PHANTOM, THE PROTECTOR
A novella by Terri Farley
Copyright 2013 Terri Farley
All Rights Reserved
Each morning for five days, the storm-colored stallion had tried to leave the safest place he’d ever known.
But the tunnel out of his hidden valley had still been blocked.
Today, he’d try again.
The Phantom didn’t look back at his mares and foals. He focused on picking his way up the rocky hillside. He must be careful. One dislodged boulder could snap his slim legs or bowl him over and send him tumbling back to the valley floor.
The going was easier when he reached the path. His hooves had worn the trail since the snows stopped and the rains began. He broke into a trot.
For five days, there’d been no ice at the stream’s edge. Warming time was near. If his colts and fillies were to be strong of bone and brain, his herd must travel to richer graze.
But not until he’d scouted the way.
The hidden valley had enough grass, but no more than that. The stallion lifted his head and breathed deep. His nostrils tingled at the scent of plants growing outside the valley. He champed his jaws, longing to graze on grass green from the sun, not yellow from shade. He was tired of sipping at the valley stream. He wanted to drink deep from the noisy La Charla River.
The path ended at the dark passage.
He pawed dirt at the tunnel’s mouth. He hated the rock walls that brushed his sides. He hated to lower his head. Looking down made him uneasy, but worse was to scrape his ear tips on the rock-sky above.
So, the stallion stopped with his hooves outside the tunnel, and stretched his silver neck to peer inside.
He smelled growing things and there! He blinked at a lighter shade of darkness. It was actually light.
Dust danced in a bar of sun. He gave a snort. That brightness would heat the air he breathed and spread warm across his skin.
He plunged ahead. Pebbles grated under his hooves and he trotted on, even when the sunlight was dimmed by more rain.
His heart beat fast.
As the Phantom charged toward the smells of mud and change, something struck him from behind.
The Phantom recognized her familiar smell. Once she'd been a corral-dweller. The scents of oats and hay lingered on the horse behind him. Warm and insistent, his lead mare, Dark Sunshine, crowded against his hindquarters, urging him to go.
He squealed a reprimand, but the mare snorted and held her place.
Dark Sunshine had no foal. Many of his mares were not mothers. In the sweet confinement of the hidden valley, that was right.
With fewer colts and fillies to discipline, the lead mare kept stern order among the mares. She’d tried to be harsh with the stallion, too. She flattened her black-tinged buckskin ears and narrowed her dark eyes when he relaxed.
And he ignored her.
Why shouldn’t a stallion fling himself to the ground to roll and glory in the pleasure of scratching his back, if no challenger lurked nearby?
He knew every horse in the valley. No lean and lonely bachelor stallion hid in the pinion pine trees, ready to steal his mares.
He couldn’t recall the last teeth-slashing, hoof-stabbing ambush.
He ruled the valley.
He ruled this tunnel, too, but Dark Sunshine stamped for him to keep moving.
Enough! He let both hind hooves fly. Sunny avoided his kick and shambled backward. She stayed quiet for so long, the stallion had to look back.
He tucked his chin to his chest and turned his head as well as he could in the tunnel. The skin on his neck wrinkled as he strained to see her, to rebuke her with his eyes.
Dark Sunshine backed off further and blew through her lips. Even though she was annoyed, the Phantom knew he could trust the mare to keep the other horses from following him -- if he made it out.
Rain shifted the boulders that blocked his way out.
Suddenly there was more light. The scents of green grass and red mud were stronger.
The Phantom charged, hooves ringing against the stone floor. At the last moment, he swung his head aside and struck the tumble of rocks with his shoulder. A boulder slipped away at the impact.
His heartbeats filled the silence until the boulder crashed and more rocks rattled away.
The stallion had tried to force his way out, before, but this time was different.
Beyond the rain, warm humidity told of open land and room to stretch his legs. His muscles twitched, impatient to gallop. Full out and crazy, he’d zig-zag, buck and run, unbounded by valley walls.
He backed a few steps and sprinted, striking with his other shoulder. A terrible slam-crack and then a rolling scatter of rock.
Dark Sunshine’s nicker echoed down the tunnel behind him. She warned of danger.
The stallion didn’t listen. He shook his head. His wet forelock whipped over his eyes as he forced his way against the wind and emerged from the tunnel.
The Phantom stood still. His eyes took in the rust, green and brown landscape that unrolled before him.
He had cleared the way to the world!
A neigh of challenge burst from him, warning all creatures that the Phantom was back.
Arms crossed, Samantha Anne Forster stood on the front porch of the white ranch house. She frowned at the rainbow arching over the Calico Mountains.
“You’re just asking for you face to stick that way,” Gram said, though she appeared to concentrate on cutting daffodils for the kitchen table.
“My face won’t stick anyway.” Sam couldn’t help smiling. Even though she was just 3 months from being a senior in high school, Gram treated her like she was ten.
“Why take a chance?” Gram winced as she straightened her knees.
“There!” Sam pointed. “Do you see it?”
With her arms full of yellow flowers, Gram shouldered a piece of gray hair away from her face. Then she stood shoulder to shoulder with Sam and stared into the empty sky.
“No, I don’t see anything, but I might hear it."
“The chopper’s warming up,” Sam said. She’d been to the Willow Springs Wild Horse Center. She could picture the helicopter landing pad, the Bureau of Land Management office buildings and dozens of empty corrals.
“It sounds like a giant lawn mower.” Gram said.
And BLM wants to use it to mow down wild horses, Sam thought.
The helicopter rose slowly and its rotors shone silver against the gray sky.
Penny and Popcorn bolted across the saddle horse pasture, ears flat. Both mustangs were strong, dependable ranch horses, but they had not forgotten the sight and sound of the flying monster that had chased them into captivity.
Ace neighed after them, but Sam thought he understood that he was safe.
“I see it now,” Gram said, sighing. “Seems like the bad old days are back. By now I thought BLM would be over their horse huntin’ craziness.”
“I wish,” Sam said.
“At least your Phantom is safe.” Gram nudged Sam.
“I know it.”
“But you don’t believe it? Listen, young lady: that’s a blessing you should give thanks for,” Gram said.
Sam was glad that the Phantom had found safety in the secret valley. As long as the wild stallion stayed on River Bend Ranch, BLM couldn’t stampede him into captivity. But she felt uneasy.
“I am thankful, Gram, but I care about the other horses, too. I guess I hoped the rain would last longer.”
“Even though it’s Spring Break,” Gram said, and then kissed Sam’s cheek.
Unless the storm crashed back down on them with enough wind and fury to ground the helicopter, Willow Spring’s corrals would fill up with wild horses.
Zombie horses, Sam thought. Mustangs couldn’t remain in absolute terror for long. Some died of shock, but most just -- changed.
The first time she’d visited Willow Springs, she’d felt sick and then angry.
Foals that had been born at Willow Springs were frisky and curious, but the mares and newly-gelded stallions that had known freedom stared through their corral bars with dulled eyes.
Then, she’d believed adult horses didn’t remember the range once roamed.
But now, as she watched Popcorn and Penny lean against each other, she knew better.
Mustangs never forgot.
The helicopter stopped hovering like an indecisive insect and flew toward the Calico Mountains.
“He’s going to fly right over us. With all the open land, you’d think he could avoid the ranch.” Sam felt disgusted and worried.
"Everything is in balance, now. The cattle, wildlife and mustangs have shared the range just fine without BLM stepping in to ‘fix’ things.” In frustration, Sam pounded her fists against her jeans.
“Shh,” Gram told Sam. “Brynna’s already riled up about this.”
“Okay,” Sam agreed.
“She said she was going to call over to Willow Springs and find out why they’re doing a round-up this time of year.” Gram tsked her tongue over her daughter-in-law’s contrariness. “I told her she’d better be nice as pie to that Norman White, but I’m not real confident she’ll take my advice.”
Pregnancy hadn’t been the only reason Brynna left her job as manager of Willow Springs Wild Horse Center. Brynna was a trained scientist and she grew more furious every time her advice was ignored by her superiors in Washington, D.C.
When she’d taken a leave of absence, Brynna had been replaced by Norman White, a man with a calculator for a brain and a spreadsheet in place of a heart.
“I’ll be quiet,” Sam said, “But as soon as that chopper starts circling, and focusing on something, I’m going to drive over there.”
“And do what?” Gram asked.
“Spook the horses away,” Sam said.
Gram shook her head. Did that mean disapproval or disbelief?
“If Dad won’t let me use the truck,” Sam said, “I’ll borrow Brynna’s car or I’ll just wait for Jake.”
As the helicopter roared closer, Sam tried to forget her nightmare.
Last night, as rainstorms had pounded the ranch and ranchlands, she’d had dreamed of helicopters stalking horses.
But the helicopter meant that the rumors of round-ups were more than bad dreams, so Sam pictured herself piling into the old denim-colored truck Jake shared with his brothers. They head out for the range just like they had before Jake left for college.
I’ll be happy either way, Sam thought. She loved the freedom of having her driver’s license, of stopping for a soda or to pick up Jen on her way to do errands in Darton. But she was excited to see Jake, too. It had been a long time since Christmas.
Just about everyone in the county – including Sam’s family and Jake’s – had been crowded into the annual community Christmas party at Clara’s diner, when Jake came home.
Sam remembered the overheated café, the babble of voices, “Jingle Bell Rock” blaring from the jukebox, and the fragrance of pine boughs mixed with the aroma of pineapple upside-down cake.
When the bell over the door had signaled a newcomer, Sam had instantly recognized Jake’s snow-sprinkled black hair and fleece- lined coat. Running in her new boots – an early Christmas present -- she’d tripped on her way to meet him.
She hadn’t planned to lose her balance right under the mistletoe, and she hadn’t planned for Jake to catch her.
It just turned out that way and they’d been sharing a hug under the mistletoe when his brothers pounced. Jake ducked the good-natured punches and shouldered past them, laughing, as he went to greet his parents.
A door squeaked -- not in memory, but in real life.
Sam and Gram glanced at the house in time to see the screen door slam.
When no one came out, Sam and Gram said, “Cody.”
Sam’s baby brother couldn’t walk yet, but he could scoot anywhere he wanted to go.
Now, Cody wanted to go outside. He banged the soles of his little shoes against the kitchen door. Soon, he’d have the screen door open wide enough to scoot through.
Scooted. Banged. Scooted…
“Go!” Cody demanded.
Go was one of Cody’s three words. The other two were Dada and Mam.
Sam was pretty sure that Mam meant Sam, but he used it to call Blaze, the ranch Border Collie, too.
“Mam!” Cody thumped some more.
