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One Gillette
Joe Brown became a cowboy when he was 8. He was young, and it showed. His first day on the job, he worked barefoot and bareheaded, with just a can of tomatoes and six saltines in his belly. He learned a lot of lessons on that initial ride, including one about razor blades.

An Essay by J.P.S. Brown


portfolio picture
© Chris Gall

In the year 1938, Roy Adams, Herb Cunningham and Wirt Bowman were partners with Viv Brown in the ABC Cattle Co. of Nogales. Viv Brown was my pappy. I was 8 years old, and the ABCs offered me a wage to cowboy for them. One day after school, as an advance against my pay, Viv took me to Bracker’s department store in Nogales and outfitted me with a hat, boots, canvas trousers and a work shirt. That spring, my duty would be to help the ABCs drive steers from the railroad pens in Nogales, Sonora, to the Baca Float Ranch on the Arizona side of the border.

The next Saturday, my granny, Maude Sorrells, and I returned to our home on the Tucson Road from a double-feature movie in Nogales and found my horse, Pancho, had been returned to his pasture. I’d left him in the remuda of Cabezon Woodell’s cowboys in the Sierra de San Juan of Mexico when my pappy brought me home from there to put me back in school.

Pancho had grown into much of a horse. My mom told me that Uncle Buster Sorrells had met the remuda in Nogales, Sonora, and hauled him with a supply of hay and grain back to his pasture behind our house. I had not yet worn my new outfit, but I began to ride Pancho every day so he’d be ready for work.

Pancho needed to be calmed down. He had a new way of showing the whites of his eyes when he looked at people, as though anxious about the burden someone might load on him, or about some wild thing with horns and hooves that he might have to jump out and overtake.

One day, as I filled his water tub with a hose, we both looked up and saw the heads and horns of a herd come around the Nogales curve on the Tucson Road. Boy, we couldn’t let anything like that go by. I bridled Pancho, jumped barefoot on his bare back and rode to the front of my granny’s house to keep the herd off her lawn and flower beds.

Roy Adams and Viv came along in a pickup behind the drags. Felix Johnson, Manuel Valenzuela, Uncle Buster, my cousin Grover Kane, Bud Parker and George Kimbrough made up the horseback crew that drove the herd of 1,800 Mexican steers.

After the herd passed Granny’s house, I rode in behind the drags. Viv and Roy stopped the pickup in the shade of an Alamo tree and called me and Felix for lunch.

“Where you been, boy?” Viv asked and feigned an abrupt and unsmiling way. He always knew where I could be found. He asked the question because anybody could see I was in heaven right then and he should have come for me and Pancho before the drive began.

“I been waiting,” I said.

He pointed to a pile of bread, crackers, jam, cheese, sardines and Vienna sausages and said, “Better have lunch, now.”

I jumped down and took an open can of tomatoes, a spoon and some soda crackers, and squatted underneath Pancho to eat. Canned tomatoes could be meat and drink to me, anytime. Pancho stood over me, dozed, switched his tail, breathed on the top of my head and poked me on the back of the neck with his whiskers.

I knew a craving or two. I loved canned tomatoes but did not crave them. I loved my godmother’s pan de huevo, a sweet roll, with café con leche — coffee and hot milk with plenty of sugar — but they did not stretch the cords of my being to satisfy a craving. However, I absolutely craved to cowboy on Pancho with Viv Brown and did not even think of meat or drink when I could do that.

On that drive to the Baca Float, I rode in the drags beside Felix Johnson. Felix was cranky. He’d been with the herd since it was driven off the mountain from Cabezon Woodell’s camp at La Morita in the Sierra de San Juan. After the herd was cut and culled, the steers and remuda had been paid for by the ABCs, loaded on the train in Magdalena and hauled to Nogales. Felix hired on with the new owners and rode the caboose to the Nogales, Sonora, embarcadero pens. He was cranky because his pocket was full of money and he needed a clean, new outfit to wear, especially a new hat. The old hat he wore out of Mexico had been soaked clear through many times by rain, snowed on, scraped off his head in the brush, messed on, and trampled in the cattle cars. He wanted to look good again, and his No. 1 requirement for that was a new hat, a deep bath and a change of brand-new, clean clothes.

