Samantha would be thrilled to be helping drive cattle to the county fair, but she's worried. A strange horse shows up at the fair, and the mare's definitely tame. But who is her owner?
Sam is determined to solve the mystery, even when she starts being threatened by someone ... who will do anything to get her off the case.
"Look out!" Samantha Forster jerked her knees away from the gearshift as Jake jammed the truck into a lower gear and it labored uphill.
"Sorry," Jake mumbled.
Sam could tell he didn't think the bump warranted an apology.
The lurch had jolted Sam out of a restless doze. Sandwiched between her two best friends, Jake Ely and Jennifer Kenworthy, Sam should have felt cozy as they drove through the predawn darkness.
Instead, she felt cramped. She couldn't wait to escape the truck's crowded cab, saddle her horse Ace, who rode in the trailer hooked up behind the truck, and ride out into the summer morning.
Sam couldn't imagine a better saddle horse than Ace. Since she'd returned to the ranch last year, the little bay mustang had been her friend as much as the humans sitting beside her. She couldn't bear the thought of losing him, so she pushed that thought aside.
The road up to the Pinion Pine campsite was paved, but twisty and pocked with potholes. They'd lost radio reception just after starting up into the mountains. Minutes after that, Jen had fallen asleep.
Conversation would have made the drive more interesting, but Jake Ely rarely had much to say. This morning was no different.
Sam couldn't get a good look at Jake's expression. Her sideways glance caught the dull sheen of black hair tied back with a leather thong, a set jaw, and high cheekbones that showed his Shoshone heritage.
When Jake noticed her looking, he said, "Watch my hat," without taking his eyes from the road ahead.
Although Sam's and Jen's hats were on a shelf in the horse trailer, Jake's black Stetson rode on Sam's lap in the cab of the denim-blue truck.
She didn't mind. At least not much. Jake was a good friend, despite his silence. He didn't say much more to her than Ace did.
Sam drew a deep breath. If she let him read the letter she'd jammed in her pocket, Jake would give her sensible advice. But that was the last thing she wanted.
"I still say you should go with us," Sam said, returning to an earlier, safer topic.
Jake gave a grunt. It must be a sign of how long they'd known each other that Sam was able to interpret the sound to mean, You would think that.
"It'll be fun riding through the mountains, and the cattle are practically tame," she added.
Jake gave a slight shake of his head. He knew she was right, but he didn't care. "It's your loss," she said.
She'd never ridden on the annual Darton Rodeo cattle drive and she was excited to join it today. For three days, steers and calves that would be ridden or roped during the rodeo were herded over the range and through the mountains to reach the Darton County fairgrounds. AnyoneÑfrom local businessmen and -women to touristsÑcould pay to experience an improved version of the Old West. Along with the dust and lowing of cattle, guest riders had luxuries cowboys didn't. Sam had heard there would be portable showers and toilets, plus an air-conditioned van for those too saddle sore to swing back onto their dude-proof horses.
"Dad promised we'd be working the cattle, not wrangling dudes," Sam reminded Jake.
During his high school rodeo days, Dad had been pals with Hal "Ride 'Em" Ryden. While Dad had turned to college, then ranching, Hal Ryden had become a famous bull rider.
Dad insisted that Hal used to come by the ranch whenever he had a rodeo within driving distance, but Sam didn't remember him. Now Hal had retired from riding, but not rodeoing. He was a successful stock contractor, supplying cattle and horses to rodeos all over the West.
He'd told Dad he enjoyed driving the stock into town the old way, but he'd taken one look at the terrain for the last day of the drive and known he'd lose some cattle if he didn't have riders who knew this range.
The last twelve miles were the most difficult, and he'd admitted he needed more help to deliver the cattle to their destination.
Although Dad couldn't spare Ross and Pepper, his cowboys, he'd asked Jake and Sam if they'd like to earn a few dollars escorting cattle down from the mountains and through a few city streets to the fairgrounds. At first, they'd both agreed.
"Did you hear that?" Jake said suddenly, interrupting Sam's thoughts. "Like a siren?" He rolled his window open an inch.
"I didn't hear anything," Sam told him. "You're just trying to distract me."
"Nope," Jake said, closing the window. "You were sayin' how the plan was Ôno messin' with dudes.'"
He sounded casual, but Sam noticed the stiff set of Jake's shoulders and knew why. Jake avoided Linc Slocum whenever he could. And Linc was playing cowboy on this rodeo cattle drive.
Linc Slocum had been looking for ways to prove himself a Westerner since he had moved to northern Nevada. Wearing expensive hats and boots, slinging around lame cowboy slang, and learning to ride didn't help. Neither did collecting exotic horses, cattle, and even bison, or bankrolling the capture of the Phantom, a stallion legendary for his ability to elude capture.
"You can't blame the rodeo commission for being grateful that Linc donated thousands of dollars for a huge fireworks display at the end of the rodeo performances," Sam said, though the words nearly stuck in her throat.
According to her stepmother, Brynna, the rodeo commission had thanked Linc Slocum by giving him a VIP pass to all rodeo events, including the cattle drive.
"Some folks got no problem seein' their money go up in smoke," Jake said, steering around a rock in the road so he wouldn't jostle the horses riding in the trailer.
Jake was right. As one of the richest men in northern Nevada, Linc didn't mind spending money on his image. This time it had worked.
Sam stifled a groan. With the trouble she had on her mind, Linc Slocum would be tough to take. Linc already considered himself a Very Important Person. Now, he'd have a pass that proved it.