Samantha's friend Ryan wants to recapture his lost horse, Hotspot, who has been running free with the Phantom Stallion's herd. But Hotspot's foal, Shy Boots, needs her back at home -- the young horse is having trouble without his mother to protect him. Sam wants to help her friend, and she wants to help the horses. But will Ryan's plans do more harm than good?
Glossy 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.
No, 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.