Authors: Terri Farley
The faded wall banner that proclaimed Clara's coffee shop “Homeâ¦
“Howdy, Jake,” Dad drawled.
It turned out Jake was wrong. Instead of coming towardâ¦
Sheriff Ballard had arrived by the time Sam and Jakeâ¦
When Dad's truck and the horse trailer rumbled over theâ¦
The aroma of Gram's cooking wafted onto the front porchâ¦
Blaze walked so close to Sam's leg, he kept bumpingâ¦
Knee-high sunflowers bordered the path leading up to the newâ¦
The snake lay across the boulder like a foot-long mosaicâ¦
Sam straightened in the saddle. When she tightened her reinsâ¦
Witch was galloping about a length to Jinx's right, workingâ¦
“Crystal's missing,” Gram shouted from the middle of the yard.
Dad slowed Jeepers to a jog, but he didn't stopâ¦
Once the girls' grumbling had tapered off and they wereâ¦
“Here comes the volunteer fire engine,” Brynna said. “Luke's trainedâ¦
Working like a robot, Sam took a package of hotâ¦
Before breakfast, Sam talked with Brynna and Dad about ridingâ¦
Do what you think is right.
he faded wall banner that proclaimed Clara's coffee shop “Home of the Best Pineapple Upside-Down Cake in the World!” fluttered as the ceiling fan turned lazily overhead.
The fan stirred wisps of Samantha Forster's reddish hair as she tilted her head back and closed her eyes. It was barely noon on an early June day, but before driving into Darton with her dad, she'd put in a full morning of work with the horses on River Bend Ranch.
“Don't nod off, now,” warned a rusty female voice Sam recognized as Clara's. “Lunch is here.”
Sam smelled the giant cheeseburgers and french fries before she opened her eyes to see them.
“Not a chance,” she said.
Sitting across the table from her, Dad rubbed his palms together. His sun-browned face creased in a smile as Clara positioned plates in front of each of them.
“Guess Sam's enjoyin' her last afternoon of peace and quiet,” Dad explained to Clara. “Come to that, so am I.”
“You're not about to get another wild horse out there, are you?” Clara asked.
“Not so long as I'm livin' there,” Dad muttered.
Sam smothered her smile. She loved wild horses and she was lucky enough to count several of them as friends. Ace and Popcorn, Dark Sunshine, and the mighty silver stallion known as the Phantom paraded through her imagination.
But Dad was a cattle rancher. He didn't like sharing the range with the mustangs. Still, Dad had a horseman's heart and sometimes he helped wild horses in spite of himself.
“No new mustangs,” Sam told Clara as she gave Dad a serious nod. “But two new HARP girls are arriving today. Brynna's picking them up at the airport right now.”
“What's HARP mean, again?” Clara asked.
Sam was a little surprised at Clara's interest. She looked up at the woman's face, framed by a pink scarf knotted around her hair. Two ends stuck up like rabbit's ears, adding to Clara's alert expression.
Ice clinked as Clara poured water into their glasses.
“The Horse and Rider Protection program,” Sam explained.
“That's right. For bad girls and bad horses,” Clara mused. She looked toward the back of her coffee shop, nodding.
“Well now,” Dad said. “Not exactly bad. Just troubled, I guess.”
Brynna called the girls “at risk,” but Dad was being pretty generous in his description. After all, Mikki, the first HARP girl they'd had at the ranch, had set his barn on fire before she started changing her ways.
But Mikki had changed, and so had Popcorn. Both had become more trusting of people. That's what made Sam excited about this summer.
“I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it,” Clara assured Dad. “In fact, I was thinking about making a donation.”
The bell over the coffee shop's front door jingled. When she saw two new customers walk in, Clara stepped back from their table.
“Millie is late again,” Clara muttered, looking around for the dark-haired waitress who usually helped out. “So I need to go wait on these folks, but I'll be back.”
As Clara hurried off to seat her customers, Dad looked after her.
“Sure hope the donation's a cake or pie,” he grumbled.
Her pulse beat a little faster. Across the parking lot, Clara's coffee shop faced Phil's Fill-Up, a gas station and general store, but on the other side, acres of pastureland stretched toward Darton.
