Authors: Terri Farley
Phantom Stallion Wild Horse Island 3
At dawn, the old woman leans on a koa woodâ¦
“Not that it matters, but I've never camped before,” Darbyâ¦
When Darby first noticed she was wheezing, she was gladâ¦
Tutu left Darby brooding at the table.
Darby placed her hand over Hoku's nose, forming a gripâ¦
If you think you hear one, you do.
Penny-shaped leaves puffed up from Darby's shoes as she joggedâ¦
The next morning Darby and Hoku walked into the rainâ¦
As she watched her horse, Darby's senses were turned upâ¦
Late-afternoon rain showered the rain forest. Full of chocolate andâ¦
“My eyes hurt.”
Between one heartbeat and the next Darby realized the boarâ¦
Her lips felt stiff, so they were probably caked withâ¦
Kit squatted in the dirt, drawing with a stick. Itâ¦
Darby didn't watch while Kit made sure the sick boarâ¦
Wild Horse Island is imaginary. Its history, culture, legends, people, and ecology echo Hawaii's, but my stories and reality are like leaves on the rain forest floor. They may overlap, but their edges never really match.
t dawn, the old woman leans on a koa wood walking stick. She looks down at the treeless circle surrounded by rain forest. In less than two years, grass, creeping plants, and saplings have reclaimed the earth that men had cleared. Vines twirl over corral bars and a wooden lean-to, the only reminders of that day.
That tragic day,
she thinks, and though the ache of mourning remains, the time for blame is over.
The old woman has spent a lifetime in the rain forest and she knows the need to place blame grew out of hurt, not truth. The wild boars would have trotted through this place, on that day, even if the three riders hadn't chosen the same path.
But they did, and because they did, one life ended and two changed forever.
If a piglet hadn't stopped to stare at an insect while his littermates shuffled on and disappeared in the greenery, things might have been different. If the piglet hadn't been trapped between the cattle and the horsemen, he might not have squealed in panic, causing a boar to charge and a rose roan mare to rear from his tusked attack.
If the boar or the mare had hesitated for just three heartbeats, the paniolo would have reined the roan aside, backed her away, and laughing in relief, welcomed the lesson.
But it all happened too fast and the rearing roan crashed over backward, trapping her rider against the forest floor.
“The sun comes up, and the sun goes down,” the old woman tells the owl riding her shoulder. “And what happens in betweenâhappens.”
The owl's feathered face swivels, looking back over the old woman's shoulder.
She taps her walking stick. A warm gust blows away the screams still hanging in the canopy of leaves. A second tap, and the breeze carries off the smell of hot horse flesh and the sharp rosemary scent of crushed keawe. The wind erases the pain of a dying man and the daughter at his side.
The owl lifts into the air, hangs hovering, then flaps into the wind that wraps the pink cloak around
the old woman's body and her white hair around her neck.
The warm, welcome wind makes the old woman smile, because soon, this spot will not be haunted by bloody grief and grudges.
Change is on its way.
ot that it matters, but I've never camped before,” Darby Carter told her grandfather, Jonah.
He balanced her backpack behind the saddle cantle, then tightened the knot holding it.
She worried a little bit about her asthma getting out of control, too, but the bulk of the inhaler in her pocket reassured her.
“You want to stay home, say so,” Jonah said, but he didn't look at her.
His hands, callused from decades of work with horses, kept double-checking the job Darby had done saddling up. Now, he tested the breast collar Darby had buckled to keep Navigator's saddle from slipping on steep hills.
“No! I'm going!” Darby insisted.
Her grandfather's smile, which barely lifted the corner of his black mustache, told Darby that he knew her fretting was a habit left over from the noisy school halls, blaring freeways, and city craziness of her life before âIolani Ranch.
As the morning clouds parted and sunlight warmed her shoulders, Darby added to herself,
A low nicker made Darby watch Navigator. The Quarter Horse gelding, dark brown as coffee with rust-colored circles around his eyes, had noticed when she'd glanced down at her pocket. He flared his nostrils, sniffing to find out if she carried something for him in there.
Darby pretended to ignore Navigator, because Jonah didn't like her babying his horses. He'd told her that on her first day in Hawaii. And even though Navigator had picked her as his rider within minutes of her arrival on the ranch, the big gelding still belonged to Jonah.
“Plan on bringing your horse?” Jonah asked.
“Of course,” Darby said, but she was thinking,
No other words could kindle a glow inside her like those two.
Well, maybe one:
Even though she was a mustang from the Nevada rangelands, Darby had named her sorrel filly Hoku,
the Hawaiian word for “star.” She was named for the white marking on her chest but, Darby thought proudly, her horse was a star in other ways. Since coming to Hawaii, the filly had not only braved a long swim in the sea and survived; she'd also chased off a wild stallion set on kidnapping her for his herd.
That first day, Jonah had also told her that the best way to bond with her mustang filly was to set out into the rain forestâalone.
The thought still gave her chills, but so far, everything Jonah had told her about horses had turned out to be true. This morning she would prove she trusted her grandfather as much as he trusted her.
