As Samantha and her friends prepare for a charity horse race, they're very excited. Sam is riding Ace, and her race partner, Jake, plans to rope and train a wild pinto filly.
But the wild pinto has other plans. When the filly escapes and runs off with the Phantom, Sam is torn. If she helps Jake, she's taking the filly away from the Phantom. Will she betray her friend or her wild horse?
Overhead, two wild geese split off from a ragged vee of birds winging south.
As their flock flew on, the pair turned back, swooping low enough that Samantha Forster heard the silken rush of feathers and saw the glitter of dark eyes studying her.
A dome of blue sky arched over River Bend Ranch. Underfoot, a few shoots of grass ventured through dirt dark from melting snow.
There was a moment of silence from the squadron of construction workers hammering as fast as they could to rebuild the barn while the sunny weather lasted. With permission from Dad, they'd arrived just as the sun was rising. Since six A.M., this was the first time they'd quit pounding.
In the quiet, Sam could hear the La Charla River dashing under the bridge, gurgling over rocks frosted with morning ice.
Northern Nevada was still making up its mind about springtime, but Sam knew it had arrived.
"Samantha, did you hear me?" Dad's stern voice made it clear he knew she hadn't.
"Sorry, what?" Sam felt as if she'd come plummeting back down to earth.
Dad and Brynna sat on their horses, ready to ride out. For a minute, she'd forgotten all about them.
"Honey," Dad said, "that's just what I'm talking about."
What was just what he'd been talking about? Sam tried not to look guilty.
She stared up past Strawberry's roan legs, past Dad's faded jeans, and met his eyes.
"You've got permission to walk the buckskin and to ride Ace. That's it. Don't take it into your head to give Popcorn a try."
"I wasn't --"
Dad held out a hand to keep her from interrupting and Sam wondered how he'd turned into a mind reader. She'd heard Brynna, her new stepmother, talking about getting a rider up on Popcorn pretty soon. Sam wanted to be the first this spring, but she hadn't uttered a word about it to anyone.
"I've seen you eyeing him, Sam. You're not up to it yet." Dad's words stung, even though she knew it was true. "I want to be sure you're clear about this before I go. You're forbidden to mount him unless someone is watching over you. Spring fever can be a dangerous thing."
"I get it," Sam said. For a second, Dad looked like he might mention her tone. Again. But Brynna spoke up.
"She understands, Wyatt," Brynna said.
"Okay," Dad said. He relaxed in the saddle and Strawberry's ears pricked forward, sensing they were about to go. "We're gonna check out the graze in the spring pasture and decide when to move the cattle. We'll probably be a couple hours."
He and Brynna rode out at a trot. Within seconds, their laughter flowed back to Sam. They probably weren't laughing about her, but Dad's criticism still hurt.
You're not up to it yet. She'd only been back on the ranch for about nine months. And she had taken her share of spills. But why did Dad have to rub it in?
She'd find a way to show him she wasn't the worst rider in northern Nevada. But how?
The sudden thunder of nearby hooves made Sam turn back toward the ten-acre pasture.
Nike, red mane streaming as he paced along the fence, had spotted the halter in her hand. He stopped and tossed his head, attracting the attention of other horses. Tank, the big bald-faced bay, joined Nike. Soon Amigo and Buff jostled each other in excitement.
Behind her, Ace and Sweetheart created a commotion inside the round pen. The high-sided corral had been their home since an earthquake destroyed the old portion of the barn and their attached corrals.
The horses had adapted to the pen, but they missed the open view they'd had of the ranch. Now they spent their days peeking between the fence rails.
The two horses had snorted a greeting when Sam had passed by on her way to the damaged tack room to get Dark Sunshine's halter. They'd been patient when she'd walked by without stopping for them. But now that it looked like she might be leaving with another horse, they neighed in protest.
"It's okay, boy," she called to Ace, letting him know he wasn't forgotten.
The long minutes Ace had been trapped in the fallen barn had reminded Sam how much she loved her little bay mustang.
"Jen will be here soon and then I'll get you out of there." In the bad weather, most ranch work had been done from a pickup truck instead of on horseback. These were working horses and their vacation had left them full of energy.
In the pasture, Buff lifted his furry brown body into a half rear. The others shifted to give him space, but their ears remained pricked forward and their eyes watched Sam.
"You'd think I had a bucket of oats instead of a halter," Sam told Blaze.
The Border collie pranced beside her, tail waving, mouth open, as he escorted her to the pasture.
Popcorn finished rolling in the mud, heaved himself to his feet, and shook. His white coat was wet and smeared with brown. He'd noticed he was missing something and trotted to join the others by the fence.
Only one horse hung back.
Dark Sunshine ignored the saddle horses' excitement and stared toward the Calico Mountains. She turned one ear to catch Sam's boot steps, but her head stayed high, her attention focused.
"The only horse on the place who isn't fascinated," Sam told Blaze, "is the one I need to catch."
Blaze panted sympathetically.
"Get back," Sam ordered the other horses, but they didn't.
She jiggled the latch on the gate, then waved her hand.