When an ambitious rodeo contractor comes to town, Sam's worried. The woman wants to buy tamed
mustangs from local ranchers, including Sam's dad, and doesn't seem to like taking no for an answer.
Then Sam spots the Phantom's herd--without him. She's sure he's been captured by the rodeo, but how
will she find him? And even if she does, how can she set him free?
In River Bend's big pasture, the horses waited for rain. Cottonwood branches danced overhead, but instead of rustling, the dry leaves clacked. The horses stood with heads up and nostrils wide, searching for a trace of moisture on the breeze.
Across the dirt driveway, near the house, Sam did the same. She stood in the vegetable garden, where she was supposed to be turning over dirt to mix parched cornstalks and empty vines with the earth. Instead, she leaned on her shovel and wished she'd brought a water bottle outside with her.
Two sparrows dove for a worm her digging had uncovered. The birds cheeped and quarreled, then flew off, in a flurry of feathers, leaving the lucky worm untouched.
Sam looked skyward. The noon sun was sealed down by a lid of gray clouds.
Irritated whinnies and the thud of hooves came from the big pasture. Banjo, Dad's roping horse, bolted across the sparse grass. Teeth bared, Strawberry sprinted after him.
Except for a few hammering rainstorms that ran off the drought-hardened land, it hadn't rained since spring. Now it was October. Every creature was edgy with waiting.
More hooves thudded inside the round pen, but these made a soothing sound, just like the voice that directed them.
"Other way," Jake said. "Good horse."
Friday after school, Jake had mounted Teddy Bear for the first time. Now it was Saturday morning, and the colt was already responding to the bit and reins.
The morning quiet didn't last for long. Blaze burst barking from the barn, and Sam noticed a plume of dust approaching the ranch. The roar of an overtaxed engine told her who was driving even before the beige Cadillac crossed the bridge too fast and skidded into the ranch yard.
Sam dropped the shovel. For their neighbor Linc Slocum, everything was a crisis. Still, it was always possible it was a real emergency.
The Cadillac's horn blared, even though Gram had already appeared, wiping her hands on her apron. Dallas, the ranch foreman, had emerged from the shady barn, blinking against the sunlight.
Jake slipped out of the round corral and beat everyone to Slocum's side.
"Rachel's missing," Linc said as Sam got close enough to hear.
Gram patted Linc's arm as the man removed his oversized cowboy hat and sighed.
"I don't know what to think," he explained. "I'd just got back from riding with Jed." Linc scanned faces, making sure they recognized the name of Jed Kenworthy, his foreman. "But he stayed out with the other hands and I came back. Otherwise I sure would've got him helping me."
"How long has she been gone?" Gram asked.
"Hard to say. Let's see." Linc squinted as he tried to recall. "When I got back home, Rachel was lazing around her suite and then I had a snack and after that I sorta dozed off." He shook his head. "I'd say at least a coupla hours."
Sam's eyes slid toward Jake. Jake was only sixteen, but he spotted trouble better than anyone Sam knew. And he didn't look worried. In fact, when he crossed his arms over his belt buckle, he seemed to be telling Linc to get to the point.
"Thing is," Slocum said, sounding as if he were about to make a confession, she was perturbed about something. In fact, she's been sort of put out -- say, how long has it been since I had the rodeo stock contractor over to the house?" Slocum mused a minute. "All week. Yessir." Linc sounded amazed. "She's been perturbed all week long."
For an instant, Sam wondered how he could tell perturbation from Rachel's usual attitude, but then she understood his amazement. How could Rachel be dissatisfied for a full week? She wore the finest clothes and makeup. A driver took her to school in a baby blue Mercedes Benz, and her bedroom suite included a hot tub and state-of-the-art entertainment systems.
Rachel was her father's princess, and she pretty much ruled Darton High School, as well. Her face, hair, and figure might have been composed by a computer designing the perfect girl.
Too bad no one had pushed the button marked "personality," Sam thought.
"Could the stock contractor have said something to upset her?" Gram asked.
"No, no way." Linc actually blushed. "We were cutting a deal for my Brahmas, that's all."
Did Linc redden because the stock contractor had rejected his bulls? City-bred Slocum really didn't know what he was doing when it came to animals, Sam thought. He just liked playing cowboy.
"Where do you think she's got off to?" Dallas asked. He sounded more sympathetic than Sam felt.
"Did she take a car?" Jake added. Though Rachel didn't have a driver's license, she wouldn't let such a formality stop her.
"No, she didn't, and no one came to pick her up or I would've heard tires." Linc wedged a thumb into the tooled leather belt that strained around his middle. "But my horse is missing, too."
"Why would she take Champ? Rachel hates horses," Sam blurted.
"Well now -- " Slocum frowned.
"She does," Sam insisted. "She says they're dumb and dirty, and she can't understand why anyone likes them."
Gram made a cautioning sound, but Sam knew she was right.
"I don't mean to be rude, Mr. Slocum, but she told me all that herself."
"My ex-wife made the twins ride for three hours every day when they were little," Slocum said. "Ryan took to it and Rachel didn't. Maybe that's why he's in England. Now that his mom's married that baron, or whatever he is, they have stables packed with horses."
Slocum sounded wistful. For about two seconds, Sam felt sorry for him. Then she remembered the spade bit he used on Champ ...