The fenced land belonged to a horse-loving banker, and though Sam hadn't noticed any new horses, it was possible she'd missed one.
Sam waited until Dad had taken a bite of his cheeseburger, then asked, “I wonder if Clara knows the HARP horses have to be mustangs?” Then she casually popped a French fry into her mouth.
“Honey, she's not about to be givin' us a horse. She couldn't afford to if she had one.” Dad chewed and nodded. “Which she doesn't.”
Just the same, he watched Clara as if she were a time bomb.
Sam started eating her own delicious lunch. Even though Gram made great home-cooked meals, Sam missed going out to eat. When she'd lived in San Francisco with Aunt Sue, they'd had about half their meals in restaurants. Although Clara's lacked a big city atmosphere, it was still a treat.
And a surprise.
Sam had expected Dad to drive straight home after they'd delivered Buff, a River Bend horse, to a lady in Darton who rented him each summer for her
visiting grandchildren. Instead, Dad had pulled the truck and empty horse trailer into the parking lot between Clara's and Phil's Fill-Up.
Pulling on the parking brake, he'd declared that as long as they needed chicken feed from the Alkali store, they might as well have lunch, too.
But now Dad was watching the clock.
No surprise there, Sam thought. Dad couldn't forget the work awaiting him at home. Besides, Brynna would arrive at River Bend Ranch with the two new HARP girls pretty soon.
Sam had promised herself she'd be tolerant and understanding, no matter what kind of trouble the girls had been in. At River Bend Ranch, their pasts wouldn't matter.
She was feeling quite mature as she sipped her milk shake.
I'll treat them just like I'd want to be treated
, Sam thought, but then her tranquility wavered. Dad put down his cheeseburger and his expression turned serious.
“About that chicken feed,” he reminded her.
Sam knew he wasn't talking about the burlap bags of feed they'd just loaded into the truck.
“Dad, I didn't spill it,” Sam insisted.
“Well, it wasn't much. You might not have noticed.”
Sam sighed. There was no use contradicting him. Since she was the one in charge of feeding the Rhode
Island Red hens each morning, Dad was certain she was to blame for the grains of cracked corn he'd found on the tack room floor.
She let him talk, even though she didn't see why it was such a big deal. Her expression must have given her away.
“Samantha, this is important. Scattered grain attracts mice. Mice bring snakes. I hear this is gonna be a bad year for rattlers and I don't want anyoneâtwo-legged or fourâbein' bit.”
“Okay,” Sam agreed. The cheeseburger felt heavy in her stomach. Her arms crawled with chills.
“No need to look scared,” Dad said. “Mostly they keep to themselves if you just leave them be.”
“Okay,” Sam said again. She wished she could keep the scared sound out of her voice.
She had nothing against snakes. She thought they were kind of interesting, but the two years she'd spent away from the ranch in San Francisco had done more than expose her to neat restaurants. She'd become nervous over things most ranch girls took for granted.
“I'll be really careful,” Sam promised.
She felt relieved as Millie rushed in through the restaurant's back door. Still trying to tie her apron strings, the tardy waitress attracted Dad's attention for a minute.
Then Clara crossed the coffee shop, wagging her order pad with raised eyebrows as she approached their table.
“Now,” Clara said. “Before my lunch rush hitsâ”
Sam glanced out the front window. She could see the empty highway and the edge of the bone-white
. Far out, blurred by heat waves, the Calico Mountains zigzagged against the blue Nevada sky. She couldn't imagine where a rush of lunch-hour diners would come from.
“I was joking, Sam,” Clara said. “Afraid there's no lunch rush. If business doesn't pick upâ¦” She gave a pained smile, then made a dismissing wave. “Anyway, I've got to tell you about this horse.”
Dad placed the last of his burger on his plate and stared at it as if he'd lost his appetite.
“Oh now, Wyatt Forster, don't you go looking all mournful,” Clara scolded him. “You're from a horse family and you went and married a horse-loving woman just last Christmas, so what do you expect?”
Dad leaned back in his chair with a tolerant smile.
“Go on, then,” he told her.
