Seven blue herons, trailing pipestem legs, cast cruciform shadows on an ancient sea bed. Dropping Salem's reins, I let her dabble in a whorl of soaked ditch grass. Leafhoppers pelt my stirrups. Piebald magpies squawk from bleached cattails. Quivering silver, a broken cottonwood cools an island of mourning doves. Like windborne seeds, a gasp of grackles spews from the tangle of blackberries hugging the cutbank. Beyond a single wire a band of sleek broodmares threads through magenta thistles, scratching deep-slung bellies on ragweed, milkweed and rye ... Whiskered muzzles approve us across a strand of rusty barbs. Butter-bright mustard petals stipple the mares' broad backs. With fawn eyes their foals stare from gilded flanks and withers-deep grass, stamping sapling legs at hovering bees.

I gather the reins of my reluctant horse and cross a sundog trapped in a puddle. A stiff wind plows furrows in the clouds and parts the shuddering grasses underhoof - pale blue tesserae, grouted in mud, herald the quiet birth of Chinese pheasants.

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