Gram’s armload of daffodils meant it was Sam’s turn to catch the little critter before he escaped.
She whisked the baby out of the house and balanced him on her hip.
He flapped his arms. “Mam, go!”
“Did somebody catch my runaway?” Brynna smiled as she leaned through the opening, a phone held to her ear, but she didn’t look happy.
Brynna’s blue eyes were red-rimmed. Her hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail instead of her usual French braid.
“I’ve got – " Sam began, but then Brynna held up a hand, gesturing for Sam to wait. “ – him,” she finished in a whisper.
Brynna mouthed "thanks," as she let the screen close.
Whup, whup, whup. The helicopter was definitely getting closer.
At first, because she couldn’t hear what Brynna was saying, Sam thought it was just the door screen that made her stepmother’s face look gray.
Then, Sam remembered Norman White. His wide smile looked like he’d had extra teeth implanted across the front, but the strict set of his shoulders and his love for rules, made the smile a joke.
The first day she’d met him – long before Brynna had married Sam’s father – Norman White had been telling Brynna eight rules he considered before destroying a horse.
Now, past the racket of the overhead helicopter, Brynna said, “It’s the wrong time of year for a gather, Norman. Most of the mares have new foals. A few still have to give birth. Because I know, because that’s -- ”
Sam shuddered. A man who had rules for killing horses would definitely have rules for rounding them up.
“Norman, listen --” Brynna interrupted. “When was the last time anyone gave you a compliment or a raise for saving money?”
Brynna listened. And listened some more.
Cody sucked his finger as stared over Sam’s shoulder and watched his mother. When he took a shaky breath, Sam jounced him on her hip. She wanted him to stay quiet, so that she could hear Brynna.
“Norman, I’m very well aware that I don’t work for BLM anymore. I only expect you to listen to me as someone with wild horse expertise. What do you mean `free’? He’s not working for you for – Okay, then, ask yourself why. Helicopters aren’t cheap. Fuel isn’t cheap and pilots --”
The commotion overhead made Sam shade her eyes and look up.
Dust blinded her. Cody screeched, Blaze barked and Gram shouted “Oh, my land!”
Sam rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes in time to see Tempest, black and graceful as a panther, gallop across her paddock.
The filly screamed as Sam had only heard one other horse scream before. It gave her chills. If Tempest hadn’t been a fifteen hand yearling and night-black to her mother’s bright buckskin, Sam would have thought the cry had come from Dark Sunshine.
“You’d better go to her!” Brynna had deserted the phone to shoulder her way through the screen and nodded toward Tempest even before she grabbed Cody.
Brynna knew Tempest’s mustang mother had never settled down. Captivity had turned Dark Sunshine half-mad.
Why was that helicopter landing in the middle of the ranch yard?
Hooves thundered as the saddle herd stampeded to the far end of their pasture. They crowded into a corner.
Sam’s hair whipped into her eyes.
“What is he doing?” Sam yelled, unafraid, but furious as the rotors’ wind tugged her shirt and swirled the daffodils from Gram’s arms, into an insane yellow cyclone.
A helter-skelter shadow covered the three women and the baby.
Then, right between the house and the barn, the chopper landed.
The Phantom watched the bird.
Level with the passageway to the secret valley, a she-hawk rode the wind. Her wings tipped right, and then her feather tips flared and she banked left.
The hawk ignored the stallion because he was no danger to her. She stared down through the ocean of air that lapped the hillside and searched for prey
The Phantom should have copied the hawk’s patience. Caution did whisper in his mind, but he flattened his ears to keep out the warning voice.
Instead of trotting down dusty deer paths the stallion leapt from one level to the next. He faced bushes, boulders, and ground squirrel holes as he they came.
Once he grunted in pain. A slide on pebbles made an old injury feel new. He shook his mane and gathered himself for the final descent, but paused when he saw something else that was both old and new. He saw the flat white land, the canyon streaked with water-colored rock, and a meadow watered by snowmelt, but something about it confused him.
It took the hum of a far-off Death Bird to remind him what it was: a web.
The web was made of green metal instead of the white boards of his colthood. He kept walking, puzzling over the new web until a Death Bird crossed the sky.
When it lowered into the place of his colthood, fear shivered his skin.
Girl was sometimes part of his herd, but this was her territory. If the Death Bird had come for Girl, could he keep her safe?
The Phantom’s heart raced with the Death Bird’s roar as it lifted into the sky.
It followed Girl and the once-mustang, Ace.
The Phantom flattened his ears and rolled power into his muscles. He did not want the Death Bird to stalk them.
While it was airborne, the stallion couldn’t challenge the Death Bird any more than he could fly after the hawk.
The Phantom nosed through a stand of juniper. He sidled in far enough that the herbal-smelling branches parted for his chest, dragged along his shoulders and sides.
The stallion watched the Death Bird chase Girl. When it landed, he would be waiting.
“Blaze, stay!” Wyatt Forster’s voice lashed through the sudden silence.
The Border Collie snarled.
Head level with his shoulders, Blaze stalked toward
“I said ‘stay.’”
As Wyatt strode across the ranch yard, Sam noticed the scuffed leather farrier’s apron tied on over his jeans.
Shoeing horses was her father’s least favorite job
Blaze gave a final bark and trotted toward Wyatt.
Because the dog was simply doing his job, Blaze would escape her father’s bad mood but the fool who’d landed a helicopter on his ranch wouldn’t be so lucky.
The pilot climbed down from the cockpit. His tight leather flight jacket and mirrored sunglasses looked old – not centuries, but decades. Sam wondered how long he’d been a pilot.
Blaze whirled toward the intruder, but Wyatt grabbed the dog’s collar.
“What’s gotten into you,” he grumbled.
Blaze hung his head and his tail drooped, as Wyatt side-stepped Brynna and drooling Cody and shut the dog inside the house.
“Sorry to make such a ruckus, but I’m working a job out this way,” the pilot said, “Norm told me I’d best check out property boundaries because you folks are pretty prissy when it comes to your stock.”
Wow, if the guy was going for three strikes, he was nearly there.
He didn’t sound a bit sorry for making a ruckus, Sam thought, and calling any of them “pretty prissy” was an insult.
Cattle and horses paid the bills. There would be no River Bend Ranch without them. It was that simple.
Dad didn’t say a word. Neither did Brynna. Gram tried, but every time she opened her lips, they closed again. The guy was so rude, he’d left even Gram speechless.
The guy lifted his dark glasses. “I’m Dave Trago.”
His eyes were light-colored and twitchy. He didn’t extend his hand to be shaken, so nobody went after it, but Sam thought Brynna echoed the name Trago under her breath.
“I’m clearing some nuisance horses off property that belongs to a private citizen. It’s kind of a trial run. After this, I’ll be working for the tribal council. After they get their new chief,” he added.
Chairman, Sam thought, not chief, and wow, Jake’s going to hate him.
“Nuisance horses?” Brynna asked.
“On private land,” he emphasized, so she’d know they weren’t mustangs on BLM-controlled lands. “Yes, ma’am. Ferals."
He let his words sink in.
Had Norman White warned him that Brynna’s soft heart for wild horses plus her knowledge of law made her formidable?
“It won’t be much work. I’ve got the trap set up. Now all I’ve got to do is drive ‘em into the corral --” he tilted his head toward the chopper, “—and close the gate.”
“And then what?” Brynna asked.
Dave Trago shrugged and smiled. His manufactured grin reminded Sam of Norman’s.
“Haul ‘em off,” Trago said.
“Who’s the land-owner?” Sam asked.
An alarm shrilled in her mind.
She knew her neighbors – the Ely family, the Kenworthys, and Mrs. Allen – and none of them would hire a chopper pilot to round up wild horses.
“Samantha,” Gram said, “I’m sure that’s Mr. Trago’s business, not yours.”
Brynna said it under her breath again: Trago.
“It’s no secret, ma’am,” the pilot told Gram, and then he turned to Sam. “It’s Mr. Slocum.”
Mister, like he was an adult and she was a child.
A year ago Sam would’ve stormed around, saying well, that figures, but now Dave Trago’s answer was a relief.
Ryan Slocum might be the son of her worst enemy, but he was a good guy. He loved horses. He was her best friend’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, too, and even though she didn’t agree with him hiring a helicopter to urge the mustangs back into the mountains, Sam knew he’d do nothing to hurt them.
When Dad shook his head, Sam knew he thought Ryan Slocum was wasting his money, paying a helicopter pilot to move a few horses off his land. But Dad didn’t say it He just asked “What’s he got in mind, cattle?”
Golf course? Sam tried to twist the words into making sense. Maybe Dave Trago had said of course, or you’re off course.
In the middle of the high desert, surrounded by cattle, horses and jackrabbits, he couldn’t mean a manicured sweep of green grass punched with little holes. Could he?
Sam tried to catch Dave Trago’s eyes, but he stared toward the house
Nose pressed to the screen, Blaze took up barking, again.
“Which land would he use for a golf course?” Gram sounded tentative.
Good question, Sam thought.
After the Bureau of Land Management had made land deals designed to protect wild horses, Riverbend and most other ranches had been forced to fit into a jigsaw puzzle arrangement.
Gold Dust ranch had a little-finger shaped piece of land across the river between War Drum Flats and Deer Path Ranch, Three Ponies Ranch held title to land bisected by a highway and the Phantom’s hidden valley was part of River Bend Ranch.
Dave Trago didn’t answer Gram. He rolled his shoulders. His leather jacket squeaked. He snapped his fingers silently. The guy was just rude.
Finally, he said, “It’s not Ryan Slocum. It’s Linc.”
“I don’t think so,” Sam knew she sounded as rude as Trago. “Linc Slocum is in jail.”
“Dave Trago!” Brynna had just recognized the pilot’s name. "You got get into trouble gathering wild horses for Oregon BLM?”
Trago sucked in a breath.
“More a misunderstanding. I’m partial to big heavy horses, draft types, you might say, and there were a few I couldn’t resist.”
Sam turned toward Brynna and lowered her voice a little as she asked, “What’s that have to do with Linc Slocum?”
“And a golf course,” Gram put in.
Sam still couldn’t picture a golf course in the middle of Nevada sagebrush and boulders.
It was out of place.
People could like horses and golf.
In fact, Katie Sterling, whose family raised competitive Morgan show horses, had referred to some of their buyers as belonging to the “tennis and golf crowd.”
But would they drive all the way out here, spend the day and play?
Sam watched Brynna, Gram and Trago talk, but what she really wanted was to call Jen. Her best friend could just wander over and casually ask Ryan – if they were a couple today -- if he’d known about his father’s plan.
