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A crescent moon, thin and silver as the edge of a dime, shone on the lone stallion. With nervous steps, he crossed the river, then picked his way up the bank to the dark and silent River Bend Ranch.
It was midnight. No dogs barked. No coyotes howled, and no night birds called an alarm. The high Nevada desert had lost its daytime heat and every creature slept. Except Samantha Forster.
For weeks, Sam had waited through the night, hoping the silver mustang who'd once been hers would return.
Tonight, after she'd fallen asleep, questioning nickers from the saddle horses had wakened her. Sam had run on tiptoe downstairs to the kitchen. She didn't dare turn on a light or fling open the door to the ranch yard.
Wild as any deer or wolf, the Phantom had good reasons to flee from humans. Just weeks ago, he'd been roped and confined in a corral. Since the night she'd helped to free him, the Phantom hadn't been back.
Standing at the kitchen window, Sam could only watch. What she saw confused her.
The stallion stalking toward the ranch wasn't silver. He wasn't galloping with liquid grace. He wasn't the Phantom and he wasn't supposed to be here.
Fighting to see through the darkness, Sam opened her eyes so wide they burned. She pressed so close her nose touched the windowpane.
Her breath fogged the glass as she whispered, "Who are you?"
As if he'd heard, the horse stopped. His tail switched over thick haunches. He shook his shaggy mane before lifting a head that seemed too big for his sturdy neck. He studied the round pen in front of him and the white house with green shutters on his right. His ears aimeddown the gravel road, toward the barn and small pen where a white-faced Hereford calf stared back.
The stallion turned toward the big pasture and paraded along the fence. A dozen tame horses edged closer, heads bobbing as they watched. Sam couldn't hear their snorts and nickers, but she knew the horses were talking.
Frustrated, Sam brushed overgrown bangs back from her eyes. No, the stallion didn't look like the Phantom, but what were the chances another wild horse would just trot across the river and down the Forsters' driveway?
Zero, that's what.
The Phantom had been born on River Bend Ranch. Sam had hand-raised him from a wobbly-legged foal to a swift two-year-old. Only a terrible accident had parted them. But the Phantom had remembered her and he'd come back.
This horse didn't move like the Phantom, but Sam needed a closer look. She turned the knob, opened the door a few inches, sucked in her stomach and almost slipped through.
When her nightgown snagged on the wooden doorframe, Sam gave it a tug. It came loose with a soft rip.
The heavy-headed stallion wheeled just long enough to see who'd launched this ambush. He wasn't white, but a sifting of pale hair flickered in the weak moonlight as the stallion headed toward the river. The tame horses neighed in excitement as the wild one galloped along the fence.
When the horse abandoned his noiseless moves, Sam blinked. It wasn't his suddenly thunderous running that surprised her. It was his sudden stop.
The stallion glared over his shoulder directly at Sam. Then he struck the fence with a deliberate kick. Amazed, Sam wondered how the collision of hooves on wood could sound just like a dare.
"'Catch me if you can.' That's what he seemed to say." Sam waited for her friend Jake Ely to laugh out loud.
Being Jake, he didn't laugh.
He smacked his dusty Stetson against his jeans and leaned against the rails of the round pen. With glossy black hair tied back from browned cheekbones, Jake looked a lot like his Shoshone father. He did, at least, until he squinted against the sun and gave Sam the world's smallest smile. Then, Jake looked like a lazy tomcat.
"Now you've got two horses talkin' to you, huh, Brat?"
Jake was sixteen, just over two years older. He and Sam had been friendly enemies forever. During summer and after school, Jake worked on River Bend Ranch as a cowboy, but he'd never stopped teasing her like a big brother.
"Three," Sam said, jerking her thumb toward the big pasture. "You forgot Ace."
Hearing his name, the bay mustang with the perfect Arab-shaped face, trotted toward the fence of the ten-acre pasture. He tossed his head, his black forelock flipping to show his white star, as he came toward Sam. He didn't get very far.
Strawberry, a big roan mare, darted forward, ears flattened. Ace stopped.
