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Tru felt utterly miserable, and with Lame Wolf gone, she tried to distract herself with the daily round of activities. A new boy had arrived. Fair-haired Hunter was ten like her brother Sam, but painfully withdrawn from years of abuse. His empty blue eyes watched her help a teenager train a yearling filly. Later, he sat staring dully at his blank paper while the rest of her art class sketched the big red barn. Before dinner, Tru took him out to pick some wild roses for the tables. Butterflies danced over the pink mounds of flowers, but Hunter showed no interest. All day long, the boy never spoke a word.

"Some kids are like that," Jamie said later. "They retreat deep inside themselves so nobody can hurt them anymore. Other boys come to us angry and rebellious. In time, they all learn that it's safe here. Once they see that we love them, they start to relax."

The next day dawned still and bright, but as the sun rose, a searing wind began to blow out of the north. The air grew hazy from the Mount Shasta volcano, which was still belching a little smoke and ash. Tru conducted her art class indoors and showed the boys how to paint their barn scenes with watercolors. She sketched a barn for Hunter, but despite every encouragement, he sat with his hands in his lap.

When it came time to dismiss the class, Tru went into the office and found Jamie quietly talking with Anika, phone in hand.

Turning to Tru with a serious expression, he told her, "There's a fire up north."

Tru's heart seized. Jamie's father had installed a fire shield for the ranch, but Lame Wolf and his boys were out of its range. Unless a structure was threatened, the Forest Service let these seasonal fires run their natural course. The long established policy resulted in fast burning fires that spared the mature trees and cleared brush from the forest floor. But fast fires were unpredictable and dangerous.

Jamie had called Lame Wolf to check on his location. For now the group was safe, but with the blaze tearing through canyons, he decided to fly out in a ranch skimmer and pick up the boys.

"But what about Lame Wolf?" Tru asked.

"He'll try to bring the horses in. You know how beaming frightens them, and two of the mares are pregnant." He started for the door.

"Hold on, don't leave yet," Tru told him. Before he could speak a word, she rushed to her bedroom and stuffed a few items into an overnight bag.

She caught up to him at the skimmer, and seeing that she meant to go along, he said, "Tru, I'm sorry, there's just no room. It will be tight enough bringing back six boys, and I don't want to make two trips."

Tru's chin lifted with determination. "I'm going to stay with Lame Wolf and help bring back the horses. You said he's safe, didn't you? Well then, I'll be safe, too."

***

Lame Wolf was shocked to see Tru alight from the skimmer and declare her intention to stay. As the disappointed boys climbed aboard with their gear, he told her, "No, you have to go back with them."

Her brows drew together with annoyance. "You said I shouldn't let people tell me what to do. And besides, there's no room."

They were still arguing when the skimmer rose from the little clearing and flew out of sight. Smoke hung in the air. A restless wind stirred the pine trees and made the horses tug nervously at their leads. Lame Wolf felt uneasy, too. The ride home would not be peaceful with Tru here.

"You should not have come," he insisted in a stubborn tone.

Wordlessly she drew her wavy hair back into a loose braid. Then she chose a black and white pinto and slung her bag from the saddle horn. Tightening the cinch, she mounted and looked down at him.

Lame Wolf stood his ground. "Why are you doing this?"  

Beneath thick lashes, her eyes suddenly grew gentle. Softly she said, "Because you're alone. Because I want to be with you. Because...because I needed to say that I'm sorry."

The unexpected apology moved him deeply and he told her, "I'm sorry, too. I only want you to be happy." But he added, "James should never have let you come here. It's too risky."

"Help is only a phone call away," she reminded him.

"You rely too much on technology. What if it fails?"

Her lips stirred into a smile. "You won't let anything bad happen to me. You've always kept me safe. Remember when I got half-frozen hiking out to your cave? Remember when I fell through the ice at Little Kirk Lake?"

The old memories tugged at his heart. Either time, she could easily have died, had he not been there to save her. One way or another, he would keep her safe now.

Lame Wolf strung the remaining horses together and they set out. It was rough going. The game trails were busy with wildlife fleeing the blaze, so rather than encounter a cougar or bear, Lame Wolf forged his own path and phoned James at regular intervals. By sundown they were halfway home.