Jonah had given her a map. He'd ride partway out with her to the forest, and then leave her to go on alone. Astride Navigator and leading Hoku, she'd find the camp marked on the map. It would have a corral for Hoku, a lean-to for Darby to sleep in, and a nearby stream of fresh water. Once she found it, she'd send Navigator home. Then she and Hoku would stay for a week.
We can do it,
“That's good.” Jonah faced his own horse now, testing the latigo and buckles on the tack of his gray, Kona.
Darby wondered. The way her mind had darted around, she'd totally lost track of their conversation.
Jonah looked over Kona's back. Brown skin
crinkled at the corners of Jonah's eyes and he tilted his head so that she saw the gray hair at his temples.
At least he didn't look impatient with her, Darby thought, but then she realized her grandfather was gazing past her.
“Here comes the roughrider. Already dropped food out there for you.” Jonah gave a wry smile as Cade rode up.
Wearing short leather chaps streaked with green stains, Cade swung in the saddle in time with his horse's high spirits. With his tugged-low hat, rawhide rope, and dark green poncho, Cade looked all business. But not Joker. The black-spattered Appaloosa danced as if he were setting out on an adventure, instead of coming back from one.
“I left your sleeping bag and your food up there,” Cade said.
“Good thing he can see in the dark,” Jonah told Darby. “Before dawn, that forest is black as the inside of a cow.”
“Thanks, Cade,” Darby said.
Still in the saddle, Cade shrugged off Jonah's compliment and her thanks.
At fifteen, Cade was only two years older than Darby, but her grandfather's unofficially adopted son was a world of experience ahead of her.
Still, the one thing Darby did best in all the world was learn.
Jonah's eyes flicked toward Hoku's corral. Before
he could rush her, Darby sprinted away.
“I'm getting Hoku. Be right back,” she shouted over her shoulder.
As she jogged, Darby took deep, testing breaths. Her asthma had improved since she'd come to Hawaii. Oxygen didn't grate through her lungs and she felt no catch in her chest. The remote island of Moku Lio Hihiu had zero air pollution compared to Southern California.
At the sound of Darby's boots, Hoku bolted away from the fence, then stretched her neck high and higher still to see over the top rail.
“Good morning, beauty,” Darby called.
The filly stared through the creamy ripples of her forelock. Sunlight turned her brown eyes amber. She looked as wild as the first day Darby had seen her galloping across a snowy plain, drawing away from the helicopter chasing her.
“Hoku,” Darby said, smooching, and the filly's wild expression was replaced by impatience.
Hoku arched her golden neck and pawed three rapid strokes.
“Were you afraid I was going to leave you behind when I rode out on Navigator?”
Carefully sliding open the new bolt on Hoku's corral, Darby slipped inside carrying a tangerine-and-white-striped lead rope.
In mock fear, the filly shied away.
Hoku's coat shone with good health. Even though
Jonah said it would take a few more months for the filly to recover from her journey from Nevada to Hawaii, Darby couldn't imagine any horse could be more beautiful.
On her shipping papers, Hoku had been described as a sorrel in one place and a chestnut in another.
To Darby, Hoku looked like living fire. Flashes of flame red outlined the muscles surging beneath the filly's golden skin. Copper glints shone on her legs. Sparks crackled in her flaxen mane.
Hoku stopped, shook her head, and snorted, promising Darby that today she wouldn't be hard to catch.
But Darby had been fooled before, and she didn't have time to calm Hoku if the filly changed her mind.
Darby came to Hoku slowly, with one hand held out to pet the filly if she stepped forward.
She didn't. So, instead of approaching from the front, Darby slid along her horse's side. The filly's body was warm and vibrating with energy.
“Pretty girl,” Darby praised, then snapped the lead on Hoku's halter.
Hoku trusted Darby more than she did any other human, but the filly's wild heritage could be traced to horses called “throwbacks” and “renegades.” She'd already hurt Cadeâout of fear, not maliceâand Darby wasn't taking the chance of spooking her horse.
Hoku lifted each hoof in prancing perfection as they moved out of the corral and back toward Jonah.
Her ears tilted forward, curious about the group of people ahead. Even from this distance, Darby recognized her friend Megan by her athletic build and cherry Cokeâcolored hair, and Auntie Cathy.
Darby had described Auntie Cathy to her own mother as Megan's mom, the resident cook, and general ranch manager. But the woman with the messy brown-blond bob was also the widow of a paniolo who'd been Jonah's right-hand man. Auntie Cathy mothered everyone on the ranch, and she knew more about âIolani Ranch than anyone except Jonah.
But Hoku wasn't snorting at Megan or Auntie Cathy.
The filly's flattened ears signaled the nearness of a male. She had good reasons to dislike men, and she was warning Cade not to ride any closer.
Cade stopped Joker out of the reach of Hoku's hooves and teeth, but the filly protested with a squeal when Cade leaned down from his saddle to say, “Hope you're not afraid of spiders.”
Darby missed a step and tripped into Megan. The other girl steadied her and reached a comforting hand toward Hoku.
“Oh, stop it, Cade,” Megan snapped.
