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Wild roses bloomed in great pink mounds, and blackberry vines put forth their white blossoms. July's hot sunny days turned the pastures brown, but in the vegetable garden, boys hoed and picked produce and measured themselves against corn stalks.

Sam detested weeding. Because he refused to do his share, he had to stay behind at the ranch while the other boys went to a swimming hole in Little Browns creek. During the outing, a teenager named Ellis discovered a raw diamond among some pebbles. Next day, when all the other boys were outdoors, Sam sneaked into Ellis' room and found the diamond hidden in a drawer. He slipped it into his pocket.

As he was heading back outside, Jamie met him at the main door and asked, "Why aren't you with the others?"

Sam lied so easily that his heart scarcely pounded. "I needed to use the bathroom. Is that against the rules?"

Jamie lectured him about insolence, then let him go. The first chance Sam got, he went to the barn and jammed the diamond into a crack between two boards. Another day passed before Ellis realized it was gone. Jamie called the boys together and questioned them, but no one would admit to taking the gem.

"You probably took it out yourself and lost it," Sam accused.

But Ellis knew better. There was a thief in their midst, and he let all the boys know that he suspected Sam.

In August, Jamie's brother-in-law Aaron Pascal donated a model train layout to make room in his basement for a new one. Aaron was Chief of Research and Development at Starfleet. In his free time, he had spent countless hours laying the track and creating lifelike scenes that included a miniature version of the Kirk ranch.

Tru went to the rec room and watched the delighted boys take turns at the controls. The trains raced around and around, disappearing into a mountain tunnel, emerging on a trestle, and heading for the switching yard in a miniature town. She studied the replica of her childhood home nestled among little pine trees, complete with Appaloosas at pasture. There was even a tiny male figure by the stable, but it was all an illusion. In real life, her father was gone, along with most of his horses.

Though the layout saddened Tru, it had a different effect on her brother. Sam boasted long and loud about the "famous Kirk ranch" and his father's "prize-winning Appaloosas". When he started to demand more than his share of train time, another fight was inevitable.

It was Lame Wolf who broke up the latest melee. Sam came at him, swinging, but Lame Wolf easily caught the boy in a capture hold and hauled him to the office. Four other youngsters were involved. An investigation found Sam at fault, and he was banned from the trains until autumn.

***

On the day Sam took the diamond, he began to formulate a plan. This latest sentence of punishment settled things for him. He hated Dreamcatcher Ranch and everyone in it. He would run away and take shelter in a cave near the Trinity River, where there was plenty of fish. Maybe he would find more valuable gemstones, enough to live on.  

Little by little, he pilfered nonperishable items of food and stashed them outdoors, along with a fishing pole. One morning in late August, all the boys went out hiking with Jamie and Lame Wolf. Sam pretended to feel sick and stayed behind in bed. Soon after his sister checked on him, he dressed, stuffed some clothes into his backpack, and tiptoed downstairs. Once outside, he pried the diamond out of the barn siding and retrieved the other things he had hidden. So far, everything had gone perfectly, but as he headed down the river trail, he heard something moving through the trees. Suddenly Jamie's dog padded up beside him. Dusty was so old that his muzzle had turned gray. The least exertion left him panting, and now his tongue lolled and his big brown eyes stared accusingly.

"Go home," Sam told him. "Go back home, you stupid mutt."

Dusty barked in response.

"Shut up!" Sam hissed. "Get out of here and leave me alone!"

The dog stood his ground and barked again. If he kept it up, Anika or Tru would come out and check on him.

Sam took off running. He sprinted headlong down the trail until a stabbing pain in his side made him gasp and pull up. After a moment he turned around and saw Dusty. The dog was panting harder than ever, yet still found enough breath to bark.

"Get!" Sam snapped. Reaching down, he picked up a palm-sized stone and threw it at the annoying animal. The stone hit Dusty's rump with a dull thud. He cringed, backed up, and began to bark even louder.

Furious, Sam dropped his fishing pole, and using both hands, grabbed an even bigger rock. With all his might, he hurled it at Dusty and made contact. The dog yelped, fell to the ground, and lay softly whimpering as his dark, frightened eyes pleaded for help.

