Frost outlined the wood grain of the boards under Ace's hooves as I rode out this morning.
All of my gelding's prancing and dancing proved he was as excited as I was to be out for a morning ride.
I hadn't ridden all week and I was about to explode with compressed energy. It got dark so early in December, that when I stayed after school working on the newspaper, then did my chores, there was no time left.
It wasn't like I ignored the horses. After dinner and homework, I bundled up and went to the big pasture fence. Popcorn and Ace always came to nuzzle me. Penny, the blind mare, snorted and stamped a forefoot, letting me know I wasn't Brynna. Then, I'd go the barn and brush Tempest. Her black coat gleamed, coated with the gold light from the lantern I'd hung.
But none of it was the same as riding out onto the range and Ace reminded me what I'd been missing. Though another horse might've slipped, Ace's mustang hooves clopped over the bridge as if he were shod with Velcro.
We swung right off the bridge, loping away from River Bend Ranch. Jen and I had promised to meet at 8 a.m., no matter if it was killer cold. And it was.
I wore a black knit cap under my Stetson and a layer of fleece between my shirt and coat. My only mistake was being too lazy to search for my winter riding gloves.
My fingers were chilled under the gloves I'd worn to school yesterday, but Ace was being a good boy, not testing my grip on the reins, so everything would be fine.
Ace raised his chin. His black forelock blew back between his ears. Through the saddle leathers, I felt his muscles tighten
"What's up?" I asked, but he didn't give even a snort of response.
His nose swept the space ahead of us, drawing endless S's in the air.
"Smell your family?" I asked.
Though Ace had never tried to return to the range, he was still wild at heart. He still recognized the Phantom as his leader.
I really hoped we saw the Phantom today.
I saw a horse on the horizon, but it wasn't him.
Silhouetted against the blue, it moved at a lope. I slowed Ace and pulled the collar of my coat up to cover my freezing chin and lips.
The form took shape, showing a rider atop the golden horse. Jen.
With fingers stiff as sticks, I lowered my collar and yelled, "Hey! Have you seen him yet?"
Wind must have snatched my voice away because Jen didn't even cup her hand to her ear.
Ace frisked a bit on his way to meet Silly – Silk Stockings on her pedigree. The mare's palomino coat glimmered in the weak sunlight. Jen's usually bouncing braids, didn't. And now that our horses were nose to nose, I saw why Jen hadn't heard me.
Under her hat, she wore some kind of headgear with ear flaps.
"That Basset hound-in-cowgirl-hat look works for you," I told her.
"Bet my face is … yours," Her voice was muffled by the thermal neck warmer that emerged from her jacket and covered her face to the bottom half of her glasses. "…seen him yet?"
That, I understood. I shook my head "no" and my worry must have shown, because Jen pulled tugged down her neck warmer and buffed the back of her sleeve across the fogged lenses of her glasses.
As much as Ace was a mustang at heart, Jen was a scientist.
"Stop worrying," she said now.
"But I should have seen him weeks ago. And I know, Winter's late this year, but —"
"Winter isn't late. Winter begins December 22. This is weather, not winter. Sam, why should he bring his band down from the Calicos –"she tipped her head toward the nearby mountains "If there's still food up there and it's not too cold. He'd stay up there year round, away from the people and helicopters, if it wasn't sometimes warmer at this lower altitude."
I knew Jen was right. October had been warm as summer and November hadn't been very cold, either. A bunch of us kids played a muddy game of football outside on Thanksgiving Day.
Jen and I rode side-by-side, both shaking our heads at the spot where we usually crossed the river. We couldn't do that now.
Despite cold that left the cattle and horses with ice beards each morning, La Charla River ran high and fast. No way would I ride into it.
The river was the problem. I'd gotten used to the Phantom swimming across from the wild side of the river to our ranch.
Even if he was down here in the valley eating cold-crunchy grass, he was too smart to leap into that strong, icy current.
Just as I thought it, Jen mumbled and pointed.
A group of wild horses – bays, grays and a single buckskin – grazed in a bunch on the other side of the river. It was the Phantom's band, with Dark Sunshine still acting as lead mare.
A smile crimped my frozen face. The little buckskin mare, mother of my filly Tempest, had led a hard life, but she was finally back where she belonged.
The Phantom wasn't with band, but he'd be nearby. His silver-white coat provided surprisingly good camouflage. I just had to let my eyes rest on the sagebrush and pinion pines, and I'd eventually catch his movement.