And even if Ryan and Jen were on a “break,” Jen could ask Ryan to stop his father’s latest scheme.
Sam looked down at the scuffed toes of her boots.
Dave Trago claimed he’d met Slocum in prison.
Brynna said Trago had been in trouble for stealing wild horses from the BLM.
Linc Slocum had tried to catch the Phantom for years. The stallion’s scarred neck was Slocum’s fault.
How did everything fit together?
Questions swirled around in Sam’s mind until she focused once more on Trago’s words.
“…fly-in country homes, each with a private runway. The houses will surround the golf course, so the horses gotta go. There’ll be a lot of construction out here…”
Sam imagined bull dozers, backhoes, graders and dump trucks shattering the sagebrush silence.
They’d scrape off rich top soil so that nothing would grow. Even tough little pinion pines would suffocate under gravel, asphalt and concrete.
Sam tried to catch her father’s glance. Was he as freaked out as she was?
Dad’s lowered eyelids hid his expression, but Gram was flushed and two distinct dots showed like Brynna’s cheekbones wore a red stamp.
Cody squirmed in Brynna’s arms. He looked from face to face, too.
The only difference, Sam thought, was that the baby was a little closer to crying than she was.
“…wouldn’t want any broomtails to get hurt.”
Was Trago trying to be funny? No one used the old expression broomtails any more andt it proved Trago didn’t care about horses.
An unfamiliar sound distracted Sam.
One,two,three, scuff. One, two, three, scuff.
Was it coming from Tempest’s corral? She hadn’t checked the filly when Brynna suggested she should.
Was Tempest limping? Had the helicopter’s racket made her crash into her fence and hurt herself?
“…environmental impact statement?” Brynna’s tone was as pinched as her shoulders.
The two bony wings on her back almost touched. Brynna stood tall and straight. She meant business.
“My understandin’ is, since I’m working with BLM, they can waive those tree-hugger regulations.” Trago didn’t sound worried.
Waive it. That meant to legally brush it aside, right? Was that true?
Sam tried to read Brynna’s face. Brynna had been the boss of the Willow Springs Wild Horse Center. If that was true, she’d know it.
Brynna blinked three times. “Let me get this straight: Slocum owns this little plot of land –“
“Just under fifty acres.”
“--private land. He’s a felon and he’s entered into a contract with BLM?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Trago agreed.
“He can’t do that, can he?” Sam interrupted.
“They’ve done it before.” Dad might’ve been talking about skunks releasing a stench.
It was kind of a miracle, Sam thought, that Dad had ever seen past his bad opinion of BLM to fall in love with Brynna.
“Easy as one, two, three,” Trago said. “One, Mr. Slocum reported nuisance horses on his property. Two, BLM is legally required to take ‘em off. Three – and real lucky for them -- I showed up just when they needed a helicopter pilot experienced in herding horses.”
Trago gave a short bow and added, “It’s me, not Linc, who signed the contract.”
Sam fidgeted. Linc Slocum didn’t have x-ray vision. He couldn’t stare through prison walls and see wild horses on his land.
Had Ryan told him or had Slocum just made it up? Or maybe, since Trago got out of prison first, they’d made the whole scheme up behind bars and he’d told Slocum that mustangs were on the land they planned for a golf course.
But Trago wasn’t trustworthy. Why would BLM hire a man who’d double-crossed them and gone to jail for it?
Sam wished for Jen’s logical, math genius mind. Her best friend would see a pattern here that Sam knew she was missing.
Gram wasn’t following everything, either. She held up a finger to stop the conversation.
“No, ma’am. I’m catching ‘em and putting ‘em in BLM trucks. They haul ‘em to – I don’t know – Kansas, Nebraska -- one of them places.”
Trago was getting paid by Slocum and BLM.
“Point is, I need to verify the boundaries on your maps, so I don’t accidentally remove nuisance horses from your land.”
“You can ride out with one of us,” Brynna began.
Trago gave a short laugh and pointed skyward. “I fly.”
This time when Sam stared toward Tempest’s corral, she saw the filly’s black head. It showed above her paddock fence, and it jerked every few steps.
“I have to check Tempest.” Sam didn’t excuse herself or even wave. Everything else could wait if her filly needed her.
Sam approached the filly’s paddock.
“Hey, beautiful girl.”
Tempest didn’t act hurt, but Sam squatted outside the fence and peered in. Blood smeared Tempest’s back leg.
She’d scraped it, probably on the fence, Sam thought.
Thanks goodness it wasn’t a big wound, only the size of her thumb pad, and it didn’t look deep.
“If you’d been roller skating and fallen you could’ve gotten something like that,” she crooned to the filly.
Tempest turned brown, expectant eyes on Sam.
“I bet it still hurts though, doesn’t it, girl? I’ll help you.”
Sam made a mental list of what she’d need – clean cloth to stop the bleeding, iodine to wash the wound (and wasn’t that going to be fun, the stuff stung like crazy), and antiseptic ointment -- as she hustled into the tack room.
Should she bandage it? She’d have to ask Dad or Brynna or Dallas, unless it required a vet.
As Sam entered the corral with her arms loaded, Tempest nuzzled her. Beneath her black satin skin, the filly trembled.
Of all the animals on the entire ranch, Tempest had had the gentlest treatment. Sam couldn’t think of a time the filly would have been in pain.
"Poor baby girl." Sam circled the filly’s neck with her arms, and held her cheek to the tender neck.
They made dark caves of each other as Sam whispered Tempest’s secret name, the word no one else knew.
“Sweet, sweet Xanadu.”
The filly’s head relaxed at the magic word. She moved her lips over Sam’s hair.
“You one of those horse whisperers I’ve read about ?”
Sam and Tempest jerked apart at Dave Trago’s jibe.
“The helicopter scared her –“ Sam started.
“Aw now, horses are cowards,” Trago insisted. “Just a scrap of paper in the wind sets off a one-ton stud.”
“The helicopter scared me.” Sam glared at Trago. Silently, she dared him to call her a coward.
Tempest breath came shallow and quick, so Sam made herself calm down for her filly.
Humming, Sam stroked Tempest’s shoulder. Next, Sam slipped the lead rope over Tempest’s neck. Then, she pulled the halter over the filly’s nose.
Tempest’s ears stayed angled toward Trago. Sam smooched to make the filly pay attention to her.
Tempest’s silky black ears vibrated a little, but they stayed intent on Trago. Sam slid the strap behind Tempest’s ears.
The buckle clinked as she fastened it.
“Now, I’ve got your attention.”
When Tempest blew through her lips, Sam ground-tied the filly.
At Riverbend, it was the first training young horses got with a halter, and with a bridle. A dropped lead rope or reins meant stay, because lots of ranch and range jobs required a horse to stick around while her rider used both hands for something else.
Sam nodded at Tempest’s abrasion. Then, she blotted it and shot a glare at Trago.
“That’s your fault. “
“Yeah, I know. I just got a `this is a working ranch,’ lecture from your dad.”
An apology would be nice, Sam thought as she squeezed iodine solution over Tempest’s wound.
Tempest jerked the leg out behind her, but she couldn’t kick away the sting.
Why didn’t Trago leave?
His dark glasses made mirrors over his eyes, reminding Sam of her first day back in Nevada.
She remembered she’d seen a helicopter chase the Phantom’s herd. She’d noticed the sun’s glare on the cockpit. It had blocked her view of the pilot inside. He’d been just part of the machine, relentlessly stampeding horses.
Sam cleansed the wound again. The filly slung her head around to give Sam an accusing look, Sam said, “You’re fine.”
“Not what I heard. Your dad told me never to come back.”
“I was talking to my horse.” Sam was surprised at Dad, but not sympathetic.
A barking dog and slightly injured horse were minor consequences to having a monster land in the ranch yard.
What could she do to make Trago take a hike? If Dad could shrug off his manners, so could she.
“So, what happened to the horses you stole, when you went to jail?” she asked.
“You don’t want to know.”
Slaughter, Sam thought.Tempest felt Sam’s alarm and side-stepped out of reach. Men who bought horses for meat paid by the pound. That explained Dave Trago’s theft of big drafty horses.
Trago was just the kind of guy she’d expect Slocum to befriend in prison.
Sam finished doctoring her filly and threw the basin of dirty water in Trago’s general direction.
He stepped clear of the splatter, but he still didn’t leave.
“Did you want something?” She asked.
Sam twisted the rags dry and then gathered the first aid supplies.
She kissed Tempest’s shiny black neck, headed for the tack room and Trago still hadn’t said anything.
She sure wouldn’t beg to talk to her. He was a weird guy.
Yes, he’d been in prison. Yes, she believed in second chances, but it gave her the crawls to be alone with him.
Inside the tack room, Sam put the rags in a bin for washing, placed the iodine on the shelf and set the antiseptic beside it.
She thought of Slocum and the Phantom, again, and felt cold.
She wasn't chilled by the memory of the avalanche that had sealed the mouth of the secret valley with snow. Cold claimed her because it was spring and that snow was melting.
For years, the Phantom’s range had included Slocum’s little green notch. With every mare won, every challenger fought and each foal born, the stallion had claimed this as his territory. What if he came back?
Sam dried her palms against her jeans as she came out of the tack room. Trago was still there.
“I looked at the map,” Trago said, “And I know where to go, but you’re supposed to go along and show me your ranch boundaries.”
Who says I’m supposed to, Sam wondered. And what does he mean by ‘go along’?
Instinctively, Sam glanced toward the ranch house.
Dad walked her way. His cowboy’s amble might look relaxed to Trago, but Sam saw the stiff set of Dad’s shoulders and knew the truth.
Wyatt Forster was furious.
As the helicopter whooped up a whirlwind in the middle of the ranchyard, Sam and Ace trotted for the bridge trying to keep the lead the pilot had allowed them.
Any other April morning, Sam’s heart would swell with gladness. She loved leaving home on horseback. The range was just as familiar as the kitchen table. She knew where she was going and how to get back.
Usually, she’d meet Jen at War Drum Flat. After a few words, they’d let the horses set the pace. Sam and Jen would shout into the wind, pretending they could actually have a conversation while the horses stretched their legs. The girls just ended up laughing.
Today, Sam hadn’t called Jen. Her best friend’s Palomino mare Silk Stockings, was nicknamed “Silly” for a reason.
With the helicopter tracking them, Silly would buck, shy and twist her spine, doing her best to unseat Jen.
If she succeeded, Silly would gallop for Kenworthy lands, leaving Sam and Jen to ride double on little fourteen hand Ace.
So, it would’ve been selfish to call Jen. Besides, Sam thought, she had Ace for company.
