The Phantom's lead mare is injured, and Samantha wants to help her. But she can't call the vet -- what if he won't let the mare return to the wild? So Sam starts treating the mare's injuries in secret. But the horse seems awfully calm for a mustang, and she matches the description of a missing mare from California. Is Sam helping a mustang, or has she accidentally stolen someone's horse?
Leather creaked as Samantha Forster swung onto her horse's back and tested the saddle's position. This was no time to make a mistake.
Dawn's golden shimmer still hovered beyond the peaks of the Calico Mountains and the two-story white ranch house stood silent, with only the kitchen light glowing, but Sam was ready to ride.
Her bay mustang Ace flicked his black-edged ears forward. When she didn't urge him ahead, his ears slanted sideways, then back. He snorted plumes of vapor into the September morning, just as eager to leave as Sam was.
"Now?" Sam asked.
She did her best to sound patient, though it wasn't like she hadn't ridden in predawn darkness plenty of times before. But her stepmother Brynna stood barefoot on the front porch, making sure Sam didn't leave without permission.
At three thirty-six A.M., Sam had heard Tempest squeal. The filly was barely three months old and she was Sam's baby. Eyes half open, Sam had lurched out of bed as if a fishing hook had lodged in the center of her chest and her filly's cry was reeling her in.
Sam had beaten Dad down the stairs but his whiplash voice had stopped her before she reached the front door.
"Samantha. You don't know what you're runnin' into."
Outside, Blaze, the ranch watchdog, had been barking. He hadn't sounded ferocious, just watchful; but Sam had known Dad wouldn't take her translation of dog talk as a guarantee of safety.
"I'll look out the window first," she'd protested loudly.
Too loudly, it turned out. Her voice kind of echoed off Dad, who'd come downstairs, too.
Sam pushed back the curtains covering the window over the kitchen sink and stared toward Tempest's corral. Dad stood just inches behind Sam, but he let her look first.
Wow. If she'd been an instant later or even blinked as she stared out the window, Sam wouldn't have caught that glimpse of waving paleness. If she hadn't dreamed of the Phantom's moonlight visit almost every night, the saddle horses' neighing and Dark Sunshine's circling hoofbeats wouldn't have made her stare past Tempest's pasture to see the silver stallion dash up the hillside, away from civilization.
"Dad, did you see -- "
"I saw him. Can't think of one good thing about him lurkin' around like that, either."
Sam had stared at her father in disbelief. Even though he'd seen the Phantom, too, Dad had actually snorted when she'd insisted she had to ride after the stallion. He'd forbidden her to leave until daybreak and he hadn't been nice about it. Her disappointment didn't affect him either.
"But, Dad . . . ," Sam had moaned as he'd turned away from her and started back to his bedroom.
"Quit your sighin', Samantha," he'd said. "I can feel the draft from here."
Then he'd continued back upstairs without another word, despite the excitement that kept their saddle horses neighing and restless all night long.
Sam had stayed downstairs. She wouldn't disobey Dad, but her mind kept planning her escape -- as if she would.
There'd been no chance to sneak out, anyway.
Brynna, restless herself in her last months of pregnancy, had stayed up to study maps as big as beach blankets, which she'd spread out on the kitchen table.
Just the same, Sam had gotten dressed, then saddled Ace in the darkness, making sure the latigo strap that held the saddle in place lay flat and snug. She'd taken a stupid dive out of the saddle a few days ago. Since then, Ace seemed to be waiting for another mistake.
Like the one she kept picturing right now, Sam thought. She should not be imagining herself leaning low on Ace's neck, urging him into a rash and reckless gallop up the rise, along the ridge and after the Phantom.
She should be keeping her eyes focused on Brynna, who'd appointed herself clock boss.
"I don't know what you hope to accomplish," Brynna said, finally, pulling her robe a little closer.
"There must be a reason the Phantom was here," Sam explained. "He almost never crosses over to our side of the river. Please, can I go now?"
A rooster scratched the dirt noisily, then hopped to the henhouse roof, fluttered his feathers, and gave a rusty crow.
Sam looked pointedly toward the bird. Even the chickens knew it was time to get moving.
"Okay," Brynna surrendered. "Be careful."
"Always," Sam said.
Despite Brynna's skeptical groan, Sam reined Ace, her bay mustang, away from the porch. She'd barely thought of shifting forward when the gelding set off across the ranch yard at a speedy jog that threatened to break into a lope if she'd allow it.
"Not yet," Sam told her horse, and his smooth gait turned to a pouty, hammering trot.
Sam had already opened the gates in the old pasture. She angled Ace through the first one, then let out her reins, letting Ace lope over the short, crunchy grass of the shortcut while she looked up, toward the trail head.
Other horses called after them, crowding against their fences as Ace bounded through the second gate and up the trail that ran behind River Bend Ranch. It was steep and crowded with sagebrush at first.
"Careful," Sam told her horse as the path began weaving through granite boulders. The footing disappeared between bleached drifts of cheatgrass, then turned dusty and choked with dry brush. Each time their passing cracked a twig, it gave off the smell of summer's end.
As soon as Ace reached the ridge top, Sam glanced back over her shoulder. A toy house, miniature barn, two little bunkhouses, and a bridge made up the River Bend Ranch. She was leaving it behind and riding into wild horse country. Smiling.
She and Ace were following the Phantom. The silver stallion was roaming out of his home territory and Sam had to know why.
"We would have had a better chance of finding him if we'd started an hour ago," Sam grumbled to Ace.