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Chapter One

Samantha Regan peered at the clock as she finished her first cup of coffee of the morning. It was seven o’clock, and she was confident she had allowed enough time to check on her parents before leaving. She did not know if it were necessary to greet her new employer upon his arrival at the horse farm, as he had been told by e-mail where to find the key to the house. She simply wanted to insure that everything was in order for him.

         She walked softly into the living room, and saw that her father was predictably asleep in the overstuffed chair.  It saddened her to see him there, because it meant that he had yet another night where it was difficult for him to breathe easily laying in bed. She knelt down next to him and checked the reading on his oxygen canister, and could see that it needed no immediate attention.

         She walked to her parents’ bedroom,  and pushed the door open just far enough to see that her mother was up and dressed. She walked in and sat on the bed next to the older woman.

         “Dad had another bad night?”

         The mother sighed and nodded. “I think he may have pneumonia again. Are you off to Red Sun for the day?”

         She ran her hands over her mother’s hair. “Uh, huh. I’m going to go on out there and get everything squared away with him.”

         “Sammi, why don’t you wear a dress or a nice skirt? You’re such a pretty girl. And I always thought he was quite a fine looking fellow when he was our neighbor boy.”

         Sammi shook her head. “Mom……he’s my boss now. And I’m sure he can’t remember me.  And I work on a horse ranch. That’s why I wear jeans and boots. I step in a lot of stuff.”

         “I wonder if he remembers when you were a little tike and you nearly tripped him at the square dance at the Grange hall.”

         “Mom….I doubt that he remembers any such thing. How’s your arthritis this morning?”

         “It hurts a lot. It took me five minutes to button this blouse.”

         “Mom…..just wait for me when you’re having trouble. You get too impatient.”

         Tears formed in the older woman’s eyes. “It just doesn’t seem fair that both of us are so troubled, no older than we are. Most of the people we know our age are still going strong.”

         Sammi sighed and kissed her mother on the forehead. “Mom, I can’t answer that. But I’ll do what I can to help. Now your meals are in the fridge, and everything can be microwaved. And if you need me, just call my cell phone.”

         She walked out of the bedroom, and when she saw that her father was awake, she knelt down next to him. He managed to smile, in spite of not feeling well. “You tell Jim I said hello, will ya’? He was always a good boy.  The Halders raised those boys right.”

         Sammi shrugged.”Jim and Hank were both so much older than me, I really never knew them.”

         The father began to chuckle. “I’ll never forget when you and….oh what was that other little girls name…..anyway, you were running around the dance floor at the Grange and you got all tangled up in his legs and damned near brought him down.”

         Sammi sighed and flashed a wide smile. “That seems to have been quite amusing to you and Mom.

         She glanced at her watch. “Dad, I need to leave for the resort. Mom has my number if you need me.”

         She stood and began walking toward the door, when her father called out to her, “Don’t forget to tell that young Jim I said hello.”

         Sammi  walked outside to see that it was a pleasant June morning. She stopped and took a deep breath when she detected the scents of the flowers that surrounded the house. She told herself each spring that she needed to plant some at the Red Sun, and make the place a little more inviting in it’s appearance.

         She hopped up into the cab of her pickup truck and backed out of the driveway, then headed down the street that became the rural road that led to the resort. She felt ready to meet the new  resort owner, a man that she remembered from her childhood as one of the much older boys at school.  Even when she was in elementary school, she had thought that Jim Halder was cute.

         She looked down at herself as she drove. She had recently purchased a new set of  western boots, some new jeans and several of the checkered shirts that made up her typical  outfit for working at a horse ranch. She took pains to dress as guests to a horse ranch resort would expect of a guide who escorted them on horseback rides and hikes around the rugged , hilly, but picturesque resort property.

         She felt a mild Hank of anxiety. The new owner would meet with her today. She wondered as she drove, just how much the arrival of the new owner would affect her life.