“I’d like your comments on the situation.” Sam leaned forward and pressed her cheek to Ace’s neck.
The attention made him parade across the bridge. He lifted his knees high and clopped his hooves down hard.
Sam glanced off the bridge, down to the La Charla River. She’d seen it foamy brown as chocolate milk during floods, and blue-green with summer sky, but she looked away from the flitting silver reflection of the helicopter.
Sam’s hand smoothed Ace’s black mane on his bay neck. She rarely noticed his BLM brand, anymore, but today it looked like a prison tattoo, burned into his flesh without his permission.
The alpha-angle brand was picked out in white hairs on Ace’s neck. BLM claimed the brand killed the hair root, but Sam thought of a slumber party story of a guy whose terrified night in a haunted house turned his hair white.
The chopper’s whir changed to something like card shuffled by the world’s fastest gambler.
Ace didn’t care, judging by his pace, and she felt his white brand, again.
When Brynna had worked for BLM, Sam had watched the branding.
Wild horses were clamped into a squeeze chute, which was sort of like a toaster with adjustable sides. The sides closed in. While the wild horse screamed, a buzzing electric shaver cleared a bare rectangle from the left side of the neck.
The hairless patch was scrubbed with alcohol, and a branding iron dipped in liquid nitrogen pressed the bald spot.
When the hair grew back, the white pattern showed the horse’s BLM identification number. Forever, Ace would be marked as a mustang who’d come from a BLM herd management area near the Calico Mountains.
If he’d had a mustang name before that, it was known only to him.
“But that was a long time ago, huh, boy?”
Ace shook his head and scattered his mane back over his brand, the way he liked it.
Sam loosed the reins. Ace swung into a rocking-chair jog. Her horse hadn’t come to River Bend Ranch willingly, but she was pretty sure she’d loved the bad memories right out of him.
That’s not what would happen to the Phantom if he were captured.
Sam saw the helicopter tip nose down and move sideways, away from River Bend, but she ignored its racket and focused on the horizon.
Just before she’d left home, Dad had saddled Ace. Sam had been saddling her own mount ever since she could remember, so she’d figured Dad had been looking for an excuse to stay close and tell her something.
But Dad’s mouth had been like a hardening line in concrete.
As he’d taken the slack from Ace’s cinch, Sam had tried to guess.
“A golf resort in the middle of cattle country doesn’t make sense. ” She’d glanced from the corner of her eye his nod had told Sam she’d gotten it right on her first try.
“They use all kinda fertilizers to keep grass green.” Dad had unhooked the stirrup from the saddle horn and let it fall. “It’ll run off into our river. If we have one.”
“Of course we'll have one. La Charla's been here forever. What do you mean?”
“I mean builders’ll tap into groundwater to make wells for new residents. Won’t matter to Linc and his crew that we need water for the stock, the garden, for taking a bath.”
Dad had looked through the barn door, out into the ranchyard.
Then he'd said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we lose some trees.”
Sam had pictured a cottonwood trees crashing through her bedroom wall.
“The state or county will stop them, right? They won’t get approval for it?”
But Dad had just lifted one shoulder.
Not for you to worry about,” he said, and then left her standing in the barn.
But she was worried.
When cattle ranchers looked at browning fields, some would say wild horses drank up the water.
Linc Slocum wouldn’t be the only one asking BLM to get mustangs off their land.
Sam stared at the still-snowy Calico Mountains. The peaks looked like reversed chocolate sundaes. The dark syrup was really muddy mountain soil.
“Stay up there,” she whispered as if the Phantom could hear her.
Gram would say she was borrowing trouble, because there was no reason to think the Phantom would leave his hidden valley.
To the East, pale green grass followed moisture that had seeped down from the mountains. Ahead, the playa spread out smooth as a white tablecloth and just beyond it was Slocum’s meadow. She thought she could make out metal pipe fencing and maybe -- movement.
As usual when he felt her mind drifting, Ace humped up his back, ready for a frisky buck. She looked over her shoulder at the helicopter
“Stop that,” she corrected Ace. “I’d rather not get bucked off, today.”
But then Sam realized she was wrong.
Ace wasn’t teasing her with a buck. Ace had spotted wild horses.
Heads lowered like tracker dogs, three bay mustangs inspected the pipe corral.
Did the helicopter suddenly roar louder? Closer?
You don’t see them. Sam commanded Trago to overlook the horses. She gave no sign that she saw them until finally, casually, she glanced over her shoulder and shaded her eyes.
The chopper was losing altitude, zooming down for a closer look.
“No!” Sam’s tension shot through Ace.
Like a weight-lifter flexing biceps, Ace flexed his poll and mouthed the bit. He uttered a low whinny. Ace was ready for anything.
Sam closed her legs tight against her horse and yelled, “Let’s go boy! Spook them outta there! Yee haw!”
Sam’s rodeo yell sent Ace into a leap so high, Sam grabbed the saddle horn.
She only had time to think she was making a lot of stupid beginner mistakes this morning, when all four of Ace’s hooves hit the ground and he stretched into a ground-eating run.
I love my life. The thought blasted through Sam’s mind.
She wasn’t scared. She loved the vast, open range as much as she loved wild horses. She’d fight to keep them both.
A sound – not the helicopter -- came from all around her. Ace’s ears flicked up before the wind laid them down again.
Stampeding hooves? Had memories of the Phantom made him materialize?
Sam sat deeper in the saddle before glancing over her shoulder, once more.
The galloping hooves weren’t the Phantom’s.
Two riders with black hats and black horses ran a dozen horse lengths behind her. They surged ever closer.
Sam blinked. If the lead horse kept up that pace, he’d catch her.
Sam’s breath caught and she turned back to focus on the terrain framed by her gelding’s ears.
All at once, the cadence of hooves told Sam that the black Quarter Horse steaming after her like a locomotive was a mare named Witch.
Sam recognized Jake Ely on his black mare, Witch, and realized she wasn’t being chased. Inspired by the wide-open range, with waves of sand and sage rolling to each horizon, Jake was daring her to race.
Sam rarely refused a dare. It was a bad habit and it had gotten her into plenty of trouble, so she tried to resist.
But when she saw Jake duck his head against the wind to keep his black Stetson in place, all she could think was, been cooped up too long, college boy?
Maybe it was because she'd forced herself to be civilized to the helicopter pilot, or it could have been the sight of Witch racing past the other black horse, closing the gap between Witch’s black nose and Ace’s streaming black tail. Whatever it was, Sam gave Ace his head.
“Hyah!” Sam leaned forward, let her reins out and sighted along Ace’s neck.
The gelding knew it was a game. He’d probably scented Witch, because he gave a playful swivel of his heels that made Sam bite her tongue.
She gave a muffled “Ow,” and Ace settled into a rhythmic run.
The beat of hooves chopping spring turf sounded sweet as music. The tempo changed and grew louder as Witch, radiating heat, pulled alongside Ace.
“Hey. You’re home,” Sam yelled at Jake.
Had he heard? Sam smiled and though she kept her gaze fixed on the pipe corral, Sam was pretty sure that she caught Jake’s nod.
Jake rarely talked unless it was necessary. Right now, it wasn’t.
He watched the wild horses just as intently as she did.
The small meadow wasn't too far away now. She'd estimate two -- maybe one and a half -- football fields would fit between her and the corral. The horses were easy to see.
Moon, the Phantom’s adult son, chased his three mares out of the green pipe corral. Dark and streamlined, he clacked his teeth, driving the mares on faster. The two bay mares escaped his nip, but Moon raked a clump of fuzzy winter coat from the roan's rump. It floated away like fluff.
Sam told herself that she only imagined that the helicopter’s whir turned into a snarl as the mustangs escaped.
Jake gave Sam a questioning look and she made a gesture meant to say, I’ll tell you later.
But Ace had a different plan. Blowing from exertion, the gelding slowed to a jolting trot. Sam swayed in the saddle, keeping her seat as she tried not to look at Jake.
It was weird that she was so crazy-glad to see Jake. She used to see him every day at school. She’d seen him most days during the summer, too, when he came to River Bend to work horses for Dad.
From the corner of her eye, Sam saw Jake’s red-brown skin hadn’t changed, but his cheekbones looked higher and his face thinner.
Not skinny, Sam thought. Jake sat tall on his horse and his shoulders were wide. He was a big guy, but he looked different.
They turned toward each other at the same time. And then turned away. As they twisted in their saddles to see the rider following, Sam noticed Jake's Shoshone black hair had grown long enough that he wore it tied off with leather, once more.
All three riders drew rein, but Witch was still riled up. She feinted a play-bite at Ace’s neck. The gelding tossed his head and rolled his eyes in mock terror.
The other rider backed Chocolate Chip off a few steps as Jake jerked his head toward the helicopter.
The rider looked so familiar, Sam was embarrassed she couldn’t come up with his name.
Before she checked him out for a clue, though, she had to answer Jake’s silent question.
“That guy--" Sam began, breathless.
“BLM?” Jake asked.
“No. His name’s Trago. He has a contract with BLM, but he’s also working for Slocum.”
If Jake knew Trego, he didn’t show it. What he did show was a you’ve got to be kidding frown.
“I know,” Sam said. “Slocum’s doing some sketchy land deal.” Sam pointed toward the meadow. “That’s going to be a golf course. He wants the wild horses off of it so he can – I don’t know – bring in bulldozers and stuff.”
“That’s not right,” Jake said and Sam knew him well enough to see Jake wasn’t questioning her; he was condemning Slocum’s ethics.
Saddle leather creaked as Jake leaned toward the other rider and asked, “What can we do?”
He must be an Ely, Sam thought.
He looked like he was in his twenties. When he dropped his reins and leaned to shake her hand, a tightly plaited braid flopped over his shoulder. It nearly reached his silver belt buckle.
Sam took the hand and met the dark eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses.
“Knew you as a little kid.” He gave her hand a shake and then released it. “I’m Seth.”
Seth was the only Ely brother she hadn't met.
“Hi.” Sam didn’t say she'd kind of forgotten he existed.
“Seth doesn't get home much. He lives over a hardware store in Elko,” Jake explained, “But you’d think it was in Hawaii.”
The oldest Ely brother, Kit, was foreman on a ranch in Hawaii, so he rarely came home. But Elko was in Nevada, only a three or four hour drive away. In fact, Jake attended college near Elko.
“I work, brother,” Seth reminded Jake.
As the two guys joked about which one worked harder, Sam saw Seth had an easy, but dominant way with horses. Just like Jake.
When Seth took up his reins, Chocolate Chip stopped sniffing Ace’s neck.
"Work?" Jake scoffed. He cupped his hand near his mouth and fake-whispered, “He’s finishing a law degree.”