Sam felt a lump forming in his throat. Swallowing hard, he turned from the injured dog, picked up his fishing pole, and ran.

***

In the midst of his daily stroll, Father Phineas O'Day heard a dog barking, and then a terrible yelp of pain. It sounded to him like Dusty. Stopping in a shady spot, he held tightly to his walking stick and listened. Aside from the birds, all was silent.

He set out in the direction of the yelp and had not gone far when a boy emerged from the woods ahead of him. With a fishing pole in hand, Sam Kirk froze like a startled rabbit.

"Good morning, Sam," Phineas said amiably. He noted the boy's bulging backpack and suspected that he was running away. "Going fishing, are you?"

Sam gave a slow nod.

"Beautiful day for fishing," Phineas said with a smile. "Myself, I have to walk...every day...the doctor says so. Mind if I walk a ways with you?"

"Sure," Sam mumbled, and they proceeded down the trail together.

The old priest had known Sam Kirk since birth, baptized and shepherded his young soul, but this boy at his side seemed like a resentful stranger. Surely something more than chance had brought them together on this fine morning, and Phineas chose his words carefully. "There's nothing like fishing to bring a fellow some peace. Life has been rough on you, Sam. Terrible thing, your dad running off like that..."

Sam spoke through clenched teeth. "It was because of Tru...and that Indian drifter. Dad didn't want her to marry Lame Wolf. She was all set for Starfleet Academy."

At least the boy was willing to talk about it. "Sure enough, that was a hard blow for your father. But Lame Wolf is a good, upstanding man...and your sister has a right to live her own life. Sam, you need to understand something. Jim Kirk spent years commanding a starship. He grew accustomed to ordering people around, and in the Nexus he always had his way. That kind of power isn't good for the soul."

Sam kicked at a pinecone on the trail. "I don't care. He left because of Tru."

"Did he?" With a sigh, Phineas stopped near a fallen tree and rubbed at his aching back. "Sam, let's sit down and rest for a bit. I have a little story to tell you." The priest settled onto the tree trunk, but Sam remained on his feet, looking as if he might bolt at any moment. Clasping the knob of his walking stick, Phineas offered a swift, silent prayer and said, "It's high time that you know something. Your father isn't a churchgoer, but over the years we became friendly, and from time to time he confided in me. Do you remember the night his Phantom caught fire and burned up in the pasture? No...of course not. You were just a wee thing, then."

Sam's chin came up. "I know all about the Phantom. That was the ship he flew out of the Nexus. We have a picture at home."

"Yes. Well, it was your father who burned it."

"He burned it?" Suddenly Sam was listening so intently that he almost seemed to have forgotten his anger.

"Yes," replied Phineas, "your father told me. Until this very moment, I've kept it to myself."

"But why would he burn it?" Sam said with suspicion. "He loved that ship."

"He loved his family more. You see, he had been all set to fly off in that Phantom and return to the Nexus. Not because of Tru, or you, or your mother...but because he couldn't get the Nexus out of his head. He never could, completely. This trouble of his had been brewing for a long, long time."

Tears shone in Sam's brown eyes. He blinked, and two wet tracks rolled down his cheeks. "I don't believe it," he said low.

Phineas' heart went out to him. "My boy, have I ever lied to you? It hurts me to say it, but if your father hadn't destroyed the Phantom, he would have left long ago."

Sam's head bowed and his shoulders sagged beneath the weight of his backpack. Fresh tears fell into the dirt. "Father..." his voice quavered, "I was running away...just like him. I don't want to be like him. I don't want to hurt people...or...or..."

Phineas braced himself with his walking stick and got to his feet. Putting an arm around Sam, he said, "Now, now...there's a lot of good in your father...a lot that you can be proud of. Remember, it was the Nexus that lured him. Who knows, maybe someday he'll find his way home again."

The boy was quiet for a time. At last he looked up at Phineas and said, "Oh please, won't you help me? I've done something terrible."



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