On a winter night in Montana my father slept handcuffed to a horse thief named Star Nash. It happened this way.

Star Nash stole two horses, saddles, blankets and silver spurs from a farmer near Malta, Mont. He rode north across the prairie toward Canada. Valley County Deputy Sheriff Alfred Harden, my grandfather, a blacksmith and farmer who was the law in the mid-1920s in that desolate northeast corner of Montana, took off alone on horseback after him.

Through prairie coulees choked with snow, Alfred Harden tracked the horse thief up to the Canadian border. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police spooked Nash down out of Saskatchewan, and my grandfather got the drop on him in a farmhouse near the border. While Nash was eating breakfast, my grandfather advised him to put his hands up and said his end had come.

The nearest jail was in Glasgow, 60 miles south, too far away to reach on horseback in one day in the freezing cold. So the deputy sheriff brought the horse thief home to his wife and eight kids. They all lived in a three-room shack in a Montana farm village called Glentana. My grandfather handcuffed Nash to his oldest boy, Arno, then 15, and told them to go to bed.

"I wasn't scared," recalls Arno Harden, 71 years old and my father. "There was nothing to be scared of. He couldn't hurt me. Hell, I was just a kid. I went right to sleep. I don't know if Star Nash slept or not."

My father told me the horse-thief story this summer at a reunion of the Harden family in Moses Lake, a farm town in the sagebrush country of eastern Washington State. Just to make sure I'd believe him, he found in a closet somewhere one of the spurs that Star Nash had stolen nearly 55 years ago.

He spun the spur's silver rowel as he told me stories about hard times -- ruined crops, drought, abandonment of the Montana homestead. In the summer of 1932, my father said, he left home for a farm job near Great Falls, Mont., and when the summer was over his father sent him a letter telling him not to come back to Glentana because there was no food. The Great Depression and drought had destroyed Montana's economy. My father said he had no place to go, so he hopped a boxcar and rode west.

They were stories I'd ignored when I lived with my parents in Washington State. I remember rolling my eyes at the breakfast table when my father told me and my younger sister that "you kids don't know what work is." One winter, me and my brother Alfred Harden hauled coal lignite 20 miles round trip with four head of horses. This was terrible. A bad winter. Seemed like every draw you came to there were horses dead, standing up frozen to death. That winter we had a twine strung from the house to the barn. There were days when we could see only futilely, and we suffered very badly from frostbite. -- From the memoirs of my great-uncle Claude Harden.

By the 1950s and 1960s, when I was growing up, my father had pushed his way into working-class prosperity. He was a welder, making top wages as a member of the Plumbers & Pipe Fitters Union. With his union buddies, he commuted in big air-conditioned cars from Moses Lake to construction projects at Grand Coulee Dam and Hanford atomic works. I can't remember ever feeling poor, and I never cared to find out what poverty had meant to my father and his family.

My future, not my father's past, interested me. I took his money and went to college, then to graduate school and to a job as a reporter for a newspaper out East. Although my parents and relatives kept asking me, whenever I flew home, why I didn't go to dinner with Jane Pauley or John Chancellor or David Brinkley, they did seem impressed with my writing job in Washington, D.C. They indulged me. At family suppers, as the small-town boy done good in the big city, I always did a lot of talking.

This summer, at the age of 30, I went home to listen. The first-ever Harden family reunion drew together 160 of us Hardens whose connections with each other had been attenuated by time and our frenzy to move away in search of success. Middle-class prosperity, too, had broken the economic ties that for the first 40 years of this century forced members of my family to depend on one another. The reunion, for three days, allowed the older Hardens to turn back the clock on their progress, to remember a past when they knew and needed each other. Boxing every Sunday. That's what we did in Montana. All a bunch of us guys, my brothers and dad's brothers would get together and we'd ride steers, cows and then we'd box. My brother Albert was the best, he was scienced. Once there was a guy who came to visit a neighbor of ours in Glentana. This guy was an ex-boxer. He was trained, you know. This guy wanted to put the gloves on with us, see. It was Albert's turn, and he had to box him. So this guy was beginning to slap Albert around pretty good. Albert got tired of it and let him have one. He knocked the guy over the slop bucket and clean outside. We were boxing in the neighbor's house. -- Reminiscences of my father, Arno Harden.