“What?” Sam yelped.
Most parents and siblings would’ve bragged about Seth studying to be a lawyer. Why hadn’t any of the Elys mentioned it?
“I’m a paralegal ‘til another scholarship comes in,” Seth said, “That’s all.”
“Wow.” Sam said, but Seth pretended not to hear, as if admitting his accomplishments made him feel like a show-off.
“So, big brother?” Jake nodded toward the empty green pipe pen.
It took Sam a few seconds to recall Jake had asked Seth what could be done to stop Slocum’s scheme.
Now his question to a guy she’d thought was a newcomer made sense ; Jake was asking Seth for a legal opinion.
“I’m specializing in tribal law,” Seth said.
“But--?” Jake urged him.
“If that’s private land and it belongs to – Linseed --"
“Linc Slocum.” Jake allowed a half-smile.
“Oh yeah. Before my time. So, if it’s his property, he can shoo the horses off. Not harass or hurt ‘em, though.”
“If you ask me,” Sam said, even though no one had, “A helicopter and a corral equal harassment.”
Seth gave a one shoulder shrug.
“No one there to shut the gate,” Seth said. “Why worry?”
Sam could think of lots of reasons to worry. What if a helicopter frightened a wild horse into tripping and breaking its leg?
Still, Seth had a point. How did Trago expect to catch the horses and turn them over to BLM?
“And if there were someone there as gate monitor, anyone --" Seth’s stare zoomed right through his glasses to focus on Sam’s face. “ – who went on private property to let them out would be trespassing.”
“Yeah, Brat,” Jake seconded his brother.
Sam barely kept from sticking out her tongue at both of them. It would just prove her immaturity
Instead, Sam released her frustration. “I hate that he can do this from jail.”
“Still pulling the strings and making folks dance like boneless dolls,” Jake said.
That creeped Sam out, but apparently Seth hadn’t picked up on Jake’s words.
Seth was still thinking.
“Since “Slow Creek is a felon --"
“Slocum,” Jake corrected, again.
“Right. I could help his kid take possession of the land.”
“Of course! Ryan!” Sam said.
“But it'll take a while if he’s not twenty-one.”
"He's not." Sam sighed. Whatever a while meant, it would be too long. Trago had implied Slocum was in a rush to get his project started.
“Or we could do it old school,” Seth said.
There it was -- the flash of brotherly bravado that got the Ely boys into fights with other guys. And each other.
Jake stared at the pipe corral. He gazed after the wild horses, so far away, now, that their forms had merged into a single dark smudge on the range.
“Cougar urine,” Jake said, finally.
What? It wasn't that the words grossed her out. Sam was a ranch girl, after all.
She understood that the smell of big cats would scare away wild horses, but why did Jake and Seth slap palms and grin?
“Where are you going to get cougar urine?” Sam asked.
“We did the brain work, cowgirl.” Jake kept his face straight. “It’s up to you --"
“Oh, no.” Sam shook her head.”I’ve been up close and personal with a cougar. Once was enough.”
Sam hoped she sounded like she was joking. She tried not to smell the sour laundry and meat stink of the cougar. She blocked the memory of the cougar's weight when it had pounced on her back.
“Sporting goods store,” Seth said. “Maybe get Adam to bring it out from…from town…”
Chocolate Chip and Witch had stood nose to nose as the brothers talked, and Sam had glanced back and forth between the guys since half of their conversation took place with expressions, not words.
But now awareness rippled through all three horses and Seth looked past Jake, distracted by something on the far off hillside.
“That is one swell lookin’ horse.”
Sam laughed. She didn’t think she’d ever heard anyone outside of an old movie say swell.
But Seth’s awe shut down Sam’s amusement.
Before she let her eyes search the hillside, she knew Seth had seen the Phantom.
The stallion stopped as the scent of Girl struck his nostrils.
He'd left the peace of his hidden valley behind, and he was overwhelmed by all the sights, sounds and scents around him, but this one was different. It carried mother-comfort and human-danger.
He took in the machine overhead, mud under his hooves, and a familiar water place soiled with man smell.
There were riders with Girl. One sat upon a strong, fiery mare he'd seen before.
He wasn't the only one looking at the gathering.
The range was full of watchful eyes. Some had feathers, others scales, a predator hid nearby and a band of horses, led by his son, had just frightened a sound from sagebrush.
But there was no danger.
The Phantom swiveled his ears to point. Sound like quick wind gusts came to him.
The coyote crouched in camouflage, but his amber eyes gave him away. Sand brown and black-flecked, with his ears pressed flat, the coyote wasn't hunting the she-rabbit whose nose twitched while she sat still as a brown rock.
She waited many hops from her nest and the winter-lean coyote could have pounced and had her for food. Instead, the coyote’s eyes rolled skyward.
The machine growled, but the coyote could outrun it. The slowest mustang on the range could escape the Death Bird.
The Phantom felt the riders see him. Their excitement rode the wind, Girl’s sweet instead of sour male.
The riders didn’t approach.
They left. Only Ace gave a melancholy nicker as they jogged riverward.
Hoof struck rock. The sound seemed further away than the riders.
Could it be his upstart black stallion son? Perhaps, since he lagged behind his herd and then stopped, stared and swished his tail.
It was a meager challenge, but it must be answered.
The Phantom’s neigh—short and sharp – assured the black mustang there were no mares here for stealing.
The Phantom's reprimand told his son that he’d better move his own skinny bunch of mares out of sight if he wanted to keep them.
But the hoof strikes hadn't come from the young stallion, because now the Phantom heard many hooves, small and large, nimble and worn, doubling as they echoed.
The crack-tumble of a boulder and a shower of stones made the Phantom turn. He saw none of his herd, but he sensed them coming.
The tunnel’s echo and the landslide of rain-loosened boulders told him so.
With the sound of the machine in the air, Dark Sunshine would not have led the others out. She was the one who’d taught him to call them Death Birds. Her fear of them burned like fire.
Dark Sunshine wasn’t in the lead. Two mares bright as sunset flickered into view. Red with black-barred legs, the twin duns were brash.
Usually, they were no match for Sunny, but today they galloped ahead of her.
The stallion shifted and pawed in concentration.
Let them come on? Bolt up the hill and cut them off?
The Phantom blew through his lips and shook his forelock from his eyes. He’d allow his family an afternoon to lip spring grass and sip pond water before he drove them home.
Sam rode between Jake and Seth. All three horses jogged, and all three riders mulled over strategies to stop Slocum’s latest plan, and latest henchman.
When she noticed the rushing of La Charla River mixed with the call of a mountain jay, Sam realized she didn't hear the helicopter.
The range lay quiet around them.
She drew rein and twisted in the saddle. Jake slowed Witch, but Sam kept the heel of her right hand on her saddle cantle as she searched the sky.
The helicopter was gone.
“I know what Trago’s doing.”
“Of course,” she told Jake. “He’s letting the wild horses get used to the corral. After they do, then he’ll slam the gate and trap them.”
“Could be,” Seth agreed.
Sam’s mind drifted back to the Phantom. She wished he hadn’t left his hidden valley, but Jake was probably right. It had to happen sometime.
The stallion had looked wonderful. He was a little thin, and his mane and tail were oddly auburn – Seth suggested the big horse had been rolling in red dust – but Sam's heart had felt like it was battling to break free of her chest and go to him. She loved the Phantom.
“Does Mom always drive that fast?” Seth’s voice jerked Sam away from thoughts of the stallion.
Sam copied Seth, shading her eyes to follow his gaze. “How do you even know it’s her?”
Dust flurried in the distance as a car turned left off the highway and onto a dirt road, but Sam couldn’t see what shape or color it was.
For about 10 miles, two highways paralleled each other like train tracks. In three places, the highways crossed over ranch roads. Gram claimed were so old, they pre-dated asphalt.
The dirt road to the Kenworthy place was the first one you encountered once you'd left Alkali Flats.
Next came the road to River Bend, and then, where a cone of dust twirled, a car bounced over the rutted road to the Elys’ Three Ponies Ranch.
“Airport pick-up,” Jake explained, but neither mentioned who’d flown into the Reno airport.
Jake would probably be too busy to hang out, Sam thought.
It was an Ely tradition to celebrate Easter with a family reunion. All of the Ely brothers except for Kit, who couldn’t afford to fly home from Hawaii, came home to gifts of new clothes and their father Luke’s version of a traditional Native American dinner.
The first time Sam had heard Jake refer to the three sisters dinner, he’d had to explain that the “sisters” were beans, corn and squash. Luke Ely spent all week chopping, roasting and baking.
Easter dinner would include chili, cornbread, and tortilla dishes topped with cheese and fried onions. Male laughter would ricochet off the ceilings of the Ely’s open-beamed house.
Sam angled Ace toward home, but not before she'd asked Seth and Jake to call if they heard any details about Slocum’s plan, or picked up any gossip about Trago.
“Will do,” Seth said.
“We could ride back out tomorrow,” Jake said, “take a look around.”
He reined Witch so close that his knee bumped Sam’s.
“Sure,” Sam said, and she smiled.
Ace loped all the way home.
Still grinning, Sam stopped her horse at the hitching rail in front of the white ranch house. Because it was still early, she didn’t turn Ace back into the pasture.
She loosened his cinch and listened to the voices that spilled from the kitchen window.
Dad and Brynna sounded mad, but not at each other.
“Heck Ballard said he couldn’t do a thing, even if that helicopter pilot was buzzing cattle and running the fat offa them. Says he’s not in charge of the skies.”
“I’ll get in touch with Federal Aviation Authority,” Brynna said.
“Does that mean you didn’t have any luck with Jan?”
It took Sam a few seconds to place the name, but then she remembered Jan was Brynna’s best friend at the BLM in Washington, D.C.
“Jan said if Federal horses are on private land -- what they’re doing is absolutely legal.”
Everyone said wild horses belonged to the Federal government, but didn’t that mean they belonged to the people? To U.S. citizens?
Frustrated, Sam jerked off Ace’s headstall.
“Sorry, boy.” She snapped on his neck rope gently. “Not your fault.”
Ace rubbed his forehead on Sam’s shoulder with such energy, she stumbled over her own boots.
Sam guessed she was forgiven.
Later, Sam was cleaning her bedroom – something she’d promised to do three weekends ago – when she heard the ching of Dad’s spurs as he walked up the stairs.
Startled, Sam listened harder.
Dad took off his spurs when he came indoors.
Instead of turning into his bedroom, Dad paused at her doorway.
She turned. “Hi?”