        

         Jim Halder looked at his GPS and saw that he had just a few minutes of driving left.  If it had not been for a bridge repair detour, he would have already arrived. He was frustrated that he could be confused by the roads within just a few miles of where he had lived for the first sixteen years of his life.

         He had not seen the western Missouri guest ranch since he was thirty years old. Now, on a leap of faith in his younger brother’s judgment, he was arriving with the intention of living at the Red Sun Resort for the rest of his life. He hoped that it was a good sign for the future that he was arriving on a sunny Saturday morning.

         He had always meant to make a return visit to the ranch to see his aunt and uncle in their home environment. He wrote to them often, and spoke to them frequently on the phone. Fortunately, there had been times when he was home on leave from the Air Force and visiting his parents in St. Louis, that they had been able to meet up with him there.

         He had also seen them at his parents’ funerals, both of which had taken place over the past ten years. Then the aunt and uncle passed on, with the death of the uncle taking place shortly before Jim’s retirement.

         It was the recent death of his uncle, three months ago and a week before his last day in uniform that had changed his plans forever. He was now the owner of the Red Sun Resort.

         Lucien and Carol Halder never had children. Jim and his brother Hank were the only nephews, and there were no nieces. It was made clear to Jim by his faltering uncle that he could have the ranch for a song. Hank did not intend to leave his law practice and the city to clean up after horses.

         Jim, on the other hand, had spent much of his youth there, as his parents lived a mile away until they had to relocate to St. Louis for his father’s new job. It simply was not a ranch then.

 Lucien and Carol Halder had only the house and a barn on a modest lot of a few acres where they lived for decades. Lucien worked as an electrician in the nearby town, and Carol did clothing alterations in their home. They did have two horses in their barn for recreation, and they were happy to allow Jim and Hank to ride them often. In the summer, the boys would often spend an entire week visiting and riding.

One day Lucien and Carol purchased the adjacent lot that included the recently abandoned three-room, wood-frame school that Jim had attended until the move. Next, they bought hundreds of acres of hilly and tree-covered land behind those structures. The property across the road was part of a large cattle farm, but that only enhanced the environment for the horse guest ranch they were to develop to operate and enjoy in their retirement years.

         The undeveloped land was rugged, had a stream running through, and a small natural lake of ten acres. The empty school was eventually used for a place to orient visitors to the property through large maps on the walls, and to explain riding gear to the novice visitors.

         The school also became somewhat of a museum for tidbits of local history and tours were given to those visitors who expressed curiosity. They would view the various old tools, photos and household items local residents had donated. Small labels identified what the object was and who had donated it.

          The old school still held the aged desks and chalkboards in the classroom, as well as the furniture in the office. A calendar from 1990, the last year of classes in the building, still adorned the office wall. It was a tribute to simpler days, a more basic way of life, frozen in time.

         Two simple bunkhouse-style guesthouses were built, each housing five to six guests. The final touch was the addition of a small in-ground swimming pool so that guests would not feel that they had totally abandoned the creature comforts to which so many were accustomed.

         Jim had spent as much time there as possible, even up to the day before he had to move away. He had found early in life that he loved horses and riding them, and became quite a skilled rider in short order.

         Even after moving, he would drive to the suburbs to ride at a stable with every chance he had. After enlisting, as soon as he was stationed at a new Air Force base, he would check out the closest riding stable.

         Jim’s family had always struggled to pay bills. He saw the Air Force as a means to find security, and see parts of the world that were not contained within the state borders of Missouri. He envisioned himself retiring at a youthful age, and having many memories of his travels to look back on.

         He knew that he would retire with a skill, in Hank he wanted to work afterward. He also knew that someday he would have a permanent home, and hopefully a family. All the while, he promised himself that wherever he would settle down, there would be horses of his own.

         He had dated very infrequently. He did not see his lifestyle as promising for the kind of woman he hoped to marry. He wanted someone as tied to the land as was he. However, he did notice that when he came across a woman who could have sparked an interest, she was around horses. Life on the Air Force simply did not provide for frequent contact with such women.

