The Phantom Stallion's new foal is ready to be born, and River Bend Ranch's own Dark Sunshine is
the mother. Samantha couldn't be more excited, and she's sure she can handle the new baby while
everyone is gone on the annual cattle drive.
But when a dangerous thunderstorm hits the ranch, Sam realizes that maybe she can't do it all
alone -- especially when the Phantom arrives, and seems to want to take his new filly back to the
"Happy birthday to me," Samantha Forster sang as she swept the last bit of straw from the big box stall. "Happy birthday to me...."
She set the broom aside with a sigh and picked up the tool Dad had designated a floor scraper.
Summer vacation had started yesterday, today was her birthday, and what was she doing? Working harder
than she would have been at school, that was for sure. Even in P.E. she didn't sweat like this.
Not that she felt sorry for herself.
Gram was in the kitchen preparing tonight's birthday dinner, to which Jake and Jen, her best friends,
were invited. There would definitely be presents and curiosity was fizzing inside her.
No, she didn't feel sorry for herself, just sort of disgruntled. And it was all her stepmother's fault. Brynna was to blame.
Sam wiped her brow with the back of her wrist. The stall looked cleaner than it ever had, but for Dark Sunshine to foal here, it must be spotless. Sam kneeled and kept working. She'd do anything for the horses of River Bend Ranch.
Or any horses, she thought, as she chipped at a stubborn clump of dirt. But she was giving this chore special care because this stall would be the birthplace of the Phantom's foal.
Luckily, Dad and Dallas, the ranch foreman, had done the hard part by adding wooden partitions to her calf Buddy's open stall to create a place perfect for foaling.
It had only been empty for a few days. After she'd turned Buddy free to live with the other cattle, a sweet yellow calf she'd named Daisy had lived in the stall.
But then Daisy had gotten a new mother.
In late spring, new colts and calves were all over the range, but one young cow wearing a River Bend brand had given birth to a stillborn calf. Seeing this, Dad had galloped back to the ranch, gathered up Daisy, and taken her to the confused cow, who'd adopted Daisy at once.
It was the happiest possible ending, Sam told herself.
She would have been satisfied and happy if Brynna hadn't been forcing her to make an impossible decision.
She could either go on the annual spring cattle drive--where she'd ride all day, eat wonderful chuck wagon meals, listen to stories around the campfire, and sleep under the stars--or stay home and keep Dark Sunshine company as she gave birth.
A clamor of neighs came from outside, underlining the fact that everyone was going on the cattle drive first thing the next morning. Dad and the cowboys were loading horses, getting ready to truck them out onto the range. She'd already hugged Ace, her frisky bay gelding, good-bye. He was a top cow horse and he'd go on the drive without her if she decided to stay with Dark Sunshine.
Sam stood and wiped her palms on her jeans. The stall floor looked cleaner than her bedroom carpet. The chore hadn't taken that long. She had time to exercise Dark Sunshine before the day got any hotter.
Sam ducked into the tack room and grabbed Sunny's green nylon halter. As she came out, she heard footsteps approaching. They must be Gram's, since Brynna was at work at Willow Springs Wild Horse Center and the sound of tires clunking over the bridge said Dad and the cowboys had left with most of the horses.
Sam waited, eager to take credit for her hard work.
"My, my," Gram said, hands on the hips of her denim skirt as she stood silhouetted in the barn door. "Never thought I'd see the day Wyatt would go to such trouble for a mustang."
Sam loved wild horses, so Gram's words grated, but they were true.
Above all, Dad was a cattleman. He resented anything that threatened or competed with his red and white Hereford cattle. That included wild horses, which sometimes grazed on the same grass the cows needed to eat.
Dad admitted wild horses could be smart and beautiful, even useful once they'd been trained to saddle. But cattle earned the money to keep River Bend Ranch running. They came first.
"And it's nice and clean, isn't it?" Sam nudged her Gram for a compliment.
"Sure is," Gram said as she touched the barn wall, noticing Dad had filled the gaps between boards, so there wouldn't be breezes to chill the new foal. "Look at that overhead lighting. We'll be able to watch the mare every minute." Gram glanced up at the fluorescent lights among the rafters. "And Brynna's supposed to bring a load of wheat straw for bedding tonight, isn't she?"
Sam admitted she was. The best thing about her stepmother was that she loved wild horses, too.
"All for a mustang." Gram shook her head in amazement.
Sam didn't say it, but she was pretty sure Dad had done all this work for her, too.
Hoping it was a sign of good things to come, she crossed her fingers, then her thumbs. Though Dad hadn't promised, she thought he'd let her keep this foal to replace Blackie, the colt who'd run away to become the Phantom.
But what if Dad had done all this work for Brynna?
"What is causing that frown?" Gram asked, rubbing a finger between Sam's eyebrows.
Sam couldn't help smiling. Gram had the magic touch. Not only that, her hand smelled like pie dough. Instead of a birthday cake, Sam had asked for a strawberry pie and Gram had made it with the tiny red garden berries she'd been guarding from the robins.
"I'd think you'd be a pretty happy girl today," Gram said, not quite scolding.
"I am," Sam said, but when Gram raised her eyebrows, she added, "Gram, I don't know why Brynna can't just go along with my plan."
"Well, honey," Gram began, trying to hide her smile, "I imagine she doesn't want to. It's always surprising, isn't it, when people turn out to have minds of their own?"