Sitting on a high bluff overlooking Lake Wappapello, I am amazed again at the natural beauty of this land. Lake Wappapello is the result of a dam built by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in 1941. All though built primarily for flood control it has evolved into a beautiful and very large recreational area.
The lake winds its way around the mountains and into the valleys laying a foot print of life giving water to the land. I use this overlook to clear my head and think. What do I have to think about, you ask? That is the story I will relate to you. Hang on.
I graduated from the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL) with a BS in education. By the way, my name is John Columbus Riley; please don't ask about my middle name. My dad said he would pay for my education if I maintained a 3.0 GPA until I got a degree or turned 24, whichever came first. After that, I was on my own. Dad told me, "I want to help give you a good start in life, but I don't plan on supporting you into old age."
Dad was smarter than I gave him credit for. During the dot com craze, my dad and a friend got into one of the companies soon after its inception. Dad didn't hold on until the huge payoff near the bust, but he did manage to make a very large return on his investment. He didn't have "in your face, go to hell" type money, but he did have "We're very comfortable, thank you" type money.
He wanted to be comfortable on a farm. Not a get up at dawn everyday and work yourself to an early grave farm, but a lot of land and a small hobby farm. So he and mom bought 125 acres just outside of Van Buren, Missouri and after I got out of high school they moved to their hobby farm. I was starting college and would basically be living on my own. I had grown up and gone to school in St. Louis but we had spent most of our vacations in Van Buren.
Most of the summers and a lot of the holidays we would drive to Van Buren. I learned to hunt, fish, and run the river. Current River is a clear, spring fed and cold body of water that is the perfect place for a city boy to learn something about country life.
As I said my parents were paying for my tuition, books, and housing so I could get an education. In the mean time, there are a lot of incidentals that a college student need, well at least this one needed. I wanted money to buy essentials such as pizza, beer, and an occasional trip to the dens of iniquity in St. Louis.
I also had a truck to fill with gas and maintain. The truck had been a gift from my grandfather when I started college. Dad said he would pay for school but I had to foot the bill for my play time. So I worked a part time job to pay for the extras while I was in school and I had to maintain that 3.0 GPA.
I was very fortunate that my folks paid for my education, but anything other the normal expenses for college I had to pay for. In addition to my education being paid for, there was a trust fund left to me by my grandparents which I could claim when I graduated. It wasn't huge, but a little over six figures, $216,000 to be exact. That money meant I didn't have to start a career right after school. Again I was lucky because I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do with my life.
It wasn't that I was drifting; I just hadn't decided what to do with my life. A BS in education would insure that I could get a job in whatever part of the country I landed in and the trust fund meant I wouldn't starve to death. I knew how lucky I was to be on my own and not have to worry too much about the future.
My best friend and running partner is Jim Barnes. Jim and I met one of the summers I spent in Van Buren. My dad and I had gone fishing at Lake Wappapello and rented a boat to get out on the lake. Jim worked at the marina and Dad hired him as a guide. He and I became friends almost at once. Jim and I are look enough alike that sometimes people think we are brothers. He is 6' 2 to my 6' 3 and both of us have dark hair and eyes.
Jim played basketball and baseball while in college so he had a muscular build. I kept in shape by running a couple of miles three or four mornings a week. I would run, go to class until three, study and or rest until 7:00. I worked on the UPS loading docks 7 to midnight 4 nights a week. All and all, I was in pretty good shape and about as busy as I wanted to be.
Jim was going to enlist in the Army after getting out of high school but his dad made him a proposition. His dad agreed to pay for Jim's college expenses, including a very nice monthly allowance for spending money. In exchange, Jim was to forget about the Army and take business courses in school so he could help with the family business.
Jim's family owned the only grocery store in Wappapello and also a couple in Poplar Bluff. That was the reason for Jim's major of Business Management. He would begin to learn the business from the management side so he could take over for his dad one day. My major just allowed me to stay in school for a while; I had no idea what I would settle into.