         Jim got out of his pickup truck and stretched his six-foot frame. He took off his western hat and ran his fingers through the black hair that hung down on the rims of his ears, now that he was free of military grooming regulations. His tan indicated that he had already spent a lot of time in the sun, a quality needed to operate the Red Sun. The drive from his brother’s home in St. Louis had required several hours behind the wheel. He would wait a little while to open the tailgate and begin to unload the possessions packed beneath the storage cap that covered the cargo bed.

         He could now  be satisfied with staying put, as he had served as a military policemen for the United States Air Force. Over thirty years he had been assigned to bases in Texas, California, Germany, Japan, England and Ohio. He had decided that rented furniture, furnished apartments, base housing and staying single best fitted his lifestyle. At forty-eight, he was ready for all of that to change.

         He had envisioned himself serving as a part-time police officer for some small town out West. That was before his dying uncle had called him about taking over Red Sun. In spite of the time he had stayed there in his youth, he had never been exposed to the business side of the resort. Brother Hank had helped to settle the estate, and assured Jim that the business was a solid opportunity.

         He knew that a former neighbor woman had agreed to stay on as help under the new ownership. Samantha Regan had lived a mile down the road with her farming parents, who now resided in the nearby town. He remembered her as a toddler, the little Sammi that ran around the edge of the square dance floor, her long brown hair bouncing behind her.

         His brother had passed along to Jim that she had lived in Kansas City and been married for several years, but obtained an annulment from the husband whose constant need for bourbon unfortunately negated a long list of good traits. She had returned to live with her parents, both of whom were prematurely retired due to unfortunate and severe health problems. Though they were just in their late sixties, both had been struck by ailments that required them to have significant assistance. Sammi  took care of the cleaning, much of the cooking, and was also hired by Jim’s aunt and uncle  ten years earlier to work at the guest ranch to do whatever was needed.

         Jim decided to keep her on, assuming she would be of great help. However, he did not know what she was like, and was certain he could never recognize her after all these years.

         His questions were answered promptly after he got out of the truck. The door of the main house swung open, and a woman of medium height emerged. Her dark brown hair cascaded onto her back, and a western hat rested on her shoulders, held there by a strap around her throat. She was nothing but gorgeous, and nothing but curvy. Then Jim realized through faint recognition:  she was Sammi.

         He approached with a wide smile, and was greeted by one of her own. They shook hands and made small talk about how long it had been since they had laid eyes on each other. Any recognition and memory of the neighbor girl was faint at best.

         They walked into the house and sat down at the kitchen table. Jim tried to conceal how attractive he found his employee as he asked about her parents, and then of the duties she had performed for his aunt and uncle. As she talked, she became wistful of the loss of the same people Jim would miss even more as he lived in their old home.

         Sammi rattled off a list of what her duties had been, everything from cooking to taking guests on hikes and horseback rides. When the owners were gone, she was in charge of the resort, so she knew all of the operations. She explained that her hours had always varied by whatever was going on there.

         Jim expressed his appreciation for her willingness to stay on. He was also pleased that her personality was so pleasant, a great match for her looks.

         They looked over the guest schedule for the next month, discussing how well they were stocked with everything from paper towels to hot dogs, to first aid supplies.

There was still some time to get ready, as the first near-capacity set of  guests for some ten months would arrive on a coming  Sunday, just fifteen  days away,  and be there until the following Saturday. When Jim’s uncle had become gravely ill, he and Sammi had decided to curtail operations, aside from allowing experienced riders and hikers  to visit who could enjoy the resort with little assistance.

         It was time for Jim to finish his transition from military cop to resort operator. His conversation with Sammi concluded, and she said that  since he was there to feed the horses, she would be back in a week to start the busy season.  As Jim stood on the front porch and watched her ample form with admiration as she strolled to her own pickup truck, he took a deep breath and hoped that he was ready for his new life. He was happy to be there, especially with the horses, but as his assistant’s truck drove away, he realized just how lonely his existence would be for a few days.


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