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Around 1870, Will Norris is pastor of the Cooperville Memorial Church and lives in the small, rural community with his wife Emily and young son Ted. Kit Barton, a newcomer to the town, is running lucrative dog fights in a rented barn. One day Barton's own dog "The Slasher," a boxer, escapes after a whipping. As Ted puts out hymn books for Sunday service, he discovers the badly bleeding dog hiding in the church. Jeanie, Ted's young friend, thinking that the dog is mad, runs off to fetch Ted's parents. However, Ted manages to calm the dog by kindness, as his father has taught him. The family helps the dog to recover and Ted names it "Dusty" after a dog they previously owned. Dusty soon makes friends with the other animals around the Norris house and barn and is an ideal companion for Ted. One morning, Jeanie is having breakfast with her grandfather Senator Cooper, when the sheriff interrupts and mentions that some man is offering a very liberal reward for the return of a dog matching Dusty's description. After Jeanie tells Ted about the man, his father persuades him that they must return the dog, not realising that Barton has been maltreating him. Jeanie drives Ted and Dusty into town but at the barn, they witness Barton training dogs to fight and rush back to tell Ted's parents. Will and Bob Wilson, the county attorney and Emily's sister Linda's fiancé, discuss possible strategies to stop the dog fights, but as the fights are legal, they ask the senator to take the issue to the legislature and propose a new law making it illegal to maltreat any animal including horses, cattle and sheep. The senator, however, points out that the adoption of such a law would empower inspectors to enter homes and properties to enforce and thereby infringe on an individual's right to privacy. Will does not agree with this, but the senator suggests that he return the dog in order to avoid prosecution for theft. Will reluctantly agrees and, when Barton comes to his home to collect Dusty, offers to buy the dog but cannot meet his price. Ted is very upset by his father's actions and thinks that he has failed him. On the night of Dusty's next fight, Ted slips out of the house and goes to Barton's barn. After Ted enters the area where the dogs are kept and tries to release Dusty, Will shows up, and together they manage to escape with Dusty. Barton tells the sheriff he suspects that Will has his dog and wants the minister's house and property searched. Will informs the sheriff that he and Ted have hidden the dog and insists the sheriff arrest him as he wants to stand trial. Bob and the senator ask Will to return the dog so that they can have the case dismissed and Bob won't have to try to convict him, but Will refuses, intending to act as his own lawyer. Although Bob and the senator conduct a mock trial to show Will that under the present laws and court procedures he could well lose, Will insists on continuing. Emily tells him that even if he is jailed, people all over the country will ask why and will think about the issue. The next morning, Barton's young son Frank follows Ted as he goes to feed Dusty on the island where he is being hidden. While Ted tells Dusty that he is going to take him back as he cannot allow his father to go to jail, Frank falls in the water while trying to raft across the lake. Ted and Dusty save Frank from drowning but when he cannot revive Frank, Ted sends Dusty for help. Dusty goes to Barton's place and brings him to the lake. Frank recovers and Barton tells the sheriff that he has his dog back and that the trial can be called off. Later, Bob gathers a large crowd together at the church and shows them the petition they all signed to send to the governor requesting that he make it unlawful to treat any animal in a cruel or inhuman manner and to prohibit, for ever, dog fighting. As Barton and Frank drive by on his way out of town, his cart laden with caged dogs, he stops and Frank releases Dusty to rejoin Ted and his family.