Authors: Terri Farley
Glossy Shetland ponies crowded together in the late afternoon shadeâ¦
Apparently Ryan had calmed down under Dr. Scott's quiet questioning,â¦
Ice cubes tinkled as Lila Kenworthy, Jen's mom, placed aâ¦
A horse galloped far off in the distance, where theâ¦
Sam was still shaking her head at Ryan's stubbornness asâ¦
Galloping hooves hammered in Sam's dream. She woke slowly, openingâ¦
For over a century, the legend said, Lost Canyon hadâ¦
“She's joking,” Pam explained in a tolerant tone reserved forâ¦
“Hey, knock that off!” Sam snapped at her horse.
“They don't look very happy with each other,” Sam said.
Sam considered following Pam to the front porch. She couldâ¦
Sam had heard Pepper refer to people who “rode likeâ¦
Mustangs rarely drank at the lake at War Drum Flatsâ¦
The Phantom's eyes looked black and playful as he peeredâ¦
On Saturday morning, Sam almost crept out the front doorâ¦
Sam squatted on the path, trying to make herself invisibleâ¦
lossy Shetland ponies crowded together in the late afternoon shade of cottonwood trees. Standing head to tail, they whisked breezes over each other's faces as if nothing were wrong.
For them, nothing was, but Samantha Forster was worried. How could something she'd wished for bring bad luck to the wild horses she loved?
The early September sun sizzled against Sam's back. Summer hadn't ended just because it was the first day of school.
She glanced toward the mansion sitting atop the man-made hill overlooking Gold Dust Ranch. The oversized house was air-conditioned and after the long walk from the school bus stop to visit her best
friend, that refrigerated air would feel wonderful.
But her best friend lived in the foreman's house, not the mansion. Sam knew she was more likely to receive an invitation from the ponies, to share their irrigated emerald pasture, than one into Linc Slocum's giant pillared house.
She'd worn a knit shirt Gram had called adobe red, and a denim skirt, because Gram and Brynna, her stepmother, had ganged up on her until she'd accepted their claim that she only had one chance to make a good impression on her teachers during this first week of school. But the shirt was too warm for the sunny afternoon, especially when she was carrying two sets of books.
Fretting over the temperature made a nice change from replaying last night's phone call.
Forget about the heat and the phone call,
Sam told herself as she knocked at the front door of the small foreman's house near Gold Dust Ranch's front gates. But she couldn't.
At first she'd been so excited. Pam O'Malley, her best friend from San Francisco, was coming to Nevada. Right this minute, Pam and her mom should be driving their camper from the city to Lost Canyon. Sam was excited to see Pam again and she couldn't wait for her old best friend to meet her new one, but then Pam had announced the reason for their trip.
“My mom has a grant to study mythological horses and write a paper about them,” Pam had explained.
“She's going to investigate the wild horses around your area, and focus on stories of some legendary stallion.”
The only legendary stallion in northern Nevada was the Phantom. Sam knew that as well as she knew the mustang's safety depended on staying hidden, not being put under a magnifying glass.
Sam knocked a second time, then fluttered the neck of her shirt for coolness while she waited for Jennifer Kenworthy, her best friend in the entire world, to let her in out of the sun. Level-headed Jen would help her figure out what to do about Pam and her mother. Jen's passion was complex mathematics, and she loved solving intricate problems of any kind.
But Sam didn't have time to announce her news.
“Stay out,” Jen said as soon as she saw Sam.
She didn't sound angry, just firm as she slipped past the screen door to come outside.
Jen's white-blond braids were pinned haphazardly atop her head and her arm moved a little stiffly as it brushed aside the day's homework Sam carried with her.
A week ago, an attack by a range bull had shattered one of Jen's ribs. According to her parents, Jen wasn't well enough yet to return to school, so Sam had brought her new books to her.
With her torso still wrapped in bandages for protection, Jen stepped gingerly off the porch. Sam stepped back to let Jen ease past.
“What's up?” Sam asked.
