Fifteen-year-old Sean lives with his abusive, alcoholic mother; his father walked out years ago. When Sean is suspended from school for fighting, he is sentenced to three weeks of community service on a local ranch. There he meets Dave Hassler, a white-haired, decorated army veteran from World War II who has taken in other community-service kids before. He’s a sort of rough-hewn social worker as well as rancher.
Dave is every bit as tough as Sean, who has to stop slouching and raise his chin just to look the old rancher in the eye—and finds it impossible to stare him down. Later, Sean discovers Dave’s iron grip as well. At first, Sean resents Dave’s no-nonsense discipline, but he soon thrives on a regime of hard work, good food and contact with horses. He gradually comes to trust the genuine compassion beneath Dave’s toughness and to regard him as a mentor. Dave has a temper and is not afraid to tell Sean off when appropriate, but he also treats Sean with respect and helps him see that people have put him down because they’re jealous of his potential for success. “Don’t sink into what they think you are,” Dave tells him, from his own experience.
By the end of the book, Sean has lined up a summer job on the ranch and has taken the first faltering steps toward patching up his relationship with his father. In the final, suspenseful scene, Sean becomes a hero himself (though he doesn’t realize it) by risking his life to prevent an old school enemy from shooting a favorite young colt.
Dave is a strong, appealing older character, and many teen boys will relate to this book. Sean’s struggle to make a fresh start under Dave’s guidance—despite years of violence, hurt and cynicism—would take much longer than it does in this fast-paced plot. Still, the emotions ring true. The book crackles with tension as Sean’s troubled past tries to pull him back down, but it ends on a hopeful, if somber, note.