***

Tru was more tired than she was willing to admit. Gladly sliding from the saddle, she helped Lame Wolf tether the horses and dole out grain. Their camp was on high ground, with a clear view of the fire line. Distant flames glowed in the twilight as they sat quietly eating cold beans and leftover cornbread. It was almost dark when they finished. Tru laid a bedroll near Lame Wolf's spot. The wind had changed direction and the air was clean. Kicking off her shoes, she stretched out and closed her eyes.

Sometime later she awoke with a start. The sky was full of stars. Over by the trees, the horses were snorting and tugging at their leads. She looked toward Lame Wolf and saw that he had raised up on one elbow and was listening with a stun weapon in hand.

A deep hair-raising cry echoed in the canyon below. Then something large moved in the woods beyond their clearing. Tru scrambled over to Lame Wolf and held on tight. For the first time in memory, she found herself terrified by the outdoors.

"What is it?" she whispered.

The eerie wail sounded again. Nearby, something cracked loudly, wood striking wood. The restless wind swung around and carried a foul stench.

"What is that?" Tru said again.

Lame Wolf lowered the weapon and Tru could feel some of the tension leaving his body as he answered, "Sasquatch."

Sasquatch! Long ago, scientists had proven that the legendary Bigfoot creatures exist, and had mapped their habitat with biosensor technology. But in the mountains of Idaho, Tru had never set eyes on one or even come across any sign of them. Normally the creatures stayed far away from people, but now the fire had them on the move and their paths were crossing.

Tru shivered with fear.

"They shouldn't harm us or the horses," Lame Wolf said, "but we better sit back to back and keep an eye out."

After they positioned themselves, Tru checked the time on her wrist phone. It was almost four o'clock. Lame Wolf began to play his Indian flute, and the soothing notes helped relax her. The air felt pleasantly warm as they awaited daylight. Dreamcatcher Ranch lay just beyond the next ridge. By tonight they would be home, safe in their beds. Home. Yes, California was beginning to feel more like home than Idaho. Listening to the mellow tones of the flute, she became acutely aware of Lame Wolf's back pressing against hers. His nearness created a pleasant ache that was becoming all too familiar.

She knew what it meant. Deep down, she had felt it coming for a long time, though she had never dared call it by its rightful name. And suddenly there on the mountaintop she realized that this was why she had given in to her father and applied to the Academy. Hot tears pricked her eyes and her throat tightened. Her body shook with each thump of her heart, and she wondered if he could feel it.

"Duncan," she said thickly. When had she last used his legal name? But it seemed to fit this moment perfectly. "Duncan...I have to leave Dreamcatcher."

The flute went silent. All but a handful of stars had faded, and a blush of dawn tinted the eastern sky.

"In August?" he asked.

"No. Tomorrow."

It seemed to her that he was holding his breath. Then he said, "Why?"

She bowed her head and began to cry.

The sound of her tears tore at Lame Wolf. Rising, he gently helped her to her feet. Tru's eyes gleamed as he gripped her slim shoulders.

"Little True Friend," he said tenderly, but she was no longer Jim Kirk's little girl tagging along like a puppy. A memory came to him-a visit back to the Kirk Ranch. He had exchanged gifts with Tru. He had told her she was beautiful, and then she startled him with a kiss on the cheek. She had been just short of thirteen, part child and part woman.

Now her lips trembled, and at eighteen she was clearly more woman than child.

"Leave?" He repeated with emotion, for he did not want her to go away, now or ever. The truth was, he did not want her to leave him.

Now he understood why he remembered her kiss so vividly, why her gift of artwork had always seemed so precious. In itself, the rendering of Kirk's ranch was not important. What mattered to Lame Wolf was the hand that created it. Only Tru mattered.

Pulling her body close, he said, "Don't go."

For a wonderful moment she held onto him. Then crying harder, she pushed back, seemingly angry. "I have to go! Can't you see? I'm sorry...but I love you. I think I've loved you for the longest time..."

Lame Wolf stared at her, hardly believing what he had heard, thinking that her words meant something other than he imagined. But the look of misery on her face gave him hope-that she did love him, not as a little sister, but as a woman loves a man. Though his heart was slamming, time seemed to stand still. Reaching out, he swept her back into his arms and kissed her soft cheek. Tru's lips moved to his and their mouths touched...gently at first, then with a mutual passion that set his blood aflame. Now there was no longer any question. His True Friend had become his True Love, and all the world seemed beautiful.



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