My buddy talked me into visiting his home for the summer. Jim said I could spend the summer fishing, hunting, and having a little fun before I had to start a career. I was 23 and the idea sounded good to me. After graduation I visited with my parents in Van Buren for a few days and then drove to Jim's home town of Wappapello, Missouri. See, same name as the lake.
Van Buren is actually only about seventy miles from Wappapello and is hillier than the area around the lake. The two towns were close enough that I could visit my parents a few times over the summer.
Wappapello is a small town of about twenty-five hundred people and about 60 horses. It really seemed small after living in St. Louis for four years. The closest "city" is Poplar Bluff, a town of about twenty thousand people. I don't know how many horses.
Jim and I had been at his home for about two weeks when we received an unwelcome visitor, Henry Pratt. Henry was a classmate at UMSL and the biggest blowhard, bragger, or twit that I had ever met. Actually, I think the phrase I used to describe him best was an ass.
Have you ever met someone that you wanted to punch out just because he existed? That's how both Jim and I felt about Henry. Henry's family owned and operated four banks in the state. Two of the banks were in Poplar Bluff where the family lived and lived very well. They also owned the bank in Wappapello. They were better than well to do, they were stinking rich. Henry was sort of a roly poly type of guy about 5' 8". He looked soft and pale, like a grub worm from under a log. But his money ensured that he always had an entourage following him around. His money didn't impress Jim or me and never stopped us from slipping a zinger in on him now and then.
Now being rich doesn't automatically make you a jerk, but Henry worked at it. He would latch on to Jim and I at a pizza joint or anywhere he could find us and begin to brag about how much money his family had. He played the high roller to the hilt. Being a high roller doesn't make you a bad person, but being an ass like Henry doesn't endear you to many people. Henry had a new convertible every year, sometimes a new one every six months.
He would flaunt his cars, his money, his contacts at school, and the girls he took out. There were always young ladies that would date him because of his car and his money. These girls were practicing living as the idle rich. Henry never failed to bring his latest hottie around to show off for us of the lower class.
We didn't hold it against Henry that he had a lot of money, or cars, or beautiful coeds, more power to him. What we held against him was the fact that he looked down on anyone not of his "social class". That meant Jim and I. We weren't rich therefore we didn't count except to show off to. This was the jerk that showed up in Wappapello that day.
Jim and I were sitting in the shade on a bench in the town square and saw a cherry 67 Mustang Mach I pull to the curb. We were so busy looking at this amazing car, we didn't notice the driver. It was our "buddy" Henry Pratt his own self. Aw hell, just what we needed.
"Hello boys," Henry chose to speak to us peons. He singled out Jim "I understand you know Lake Wappapello as good as anyone around here. I need a fishing guide."
"What has that got to do with me Hank?" Henry hated to be called Hank.
"That's Henry; I thought you would want to earn a guide fee. I mean with you financial situation you know," Henry's self importance showed in the tone of his voice.
Jim's smile at Henry was anything but pleasant. "It does my heart good to know that someone like you is concerned with my plight," Jim responded. The sarcasm was thick enough to choke you. Henry didn't notice. "I don't have the time to run a guide trip for the next couple of weeks, I have to work at the store." Now the bullshit was getting knee deep.
Henry left to find another poor unfortunate to hire. I turned to Jim and said, "It's amazing, Henry doesn't even know how big an asshole he is. I thought you were going to lite into him for a minute."
Jim shook his head as he laughed. "Not this time but it may come to that if he stays around very long. Come on, help me stack those boxes at the store and then I'll buy the beer at the dance tomorrow night." Every Friday the VFW post in Wappapello held a fish fry and dance at their hall. In a town this size, the dance was the height of the night life. This was the first one that Jim and I had a chance to attend.
Jim and I were standing near the bar at the dance and I overheard a young woman talking about the guide fee she was earning this weekend. Her back was turned to me and I couldn't see her face. She was telling another girl that Henry Pratt was paying more than top dollar. I turned to look at Jim; he had a big grin on his face.
