Phantom Stallion #1: The Wild One
At first, Sam thought she was seeing things. The windshield of Dad's truck was pitted by years of windblown dust. Maybe she'd been away from the ranch so long, the desert sun was playing tricks on her eyes.
Suddenly, she knew better.
Mustangs stampeded over the ridge top. They ran down the steep hillside. As their hooves touched level ground, a helicopter bobbed up behind them.
It hovered like a giant dragonfly.
As she watched the herd, Sam saw one creamy mane flickering amid the dark necks of the other horses. She saw a black horse shining like glass and two roans running side by side. Here and there ran foals, nostrils wide with effort.
Sam wondered if the men hovering above could see each running horse, or only a flowing mass of animals.
The mustangs ran for the open range. Sam knew the horses would find little shade and less water ahead, but they seemed to think of nothing except outrunning the men and their machine.
The herd swung left. The helicopter swooped, ten feet off the sand, to block them.
The herd galloped right. With a whirring sound, the helicopter followed.
Then, from the back of the herd, a silver stallion raced forward. Sam never imagined a horse could be so beautiful, but there he was. He nipped and screamed, turning the mares in a wide U back under the helicopter's belly, running back to the hills and safety.
The helicopter pulled up. It banked into a turn and followed, but it was too late.
"Wow! Where did they go?" Sam's thigh muscles tensed. She sat inside her dad's truck, but her knees shook as if she'd been running with the wild horses.
"Mustangs have their secret getaway trails. They go places even a chopper can't." Dad took one hand off the steering wheel to pull his Stetson down to shade his eyes.
Sam cleared her throat and looked out the window at dull, brown Nevada. Could she have felt homesick for this?
Yes. Every day of the past two years, an ache had grown under her breastbone.
She just wished Dad would talk more. She wanted to hear about the ranch and the horses and Gram. But the nearer they got to the ranch, the more he acted like the dad she remembered. Relaxed and quiet, he was completely unlike the awkward man who'd come to visit in Aunt Sue's polished San Francisco apartment.
Since he'd picked Sam up -- literally off her feet in the middle of the airport -- their conversation had bumped along just like this old truck. Slow, but sure.
"Shouldn't use helicopters and trucks," Dad muttered. "They just don't savvy mustangs."
Translated, that meant he had no respect for men who didn't understand the wild horses they were capturing and taking off the range.
Dad really talked like a cowboy. And his first name was Wyatt, a cowboy name if she'd ever heard one. Plus, he walked with the stiff grace of a man who'd ridden all his life.
When he'd first sent her to the city, Sam had been so angry, she'd tried to forget Dad. For a while, it had been easy.
After her accident, the doctors had said Sam might suffer "complications." When a girl fell from a galloping horse and her head was struck by a hoof, that was bad. When she lost consciousness as well, they explained, it was far worse.
Fear made Dad agree to send Sam away from the ranch, to live with Aunt Sue. In San Francisco, she was only two minutes away from a hospital, instead of two hours.
Phantom Stallion #2: Mustang Moon
A crescent moon, thin and silver as the edge of a dime, shone on the lone stallion. With nervous steps, he crossed the river, then picked his way up the bank to the dark and silent River Bend Ranch.
It was midnight. No dogs barked. No coyotes howled, and no night birds called an alarm. The high Nevada desert had lost its daytime heat and every creature slept. Except Samantha Forster.
For weeks, Sam had waited through the night, hoping the silver mustang who'd once been hers would return.
Tonight, after she'd fallen asleep, questioning nickers from the saddle horses had wakened her. Sam had run on tiptoe downstairs to the kitchen. She didn't dare turn on a light or fling open the door to the ranch yard.
Wild as any deer or wolf, the Phantom had good reasons to flee from humans. Just weeks ago, he'd been roped and confined in a corral. Since the night she'd helped to free him, the Phantom hadn't been back.
Standing at the kitchen window, Sam could only watch. What she saw confused her.
The stallion stalking toward the ranch wasn't silver. He wasn't galloping with liquid grace. He wasn't the Phantom and he wasn't supposed to be here.
Fighting to see through the darkness, Sam opened her eyes so wide they burned. She pressed so close her nose touched the windowpane.