“You have time to ride out and show me that trap?” He didn’t wear his hat, but there was a line on his forehead where it had been. Dad rubbed the back of his hand across it.
“Yeah.” Sam dropped the broom she’d been using to reach socks under her bed. "You bet!"
As they left, Gram warned them to be back in time for dinner, but Sam couldn’t think of anything except Dad.
She felt a hundred times better knowing he was still thinking about Slocum’s plan. Jan in D.C. and Sheriff Heck might be giving in, but Dad wasn’t.
She wanted to tell him she liked that kind of stubborn pride, but the words clogged in her throat.
Dad’s mustang paint Blue Wings and Ace jogged almost in step as they headed for Slocum’s meadow.
“I hear the chopper,” Dad said, “but I don’t see it. Wonder what that Trago’s up to.”
Sam told her father what she had guessed about the pilot’s plan.
“I think he’s letting the horses get comfortable with the pen, so that when he drive them into it, they don’t panic.”
Even as she finished her sentence, Dad slowed Blue and lifted his chin in the direction of the trap.
“Oh my gosh.”
A dozen mustangs milled inside and around the green pipe fence.
“I see five foals, but I don’t see the Phantom.”
Sam tried to think through her tangle of feelings. She loved seeing the Phantom’s babies. She wanted to hug every silky neck and tell the colts and fillies how beautiful they were.
But they should not be inside that trap. And where was their father, their protector?
“No question that's his herd, though,” Dad said. "There's that little buckskin, your Tempest's ma."
Dark Sunshine stood some distance outside the pen, but where was the Phantom?
Sam stared at the Calico Mountains. Though their peaks glowed gold from the setting sun, the mountains cast shadows over the land and a chill breeze reminded her Spring wasn’t the same thing as summer.
"I see him," Sam said.
“There –“ Dad pointed just as Sam found the horse.
She'd never get used to the sight of him. Lined out in a full gallop, the Phantom's coat glowed like a polished pearl.
He was amazingly beautiful, but he was an experience range stallion, too wise to run headlong down the hillside, that way. Any second a hoof could slip on a stone or stab into a ground squirrel hole.
“What’s on his tail, I wonder,” Dad said and just then, the helicopter bobbed up behind the Phantom.
“No,” Sam moaned.
The Phantom’s stride lengthened, and his belly skimmed the ground as he streaked toward his family.
“Dad! We have to do something?”
“Not at the rate he’s running.” Dad shook his head, “If we spook him, he could take a spill.”
Dad was right, but Sam wanted to send Ace racing toward the wild mares and foals. She wanted to flush them out of the pen.
Anything would be better than sitting here, helpless.
he glare off the metal made Sam squint as the chopper buzzed over the Phantom. It passed ahead of him as it rose so high that its whirr was muted. Few of the mustangs even glanced at it.
Why? Because it had been doing flyovers all day?
Only Dark Sunshine, nose up, kept he gaze on the machine.
“She’s the lead mare. Why doesn’t she do something?” Sam whispered, but she knew why.
Dark Sunshine had been a Judas horse. She’d run in front of mustangs as they were chased by helicopters.
Hundreds of wild horses had followed her into traps.
She hadn’t been trying to trick them. Half starved, Sunny had been running for the bucket of grain that her handlers had placed in the trap corral.
She'd only wanted to reach the oats first and fill her empty belly.
But now, she wasn’t hungry. Now, she resisted the pain and terror of the trap. She refused to go in there, after the others.
Except, her leader needed her to do her job.
Sam watched the buckskin read the Phantom’s intentions. He charged, ordering her and the other mustangs to run away.
He’d enforce that command with hooves and teeth when he reached them, but she could help.
Dark Sunshine fought her fear with loyalty. She tried to do what he wanted. She lifted her knees so stiffly. Sam thought the mare could have been carved of wood.
The buckskin mare tossed her head in a signal for the other horses to flee the pen. They ignored her. They looked away, even when she stamped, half reared, and neighed.
Trembling, she bolted into the trap, biting all the horsehide she could reach.
The helicopter lowered again, hovering so close that Dark Sunshine's black mane wrapped around her neck from the rotars’wind.
Sam stood in her stirrups and waved her arms at Trago. "Stop!"
She never knew if Trago heard her as the green metal gate swung closed and metal jangled as a bolt closed.
“Well, I’ll be,” Dad said. “He closed that gate with a remote control.”
No, no, no, Sam couldn’t speak.
Shut tight, the gate left three mares and the Phantom on the outside.
The others – Dark Sunshine among them -- were trapped.
Dark Sunshine’s neigh soared over every other sound as if her worst nightmare had just come true.
Hooves pounded behind Sam. She turned as the Phantom veered around her and her dad, and headed for the pen.
“He’s not happy,” Dad said.
Fury showed in the stallion’s back swept ears and narrowed eyes, but what Sam saw in the Phantom was determination.
All his intelligence, strength and skill focused on saving his family.
The Phantom had encountered BLM’s metal fences, before. But he ran at the pen and tested the strength of the fence with his own body. The stallion ran at the green pipe bars and bumped them with his shoulder.
The bars held. He walked off, and then stood at a distance.
Sam’s throat tightened and she fought the sting of tears. “He’s thinking how to get them out.”
“It’s just animal instinct to save what’s his,” Dad said.
“Just animal instinct?” Sam whispered. The Phantom trotted back and circled the pen. “If we were in jail, Dad, what would you do?”
Dad wasn’t a man for what ifs. He just dealt with what was in front of him.
Now, Dad stood in his stirrups to get a better look at the situation.
At the same time, the Phantom stopped and tossed his head, looking over the top fence rail.
He’s counting them, Sam thought. Every one is important to him.
“Dad, the horses weren’t on Slocum’s private land until Trago put that hay out there.”
“They weren’t nuisance mustangs,” she insisted. “He baited them down here!”
“They would’ve come for the water. And that’s a nice-lookin’ patch of grass.”
“They might’ve come,” Sam admitted.
But why had they left their safe valley?
Boredom? Spring fever? Memories of a place where they ran free until they could run no more?
This herd might never run free, again.
Trago landed the helicopter.
Blue Wings, calm until now, leaned on Ace, asking the older gelding to do something. Ace mouthed his bit and stamped.
For a minute, his far-sighted look reminded her of Ryan Slocum's endurance horse.
When Dad clucked to his horse, Blue Wings planted his feet. His skin twitched as if he were covered in stinging ants.
Dad muttered as he watched Trago approach on foot, “Whole lot of unnecessary fuss, for something that’ll end up failing, like all Linc’s schemes.”
“I hope so,” Sam said.
But they both knew something was different. This time Slocum had a powerful partner: BLM.
Trago carried a canvas bag. By the way he walked, it must be heavy. He made his way to the corral and dropped the bag with a clank.
The Phantom lifted his head, testing the air to analyze this new human.
Whatever he smelled convinced the stallion to move the few mares who hadn’t been trapped, the stallion herded them back uphill to safety.
The trapped horses lifted their heads and stared over the fence. They called sharp protests at being left behind. They surged against each other and then, with only their leader’s white tail visible against the hillside, they neighed with longing.
Dark Sunshine tried to take action. She charged around the small pen, as if she could find a way out. The others followed, and as Trago strode closer, the captives ran faster, spinning into a kaleidoscope of desert colors.
“What’s Trago doing?” Sam asked her Dad.
Metal clanged as Trago emptied fence posts from the bag, positioned them upright and then swung a sledge hammer. He pounded four fence posts into the ground at the corners of a rough square around the corral.
“He’s prepared,” Dad said.
Each post bore a black and yellow warning. Trespassers: KEEP OUT!
When it became clear that she and Dad weren’t going anywhere without a conversation, Trago threw down the sledge hammer and walked over.
“I’d hate to call the sheriff. I could ask him to enforce that.” Trago tried a joking tone.
“You posted it. That’s all it takes around here," Dad said.
“That’s the Phantom’s herd.” Sam leaned forward to look into the pilot’s sun-burned face. She had to make him understand. “You can’t keep them.”
When his expression said Sam was being childish, she kept talking.
“Those horses weren’t doing anything to be classified as a nuisance.”
The mustangs could still have their freedom if she could get Trego on their side. Yelling at him wouldn't accomplish that.
She took a breath to go on, but he cut her off.
“I’m not keeping them,” Trago said, “I’m just going to let ‘em settle down overnight.”
“And then?” She asked.
Dad’s voice covered Sam’s as he said, “They need water.”
Trago glanced over his shoulder as the two red duns shoving against the fence.
“They’ll be fine until BLM gets here,” Trago said. “I radioed for them to bring trucks out at first light.”
Dad must've anticipated the “no!” that shrieked through Sam’s head, because he raised his hand in a gesture that said halt.
Sam managed to keep quiet, but just barely.
Dad was used to being in charge, and he wasn't finished talking to Trago.
“They need water before that.”
Trago’s defiant expression changed to confusion.
“BLM has water trucks and troughs," Dad told him.
Don’t give him ideas, Sam thought. He might have BLM come for the horses now, and she needed every minute to come up with a plan.
But it was the right thing to do. Swathes of sweat darkened the mustangs’ coats. Not drinking BLM’s water wouldn’t solve anything.
“Ok. I’ll let ‘em know.” Trago squared his shoulders and looked past Sam. “Slocum told me to keep an eye out for a white stud..."
Sam followed Trego's gaze. The free mares were gone, but the Phantom was back.
“…says he pure hates him.”
Wasn’t it just like Slocum to hate what he couldn’t have?
Sam didn't say it.
“Beats me how a man develops a grudge against a horse.” Trago laughed, and after that, there wasn't much to say.
On the way home, Dad wouldn’t let Sam talk. He said he needed silence to think.
Sam’s brain was too full to think, so she let her eyes wander over the range she loved.
A cabbage moth floated beside her. She didn't know where it had come from, but it fluttered close to her face.
"If you're trying to tell me something, I'm afraid I don't speak moth," Sam said.
But then, suddenly, she had it.
Jen. She'd call her best friend Jen Kenworthy, and dump all this information in her lap. Jen loved math and science. She'd just sort through the facts and, instead of allowing her thoughts to swirl around like a pup chasing its tail, she'd come up with a solution.
The minute Ace and Blue Wings were unsaddled, cooled out and turned into the pasture, Sam rushed into the house to call Jen, but Brynna was on the phone. When Brynna spotted Sam, she held up her hand the same way Dad had.
"I can wait," Sam whispered.
Then, suddenly thirsty, she rushed to the sink.
She kissed Gram’s cheek in passing and breathed in the aroma of the butter Gram plopped on a tureen full of green beans.
Sam gulped down a tall glass of water and thought of the mustangs. Trago better get them water.
By the time Brynna hung up, it was clear she'd been discussing Slocum's plan with someone.
“What can we do?” Sam coughed when she tried to swallow water and talk at the same time. When Brynna hesitated, Sam said, “If you don’t tell me, I’m just going to go turn them loose.”
“You missed your chance,” Brynna said.
“What?” Sam yelped.
"Shh." Brynna pointed toward the ceiling. Upstairs, Cody was asleep. “That was Norm White, my old boss.” Brynna nodded toward the phone.
Sam covered her face with her hands. Brynna was losing it if she didn’t realize Sam knew exactly who Norman White, BLM boss of the Willow Springs Wild Horse corrals was.
“Wash those hands,” Gram said.
They were pretty dirty, so Sam ran water over them as Brynna kept talking.
“He’s pretty mad at Slocum, and by association, Trego.” Brynna said, “I guess people have been calling BLM all day complaining that the helicopter’s too low and scaring stock.”
“What’d I tell you?” Dad asked.
“ -- and then Norm got a call on his cell phone -- at home -- from Slocum.”
“From prison?” Sam started to wipe her wet hands on her jeans and Gram handed her a dish towel. “They let you use the phone?”
“Apparently they do,” Brynna said.
“What’d Linc want?” Dad asked.
“He was checking up on Trego. I guess Norm told Linc he was not his errand boy.”
“Yeah!” Sam said.
“Shh!” Gram and Brynna both shushed her, but Sam felt better.
Gram finished putting dinner on the table and they all sat down to eat.
Jen will see some solution that's right in front of me, Sam told herself as she passed a basket of fresh bread to Brynna.
“Norm said Trago hired private security. Retired BLM staffers.” Brynna shrugged.
“And Trago did have the good sense task Norm to send water,” Gram put in.
“That was Dad's idea,” Sam said.
Brynna made a kissy sound at Dad. Really, sometimes, they did not act like adults.
When the kitchen phone rang, Sam looked at Gram. Gram hated to interrupt dinner for phone calls, but this wasn’t an ordinary night. It could be Trago. Or Jen, or Jake.
Brynna took the call without waiting for Gram's okay.
“Norm?” Brynna sounded surprised to hear from him again, but then she just listened.
Frustrated, Sam motioned for Brynna to hold the phone away from her ear. She might be able to hear Norm White.
Brynna turned her back.
“That was rude,” Sam muttered, but no one noticed her.
“I understand,” Brynna said. “But no, I don’t – “ She drew a breath. “Maybe. Did you ask Trago if --- Yes. She was when I last saw them, too.” Brynna turned back around. She looked serious, but she tried to sound cheery. “Thanks for the heads-up, Norm. We’ll sure be thinking about that.”
When Brynna sat back down, she seemed to melt against her chair back. “So, Trego told Norm about the white stallion that was hanging around the pen and he wanted to know if we had any horses running with the Phantom.”
“No,” Sam said. “Of course we don’t.”
“Will somebody please eat these green beans? They’re so nice.” Gram said, but then she glanced at Brynna. “I know it’s not like the old days, when we turned ranch horses out on the range for the winter, but what would it matter?”
“If we pick up a domestic horse with the wild ones,” Brynna began.
“They,” Dad corrected.
“Right, if BLM does a roundup and finds a domestic horse, the owner has to pay a fine and grazing fees for however long BLM thinks the horse has been out of public lands, or the horse is declared a stray and sold at auction.”
Sam stopped watching the butter melt over the green beans. In the sudden quiet, she realized Brynna was staring meaningfully at Dad.
“But we don’t have a domestic horse in that herd,” Sam said. “Do we?”
“The buckskin.” Dad put his fork down and Brynna nodded.
“Dark Sunshine?” Sam was confused. “Oh.”
The buckskin mare had always been so wild, it was hard to remember they owned her.
Silence filled the kitchen. Money was short at River Bend Ranch. They’d all learned to be very careful talking about it.
Sam heard Cody fuss from his crib upstairs.
She pushed away from the table. “I’ll get him.”
“He’s clean and fed,” Brynna told her. “He’ll go back to sleep.”
“That’s okay,” Sam said, “I’ve hardly seen him today.”
Sam clattered upstairs to her brother. She should’ve shucked off her boots on the front porch, but Cody wouldn’t care.
His room smelled of baby powder.
A duckling night light and his yellow sleeper made him golden. Eyes closed, he lay on his back, legs peddling like he was riding a bike in slow motion.
The blue of Cody's eyes sparkled as he saw her.
“Mam!” Cody stopped peddling and held up his arms.
“Hey, little guy!” Sam scooped him to her chest and rested her chin on his soft hair. He seemed happy to just cuddle.
Pay the fine or sell Dark Sunshine at auction. Sam took a deep breath of Cody’s baby shampoo smell.
If this were a movie, Sam would just ride to the buckskin’s rescue. But how was she supposed to do that? The guys guarding the corral would see or hear her coming from miles away.
And the Phantom was on patrol, protecting his family. He wouldn’t leave. They might catch him when they came to truck away the others.
“Not fair, Cody,” she said.
Sam knew she could figure it out, if only there were time. She'd call Jen the minute she got back downstairs.
“I need a bigger brain,” she whispered. Cody.
She placed him on his back in his crib and patted his chest 72 times. She didn't know why that worked, but it always did.
Sam was tiptoeing back down the stairs when the phone rang again.
Sam slid through the kitchen’s swinging door in time to grab the phone before anyone else did.
“Hello?” Sam heard noise on the other end of the line: dishes being cleared, a shout of “Whoa, got it!” and Jake’s voice saying, “Tell her.” But no one did.
“So. Hey.” It wasn’t Jake, but Sam took a guess, “Seth?”
“Yeah. Hi. So, it turns out, you never signed a quit claim deed with the county and neither did we so all we have to do is revoke the right away and the horses are safe. Or close.”
Sam took a deep breath.
She stared at a kitchen window looking onto the black April night as she tried to unscramble Seth’s words. “I don’t know what you mean, but it sounds good.”
“Give me that!”
As Jake and Seth grappled for the phone. Sam waited.
“Seth figured out – you there, Sam?”
“Seth talked to Mom and went over maps online --”
“And analyzed the Nevada revised statutes,” Seth put in.
They were both excited, but she didn’t know why. Before Seth got sidetracked into legal language, she asked, “Jake, he said something about revoking rights? Or invoking rights?”
“It’ like this,” Jake said, “You know where your ranch road crosses the highway?”
That, she understood. “Sure, and yours does the same thing.”
“Kenworthys, too, I expect. We all let the county have right-of-way for cars on the county road to drive over our land.”
“But we didn’t sell 'em the land.”
Sam pictured the roads. Why should she care about a county road crossing their ranch road?
“I’ll give you a hint,” Jake said, “ How will BLM trucks get to Slocum’s meadow and the trap if they can’t drive over our --"
“Wow! BLM needs permission to drive trucks over our land, out to Slocum’s property to pick up the horses. We can just change our minds?” Sam pressed her shoulder blades against the kitchen wall and slid down to the floor.
She glanced up just long enough to see Dad explaining to Brynna. He used his hands. Dad never gestured when he talked, but his hands were flying around like hummingbirds, now.
“They have to cross Three Ponies and River Bend land,” Jake said, and then it sounded like Jake’s brothers passed the phone around.
“They can’t drive those big trucks off-road.
“.. bog down in the sand…”
“Hanta ho, baby!”
“What? Don’t think that …”
“Sam, we’ll make a horse ‘n human barricade.”
“See you at daybreak!”
Sam hung up. She felt dazed, but in a good way.
She smiled up at her family and then she explained. They nodded as if she were asking them to have an extra helping of dessert.
“You’re willing to do it?” She asked. “The polite, respectful, law-abiding Forester family is going to shut down the county highway?”
Dad crossed his arms, hard. “It’s a matter of preservin’ our way of life.”
Gram dipped her head toward Dad, “And I must admit I get a kick out of picturing that skunk Linc Slocum shaking his cell bars in pure frustration.”
As Sam dialed Jen, she took a second look at her grandmother.
Gram smiled as if she heard angels singing.
They saddled up at dawn.
Gram, Dallas, Wyatt and Sam rode over the bridge. Albino, red roan, pinto and bay, the horses lined out across the road.
Dad had talked with Sheriff Heck and though he hadn’t been happy about the road closure, he’d agreed the Forsters and Elys were within their legal rights.
“He expects someone would challenge us in court if we kept it up all week, but Luke and I expect if it's gonna work, it'll work before lunch.”
Dad and Luke Ely, Jake’s dad, had still been on the phone, chuckling, when Sam had gone to bed last night.
“Slocum don't have the attention span of a flea. He'll lose interest before long,” Dallas put in.
“I dearly hope so,” Gram said. She rode Popcorn, the albino mustang.
Sam thought their white hair and blue eyes made a cute match.
Sam understood why Brynna had stayed inside with Cody, but she missed having her step-mother nearby.
“We probably won’t see any action,” grumbled Dallas.
“Just ride on down the road and stand guard with the Elys.” Gram pointed. "They'll face BLM first."
“Nah. I’ll stay put with you all,” Dallas said.
All the fun would have been up there, except that Jen was coming here. Now.
Silly’s knee-high white stockings glimmered on her palomino legs as she pranced toward Ace.
“Good morning!” Jen threw back the hood of her grape-colored jacket.
Her white-blond braids bounced with excitement.
“You think the --" Jen used her index finger to count riders, “—one, two, three, four--” She touched her chest. “Five of us can hold ‘em off so they don’t reach our place? I told my parents they were probably safe.”
“I don’t know,” Sam said, “If they get past the Elys…”
Both girls stood in their stirrups to look down the road. Sam could just make out a line of dark horses and the intermittent boom of voices.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen.” Jen laughed . She tugged the cuffs of her leather gloves to cover her wrists against the chill.
“Quiet morning,” Dad said.
“I wonder why,” Sam answered.
“BLM truck driver’s gonna be surprised,” Dallas said.
“He’ll be the only one,” Gram added.
Neighbors on both sides of La Charla River were dead set against Slocum’s fly-in golf course.
Sam’s cell phone rang. She looked at the number and saw LukeE .
“Dad.” She reached the phone out toward Wyatt.
He took it, listened for a few minutes, and then asked, “Trago?”
"That’s the pilot, right?" Jen whispered.
It made sense that Trago would hit the blockade first if he were leading BLM to the capture site.
Of course no one had told him about the blockade.
“He got there first?” Sam asked as Dad returned her phone.
Dad nodded. “BLM’s stock truck was following him.”