I have never been shy around woman and she looked nice from the back. She had long auburn hair and was tall at about 5 feet 9. So I leaned over and spoke into her ear. "You're welcome."
When she turned to faced me, her green eyes bore through me like a laser. I think I had upset her a little. I knew she upset me. Now, as I said I have never been shy around woman and had a fairly active romantic career while in college. There was no one special, just a number of nice girls that I squired around. I hadn't connected beyond the physical with any of them. One look at this young woman and her green eyes and I connected with her. I knew what I wanted and I think I was done drifting.
"What do you mean, you're welcome?" She was a little perturbed I think.
"I turned down that job. You were his second choice I guess. So I accept your thanks and you're welcome." I smiled at her. "You can repay me by dancing with me."
She was trying not to smile when she said, "Maybe Henry decided to give a poor unfortunate a chance before he came to hire his first choice. And I don't dance with men I don't know."
"Well we can fix that, I'm John Riley. Now, how about that dance?"
My friend, my buddy, my benefactor Jim stepped in right there. "Ally this is John Riley, he's a classmate and a friend. He's harmless and house broken so it's safe to dance with him. John this is Alexis Connelly. She and I went to high school together."
"Please to meet you Alexis, now can we get to the dancing." Carpe diem (seize the day) I thought.
Finally Alexis gave me a small smile. She nodded her head and we walked to the dance floor. The gods were on my side as we got there because the band began a slow song. I have nothing against fast dancing but it's a lot harder to get to know someone gyrating around than it is holding them close during a slow dance. And I definitely wanted to hold Alexis close to me.
Alexis was a tall girl and she fit right in with my 6 foot 3 frame very nicely thanks. "He was right you know?" I told her.
"Who was right and about what?" Alexis asked a little puzzled as she looked up at me.
"Henry was right to hire you instead of me. If I had a choice between spending the day in a boat with someone like me or with someone that looks like you, I would pick you every time." I was trying to be as charming as possible.
"Thank you, I think. Was that a compliment John?" Finally I got a full smile from her.
I couldn't answer her at once. The combination of her smile and her sparkling green eyes was shaking my usual self confidence. "Yes ma'am, it was." Old mister smooth was smitten and didn't know how to handle it.
"Do you know a lot about the lake? Is that why Henry wanted to hire you as a guide?"
"I know that it's about three miles northwest of town and that it's wet," I admitted.
"You mean you don't know anything about the lake? How were you going to guide him to the fish?"
"Henry's such an idiot, he wouldn't know the difference. Anyway, it was Jim that Henry wanted as a guide. I just used the "you're welcome bit" to get to talk to you," I confessed with a big smile. She stopped dancing and stared at me. Then she started to laugh, shaking her head. I guess she was impressed with my little ploy to meet her.
Alexis and I danced most of the slow numbers and a few of the fast ones that night. The rest of the evening we sat, talked, and got to know each other better. I learned that she had gone to school to be a large animal vet. I told about my teaching degree and admitted I wasn't sure what I was going to do yet. Before the night was over I was totally in like. I knew I had to tread lightly with her; the stuff I used in college would just push her away.
"I have my truck, can I give you a lift home Alexis?"
"Thanks, no. I came with a couple of girlfriends; I'll go home with them. Maybe I'll see you at the next dance."
The next day I questioned Jim like an FBI agent for information on Alexis. I continued to pester him until he told me to shut up and he gave me all the information he knew about her. Jim started by telling me that Alexis and her father Bill owned and operated a working cattle slash dude ranch on the edge of town.
Alexis' mother had left her and Bill several years ago. Apparently she didn't liking living in such a small town and just took off. The last they heard from her was Bill receiving the divorce papers dissolving the marriage. Bill said good riddance and continued to build his property into a good cattle ranch.
Two years ago Alexis came up with the idea of letting people who wanted to live like cowboys come to the ranch. They herded cattle, helped with the branding, and generally pretended to be ranch hands. The idea took off like a shot and they now had a waiting list for spots at the ranch.
