Authors: Terri Farley
In River Bend’s big pasture, the horses waited for rain.
Jake had probably wanted his whooping shout and Rachel’s running…
Two noisy horses and a barking dog competed for Sam’s…
She didn’t get caught returning to her room on Saturday…
The palomino stood tall, white-stockinged front legs flailing in surprise.
The next morning, Sam was rubbing her hands together, wishing…
Sam and Jen embarrassed Rachel the minute they slid into…
The minute Mrs. Coley let her out in the ranch yard,…
Rain came in sheets, wavering iridescent in the dusk. The…
Take’s trust made Sam careful.
Thursday was Jake’s birthday.
The wind shrieked so loudly, rushing around the ranch house…
Ace knew he was going back to his first home.
Alariat sang out of the mist and hit Sam’s shoulder.
Of course, Gram and Dad weren’t in their motel room.
Sam came downstairs before dawn and found Dallas hunched over…
Gram and Dad still weren’t home from the fair when…
Brynna came for dinner and stayed too long. Sam was…
Head high, muscles pumping, the Phantom exploded into the arena.
n River Bend’s big pasture, the horses waited for rain. Cottonwood branches danced overhead, but instead of rustling, the dry leaves clacked. The horses stood with heads up and nostrils wide, searching for a trace of moisture on the breeze.
Across the dirt driveway, near the house, Sam did the same. She stood in the vegetable garden, where she was supposed to be turning over dirt to mix parched cornstalks and empty vines with the earth. Instead, she leaned on her shovel and wished she’d brought a water bottle outside with her.
Two sparrows dove for a worm her digging had uncovered. The birds cheeped and quarreled, then flew off in a flurry of feathers, leaving the lucky worm untouched.
Sam looked skyward. The noon sun was sealed down by a lid of gray clouds.
Irritated whinnies and the thud of hooves came
from the big pasture. Banjo, Dad’s roping horse, bolted across the sparse grass. Teeth bared, Strawberry sprinted after him.
Except for a few hammering rainstorms that ran off the drought-hardened land, it hadn’t rained since spring. Now it was October. Every creature was edgy with waiting.
More hooves thudded inside the round pen, but these made a soothing sound, just like the voice that directed them.
“Other way,” Jake said. “Good horse.”
Friday after school, Jake had mounted Teddy Bear for the first time. Now it was Saturday morning, and the colt was already responding to the bit and reins.
The morning quiet didn’t last for long. Blaze burst barking from the barn, and Sam noticed a plume of dust approaching the ranch. The roar of an overtaxed engine told her who was driving even before the beige Cadillac crossed the bridge too fast and skidded into the ranch yard.
Sam dropped the shovel. For their neighbor Linc Slocum, everything was a crisis. Still, it was always possible it was a real emergency.
The Cadillac’s horn blared, even though Gram had already appeared, wiping her hands on her apron. Dallas, the ranch foreman, had emerged from the shady barn, blinking against the sunlight.
Jake slipped out of the round corral and beat everyone to Slocum’s side.
“Rachel’s missing,” Linc said as Sam got close enough to hear.
Gram patted Linc’s arm as the man removed his oversized cowboy hat and sighed.
“I don’t know what to think,” he explained. “I’d just got back from riding with Jed.” Linc scanned faces, making sure they recognized the name of Jed Kenworthy, his foreman. “But he stayed out with the other hands and I came back. Otherwise I sure would’ve got him helping me.”
“How long has she been gone?” Gram asked.
“Hard to say. Let’s see.” Linc squinted as he tried to recall. “When I got back home, Rachel was lazing around her suite and then I had a snack and after that I sorta dozed off.” He shook his head. “I’d say at least a coupla hours.”
Sam’s eyes slid toward Jake. Jake was only sixteen, but he spotted trouble better than anyone Sam knew. And he didn’t look worried. In fact, when he crossed his arms over his belt buckle, he seemed to be telling Linc to get to the point.
“Thing is,” Slocum said, sounding as if he were about to make a confession, “she was perturbed about something. In fact, she’s been sort of put out--say, how long has it been since I had the rodeo stock contractor over to the house?” Slocum mused a minute. “All week. Yessir.” Linc sounded amazed. “She’s been perturbed all week long.”
For an instant, Sam wondered how he could tell perturbation from Rachel’s usual attitude, but then she understood his amazement. How could Rachel be dissatisfied for a full week? She wore the finest clothes and makeup. A driver took her to school in a baby blue Mercedes Benz, and her bedroom suite included a hot tub and state-of-the-art entertainment systems.
Rachel was her father’s princess, and she pretty much ruled Darton High School, as well. Her face, hair, and figure might have been composed by a computer designing the perfect girl.
Too bad no one had pushed the button marked “personality,” Sam thought.
