Phantom Stallion #1: The Wild One
It's been two years since Blackie, the horse Sam raised from a foal, threw her in a near-fatal accident. She's been separated from her family, her ranch and the wild mustangs she loves. Now she's home again, but her beloved Blackie has been missing since the day Sam was injured.
Then, on the night she returns, a mustang comes to Sam. Is it Blackie, grown up and gone wild? Is it the legendary stallion known as the Phantom? Or could it be both?
At first, Sam thought she was seeing things. The windshield of Dad's truck was pitted by years of windblown dust. Maybe she'd been away from the ranch so long, the desert sun was playing tricks on her eyes.
Suddenly, she knew better.
Mustangs stampeded over the ridge top. They ran down the steep hillside. As their hooves touched level ground, a helicopter bobbed up behind them.
It hovered like a giant dragonfly.
As she watched the herd, Sam saw one creamy mane flickering amid the dark necks of the other horses. She saw a black horse shining like glass and two roans running side by side. Here and there ran foals, nostrils wide with effort.
Sam wondered if the men hovering above could see each running horse, or only a flowing mass of animals.
The mustangs ran for the open range. Sam knew the horses would find little shade and less water ahead, but they seemed to think of nothing except outrunning the men and their machine.
The herd swung left. The helicopter swooped, ten feet off the sand, to block them.
The herd galloped right. With a whirring sound, the helicopter followed.
Then, from the back of the herd, a silver stallion raced forward. Sam never imagined a horse could be so beautiful, but there he was. He nipped and screamed, turning the mares in a wide U back under the helicopter's belly, running back to the hills and safety.
The helicopter pulled up. It banked into a turn and followed, but it was too late.
"Wow! Where did they go?" Sam's thigh muscles tensed. She sat inside her dad's truck, but her knees shook as if she'd been running with the wild horses.
"Mustangs have their secret getaway trails. They go places even a chopper can't." Dad took one hand off the steering wheel to pull his Stetson down to shade his eyes.
Sam cleared her throat and looked out the window at dull, brown Nevada. Could she have felt homesick for this?
Yes. Every day of the past two years, an ache had grown under her breastbone.
She just wished Dad would talk more. She wanted to hear about the ranch and the horses and Gram. But the nearer they got to the ranch, the more he acted like the dad she remembered. Relaxed and quiet, he was completely unlike the awkward man who'd come to visit in Aunt Sue's polished San Francisco apartment.
Since he'd picked Sam up -- literally off her feet in the middle of the airport -- their conversation had bumped along just like this old truck. Slow, but sure.
"Shouldn't use helicopters and trucks," Dad muttered. "They just don't savvy mustangs."
Translated, that meant he had no respect for men who didn't understand the wild horses they were capturing and taking off the range.
Dad really talked like a cowboy. And his first name was Wyatt, a cowboy name if she'd ever heard one. Plus, he walked with the stiff grace of a man who'd ridden all his life.
When he'd first sent her to the city, Sam had been so angry, she'd tried to forget Dad. For a while, it had been easy.
After her accident, the doctors had said Sam might suffer "complications." When a girl fell from a galloping horse and her head was struck by a hoof, that was bad. When she lost consciousness as well, they explained, it was far worse.
Fear made Dad agree to send Sam away from the ranch, to live with Aunt Sue. In San Francisco, she was only two minutes away from a hospital, instead of two hours.
First Sam had begged to stay, then she'd turned stubborn and refused to go. But Dad was just as stubborn. He wouldn't take no for an answer. Since she'd barely turned eleven, Dad had won.
After a few lonely weeks, she'd learned to love San Francisco. Aunt Sue's willingness to take her everywhere and show her everything eased the pain of leaving home, but it couldn't make her forget Blackie.
Blackie had been the first horse who was all her own. She'd raised him through a rocky colthood, gentled him to accept her as his rider, then made a terrible mistake that injured her and frightened him into escape.
Each time Dad called her in San Francisco, Sam asked for word of Blackie. But the swift two-year-old had vanished.
In time, Sam stopped asking. She and Blackie had hurt each other. She'd been unable to go after him and touch him and explain. So, Blackie had followed his mustang heart back to the wild country.
Although Aunt Sue didn't ride, she did share Sam's passion for movies. Sam made friends at her middle school, too, and played basketball in a YMCA league. It wasn't long before the months had added up to two years.
Still, movies and basketball couldn't measure up to Sam's memories of riding the range, fast and free. Sam never stopped loving horses and missing them. When Dad announced it was safe to come home, Sam had started packing.
Now, Sam sneaked another look at Dad. In San Francisco, she'd been embarrassed by him. She'd worried that her city friends would hear his buckaroo slang, or take a good look at his face, all brown and lean as beef jerky. If they had, they would have known Dad for what he was: a cowboy.
But here in Nevada, he fit in and it was easier for her to see she had a lot in common with him. They were both skinny, tanned, and stubborn.
"You really liked living in San Francisco?" Dad asked.
"After I got used to the fog and traffic, I loved it. I jogged in Golden Gate Park with Aunt Sue and we saw at least three movies every weekend...
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