When a friend needs Samantha's help with his new colt and its mother, she's torn. Sam wants what's best for the horses, but her friend's plan could put them in danger.So when the two horses go missing, Sam feels responsible. She's sure the mare has run away with the Phantom, but what will happen to the colt? Can Sam bring him home before it's too late?
An albino mustang with crystal-blue eyes watched the ranch house. Samantha Forster watched back, holding the curtain aside so she could peer through the window in the kitchen door.
Even though the sun hadn't yet risen, a lot was going on at River Bend Ranch. Two cowboys had ridden out to check the stock. The foreman hammered a loose hinge on the barn door. Dad was tossing hay into the pasture and all the saddle horsesÑexcept PopcornÑjostled each other as they ate.
How did Popcorn know she was coming? And why did the captive mustang care?
A cold nose bumped Sam's palm, then Blaze yapped like a dog half his size.
"I know how to open the door," Sam told the border collie as he tried the movement again, lifting her hand toward the doorknob.
Sam stepped outside. Blaze knocked against her knee as he rocketed into the morning, but Sam stood still, rubbing warmth into her arms. Mornings started off bright and cold in Nevada's high desert country.
July sunlight, yellow as lemonade, shone over River Bend Ranch, while frost still sparkled on the fence around the ten-acre pasture. It wouldn't last long. Blue morning glory flowers vining up the chicken wire surrounding Gram's garden were halfway open.
It would be eighty degrees by noon.
Sam walked toward the ten-acre pasture where Popcorn waited. Her sneakers were quiet, but Ace and Strawberry noticed her approach and raised their heads, hay dropping from their lips.
Popcorn snorted, then tensed, forgetting all about Sam as an orange monarch butterfly landed on his nose.
The gelding's blue eyes crossed for an instant, trying to focus on the butterfly. As its wings spread, Popcorn shook his head, lashed out his hind legs, and launched into a gallop.
"I know you're just terrified of that tiny butterfly," Sam called after him.
Popcorn was tall for a mustang and his sturdy build hinted at draft blood. His startled retreat wasn't due to fear, but high spirits.
Blaze rushed barking along the fence. Hooves thudded as other horses joined the morning run. Their glossy backs glinted bay, sorrel, and roan. Manes of black and tawny brown flew and their nostrils widened as they rejoiced in the scent of hoof-crushed grass.
This joyful stampede happened every morning, but it thrilled Sam every time.
"You ready?" Dallas, the ranch foreman called from the barn doorway.
Sam knew it was time to get busy. Today, she'd start training her month-old black filly, Tempest, to lead.
Before she took a single step toward Dallas, who was waiting to help, Gram called from the porch.
"Jen's on the phone. Do you have time to talk before you get started?" Weird, Sam thought.
Last night when she'd talked with her best friend, Jen had moaned over the huge number of chores she had to finish before she was allowed to ride over to spend the week at River Bend Ranch.
It would be worth it, though. Not only would Jen be a new counselor for HARP, the Horse and Rider Protection program, but it was the week of the Fourth of July.
A parade, carnival, and other festivities were planned. They couldn't have picked a better time for a weeklong sleepover.
Since Jen's parents were leaving on a rare holiday away from the ranch, they were monitoring Jen's every move, making sure she finished her chores before they let her escape.
If Jen had made time for a phone call, it must be important.
"Sure," Sam said to Gram. Gesturing to Dallas, she added, "I'll be right back."
Inside, Sam took the telephone receiver, noticing a sticky spot from the oatmeal cookie dough Gram was mixing.
"Hello?" Sam said.
"How would you feel about a playdate?" Jen asked.
"A playdate?" Sam asked. She pictured her best friend's intelligent face and owlish eyes as she tried to make sense of the question. "Aren't we a little old for playdates?"
"Sure," Jen said, then she drew a breath so deep, Sam heard it. "But this isn't for us. Ryan wants his colt to come play with Tempest."
"Wow," Sam said. As she twirled in excitement, the phone cord wrapped around her. "That is so cool."
Ryan Slocum's colt was one day older than Tempest. On the open range, young horses raced around and learned how to be herd members by playing with other foals.
"That's perfect!" Then, as she disentangled herself from the cord, Sam's mind collided with a complication. Ryan's father, Linc Slocum. "Is it okay with his dad?"
Linc Slocum was the richest man in northern Nevada. No one knew exactly how he'd gotten so wealthy. Most folks were too neighborly to pry, but the wild schemes he'd pulled since he'd bought Gold Dust Ranch proved Linc Slocum didn't mind skirting the law.
"I'm not exactly sure Ryan's told his dad," Jen said. "Ryan said something about his father driving to Winnemucca to look at a custom-made saddle." That figures, Sam thought.
Linc Slocum dreamed of being a real cowboy and thought he could buy the trappings to make people think he was one.
Ryan's colt was the offspring of one of those "trappings."
To Linc, Apache Hotspot, a blue-blooded Appaloosa mare, had looked like the perfect Western horse. He'd spent thousands of dollars on her and he'd planned to begin an Appaloosa breeding program. He'd been furious when Hotspot escaped, then turned up in foal to Diablo, a fierce blue roan stallion noted for his hammerhead.
Sam hadn't yet seen the foal, but she'd heard Linc hated the colt as much as Ryan loved it.
"Sam, there's just one thing," Jen said, hesitantly.
Sam waited, stepping aside so Gram could get to the kitchen counter and check a crock that held rising bread dough.
"What is it?" Sam asked.
"I'll let Ryan tell you," Jen said. "Or beg you, I guess. It's kind of a big favor."
"Really?" Sam asked. "Ryan can buy anything he wants. What kind of favor could he need from me?"
"You have to say yes, Sam," Jen insisted. "He wouldn't ask if it wasn't important."
"Can't you do it?" Sam asked. Jen's persistent voice made her uneasy. "Not this time."