He had just finished telling me all about it when Viv and Roy drove up close behind the herd again. Roy told me to give him my horse and board the truck with Viv. I stepped off, and he swung aboard Pancho. His legs were so long that his feet almost dragged the ground. I climbed into the pickup beside my pappy, smelled his sweat and watched Roy laugh and joke with Felix about his derelict hat. We could see that he enjoyed riding up close to a herd in the dust again, even though he wore a new three-piece suit of clothes and a necktie with his $50 hat and $50 boots.

“Now, Highpockets, are you ready to go on with us and put in a full day’s work today?” Viv asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“What kind of wages do you get?”

“You know I never get paid wages.”

“From now on, when you work for me, you get paid. How’s that?”

“Good, I guess.”

“Oh, you guess it’s good? Well, I’m glad. What kind of money do you have to have?”

“I don’t know.”

“How old are you, son, 8, and you still don’t know how much you’re worth?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you care?”

“I haven’t thought about it.”

“Well, think. What are you worth?”

“I’ll help as a favor to you, like always,” I said.

“Well, son, somebody else might not want to pay you because you’re little, but not me. You’ll be paid $10 for each drive. Five dollars of it will be to help drive the saddle horses from the Baca Float to Nogales, Sonora, the day before every drive. You’ll get another $5 to drive the cattle the 10 miles to the Baca Float the next day. How’s that?”

“Fine.”

“OK, and as a bonus, you’ll own Pancho after we’ve shipped all the cattle to their summer ranges.”

“Pancho’s already mine.” I thought he’d been mine when I left him in the Sierra de San Juan, but I guessed the ABCs had bought him with all of Cabezon’s livestock.

“No, he belongs to the ABCs. He’s been yours to ride all your life, but cowboys don’t ordinarily own the horses they use. We’ll give you Pancho if you make a hand, but from now on, you’ll have to take him home to feed and water when he’s not working for the company, and you’ll have to save your money to do that.”

I didn’t know what to say next.

“Right now, we need you to make us a cowboy,” Viv said.

“That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” I said.

“Well, what if you grow up to be a banker?”

“I don’t think that’ll happen.”

Viv laughed. “How would you know, young squirt? By the way Wirt Bowman, our banker partner, wears his hat?”

“By that, and by the way he waves his empty hands at cattle in the pens when he tries to help turn them, and by his other funny-looking clothes.”

“How about the way you’re dressed? If boots and a hat made a cowboy, you’d sure come up short today. Where’s the outfit I bought you so you’d be ready to go to work when I needed you?”

“I didn’t know the herd was coming until I saw it. I couldn’t have made a hand if I’d waited to saddle my horse and change outfits.”

“Well, we need Wirt Bowman, too. He finds us the money we need. What were you doing when you saw us coming?”

“Watering Pancho.”

“Well, has this helped you understand something about working for wages?”

“Yes.”

“Let me tell you, to make sure. Not everybody who dresses like a cowboy is one. Not everybody who isn’t dressed like a cowboy isn’t one. Not everything a man says he owns is always his. If you want to be a cowboy and do the work, you better wear the outfit. If you want to do a man’s work, you’ve got to wear boots so you can keep your feet in the stirrups and get down off your horse to open a wire gate in a hurry. You have to wear a hat so the sun won’t cook your brain. You need to wear a long-sleeved shirt so all the hide won’t sunburn off your arms. Understand? If you get sunstroke or the hide burned off your arms and face, I’ll have to leave the job and take you home to your mama. Our crew will lose its two best men for a while. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll say one thing: If you’re with us for the rest of today, you’ll have to be darned tough, because you’ll do it barefoot, bareheaded and on one can of tomatoes and six saltines. But then, to be a cowboy, you’ll learn that sometimes, you might have to work a whole season, from winter to fall, on one Gillette.”


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