When a pack of vicious hunting dogs is found running loose on the range, Samantha is worried they might attack the Phantom Stallion's new foals.
But the Phantom is busy protecting his herd from New Moon, a rival stallion and the Phantom's fully-grown son. If Sam can't help the horses, will the stallions learn to band together -- in time?
Mustangs weren't supposed to pout.
They didn't brood over unfairness or store up bad days in their equine minds until they spotted a chance to pay someone back.
It just wasn't the sort of thing mustangs did, but no one had told Ace.
"You're not a sea horse," Samantha Forster told her bay gelding. "We can't stay out here in the lake. If someone comes riding along and spots us, it will be really embarrassing."
Once, Ace had been a wild mustang whose black mane and tail flew back from his red-gold coat as he galloped across the range, but he sure wasn't running now.
Instead, Ace stood in the middle of the shallow lake on War Drum Flats. He stared toward the horizon where the white desert floor met the broad blue Nevada sky.
He splashed one hoof in the water. The droplets felt cool as they soaked through Sam's jeans, but any experienced rider would agree with her: She couldn't let her mount get away with this.
"Come on, Ace. Jen will be here any minute." Sam sat straighter in her saddle. She used her legs, heels, and hands to urge her horse forward. Again.
Her best friend, Jennifer Kenworthy, was supposed to meet her here at ten o'clock.
Sam glanced at her watch. Jen was almost always on time. That meant Sam had eight minutes to convince her horse he belonged ashore. The only reason there was no audience for Ace's stunt was because they'd arrived early.
There was almost no audience. That squawk from a blue jay gliding overhead sounded a lot like laughter.
Sam blamed herself for trusting Ace. She knew he had a mischievous nature, especially when he hadn't been worked enough.
After a lope across the range, she'd allowed Ace a long drink at the lake while she thought about the overnight campout she and Jen were planning. If she'd been paying attention, Ace might not have fooled her into believing he was just wading out for a drink. He'd gone a few steps farther than she'd expected. And then a few more. Her first clue that the tricky bay was headed for the middle of the shallow lake had come when he'd given such a lunge that water spattered her stirrups.
Just as she'd tried to turn Ace, his hooves had lifted, and she'd experienced the uncanny feeling of riding a swimming horse. Excitement and worry had played tug-of-war in her brain, as Ace's legs surged and pulled and she floated along with him.
Finally, he'd settled his hooves so that he stood chest-deep in muddy water. Only by holding her boot toes up was she keeping her polished leather stirrups clear of the muck he'd stirred from the lake bottom.
He'd ignored her instructions since then. Because orders weren't working, Sam tried bribery.
She rubbed Ace's favorite spot at the base of his mane. "Doesn't that feel good, boy?" she said. "As soon as we get back to shore I'll do it some more."
Too smart for bribery, Ace twitched his skin as if she were a fly.
Next, Sam tried peer pressure.
"Let's go, boy. I think Silly will laugh at you."
Silk Stockings was Jen's palomino mare. Jen called her horse Silly, and claimed she only rode the mare to study horse neuroses for her future career as a veterinarian.
Sam could imagine Silly jigging and pulling at her reins trying to swim after Ace, but she couldn't imagine Jen giving her mount enough rein to pull the stunt Ace had.
All at once, Ace tensed beneath her.
An eerie howl raised chills on Sam's arms in spite of the summer warmth. Lost Canyon wasn't too far away. It was supposed to be haunted, but she didn't believe that.
"Coyotes?" Sam asked Ace.
The gelding's ears pointed toward the mountains. He answered with an inquiring snort.
Coyotes howled at night, singing before a hunt and yapping their excitement afterward. Sam heard them almost every night and she knew what they sounded like. These howls were different.
Then she saw dust swirling on one of the mountain paths.
"Are those horses?" she asked Ace.
Wild horses rarely ran during midmorning, but if they had a reason—could coyotes be stalking the Phantom's newborn foals?
Sam's heart thudded crazily.
Mustangs were born to run. If they outdistanced their pursuers right away, the foals would be fine. For a time, they'd keep up with the herd as it fled, but those delicate legs had to take two running strides to match each of their mothers'.
Sam wished she had binoculars. She wanted to see what was going on, but it was just too far away.
If the mustangs had been coming down to water, wouldn't they keep running this way?
"Come out here," she urged the horses. "You're safer in the open."
Sam dropped her reins. Ace wasn't going anywhere, anyway, and she'd read once that you could improve your vision slightly and temporarily by pulling the corners of your eyes.
She tried it. It helped a little bit, sharpening her view of faraway horses that were crashing through thickets of sagebrush. It didn't look like many horses. They might even have riders. And she still couldn't see what was after them.
Sam groaned in frustration. Even if Ace moved, would it help to go galloping up that hillside into the midst of an attack?
Ace shifted nervously, so Sam took up her reins again.
"Why don't they come down here?" Sam asked.
Horses had a better chance of kicking and biting their attackers, instead of each other, if they weren't crowded together like they were in that steep, brushy ravine.
If she knew that, the Phantom had to, as well.
"It can't be him," Sam told Ace.
Even though he was young for a herd stallion, the Phantom was experienced. The fleet silver mustang had protected his band for at least two years. He wouldn't allow his foals to be cornered and struck down by predators.
An angry neigh shrilled down from the hillside and Sam caught a flash of blue-black hide.
"Oh my gosh," Sam gasped.
New Moon. Of course there were other black mustangs on this range, but it could be him.