The Lesleys are outlaws. This morning 9/11, my half brother Ormand was scheduled to go on trial for three felony counts in Grant County, Oregon. (If you don't know where that is, find Pendleton — where they make the blankets — and follow the roadmap 110 miles south to John Day.) Of course, 9/11 is infamous and the sheriff's department was trying to make out as though Ormand is Grant County's terrorist. "Them cops are just messin' with my head," he told me.
Ormand getting caught is an exception to the Lesleys' outlaw prowess. My father settled in Grant County after World War Two because the law was so lax. He hunted, fished, trapped, cut government timber on Forest Service land — all with impunity and out of season.
If he caught something in season, it was merely coincidence. And he was never caught — not once. His hunting skills were the stuff of legend. One time, he killed five elk with five shots. I never believed that story until I heard it from several sources. He never paid attention to seasons. "When I'm walking or driving, I'm hunting," he said.
Even more remarkable, strong rumors circulate that he "did in" one of his gold mining partners. However, even though the body was never found, no one really came after my father because his partner was a known swindler who'd bilked a lot of people in Oregon and Nevada.
The IRS came looking for the missing man and so did the insurance company because he had a small policy. Later, my father "took up" with his partner's daughter.
In some ways Burning Fence is about the struggles we have learning to love those in our lives who are the most difficult to love. For me, that's my father. He returned from the war a hero with a chest full or medals, but he didn't want the reposibility of a family, so he took off for Grant County when I was less than a year old. I never saw him or heard from him until I was 15 and lay dying in a two-bit hospital after being run over by a peppermint chopper (a wicked piece of farm equipment similar to a corn chopper). He had come to pay his last respects, and when Iwas conscious enough to see him sitting there beside the bed, I thought I had died and gone to the bad place. He was chewing Juicy Fruit gum, and the smell made me realize I was still stuck in this one.
I remember the first words I ever heard him speak. He sized me up — all casts, traction devices, and bandages. "I heard you was playing 'Chicken' with a mint chopper. From the look of it, I'd say you lost."
To everyone's surprise, I recovered. I lived with my mother, the real heroine of the book. On a secretary's salary, she fed and clothed me, rented small places on the wrong side of the tracks. She insisted I work hard in school and go to college. I got the point. After the mint chopper accident, I didn't want anything more to do with ranches or machinery.
Ormand wasn't as lucky. For the most part, he grew up with my father who never once bought Ormand a pair of new shoes. Ormand was a size 14 triple E by the time he reached puberty, and always had to wear hand-me-downs. when he complained that the shoes hurt his feet, my father told him, "You've got to break them in." The first new footwear Ormand got was from the Marines, an outfit that suited him pretty well because he was a great marksman, like my father, and never got lost in the wilds.
Ormand's first career was as a hit man, a task for which the Marine training was excellent. North Carolina had numerous strip joints and massage parlors to satisfy the urges of the young soldiers and Ormand worked as an enforcer for one of the owners. Later, he received a call from God to be a minister, so he changed careers. I've always wondered what a hit man/minister ordered his victims to do. "REPENT FAST, SINNER" followed by a shotgun blast or the crack of a pistol. Ormand used both.
So back to the beginning. Ormand facing those three felony charges, not for murder, but for reckless driving (a blackout brought on by prescription painkillers, cheap bourbon, and marijuana), leaving the scene of an accident, failure to provide aid at the scene of an accident. Well, remember, I'm writing about Grant County, where everone's related and no one was ever convicted of murder until 1996 when a logger beat a cop to death with a table leg.
Rather than waste taxpayer's time and money at a trial, Ormand pled guilty to the three counts and walked away with "time served."
"But you can't own or carry a firearm if you're convicted of a felony," I told him in a phone conversation we had when he told me about pleading out. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized how ridiculous they were.
"As long as I stay in Grant County, I'll be fine," Ormand said. "God has spread the table with his bounty for us to enjoy."
Books mentioned in this post
Craig Lesley is the author of Burning Fence: A Western Memoir of Fatherhood