The Phantom's lead mare is missing from the herd, and Sam's worried she may have been captured. When Sam finds the mare safe -- in government custody -- she's desperate to set her free.
But the horse is badly injured, and setting her free on the range could slow down the mare's entire herd, putting them at risk in the dangerous winter months. How far should Sam go to help the horses she loves?
Samantha Forster stood in the shower, listening to the wild neighs and galloping hooves of mustangs. She shook water out of her ears, parted the shower curtains, and stuck her head out.
Her kitten, Cougar, sat on the tile around the bathroom sink, cleaning a paw.
His gold eyes met her blue ones.
Sam knew they were alone in the white two-story house on River Bend Ranch. Gram and Brynna, her soon-to-be stepmother, were in town arranging altar flowers for the wedding and checking the decorations for the reception. Dad and Dallas, River Bend's foreman and Dad's reluctant best man, had driven in to Darton to pick up tuxedos.
Sam kept listening, but when she heard no more whinnies, she relaxed. Her shoulders sagged as she sighed.
"Nothing, Cougar," Sam told the brown kitten. "Only my imagination."
Sam closed the shower curtains and sang. Maybe she could drown her silly thoughts with music.
"Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh . . ."
No snow was predicted, but it was Christmas Eve and the carol suited her excited mood.
Six hours from now, bells would ring from the steeple of the white Methodist church in Darton. As maid of honor, she'd move down the aisle toward her smiling father. She'd wear a pine-green gown and carry a bouquet of roses. Minutes later, Brynna Olson, director of the Willow Springs Wild Horse Center, would be married to Wyatt Forster, cattle rancher. Sam would have a stepmother and, strange as she would have thought it just last summer, she liked the idea just fine.
"O'er the fields we go," Sam kept singing. She loved the way her voice echoed in the shower, but it was time to get out. It was after ten a.m. Jake would be here to pick her up at two and there was lots to do before then.
Still, if she hurried, she'd have time to investigate. She had definitely heard something, and since it was December, it shouldn't be wild horses. The mustangs should be tucked away in the Phantom's secret valley. A quick ride would put her mind at rest.
Sam cranked the water off. She'd promised to do a few last-minute chores before leaving the house. She squeezed the water from her auburn hair, then pushed open the shower curtains, still singing.
". . . laughing all the wayha ha ha!"
Cougar didn't like that last part. He jumped for the towel rack, clung to a blue terry cloth towel, and swayed there. Looking over his shoulder, he watched Sam for further signs of insanity.
When her dripping hand reached in his direction, he fell skittering to the floor. Sam opened the bathroom door so he could escape.
There it was again. Through the opening, she heard a confusion of high-pitched neighs that didn't belong anywhere near River Bend.
Dressed in a towel, Sam sprinted to her bedroom window and let her eyes search the terrain below.
To her right lay the ten-acre pasture filled with five saddle horses and two mustangs-in-training for the Horse and Rider Protection program. Though their ears pricked forward, listening as if they'd heard the neighs, too, the River Bend horses weren't eager to look into the disturbance. They clustered together, tails to the cold morning wind.
Around the house, the ranch yard was a pale sandy apron. Except for their Border collie, Blaze, sniffing around for breakfast, the yard was empty. She looked toward the bridge over the La Charla River. From there, the road led to Darton if you turned right, to Jake's Three Ponies Ranch if you turned left. There wasn't a car or truck in sight.
Far out over the range, nothing moved except a single crow, flapping across the blue-gray sky.
No matter which direction she stared, nothing looked out of place.
Sam knew what any outsider would say. Seven horses grazed in the big pasture. Two more were stabled in barn stalls. If she heard neighs, they had to come from these horses. But she knew that wasn't so . . .
Sam recognized the voice of each horse on River Bend Ranch. She wasn't hearing Ace's high, soaring call, coaxing her to go for a ride, or Strawberry's cranky snorting. The sounds resembled Dark Sunshine's longing whinnies toward the Calico Mountains, but the buckskin mare couldn't make all the overlapping sounds Sam had heard.
Just because she couldn't see anything out of the ordinary didn't mean everything was fine. Jake had accused her of trying to be a horse psychic. That was ridiculous, but Sam and the magnificent stallion called the Phantom definitely shared a connection.
Since summer, his herd had been in turmoil. First, the Phantom had been accused of stealing domestic mares, and a reward had been posted for his capture. The wild bunch had been pursued by rustlers, then left without a leader when the Phantom had been used as a bucking bronc in a rodeo. Just a few weeks ago, an orphaned cougar had stalked the Phantom's herd, hoping to make a meal of a spring foal.
But the young cougar had been captured and transplanted to another mountain range. What could have the horses stirred up now?
Just feet from Sam's window, a second crow crossed the sky, cawing a warning.
"That's it," Sam muttered. She'd jet through her chores, saddle Ace, check things out, and still be back here in time to meet Jake.
Sam dressed as fast as she could, then set to work. She watered the herbs in Gram's window garden, made up the bed for Aunt Sue, who was coming from San Francisco for the wedding, and cleaned up her breakfast dishes.
She dashed from the house, collected the hens' eggs, and made sure all the stock had been fed and watered. She turned Sweetheart into the new round pen next to the barn, but left Ace in his stall.
"I'll be back for you in a minute, good boy." She kissed his muzzle, then ran to refill Blaze's water dish. The Border collie looked toward the front gate and whined.