“Nothing that'll make you happy,” Jen said as she led the way across the silently baking ranch yard.
Sam felt her worry double.
As she left the stack of books and homework on the porch, she wondered if Jen's parents had decided their daughter should go back to being homeschooled instead of attending Darton High.
a silent voice wailed in Sam's head, but she just crossed her fingers and hoped not. Since Jen's accident, the idea had been under discussion. The last Sam had heard, though, Jen's parents were still locked in disagreement.
“C'mon,” Jen said, looking back over her shoulder. “I want you to look at something.”
With a sigh of relief, Sam followed. You couldn't look at a decision.
As she fell into step beside her friend, Sam almost blurted out her worries over Pam, but she knew she should be considerate first.
“How does your rib feel?” Sam asked.
“Like the broken ends of that bone are still grating together under my skin,” Jen grumbled. “And don't get me started on wearing layers of protective bandages during a heat wave.”
Then Jen gave a lopsided grin, probably so Sam wouldn't think she was whining.
Sam shuddered. Heat and sweat she could tolerate, but she winced at her friend's pain. When she opened her mouth to sympathize, Jen stopped her.
“Talking about it is a waste of time.”
“Right,” Sam said, then turned her head so Jen wouldn't see her smile.
Jen's injury hadn't smothered her take-charge attitude.
“What are you going to show me?” Sam asked. Despite everything, excitement bounced up in her when she noticed they were headed for Gold Dust Ranch's modern barn. The barn meant horses.
“No hints,” Jen muttered. “I want your honest assessment. Maybe Ryan and I are overreacting.”
Sam took a deep breath. Telling Jen about Pam's visit would have to wait.
Ryan Slocum, whose father owned the Gold Dust Ranch, was new to Nevada, and he sometimes misunderstood the Western way of things. But Jen had been born on this ranch. If Sam added all Jen's experience to the fact that she was a science and math whiz who insisted on a logical explanation for everything, the chances that Jen was overreacting were pretty small.
Sam squinted and blinked as she passed from the glaring sunlight into the dim barn. Before her eyes accustomed themselves to the change, Jen shushed her.
“Whaâ?” Sam managed before she made out the index finger Jen had raised to her lips, then pointed.
Sam looked toward the barn's biggest box stall, but it was empty.
The quiet only lasted a second.
Ryan Slocum's voice sliced through it. Squinting her dazzled eyes, Sam made him out, standing near a wall-mounted telephone.
“Pardon me,” he said, to whoever listened on the other end of the line, but he didn't sound apologetic. “I don't mean to be too direct, but I've been waitingâno, it's not an emergency. Not exactly. You see, this is my second call to Dr. Scott and I've yet to hearâ¦”
Sam stiffened. Dr. Scott was the nearest veterinarian. If Ryan had phoned the vet twice, something must be seriously wrong. And it must be about Shy Boots, the colt Ryan loved.
“Yes, actually, I've been concerned for several days,” Ryan continued. “However, I've driven the distance betweenâ” Ryan's lecturing tone broke off and he flinched. “Oh, I see, a pet tortoise hit by a car. That's dreadful.” Ryan sighed. “Well then, I suppose there's nothing to do except wait. You've been quite helpful,” Ryan added, and then he hung up and turned toward Sam.
“What's wrong with Shy Boots?” Sam blurted.
Seeing that her plan for an impartial evaluation was doomed, Jen said, “He won't get up.”
“Won't or can't?” Sam asked. Although she'd never seen the problem, she'd heard of “cast” horses who got wedged in weird positions in their stalls and couldn't gather themselves to rise.
“See for yourself,” Ryan said, walking closer to the box stall.
It turned out not to be empty. When Sam peered inside and saw the Appaloosa foal lying flat, she instantly forgot the sunshine outside. In here, it might as well be November.
The chocolate-brown colt with his hip blanket of white spots wasn't unconscious. His eyes were open, but there was no luster beyond those impossibly long eyelashes.
Listless and still, he watched the humans stare down at him.
