Terri Farley
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Phantom Stallion #13: Heartbreak Bronco

When a hard-luck horse named Jinx comes to River Bend, everyone thinks he's a curse. Samantha knows he's not, but he is unruly, skittish, and the fastest horse she's ever seen. Then there's a runaway in the middle of the night, and someone gets a snakebite. Is the bronco really a jinx? Or could he be the good-luck charm Sam needs to save the day?

Chapter One

The faded wall banner that proclaimed Clara's coffee shop "Home of the Best Pineapple Upside-Down Cake in the World!" fluttered as the ceiling fan turned lazily overhead.

The fan stirred wisps of Samantha Forster's reddish hair as she tilted her head back and closed her eyes. It was barely noon on an early June day, but before driving into Darton with her dad, she'd put in a full morning of work with the horses on River Bend Ranch.

"Don't nod off, now," warned a rusty female voice Sam recognized as Clara's. "Lunch is here."

Sam smelled the giant cheeseburgers and french fries before she opened her eyes to see them.

"Not a chance," she said.

Sitting across the table from her, Dad rubbed his palms together. His sun-browned face creased in a smile as Clara positioned plates in front of each of them.

"Guess Sam's enjoyin' her last afternoon of peace and quiet," Dad explained to Clara. "Come to that, so am I."

"You're not about to get another wild horse out there, are you?" Clara asked. "Not so long as I'm livin' there," Dad muttered.

Sam smothered her smile. She loved wild horses and she was lucky enough to count several of them as friends. Ace and Popcorn, Dark Sunshine, and the mighty silver stallion known as the Phantom paraded through her imagination.

But Dad was a cattle rancher. He didn't like sharing the range with the mustangs. Still, Dad had a horseman's heart and sometimes he helped wild horses in spite of himself.

"No new mustangs," Sam told Clara as she gave Dad a serious nod. "But two new HARP girls are arriving today. Brynna's picking them up at the airport right now."

"What's HARP mean, again?" Clara asked.

Sam was a little surprised at Clara's interest. She looked up at the woman's face, framed by a pink scarf knotted around her hair. Two ends stuck up like rabbit's ears, adding to Clara's alert expression.

Ice clinked as Clara poured water into their glasses.

"The Horse and Rider Protection program," Sam explained.

"That's right. For bad girls and bad horses," Clara mused. She looked toward the back of her coffee shop, nodding.

"Well now," Dad said. "Not exactly bad. Just troubled, I guess."

Brynna called the girls "at risk," but Dad was being pretty generous in his description. After all, Mikki, the first HARP girl they'd had at the ranch, had set his barn on fire before she started changing her ways.

But Mikki had changed, and so had Popcorn. Both had become more trusting of people. That's what made Sam excited about this summer.

"I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it," Clara assured Dad. "In fact, I was thinking about making a donation."

The bell over the coffee shop's front door jingled. When she saw two new customers walk in, Clara stepped back from their table.

"Millie is late again," Clara muttered, looking around for the dark-haired waitress who usually helped out. "So I need to go wait on these folks, but I'll be back."

As Clara hurried off to seat her customers, Dad looked after her.

"Sure hope the donation's a cake or pie," he grumbled.

Or horse? Sam wondered.

Her pulse beat a little faster. Across the parking lot, Clara's coffee shop faced Phil's Fill-Up, a gas station and general store, but on the other side, acres of pastureland stretched toward Darton.

The fenced land belonged to a horse-loving banker, and though Sam hadn't noticed any new horses, it was possible she'd missed one.

Sam waited until Dad had taken a bite of his cheeseburger, then asked, "I wonder if Clara knows the HARP horses have to be mustangs?" Then she casually popped a French fry into her mouth.

"Honey, she's not about to be givin' us a horse. She couldn't afford to if she had one." Dad chewed and nodded. "Which she doesn't."

Just the same, he watched Clara as if she were a time bomb.

Sam started eating her own delicious lunch. Even though Gram made great home-cooked meals, Sam missed going out to eat. When she'd lived in San Francisco with Aunt Sue, they'd had about half their meals in restaurants. Although Clara's lacked a big city atmosphere, it was still a treat.

And a surprise.

Sam had expected Dad to drive straight home after they'd delivered Buff, a River Bend horse, to a lady in Darton who rented him each summer for her visiting grandchildren. Instead, Dad had pulled the truck and empty horse trailer into the parking lot between Clara's and Phil's Fill-Up.

Pulling on the parking brake, he'd declared that as long as they needed chicken feed from the Alkali store, they might as well have lunch, too.

But now Dad was watching the clock.

No surprise there, Sam thought. Dad couldn't forget the work awaiting him at home. Besides, Brynna would arrive at River Bend Ranch with the two new HARP girls pretty soon.

Sam had promised herself she'd be tolerant and understanding, no matter what kind of trouble the girls had been in. At River Bend Ranch, their pasts wouldn't matter.

She was feeling quite mature as she sipped her milk shake.

I'll treat them just like I'd want to be treated, Sam thought, but then her tranquility wavered. Dad put down his cheeseburger and his expression turned serious.

"About that chicken feed," he reminded her.

Sam knew he wasn't talking about the burlap bags of feed they'd just loaded into the truck.

"Dad, I didn't spill it," Sam insisted.

"Well, it wasn't much. You might not have noticed."

Sam sighed. There was no use contradicting him. Since she was the one in charge of feeding the Rhode Island Red hens each morning, Dad was certain she was to blame for the grains of cracked corn he'd found on the tack room floor.

She let him talk, even though she didn't see why it was such a big deal. Her expression must have given her away.

"Samantha, this is important. Scattered grain attracts mice. Mice bring snakes. I hear this is gonna be a bad year for rattlers and I don't want anyone -- two-legged or four -- bein' bit."