This morning, we learned that our friend and contributor J.P.S. "Joe" Brown died in Patagonia on January 9. Over the past decade, we've had the privilege not only to profile Joe in our pages, but also to publish several of his essays, including this one from 2012.
Born in Nogales in 1930, Joe was a fifth-generation Arizonan who went on to study at Notre Dame. He was a Marine, a boxer, a whiskey smuggler, a cowboy through and through. More than that, though, he was a storyteller, weaving his experiences into text that became rich with his voice, his love of Arizona, of horses. Nothing was unfamiliar. Everything was a wonder.
We'll hold fast to your words, Joe. Godspeed.
— Kelly Vaughn, Senior Editor
The High Lonesome
Our favorite cowboy storyteller reflects on his boyhood home in Apache County — the 175-square-mile High Lonesome ranch. Located at an elevation of 7,000 feet, the place is high, wide and dry, but the characters Joe Brown grew up with were full of color.
An Essay by J.P.S. Brown
In August 1940, the year I turned 10, my parents, Vivian D. and Mildred Sorrells Brown, threw in with cattlemen Herb Cunningham and Roy Adams, and Nogales banker Wirt Bowman, and bought the 175-square-mile High Lonesome ranch in Eastern Arizona. The ranch sits in Apache County, 18 miles south of Sanders and 35 miles north of St. Johns. Vivian took over as manager, sold our home in Nogales and moved us to the ranch. The place had been part of the Aztec Land and Cattle Co. Its mean altitude is 7,000 feet; the ground is sandy loam, the trees are Utah junipers, which we call “cedars,” and piñons, short pine trees that yield sweet nuts. The place is high, wide and dry. Adams, Cunningham, Bowman and Brown erected windmills on 12 new wells in the first year.
I was a boarder student at Saint Michaels in Santa Fe, New Mexico. When school let out, I caught the train from Lamy, New Mexico, to Chambers, Arizona, where Mildred and my little sister Sharon met me. We received our mail at Sanders a few miles east of Chambers on U.S. Route 66. On our way to the ranch, we stopped there and I met Clarence “Hop” Balcomb, the postmaster. The post office, the only telephone in the region, a mercantile store and a gas station were all parts of a trading post owned by Hop. He had ridden broncs for the Aztec. Both his legs had been ruined by broncs. He used crutches to get around and drank a lot of beer. His store was right beside Route 66, between Holbrook, Arizona, and Gallup, New Mexico. His customers were tourists who came to see the West, refugees of the Dust Bowl on their way to California, a few ranchers and miners, and a lot of Navajo Indians. He spoke Navajo as well as a tribesman, and traded his wares for their blankets and jewelry.
We found him in a trade with a tiny Navajo lady who had spread a bright, new rug in the middle of the floor and scattered turquoise and silver rings, bracelets and earrings over it. After a while he left his chair to open another bottle of beer and attend to us.
Jalopies piled high with furniture and loaded to the gunwales with poor families clattered by on Route 66. Some stopped at the store to stretch their legs, buy soda pop and trade Hop out of his gasoline. My mother said they were Oklahomans who had lost their outfits to drought and dust storms and were on their way to work in the fields and orchards of California. Hop said they didn’t argue over his price, but on this last leg to California they traded their last and most precious belongings for gasoline.
The High Lonesome doesn’t have a steep place on it. The loamy ground is so soft we didn’t have to shoe our saddle horses. The ridges are spotted with plots of small, jewel-like rocks that were washed round and smooth centuries ago under the sea. We found small, whole seashells that must have been thousands of years old. Petrified wood lay everywhere. In those days, the place was spotted with dozens of prairie-dog towns. The audacious creatures stood 5 inches tall by their holes with their hands on their chests, looked us in the eye, dared us to attack, and chattered their derision. They’re all gone now.
Nogales had been full of birds that bunched in big trees and sang together all the time. Birds on the High Lonesome lived far apart and sang solo. I heard the song of a meadowlark for the first time. Her yellow breast discovered her to me from inside the turpentine and sagebrush. The air was so clear, the great space of that ranch so clean, I heard her song a half-mile away. Every so often, some old hawk would whistle at us from way, way up high.