Ryan slipped inside the stall and squatted beside Shy Boots. The colt seemed limp. His only movement was a slight flinch away from the stroking of Ryan's hand against his dark, velvety neck.
Ryan was the sort of guy who tried to hide his emotions, but Sam could tell his love for the Appaloosa foal made him as anxious as a father.
He didn't even look like himself. His dark hair was disheveled. His pressed khaki pants were smeared withânope, she wasn't seeing thingsâa little horse manure.
Sam rarely understood what Jen saw in Ryan Slocum, her almost-boyfriend.
Right now, though, Ryan was so concerned about his colt, he didn't care about his appearance, and Sam wanted to pat him on the back.
“Boots won't leave his stall and his appetite has slacked off dramatically,” Ryan said without looking up at Sam.
“Ryan's checked for a temperature,” Jen added,
“but the thermometer reads right at one hundred degrees.” Jen gave Sam an owlish glance. “And that's normal.”
“Okay,” Sam said. “Could he have hurt himself? Just pulled a tendon and be feeling crummy?”
“There's no sign of trauma or swelling.” Jen bit her lip. Jen planned to study veterinary medicine in college and she'd already started looking at animals as patients. Above the nosepiece of her glasses, her frown deepened. “I've thought of West Nile virus, but I can't find any insect bite and I'm not up on all the symptomsâ”
“Jen,” Sam interrupted. “Why don't we wait for the vet?”
“It could be a while, and I can't even enjoy the satisfaction of feeling angry. Not without being a brute,” Ryan said. “You heard what I said about the tortoise being backed over by a car?”
The girls nodded, grimacing.
“I'm sure Boots is fine,” Jen said, trying to sound casual. “But the poor little guy's been through so much.”
Sam took a deep breath, and when she exhaled, she felt no relief. Jen was right.
Sired by a rogue stallion named Diablo and mothered by Hotspot, a young mare who'd escaped before she could become the cornerstone of Gold Dust Ranch's Appaloosa breeding program, Shy Boots had been unwanted before he was even born.
Soon after the mare and foal had survived a difficult birth, Linc Slocum had tried to wean Shy Boots early.
That was one of the rare times when Ryan, whose heart had been won by the two horses, had stood up to his father. Ryan had objected to the early separation, and so had Hotspot. Although she'd been purchased solely as a broodmare, Hotspot had refused to mate with a stallion whose high-priced bloodlines matched her own.
Just days later, Ryan had overheard Linc's plan to solve the problem by destroying Hotspot's “mongrel” foal.
Before that could happen, the horses had been stolen, then separated. Luckily, the inept thief hadn't gotten very far with the horses. Hotspot had escaped and joined the Phantom's herd and Shy Boots had been found at a petting zoo, where he'd been adopted by a burro foster mother. But that arrangement had been temporary.
Now, with Hotspot still out on the range, the colt was alone again.
Jen was right. The little guy had been through a lot.
“Maybe he's just tired and overwhelmed,” Sam suggested.
“He's not eating, even though I offer him the bottle all the time, now,” Ryan said. Something in his tone sounded a little guilty, and Sam could guess why.
When Jen had been in the hospital, Ryan had spent hours driving back and forth to Darton. Then he sat in a chair at her beside, talking. Jen had appreciated his company, but who had fed Shy Boots?
Ryan was an excellent rider, but had he ever been responsible for the daily care of his own horse? In England, there had been grooms and trainers to monitor his horses' health. Did he know foals needed frequent feeding, even when humans thought they had more important things to do?
Before she could bring up the touchy subject, they all heard a faint mechanical
, then a
as the iron gates to Gold Dust Ranch opened and closed.
From his bed of straw, Shy Boots' dark ears twitched, picking up the sound of an approaching truck.
“That will be Dr. Scott,” Ryan said, and Sam saw him return to being his usual self.
With brisk movements, he stood, brushed at his soiled pants, and left the stall.
He tossed back his dark hair and shed the worry that had bowed him over the foal. As Ryan made his way toward the vet, his manner said he wasn't the sort of guy who liked to be kept waiting.