Authors: Terri Farley
Phantom Stallion Wild Horse Island 2
The girl and horse stood nose to nose.
Darby sat on the low bench in Sun House's entranceâ¦
Darby opened her eyes and blinked into the darkness.
Confident she'd done a good job cleaning the tack shedâ¦
Gently, Darby pulled with her right hand, then her left,â¦
Darby longed to throw her arms around Hoku's warm neckâ¦
With Navigator turned out and some time left before dinner,â¦
“Francie, here Francie goat,” Megan called as she and Darbyâ¦
Had Francie had a heart attack? Could goats die soâ¦
Together, Darby and her grandfather admired Hoku.
“Nobody's eating my pineapple-orange muffins,” Auntie Cathy complained as Darbyâ¦
I guess I'm the only one who thought this rideâ¦
“What are you talking about?” Darby asked in bewilderment, butâ¦
Darby stumbled back in the direction of the waterfall. She'dâ¦
“Manny said there was no law to make him stopâ¦
Wild Horse Island is imaginary. Its history, culture, legends, people, and ecology echo Hawaii's, but my stories and reality are like leaves on the rain forest floor. They may overlap, but their edges never really match.
he girl and horse stood nose to nose.
Trade winds swirled the scents of trees and cinnamon-red dirt around them. Truck tires crunched on the rough road to âIolani Ranch, a goat's bleat mixed with birdsong, and the harsh neigh of a stallion rang out from a distant pasture.
But the girl only noticed her horse's hay-sweet breath and the flick of her flattened ears. Darby smiled at Hoku's determination to win their stare-off.
She'd named the filly Hoku, the Hawaiian word for
, after the white marking on her chest, but Darby Carter couldn't help comparing the young horse to something else.
Darby thought as she stepped
toward her golden-red filly. One wrong move could make that chemical explode.
Darby scuffed her boots in the dirt. She couldn't move any closer without ramming into the filly, but Hoku didn't know that.
The sorrel braced her legs and tossed her mane. Her stare stabbed past strands of ivory forelock.
Friendship was one thing. Giving in to a halter was something else.
Hoku would never be truly tame. Darby knew that haltering her mustang was about as safe as playing with explosives.
“Hey, good girl, don't look so worried,” Darby said.
Hoku vibrated with a silent nicker and her head rose an inch. For a second, Darby felt as if they were the only two creatures on the island, but then Hoku glanced over Darby's shoulder, through the corral rails, and glared at their audience.
Darby didn't turn at Cade's voice. His eyes tracked her moves, but he wasn't adding up her mistakes. He was keeping her under surveillance for her own good.
Not that Cade and everyone else on âIolani Ranch thought she was insane, but she'd understand if they did. To say she'd made a few big mistakes last week was an understatement. She'd given new meaning to the term
“But I've learned my lesson, haven't I, pretty girl,” Darby said.
Hoku's eyes widened in curiosity as Darby sauntered around to the horse's left side.
Darby and Cade had been talking since dawn about how to halter the head-shy filly. Staying close, without doing anything Hoku found scary, was the first step.
Once, a man had tried to beat the filly's wild horse wariness out of her. It hadn't worked. Hoku's spirit matched her fiery gold coat. She hated men and she didn't like anyone, even Darby, touching her head.
“Exhale,” Darby whispered to herself. Hoku shouldn't feel tension quaking off her.
After three quiet breaths, Darby leaned her shoulder against Hoku's.
The filly didn't shift away. Instead, she rearranged her front hooves to return the gentle pressure.
“Perfect.” Darby barely breathed the word before raising her arms in a hug and rubbing the filly's poll.
At last Hoku relaxed. Her head drooped until her lips were even with Darby's knees.
Now came the hard part. Could she tie a soft rope halter on Hoku's lowered head?
“Stay close,” Cade repeated.
Darby guessed she should have given some sign that she'd heard him the first time, but after all, shouldn't a horseman like Cade know she didn't want to set off Hoku by having a conversation with him?
Cade had studied the way of Hawaii's cowboys, the
, and he was apprenticed to her grandfather Jonah, a man known as the Hawaiian horse charmer.
“Hear me?” Cade asked.
Darby risked a tiny nod. That was all it took to detonate the filly's wildness.
Hoku bolted into a gallop. Strides meant to cross an endless range took her around and around the corral.
