"Not that it matters, but I've never camped before," Darby Carter told her grandfather, Jonah.
He balanced her backpack behind the saddle cantle, then tightened the knot holding it.
She worried a little bit about her asthma getting out of control, too, but the bulk of the inhaler in her pocket reassured her.
"You want to stay home, say so," Jonah said, but he didn't look at her.
His hands, callused from decades of work with horses, kept double-checking the job Darby had done saddling up. Now, he tested the breast collar Darby had buckled to keep Navigator's saddle from slipping on steep hills.
"No! I'm going!" Darby insisted.
Her grandfather's smile, which barely lifted the corner of his black mustache, told Darby that he knew her fretting was a habit left over from the noisy school halls, blaring freeways, and city craziness of her life before Iolani Ranch.
As the morning clouds parted and sunlight warmed her shoulders, Darby added to herself, Before Hawaii.
A low nicker made Darby watch Navigator. The Quarter Horse gelding, dark brown as coffee with rust-colored circles around his eyes, had noticed when she'd glanced down at her pocket. He flared his nostrils, sniffing to find out if she carried something for him in there.
Darby pretended to ignore Navigator, because Jonah didn't like her babying his horses. He'd told her that on her first day in Hawaii. And even though Navigator had picked her as his rider within minutes of her arrival on the ranch, the big gelding still belonged to Jonah.
"Plan on bringing your horse?" Jonah asked.
"Of course," Darby said, but she was thinking, My horse.
No other words could kindle a glow inside her like those two.
Well, maybe one: Hoku.
Even though she was a mustang from the Nevada rangelands, Darby had named her sorrel filly Hoku, the Hawaiian word for "star." She was named for the white marking on her chest but, Darby thought proudly, her horse was a star in other ways. Since coming to Hawaii, the filly had not only braved a long swim in the sea and survived; she'd also chased off a wild stallion set on kidnapping her for his herd.
That first day, Jonah had also told her that the best way to bond with her mustang filly was to set out into the rain forest—alone.
The thought still gave her chills, but so far, everything Jonah had told her about horses had turned out to be true. This morning she would prove she trusted her grandfather as much as he trusted her.
Jonah had given her a map. He'd ride partway out with her to the forest, and then leave her to go on alone. Astride Navigator and leading Hoku, she'd find the camp marked on the map. It would have a corral for Hoku, a lean-to for Darby to sleep in, and a nearby stream of fresh water. Once she found it, she'd send Navigator home. Then she and Hoku would stay for a week.
We can do it, Darby thought.
"That's good." Jonah faced his own horse now, testing the latigo and buckles on the tack of his gray, Kona.
What's good? Darby wondered. The way her mind had darted around, she'd totally lost track of their conversation.
Jonah looked over Kona's back. Brown skin crinkled at the corners of Jonah's eyes and he tilted his head so that she saw the gray hair at his temples.
At least he didn't look impatient with her, Darby thought, but then she realized her grandfather was gazing past her.
"Here comes the roughrider. Already dropped food out there for you." Jonah gave a wry smile as Cade rode up.
Wearing short leather chaps streaked with green stains, Cade swung in the saddle in time with his horse's high spirits. With his tugged-low hat, rawhide rope, and dark green poncho, Cade looked all business. But not Joker. The black-spattered Appaloosa danced as if he were setting out on an adventure, instead of coming back from one.
"I left your sleeping bag and your food up there," Cade said.
"Good thing he can see in the dark," Jonah told Darby. "Before dawn, that forest is black as the inside of a cow."
"Thanks, Cade," Darby said.
Still in the saddle, Cade shrugged off Jonah's compliment and her thanks.
At fifteen, Cade was only two years older than Darby, but her grandfather's unofficially adopted son was a world of experience ahead of her.
Still, the one thing Darby did best in all the world was learn.
Jonah's eyes flicked toward Hoku's corral. Before he could rush her, Darby sprinted away.
"I'm getting Hoku. Be right back," she shouted over her shoulder.
As she jogged, Darby took deep, testing breaths. Her asthma had improved since she'd come to Hawaii. Oxygen didn't grate through her lungs and she felt no catch in her chest. The remote island of Moku Lio Hihiu had zero air pollution compared to Southern California.
At the sound of Darby's boots, Hoku bolted away from the fence, then stretched her neck high and higher still to see over the top rail.
"Good morning, beauty," Darby called.
The filly stared through the creamy ripples of her forelock. Sunlight turned her brown eyes amber. She looked as wild as the first day Darby had seen her galloping across a snowy plain, drawing away from the helicopter chasing her.
"Hoku," Darby said, smooching, and the filly's wild expression was replaced by impatience.
Hoku arched her golden neck and pawed three rapid strokes.
"Were you afraid I was going to leave you behind when I rode out on Navigator?"
Carefully sliding open the new bolt on Hoku's corral, Darby slipped inside carrying a tangerine-and-white-striped lead rope.
In mock fear, the filly shied away.
Hoku's coat shone with good health. Even though Jonah said it would take a few more months for the filly to recover from her journey from Nevada to Hawaii, Darby couldn't imagine any horse could be more beautiful.
Excerpted from Phantom Stallion: Wild Horse Island #3: Rain Forest Rose by Terri Farley Copyright © 2007 by Terri Farley. Excerpted by permission.
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