Authors: Terri Farley
THE SWEET SMELL of horses and hay carried to Samanthaâ¦
SAM SQUATTED and hid. She wished the juniper foliage wasâ¦
“I'M NOT A horse thief!”
VOICES SWIRLED around Sam, discussing and planning, but she justâ¦
SAM DREAMED of the Phantom. In her dream, a giantâ¦
THE PALOMINO WAS ready to stop running. He slowed toâ¦
THE RANCH YARD was flooded with light. Brightness glowed fromâ¦
“I'D LIKE MIKKI, if she weren't such a brat.” Samâ¦
IN SAN FRANCISCO, Sam had gone riding twice on rentedâ¦
“I'M NOT AFRAID of rats or snakes,” Sam said. “Iâ¦
JAKE'S PLAN WORKED perfectly. For a half hour, Mikki walkedâ¦
THE PHANTOM GLOWED on the river's surface. As Sam lookedâ¦
RIVER BEND RANCH was burning.
FIRE HOSES CRISSCROSSED the ranch yard. A young woman wearingâ¦
SAM GRABBED THE saddle horn.
SAM GOT UP AT HER regular time, had cereal andâ¦
BECAUSE GRAM AND DAD had already left to pick upâ¦
FLICK WAS A RUSTLER, not a killer. Sam tried toâ¦
HE 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 Jen 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 Jen 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 range-lands 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 snaffle-bitted bridle.
Sam shivered. She should have remembered a coat. Since she hadn't, she snatched the faded green sweatshirt she kept hanging from a nail in the barn. Before pulling it on, Sam dropped Ace's reins, ground-tying him.
Like any well-schooled cow pony, Ace understood the signal to stand and wait. He snorted with impatience, though, as Sam tugged the sweatshirt over her short reddish hair.
“Sorry.” Sam's muffled voice came from inside the sweatshirt.
Ace pawed the barn floor, stirring dust until she led him into the yard.
Before she could mount, Ace raised his finely boned, almost Arabic head. His nostrils flared as he gazed at the Calico Mountains, where a rim of midnight blue showed above the peaks.
Sam swung into the saddle.
“Don't get your hopes up,” she told the horse. “We're heading away from his territory.”
Sam shifted her weight slightly. Ace started
toward the bridge, answering her cue.
“No reason to think we'll see him, boy,” she said, but Sam had watched wild horses travel the trail into Lost Canyon.
Once, they'd been led by the Phantom.
Jen and her high-stepping palomino weren't at the pond by War Drum Flats. Although she was disappointed, Sam could guess why.
All week Jen had sniffled and sneezed, but she'd carried a backpack full of tissues and refused to miss a single day of classes. Sam would bet the flu had finally gotten the better of her friend.
She was out here alone.
Then she heard it. The weird warbling was impossible to identify until it changed to a piercing cry.
Ace trembled. Through the saddle leather and blanket, Sam felt him, and knew the cry was no cougar's scream. It was the plea of a terrified horse.
Sam wheeled Ace away from the pond and aimed him toward the tumble of boulders and sagebrush leading toward the path. The gelding moved at a stiff-legged trot.
“I know you don't want to go, but that horse is in trouble.” Sam knew Lost Canyon lay someplace between here and that highest peak wearing a cap of snow. “C'mon, Ace. I'd want someone to help if you were crying.”
Ace moved into a grudging lope, but the steep
uphill path meant he couldn't maintain the pace for long. Just when the footing grew more level, the trail dead-ended into a rock wall. Water seeped from a crack running across its face.
They backtracked until the path turned into a deer trail. Sam almost lost it on a slick stretch of granite.
Sam slowed Ace, stroked his coarse black mane, and listened. She hadn't heard the whinny for several minutes. When she closed her eyes to concentrate, she did hear something. It was a whirring motor, like a chain saw. This high up the mountain, the sound could have carried from anywhere.
“Just a little farther,” Sam told Ace.
The gelding picked his way across the rock, then grunted with irritation as Sam urged him onto a narrow ledge.
Ace did as she asked, but he clearly disagreed. The little mustang understood searching for grass and water. He understood people expected him to chase calves. But running toward a place where one horse was
in trouble? Ace shook his mane in disgust.
Suddenly the ground turned bare and sandy. Something was wrong. A thick stand of juniper lay ahead. Nothing should have rubbed this rugged terrain bare of vegetation.
Sam wished the sun would hurry and rise. The buzzing sound drew closer, but she still couldn't see its source. Ace looked back, and Sam heard the
sound of galloping hooves.
“You're right, boy. We're out of here.” Sam searched the area and spotted an outcropping of rock. She slid to the ground, jogged toward the rock. Ace followed.
The juniper branches were bare on the side facing the trail, as if something had rubbed the leaves off. Sam had just seconds to hide behind the rock before a buckskin horse exploded onto the trail.
Black forelock blowing back from a golden face, the mustang ran, widemouthed and foaming, eyes rolled white with terror. Her delicate legs pulled her away from the noise, toward the path that narrowed like a funnel into the juniper just ahead.
As the horse passed, Sam saw a red bandanna knotted around the mare's throat.