Family reunions, especially large gatherings of distant relatives who have trouble remembering each other's names, are curious affairs. I didn't pick the people who came to our reunion; they didn't pick me. Neither shared interests nor shared tastes brought most of us together. What united us relative strangers was something in the blood. We could not simply dismiss each other. Whether the reunion delighted, disgusted or bored us, we were reflections of each other. For probably the only time in our lives we had the chance to look at 160 variations on our own genetic theme.

There was no mistaking the genetic kinship. Hardens have a distinctive dark-skinned, lean-framed, big-nosed look. The men stand about six feet tall; about half of them go bald. If not for their noses, some of my uncles and cousins would look at home in Marlboro ads. The family is of Scotch, English and Danish blood. (The only part of the Harden look that I inherited, unfortunately, is the nose. I look like my mother, a fair-skinned Norwegian.)

Surrounded by more of my kin than I had ever seen in one place before, I felt compelled to find out what (other than my name and my nose) I had in common with these people. I badgered my older relatives with questions about their past. When the reunion was over I went out to Montana to the land that the Hardens had tried to homestead. Hardens of my grandfather's generation, I found out, were part of one of the last ill-fated waves of pioneers in the American West. Sixty-eight years ago they wagered their future on free federal land in the Godforsaken Montana prairie. They lost the wager.

My family descends from a bunch of farmers--wanderers with little education and even less money--who lost their homesteads but managed to survive four decades of hard times because they stuck together as family.

The Hardens were victim to one of America's last great land busts. They were lured into eastern Montana, to brutal winters and poor soil, by false promises and their own gullibility. Some of them died -- doctors were scarce and sometimes incompetent. But most moved on, in trucks and cars stuffed with battered furniture and wide-eyed children -- to Canada and to Washington State.

In their failure and migration west, the Hardens were a large and extraordinaily close-knit family. My great-grandfather, Elvin Eldorado (pronounced El-doe-ray-doe) Harden, had seven sons and two daughters. Eldorado's children, in turn, had 49 children, one of whom is my father. Until Eldorado died in Montana in 1919 (of a misdiagnosed bowel obstruction) all the Hardens lived on homesteads that were within shouting distance of each other. They gambled together and played baseball and fought at local dances. They delivered each other's babies and buried each other's dead. Together, they built sod shacks, harvested meager crops and sent their children out to gather cow chips off the prairie for cooking fuel. Children, then, didn't sass their parents. When my father told you do something, you better do it. If you didn't do it, he'd give you a goddamn good lickin', that's what he'd do. Sure, I got a lickin', quite a few. I got a lickin' for teasing my little brother Reno. See, my brother Albert and I was out in the barn milkin' cows, early in the morning about 6 o'clock. And Reno, he came out there. So we told him to go up into the hay mound and pull down feed for the horses while we was milkin' the cows. But Reno was just horsin' around, so I don't know what the hell, me or Albert kicked him in the hind-end. Then he started crying and Dad came in around that time, and we got a damn good beating. He used a razor strap most of the time, but that particular day he gave us a lickin' with a piece of wood. -- Reminiscences of Arno Harden.

The Hardens who showed up in Moses Lake for the reunion this past July were hardly the impoverished close-knit family that fled the prairie in the 1920s and 1930s. Some showed up in 35-foot air-conditioned RVs with "Have A Nice Day" bumper stickers. Others came in rented cars with super-saver airline tickets in their luggage. It was hard to believe we were just one generation removed from pioneers who lived in sod shacks.

Hardens arrived from Swan Valley and Seattle, Moose Jaw and Los Angeles, Fir Mountain and Sioux City. There were farmers and construction workers, an insurance adjuster and a school custodian, a highway engineer and an oil pipeline foreman, a dentist and a hockey promoter.

