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OPINION: Where Is Jim Ross?

by By Stan Fine, Columnist | September 22, 2022 at 5:20 a.m.

It was early, but then most folks living in the rural Southwest Missouri Ozark County of McDonald got up early. It was too early for the county's prosecuting attorney's office to be open, but County Sheriff Fine knew that Prosecuting Attorney Jim Paul always came in early.

The door to the office was open, just as it usually was, so the sheriff walked through the open doorway but, before he took one more step into the room, Paul had a question. "Well?" Now Fine knew what he was asking about, but whether it was the ambiguity of the question or the fact that Fine just liked annoying Paul, the sheriff replied, "Well what?"

While still seated behind the old wooden desk that many of his predecessors had used, the prosecuting attorney seemed even more frazzled, which in some way pleased Fine. "You know what I'm talking about. Where is Ross?" "I say, by God, that son of a gun is nowhere to be found." Paul's irritation with the direction the conversation was taking seemed to grow exponentially with every second. "Come on; he's got to be somewhere. Look here; we've got to find out what happened to that guy."

Suddenly the sheriff's attitude seemed to turn to a more businesslike one. "I've got a few more folks to talk to, so I'll see what they have to say. I'll let you know what I find out."

After one more remark from Paul, the conversation came to an end. Now, whether Paul was talking to Fine or just thinking out loud, nobody knows, but he said, "Where is Jim Ross?"

He was called, at least by those few people who knew he even existed, thrifty, cheap, a miser and an old skinflint. The reclusive man lived in a cabin near the mouth of the Mt. Shira Cave. The 65-year-old Ross had been earning some money by chopping wood for Noel resident Tom Walker. On November 2nd, Jim Ross purchased some groceries from a store in Noel. There was nothing peculiar about the items purchased, but the form of payment raised an eyebrow with the grocer.

The goods were paid for with an old-style 5-dollar bill, so old that the style of the bill was rarely if ever seen by the cashier. Thinking the bill might be counterfeit, the grocer called Noel City Constable Mack Hall. Hall, along with deputy Jim Toothaker examined the bill, and even they had to admit that its authenticity was in question.

Hall and Toothaker traveled to Ross' cabin and questioned him about the bill. The two asked how it came to be that he was in possession of such an old bit of currency. It was then that Ross produced an old cigar box.

Upon opening the top of the box, the two law enforcement officers couldn't believe their eyes. The box was full of old currency in denominations between one and fifty dollars, and there was even one one-hundred-dollar bill. There was also a large number of old coins in the cigar box.

Still uncertain about the authenticity of the bills in question, Constable Hall called a Joplin Secret Service agent. Hall described the situation and asked the agent if could drive to the cabin and take a look at the old bills. The agent agreed and sometime later examined the currency. He told Hall that although old and quite rare, the money with a face value of approximately $2,000 was legitimate.

The three men, Hall, Toothaker and the Secret Service agent told Ross that keeping all that money in a cigar box was unwise and, although Ross was unconvinced his storage methods were questionable, he reluctantly agreed to deposit some of the money in the Goodman Bank. $1,390.50 was summarily remanded to the custody of the bank. Hall then took Ross, along with the remaining cash, to nearby Sulphur Springs, Ark., where Ross once again found a cabin to call home.

Now, this is where the search for Jim Ross began. The following morning, Hall drove to Ross' cabin in Sulphur Springs. Hall claimed he was concerned about the man's well-being, especially since he still had about $600 on him. Nobody answered Hall's knock on the cabin's door, so Hall let himself in only to find that there was absolutely no trace of Ross or the money.

Hall reported his observations to the McDonald County Sheriff, Floyd Fine, and a search for Ross ensued. It was thought that the reclusive man might have become the victim of foul play and was robbed of his cash. A search of the area was initiated, and posters describing Ross were nailed up everywhere.

A one-hundred-dollar reward was offered for information relating to the whereabouts of Ross. News of the search spread quickly and there was so much interest that even J.A."Dad" Truitt of Mt. Shira came to the area hoping to be of assistance in locating the missing wood chopper.

The search for the man, or information about his whereabouts, dragged on for a couple of weeks. By that time, the two parties who seemed to oversee the efforts to locate Ross were Sheriff Fine and Prosecuting Attorney Jim Paul. The two men talked daily about the search and the efforts which, at least to that point, had been fruitless -- that is until one memorable Tuesday morning.

The prosecuting attorney's secretary stuck her head in the open doorway to his office. "Jim, there's a man here who says he needs to talk to you. He says it's important."

"Would you get his name and find out what he wants? Floyd Fine will be here in a few minutes, and we're gonna talk about this Jim Ross thing."

Now Mary Margaret Varndell, the prosecuting attorney's secretary, knew Jim would want to speak with this visitor to the office, this visitor in particular.

"Oh, I got his name; it's Jim Ross."

The prosecutor looked at her with what could best be described as one of amazement.

"You're telling me that Jim Ross is out there?"

"Well, that's the name he gave me. Do you want to see him?"

"You bet I do. Tell him to come on in."

Jim straightened his tie and in the Cornerstone Bank advertising ashtray sitting atop his desk snuffed out the unfiltered Kool cigarette he had been smoking.

An elderly man entered the room and spoke.

"My name is Jim Ross, and I hear y'all have been looking for me."

"Where in the heck have you been," Paul asked.

Just then the sheriff opened the office door and walked into the room. Paul didn't wait for an answer to his question.

"Floyd, guess who this is."

Paul once again didn't wait for an answer. "This man is Jim Ross."

"Well by god it's about time we found you."

"I don't know why y'all were looking for me. Did I do something wrong?"

"No," the sheriff replied. "We thought you might have been the victim of some sort of foul play."

"Nope, I've been staying in Siloam Springs and working for the Dixon Salvage Company. I've been just fine and dandy."

The three men talked for a little while longer but, eventually, Ross said he had to be going.

"Wait," Paul said. "I have to ask about the old currency. Where did you get it?"

"Well sir, I've saved ninety cents of every dollar I ever earned, and I put the money in that there cigar box for safekeeping."

Fine and Paul talked for a while after Ross left and the occasional sound of laughter could be overheard. Paul told the sheriff he would have to think about what, if anything, to do about the $100 reward money.

Stan Fine is a retired police officer and Verizon Security Department investigator who, after retiring in 2006, moved from Tampa, Fla., to Noel. Stan's connection to Noel can be traced back to his grandparents who lived most of their lives there. Stan began writing after the passing of his wife Robin in 2013. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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