommel and slid to the ground, not touching the saddle. She landed with a little thump. Brown gave her a puzzled look, then seemed to shrug, if horses could shrug. Her legs felt stiff, but not too sore. She clipped the rope to the halter under Brown’s bridle and led him to the water.
Corey moved quietly, head turning left and right. He stopped every few feet, listening, then moved again. She copied him, slipping almost into magic sight and just reading the land. It looked good, except . . . “Sir?”
She nodded to the northwest. “Is there something, um, off that direction? Off like spoiled milk off,” she explained.
“Hmm.” He crouched and touched four fingers to the ground, half-humming as he did. Something passed from him to the land and back, and she raised her shields. “Yes. It has been here a very long time, but it feels stronger.” He stood. “Not today, but it will be checked. Well done.”
She blushed. “Thank you, sir.”
“What do you sense of the water? I’ll hold Brown.”
She passed him the rope and approached the pond. Part natural, part improved, Rocky Creek flowed through a deep place in the stone and spread a little. Someone had narrowed the outlet and smoothed part of the bank so the cows and other animals could come and go without ruining the water. A few minnows darted, silvery flicks above hair-like green water weeds. A water-strider skated over the top of the slow-moving water. Nothing stood out to her normal sight, so she shifted to magic-sight. Healthy, but not as good as it could have been. What was missing? “Um, should there be bigger fish, sir? It feels as if there’s a gap of some kind.”
“Ah.” She backed away from the pond. “Frogs and lizards. A heron visited in May, and ate all the frogs and water lizards. Some will come in from upstream, with the next flood, but nothing now.” He nodded. “We water the horses, and drink some ourselves, then check the next two.”
Before they reached the second water, Deborah reined Brown to a stop. Something . . . to her left, something watched her. Or was it a Something? She raised her shields and drew a little power from her locket, then cast a light shield around Brown as well. He snorted but didn’t fuss. Corey reined Leopard around and returned to her. “To the left, sir.”
A small dust-devil danced across the meadow. Corey’s eyes narrowed, and he chanted something. Leopard side-stepped, then turned to face the ripple in the air. The ripple shrank, solidified, and a sleek, tidy coyote laughed at them, then disappeared into the brush. “That’s not a regular coyote,” she said.
“No. Later.” Leopard reversed within his own length and started trotting. Deborah nudged Brown, and after shaking her teeth loose, remembered how to post the trot. They slowed down when they turned away from the creek to a windmill. [snip]
A dark shadow passed over the water. She looked up to see a raven tip on one wing and bank away, as if leading them. Corey made an interested sound, then took Leopard’s rope. “The third watering place is on the way to the house.”
“Yes, sir.” Grasshoppers buzzed in the grass and brush, big grasshoppers. A few lizards darted here and there, always in a hurry, and she’d seen the back half of a dark snake as it slithered about its business. Small birds twittered, and the wind rustled and clattered through grasses and brush.
“This is good land,” Corey told her as they rode through another grassy, open pasture. “Nothing stays so long that it ruins things, but the land isn’t left to get weedy, either.”
She thought about it. “Like back home, where the woods get rank with nettles and burrs if people don’t cut dead and bug-sick trees, and take care of things?”
That made good sense. Her dad said that deer and elk and even buffalo had grazed here, and had moved around, not wearing out the land. Sheep could work, too, and cows, if people kept an eye on things. “Ignoring the land doesn’t keep it healthy.”
“No.” Leather creaked as he shifted. “Our family learned that early. Others have not, not yet.”
Our family? “Yes, sir.” What did he mean, our family? Was he one of the cousins? Something her grandfather had once said, something about her namesake, Great-grandmother Judith . . . Oh! Her grandmother had been a Shoshone woman of power, that was it, and that’s why Grandfather Roger was a strong Sensitive. Great-grandmother Judith was also a Sensitive, and maybe a sorceress, but her dad had never said one way or the other. So, Corey was Shoshone, or part Shoshone, and they were cousins. And if she didn’t get her mind back where it needed to be, she’d be flat on her rump in the dust with a long walk back to the ranch house!