The Hardens who'd migrated to Canada talked differently than the American breed. They said "oot" for out, "aboot" for about and punctuated their chitchat with "ay," as in "That was a good feed, ay."

Like the members of many large American families, many of us were either faded memories or total strangers to each other. We kept forgetting each other's names, home towns and how we were related.

Little Teddy Samuelson, 7 years old, from Penticton, British Columbia, came up to me one night at the reunion and asked: "Are you my uncle or what?"

What had brought the Hardens together, before this reunion, was death. My grandfather, the one-time deputy sheriff, was dead, as were five of his six brothers: Earl, Claude, Johnny, Paul and Armstead. After a funeral two years ago, several relatives decided that the Hardens should meet and do something other than grieve.

For three days we rented the Grange hall at the Grant County fairgrounds on the north side of Moses Lake, and we did very little grieving. We ate 90 dozen eggs, 52 pounds of bacon, 80 pounds of potatoes, 130 pounds of ham and beef and uncounted pies, cakes and cookies. We drank six kegs of beer, delivered personally by my cousin Neal Harden, who drives a beer truck.

We played poker nearly around the clock. Two regulars at the table were Big Myrt and Little Myrt--so designated more than 25 years ago by Hardens who wanted to keep straight two cousins named Myrtle. At the poker table, however, the nicknames were confusing. Big Myrt, in recent years, has lost weight while Little Myrt has gained.

We also played horseshoes, softball, Frisbee and volleyball. One of my volleyball-playing cousins-in-law refused to take off either his cowboy boots or his Stetson.

In the course of the eating and drinking and ball playing, I often caught myself staring too long at unknown relatives, wondering what it meant, if anything, that we were kin. Surprisingly, they didn't seem to mind. I was Arno Harden's boy, clearly no stranger. They returned my gaze with smiles.

Don Hoerster, my cousin the dentist from Seattle, showed up at the reunion with silver- toed boots, a prominent toupee and a taste for whiskeether y. I first noticed him telling one of my female cousins that he couldn't be expected to talk to any lady he hadn't kissed. On Saturday afternoon, my mother spotted Don and went over to compliment his hairdo. She grabbed a handful of thick brown pompadour, said "Where'd you get this nice hair?" and, to her horror, discovered it coming off in her hand. Don laughed, my mother blushed, and I was warned to keep the toupee affair out of the newspaper.

Saturday night we danced in the Grange until 2 a.m. to the country music of Ron Hampton and his Union Renegades. It was the kind of family dance that my father grew up attending in Montana -- if you don't dance with your mother, you're in trouble.

My Aunt Louella, a former hairdresser and potato plant worker in Moses Lake, danced with her son Russell, who works for State Farm Insurance in Seattle. It was hard to tell who was prouder of whom. Aunt Laura, 82, the oldest Harden at the reunion, danced rock-and-roll style with her great-nephews. My father danced with my sister. I danced with my mother.

For a few hours in the Grange that night, steeped in country music and encircled by the beatific smiles of the older relatives in folding chairs, all us Hardens seemed to have more in common than just a name. I would say there was 400 people riding that train when I jumped on in Great Falls. Everybody was riding a boxcar those days, women, doctors, lawyers and everything else. There was a lot of good guys. Nothing wrong with them. The were just going someplace, trying to find some work. The train stopped at Glacier National Park to take on water and coal. It was snowing, colder than hell, and there was a farmhouse down below us, see. Two of these guys in my boxcar went down and stole all the horse blankets out of this farmer's barn. I was scared someone was going to throw us all off the train. But no one did. I had three blankets with me. -- Reminiscences of Arno Harden.

My father rode a boxcar to Washington State in 1932. My grandfather gave up on Montana a few months later and, with nine of his family packed in a 1928 Oldsmobile, drove west. To go back to where they came from I flew east from Washington State in a half-empty Northwest Orient Airlines jet, drinking orange juice and eating "nut mix." The reunion was over, and I'd learned all I could from the Hardens who'd shown up. I needed to see the land.add

In Billings, Mont., I switched to Big Sky airlines, flew north to Glasgow and rented a car. I drove in the late afternoon toward the Canadian border. The countryside was a vast, treeless prairie. It had been, until 1870, buffalo country. Now, there were wheat fields and pasture land and miles upon miles of emptiness. The famous Montana sky-- limitless, streaked with red clouds--lorded over the prairie. In 11/2 hours of driving on a two-lane highway, I passed two cars. Both drivers waved.

