They found Dusty barely clinging to life. Though Sam had hurt the dog badly, Dusty licked his hand as if to say, You came for me and that's all that matters. It was Dusty's final act before he lapsed into unconsciousness. There was nothing Anika could do to save him.
Frightened and miserable, Sam ran from the veterinary office to his room, and stayed there. Jamie had raised Dusty from a pup. Their son Cody and all the boys at Dreamcatcher loved the old dog. There would be hell to pay when they came back from the hike.
Hours passed and he heard boys in the hall, but even his roommate stayed away. When Sam ignored the lunch bell, Tru brought a sandwich and sat beside him on the bed.
"They all hate me," he told her, picking at the bread. "I just know it."
"Oh, Sam," she said, and held him close.
Tru spent a restless night. Each time she dropped off to sleep, dreams awakened her with dark visions of death and bereavement. She feared for Sam's future. This latest charge against him was so serious that he might have to leave the ranch. Before dawn, she went to pray in the chapel.
Lame Wolf found her there and spoke quietly. "If Sam is really sorry, it could go well for him. You'll see."
Tru loved the sound of her husband's voice. It was as calm and still as the forest depths, and never failed to comfort her. But there was no telling how Sam would behave at today's council.
After breakfast, they gathered to bury Dusty, but Sam still kept to his room. At ten o'clock, the staff convened a general council in the dining hall, and every boy attended. Tru sat Sam between her and Father O'Day so he would not have to face the charges alone. Gone was the tough, angry façade. Sam had become a very subdued boy who welcomed her love and support.
Jamie brought the council to order and called on Father O'Day to offer a prayer for wisdom. Then Jamie read the long list of charges against Sam, ending with the cruel act that resulted in Dusty's death. He spoke directly to the boy, reminding him that some of the offenses violated the conditions of his probation.
In conclusion he said, "You have held the Dreamcatcher code in contempt. You have steadfastly refused our friendship and guidance. For the welfare of the boys, our staff has discussed handing you back to the juvenile court, but you have expressed a change of heart and asked to remain here. In cases such as this, I leave the decision to our boys." His somber expression made him seem very Vulcan as he eased back in his chair. "Samuel Kirk. Do you have anything to say in your defense?"
Sunlight streamed through the windows as Sam slowly rose, traces of red glinting in his hair. He was the image of his father, and Tru's heart went out to him, for he had been robbed of a son's right to paternal love. For a long moment Sam stood with his eyes downcast. Fighting for control, he dug into the pocket of his jeans and set a crystalline object on the table before him.
"Here's the diamond," he choked out. "I took it and I'm sorry. I'm sorry about Dusty, too. It was a mean thing, but I never meant to...to hurt him that bad. I guess I've hurt all of you. I've used up all my chances around her, and I don't blame you for hating me."
Sniffling, he dropped down in his chair. The hall was very still.
A chair scraped. Ellis came over and retrieved his diamond from the table. "I don't hate you," he said, and returned to his seat.
Jamie and Anika's son, Cody, had known Sam as a neighbor in Idaho. Now he rose up and said, "I just wanted us to be friends. It's all I ever wanted."
Mark and Hunter agreed.
"We've all had our problems," said another lad whose discolored eye was the work of Sam's fist. "I say ‘every boy deserves a chance'-one more chance, if he really wants it."
When all the boys finished talking, Lame Wolf moved to an empty chair beside Tru. Her heart pounded as she gripped his strong hand tightly. Now was the time for her to speak. Clearing a thickness from her throat, she stood and said, "Sam has made a lot of mistakes and hurt a lot of people...but it was because he was hurting and didn't know how to deal with it. I want everyone to know that no matter what you decide here today, Sam is my brother and I love him."
Then Jamie called for a vote.
Sam stayed on at Dreamcatcher and was among the first to welcome his niece into the world. The big orange pumpkins were ripe when Mary True Redfern arrived. Being an uncle suited him just fine, and as a sign of his growing maturity, he took a special interest in each new boy that came to the ranch. He made friends with everyone, and at Christmas he asked Tru to help him buy a new pup for Jamie-a red and white Spaniel. Cody called the pup Rusty and the name stuck.
Sam was twelve when he went back before the judge. He had served his probation and caught up on all his schoolwork. Tru stood with their mother as the court commended Sam and asked about his plans for the future.
"I want to go home," he said. "Mom's all alone now, and she could use a man around the house."
And so Sam left the wilds of California, and Tru returned to her cozy cottage with its little studio full of windows, where she could paint when Mary True was napping. It was June at Dreamcatcher Ranch. Foals frolicked with boys in the pasture. Out in the garden there were red, ripe strawberries, and every breeze carried the scent of wild roses.