Preparing for her first arrivals to the Gold Dust Equine-Assisted Therapy Ranch had kept everyone busy, but when Saige had a moment to reflect on the future of her and Billy’s dream, she had to admit that she was in a precarious financial situation.
As the ranch’s economic state was now, it appeared almost certain she was going to lose it unless she could make the Gold Dust a successful enterprise. She and Billy had invested almost the last of their savings in horses that could adapt to the unique riders she wanted them for. Maybe the new advertising in national magazines or Edward’s trust fund could save her. She wouldn’t compromise on the facilities that her exceptional children required.
Tomorrow the first group of children and their caretakers would arrive. A local elementary school had booked a week’s worth of activities. They included horseback riding, swimming, a short-distance pony race, an overnight trail ride, and several Mexican cookouts staged against the superb backdrop of the famous Arizona sunsets.
In fact, Saige had scheduled a pony-cart race for the afternoon of their special guests’ first day on the Gold Dust. One of her neighbors raised miniature horses and had graciously volunteered their participation in Saige’s cart race. Six of the tiny animals had arrived the previous morning. Luis and Sammie had led them into two adjacent stalls in the Gold Dust barn. Sammie had spent the rest of the day painting the carts Luis had made for them. Their tack was hanging on pegs, five of them festooned with the vibrantly-colored ribbons of the adjoining ranches that had racing colors. The sixth set of tack had the yellow and blue of the Gold Dust. Sammie had selected the colors for the ranch herself.
Her neighbors and friends had been invited for the race and the cookout she had planned for that evening. Luis had prepared the oversized barbeque pit with lots of fragrant wood logs and chips. Maria had stored a side of beef and ribs in the ranch’s freezer and had been working in the kitchen for a couple of days getting her famous hot sauce ready. She had shopped for weeks for just the right kinds of fruits and vegetables to complement the main meat dishes. A large basket of sweet corn had been placed next to the pit.
Ryder would attach the short harnesses and reins before the race while
Luis was stoking the fire in the barbeque pit. Luis had marked out a course around
the ranch with bright pendants. Sammie had chosen the ponies for each of
All was in readiness for the first day’s fun at the Gold Dust.
As she began
to make her lists of staff duties and responsibilities, she caught herself wondering
what the children’s
assistants would be like. Saige was sure that they would be kind and supportive. She
hoped that they, too, would enjoy their stay and feel reassured that she and
her staff had created the safest and most rewarding environment for their small
visitors to therapeutically interact with horses. She had scheduled time
for their training as side walkers. The college coeds would walk next to
the child’s horse to help with balance and with following Ryder’s
She bent over the seating arrangements for the first night’s dinner, and made quick notations with her pencil.
The next morning was a typical Arizona feast for the senses. Golden lily cacti blossomed full and luxurious around the ranch house’s adobe walls. Prairie dogs stood on their small but sturdy hind legs and sniffed the early breeze of the day. Then they scurried back into their burrows to bring out the rest of their families. An orange-banded Gila monster shambled its large body over the desert floor. Though poisonous and fearsome-looking, these big lizards were usually docile, unless provoked.
Saige opened her bedroom window. She listened to the morning sounds of the desert. Her eyes lingered on the purple mountains that seemed so close, yet would take a day’s ride to reach.
What a marvelous place to live, she mused.
As her eyes surveyed the ranch she had helped
build and now was in sole possession of, she felt proud of her accomplishment.
She had not let the bank throttle her, as it had so many of her competitors.
She would keep her vision alive. She must keep it alive for her sake…and
She dressed in a pair of brown, soft, corduroy jeans and a yellow satin blouse that highlighted her golden tan, light green eyes, and rich blond hair. A pair of beaded moccasins, authentic and comfortable, completed the outfit.
Saige went directly to the kitchen to check
on the meals planned for their first guests. Maria was bustling around
the large room happily singing a cheery song in Spanish.
“Do you need any help?” Saige asked as she smiled at her motherly family cook.
“Everything is ready, senora. I think the ninos and their helpers will enjoy the dishes. I have made sure to keep the young ones’ menus just right for them.” Saige hugged her.
“Thank you, madrecita.”
Going back through the dining room towards the front door, Saige could hear the sound of the children’s school bus pulling up in front of the porch.
Joining Luis and Ryder at the bottom of the portico stairs, she put a welcoming smile on her face as the orange school bus stopped in front of them.
Amid much giggling and happy exchanges among themselves, four, attractive, young women disembarked from the open doors of the van. They waited for their children to exit.
As she noticed the youngsters
get off the bus, she thought to herself wistfully, I
wish Billy was here to share this moment with me. He would have loved working
with these wonderful young people.