“Most of the ones out there are just happy-face spiders.” Auntie Cathy dismissed Cade's warning with an indulgent smile.
“Happy-face spiders?” Darby echoed, then looked at Jonah with raised eyebrows.
“No bigger than your little fingernail,” Jonah confirmed. When Darby glanced down at her hands, he gave a short bark of laughter.
“They have markings that look like smiles, but they're all a little bit different,” Megan explained. Then, hands on hips, she added, “And I think they're cute.”
“Not like cane spiders,” Cade said in an offhanded manner that contradicted his satisfied expression.
Darby's first thought was of candy canes, and she said, “They don't sound so bad.”
“They're gross. They hide in groves of sugar cane,” Megan said, “so you probably won't see them by the corral, but sometimes they migrate. When we were in town once, we saw them march across the street in waves.” Megan rubbed her arms with a shudder.
Darby's imagination displayed an undulating carpet of tarantulas, before she could remind herself that she was not afraid of spiders. All creatures were fascinating. She was proud she'd never reacted to snakes and spiders with stereotyped girliness, and she wasn't about to give Cade the satisfaction of seeing her cringe.
“Thanks for the heads-up,” Darby told Cade, then tightened her long black ponytail.
At the same time, Hoku stepped closer to her, and Jonah reprimanded, “Keep both hands on that lead rope.”
Darby did, and then, before Jonah could tell her to make Hoku back up, she did that, too.
Rules for horses were straightforward and simple with Jonah. If a horse came at you or walked away without permission, you ordered him or her to back up a few steps.
“Back,” Darby said, but Hoku just switched her glare from Cade to Jonah, until Darby flicked the end of the lead rope toward the filly's white-starred chest.
Lifting her chin in understanding, Hoku took a step back.
“One more,” Darby said and lifted her own chin to acknowledge the filly's response.
“Good,” Jonah said. “Now she remembers who's in charge.”
“No fair having Hoku stomp them,” Cade muttered. “Killing spiders is bad luck.”
“So is sleeping with spiders,” Megan pointed out, “so shake out your sleeping bag before you bed down every night.”
“Enough,” Auntie Cathy said, then gave Darby a one-armed hug. “Darby will do just fine.”
“Time to go,” Jonah said, reining Kona away from them all.
Darby put her boot toe in Navigator's stirrup, but
hesitated before bouncing up into the saddle.
Megan was beside her, whispering, “Let me slip this in here.”
“What is it?” Darby asked as Megan unzipped an outside pocket on Darby's backpack.
Megan pushed a small brown sack inside, then zipped it closed again. “Something you can use when you're working with Hoku. It'll get her used to weird things. My dad”âMegan's voice wavered, reminding Darby her friend's father had only been dead for a yearâ“had me do this with my horse. It worked really well.” Megan cleared her throat. “Anyhow, it's fun.”
“Thanks,” Darby said, then asked, “which horse?”
For a second, she thought Megan hadn't heard her, but when she started to ask again, Megan said, “Later.”
“Promise?” Darby asked, and she wouldn't have noticed Auntie Cathy was following their quiet exchange, except that the woman looked away when Megan rolled her eyes in pretend exasperation, then nodded.
“Watch out for wild pigs,” Auntie Cathy put in, as Darby gave Hoku's lead rope one wrap around her hand. “Darby?”
Auntie Cathy's voice was insistent and sharper than usual.
“I'll watch for them,” Darby promised. “Even
though I didn't get the pig-tracking class you gave Kit.”
“You'll know them when you see them,” Auntie Cathy said.
Darby didn't try to analyze the woman's forced lightness.
Jonah was getting ahead of her, so Darby swung into the saddle and nudged Navigator with her heels.
“Bye,” Megan called, and Darby looked back over her shoulder to see Cade and Megan wave at exactly the same time.
Darby lifted her reins, telling Navigator to catch up with Jonah as he passed Sun House. The gelding lengthened his stride and Hoku picked her feet up cautiously, following a path of her own, at the end of the tangerine-and-white rope.
As they descended the bluff and crossed the broodmare pasture, Jonah sounded like a coach before a big game, jamming last-minute advice into her brain.
“Work on her head-shyness however you want. You'll build a relationship as you cure the problem,” he said. “You've made a start, but halfway won't cut it. It's a dangerous vice. You're goin' nowhere, if you don't fix that.”
Hoku didn't have vices, Darby thought. Her head-shyness was a logical reaction to being beaten.
“Down deep, this filly hasn't forgiven you for stealing her freedom.”
Darby couldn't contradict him, because sometimes she thought the same thing. She was working at giving Hoku the best life a captive mustang could have. But sometimes Hoku stared west for motionless minutes, only to turn back to Darby with unforgiving eyes.
The filly was learning to trust, but she still yearned for the boundless range of home.
Darby looked back over her shoulder. Hoku raised her head to return the girl's gaze.
Darby told Hoku silently,
you'll run as far and fast as you want, and still come back to me.
But they had a long way to go before that happened. As Darby thought of schooling Hoku, she remembered the bag Megan had slipped into her backpack. Then she recalled what Megan had said about her own horse.