I drove into Saskatchewan, through customs at the Port of Opheim, to the farm of my cousin Johnny Harden, about 11 miles north of the border. I'd called ahead to Johnny, a farmer and cattleman, who had promised to drive me out to the Harden homesteads. He is one of the few Hardens still alive who knows how to find the homesteads.

I'd never met Johnny before driving up to his farmhouse, but he and his family smothered me with hospitality. For three days, they fed me and showed off their stunningly empty dry-farming country where the children go 60 miles to school and Johnny's wife, Beryl, drives 70 miles to shop for groceries.

When Johnny's father, Claude Harden, my grandfather's brother, abandoned his homestead in Montana in 1920, he went north of the border and homesteaded again. Although the Depression briefly forced him to leave that Canadian land, Claude never gave up his ownership--unlike all the Hardens in Montana who moved west. Johnny, 49, the youngest of Claude's nine children, worked side by side with his father until Claude died last year at the age of 90. Now, Johnny owns a prosperous 4,450-acre farm, which includes his father's original Canadian homestead.

On the morning of my second day in Saskatchewan, in Johnny's Ford pickup, we drove down to Montana in search of my grandfather's homestead. Johnny's mother my great-aunt Pauline Harden, 85, rode with us.

The mother of nine and matriarch of a family of 196, Pauline is an imperturbable white-haired woman who came to the United States from Denmark when she was 16. She helped homestead four farms, two with her parents and two with her husband, Claude. When doctors weren't around on the Montana homestead, she helped her relatives deliver babies. She tied my Aunt Ellen's navel. Pauline, in a family that takes pride in creative profanity, is known to have cursed only once: when a goat butted her while she was bent over working in a garden. She's hard of hearing and doesn't see well, but her memory is sharp.

South of the Canadian line we turned west, driving through roadless open prairie, searching for the ruts from roads that hadn't been used regularly for nearly 60 years. It had been a wet spring in northeast Montana, and the summer prairie grass was green and high.

"The grass was just as it is now when we came out here in 1914," Pauline said. "There was needle grass to no end in those days. It was two feet high. Claude and Alfred and the other Harden boys saw that grass and they figured it was good country for growing feed."

The Harden boys -- Claude (Pauline's husband) and my grandfather Alfred--came to the Montana grasslands from Bowbells, N.D., where their father, Eldorado, had failed to make a living as a farmer and where none of them had owned any land. Claude, in memoirs he dictated to his son Johnny shortly before his death, described arriving 68 years ago on this same land.

"The weather was real nice. The grass was green, birds were around singing. We all got a half-section of land (320 acres), Paul, Johnny, Joe, Alfred (his brothers) and myself and dad. The land all joined. It really laid nice, grass to the horses' knees."

The Harden boys, as it turned out, were wrong about the land. It was infertile -- gumbo and alkali and not enough rain. In their gullibility, however, the Hardens weren't alone. More than 100,000 pioneers were lured to Montana homesteads between 1900 and 1918, primarily through railroad advertisements and promotional campaigns that trumpeted good free farm land. Nature, too, deceived the pioneers. From 1909 to 1916, there was abnormally abundant rainfall in northeast Montana, perfectly timed for growing wheat.

Great Falls journalist Joseph Kinsey Howard, writing in 1940, described the homesteader of my grandfather's generation as "swarming into a hostile land: duped when he started, robbed when he arrived."

Claude Harden, in his memoirs, agreed that he was duped. Back in North Dakota in 1914, when he told his boss, who ran a stable, that he was going after free land, the boss warned him: "'Claude, you are crazy. You will go to Montana and you will starve to death.' Boy, was he right. It was one of the biggest mistakes of my life."

