When Sam rescues an abused mare from outlaw horse rustlers, she knows she's done the right thing. But the ranch already has a full corral, and a long drought means the cattle are running out of grass. Of course her dad refuses to allow her to adopt another mustang.
The frightened and dangerous mare is just beginning to trust Sam when the rustlers learn Sam is the one who told the authorities about their illegal wild horse trap. Now, it's up to Sam to keep the mare — and herself — safe.
The sweet smell of horses and hay carried to Samantha Forster on an early morning breeze. She eased the front door closed behind her. Everyone inside was asleep. By rising at four o'clock, she'd beaten even Dad out of bed.
Sam stifled a yawn. She could have slept in on this September Saturday, but she and Jeri planned to unlock the secrets of Lost Canyon before the sun rose.
Strange things were happening in Lost Canyon. Weird white plumes rose skyward. Were they dust, smoke, or spirits, as some Shoshone elders hinted? And what about those eerie screams?
Standing at the bus stop just the other morning, Sam and Jen had heard the faraway wails. Though they'd agreed those sounds weren't the cries of Indian ponies slaughtered there a hundred years ago, she and Jeri had scared each other with other "what-ifs." They'd been rubbing gooseflesh from their arms when the school bus finally arrived.
Now, Sam moved silently across the front porch of the white, two-story house. She carried her boots and walked in stockinged feet. With Gram and Dad still sleeping, River Bend Ranch was all hers.
Darkness cloaked the neat pens and corrals, the barn and bunkhouse, and the surrounding rangelands where Hereford cattle grazed, but Sam knew it was all there waiting for her.
As she pulled on her scarred leather boots, Sam glanced toward the river. Across the current, on the wild side of the river, the Phantom could be waiting. But he'd never come to the ranch this near sunrise and probably never would.
Sam hefted her saddlebags and canteen and walked toward the barn.
Blaze woofed from his post outside the bunkhouse. The border collie's bark startled a horse. Its hooves went thudding across the ten-acre pasture.
A few steps from the barn, a neigh challenged her.
"It's only me, baby," Sam whispered. She hurried. Once Ace knew it was her, he'd set up a ruckus.
Fingers flying, Sam drew the bolt on the door connecting the barn and corral. Ace followed as Sam flipped the switch for the overhead lights. The little mustang nudged Sam until he backed her against the barn wall.
"You are too sweet." She caught Ace's muzzle between her hands and gave it a quick kiss.
Sam dragged a curry comb over Ace's already glowing coat. He wasn't cross-tied or tethered, just standing with eyes half closed as he enjoyed the massaging movements of the brush.
When Sam stopped, Ace looked back over his shoulder as she smoothed on the blanket. Next, she saddled him and replaced his halter with a snafflebitted bridle.
Sam shivered. She should have remembered a coat. Since she hadn't, she snatched the faded green sweatshirt she kept hanging from a nail in the barn. Before pulling it on, Sam dropped Ace's reins, ground-tying him.
Like any well-schooled cow pony, Ace understood the signal to stand and wait. He snorted with impatience, though, as Sam tugged the sweatshirt over her short reddish hair.
"Sorry." Sam's muffled voice came from inside the sweatshirt.
Ace, pawed the barn floor, stirring dust until she led him into the yard.
Before she could mount, Ace raised his finely boned, almost Arabic head. His nostrils flared as he gazed at the Calico Mountains, where a rim of midnight blue showed above the peaks.
Sam swung into the saddle.
"Don't get your hopes up," she told the horse. "We're heading away from his territory."
Sam shifted her weight slightly. Ace started toward the bridge, answering her cue.
"No reason to think well see him, boy," she said, but Sam had watched wild horses travel the trail into Lost Canyon.
Once, they'd been led by the Phantom.
Jeri and her high-stepping palomino weren't at the pond by War Drum Flats. Although she was disappointed, Sam could guess why.
All week Jeri had sniffled and sneezed, but she'd carried a backpack full of tissues and refused to miss a single day of classes. Sam would bet the flu had finally gotten the better of her friend.
She was out here alone.
Then she heard it. The weird warbling was impossible to identify until it changed to a piercing cry.
Ace trembled. Through the saddle leather and blanket, Sam felt him, and knew the cry was no cougar's scream. It was the plea of a terrified horse.
Sam wheeled Ace away from the pond and aimed him toward the tumble of boulders and sagebrush leading toward the path. The gelding moved at a stifflegged trot.
"I know you don't want to go, but that horse is in trouble." Sam knew Lost Canyon lay someplace between here and that highest peak wearing a cap of snow. "C'mon, Ace. I'd want someone to help if you were crying."
Ace moved into a grudging lope, but the steep uphill path meant he couldn't maintain the pace for long. Just when the footing grew more level, the trail dead-ended into a rock wall. Water seeped from a crack running across its face.
They backtracked until the path turned into a deer trail. Sam almost lost it on a slick stretch of granite.
Sam slowed Ace, stroked his coarse black mane, and listened. She hadn't heard the whinny for several minutes. When she closed her eyes to concentrate, she did hear something. It was a whirring motor, like a chain saw. This high up the mountain, the sound could have carried from anywhere.
"Just a little farther," Sam told Ace.
The gelding picked his way across the rock, then grunted with irritation as Sam urged him onto a narrow ledge.
Ace did as she asked, but he clearly disagreed. The little mustang understood searching for grass and water. He understood people expected him to chase calves. But running toward a place where one horse was already in trouble? Ace shook his mane in disgust.