I had no real reason to move to Wolf’s Campus County, but I had a wonderful reason to stay. Her name was Ella. In a town of backwater inbreeds bordering on retardation, she was a beacon of loveliness. For whatever reason, she took a quick liking to me: perhaps it was because I was the ‘city boy’ from Chicago. Being the only man in Wolf’ Campus who couldn’t throw a lasso made me the target of ridicule to most, but Ella always found it charming.
Perhaps it was rash to say I had no reason to come to Wolf’s Campus. The scenery there was stunning, and it seemed like the perfect escape from the cold and windy city. Twenty-one years of impersonality and concrete was more than I could handle. The cure, I had thought, was to spend some time in a small county; a beautiful little place where everyone knew each other and the problems of the city were simply myths. I was correct on those terms: the community of Wolf’s Campus ranked among the most well-meaning and genuine (albeit racist) individuals I’d ever met. They knew nothing of poverty or organised crime. The sleepy town barely paid any mind to the clock, something delightfully unusual to a “city folk”. These benefits, however, ran dry quickly. It should be no surprise that a Chicago man has trouble getting used to horse fly bites and barnyard animals. I’d always dreamt of riding a horse off into the sunset, but getting bucked twice can shatter those dreams pretty quickly. As time went by, I found myself dreaming of escaping Texas. Ella was the reason I hadn’t.
It was late July, or as we called it “Holy shit, stay inside!”. It was the feast of some saint or another and the town was celebrating. The O’Reilly Ranch had become a playground of bright lights and smiling faces. Though the townsfolk dabbled in the joyful rhythm of a square-dance, Ella and I had chosen to abstain. Instead, we’d preferred to take a two minute walk out to the docks by Cub’s Creek. The location was about as perfect as young couple could ask for. The fiddle and the drums were the only instruments that were able to penetrate the still night’s air far enough to touch our ears. The banjo and other makeshift instruments were drowned out by the wildlife. Snakes rattled: crickets, horses and coyotes spoke to each other in harmony. We kicked up Texan soil as we walked, overtaking armies of cacti and sage. The fading twilight sprawled along the desert, creating a temperate environment for our late night stroll. Cattle curiously turned their heads toward us, as though even they were able to understand Ella’s beauty. We laughed, but I could no longer recall what about. Then, silence. We took some time to just admire the scenery. The lights coming from Parkway County across Cub’s Creek shone as brightly as our own town’s did. They, too, celebrated without worry.
We arrived at the docks. Ella sat first, planting her boots down into a hitched canoe. I took a second to admire her as she looked out into the distance.
“Sit down, would ya’?” she spoke with an accent that would be hideous out of anyone else. A snake rattled. Wordlessly, I sat beside her, planting my feet down into the same canoe. We swung out legs in unison, effortlessly bobbing the small craft back and forth.
“We don’t have this in Chicago.” I said, looking out along the horizon.
“Y’all ain’t got nothin’ back in the city.” Ella smiled.
“We had plenty, Ella. It was just different.” I replied, still facing the water.
“Didn’t got me.” She elbowed me in the ribs. I turned to her, grinning from ear to ear.
“We didn’t got you, Ella.”
“Are you makin’ fun of how I talk, mister?” She replied gleefully. “‘Cause all y’all city types is just as ridiculous. Y’aint use words like ‘friend’ or ‘partner.’ So impersonal.” I smiled, I didn’t really have much to reply to that. “Anyway. City folk ain’t got nothing now. They don’t got me and they ain’t got you. Those are the things I care about.” I turned to her.
“You don’t know how right you are, Ella.” She leaned in and I gave her a small peck on the lips. She elbowed me once more and we locked into a longer kiss. Slowly we leaned back outward, and my eyes became glued to her.
Her jet black hair curled gracefully into loose ringlets over her chest and shoulders as though she’d just come out of a salon in Paris. She adorned it with a straw hat that extenuated her light freckles. Though she was normally found in rougher wear, tonight she’d dressed up (as much as someone from Wolf’s Campus could.) She wore a thin, brown sundress with a belt loosely propped around her waist. I had chuckled to myself when I first saw the belt, as it was adorned with a Texan Longhorn buckle. It struck me as somewhat unfitting, but on Ella, almost anything was stunning. This was no exception. It was a token of her Texan appeal, anyway. I liked it. She’d finished the outfit with knee-high boots. In my simple pressed shirt and jeans, I was hardly worthy of sitting next to her.