Saige noticed conversation among the young women had stopped in mid-sentence when they spotted Ryder.
Can’t blame them, really, Saige thought to herself, walking forward to greet her first guests. He does look like he leaped from an ad page for male cologne in a fashion magazine.
When Saige extended her hand to the person who seemed to be the leader, the young woman shook only Saige’s fingers in a half-hearted handshake while focusing her entire attention on Ryder.
I’m lucky she found my hand at all, Saige mused wryly, as she saw the rest of the girls admiring her head wrangler with obvious enjoyment.
They then turned their attention to Saige when she introduced herself.
“Uh oh, Marlene, I think you’re finally going to get
One of the group of chattering females snickered gleefully to the tall, willowy brunette in a pair of abbreviated white shorts and low-cut, bright-red blouse, who had let Saige’s hand drop abruptly when she finally met the gaze of the beautiful, green-eyed, blonde ranch boss.
The young woman named Marlene regarded Saige carefully. A tiny worried frown momentarily crossed her face.
“I’m Marlene Montgomery. We’re from the Kappa Phi Gamma sorority. Our summer community project is to take care of these kids for a week while they’re here.”
She didn’t bother introducing the rest of the girls as she addressed her next comment to Ryder, “And I thought this was going to be a total loss. What do you do around here, handsome?”
Gosh, I hope the children didn’t hear that, Saige reflected as she looked around to see where the disabled kids were.
Saige was relieved the youngsters were out of hearing range when the insensitive remark was made.
Perhaps she didn’t realize they could have overheard what she said, Saige thought to herself, giving the coed the benefit of the doubt. She did see a frown cross Ryder’s face as he pointedly turned away from the tactless brunette.
Inwardly, Saige was pleased to see Ryder’s disapproval.
“Well, we’re glad you’re here. Luis will take your bags and those of the children to your rooms. Would you tell us a little about your kids?”
Marlene ignored the request and turned her back to follow Luis into the house.
A girl who looked to be Sammie’s age separated herself from the small group of children standing next to the bus and walked up to Saige.
“I’m Cassidy, and I’m eight. I’m deaf but I wear a cochlear implant that lets me hear fine. I know how to sign-talk, too. Do we get to ride horses like they do in the movies?”
Saige bent down to get on Cassidy’s eye level.
“I’m really glad to meet you. And absolutely, you’ll get lots of chances to ride. In fact, you’ll even be getting your own horse to take care of while you’re with us. I’m Mrs. Sandoval and that man over there is Mr. Holt, my head wrangler here at the Gold Dust Ranch. We’ve been looking forward to meeting all of you.”
Catching a glance out of the corner of her eye, Saige saw the other young women gathered around Ryder.
It looks like the little ones will have to tell me about themselves since their helpers seem to be mesmerized by Ryder, Saige thought with just a twinge of some emotion she couldn’t identify.
She noticed that the bus driver had unloaded a wheelchair from the storage compartment. A tall boy was holding one of the kids in his arms. When the wheelchair was set on the ground and opened, the older-appearing youngster gently put the boy into the chair.
“Cassidy, can you introduce me to your friends?”
“This is Jeremy. He rides in an electric wheelchair.”
The energetic boy operated a rotating knob next to his right hand and edged closer to Saige.
“I’m glad to meet ya. My spine didn’t close when I was born so I can’t use my legs, but I’m really fast in my racer.”
Jeremy pointed to NASCAR stickers plastered all over his wheelchair.
“I bet you’ll do great in our pony-cart race. Your hands are probably really good at holding onto things. My sister Sammie can’t wait for all of you to ride in the carts she decorated. I’m sure there’s one you’ll like to take the reins of.”
“Oh yeah, that’ll be great!”
He turned his head to call to the boy who had helped him. Saige heard the sound of clicking.
“This is my friend Tony. He’s blind, but he can use his tongue to make sounds to show him where to go. He’s faster than I am sometimes.”
“Yo, I’m faster than you are all the time, my man,” Tony said, putting out his hand directly in front of Saige.
Jeremy retorted, “That’s just because you’re a year older. He’s nine.”
Saige stood up and faced a charming young man with an engaging grin. She could see the artificial eyes as she grasped his hand in both of hers. They looked quite real and the corneas were a soft brown color.
When he clicked his tongue, he moved next to her as naturally as if he had perfect vision.
“I could see until I was about two. Then my mom noticed a dark spot in my eyes. Turns out I had tumors so they took them both out. I’ve got these fake ones. I don’t need ‘em ‘though since I can see with my clicking. It’s like a bat’s hearing. My mom says the clicking makes things appear to my mind ‘cause the sound bounces off things and then I can see them. Pretty neat, huh!”