Darby kept herself from groaning, but her arm had a mind of its own. It flung the orange rope halter down in frustration.
Hoku's front legs lifted. Her hooves jounced down as if the halter was a snake and she wanted to pound the life out of it. Then, Hoku wheeled and raced in the opposite direction.
“Your temper just set you back an hour,” Cade pointed out, but she still didn't look at him.
She knew what she'd see: brown eyes set in a sun-browned face beneath a brown luahala hat that hid the only spot of color about him, the tight blond braid of a
Squinting her eyes against the dust swirling around her, Darby snatched up the halter. She sorted it back into shape by touch, without taking her eyes off Hoku.
Reversing her morning's progress, Darby backed toward the fence until she collided with it.
“Go away. Please.”
“Jonah wants me to superviseâ”
“And he's the boss,” Cade finished.
Wishing she could communicate with Cade as well as she could with Hoku, Darby considered the hand-me-down boots she'd accepted from Megan Kato, the ranch manager's daughter. Scuffed through the reddish finish of the oxblood leather, they were real cowgirl boots and Darby loved them, but they didn't supply any ideas on how to convince Cade she needed to be alone with her horse.
“We'll be okay,” Darby promised, and when Cade didn't contradict her, she slid her eyes around far enough to see that he was staring up at the pillowy gray clouds.
“Suppose it's this storm that's got Luna so spooky?” Cade asked her, and Darby heard the stallion neighing from the lower pastures again, though he was usually quiet during the day.
“It doesn't look like much,” Darby said. She hadn't been in Hawaii long, but the clouds didn't look like they were holding a downpour that would send her scurrying inside to curl up on her bed with a book. “Maybe you should go check on him.”
Cade's second silence had to mean a weakening in his resolve.
“Maybe I will,” Cade said. “Something's got him stirred up.” He pushed back from the fence so abruptly, the post joint creaked with a sound like a
starter's gun. “Be right back.”
Cade's retreat worked like magic. As the boy turned away, Hoku slowed to a jog, then a walk. Then she stopped, sneezing at the dust halo she'd raised.
“Hoku,” Darby said brightly as if she hadn't seen her horse for days, and the filly watched Darby tighten her black ponytail. “Here's what I think. We need to stop worrying about what Shan Stonerow did to you and get on with our lives.”
When the sorrel sidestepped, Darby decided that “getting on with life” wasn't a concept a horse could grasp.
“I know,” Darby sympathized. “He was a bad guy. He hit you in the face, but that won't ever happen again.”
Darby closed her eyes, trying to send the filly an image of snow melting off the range, of warmth replacing cold.
“We're starting over, like springtime.”
Darby stood close enough to touch Hoku's withers. She lifted her hand slowly and stroked the filly's golden mane. She crumpled it between her fingers, imitating the way horses groomed each other with gentle bites.
“We were making such good progress before you escaped. We can do it again.”
Hoku shook her mane. She swung her head around to look at Darby. Her neck wrinkled like satin from all Darby's brushing, but her eyes questioned the girl.
Holding the halter's nosepiece open with her left hand, Darby inched her right arm higher, to ease the loose end of the headstall into position. When Hoku didn't move away, Darby delighted in the circle she made with her horse.
Hoku nudged the treat pouch Darby carried around her waist.
“Why yes, I do have hay for good little mustangs,” she told Hoku. Darby slipped the nosepiece around Hoku's nose as the filly's agile lips worked at the pouch flap. “You love hay, don't you?”
Darby heard the scuff of boots behind her, but she concentrated on getting the loose end of rope through the loop over Hoku's poll. All she had to do now was tie it.
She knotted the rope.
That doesn't look right,
she thought, but Hoku would lose interest if she didn't taste hay. Right now.
Darby drew her hands back slowly, as if balancing. The halter stayed on.
She unsnapped the treat pouch and Hoku snatched a mouthful of hay. She gave a single chomp before swallowing, then nudged Darby for more. The sorrel didn't back away until she'd eaten every stalk of hay and licked Darby's hand for traces she'd missed.
“Ta da!” Darby announced, turning to Cade.
Except that it wasn't Cade. It was Kit Ely, foreman of âIolani Ranch.
“Good work.” He flashed Darby a smile, which looked extra white in the shade of his black Stetson.