Her breath fogged the glass as she whispered, "Who are you?"
As if he'd heard, the horse stopped. His tail switched over thick haunches. He shook his shaggy mane before lifting a head that seemed too big for his sturdy neck. He studied the round pen in front of him and the white house with green shutters on his right. His ears aimed down the gravel road, toward the barn and small pen where a white-faced Hereford calf stared back.
The stallion turned toward the big pasture and paraded along the fence. A dozen tame horses edged closer, heads bobbing as they watched. Sam couldn't hear their snorts and nickers, but she knew the horses were talking.
Frustrated, Sam brushed overgrown bangs back from her eyes. No, the stallion didn't look like the Phantom, but what were the chances another wild horse would just trot across the river and down the Forsters' driveway?
Zero, that's what.
The Phantom had been born on River Bend Ranch. Sam had hand-raised him from a wobbly-legged foal to a swift two-year-old. Only a terrible accident had parted them. But the Phantom had remembered her and he'd come back.
This horse didn't move like the Phantom, but Sam needed a closer look. She turned the knob, opened the door a few inches, sucked in her stomach and almost slipped through.
When her nightgown snagged on the wooden doorframe, Sam gave it a tug. It came loose with a soft rip.
The heavy-headed stallion wheeled just long enough to see who'd launched this ambush. He wasn't white, but a sifting of pale hair flickered in the weak moonlight as the stallion headed toward the river. The tame horses neighed in excitement as the wild one galloped along the fence.
When the horse abandoned his noiseless moves, Sam blinked. It wasn't his suddenly thunderous running that surprised her. It was his sudden stop.
The stallion glared over his shoulder directly at Sam. Then he struck the fence with a deliberate kick. Amazed, Sam wondered how the collision of hooves on wood could sound just like a dare.
Phantom Stallion #3: Dark Sunshine
The sweet smell of horses and hay carried to Samantha Forster on an early morning breeze. She eased the front door closed behind her. Everyone inside was asleep. By rising at four o'clock, she'd beaten even Dad out of bed.
Sam stifled a yawn. She could have slept in on this September Saturday, but she and Jeri planned to unlock the secrets of Lost Canyon before the sun rose.
Strange things were happening in Lost Canyon. Weird white plumes rose skyward. Were they dust, smoke, or spirits, as some Shoshone elders hinted? And what about those eerie screams?
Standing at the bus stop just the other morning, Sam and Jen had heard the faraway wails. Though they'd agreed those sounds weren't the cries of Indian ponies slaughtered there a hundred years ago, she and Jeri had scared each other with other "what-ifs." They'd been rubbing gooseflesh from their arms when the school bus finally arrived.
Now, Sam moved silently across the front porch of the white, two-story house. She carried her boots and walked in stockinged feet. With Gram and Dad still sleeping, River Bend Ranch was all hers.
Darkness cloaked the neat pens and corrals, the barn and bunkhouse, and the surrounding rangelands where Hereford cattle grazed, but Sam knew it was all there waiting for her.
As she pulled on her scarred leather boots, Sam glanced toward the river. Across the current, on the wild side of the river, the Phantom could be waiting. But he'd never come to the ranch this near sunrise and probably never would.
Sam hefted her saddlebags and canteen and walked toward the barn.
Blaze woofed from his post outside the bunkhouse. The border collie's bark startled a horse. Its hooves went thudding across the ten-acre pasture.
A few steps from the barn, a neigh challenged her.
"It's only me, baby," Sam whispered. She hurried. Once Ace knew it was her, he'd set up a ruckus.
Fingers flying, Sam drew the bolt on the door connecting the barn and corral. Ace followed as Sam flipped the switch for the overhead lights. The little mustang nudged Sam until he backed her against the barn wall.
"You are too sweet." She caught Ace's muzzle between her hands and gave it a quick kiss.
Sam dragged a curry comb over Ace's already glowing coat. He wasn't cross-tied or tethered, just standing with eyes half closed as he enjoyed the massaging movements of the brush.
When Sam stopped, Ace looked back over his shoulder as she smoothed on the blanket. Next, she saddled him and replaced his halter with a snafflebitted bridle.(Continues...)