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River Views

During World War I, my maternal grandmother grew up on a ranch in the sand hills above the North Platte River of Nebraska. My great-grandparents, Dennis and Mary Emily Ward, raised my mother’s mother as well as her five sisters and five brothers. The “war to end all wars” allowed them to prosper as prices for their beef cattle and wheat shot up. Not long after the armistice, Dennis Ward and his adult son, Bill, were critically injured in a wagon rollover after an automobile driver honked, spooking their horses. They lingered for more than a year, in and out of consciousness, at a nearby doctor’s office, the university hospital in Lincoln, then back home on the sand hills. Medical bills mounted to the point that Mary Emily Ward took out a loan, with the ranch as collateral.

In 1919, her 16-year-old son, Leonard, with a small number of hired hands, drove the entire Ward cattle herd southeast to the railroad at Grand Island, Nebraska. Leonard paid off the hired hands with cash his mother entrusted to him. The herd jammed into cattle cars and he traveled in the same boxcar with his horses, all the way to the stockyard in Omaha. There he received a bank draft, in his father’s name, for thousands of dollars, enough to pay the medical bills and then some.

Leonard signed his father’s name to the draft, cashed it in Omaha then set off for the city’s backroom poker halls in an effort to double or triple the money. What happened to Leonard in Omaha is not exactly clear. Suffice it to say, a banker and a law enforcement officer arrived at the Wards’ ranch one morning to ask if the signature on the draft from the Omaha stockyard was actually that of Dennis Ward. If not, the forger would be charged with a felony. In one of his final days of consciousness, Dennis Ward allowed that it was indeed his signature.

Leonard eventually made his way home, pockets empty. First Bill then his father lapsed into comas and died. By 1920, the ranch was auctioned off and most of the family moved to a homestead in Hamlin Valley, Utah. A southwestern corner of that state so desolate one member of the family described the locale as a place where, “Even jackrabbits carry canteens.”

Three of my great uncles labored in mines along the Nevada-Utah state line. In their spare time they branded so-called maverick calves then dug a makeshift basement beneath their widowed mother’s cabin and constructed a homemade still. They sold enough moonshine to cowboys and sheepherders to attract the attention of federal revenue agents. The first one ran off after being told a tale about a rattlesnake den near the still. A sympathetic local deputy suggested that the moonshine and maverick business wouldn’t do in the long run. So, in 1924, those three great uncles (not Leonard — he went into rodeo) found “legitimate” work in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Most of the work was in construction, but one of the great uncles soon found himself head man of an irrigation district. Many of my maternal relatives followed them to those environs where their descendants have found further gainful employment over the years.

* Update on more modern legal matters: Frankie the pit bull is out of the county animal care and control shelter, in a safe, yet anonymous new home. His former owner has also been released from jail after his most recent encounter with law enforcement.

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