Terri Farley
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Phantom Stallion #16: Wildest Heart

When a lightning storm strikes the wild horse sanctuary and sets the pasture on fire, all the mustangs panic -- including the Phantom's herd. Then, in the midst of the fire, a terrible accident injures the Phantom, and Sam is terrified that he might not recover. If he doesn't, can he survive in the wild? Or will Sam's wild horse need to be captured?

Chapter One

Sweat dripped into Samantha Forster's eyes.

She blinked furiously, but it didn't help. Her eyes still burned. Looking down past her cut-off jeans, she saw that her tanned legs were marked with smears of red-brown paint. When she tossed her head to fling back the bangs stuck to her forehead, she stumbled on a pebble and tripped.

"Ow!" She might as well howl her discomfort. No one was around to hear.

This had sounded like such a good idea a couple of days ago.

Blind Faith Mustang Sanctuary had hundreds of acres of fenced land that bordered wild horse country. Mrs. Allen, the sanctuary's owner, was a softhearted but particular woman, and she wanted her miles of board fence painted to match her redwood barn.

Sam had known she'd have to work hard, but Mrs. Allen had tempted her with exciting possibilities. With wild horses inside the fence and wild horses outside the fence and Sam in the middle, who knew what wonderful things could happen?

Besides, she'd be doing a good deed.

She knew darn well she should store up good deeds and make sure Dad, Gram, and her stepmother Brynna noticed, because horses got her into trouble. She didn't plan it that way, it just kept happening.

This chore couldn't possibly get her in trouble. She had a week off from working in the Horse and Rider Protection program and she knew how to paint, so she'd snapped up the chance to help Mrs. Allen.

It wasn't all fussiness, either. By next summer, Mrs. Allen hoped to have the ranch so tidy and organized, people would drive from all over the country to see mustangs living as they were supposed to -- wild and free. The only difference between her horses and those of the surrounding range was that these mustangs would have died if Mrs. Allen hadn't saved them. Trudy Allen had adopted fourteen captive mustangs. One had malformed legs. Another was blind. The rest were old or unbeautiful. All had been declared "unadoptable."

Mrs. Allen had taken them in before they could be destroyed and she'd turned Deerpath cattle ranch into a place where horses ran free.

She deserved Sam's help.

Besides, Sam thought, gazing over her shoulder toward the Calico Mountains, she'd seen the Phantom here several times.

If the silver stallion, who'd once been her hand-raised colt, sensed she was here and alone, he might come to her.

Sam had a lot of good reasons to happily tackle her chore. But it was still July in Nevada's high desert. And it was really hot.

Sam lifted the hem of her T-shirt, then stopped.

She'd been about to blot the sweat from her eyes, but forget it. Her red T-shirt sagged with the same steamy dampness of a saddle blanket after a hard ride.

She'd never minded it before. You just lifted off the saddle and when you raised the saddle blanket, it was like the horse had been in a sauna. But she didn't want to put such sogginess on her face.

Sam smiled at the image of her bay gelding Ace in a sauna.

The best thing about working alone was that no one would hear her silly thoughts. Not even Ace.

For the last two mornings, Sam had ridden Ace to Mrs. Allen's house, then said a prayer for her own safety as she climbed into Mrs. Allen's tangerine-colored pickup truck for a ride out to the section of fence she'd be painting.

She didn't really mind sharing the front seat with Imp and Angel, two Boston bull terriers who bounced on her lap as if they hadn't noticed she'd taken their usual place in the truck. It was Mrs. Allen who scared her.

Mrs. Allen might be the worst driver in the world. She pressed her foot to the floor, accelerating over sagebrush, down gullies, and up rocky side hills. Instead of staring through the windshield to see where she was going, she usually turned to Sam and kept up a running conversation.

The first rough drive from the ranch house and saddle horse corral out to the raw wood fence had resulted in paint cans popping open and spewing paint all over the bed of her truck.

Once they'd reached their destination and started to unload, both Sam and Mrs. Allen had been surprised.

"Looks like there's been a massacre," Mrs. Allen had grumbled.

Since then, she'd insisted the unopened paint cans be left along the fence line.

"That way we don't have to haul them out with you," Mrs. Allen had said, quite pleased with her solution, but something about the idea made Sam uneasy.

Coo, coo. Sam looked over each shoulder. She heard the dove, but saw nothing alive. No birds, no antelope, no wild horses. Only yellow cheatgrass moved, blowing in the wind.

Sam looked up into a blueberries-and-cream sky. That dove was calling from somewhere.

"I don't know about this," Sam said to the invisible bird. "Leaving these paint cans out overnight just doesn't seem like a good idea. Not that I think a coyote is going to pry off a lid and lap it up."

Oh well, Mrs. Allen had lived on this ranch longer than Sam had been alive. She probably knew what she was doing.

Sam stroked a smooth swathe of paint over the next board just as the wind gusted, singing through her little gold hoop earrings. Sam angled her body to keep the wind from spraying dust into the wet paint.

She watched for bumps and black flecks to appear, but they didn't.

Sam nodded with satisfaction, then thought, Great. My big thrill for the day is watching paint dry.

Sam dipped her brush and swabbed another red-brown stripe on the boards.

If her best friend Jen Kenworthy had been free to help, this wouldn't be so boring. But Jen's mother had drafted her to cook all week.

Haying crews would be coming to work on their ranch soon. . . .