Then, looking down to make an unneeded adjustment to his short leather chapsâDarby thought he called them
âKit said, “Kinda wonder why you didn't snap on the lead rope while ya had her.”
Darby looked at the tangerine-and-white-striped rope lying in the dirt nearby and sighed. “Me too.”
She swiped a raindrop off her cheek, then bent inch by inch to gather up the rope.
Darby heard Hoku's mane flip from side to side as she shook her head.
Darby's fingers closed over the rope. Straightening slowly, she saw the orange halter fall off Hoku's head.
“I guess I didn't tie it right,” Darby muttered.
Hoku snorted and gave a triumphant buck.
“You'll get it, Darby.” Kit's voice was as encouraging as a pat on the back. “It just takes time.”
Darby wasn't sure when Kit left and Cade returned, but after a long time of coaxing and feeding Hoku more hay, she managed to rehalter the filly.
Attaching the lead rope was another story. Hoku ran and bucked, kicked and squealed, until Cade told Darby it was time to give up.
“She almost got a hoof through her cheek piece that time. Better call it a day.”
“Okay,” Darby agreed, then remembered why Cade had left. “Is Luna okay?”
She felt almost silly asking after the stallion. The big bay ruled this ranch, but to Darby, every horse here was a miracle.
“I don't know what's gotten into him,” Cade said, shooting a glance at Hoku.
Darby wondered as Cade walked toward the tack room.
He glanced over his shoulder to see her safely through the gate as it closed between her and Hoku.
By then it was raining steadily, but Darby still didn't want to leave her horse.
She felt good about their progress. After all, she and the filly had only been in Hawaii for two weeks.
Darby's horse-handling skills were improving, even though she was working toward a goal she didn't want to reach.
Once Darby could halter and lead Hoku without trouble, Jonah would exile them to the rain forest. Raised in the urban web of Southern California freeways, Darby was scared of the jungle.
But how bad could it be? She was in paradise, surrounded by horses, and one of them belonged to her!
As if Hoku hadn't had enough of Darby, either, the filly pressed against the fence. Darby rested her hand on Hoku's neck. The smooth curve of muscle beneath the sorrel's skin was no longer hot from injury. It slid beneath Darby's palm as the filly walked off to drop her nose into her water bucket.
“Hey,” Darby said, grinning. “Isn't she doing great?” When Cade faced her, he nodded, but she noticed his jaw kind of shifted to one side.
Would she have noticed that ill-at-ease movement if Cade's jaw hadn't shown signs of being broken and healing sloppily?
Something was wrong. And now that she was outside the corral, Darby felt shy again.
Darby eased the collar of her blue shirt away from her neck. She wiped the back of her hand over her rain-wet forehead. And waited.
“Jonah wants to see you,” Cade said.
Of course he did. She'd been silly to think Jonah would ignore last week's poor judgment.
“He said he'd be in his library,” Cade said.
“I don't remember seeing it,” Darby said. She reviewed the house's floor plan in her mind.
She was new to the ranch, and there hadn't been a lot of time for exploring. Still, she should have remembered a room full of books.
Cade could tell her how to find it, though. He was Jonah's foster son, and took classes by correspondence, so he must get to use Jonah's library.
Cade nodded toward Sun House. “Walk into the living room, yeah? And before you get to the lanai, call out for Jonah.”
“Thanks,” she said to Cade, then headed for the house, eager to get this showdown over.
Darby thought she totally deserved some kind of
punishment, but she had brought her horse home safely. That must count for a lot. Of course, while freeing Hoku had been an accident, slipping away from Megan after the older girl had helped her search for her wild horse hadn't been. Megan had made an effort at friendship and Darby had paid her back by getting her in trouble.
At least no one had asked for details of her sea crossing with Hoku. That was lucky, because they both could have drowned, and Darby still couldn't explain how she and Hoku had found their way back to âIolani Ranch in the dark.
But today was the day she found out what kind of disciplinarian her grandfather was, and how she'd handle punishment from someone besides her mother.
“For some reason I'm not that scared,” Darby told the pack of Australian shepherds escorting her to the house.
With waving tails, merry eyes, and openmouthed leaps, they acted as if nothing bad would happen.
“Just the same, I don't take predictions from dogs,” she told them. “No offense.”