“A man came in here yesterday for his lunchâabout your age and occupation, I'd sayâand while he was eating, I heard all kinds of racket outside. I remarked on it to him and it turned out he had a horse, a âgrew-ya gelding' he called him, that was goin' crazy.”
Sam's mind spun as she tried to remember exactly
what a grulla-colored horse looked like.
“Goin' crazy?” Dad repeated. He chuckled, rubbed his forehead, and gave Sam a wry look as if he'd given up expecting normal horses.
,” Clara explained. “It turns out, the gelding had been kicking the trailer all through Darton, and hadn't settled down yet. Well, to make a long story short, that cowboy, whose name is Henry Fox, of all things, told me that Jinxâthat's the horse's name, poor fellaâis just kinda rough around the edges like one of these delinquents. And he's a mustang.”
Clara paused to meet Sam's eyes.
“Really?” Sam said.
“Really.” Clara gave a nod. “He figured maybe the horse was from around here and got restless when he smelled the sage and sand of home. Anyway, this Henry Fox was hauling Jinx up to a ranch in Montana. âIt's the bronc's last chance,' is what he told me, 'cause this horse is just a natural born bad luck charm.”
“That's silly,” Sam said.
“Exactly.” Clara pointed her index finger at Sam as if she'd guessed a correct answer. “That's just what I told him. And that's when he offered to sell Jinx to me for one dollar and a piece of pineapple upside-down cake.”
A dollar and a piece of cake?
“Can I see him?” Sam asked, but Dad's voice was louder.
“What do you know about him?” Dad asked Clara. “You didn't get yourself stuck with some sick old nag, did you?”
“Wyatt,” Clara scolded. “I'll tell you this, even though I don't have an eye for horseflesh, I am a pretty good businesswoman.”
“Of course you are,” Dad began.
“Besides, on the bill of sale, that cowboy, Henry, wrote down the phone number of the ranch in Montana, in case I wanted to call and ask him anything.”
Dad shrugged casually, but Sam thought he looked eager to get going.
“Right away,” Clara continued, “I had an idea of what to do with that horse.” Clara had barely taken a breath before she seemed to veer to another topic. “Sam, are you in YRA?”
Sam shook her head. She'd heard of Young Ranchers of America. It was a local group modeled on Future Farmers of America, but she didn't know any kids who belonged.
“Well, they're having a fun day next weekend,” Clara said, then darted across the coffee shop and peeled off the tape holding a flier to the glass pie case. When she returned and handed it to Sam, she added, “One of the things they're doing is having a claiming race.”
Sam was trying to remember what happened in a claiming race.
“Sounds like a good idea,” Dad said. He stood and pulled some dollar bills from his pocket, looking relieved, but Sam wasn't sure Clara had finished explaining her plan for the horse named Jinx.
“Jinx is right out back,” Clara began, picking up their plates. “You canâ”
Before she could finish her sentence, Phil, the owner of the gas station next door, burst into the coffee shop so fast that the welcoming bell's delicate tinkle was a clash.
“Clara, that horse is loose!”
Brakes squealed outside. Sam ran to the front window in time to see a horse dash past the back bumper of Dad's parked truck.
Smoky gray and determined, the horse shied at a blowing piece of newspaper. Would he turn back?
No. Hooves clattering, the horse galloped past the coffee shop and down the highway, headed for Darton. His black mane stood up like a Mohawk haircut. His tail streamed, glossy and thick, behind him. He moved with a liquid speed Sam had only seen once before.
“Look at him run,” Sam gasped.
No one heard her words over the blaring horn and the sickening clash of metal crushing metal as a green sedan slammed into the back of Dad's truck.
It was going to be a bad afternoon, Sam realized as she pushed away from the window.
Dad grabbed his Stetson and jammed it on. Sam
caught up with him as he hurried outside.
Summer heat hit her at the same time she saw Jake jump out of the driver's seat of his mother's car. The afternoon had turned from bad to rotten. Sam turned away from the accident. She stared after the sound of hooves hitting on hot asphalt.
The grulla gelding kept running. He didn't look back to see if the clamor of cars and people followed him. He didn't lunge into the sand for better traction.
Sam couldn't look away from the escaping horse.
Head and tail flung high, eyes set on his own goal, the grulla ran right down the dotted white line in the middle of the highway.