Authors: Terri Farley
This book is dedicated to all the readers who ride the
Phantom's range with me.
Cold desert winds spun snow dust off the ground andâ¦
If Jake had been testing his big brother's skill withâ¦
He had to be joshing with Jake, Sam thought, lookingâ¦
If Kit and Jake continued their sibling rivalry while drivingâ¦
Dinner was a little late that Saturday night.
Sam had never studied the skilike thingsâskids, she thought theyâ¦
“Don't be surprised if it looks like the North Poleâ¦
Sap sizzled inside a log in the fireplace, then popped.
“Now I know I don't need to tell you this,â¦
“What happened?” Jen demanded, taking her backpack off the seatâ¦
“What do you do on a snow day?” Sam askedâ¦
Overhead, the sky lay flat and white as a bedsheet,â¦
The helicopter was out again, searching for horses, and Samâ¦
It took Sam a few seconds to get her bearings.
Sam glanced at her watch. It was two o'clock inâ¦
Yawning, Sam repositioned the pillow behind her head and stretchedâ¦
Sam couldn't remember ever feeling so proud as she wasâ¦
At the same time, both Sam and Jake heard waterâ¦
The valley's rock walls looked safe and solid and theâ¦
old desert winds spun snow dust off the ground and into a white whirlwind that surrounded Samantha Forster and the bay mustang she rode. She pulled her fleece-lined coat up to her chin. The huge stone barn at Three Ponies Ranch had just come into view, and she aimed her horse for it.
Sam glanced at her watch. She wasn't late, but she hadn't passed any of the Ely brothers hurrying off to work. She didn't hear doors slamming, buckets clanking, or truck engines warming up in the thirty-degree morning. The ranch ahead lay oddly silent.
Sam hurried Ace out of his walk and into a jog as they passed Three Ponies' front pasture. For a second, the bay threw his head high and she heard him
suck in the scent of frosty sagebrush. Then, the second stirring of her legs, or the December wind whooshing his tail forward to tickle his flanks, made Ace dance.
Hooves churning, the bay insisted he should break into a lope.
“Save it,” Sam told her horse.
And when a stocky chocolate-colored gelding galloped toward them, then raced along his pasture fence and she
didn't let Ace break out of a jog, her bay mustang gave a little buck just to show Sam who was boss.
“Not you,” she corrected him, but she settled more firmly into her saddle, just in case.
They were in the Elys' ranch yard now, and though Sam considered herself a good sport, there was no way she wanted to start the morning with a surprise rodeo performance for the Ely brothers and their parents.
“Awful quiet,” Sam said to Ace as they passed five white hens digging in their toenails for better traction as they raced for their coop.
The flock was the only sign of life, though her friend Jake should have had his mare Witch loaded in a horse trailer, ready to go. Sam had expected Jake to be leaning against the trailer, arms crossed with his Stetson tipped over his eyes, waiting impatiently for her to get here.
Scanning the ranch yard once more, Sam spotted
Gal, the Elys' German shepherd, digging at the bottom of the barn door.
Of course, Sam thought, smiling. Jake must be inside. She'd bet he hadn't been able to resist a few more minutes of play with Singer, his coydog pup.
She didn't blame him. After all, Singer was the reason Sam had ridden over to Three Ponies Ranch instead of waiting for Jake to pick her up on his way to Willow Springs Wild Horse Center.
Sam heard the empty porch swing creak as the wind pushed it to the limit of its chains. And then a door slammed. Twisting in her saddle, Sam saw she was wrong about Jake. He wasn't in the barn, because here he came.
Wide-shouldered and purposeful, Jake strode toward her.
Sensing her distraction, Ace snorted, turned to face Jake, and Sam let him. Her mouth had already opened on a greeting when Jake jerked his black Stetson toward the hitching rack in a wordless sign that she should tie Ace and dismount.
From someone else, the gesture might have been rude, but not from Jake. Western movie characters who were “strong, silent types” could easily have been based on cowboys like him.
As Sam slung Ace's reins over the hitching rail, Jake came to stand beside her.
“Good morning,” she said. “It's almost Christmas.”
Sam knew she could wait all day for Jake to join
her excitement. After all, she hadn't asked him a question, had she?
Sam bent, loosened Ace's cinch, and heard her horse groan with relief. Just when she was thinking her horse was a better communicator than Jake, he spoke up.
“You're just in time to welcome back everybody's hero.”
Sam straightened to face Jake.
“Huh?” she asked, rubbing her chilled hands together.
“Kit's coming home today,” he said.
“Kit?” Sam gasped. “Really?”