“Could the stock contractor have said something to upset her?” Gram asked.
“No, no way.” Linc actually blushed. “We were cutting a deal for my Brahmas, that’s all.”
Did Linc redden because the stock contractor had rejected his bulls? City-bred Slocum really didn’t know what he was doing when it came to animals, Sam thought. He just liked playing cowboy.
“Where do you think she’s got off to?” Dallas asked. He sounded more sympathetic than Sam felt.
“Did she take a car?” Jake added. Though Rachel didn’t have a driver’s license, she wouldn’t let such a formality stop her.
“No, she didn’t, and no one came to pick her up or I would’ve heard tires.” Linc wedged a thumb into the tooled leather belt that strained around his
middle. “But my horse is missing, too.”
“Why would she take Champ? Rachel hates horses,” Sam blurted.
“Well now--” Slocum frowned.
“She does,” Sam insisted. “She says they’re dumb and dirty, and she can’t understand why anyone likes them.”
Gram made a cautioning sound, but Sam knew she was right.
“I don’t mean to be rude, Mr. Slocum, but she told me all that herself.”
“My ex-wife made the twins ride for three hours every day when they were little,” Slocum said. “Ryan took to it and Rachel didn’t. Maybe that’s why he’s in England. Now that his mom’s married that baron, or whatever he is, they have stables packed with horses.”
Slocum sounded wistful. For about two seconds, Sam felt sorry for him. Then she remembered the spade bit he used on Champ, his gentle-natured palomino. In the hands of an excellent rider, the bit could work. Hauled on by an angry girl who didn’t like horses, that bit could do terrible damage to Champ’s tender mouth.
“Let’s go find her,” Sam said.
“I’ll be glad to pay--” Slocum began.
“Land sakes, Linc, will you hush?” Gram snapped. One of her hands darted out as if she wanted to give Slocum a pinch. Instead, she shook her finger at him. “We’ll help because we’re neighbors, not
because you have money.”
Gram took Western neighborliness seriously. Her tirade made Linc look sheepish.
“Wyatt’s checking the herd with Ross and Pepper,” Gram said, “but the rest of us will saddle up. I don’t imagine she’s gone far. Have you called over to the Elys’?”
Gram gestured toward the Three Ponies Ranch, Jake’s home.
“No,” Linc said. “I think Rachel would be embarrassed. Mainly I came for Jake.”
Jake shrugged modestly. Sam wished she had a skill she could be humble about. Jake was a first-rate tracker. Local ranchers, the Bureau of Land Management, and even the sheriff’s department knew it.
“Sure,” Jake said. His eyes darted skyward at a rumble of far-off thunder. “I’d want to start at your ranch, though.”
“You do that,” Gram said. “And, Linc, we’ll go up the ridge trail, since it runs behind your place, ours, and Three Ponies.” Gram removed her apron and started for the barn and her mare, Sweetheart.
“Hop in, Jake.” Slocum gestured toward the Cadillac, but Jake glanced at the round corral, where Teddy Bear stood saddled and curious.
“I’ll take care of the colt,” Dallas said. “You go on.”
Sam bit her lip. Jake had teased her forever, calling her a tagalong brat, but she couldn’t help it. “I’d really like to watch you track,” she said.
Jake didn’t reply. Did he suspect she also wanted to see Rachel uncomfortable?
Sam stared hard at the back of Jake’s head as he unstrapped the short, fringed chaps called chinks and slung them over the top rail of the corral.
Finally, her brain waves must have penetrated his thick skull.
“You might as well come.” He didn’t even look her way. “Rachel might not be so embarrassed with you there.”
He was right, Sam thought as she climbed into the Cadillac’s backseat. She brought out Rachel’s natural snobbishness. Rachel couldn’t believe there were people who actually liked “the little cowgirl,” as she called Sam.
Sam tightened her seat belt, as Linc Slocum drove fast and recklessly. If he was so worried, why hadn’t he gone looking for Rachel himself?
Jake grabbed an armrest as Slocum swerved around a turn. Sam hoped Linc wouldn’t hit anything. She’d hate to miss a chance to see Rachel in trouble. After the mean things Rachel had said and done, it would be sort of satisfying to see her squirm.
But that wasn’t going to happen. Rachel wouldn’t be punished for causing Linc to worry, and Sam knew why. When they found Rachel, she wouldn’t be sunburned or dusty. Every hair would be in place and she’d blame someone else for her troubles.
When they reached Slocum’s Gold Dust Ranch,
he surprised them by saying he wouldn’t come along.
“I’ll stay by the phone,” he said. “You just take any horses you want. The tack shed’s over there.”