“I’m glad you came to Wolf’s County, Paul.” She rested her head on my shoulder and I put an arm around her waist. We sat there for a moment, and then she rose from her resting position. “Ain’t you gon’na tell me y’er glad you came?” I looked at her for a moment.
“I’m glad I came to you, Ella.” She looked puzzled. “I’m glad you’re in Wolf’s County.”
“You just don’t appreciate it here, Paul.”
“It’s a city boy thing.” I said, not wanting to argue. It was too big of a night. “I love the scenery here. And the Southern hospitality is more than anything I could buy in the big city.”
“Now that’s more like it, mister!” She said, clutching me in a hug. I smiled again. “Ya know, I know why y’all city folk don’t like it in Texas.”
“And why is that, Ella?”
“Y’all don’t ride.”
“No Ella. I told you, those things freak the shit out of me.” I said, suddenly starting to feel a bit concerned.
“Y’all city folk are scared o’ everything! Ain’t no horse gonna take a wallet, Paul.” I couldn’t help but chuckle, though the tightness in my stomach remained. “Gonna try it, Paul?”
“Not a chance in hell, pretty lady.”
“Well then, pretty mister,” She said, leaning in for another kiss. I took the bait. She pulled her feet out of the canoe and stood quickly. “No Ella f’er you.” She smiled the prettiest smile I had ever seen and took off on foot. Caught off guard, it took me a second to stand and run after her. She ran a lot faster than any city girl could. By the time I was close, she’d already reached the O’Reilly’s hitching post. She untied two of the horses and mounted before I could get down the stretch of road. Off she went, on horseback now. I had no chance of catching her on foot. I looked at the horse now left to my care.
“Listen, girl. I don’t like you and you don’t like me.” I said, anthropomorphizing it. “I have my licence for a reason but my car is pretty far from here, so we’ll have to cooperate. Do we have an understanding?”
The horse, being a horse, simply stared at me. I stuffed a foot into the stirrup, mounted, and did my best to guide the beast forward. Strangely, it was working.
“Giddy up?” I nervously said. The horse trotted forward, revealing that Ella had been patiently waiting on her mount about twelve meters away. I trotted toward her.
“Ya got it, Paul!” She yelled.
“Get back here, Ella, you’re going to ruin your dress!” I exclaimed, hoping to have an excuse to get off of the horse.
“City folk! We don’t give a crap over here in Texas!” She smiled, turned around and began to trot away. “Catch me if ya’ can!”
“That’s not very Southern of you!” I yelled. My heart was pounding. “Faster girl, you can do it.” I continued to try reasoning with my horse. Working with the little bit of knowledge I had, I managed to speed up a little. Before long I was gaining ground on Ella, but I knew she could go a lot faster.
“Come on!” She sped up. I did the same. I felt the wind start to go through my hair. Suddenly, I realized: this was pretty fun. I sped up more. The horse neighed as though it were telling me that we’d finally found that connection.
“Faster, girl!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. I was having the time of my life. Ella rode beside me. Her smile was fading.
“Paul, I think y’er goin’ a bit fast, don’t ya’ think?”
“No way! Let’s race!” When I think back now, the self-assurance was unwarranted.
“Paul, no! Y’know I can’t turn down a challenge!”
I sped up, so did she. Hardly knowing what I was doing, I pulled and whipped the reins in every direction. It seemed that, no matter what I did, the horse just kept doing what I wanted it to. Regardless of my beginners luck, Ella quickly sped by me, reaching the road’s edge just over a dozen seconds. She stopped and turned toward me again.
“Paul! Paul, I win! Can you slow down now? Please?” Ella yelled. The concern in her voice got my attention, and I obliged. At least, I tried to. I yanked on the reins with my full strength, and apparently the horse didn’t like it. The animal absorbed the forward momentum like a sponge, standing itself on its hind legs. A frightening neigh, and then I don’t remember the next little while. Coincidentally, this is also the story of the last time I rode a horse.
