Terri Farley
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Phantom Stallion #9: Gift Horse

When Samantha rescues a beautiful draft horse from an auction, she's sure he'll be perfect to groom for resale. He's big and strong--but so big, Sam can barely saddle him. He's great at jumping--over pasture fences. Will he be helpful at a ranch, or too much to handle?

Then disaster strikes River Bend, and it's Sam who needs help. And just in time to save the day, Tinkerbell's true talents are revealed.

Chapter One

Mustangs danced in the margin of Samantha Forster's notebook paper. She glanced up, afraid Mr. Blair would notice she was drawing instead of reading.

She couldn't help it. Her mind was not on schoolwork today. It was on horses.

Rumor said wild horses had been sold for meat at the Mineral Auction yards. The Bureau of Land Management, a government agency responsible for protecting the West's wild horses, had checked out the stories and found nothing to prove them. Still, the rumors persisted.

One night at dinner, Sam had suggested to Brynna, her new stepmother and manager of the BLM's Willow Springs Wild Horse Corrals, that the bad guys had spotted the BLM officers when they'd come to the auction.

"I think you should send a spy no one would suspect," Sam had suggested. But she'd never expected Brynna to send her.

Sam smiled to herself. Her undercover assignment wasn't official, but unofficially, she was going to make sure no mustang at the Mineral Auction was in danger today.

The three o'clock dismissal bell was still ringing when Sam slapped her notebook closed and bolted into the hall. Journalism had been her last class of the day. Now, she was out of here.

"Forster, we need to talk," Mr. Blair bellowed after her.

Sam pretended not to hear, even though her Journalism teacher's booming voice was hard to miss.

He'd only assign her to take pictures of another basketball game or chess club competition. She didn't have time. She was on a rescue mission.

With her school books braced against her chest like a shield, Sam joined the tide of students escaping Darton High School. She hadn't even taken time to zip her books and notebooks inside her backpack. Dad was waiting.

She'd promised to meet him in the parking lot no later than 3:05.

He said he'd wait until 3:06. After that, she'd have to take the bus home, and he'd check out the auction without her.

The sale started at four o'clock and Mineral Auction yard was forty miles away. Brynna had assigned the two of them to check the horses to see if any were mustangs for sale, illegally. Sam didn't need to check her watch to know they'd barely have time to drive there, let alone study the horses. She took longer steps and slipped sideways between two boys in letterman jackets.

Buffeted by shoulders and backpacks in the crowded hall, she tried not to breathe the smells of wet wool sweaters, pencil lead, and old lunches. Sam figured the custodians swept and scrubbed each weekend, but by Thursday afternoon, their efforts had been erased.

Outside, the February wind waited to slash through her jacket, but Sam didn't care. She'd never been to an auction before and if she didn't hurry, she'd miss her chance.

The mob slowed to funnel out the door at the end of the hall. Almost there. When another body slipped into the narrow space ahead, Sam yelped a protest. Then she recognized the white-blond braids bouncing against a dazzling purple sweater.

Jen Kenworthy, her best friend, glanced back and winked.

"I'll block for you," she said.

Sam fell in behind as Jen squared her shoulders and pressed toward the door. Wind blasted Sam's face so hard that her cheeks ached. She spotted Dad's truck. It was a good thing, too, because now she had to squint against the wind or risk having her eyeballs frozen.

She and Jen trudged shoulder to shoulder for a few steps. Like all the other kids, they shouted to be heard before the wind snatched their words away.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Jen hollered.

"Of course!"

Jen shook her head, then peeled one braid off her lips so she could go on, "You're awfully soft-hearted."

"Yeah," Sam admitted. A squeeze in her chest confirmed Jen's comment, but she tried to sound casual. "Still, it's not like there are butchers standing around with cleavers, ready to make horses into dog food right there at the auction."

"Now there's a pretty picture," Jen said, shuddering.

Halfway across the parking lot they stopped. Jen's bus idled off to the left. Wyatt Forster's pickup was parked across the lot to the right.

Jen pulled on knit gloves while Sam fidgeted.

"My dad said most of the horses just get moved around from ranch to ranch," Sam said, but she heard the falter in her own voice. Dad's assurance didn't make sense. Why would ranchers sell good cow ponies to buy horses whose histories they didn't know?

"You'll have fun," Jen said, nudging Sam's shoulder with her own. "And I've got a feeling you won't come home empty-handed."

"Right," Sam said. "You must be joking," she added, but Jen was sprinting toward the bus. Jen was a good friend. She was trying to smooth away the worry she'd stirred up. But she couldn't really believe Sam would come home with another horse.

It was an exciting idea, but Jen was a rancher's daughter just like Sam. Both their families believed animals must earn their keep.

Sam smiled as she neared Dad's old blue truck.

One buckskin mare and one half-grown Hereford calf had proven Dad could give in to sentiment. He'd let her keep those two misfits, but she paid by listening to Dad's lectures on how useless Dark Sunshine and Buddy were. It would be miracle if she left the Mineral Auction with another animal.

Sam propped her books against one hip and fought the wind to hold the truck door open wide enough to climb inside.

"Startin' to blow a little out there?" Dad asked as the door slammed on its own, sealing them inside.