We sat staring for so long, I decided to tuck my hands under the edge of Ace's saddle pad and let his body heat thaw my fingers.
Jen twisted in her saddle and looked over her shoulder.
Back the way we'd come, on the opposite river bank, I saw the Phantom and a red horse.
"A new girl," Jen whispered.
Flame red with slender legs and the sweeping body of a runner, a mare ran ahead of the Phantom.
"She's fast." I watched, imagining an invisible rider urged her to race with the wind.
Dark Sunshine looked toward the Phantom and the red mare. Even at that distance – probably a couple football fields away – the red mare shied. Her front hooves stuttered and I saw her full face. The snip of white between her nostrils made her look bashful, but she ran on with determination.
When the red mare shifted to the right, I saw a filly running ahead of her. They had to be mother and daughter. They were the same shade of scarlet.
The mare was trying to herd her baby back to the band, but the filly kept coming toward the river.
The Phantom bolted past the mare and sprinted beyond the filly.
"Not a new born," I said, "but she must've been born pretty late."
The filly's forelock would probably reach my waist. She was old enough to know she was in trouble with her parents, but she didn't care.
The filly stopped at the river's edge. Slender legs planted, she gazed across the rough water at us.
"Now, she's done it," Jen said.
The Phantom lowered his silver head, flattened his ears into his mane and snaked his head from side to side.
Even though he was on the other side of the river, the Phantom's anger was obvious. Ace and Silly backed away a few steps, just in case the stallion came across. But he didn't care about the saddled horses, he was after his filly, body language demanding she return to the safety of the band.
The filly's ears, cupped like autumn leaves, listened to us. Her nostrils, open wide, sniffed at us. Had she never seen horses with riders?
The Phantom didn't care about her curiosity. He gave an angry snort as the filly waded into the river
"No!" Jen and I gasped as the red mare cried a long whinny.
There was a crash of water on rocks as current shoved the filly off her hooves and pushed her downstream.
I had a rope, but I was no expert. If I tried to lasso her, I might pull her under instead of out.
Jen touched the coiled rope on her own saddle.
"Jake could do it," she grumbled.
I should go after her, but I wouldn't risk Ace.
And what if I fell off? I was a strong swimmer, but there was hypothermia to consider, and if I got in trouble, would Jen come in after me?
I was shaking my head, trying to make a plan, when there was a loud splash. Water flew up white around the Phantom
"He's going after her?" Jen asked.
For a few steps he walked on the rolling river rock. Barely keeping his balance, he look for the filly's head above the water.
I couldn't see her either, but the red mare ran at the riverside, neighing. She was so close to the edge, a chunk of the bank crumbled and broke away.
Don't you jump in, too, I thought.
The Phantom eased into a deeper spot and then surged through the water, letting the current push him along, all the time looking for his daughter.
A sodden fluff of forelock bobbed up.
"There!" I pointed, but the Phantom didn't need my help.
He was already moving, swimming strongly when her ears and dark frightened eye rolled white and then the filly went under, again. She vanished downstream.
"It's too cold," Jen said. "Way too cold. Stupid, brave horse. He should have let her go. I know that's cruel," Jen said, "But still."
"He doesn't look worried," I said and I believed it.
The big stallion floated along like it was a summer day. Then, he dipped his lips, his nose, and finally his whole head underwater.
What was he doing?
Dark gray with the damp, the Phantom's head rose and his jaws were gently clamped on his daughter's neck.
Without hesitation, he swam for the river's edge, holding her before him.
Only when she struggled, hooves grating on rock, did he release her.
"I don't even believe that." Jen crossed her arms. She shook her head so hard that her ear flaps rose like wings. She mumbled something about equines being altruistic. I think.
With all three horses ashore, I watched the Phantom prop up his daughter. His body held her upright. I couldn't tell if she was shivering, but I was. She wobbled away from him. The spark of foolhardiness hadn't been extinguished by the water.
Good thing she's the wild one, I thought. If I'd been her, I would have burrowed into that dappled hide for warmth, or run to my mother.
The filly shook like a dog.
The Phantom shook like a really big dog and then bumped his chest against the filly's tail.
She gave a watery snort.
Then, sandwiched between the Phantom and the red mare, the filly Jen and I named Spark trotted back to the safety of her family band.