The third watering place needed a little help. “Hold,” Corey ordered, handing her Leopard’s rope. She held as he got tools out of the saddlebags and straightened something, then banged the metal case twice. A metal-on-metal squeak, then water started flowing again. “That’ll do for now.” As he put the tools back, she realized that a carbine or other small rifle poked up from a saddle scabbard. Why had she not seen it before, or noticed an illusion hiding it? Deborah chewed on the question a little, then set it to one side, the way her father and Mrs. Schmidt, and Mistress Cimbrissa had taught her.
After Corey finished, Deborah nodded to a clump of yucca-like plants. “Sir, those don’t belong, do they?”
He gave her another thoughtful look from under his hat, then drank from his canteen. “Why not?”
She looked from the plants to the in-ground water tank and back. “Ah, they are the only ones here, in this meadow, and they seem close to the water, closer than other yucca.”
Corey smiled again. “Their ancestors were planted here, when a spring existed over there.” He tipped his head toward some bushes and things, a sage-colored island in a grassy meadow. “They are soap-root. Other useful plants were planted, too, before things Changed.”
Deborah filed the information away. “Soap root. Yes, sir. Thank you.” What did he mean by Changed? When Uncle Rodney and Master Tay spoke with capital letters, it meant something very serious. Or very silly, sometimes, if they were talking about Rich the Mongoose. Corey didn’t seem like the silly kind. He took the rope back, mounted, and they rode at a brisk walk back to the ranch yard. The raven returned, then wheeled up and away once more. More clouds floated above them, a few with grey bellies already.
As they “undressed” the horses and brushed the sweat and other things off of them, Corey said, “The coyote.”
She nodded and walked around Brown’s back end, keeping one hand on the gelding’s rump and staying very close to his legs. He wouldn’t be surprised, or have room to wind-up the kick that way. She remembered watching Cousin Alice almost get a leg broken by surprising a horse from behind. “Yes, sir. Dad said that a clean, well-fed, and tidy coyote’s probably not, um.” How much should she say? “Not the kind of local coyote that sneaks chickens and chases roadrunners.”
“No.” Corey too moved closer, lowering his voice. “The Coyote we saw is a Trickster spirit. They are only deliberately mean if you are rude and mean, or disrespectful. Their tricks can still hurt, though.”
Oh, that made too much sense. She nodded hard. “Yes, sir. When one spoke to me the other morning, I remembered what Dad had said and was very polite.”
She couldn’t quite read the expression on Corey’s face. It wasn’t unhappy, just . . . Deeply thoughtful? He looked the way her father did, or Bunicot, when they thought about something magic and very serious. “What did the Coyote say, Miss Deborah?”
She swallowed hard. “Ah, he said that I was my father’s daughter indeed, and asked if I was my great-great-great-grandmother’s as well.” What was that other bit? “Oh, and he called me a child of a green land. He said, ‘We’ll see, child of a green land, we’ll see,’ and then got onto his back feet and twirled away.”
Corey brushed Leopard a few more times, then turned back to her. “Do you have a use name?”
She nodded. “Patruyeh. It’s the name of a plant.”
He nodded in turn. “Kaak’ki.”
Something . . . It wasn’t just a use name. “Kaak’ki,” she repeated, very quietly, locking it into her memory.
“Good.” After they finished, Corey said, “Well done, today. You like plants and plant knowledge?”
“Yes, sir!” She caught herself. “At least, I like the ones that don’t attack me, or make me itch and hurt.”
Corey tipped his head back and laughed, a full, rich sound. Uncle Nathan had come up close to them, and he too smiled. “Ah, Nathan,” Corey said when he caught his breath. “She sounds just like Cousin Maria.”
Her uncle folded his arms, still smiling. “Deborah learns from other people’s bad experiences. Sort of like her father, except her father then had to try it just once himself, in case he could do whatever it was that the rest of us couldn’t. Or wouldn’t.” A very long sigh followed those words, and Deborah closed her eyes for a moment. Sometimes her dad-as-a-kid sounded a lot like Uncle Rodney. Was that why her dad said that Uncle Rodney was how the universe got even with him for being the youngest kid? She probably shouldn’t ask.
(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved