Authors: Terri Farley
Samantha Forster dug her fingers past the crust of gardenâ¦
The only noise in the white BLM truck came fromâ¦
Sam closed her eyes, wishing she could shut out theâ¦
Sam swallowed hard.
The door closed behind Dad.
“I really need to put some time in with Tempestâ¦
Gabe's hostile expression crinkled the scab over his cheekbone. Heâ¦
Dr. Scott unloaded a big cardboard box full of suppliesâ¦
I'll even give you a head start? How could Mrs. Allenâ¦
“I'm going to go outside and sit with the colt,”â¦
Coyotes were still out romping. That meant mustangs could be,â¦
The Phantom bolted.
Sam's first thought as she wakened was that she mustâ¦
“How long is this supposed to take?” Gabe asked.
Gabe didn't look up from playing soccer with the coltâ¦
Everything was ready for Sam and Gabe to lead theâ¦
Carried away, Sam thought as she and Gabe sandwiched theâ¦
“Did he just lick me?”
amantha Forster dug her fingers past the crust of garden soil, cooked hot by the August sun. She felt the cool dirt at the base of a plant. Was it a weed? She really hoped so.
Gram had assigned her to clear the vegetable garden of weeds, hinting that early morning was a good time to get started.
In shorts and a tank top instead of her usual boots and jeans, Sam worked in the shade of her white house, headquarters of River Bend Ranch.
Sam had awakened thinking of the river walk she'd take this morning with her foal Tempest. Her dreams had been filled with the splashing of tiny black hooves in the La Charla River shallows.
Sam hummed along with songs floating from the radio Gram had left on the porch. She felt cooler just picturing the wading horses, until the disc jockey broke into her daydream.
“If you're within the sound of my voice, brace yourself for the hottest week of the year. We're looking at a record 106 degrees by midweek and I call that a scorcherâhot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, I'll betcha!”
Sam wiped her forehead with the back of one dirty hand.
“Only someone sitting in an air-conditioned studio could sound so cheerful,” she grumbled to Blaze, who lay beside her as she knelt in Gram's garden.
The Border collie raised his head from between his paws, panted in agreement, then returned to his doze.
Snorts and squeals, the clacking of teeth and thump of hooves came from the ten-acre pasture. The saddle horses felt the high desert heat gathering. For several days, most of them had stood under the cottonwood tree at the far end of the enclosure. Now, their pent-up energy erupted in crankiness.
Shading her eyes, Sam searched the pasture for Popcorn.
The albino gelding stood apart from the others. His white tail swished at flies as he watched Penny, another captive mustang, enjoy pats and coddling from Brynna, Sam's stepmother.
Would the soaring temperatures affect Popcorn's usual calm with this week's HARP girls? The Horse and Rider Protection program brought at-risk girls together with captive mustangs. Though Sam thought it was a great program and believed River Bend Ranch was lucky to be part of it, the girls could beâhow had Brynna put it?âoh yeah, a
A porch board squeaked and Sam looked up to see Gram fanning herself with the hem of her red apron.
On hot days like this, Gram began cooking in predawn darkness so she didn't have to turn on the oven later. As Sam rolled out of bed this morning, the aromas of fresh bread, brownies, cheddar cheese, and chili peppers had wafted up the stairs.
Flushed but satisfied, Gram said, “Baking's finished and the
chili con queso
is just simmering in the Crock-Pot. I'm about done for theâSamantha, no!”
Sam snatched her hand back from the dirt and scrambled to her feet. What had Gram seen? A snake, scorpion, spider?
“That's better,” Gram said. “If you hadn't loosened your death grip on my morning glory vine, you would have uprooted it, instead of that weed,” Gram said.
“Sorry,” Sam apologized. She almost wished a venomous pest had been skulking around her fingertips. She probably could have left off weeding for the day.
“The point is to pull out the weeds that are gulping up the precious little water we can give the plants,” Gram explained.
“Okay,” Sam said, though the explanation didn't help much. To her, weeds and flowers looked a lot alike.
Green and spindly, they crawled over the dirt, then slung slender tendrils around the wire trellis Gram had put up. Higher up, the morning glories bloomed with blue, trumpet-shaped flowers, but when they were getting started, they looked just like the weeds.
“I know they all look alike at first,” Gram said. “You have to learn to tell the difference. Water's precious. I save it for the tomatoes and green beans, corn and strawberries, because we can eat them.”
“What about the roses?” Sam asked. She'd been thinking they were purely ornamental, but as soon as the words were out, she thought of Gram's rose hip tea.
“The roses are something of a luxury,” Gram admitted. “Though my rose hip tea is full of vitamin C, and it's the quickest way to cure a cold.” She looked at the trellis almost tenderly. “But the morning glories don't ask for much and they keep showing up on their own. Seems like the least we can do is clear away the weeds.”
Sam nodded, but she still didn't really get it. Her only hope was to memorize the ones Gram pointed out as weeds.
Cackling and squawking, three Rhode Island Red hens flapped up a dust cloud nearby. Sam thought they were squabbling over the cracked corn she'd scattered for them earlier, until she heard Brynna's voice.
“You feel up to seeing the mustang colt from the Deerpath fire?”
Sam glanced up as Brynna walked toward her. With her hair pulled back in its usual red braid, and a sleeveless white blouse hanging loose over jeans, she looked more like a teenager than the manager of a government agency.
Brynna had been the boss at Willow Springs Wild Horse Center for three years. She acted as guardian and overseer of the wild horses that roamed the thousands of acres surrounding River Bend Ranch.
Brynna didn't look like anyone's pregnant stepmother, either, Sam thought, but she was that, too.
“What do you mean, âfeel up to it'?” Sam asked, flipping back the auburn bangs that were already stuck to her forehead with sweat.
“He got some pretty nasty burns,” Brynna said carefully.
Instantly Sam thought of the Phantom, and her stomach dipped.
Two horses had been hurt the day that lightning sparked a fire, which had blackened twenty acres of ranch land and heated the cans of paint sitting next to Mrs. Allen's fence to the point of exploding.
Sam had been following Mrs. Allen's directions, but she'd been the one who'd left those cans there. She still felt guilty for the horses' injuries.
The Phantom, a graceful silver stallion that had once been hers, had been temporarily deafened by the concussion of the exploding paint cans. He'd been burned, too, and the scorched place on his neck had turned shriveled and dark. It had looked exactly like a burned marshmallow.
The Phantom had been injured as he'd raced after a youngster from his herd. He'd tried to herd the yearling out of danger, but he'd been too late.
The yearling had suffered burns all over his face.
Sam winced in sympathy for the young horse, but she'd seen injured animals before. Of course she was up to seeing the colt. She owed it to him and because of Brynna, she might even have a chance to help him.
As the federal government's local representative in charge of the wild horses' welfare, Brynna had authorized expensive veterinary care for the colt.
“The last time we saw him,” Sam said, “his face was mainly swollen from smoke inhalation. That's got to have gone down by now, and probably, that made him look worse.”
“I'm sure,” Brynna said. “Butâ” Brynna stopped speaking.
As Brynna broke off, Sam recognized the look in her stepmother's eyes. Most of the time, especially when it came to horses, Brynna treated Sam as an
adult. Brynna was a biologist, and though she loved animals, she wasn't sentimental about them. She usually told the truth straight out.
“There's no point in trying to fool yourself, Sam. His burned nose and the damage to that white patch around his eye have changed his appearance.”
“I know,” Sam said, and her memory brought back the time she'd spent crouched beside the colt.
A black crust had replaced the tender skin on the colt's nose. The patch of white hair around one eye had burned away, leaving behind skin that looked scarlet with sunburn. But damage done by flames wouldn't fade like sunburn.
She'd never used the nickname aloud, but the bay colt's swaggering boldness, paired with his unusual white marking, had made her call him Pirate.
She'd seen him for the first time on Dad and Brynna's wedding day, the morning he'd caused the Phantom's herd to nearly trample her. Still, it hadn't been his fault, and Sam had always liked the rowdy bay colt.
It hadn't been hard persuading Brynna and Dr. Scott, the young vet on retainer to the Bureau of Land Management, to rescue the colt. The last time Sam had talked with Dr. Scott, though, he'd been worried over the colt's future.
“Are you putting him up for adoption?” Sam asked.
“Not yet. Dr. Scott wants to foster him out.”
, Sam thought. That way the colt could get the loving care he needed.
Sam bolted to her feet and her gaze took in the ranch yard.
Where could they put an injured yearling?
The ten-acre pasture would be risky, but the barn corral held Tempest, her own black foal. Dark Sunshine, the filly's mother, was fiercely protective. She'd see a young male intruder as a threat.
Sam could easily imagine Sunny attacking Pirate. Even though he was young and injured, Sunny wouldn't take a chance with her foal's safety.
Sweetheart, Gram's aged pinto mare, had a box stall and indoor pen too small to share.
“Not here,” Brynna said, though Sam was still scheming.
“Then where?” Sam asked.
“We have volunteers closer to town,” Brynna said. Her voice sounded doubtful as she added, “Still, summer's a tough time to get round-the-clock care. People go on vacation.”
Sam's hands perched on her hips and she gave a disgusted sound. She'd skip vacation if she could change life for an injured young horse. It was hard to believe not everyone felt that way.
“What about Mrs. Allen?” Sam suggested their neighbor, the owner of Deerpath Ranch who'd turned acres of her property into a mustang sanctuary.
“That might work, but not just yet. If all goes well, he should be able to be released with her herd in about a week,” Brynna said. “Until then, he needs care for his injuriesâhands-on care, Dr. Scott thinks, if he's going to adapt to captivity.”
“Then why can't he just stay with Dr. Scott?” Sam asked. Obviously, that was the best solution of all.
Young, blond, and serious behind his black-rimmed glasses, Glen Scott was the vet who'd saved the Phantom's life when the stallion had been drugged and abused by an unscrupulous rodeo contractor.
“Dr. Scott's already stayed home for two weeks, caring for the colt,” Brynna said.
Sam stiffened in surprise. Because the vet specialized in large animals, he made lots of house callsâpasture and barn calls, too. Around here, a person with a sick sheep, for instance, didn't expect to load it into a trailer and drive it to the vet's office. Instead, the vet drove to the sheep.
“BLM has already put far more money into the colt than it can ever hope to get back from the adoption fee,” Brynna said.
Sam shrugged. That was always true.
The vet care, vaccinations, food, and freeze branding given to wild horses that were captured on public lands was more expensive than the fee charged to adopters.
“So?” Sam said.
“So, we're at the point where whoever takes him into foster care will have to do it for free. Usually we pay the caregiver's expenses.”
Brynna paused and shifted the waistband of her jeans.
“I'm going now. I'll check on the colt, then stop by my office.”
“But it's Saturday,” Sam said.
“I'm hoping I've received the fax about the new HARP girls. I should have had it Thursday.”
The new HARP girls would arrive at the Reno airport tomorrow afternoon. Brynna always liked to know something about the girls before they showed up with their suitcases and varied backgrounds, ready to move into the new bunkhouse on River Bend Ranch.
“I hope to get back by lunchtime,” Brynna said. “I don't blame you if you don't want to go.”
“I want to, just let me tell Gram I'm going.” Sam brushed her hands off on her jeans.
Finishing this chore later, in the heat of the day, would be a lot less fun, and her river walk with Tempest would be delayed, but she wanted to see Pirate.
“Sam.” Brynna touched her shoulder before she could hurry off.
Sam stopped. Then she really looked at Brynna. It wasn't her stepmother's flush or the weary slump of
her shoulders that worried her.
Sam's hands curled into tight fists and she drew a deep breath.
“What aren't you telling me about the colt?” Sam blurted.
“Maybe nothing. Maybe Glen's just grown too close to his patient.” Brynna forced a smile.
Finally Brynna rushed on, “I haven't seen the colt since you have, but he may be completely unadoptable. Sam, from what Glen tells me, the colt's not only disfiguredâhe's crazy.”