Kit was the oldest of the six Ely brothers, the one she barely remembered. He'd left to follow the rodeo circuit just after graduating from high school. Though he rarely came home, most folks in the area followed Kit's career.
Last summer, it had been big news when Bryan Ely had mentioned Kit's purchase of a new red truck with his rodeo winnings. Before that, Clara had taped a clipping from “Rodeo Today” to her coffee shop cash register because it showed Kit Ely riding a blue roan bucking horse named No-No Nitro.
If the rumors Sam had heard were true, Kit was headed for the national finals in bronc riding.
Jake was right. Kit was definitely a local hero.
“Wow, you mean he's home for Christmas?” Sam asked.
“He will be,” Jake said. “He called at about mid
night. Don't know if Mom even slept. She was up before daylight makin' cinnamon rolls. Adam called in and took the day off from his kayak guide job in Reno. Bryan and Quinn are waitin' to go out and evict that deer herd from the timothy hay field.” Jake shook his head over his brothers. “Dad's goin' in late to work and even Nate stayed home, and he's got some big paper due that he was gonna go in and research at the library.”
As Jake glanced back at the river rock ranch house, Sam figured six of the eight members of the Ely family were probably sitting around the kitchen table, out of the icy winds.
“You want to go back in?” Sam asked, in case Jake had left the rest of his family to come meet her.
“No, but Mom said she'd wring my neck if I leave before Kit gets here. So, you might as well give Singer some time while I work the kinks out of Witch. You mind?”
“Of course not,” Sam said.
She looked after Jake as he went to catch his mare, Witch. Maybe it was just the squabble with his mother that was keeping Jake outside, but Sam didn't think so. And there was something else she wanted to ask him.
It seemed like she'd heard the championship rodeo was nicknamed “Cowboy Christmas,” because contestants could win huge prizes. Wasn't it held about now? Eight hundred miles away in Las Vegas? So why would Kit be coming home, now?
Sam didn't ask. She didn't try to get Jake to explain what was bothering him, either. Jake had been her friend since they were little kids and though he was more comfortable with horses than people, over the years she'd learned to read his silences pretty well.
If she stayed alert, she'd figure out what it was about Kit's return that made Jake act annoyed instead of excited.
The Elys' dog Gal was still whining when Sam reached the barn. The dog butted her nose at the space where the barn doors rattled against their bolts as the wind fought to snatch them open.
Sam laughed at the dog's determination as Gal tried to squeeze 130 pounds of German shepherd through a slot barely wide enough for a mouse.
But Sam knew why Gal was trying so hard. Singer, Jake's coydog, was making high-pitched yaps, begging the big dog to come play.
The pup was irresistible to Sam, too. Because of Singer, she'd been to Three Ponies Ranch more in the past three weeks than she had in the last two years. She adored her dog Blaze's half-wild pup, but it hadn't been hard to give him up. From the moment she'd seen Singer mirrored in Jake's eyes, she'd known the two belonged together.
Not that it was easy raising a little creature with warring natures.
Jake insisted the coydog had to socialize with
outsiders to his Three Ponies territory, so he'd had Sam work with the pup as much as she could.
“And I feel like a real outsider today,” Sam muttered to Gal as she worked to loosen the barn door bolt. “I don't belong in the middle of a family reunion.”
The German shepherd gazed up at Sam with confused eyes, then pawed with renewed energy at the base of the doors.
“Okay, okay,” Sam told the dog.
The bolt slid free. As Sam eased inside, she almost tripped over Gal.
By the time Sam closed the door behind them so that Singer couldn't escape, the dogs had bowed in tail-wagging greeting to each other.
“You lucky dog,” Sam told Singer as he bounced away from Gal and jumped high enough to lick Sam's nose. “It's warmer in here than it is in my bedroom!”
Three Ponies Ranch had been a cavalry post during the Civil War, and the main house, barn, and a small structure the Elys called “the little house” were built with walls that were two feet thick to withstand attack by hostile Indians.
And that, Sam thought, smiling, was kind of ironic, since Jake's dad Luke was a full-blooded Shoshone.
Singer and Gal didn't care about any of that, as they raced around the barn in crazy circles. Openmouthed and agile, Singer bounded over hay
bales, then ran with his head low enough to snap at Gal's paws. When the big dog swung around to face him, Singer gave a surprised bark. But he darted aside, easily dodging Gal's charge.
While the dogs played, Sam took Singer's light leather harness from a nail. Singer had slipped his head out of every collar that wasn't tight enough to choke him, and he couldn't be trusted to stay nearby on his own, so the harness and long leash was a compromise to keep him safe. After all, his mother had been shot for venturing too close to civilization.