I got Jim and me fresh cups of coffee and he continued with his tale. Alexis went to school at the University of Missouri in Columbia for veterinary medicine so she could help take care of the stock on the ranch. Bill was going to erect a building for a clinic at the ranch so she could treat other animals in the area. The profit from the ranch and her vet practice would provide them with a very nice income.
"If you're thinking of getting close to Alexis you have a long road ahead of you. She has never dated the same guy for more than a few weeks and I don't think she has any plans to change in the near future," Jim advised me. That final statement from him made me reconsider the way I was going to approach Alexis.
"Oh ye of little faith," I responded. But I was worried. I had definitely fallen in serious like with Alexis and hoped to develop a stronger relationship with her. All of my feelings were based on a few hours at a dance. Maybe I was nuts but I wanted to get to know her better.
Friday night rolled around and the usual VFW dance and fish fry was scheduled again. Jim was in a hurry to get there; there was a certain young lady that he wanted to get to know better. I told him I was going to wait for about an hour after the dance started before I drove to the VFW hall.
"Why are you waiting so long, John?" Jim didn't understand my plan.
"If I show up as the dance begins and start looking for Alexis, she will think I came just to see her," I explained.
"But you are going just to see her, aren't you?"
"Yeah, but she doesn't have to know that. This way I won't appear too eager."
Jim just shook his head at my logic. "I think you are playing games when you don't' have to," he advised me. "It may come back to bite you in the ass."
I got to the dance about an hour and a half after it started and spotted Alexis as I walked into the hall. I got quite a shock, Henry was standing next to Alexis and she was laughing at something he had said. So much for my brilliant plan. You know sometimes I'm just too smart for my own good. I wandered over to the bar to get a beer and plan my next move. I had planned to casually notice Alexis and strike up a conversation, and then share a few dances with her, and hopefully a walk around the town. Now I thought a more direct approach might be a better idea.
After getting a beer I started toward Alexis. As I got closer, Henry must have seen me coming and led Alexis onto the dance floor which left me with nowhere to go. Instead of folding, I continued across the dance floor to the girl that Alexis had been talking to the first night I met her. When I got to the young lady, I introduced myself and ask her to dance.
Nancy introduced herself and agreed to dance with me, smiling the whole time. As we moved around the floor she kept looking to see where Alexis was. I thought she might be concerned that Alexis would be upset that we were dancing.
Then Nancy burst my bubble, "Aren't you going to get closer to her so you can hear what's going on?"
"What? Get closer to whom?"
"Come on John. You spent the whole evening with Alexis last week and now you want me to believe that you are attracted to me?" Nancy was a very smart young lady.
"To tell the truth, I was hoping to spend some time with Alexis tonight, but she seems to have found a new guy. And I would rather dance with a pretty lady than lean against the wall." The song ended and I walked Nancy back to her table, thanked her for the dance and went back to the bar.
As I turned after getting another beer, Alexis and Henry were standing in front of me. I nodded at them and stepped aside so they could get to the bar and walked away. Alexis smiled and started to say something but I just kept walking. A little later I was outside sitting on a hay bale and she walked over to me.
"Hi John, weren't you going to a least say hello to me?"
"You were busy and I didn't want to break in on your date. And I don't care for the company your keeping."
"You mean Henry? And he's not my date."
"Yeah, I mean Henry. I didn't care for him at school and I like him even less now."
"Why is that? Henry is a nice boy and very charming."
"I wouldn't know about him being charming or nice. He spent four years at school lording it over us 'peons' and bragging about his family's money. I've had about all of Henry that I care to. If you're as smart as I think, you'll shine him on."
"And who are you to tell me what to do?" Her indignation washed over me like a tidal wave. "I'm old enough to pick my own friends without any help from you, Mister. I'll thank you to keep your opinions to yourself."
Now I was the one that was mad. "You're right; I'm a nobody. A nobody who was just trying to warn a friend." I couldn't help myself and went on. "Once Henry has hooked you, he'll go back to being the ass that he really is." Before she could respond I stood up, nodded at Alexis and walked to my truck. So much for my plans for a nice evening with a pretty girl.