Any other time, Sam would have rejoiced. The Gold Dust Ranch was home to dozens of expensive and beautiful horses. But Jake was in a hurry. He flashed her a look that said she’d better not knock on the door to the foreman’s house and tell her best friend, Jen Kenworthy, what was happening.
Sam and Jake took the mounts easiest to catch, rode past Linc Slocum’s pillared mansion and up the ridge trail.
The mare Sam rode was a sturdy paint with a scar on one knee. Jake’s horse was a bay Thoroughbred she’d seen Slocum ride only once before.
Jake rode automatically, attention directed toward the dirt as if he could read it like a book.
“Tell me how you do it,” Sam urged after about ten minutes.
“Noon’s the hardest time to track,” Jake said as they rode side by side. “With the sun directly overhead, tracks just disappear. See how there are no shadows in the hoofprints?”
Jake didn’t slow his horse as he pointed. Sam looked down. The ground looked bare as concrete. Except for a few drought cracks, she saw nothing.
Jake smiled. “Never mind. We don’t have to look for clues, just a horse.”
Sam didn’t like Jake’s superior smile any more than she liked the sweat trickling down the back of her neck.
“Don’t tell me ‘never mind,’” she insisted. “Tell me what to do, so when I have to come looking for
, it won’t take so long.”
This time Jake laughed aloud. “Dreamer.”
Sam glared at him, but Jake wasn’t looking. He told her how to judge the age of a print and the weight or speed with which it had been made, but then he went back to reading the earth, as if she’d interrupted him while he was reading a good book.
They rode in silence for a while and Sam welcomed it. She hadn’t seen the Phantom for weeks, but at least she could daydream about him.
Everything reminded her of the great silver stallion. The rocks and ridges around her seemed painted with his shadow. When she heard the rasp of a tool from Slocum’s ranch down below, it sounded like the Phantom’s neigh of surprise.
As the trail twisted around the mountain, rising higher, Sam looked down on River Bend Ranch and the silver-brown glitter of the river. The stallion’s vast territory spread from here to the Calico Mountains. She looked east, past War Drum Flats. That wisp of white on the mountain was probably a thin curl of cloud, but it could be the Phantom’s windblown mane and tail.
Jake must have taken her silence for pouting,
because he reined in the Thoroughbred and started an exasperated lecture, as if she’d been silently begging him to do it.
“Okay, if Rachel had been lost overnight,” Jake said, “there’d be more of us in the search party. We’d form groups, divide up the area, and check each section on foot. Or maybe we’d use airplanes and ATVs. We’d check every little splinter road. …”
Jake’s voice trailed off as something drew his attention away from the trail and down the hillside toward a clump of brush.
“What?” Sam asked.
“Nothing. And since the horse--and not Rachel--is probably in charge, he’ll stick to the path, where the footing is easy. Here, look at this.” Jake reined his horse back the way they’d come and dismounted.
He walked along, pointing. “See, the hoofprints are pretty close together and pretty distinct, then there’s this big mishmash of tracks.”
Sam climbed off the paint, squatted next to Jake, and stared. Finally she saw horseshoe prints, one on top of the other. “Yeah,” she said.
“Something scared Champ. I’m thinking maybe deer, down in that brush. Rachel probably wouldn’t think of trying to pet him and calm him down. So he stayed scared, she couldn’t handle him, and look--” Jake pointed to widespread hoofprints. “He’s running, kind of off balance, and pretty soon we’ll see where she fell.”
“How can you be so sure? Linc said she had riding lessons.”
“Well, she’s forgotten what she learned.” Jake’s finger moved through the air. “Champ’s veering left, right, all over the place. She’s jerking him around. Pretty soon he’ll get sick of it, or the bit will hurt enough that he’ll decide the deal is off.”
With horses, it was all about trust. That’s what Sam had been taught since she was old enough to listen. Dad said horses were big, strong animals who agreed to do what you wanted them to do as long as you knew what you were doing.
Rachel clearly wasn’t doing her part.
Suddenly, Sam could see where Champ had balked. Four hoofprints were planted in a square, as if someone had used a kitchen table like a stamp.
“Bet she went over his head,” Jake muttered as they remounted.
They’d only ridden a few minutes when the trail split. Jake chose the path that slanted down and left. They’d only ridden a few yards when Rachel’s voice, distinctive because of its faint English accent, soared toward them.
“Get away from me, horse.
I said, or you’ll be sorry.”
Jake gave Sam a smug look, congratulating himself on picking the right path, just as Rachel stormed into view.
Her coffee-colored hair lay in a shiny wing across
her forehead. She wore a red silk blouse and tan boots that looked soft as the nose of the palomino following her.
But Rachel’s designer jeans were ripped to show bloody knees, and the palm pushing her hair back looked raw, as if she’d used her hands to break her fall.