“Am I imagining the shouts I hear from down there?” Jen inclined her head and concentrated.
Sam ached to hear every word that passed between the Elys and Trago, but she only heard the squeal of tires as Trago's silver truck pulled a hasty U-turn.
“He’s headin’ back the way he came from,” Dallas said. “Guess we’re done here and I can go get me some coffee.”
But Dallas didn’t leave and Sam met Jen’s eyes.
That was too easy, Sam thought, as her phone rang again.
“No need to put your dad on, Sam. Just tell him that Trago told Norm White to stay put here, while he--"
“Norman White?" Sam wished for a pair of binoculars. “You mean, he's driving the horse truck?”
Norman White was a businessman, an office guy. He preferred Washington, D.C. to Nevada.
“Yep, " Luke said, "And he's none too happy about Trago telling him to stay put while he getst the chopper in the air.”
“For what?” Sam asked.
"Trago says if BLM can’t go to the horses, he’ll bring the horses to BLM.”
Minutes later, Sam, Jen and Dallas were on their way to the pen.
“You’re sure Silly will be okay with the helicopter that close?” Sam asked.
“She’s doing great,” Jen said.
The palomino fought the bit and sidestepped, more excited than scared.
In fact, Sam wasn't worried about Silly. She was afraid for the wild horses.
Trago could not maneuver the Phantom’s herd from the trap, all the way down the highway to BLM’s stock truck. She was almost positive.
Either Norm White would get sick of waiting and leave, or the horses would scatter.
“I hope the Phantom’s not there,” Sam said.
“He might be," Jen said, "If he was there last night…” Her voice trailed off and then came back strong. “It’s his family, after all.”
Jen pushed her glasses up her nose to scan the landscape.
“Then again, he might've followed the bunch that was free," she shrugged. "You're the mustang psychology expert.”
It was full light now and the morning sky was streaked with clouds.
Sam hoped God had time for one small thing that was very big to her.
Please let them get away, she prayed.
“There’s your horse,” Dallas said.
Sometime in the night, the Phantom had stopped patrolling. Head down, he stood near his jailed herd.
Wind tossed his tail and ruffled his mane. Otherwise, he did not move.
“Not lookin’ too happy,” Dallas had known the Phantom since he was a newborn foal and he had a soft spot for the stallion.
“He’s been here all night,” Sam said.
“I hear the helicopter!” Jen shouted.
"How could he get up so fast?" Sam yelled back.
The chopper passed overhead. He hovered at the far end of the corral, positioning himself to chase the horses.
The Phantom stood just outside the corral gate, between his family and the ranch roads, but his gaze fixed on the chopper.
Beyond the racket of its spinning rotors, Sam heard the gate squeal open via remote control.
The stallion jumped aside.
“Amazing,” Dallas shook his head. “Amazin’ lazy, but still.”
Before the gate was fully open, Dark Sunshine burst through the opening. Mustangs charged after her as the stallion came alive.
Dark Sunshine and the Phantom skidded together. They were mates, but there was no time for a reunion.
His long white barrel brushed past her golden one. Dark Sunshine galloped for the mountains as the Phantom circled the rest of his herd.
The lead mare lead while the stallion brought up the rear, making sure no stragglers were picked off by predators.
"If the Phantom wants those two, he’s going to have to wait.”
Jen’s observation made Sam’s excitement crash.
“That foal,” Jen said, pointing, “Is afraid to come out.”
Sam bit her lip, looking back and forth from the herd to the trap.
Dark Sunshine still ran uphill and the two red duns followed, spreading out like wings, with most of the horses between them.
Only one bay mare stayed behind. She stood in the open gate, fretting over the foal that was afraid to pass through the gate of the green pipe corral.
The other mustangs ran, ignoring the helicopter and the two they’d left behind.
Free and headed home, they crashed through sagebrush and leaped over rocks, following Dark Sunshine.
The bay mother snorted and stamped, scolding her frightened foal. Then the mare whinnied over her shoulder.
“She’s tellin’ the rest to slow down!” Dallas cleared his throat. “Least that’s how it looks."
The Phantom's low neigh commanded the foal to run, but the baby backed into the pen and trembled.
“Come out!” Jen yelled over the chopper’s racket.
The Phantom stood pawing in the mouth of the trap. Any minute, he'd dart inside and give the colt a nip to get him moving.
Sam looked up to see why the roar of the chopper had grown so much louder. Her hair frenzied in the wind from the from its rotar blades.
Inside the cockpit, Trago wore the dark glasses he’d worn the first time she'd met him. He gave her a thumbs-up as he gazed down at the Phantom.
The stallion quaked with indecision. He hated corrals, but his foal was inside.
Trago had a remote control.
“No!” Sam yelled.
If the Phantom did what was normal and natural, Trago could spring the trap.
In half a second, Sam's heels would've struck Ace into a run. She would have cut off the stallion's rescue of his foal.
Instead, she felt Jen punch her arm. “He’s going away!”
Squinting against the airborne dirt, Sam saw Jen was right.
Trago flew after Dark Sunshine and the rest of the herd.
He dropped almost to the desert floor, just yards from the red dun mare running on the right.
Tiring, she shied and stumbled, but ran after the others as they banked left and ran faster.
But they ran away from the hills, away from home, toward the ranch roads and the BLM stock truck.
The red dun conquered her fear. Set on going home, she tried to run under the chopper. It dropped even lower. The helicopter’s skids were just over her head when the mare slid to a dusty stop, then followed Dark Sunshine.
“He’s a lunatic, flyin’ that low!” Dallas yelled.
The mustangs veered right, left, tried to double-back, but the metal monster was always there.
“That’s got to be illegal,” Jen said. “I’m calling the F.A.A.”
The helicopter fell back and rose higher, giving the pilot a great view of wild horses running straight toward the highway.
But there was the Phantom.
The white stallion wasn't finished. Head level, tail steaming out behind, he galloped along the left side of the bunch, pushing them toward the mountains.
Dark with sweat, the herd obeyed their kind, even when the chopper flew so close that dust clouds engulfed the mustangs.
The Phantom turned to face Trago. With all four legs braced, the stallion challenged the machine.
“That just don’t happen,” Dallas said.
The Phantom reared.
The chopper nose-dived and one of its skids struck the stallion's chest.
Sam heard her own scream as the Phantom fell.
All three saddle horses startled sideways and though Sam swayed in her saddle, her eyes didn't leave the Phantom.
"Get up, get up, oh, get up, boy."
“He landed on his side, Sam. He should be okay."
Please be right, Jen.
"I don't see any blood..."
Blood. The word made Sam’s world shrink. She cared about nothing except this single spot on the range, on the planet.
Dust swirled around the Phantom's kicking white legs. That could mean distress, pain or -- just a horse scrambling to his feet.
"Wow." Jen sighed.
"Like to see some fancy purebred take that," Dallas said.
"Thank you," Sam whispered, but not to Dallas.
The stallion stood panting, and then shook like a big white dog.
Sam laughed in relief.
His legs weren't broken. Neither was his back. There was still no sign of blood.
“Stop it,” Jen jostled Sam’s arm.
“You keep saying, ‘okay, okay, okay.’” Jen shook Sam's arm again. “He is okay.”
"That stinkin' Trago's not gonna be okay if I get my hands on him," Dallas threatened. “Lunatic.”
The helicopter fought to regain altitude, but its rotors hit a pinion pine.
Clunk. Clunk. The blades couldn't cut themselves free. Stuffed with branches, unable to lift into the sky, the chopper skidded to the ground.
The rotors slowed, quieted and heat shimmered around the helicopter.
“Is it going to explode?” Sam asked.
They didn't have time to worry about the pilot, because he hopped out of the chopper.
“Explosion's unlikely,” Jen said, but she quickly polished her glasses and fixed her gaze on the helicopter, just in case.
Sam looked past it.
The wild horses had scattered. The thunder of their hooves had dwindled to thuds.
Dark Sunshine jogged aimlessly, looking back at the Phantom.
The mare watched, but she wouldn't follow him toward helicopter.
All of the horses had stopped now.
The red duns stood side-by-side. A young gray spread her forelegs for balance. She looked exhausted and confused.
If a horse could cry, Sam thought the gray would.
The bay mare nursed her foal. Its little black tail twitched back and forth like a windshield wiper.
How did they know the danger was over?
Jen dismounted. She ran her hands over Silly’s skin and murmured, "You are such a good girl."
Sam watched the Phantom. He stood like carved ivory. Was he dazed?
But then Sam noticed Dallas held a hand to his chest.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Fine,” he chuckled. “Just pretty excitin’ is all.”
Jen took a breath and said, “And the fun’s just started.”
The Phantom watched Trago.
The pilot walked in a lazy saunter. He hit his hat against his leg like he hadn’t gotten it dirty by crashing a helicopter.
“Dallas?” With just his name, Sam asked the foreman what to do.
Could the stallion know Trago was to blame for all that had happened?
Dallas made a disgusted sound. He didn't want to do Trago any favors. Still, he yelled at the pilot.
“I’m fine,” Trago shouted.
Astonished, Jen looked at Sam.
"Like we care," Jen said.
Dallas called out again.“Trago, that stud ain’t exactly a member of your fan club. You might wanta--”
The Phantom stalked Trago.
The stallion’s walk turned into a flowing trot as he gave Trago time to see him coming.
When Trago glanced around for a place to go, the stallion broke into a lope.
Then, the Phantom was running.
Trago looked at the corral and the helicopter.
There were no other places to hide on the wide open range.
Trago picked the helicopter and ran for it, but the stallion was already right behind him, close enough to bite the seat of the pilot's pants, so Sam was surprised when the Phantom bolted into a run, and clipped Trego's shoulder with his own, causing the man to trip and fall into the helicopter.
And that was all.
“Interesting,” Jen said as the Phantom loped away to round up his scattered family.
“Trago’s not worth his trouble,” Dallas said.
Sam watched the Phantom walk through his band. Once they’d crowded together, he sniffed each mare and foal.
When he reached Dark Sunshine, the Phantom gave a gentle nicker. The buckskin mare lifted her black-shaded muzzle to touch the stallion’s white one.
Run home, boy, Sam said silently.
The stallion gave an invisible sign for the mares and foals to go and they drifted toward the mountainside.
The mustangs didn’t look back at the trap, helicopter or riders. They arched their necks and bobbed their heads as they passed their leader, and kept walking.
Only the bay mare and foal lagged behind. As the foal trotted by, he didn’t recognize his sire. To the foal, the big white horse was no more significant than a thicket of wild roses.
Sam smiled and stared after the mustangs as they took the steep trail home.