Samantha and Jen are out camping when they meet Nicholas, a boy traveling cross-country on a beautiful Gypsy Vanner mare, learning about his gypsy ancestry.
His caravan also includes a young colt. Nicholas says it's a stray, but the colt looks a lot like a missing mustang. When people start getting suspicious, Sam wants to stick up for her new friend. But has she put her faith in an untrustworthy drifter?
If there could be such a thing as a second summer, this was it.
Samantha Forster lay on her back in the warm grass and gazed at a cloud Pegasus. Drifts of white made up the mane and tail and gray-edged clumps looked like muscular shoulders. If not for the cloud wings trimmed with sun gold, he'd look like the Phantom.
The mustang stallion could be watching from a nearby ridge or peering through a screen of pinion pines. Sam lay totally still, wishing he'd appear.
Sam's jeans felt hot against her legs. Her head was pillowed on her jacket. Her outspread arms were bare to the green shoots poking up between the brittle autumn grass left uneaten by deer, antelope, or wild horses over the summer.
Why hadn't the cold nighttime temperatures kept the baby grass from pushing up from the warm darkness of the dirt? Why didn't the grass have more sense than to explore where its tender tips would be frozen off any night now?
Sam smiled and closed her eyes. She basked in the sun's warmth and studied the scarlet network of veins crisscrossing the inside of her eyelids. She must be half asleep if she was actually asking herself why grass didn't have the sense to stay underground.
Right now, though, being half asleep was a good thing. She'd promised her best friend, Jen Kenworthy, that she'd play dead for at least an hour.
The two girls had ridden out from River Bend Ranch on Ace and Silly after school the day before.
Armed with a hand-drawn map from Jen's Advanced Biology teacher, the girls had searched for the turkey vultures' roost yesterday on an offshoot of the trail up to Cowkiller Caldera. At dusk, they'd found a tree filled with the black birds.
"Oh, yeah!" Jen had rejoiced and her excitement had electrified her palomino. She'd had to turn the mare in circles to keep her from bolting. Once her mount had settled, Jen had whispered, "We'll be back in the morning."
Grinning without opening her eyes, Sam recalled that Jen hadn't been talking to her. Only her best friend would make a promise to turkey vultures.
They'd turned their horses around, walked back down the hillside, and pitched camp far enough away that they wouldn't disturb the birds.
Jen had researched turkey vultures and come to the conclusion that they were totally misunderstood. She'd vowed to do firsthand research for her project so that she didn't repeat any other scientists' mistakes. That firsthand research included luring the birds near enough that she could sketch them.
Now Jen and Sam were lying still as corpses, hoping a curious turkey vulture would actually land beside them and hop close enough to satisfy its curiosity.
"They have such good senses of smell, they'll know we're not dead," Jen whispered beside her.
Sam rolled her eyes as far to the left as she could without moving her head. She saw blond braids and a tanned face, but Jen's lips didn't seem to move.
"Won't smell rotten enough," Sam joked.
"Sam," Jen said patiently, "they only eat freshly dead things."
"I didn't know buzzards were so picky," Sam teased.
"There are no buzzards in the United States," Jen hissed. "Now we have to hush. Any minute, they could fly off for South America. This flock is rare. It could be the one that stays in Nevada through October."
Sam pressed her lips together, telling herself this flock of turkey vultures wasn't the only thing that was rare. She'd bet there weren't two other teenagers in the country getting their pre-Halloween thrills by offering themselves as bird bait.
Still, Sam was glad Jen had coaxed her into sharing these peaceful moments.
Sam's life had been hamster-on-a-wheel crazy since she'd moved back to northern Nevada from San Francisco. She never would have thought of soaking up October sunshine in a meadow that would soon be blasted by winter storms.
This was a great escape after almost a month of being grounded.
For four long weeks she'd done what she was toldÑmorning chores, school, afternoon chores, and homeworkÑover and over again. She'd learned her lesson this time. She wouldn't do anything to make Dad, Gram, and Brynna worry. Although sometimes it was impossible to tell what would set them off.
Her only fun during those long weeks had come from perfecting her bareback riding skills on her bay mustang Ace.
Since she wasn't allowed to leave the ranch on horseback, she'd sat on him in the corral, trying to find a perfect balance that didn't involve squeezing her legs and accidentally sending him forward.
One afternoon Dallas, River Bend's foreman, had finally asked, "You gonna roost on that horse all night?"
It had sounded like heaven to Sam. What could be cozier than spending the night on Ace, leaning forward with her arms around his neck and her cheek leaning against his mane?
She and Ace had come a long way together since she'd returned from San Francisco. She'd come home a totally timid rider. If she was a cowgirl now, Ace got most of the credit. He'd tricked and bullied her until she knew that if she didn't take charge, he would.
He'd never be a push-button horse, but she loved him with all her heart.
Sam sighed. Jen shushed her again.
Sam raised her eyelashes a tenth of a millimeter and saw three turkey vultures riding the air currents above her.
Cross-shaped black bodies circled, mimicking Sam's own position. Except, in place of arms, they had wide, prehistoric-looking wings. Sam wanted to believe they were just as afraid of her as she was of them, but what if the vultures really mistook her for a dead thing?
It could happen. She remembered a Thanksgiving when she was a little kid, when she'd mistaken a plastic grape for the real thing.