My Great-great Grandpa Gray had a big ranch in Eastern Oregon. That part of Oregon is high desert country. It’s wide open, and wild, and beautiful in a rugged, desert way. Various members of Grandpa Gray’s family ran the ranch–sons, cousins, second-cousins all took part in rounding up and branding the cattle, milking the cows, planting and harvesting the alfalfa, and maintaining the ranch buildings and equipment. This was the story my dad was invited into as a boy, in the years before and during World War II.
This particular story is one of dad’s favorites. He was eight years old. This is how he tells it:
“Terry had returned to the ranch for a Marine furlough. I came down from Portland after school was out on the Trailways bus It was a long trip, maybe five hours. Mom and dad stayed in Portland. I think it was spring of 1940.
I looked forward to roundup and branding, because I could help by scouting the arroyos on horseback for strays and playing ‘gofer’ for the men, with some time off to fish in the Deschutes and Crooked Rivers, hunt prairie dogs and jackrabbits and climb some of the cliffs in the area. Of course, there was shocking-hay5 cleaning the cistern, milking the two cows and other not-so-fun stuff.
Early one very cold but clear morning, we rose and saddled up to ‘ride fence’. Colleen, Terry’s sister, had other stuff to do, so we took off.
The cattle fence was more than 20 miles long on the southeast/east boundary of the ranch. We had the usual fence repair tools along–thick gloves, special pliers made for cutting and twisting the barbed wire, fence tacks, a hammer, an axe, and a roll of barbed wire. We set out and after not too long a time Terry spotted a herd of antelope, about 15 of them, on this side of the fence and about half a mile away. They were heading away from us into a waterhole depression that was fed by snow melt from the mountains several miles away. As they disappeared, Terry said “Let’s see how close we can get.” We rode a ways further and then got off and walked the horses to a small ridge-top overlooking the waterhole. We stayed below the crest and out of sight.
Terry said quietly “If they ain’t seen us, let’s ride over the hill fast as we can.” My heart was beating fast as we climbed quietly back into our saddles, kicked the horses into a full gallop and fairly flew over the ridge and down into the depression.
We landed almost immediately in the center of the herd. We were as surprised as they were. We pulled up and you could see the panicked surprise in their eyes. They bleated and jumped straight up in the air, two or three foot jumps for what seemed like a minute, but was probably only a few seconds. Then they took off as if they’d been shot from a gun, ran the fifty yards to the next ridge top and flew over the top and out of sight. Once they decided to run rather than jump up and down they were gone in seconds. We crept up to the top of the ridge and looked around. No sign of them–no dust, no nothing in any direction, except miles of sagebrush and buckbrush and small trees. We rode away from the ridge in kind of a right-handed circular motion around the location of the water hole. Nothing. No movement. The only sound was the soft wind rustling the stiff grass across the prairie.
Terry looked back at the ridge over which we had chased the antelope. He said, something like “Chrissake! Looky there!
On top of the ridge was the whole herd, not three-hundred feet away, bleating and jumping up and down. We could hear and see them they were so close! After a minute or so of this, as we watched, they just turned around and walked into the waterhole depression. I looked up at Terry–the look in his eyes said ‘the fun is over, it’s time to get back to work.’ Terry was 6’7” tall, and wasn’t a man you argued with.
It was obvious to me that we were being invited into a game of “catch us if you can.” I’ve wondered about it ever since–especially when I hear the song that begins “Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam, and the deer and the antelope play…” And though I rode fence many more times over the years, I never saw antelope jump up in the air and bleat like they did that day.
Terry told this story to Uncle Roy and his son, Willis and I could see Willis thinking to himself ‘These guy have to be storytelling! Or maybe they’re just plain nuts!’ No matter what he thought about it, he and Uncle Roy and Terry told that story to everyone in the county, I think.”
I begin to understand why I love the desert and wide open spaces. What stories from your family have affected you in ways you don’t yet realize? Ask your Dad, or Mom, or Grandpa, or Uncle Bob–you’ll be surprised at the response, and will probably be glad that you did.
Learn your stories. Tell your stories.