Jolting around on the rain-rutted range in Johnny's pickup we startled a herd of nearly 40 antelope. We also saw coyote, sage hens, jackrabbits, owls and hundreds of gophers on land that has been owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management since the homesteaders moved on. It took Johnny and Pauline nearly four hours of searching to find my grandfather's homestead.

"This is Alfred's place," Pauline finally said to Johnny, ordering him to stop the pickup and pointing to a hole in the ground overgrown with grass, bordered by a rock foundation. Like all the Harden homesteads, the shack was long since destroyed.

In the hours we spent looking for this hole in the ground, I'd grown silent with anticipation. It was disappointing to find so little: the sun-bleached shoulder blade of a cow, a bed spring, a rusted nail. Pauline picked up a curlicued piece of iron that she said was part of my grandmother's sewing machine.

Rusted junk was all that remained of the site where my grandfather built a three-room, wood-frame house in 1917, where my father had played as a little boy in bare feet and overalls, where my grandmother gave birth to a stillborn child. He is buried nearby in a grave that has been lost.

Around us, for as far as we could see from the little knoll my grandfather had chosen to build on, there was not a building or a tree. Nothing but a few low hills to the north and the overbearing blue sky. It was hard to believe that anyone would take this land, even for free.

"Lookey, here," Johnny said, interrupting the silence in which we'd been picking over the detritus of our family's past. "Here's the old stove top. Boy, you know, this is where you need a goldarn metal detector."

Johnny had brought along his videotape camera -- an incongruous gadget in homestead country -- and he taped Pauline as she told me about how the Hardens lived on this land. The summer wind, which blows constantly in the Montana flatlands, was bedeviling Pauline's transistorized hearing aids. So she turned them off and spoke real loud.

"I'll tell you an exciting thing about your father," she said. "Alfred, your grandfather, was gone to town one day and your grandmother, Alma, was down at the creek with the cows. Your father, he must of been 6 years old, came running over to my homestead about a quarter of a mile from here. He said his sister was sick. He said: 'Pauline, Pauline, come quick. I think Louella's guts are coming out.'u8"

Pauline said she ran over to the house to find that Luella, an infant, had swallowed some string and was cheerfully pulling it up out of her stomach.

Out in front of Eldorado's homestead, which was nearby, Pauline said the Hardens held dances. "My brother would play the accordian and Eldorado would play the organ. In those days we made our own entertainment. We made our own happiness."

There was, however, precious little happiness on the Harden homesteads. In six years of farming, not one of them had a decent crop. Claude Harden recalled "it seemed that once the grass was ate off (by cattle) it never grew back." In 1919, the most calamitous year in the history of Montana, a killing drought descended on the state. There were dust storms and grasshoppers and cutworms. More than 60,000 farmers gave up on Montana. In the next five years, 11,000 farms, 20 percent of the state's total, were abandoned. In that year, Eldorado Harden died.

"Eldorado told us, 'Let's stay another year. Maybe it will rain.' But when he died everyone scattered," Pauline said.

They took off to Canada, where many of them stayed until the Depression sent them west. My grandfather came back to Montana to farm and become a deputy sheriff, but he, too, lost out to drought and the Depression.

"I still maintain that if one of the Hardens would have stuck it out around here," said Johnny, as we drove away from the homestead in his pickup, "he would have ended up owning this whole damn country."

At the reunion a few days earlier, my father said the same thing. But I doubt he meant it. He was toying with the silver spur that Star Nash stole, yielding to nostalgia.

I invited my father to come out to Montana to look at the homestead with me. Although he hadn't been back to it since childhood, he declined, choosing instead to go salmon fishing in western Washington with relatives who'd come to the reunion.

After seeing the Montana land my family had given up on, I didn't blame him for going fishing. Romantic memories of that unforgiving country are better than the real thing. My father didn't come back with me because he'd already served his time. He has the memories. He tended cattle in prairie blizzards with 40-below- zero winds. He rode a boxcar west when he was all alone and desperate for work. He slept handcuffed to a horse thief named Star Nash.