I may have had way too much to drink that night, because the next morning I was still in bed at 10:00. What's more I was fully dressed except for my boots. My head was pounding and my mouth tasted like old sneakers or something. Jim came into the room we were sharing with coffee to help me get my motor running. He's a good friend but it's not nice to laugh at us poor suffering unfortunates and he was braying like a jack ass.
"What got into you last night? I've never seen you drink that much, not even at the frat parties at school. I had to leave the dance early and drive you home." Jim preached to me. "And what did you say to Ally? According to Nancy, Ally is hot enough to boil water. What's going on?"
"We had a discussion about her choice of playmates. She informed me that I wasn't her conscience and to keep my opinions to myself. I don't know why she should be mad now; she made her position very clear." I was feeling sorry for myself. "I guess I blew it."
Jim looked at me, shook his head and said, "I've never seen you react this way over a girl. Anyway I don't think you blew it. Nancy says the reason that Ally is so mad is because you ignored her all night and when Ally tried to talk to you, you sort of blew her off. That's why she's upset. I think you made quite an impression on our girl last night."
I finally was able to get out of bed and start my day. Alexis was on my mind all morning and I thought about going to the ranch and apologizing. I realized that wouldn't work because she was still upset about last night. Maybe I should give her a day or two to cool down. Of course I didn't think I had anything to be sorry about, but logic doesn't work when dealing with women.
At lunch Jim asked, "What are you going to do about Ally? Are you just going to give up?"
"Right now I barely know what town I'm in. Man, that's it for the booze, no more for me. To answer your question, I don't know what to do or if anything can be done to remedy the situation. I'm going to give her a little time to cool off and then I will apologize to her."
I went to the store with Jim to help with a few chores and while we were working, I came up with an idea. "What I have to do Jim, is manage to be around Alexis a lot without stalking her. I need for her to get to know me and allow her anger to fade away. I haven't figure out how to do that yet but I will."
We finished the work at the store and started back to Jim's house for lunch. Along the way we passed the newspaper office. The Town Crier was a once a week paper for the area. The editors usually displayed parts of the paper in their window. They would post the headlines of the major stories in the news and the classified ads. The ads consisted of announcements such as Molly & Jason Smith announce the birth of their daughter etc or Mrs. Johnson will hold a quilting bee at her house on etc and other upcoming events. In addition the editors posted the ads for things for sale and the help wanted section.
Now, I don't believe in fate or everything happens for a reason or any of that mumbo jumbo. However, under the help wanted section was an ad from Bill Connelly wanting a general helper on his ranch. Maybe I was getting a little extra help from somewhere or someone. It was a perfect way to spend time around Alexis without seeming to stalk her. If I could get the job, that is.
The next morning I was at the ranch office when Bill Connelly arrived. He was a tall weather beaten man in his late 40s. The years working on the ranch had tanned his face to a deep brown but I could see where Alexis got her auburn hair, green eyes, and height. Mr. Connelly was the male version of Alexis, only bigger.
I met him as he got out of his truck, introduced myself and told him I wanted the job he had open. Mr. Connelly motioned me into his office. I noticed that he was about an inch taller than me. He strode purposely on his long legs but with a slight limp toward his desk. "Sit down John. Do you have any experience as a ranch or farm hand?"
"No sir, but I will work hard and give you a fair days work," I answered him. "I'm basically a city boy and the only time I've spent in the "country" was vacationing in Van Buren. And all I did there was fish, hunt, and play on Current River. I know very little about horses and all I know about cattle is that's where steaks came from." It probably didn't help my cause, but I wanted to be honest with Mr. Connelly.
He seemed lost in thought for a few seconds and asked, "Are you the same John Riley that my daughter has been talking about for the last two weeks?" Mr. Connelly seemed to be hiding a smile.
"I did meet you daughter last week at the dance and I saw her again this week. Don't know if I'm the guy she's been talking about though."
