"He told me I had a choice—get a job or go to jail," says Rivers. "I told him I'd love a job, but where? It just so happens, he told me, that his widowed mother was all alone on a small ranch just outside of town, and she needed help. I took the job. Then he asked me about the car. That was the last thing I wanted him to ask. I still owed the finance company $150. He said he would have to call the company and tell them. They told him to sell the car for whatever he could get and send them the money. He sold the car—he sold it to me for $50. His mother put up the money and said she'd take it out of my wages."
The ranch had two cow ponies, and here Rivers' love for animals bloomed. When he wasn't running 200 miles of trap lines or digging postholes with a pickax and coffee can, he spent his time riding one of the ponies. He attended local rodeos, attention glued to the contestants, and then he would rush home and practice what he had seen. Usually he would start with the hardest trick and work backward to the fundamentals. It was a painful way to learn. When he was 17 he said goodby to the widow and took off with a traveling rodeo. "I figured I knew as many or more tricks than the riders they had," he says.
Between rodeos, Rivers took any job he could find. By the time he was 20 he was working nights at a factory and sleeping days as a lifeguard at Carter Lake near Omaha. "I'd just climb up in the tower, put on a pair of sunglasses and snooze," he says. "If anybody had drowned, I'd have been in a lot of trouble." Once he awoke in time to spot Delma, then a 16-year-old state AAU swimming champion. They were married and a child, Butch, was soon on the way. Four more children, two boys and two girls, followed. Rivers decided that to support them he needed to put on his own shows, and he became an expert on breaking unruly thoroughbreds.
"I got all the snakes," he says. "The buckers, the biters, the rollers, the kickers. Every time I got a new one, a crowd of 100 to 150 people would come out to watch. I used to throw on an old cow pony saddle and then sneak up on them. You never knew what they were going to do. Once I got on one and he rolled over backwards. I fixed that son-of-a-gun. Before he could get up I tied his head to the saddle horn. Then I got me a big bullwhip and whaled the tar out of him. All the time the owner was standing there crying and saying I was killing his expensive horse. I said, yeah, but that snake isn't killing me! When I let that horse up he went straight to the track and won. He never rolled on anybody again. And he became a big winner. Wish I had bought him. But there's too many phonies in that sport."
The Rivers family settled for a while just outside Omaha, but in 1957 Jonny decided it was time he had a ranch of his own. At the time everything the Riverses owned was on wheels—a mobile home and two large semitractors. They headed south and wound up in Camdenton, Mo. where a friend talked Rivers into staying the winter and putting on two rodeos. He expected to move on as soon as spring arrived.
"But I got to looking around the place and it was beautiful," he says. "Right on the shores of the Lake of the Ozarks and right in the heart of the mountains. And that winter was real mild. I went around in my shirtsleeves. I told Delma, this is it, and we bought some land. That winter sure fooled me. I've been up to my hips in snow ever since."
Rivers laughs, at the snow and at most things. "I learned a long time ago it doesn't pay to be serious," he says. "Ah, people, they are a pain in the butt. Sometimes I get so sick of them I could throw up. You can tell 95% of them a whopping lie and they'll swallow it. But tell them the truth and they'll question you. Out on the road with a show, they'll ask a million asinine questions. Over and over. Finally I just stare at them, make a few funny signs and walk away. They think I'm either crazy or deaf and dumb, but they leave me alone. I guess people are just like animals; some are smart and some are idiots."
The animal idiots Rivers trades away. He spends half his waking hours trading animals. Sometimes even he gets stuck.
"I guess I know as much about a horse as any man," he says. "And all I know is that a horse has a head, a tail and four legs and any one of them has as much chance as the next. That's why I have to laugh when I see how much people pay for thoroughbreds. Some of the stuff they buy should bark. But I ain't so smart either."
Eleven years ago Rivers discovered that mules could be trained to dive from a platform into a pool of water. This has been his ace act ever since. "All you need is a lot of patience, and a big club to get their attention," he says.