He let his horse amble along. Hot breath steamed from the beast's nostrils.
They took their time. He guessed that the gelding beneath his saddle enjoyed the foggy morning as much as he did. For him, it had been three years since he'd this kind of work. To get the job, he'd hitched a ride on a train from the coast. He'd hired on to the ranch as its lowest-paid hand. Naturally, since he'd had experience, his new bosses were happy to send him out at dawn to patrol the fence line.
Lots of things in the wild knocked down fence rails. His job was to find out where they'd done it. Then he stopped and fitted the rails back into place. It was a mindless chore. He liked that. All morning, he rode, worked the fences, and walked his horse. When he reached the northwest corner, he turned back toward the ranch alongside the western border.
He'd eaten his breakfast from a wax wrapper. He'd drunk water from his canteen. He'd repaired three rails.
As he neared the end of the border, he crested the hill that overlooked the ranch house. There, he and his horse paused. They took in the view of the cattle below. There was a herd fenced in to the east, a smaller herd gated to the south. The large, north barn lay low in his view, near his knees. Farther away lay the main house, then the stables. Between the house and the stables sat a horse corral. Behind it, the small, south barn was a mere bluish dot.
From his vantage, he saw a pair of men approach the corral. They should have been carrying loops of rope, he thought, but their hands looked empty. The darker fellow had to be the Shawnee medicine man who acted as a sort of low-paid veterinarian.
The ranch had struck a deal with the Shawnee reservation. The cowboy didn't understand it and no one had bothered to explain it.
The other man was, on second glance, a woman. Despite her lack of a dress, he knew from her long, light-brown hair. She was the rancher's eldest daughter. She opened the gate of the corral and, as if she did it all the time, motioned for the horses to come out.
The half-dozen mustangs sauntered into the north field of the ranch. They cantered around, called to one another, and played for a few minutes. She let them run free. Beneath him, his own horse whinnied and pulled at its bit. He tugged to hold it steady. The gelding itched to join the herd even though, presumably, it was more free to travel while it was with him.
"Right, boy." He couldn't deny what his horse saw. He patted the beast on its flank. His fingers loosened their grip on the reins. The gelding began to trot downhill.
Below, the ranch horses drank from a trough usually reserved for the longhorn bull. They nibbled the grass around the trough. Soon, the lead mare returned to gate of the corral, where it approached rancher's daughter. The young woman put her arms around the leader's neck. She spoke to it. The mare nuzzled her and pushed its thick mane into her delicate face. Then the horse pulled away. It turned and trotted into the corral. The others followed. The girl stepped in behind the last one. She swung the gate shut, dropped the latch, and took what she'd been eating out of her mouth. It looked like half of an apple. She held it out for the lead mare, who accepted it carefully between her front teeth.
The girl turned towards the barn to get oats or some other feed for the rest of the herd. The medicine man merely sat down on a bench next to the gate and watched the horses.
By the time the cowboy reached the corral, the girl had passed out of sight.
"Shawnee, right?" He waved to the medicine man. "I'm new here."
The middle-aged fellow turned to look at him as he dismounted. He wore stitched leather clothes and a blanket over his shoulders. His eyes seemed so dark and so reflective, they glinted of silver.
The cowboy tied his gelding to a fence post by its reins. Then he stuck out his hand to shake. The medicine man made no move to respond. But the cowboy wasn't sure if the Shawnee people understood the custom. He put his hands on his hips.
"So, does that happen often?" he said to renew the conversation.
"Every day, white man." The fellow spoke with an accent but a clear voice. He nodded. But he hesitated and tilted his head. "Maybe. I don't really know what you're talking about."
"I mean, you and the girl let out the horses." He smiled. "But the horses came back. It looked like they were talking to you folks. Can you understand what the horses are saying?"
"I see. Well, I've spent most of my life around horses. So has the ranch lady."
"I have, too. But I haven't seen that before. The horses in this corral have been looking to bolt. They run from most people. I've seen it. So is she a witch? How about you?"
"Only me. The woman would not like to be called a witch and she is not wise in the way you mean. She does ordinary miracles."
"How's your English? I don't reckon we mean the same thing. That girl, she talks to animals. And they talk back."
"I'm shocked. That's a big deal."
The Shawnee shrugged. "The medicine man before me could do it much better. I don't know that it was related to his wisdom. Maybe a little. The young lady seems wise for her age. But I hesitate to say so if you think it's shocking."
"Wisdom should not be associated with special powers."
That set the cowboy back a step. All of his life, religious men had talked about holy power as if that were the point of holiness: to be powerful.
"Then what good is it?" he asked.
"At best, a wise man learns to see things as they are. That is, we can see as much as flesh and blood creatures like us can perceive the true way of things. Much still remains hidden." The medicine man hunkered down with his blanket around his shoulders.
"That doesn't sound special."
"No. But it is surprising."
"That's your wisdom? Every tent-flap deacon around here promises more, I bet. You've studied your medicine for years. And you say that you're still surprised to see things as they are?"
"Better the countless little surprises," the fellow said as he shook his head, "than the one big shock."