The gelding lowered his head and backed a few steps, but not before Banjo, Dad's bald-faced bay, joined in. He flashed Ace a devilish look and launched a quick kick.
"Knock it off!" Sam jogged toward the fence, waving her hands.
Banjo's kick didn't connect. He and Strawberry didn't let Sam's shout hurt their feelings either. Both swished their tails and moved further into the pasture.
"Ace, come here, boy." Sam extended her hand over the fence, but Ace stayed back. He looked so forlorn, Sam took his loneliness to heart.
"I wish Ace could tell us why the other horses pick on him," Sam told Jake. "They're just evil."
"They're not evil." Jake gave her shoulder a shake. "Animals have a pecking order. Somebody's the boss and somebody's at the bottom. With these guys" -- Jake nodded toward the horses -- "Ace is the outsider."
Sam watched Jake. The youngest of six brothers, he'd inherited all the most boring chores at home on the Three Ponies Ranch. When he'd started working at River Bend, Dad had quickly recognized Jake's intuitive handling of horses.
Sam sighed. It had been Jake who'd taught her Native American taming techniques to gentle her own colt.
"Ace looks like he might have lost a little flesh," Jake said. "Beyond the normal cuts and kicks, he's showing ribs. That means they're not letting him eat. I think we'd better talk to your dad."
"Don't have to." Dad's voice came from behind them. "I've been watching Ace myself."
Sam could've sworn Dad had already ridden out for the day. As he moved between her and Jake, Dad's shirt smelled of wind and summer sagebrush, so he must have just returned. Dad worked hard for the bare living the ranch brought in.
Wyatt Forster shifted his weight on one leg, moving with a stiffness that had nothing to do with his boots. Tall, with a face tanned the color of saddle leather, he looked like what he was-- a man who'd been a cowboy all his life. As usual, Dad's jaw was set in a stubborn expression Sam had no problem recognizing.
Gram always told Sam that she looked like Mom had, when she'd been a teenager. But Sam knew different. She might share Mom's auburn hair, brown eyes, and way with animals, but each time Sam looked in the mirror, especially when she was mad, Dad's hard-set expression stared back at her.
"We'll move Ace into the barn pen and try Buddy in here," Dad said.
Sam pictured her orphan calf, Buddy, out with the horses. Buddy wasn't much taller than a big dog. For short distances, though, she might be the speediest animal on River Bend Ranch.
Buddy would be fine, but Ace would be lonely.
"We'll put another horse with him, of course." Jake glanced toward Sam.
"Of course," Sam echoed, and she felt her shoulders loosen in relief.
Though she'd been born on the ranch, Sam had just returned home a couple of months ago. After a serious accident, she'd had to spend two years in San Francisco with her aunt. When Jake clued her in about details like this, she was usually grateful.
"He's your horse, Sam," Dad said. "Who does he get along with?"
She held out her hand and wiggled her fingers. Before Dad had given Ace to her at the beginning of summer, the gelding had never been babied. Now he understood an open hand could mean affection as well as food. Even though he could see her empty palm, Ace sidled along the fence toward her.
"C'mon, boy," Sam crooned.
She ignored Jake's groan. He thought she pampered Ace too much. But Ace was a mustang, used to the security of a herd, even if the only other member of that herd was Sam.
Sam considered the horses in the pasture.
Although cattle paid the bills, horses were the pride of River Bend Ranch. In this pasture alone, there were three purebred Quarter horses, a lean buckskin with Thoroughbred blood, a number of mixed breed cow ponies and some young stock Jake and Dad were schooling for resale. And Ace.
Ace didn't want to be a loner, but which horse wouldn't bully him in the small pen?
While Sam tried to decide, the screen door slammed.
"Oh shoot," Sam muttered.
Gram walked toward her, jingling the keys for her huge boat of a car. In khaki pants and a pink polo shirt, with her gray hair coiled into a knot, Gram looked downright stylish. And ready to go.Phantom Stallion 2: Mustang Moon. Copyright © by Terri Farley. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.