Summer is ending, and Samantha's dad's birthday is right around the corner. When her stepmom picks out a mustang for his present, Sam thinks it's a perfect idea. But will her dad agree?
The new horse is gorgeous, but he's also energetic and willful. Only Sam's dad can tame him -- if he wants to accept the birthday gift at all.
An auburn braid stood out against the black horsehair. Biting her lip in concentration, Samantha Forster tied the strands cut from her own ponytail into Tempest's mane.
For once, the filly cooperated, standing statue-still, until Sam gave her a pat.
"All done," Sam said, but Tempest only shoved Sam with her nose.
The little plait twisted with Tempest's movements, shimmering like a primitive good luck charm in the August sun slanting through the barn rafters overhead.
Sam had read that some Indian warriors braided their own hair into the manes of their horses so that their spirits would mingle. So she'd made a tight, tiny plait at her nape. Then she'd tied it top and bottom with yellow thread and cut it off so close to her scalp that the prick of Gram's sewing scissors made Sam jump.
Stroking Tempest with one hand, Sam used the other to reach to the back of her own neck to feel where she'd cut off the braid. She really hoped it wouldn't leave a bump or gap under the rest of her hair. After all, school started again next week and she'd rather not look weird.
Tempest's small black hooves shifted in the straw. Before the filly turned more restless, Sam talked to her.
"It's just for fun, baby, and to get you used to being handled in any way I can dream up," Sam told Tempest. "I don't actually believe it will blend our spirits, but I do wear a bracelet of your sire's hair." Sam paused as Tempest sniffed the bracelet, almost as if she understood. "And this kind of completes the circle, don't you think?"
Tempest's pink tongue eased out to taste the silver-and-white horsehair bracelet. Then the filly glanced toward the pasture outside the box stall, looking for her mother.
"No, I don't think I'll try this with your mom," Sam said.
She looked past the filly to Dark Sunshine. The buckskin mare groaned and rolled, taking a dust bath like any tame horse. Dark Sunshine was far from tame. Mustang caution about humans still coursed through the mare, but she'd come a long way in trusting Sam.
Right now, for instance, Sam was looming over Dark Sunshine's filly, double-knotting the yellow thread so that Tempest couldn't shake the braid loose. Dark Sunshine noticed, lurched to her feet, then gave a snort and set to searching for a tender blade of grass.
There. Fingertips tingling from the delicate work, Sam stood back with her hands on her hips to consider the effect. Tied just at the crest of Tempest's mane, before her satiny ears, it looked cute.
Eyes closed, Sam hugged Tempest.
"My Xanadu." Sam's lips barely moved as she whispered the filly's secret name.
Sam felt a fuzzy mane against her cheek and she breathed in the foal's milky-sweet scent.
Then annoyed voices clashed with the barn's quiet.
"I'll explain it to you one more time." The voice belonged to Sam's stepmother. Brynna spoke slowly, with forced patience. "I've been told to order more wild horses off the range -- "
"Fine with me," Dad said. "Makes more room for cattle."
What? Sam's throat tightened. This wasn't the first time Dad had taken sides against the horses, but it still shocked her.
"Which species does more damage to the range?" Brynna asked, but she didn't wait for an answer. "Think of solid hooves like horses have . . ." she said.
Sam rested her chin on Tempest's neck, gazed through the open barn door, and watched as Brynna held up fingers curled in a fist.
"And split hooves, like you see on cattle." She divided her fingers.
"Doesn't matter. Those broomtails don't earn a penny for anyone. Cattle do," Dad insisted.
Broomtails? Sam didn't think she'd ever heard Dad use that word. It wasn't like cursing, but it was worse than rude.
Brynna and Dad sounded angrier than she'd ever heard them, but why?
Dad was a cattle rancher and Brynna worked for the Bureau of Land Management, which set rules for grazing livestock on public lands, so of course they disagreed sometimes.
But one minute, they'd been out in the ranch yard talking about tomorrow's adoption day at Willow Springs Wild Horse Center. The next minute their voices had grown louder, and now Dad and Brynna had begun talking through their teeth.
" -- don't even use the same methods to calculate the number of horses and cattle on the range!" Brynna continued. "They count a cow and calf as one animal -- "
"But a horse and foal as two," Dad finished. "You told me."
"You have all the advantages," Brynna said.
"I do?" Dad asked. "What happened to we?"
Brynna caught her breath at that, but she hadn't finished making her points. She stepped closer to Dad and raised her chin, forcing him to look her in the eye.
"You're usually so fair, Wyatt," Brynna said, her freckled face flushed with anger.
Sam waited and watched. Her father and stepmother looked frustrated. They wanted to agree with each other, but couldn't.
Bored with Sam's stillness, Tempest ducked out from under Sam's arm and began nibbling her hand.
"Don't eat my fingers, baby," Sam told her filly, but she didn't pull away. The foal's soft lips comforted her.
When Sam looked up again, Dad and Brynna had moved out of sight.
She edged closer to the barn door and looked out to see Brynna's hands perched on her hips. Dad rubbed the back of his neck.
"Is it worth losin' your job over?" Dad's voice was almost a whisper. When Brynna didn't answer, he went on. "You think I'd abuse this land? Why would I do that?"
"I'm not saying you want to do it, or plan to do it," Brynna said, ignoring Dad's first question to answer the others.
That's probably because Brynna could tell she'd hurt more than Dad's feelings. She'd questioned his devotion to the ranch.
Brynna shook her head hard enough that she almost lost her balance.