When I was younger, nature was something I took for granted. It was eternal in rain and green grass and the fox’s scream. My great-grandparents owned a place called Bull’s Creek Ranch. It sat on both sides of the river and was about 4,000 acres. Over the years my grandfather sold off much of the ranch and when he was down to the last section, the depression hit and he couldn’t pay his debts, so the bank auctioned off what was left of the land. It went for about four dollars an acre.
My father was little when the final sale occurred. For him it was the death of all that he knew and cherished. No more would he run his dogs along the river in search of coons. The fox, squirrel and bobwhite hunts also came to an end. The family moved to town and he fell in with the town boys who liked candy and spent most of their time at the soda shop and pool hall. He liked it alright and worked at the soda shop and became a good pool player, but it was not the same as going down to the river everyday to check his trot lines or walking in the hills to search for a good spot to build a fire and sleep under the stars.
During the war he came home badly wounded. Somehow he and my mother survived. Years of operations and moving from one military hospital to the next, but eventually he recovered. My father got a job and saved his money to buy a small part of our family’s old place. He managed to get five acres on a hill overlooking the river. There were oak trees, cedar, scrub brush of various types, lots of rocks, deer, quail, and squirrels. It even had an old Indian camp with arrow heads and bones from the Comanche days.
We would go to our five acres every summer and set up tents and cots beneath one of the older oaks. My father would dig a deep hole and drop in two or three blocks of ice and cover them with a blanket. He would seal the hole with a piece of plywood and there was our refrigerator. We’d put meat, milk, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese inside and the cold storage would last a week and then we’d put more blocks of ice down into the hole. He said the hole was just about as deep as a grave, but instead of dead things in there, we were keeping things fresh and alive. Not all graves were bad, he told us. Some graves were really quite good.
In the evening as the sun went down, we’d sit there and look out over the river bottom, the little canyons and hills. We would imagine that all of the land we could see was ours, just like it used to be. As the firelight reddened, my father would tell us stories about the land. There was the Wild Man and the Hand at the Door. There were the ghosts walking up from Bull’s Creek Cemetery. We could see my father running with his dogs, fishing, shooting squirrel, killing water moccasins and rattle snakes. We’d watch our grandfather dive into the river to recover bodies of people who had drowned during the floods. Always there were the visions of men on horses riding down other men and stringing them up. There were the black slaves, the Comanche, Mexicans, the deserters, the regulators employed by the vigilante groups, and then there were my great-grandparents. We could see their large rock ranch house in the distance, now lit up with electricity.
Over the years we would come to understand our great-grandfather was a hard man. He was one of the vigilantes. He kept slaves and mistreated my great-grandmother. She blamed him for the death of one of their sons and she could never forgive him, so she divorced him and moved to San Antonio. She ran a livery stable. My grandfather was a drunk, whoremonger, and gambler. My grandmother divorced him, but she let him move back in when he lost one of his legs while working for the railroads. Eventually he got gangrene and died. My father was wounded in the leg on Saipan and when they told him they would have to amputate his leg, he asked to please let him die. He was not going to lose his leg like his father.
And so I grew up on the river, caught in its flow, listening to the sounds that would come from the trees and the wind, the howl and fighting of animals in the distance, the rustle of the birds settling down for the night, the crickets and the cicadas, the thunder far way, the telling of the tales over firelight. All a part of nature and I knew that it would last forever and be mine. My mother and father, hearts in love, would always be alive. But that was not true and everything is lost or faded now and there are fewer and fewer who know this story and when my sisters and I are gone, it will be ended, as if none of it ever happened upon this beloved earth.