When Singer's gray-brown ears caught the jingle of a buckle on the harness, the coydog stopped. Panting and alert, he trotted away from Gal and bumped against Sam's legs.
Gal threw herself belly down in the straw, watching as the pup ducked his head into the harness and Sam clicked the buckles closed around his body.
“Good boy,” Sam said, rubbing her hands all over the pup.
Singer laid his ears back and made a worried sound, but he knew this was the price he paid for time outside, and Jake had convinced Sam that constant handling would help Singer listen to his tame nature instead of his wild one.
“Let's go,” Sam said, shouldering the barn door open.
Singer gave Gal a single backward glance before following Sam into the wind, but they'd only run a
few steps when the pup stopped to watch his master.
Jake had brought the blue Scout truck, which he shared with his brothers, into the middle of the ranch yard. He'd loaded Ace into the horse trailer and now, loose in the saddle, Jake showed the ease of a lifelong horseman as he rode out his black mare's irritation.
Jake squinted at a flapping roof shingle that the winds had peeled up on the bunkhouse while his heels and hands dealt with Witch's fuss.
Sam hunched her shoulders inside her jacket. This morning, the thermometer on her front porch at River Bend Ranch had stayed stubbornly below freezing when Sam thumped it. Winds like these usually blew in late afternoon. Jake's horse, Witch, seemed to know it.
Jake turned the horse's tail to the gusts and waited for her to hump up her back and buck.
While Sam had done all she could to keep Ace from bucking this morning, Jake seemed eager for it. But Witch didn't look serious about pitching Jake off her back. She just seemed grouchy either because Jake had hurried her through breakfast or because she'd spotted the horse trailer with Ace already inside and figured, rightly, that it was waiting for her.
Hands easy on the reins, Jake swayed with Witch's movements. Tilting his chin toward his chest, Jake coaxed the mare into loping figure eights. His hair was finally growing out, and Sam saw the ends of it gleaming blue-black beneath his Stetson.
The wind's sudden blast broke Singer's concentration. He wrapped the leash around Sam's knees and gave a bunch of excited yaps. While she settled him down, Sam thought she heard something.
Could it be Kit?
Over the wind's screech, Sam listened for an approaching truck. She kind of wished Kit would hurry.
But it wasn't an engine's roar that soared above the wind. There was a sudden crack. A branch snapped off a cottonwood tree as if a giant hand had swatted it down.
Ace's hooves drummed inside the horse trailer and Witch shied. Jake ducked as the branch blew past, but it was still airborne, bobbing as if it were carried by an invisible wave, when Jake wheeled Witch toward the naked branch, making her face what she feared.
But the branch didn't hit the ground. It struck the windshield of Jake's truck and broke it.
Like silent lightning, a zigzag crazed the glass.
Singer cringed at the sound, then stood barking.
“Shh,” Sam said, petting the pup into silence.
Suddenly, as if she had to show up the misbehaving pup, Witch gave a sigh and stood calmly. As soon as Jake cued her to approach the horse trailer, she did it.
Jake's right boot had lifted from his stirrup and nearly cleared Witch's back when the mare shied
again, hard enough that Sam actually heard Jake's teeth crack together.
“Oops,” Sam said, but then Gal rushed up beside her and Singer lunged to the end of the leash.
Light-bodied but quick, he didn't manage to jerk the leash from Sam's hand, but his leap surprised her.
All three animals had sensed something, and this time it wasn't the wind.
Sam glanced at Jake to see what he thought, but his attention was focused on Witch. His leg came on over the mare's back and he stayed balanced on his left stirrup.
Only after he planted both boots on the ground did Jake stare in the direction in which the mare's ears pointed.
Through a thin veil of blowing snow, Sam made out a stranger coming down the road. He had a saddle balanced on one shoulder and the fringe on his leather chinks flapped out like raven's wings.
With a single woof, Gal bounded out of the barn, past Sam and Singer, and stopped next to Jake.
The dog leaned against his leg before she raised her black nose. Sniffing, she searched the wind for more than sagebrush and horses for a full minute before her tail curled over her back, wagging.
“It must be someone she knows,” Sam told Singer when the pup whined.
As Gal catapulted toward the front gate, barking, the ranch house door slammed open. Maxine and
Luke Ely, Nate, Adam, Quinn, and Bryan all came out smiling.
“Kit,” Jake said to himself.
Sam wouldn't have heard him if she hadn't been standing so close, and Jake's wondering tone made her feel shy. She tugged Singer away from Jake and his family, and she didn't stop until they reached the stone barn. She squatted next to the pup, away from the action, and hoped she'd be invisible.