"Is Alexis the reason you want to work here? You think you can get close to her by being here, is that it?"
I thought about denying it but opted for the truth. "Mr. Connelly, I'll be honest with you. I admit that's part of it, but I need a job. Jim Barnes and his family are letting me stay with them this summer, but I would feel better if I could pay my share. I never did like freeloading. So yes if I get the job I hope to see and talk to Alexis a little, after my work is done of course." I had been using some of my trust fund for pocket money and a job would allow me to stop dipping into that account.
"Well you gave me an honest answer about your qualifications and didn't try to sidestep it when I asked about Alexis. I like that. Okay John, you can start tomorrow. Show up at the barn over there at 6 and we'll see if we can make a ranch hand out of you."
Bright and early I showed up at the barn, just as Mr. Connelly came out of his office. He waved me into the barn. There I learned to muck out the horse stalls, put down new straw for the horses and mules, and how to feed them. There were a multitude of other duties I had to be shown. My second day there, I saw Alexis for the first time. She did her best to ignore and keep away from me, but I cornered her in the barn late in the afternoon.
"Hi Alexis. Nice to see you. I wanted to apologize for my behavior the other night. I should have minded my own business. Sorry." Okay, I apologized for what, I have no idea. But maybe it would smooth things over between us.
"You're right, you should have stayed out of my business," she responded and stomped out of the barn.
Well damn, her response wasn't what I expected. I tried but apparently she had already made up her mind about me. Maybe I should go stay with my parents in Van Buren for the rest of the summer I thought. But then I remembered that I had given my word to Mr. Connelly to work for him for the season and I couldn't just bail on him now. Besides, I might get her to change her mind.
I had been at the ranch for a week or so and one of the things I learned how to do was to brush and curry the horses and mules. After the horses and mules had been ridden or used for some time of work, they had to be brushed down and a curry comb used on them. Horses are not too bad to work on most of the time; the thing you have to watch with horses is they might accidentally step on you. Some of the horses weigh 1200 pounds and if they step on your foot you might lose some toes.
Mules on the other hand are four legged devils. They will actually try to step on your foot and mules will wait until you turn your back and bite you. I don't mean a little nip, I mean a "let's take a chunk of meat out of this human" type bite.
Jericho was the biggest and meanest of the mules and one morning as I was brushing him down he nipped me hard enough to draw blood. It could have been worse but I saw his head move toward me out of the corner of my eye and jerked my arm away. I wrapped a bandanna around my arm and continued the brushing. Jericho must have still been hungry because he tried to bite me again.
This time I was ready. I hit Jericho on the nose with my fist; just as hard as I could. Mike Tyson would have been proud of that punch. The mule jerked his head back and when he turned to look at me, I hit him again. As I picked up the brush I saw Mr. Connelly standing behind me and realized he had seen the whole thing. Oh damn, now I'm in trouble I thought.
"John if slap them with a flat palm, you won't hurt your hand if you hit them in the teeth instead of on the nose," he told me as he tried to suppress a smile.
"I'm sorry Mr. Connelly but that damn mule has tried to bite me every time I curry him and I've had enough. I didn't mean to hurt the animal, but I'm going to teach him not to bite me."
"Make that Bill from now on and you can't hurt a mule with your fist. C'mon let's get you some first aid for your arm."
Then a tornado descended on my head. It was Alexis and she was mad as hell that I would hit a "defenseless animal" like Jericho. She said I was cruel, she was going to report me to PETA, and she would have me arrested for animal cruelty. Ally went on for about five minutes.
Bill tried to defend me by saying, "Ally the last time that animal bit me I took a broom stick to him. He hasn't bothered me since. John was just protecting himself"
Alexis didn't want to hear that and said sadly, "Oh Daddy how could you?" She ran into the barn, jumped on a horse, and took off like a shot.
For the next week Alexis was on my case about every little thing I did. She made it a point to always order me to do some chore or task. On Thursday afternoon, I was putting away some bridles, halters, and other tack when Alexis came into the barn to watch me.