“Paul? God damn it! Paul?” I awoke to Ella standing over me, waving her hand in front of my face. I raised my head about an inch off the ground, trying to assure that I wasn’t dead, and was greeted with a hard slap to my face. “Paul, you idiot! You could’ve died!” I wanted to yell back. I wanted to explain that she was the reason that I was on a horse in the first place, but my vocal cords weren’t cooperating. By the time I could have made a rebuttal, Ella was lying down on top of me, clutching my barely conscious self. She turned my head toward hers, now with tears in her eyes. “You idiot Paul! If y’ever die like that I’m gon’na kill you!” She was in hysterics. I sat up.
“I’m a bit dizzy, but I’m fine Ella. Don’t worry.” I smiled at her and held her close. She continued to wipe the tears out of her eyes. “I hate you, ya’ idiot.” She crossed her arms in a huff, and we sat like that for a moment. I was glad for the silence, anyway. I had needed some time to regain my composure. The ringing in my ears ceased and the bluegrass fiddle became apparent again. Ella suddenly began to laugh. “What’s so funny, Ella?” I asked.
“Y’know that horse you was ridin’?” She turned to me again.
“Yeah, trust me, I know it. What’s so funny about it?” She started to laugh hysterically.
“It’s gone.” She managed to finally spit it out.
“It’s gone?” I said,
“Gone, Paul! Off like a city boy on a horse. Ya’ spooked it real good, ya’ did.”
“It’s gone?” I repeated.
“Gone.” She chuckled. “Old O’Reilly’s gon’na flip out!” I paused. Then I began to join her in laughter. Through the searing pain in my skull, I began to laugh. I felt like a teenager again, wreaking havoc and having fun doing it. Once we had calmed down, we agreed to head back to the docks, leaving the other horse there. She practically carried me the whole way, setting me down in our original position, swinging our feet in some stranger’s canoe.
“Ella?” I said, turning toward her.
“Yeah?” She returned the gaze.
“You know I’m not going to last much longer in Texas.”
“I know.” She looked out to the water again.
“And you know I’m not going to last very long without you if I leave.”
“I know.” She smiled. I waited for a second.
“So let’s do it.” My heart pounded with more force than when I was mounted on the horse. She gave me a quizzical look. “Let’s go, I mean.”
“No Ella. Chicago. New York. Denver. Toronto. Somewhere.”
“Somewhere?” She didn’t look as happy as I’d hoped she would.
“Wolf’s Campus is somewhere, Paul.”
“No, Ella. It’s not. It’s nowhere. You’re the only thing here and I have to escape. But I need you with me. So let’s do it.” Ella went silent.
“I can’t. My life is here, Paul.” Her eyes began to water again.
“I won’t make it here. We don’t even have to go far. We’ll go to Austin or Dallas.”
“No, Paul. What about Pa’s farm? Is he and Ma gon’na do it alone? What about my friends here?”
“You can meet new friends. They can hire help. We could be doing much bigger things, Ella.”
“Like what, Paul? I can’t just up and leave Wolf’s Campus! Are you crazy? On a dime, too? Ya’ can’t spring this on me! Paul, no! Stop!”
“Ella. I’m going. I just want you there. I need you there.”
“Paul, no. Shut up. Ya’ just can’t. Stop it.”
“Ella, why not? I want you with me. I love you.”
“If ya’ loved me, Paul, ya’d care about what I care about!”
“Which is what?” I began to raise my voice.
“Everythin’!” She shrieked. We fell again into silence. We stopped swinging our feet and Ella began to cry. “Just, everythin’.” She muttered. After a few minutes, she stood. “Y’er a big fish in a small pond, Paul. And y’er not gon’na like the ocean. There ain’t nothin’ in New York and there ain’t nothin’ in Boston. Not even me.” She walked away. I continued to look out into the water. My head was pounding. My face was stinging, my whole body was bruised and sore, and my clothes were ruined. I dug into my pocket and pulled out the ring. I tossed it into the water.