A trap! Sam knew it an instant before she saw the shambling horses that followed the buckskin. The panicky buckskin was a Judas horse, leading the others into a trap. Necks dark with sweat, the mustangs veered too close to the trail's crumbling edge. One more step would send them plummeting to their deaths.
But the mustangs ran on, fleeing the buzz of motorcycles ridden by men in straw cowboy hats. There were two of them.
The men whooped and yipped over the whining motorcycles. Horses crashed into each other, into boulders. They feared the men and machines more than the trap.
A dun with tiger-striped forelegs vaulted up a steep path just past the spot where Sam and Ace were hiding. The path went nowhere. As the mare wheeled and slid back down the path in a shower of rocks, Sam recognized her as the Phantom's lead mare.
Sam covered her mouth. No, no. Just weeks ago, the Phantom had been turned loose by the Bureau of Land Management. He was protected, freed to run wild and strengthen the mustang breed. How could he do that if BLM took his herd off the range?
If she burst out now, the horses would shy off the hillside. The fall might break their legs or necks. She had to wait until they were safely corralled. But this didn't look anything like the government gathers she'd heard about. It was too rough and primitive, too risky for horses the BLM was supposed to protect.
As one of the vehicles roared past, Sam realized it wasn't a dirt bike but an all-terrain vehicle. It was driven by a man in a shirt that looked like army camouflage. Attached to the vehicle was a scabbard holding a rifle.
These whooping idiots didn't work for the BLM. They were wild horse rustlers.
Ace lifted his head. Before he could neigh, Sam grabbed his muzzle and pulled it down. She pressed her cheek against the gelding's.
“You have to be quiet, boy,” she whispered. “They're criminals.”
Men committing a federal crime wouldn't mind
hurting the only witness to their wrongdoing. Sam swallowed hard. If something happened to her, Dad and Gram might assume she'd suffered another riding accident. They might never know the truth.
A sleek black yearling flashed before Sam. A pair of blood bay mares followed. This was definitely the Phantom's herd. How could she save them?
Ahead, inside the trap, the buckskin lowered her head to a bucket so full of grain it spilled over at the thrust of her nose. The mare bolted the food in desperate gulps, ribs working like bellows. The men had starved her. That's how they'd forced the mare to lead the others into the trap.
She was so hungry, she ignored the chaos at the mouth of the trap. Inspired by the attempted escape of the tiger dun, other horses circled away from the ropes that had been strung on each side of the path and camouflaged with khaki-colored garbage bags. If the horses continued down the path, they'd be hemmed in on both sides and funneled into a pen made of metal panels so tall that there was no chance they could leap to freedom.
Sam saw the trap clearly now. So did the horses, but they had no place else to go. The tiger dun wouldn't let them enter, but she didn't know where to lead.
Movement beyond the trap made Sam spot a third man, on a horse. He raised his arm and pointed. For an icy moment, Sam feared he'd spotted her, but then the horseman shouted.
Even before she looked, Sam knew. And then the Phantom burst into the clearing.
Thick-muscled and furious, the Phantom shone silver amid the whirlwind of dust. Head held flat on a lowered neck, he slashed the rump of a roan mare, driving her away from the trap, toward a downhill path so steep it seemed to plunge into space.
Swinging his head, the Phantom herded another mare after the roan. When she trotted in place, hesitating, the stallion's teeth convinced her to run.
Like a striking snake, the silver stallion worked his way through the herd, bullying his family away from the trap that would end their freedom.
“Stop him! They're all getting away!”
“Hey, close the gate!”
The buzzing vehicles only made the herd flee faster. Hooves clattered on rock, and the sounds of falling horses told Sam the descent down the Phantom's escape trail wasn't easy.
The horseman trotted forward, swinging a lazy loop of rope above his head.
Oh, no. He wanted to rope the Phantom.
The stallion hated ropes and feared them. The scar on his neck told why. With a choice between the rope and the cliff, the stallion would leap and die.
The buckskin shied from the horseman. With a metallic banging, she hit the side of the portable corral disguised with juniper. She feared the rope but
kept her head down, eating in the midst of chaos as if nothing else mattered.
Only a few horses still milled inside the corral, near the buckskin: an old bay mare, a bald-faced roan, the black yearling, and a chestnut colt. Not enough to sacrifice the herd for, and yet the Phantom stayed.
Run. Go now!
Sam sent her thought to the stallion as she had before, but he wouldn't leave the others behind.
The loop flew, closed on air, and slapped the stallion's back. The rider swore and jerked the rope away for a second try.
Run, boy, run
Before the rider threw another loop, the Phantom darted inside the trap.
“Close the gate!”
Sam's leg muscles tensed. She was ready to sprint from cover, ready to launch herself at the man dismounting from the ATV, but the Phantom had noticed. He was wheeling, herding the colt before him.
, Sam told herself.
He can do it. He can make it
The man in camouflage was closing the gate, but the stallion charged, knocking the man aside.
Falling, the man reached up, as if he could grab the Phantom's mane. The chestnut youngster ran on, but the stallion stopped. His head turned, ears flattened to his neck and eyes narrowed. The man saw
what he was risking and stumbled out of range of the Phantom's flashing teeth.
With a whisk of his tail, the stallion leaped after his herd and vanished.
Ace's breath sighed against Sam's cheek. The horse was as relieved as she, but only one danger had ended.