Samantha Forster stepped off the school bus and into an icy wind that hinted snow wasn't far away. She zipped up her blue fleece jacket, plunged her hands deep into her pockets, and shivered.
Her best friend, Jen, who usually kept her company on the long walk home, had stayed after school for an advanced math review. The weather wasn't so bad that Gram would drive to the bus stop to pick Sam up. So Sam trudged toward River Bend Ranch alone.
She looked over her shoulder and let her eyes search the Calico Mountains. Just for a minute, she told herself, because of course it was a waste of time.
Up there lay the Phantom's hidden valley. The clouds scudding overhead made the mountains look as dark as Sam's hopes. The magnificent silver mustang wanted nothing to do with her, because she'd betrayed him. Sam felt as if a cold metal ball had lodged where her heart should be. If only she could apologize.
She hadn't betrayed the Phantom, not really, but all his equine mind could know was that she hadn't been there when he needed her.
And now he was nowhere to be found. For weeks, she'd watched the La Charla River at night. Her eyes had searched War Drum Flats as the school bus drove by. And every day she stared at the mountains. Not once had she seen the pale, faraway shape of the Phantom.
Sam hoisted the straps of her backpack and sighed. She wanted to visit the stallion's haven. She imagined herself riding down the dark secret tunnel and emerging into the sunlight to be greeted by a soft nicker that would mean the Phantom had forgiven her for being human.
But that wouldn't work. He had to come to her. Because he hadn't, Sam was afraid the stallion hadfinally lost faith in people. Even her.
She was so intent on the mountain, she didn't notice the three horses in front of her until one snorted.
Two paints and a bay clustered together, shoulder to shoulder, tails to the wind.
She knew right away they weren't mustangs. The bay's nose showed a rubbed place from years of wearing a halter. The tap dancing sound of their hooves said there might be shoes on their overgrown hooves. They jostled against each other to get a better look at Sam.
"Who do you belong to, poor babies?"
Three sets of ears pricked farther forward. One of the paints was mostly white. He cocked his head to the side before taking a few cautious steps toward Sam. The others followed. They kept edging forward until they were only about six feet away.
Sam knew all of River Bend's horses, and most horses from the Three Ponies and Gold Dust ranches, but she didn't know these. Since this was open range, they could have come from almost anywhere. Many ranchers only fenced a few acres of their land, and the Bureau of Land Management didn't fence any.
Impatient for attention, the bay pawed and nickered.
"You're hungry, aren't you?" Sam crooned to the horse. Wind fluttered the bay's thickening winter coat, and she thought she could see the outline of ribs.
A quick look at the other two horses showed Sam they were just as neglected. Sam's cheeks heated with anger. Whoever owned these animals ought to live the same way the horses did. Let the owner go without shelter, meals, and shoes that fit, and see how he liked it.
"I have treats." Sam's singsong voice drew the horses closer. "Granola bars for everyone."
She eased her backpack off eachshoulder and let it down to the desert floor. She crouched beside it, sliding the zipper open quietly, so the horses wouldn't be frightened and bolt. She needn't have bothered. They were too curious to go anywhere.
"I knew these would come in handy." Sam retrieved four foil-wrapped granola bars from her backpack.
Although Gram had learned that Sam wasn't hungry in the morning, she never gave up. She kept offering bacon and eggs, biscuits and gravy, but Sam was satisfied with cereal. So Gram made her take a granola bar, every day, just in case her stomach began growling before lunchtime.
"Honey and oats," Sam announced. She broke the first bar into three pieces. Before she had a chance to toss them to the horses, the mostly white paint shoved past the others and began nuzzling her hand. "Greedy guts," Sam called the horse, but the paint just tossed his head in delight.
She shared the food among them. Although the granola bars had lots of sugar and probably weren't too nutritious for the horses, Sam didn't worry. She might be the first to consider the horses' health for a long time.
They chewed, then sniffed, whiskers brushing the desert. As the horses searched for crumbs, Sam checked them for brands. She didn't see any, though the marks could be hidden under their shaggy hair.
"We're going to do something about this," she told them. "And the first thing to do is get you a real meal."
Should she challenge these horses' owners? Sam didn't wonder long. She'd failed to keep the Phantom safe, but she wouldn't fail these horses who'd walked right up and asked for her help.
Like three big dogs, the horses followed Sam. She tried not to imagine what Dad would saywhen he saw them.
Dad made lots of rules. His strictest rule was that everyone on the ranch worked and every animal earned its feed. River Bend horses worked the same long days as the cowboys. Gram cooked and cleaned in addition to being the ranch bookkeeper and Dad's business partner. Sam's chores were more than a formality. Without her help, Gram and Dad would be working long after sundown. Even Blaze, the dog, could herd cattle and sound the alarm when strangers neared the ranch.
"But all kids bring home strays, don't they?" Sam asked the horses.
Terri Farleyhas always loved horses. She left Los Angeles for the cowgirl state of Nevada after earning degrees in English and Journalism. Now she rides the range researching books and magazine articles on the West's people and animals -- especially Nevada's controversial wild horses. She lives in a one-hundred-year-old house with her husband, children, and way too many pets.