Saige was astounded, “Wow, that’s really wonderful! I’m sure you’ll like our sluice. You’ll probably be the one to find the hidden gold first. It’s really nice to meet you, Tony. Welcome to the Gold Dust Ranch.”
A boy whose dark hair was perfectly combed and his clothes impeccably color-coordinated came to stand behind Tony. Saige could see he was picking up everything that was said even ‘though he had his head down and wouldn’t meet anyone’s eyes.
Tony announced boisterously, “This guy behind me is Jefferson. I call him ‘Jeffy’ which he hates, but I like to joke around with the little squirt. He’s a year younger, like Jeremy.”
The silent eight-year-old didn’t acknowledge the introduction when he spoke to Saige.
“Is this the Gold Dust Equine-Assisted Therapy Ranch?”
Saige kneeled to get on eye level with the boy named Jefferson who seemed small for his age.
“Yes, it is. Do you like horses, Jefferson?”
“I know what equine therapy is. Kids work with horses when they can’t work with people all the time. That’s why my doctor told my mother and father about your place. I don’t like the noise people make, so I stay away from them. I like to be by myself, but I maybe will like the horses. I will tell you later after I see them.”
Saige recalled the information from the folder she had received from the school on Jefferson Hays. He had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and had some of the behaviors that Sammie exhibited.
Jefferson had been brought to his pediatrician at age three when his parents noticed his emotional detachment and his dislike of being touched. Noises became unbearable for him. They had finally had to resort to a protective helmet to keep him from hurting himself when any loud noise made him bang his head against the walls in the house. As he grew older, the helmet was discarded, but Jefferson would frequently put his hands over his ears, go into a corner, and get into a fetal position when the outside world became too much for him.
Saige recalled reading that he was home schooled until the age of seven when his parents found an expensive private school for gifted and exceptional children. Jefferson had made so much progress there that it was recommended he attend public elementary school if a suitable special education program could be found. He had made remarkable progress at his public elementary school. He was able to tolerate other children and even communicate with them at times. His social skills were lacking, and he failed to pick up the cues that showed him what was acceptable behavior in conversations, but the other kids had come to accept his verbal gaffes without resentment.
He still did not like to be touched so when someone unintentionally came within his protected space he set for himself, the results were calamitous. His parents would have to be called to come and get him. According to the professionals that worked with him, his screaming and kicking were disruptive to the learning environment and a danger to himself and others. In the last few months, his incidents of destructive behavior had lessened. If a classmate bumped into him, rather than striking out, he would back away until he was isolated in a corner of the classroom. There he would crouch down with his knees pulled up to his chin and his head in his lap.
His parents had been excited to read about the equine-assisted therapy at the Tucson ranch. All the parents who had children in the Special Education program at the school had received the brochures about the equine therapeutic purpose of the ranch in the Superstition Mountains. Although Cassidy was in regular classes, she often sought out the disabled kids to play with and had begged her parents to let her go on the trip with the Special Education group.
After consulting with his doctor and Jefferson’s classroom teacher, his parents had decided to try the equine therapy route as an adjunct to his regular routine during the summer. The literature on the subject had strongly supported the benefits to kids like Jefferson of them working with horses. It seemed to be an empathy thing. Autistic children had an extraordinarily high sensitivity to animals.
In addition to his hearing acuity, Jefferson had better vision, smell, and taste, which resulted in his preferences for certain foods and colors. Saige had made sure that Maria knew about his eating habits so she could prepare the foods he would eat, according to texture, color, and smell. She had purchased additional separate-sectioned plates so the different foods did not touch.
The plate with individual sections for each food was the only kind her sister would use. When Sammie was little, she would carefully organize her plate before she would eat. If any of the food mixed, she would throw a tantrum and the plate would go flying against the wall. Her meal would drip like multi-colored streams into the wood molding below. Sometimes it would take an hour for Sammie to get through one meal. Her parents had been frustrated and didn’t know when Sammie would erupt at the dining table. Saige seemed to have a rapport with her younger sister and would take her into the kitchen where she would sit and eat with her after Sammie had exploded in one of her “food fits,” as her father called them.
When her parents died, Saige made it a part of her routine to work with her sister on her eating behavior so she could sit at the main table with others. As Sammie grew older and attended her special school, she was able to manage her emotions so she could tell someone if something wasn’t right on her plate. It was a gigantic leap for Sammie in her socialization process. It had been quite a while since the last outburst, and none had occurred at the Gold Dust until her insensitive neighbor began to visit.
Now Sammie left the table if Edward was there. And for good reason. Saige had a vivid memory of the last time Edward had joined both of them for dinner.