Our well water was delicious, pure and cold. Even the dust in the draws and on the ridges was clean. The snap of the air in the early hours made me wince. I hoped it would make me grow. I had boxed in the 65-pound class at Saint Michaels that spring, and I thought of myself as a runt.
I began to ride my horse, Pancho, to receive cattle at the stockyards in Chambers, drive them 25 miles to the ranch, and locate them in pastures. By the time we had located a new bunch in its pasture, another arrived at Chambers. I liked the dust the herd brought up out of the ground as much as I did the wide open sky.
We ran 2,600 Corriente cows and 1,100 steers, the common, native Mexican cattle that the partners bought in Chihuahua. Most of the cows had been separated from their calves in Mexico, but some bore late calves on the High Lonesome. To me, a little feller licked clean by his mammy who bucked and bawled at the sight of me was more than a unit of merchandise. He was a little brother.
Viv hired two crews of Navajos, a fencing crew and a crew that built hogans — the mud and cedar Navajo houses. Everybody on the ranch lived in hogans. My family and I lived at headquarters, and the cowboys camped on the windmills to be near the water and livestock in the outer pastures.
At headquarters, the crew built three hogans in a wide open V with rooms that joined them together into one house. They were octagonal with peeled-and-varnished cedar beams and ceilings inside. Hogans on the reservation have round, dirt roofs, but Jim Porter, our maintenance man, erected peaked, triangular roofs of lumber with sand and oilpaper shingles. He built a two-story building beside the windmill at headquarters that held up our water tank and gave us two more bedrooms and a bathroom. The windmill pumped water for our home and corrals into a tank on top of the building. The overflow from that tank was caught by a 10,000-gallon tank that provided water for the cattle and a swimming pool for us. The water was so cold and hard that we bounced when we jumped in.
Jim Porter, a combat veteran of World War I in France, stood 6 feet 4 inches, weighed 160 pounds and used few words. He kept the windmills, construction and gasoline engines working. He knew the ranch well, because he had camped on it with his uncle Burr Porter’s sheep. Adams, Cunningham, Bowman and Brown had bought the ranch from Burr. Jim could do anything on that ranch that needed to be done, except cowboy. He wore a snap brim hat, khaki clothes and brogan shoes. He said little during the day’s work, but liked conversation with an after-supper cigarette. In one conversation, he told us that an 8-inch shell had landed, unexploded, only 6 feet from his post in a trench in France.
Small, thin, wiry Cap Maben was our oldest cowboy, and also a combat veteran of World War I in France. He had been raised at Fence Lake, just over the New Mexico line from our ranch. The High Lonesome’s eastern border lay along the New Mexico-Arizona line. Cap wore a deformed black hat, khaki shirt, khaki trousers with cuffs, and high-heeled, high-topped boots. His laugh sounded like the death rattle of a strangled rooster. He did not stop talking from the time he climbed out of his bedroll in the morning until he pulled the covers back over his bald head at night.
He was the best camp cook of the many cooks that I have ever known, and made huge, soft, golden sourdough biscuits with every meal. With butter melted inside them and with common syrup that cowboys just call “lick,” they were better than any fancy dessert anybody ever knew. He was a fine cowman and an even better horseman. He could teach a young horse to climb the roof of a hogan without hurting himself, if he wanted to. However, he had to be well broke when Cap took him to ride. All the buck had to have been ridden out of him by a youngster like me. He was always at the right place at the right time during any of the work, but he could not stand 5 feet away and catch a rain barrel with a rope. He could not throw a loop over a fence without tangling it. But he could catch his hat, because it always got in the way when he swung a loop.
Jim and Cap were bachelors. In those days, dedicated cowboys who worked for wages didn’t marry, because sweethearts were hard to find near their camps. They worked way out where the sun set between them and women. Their work was more important than wooing. This did not mean that they did not like women, because they did. They brightened when they were near Mildred and Sharon, and they would not cuss within the hearing of any woman. Their lady friends worked in the Winslow and Gallup bawdyhouses. The cowboys often stayed on the ranch for a year or more, but when they went to town, they stayed a month. They always returned full of glee and with new spring in their broken, old, bachelor steps.
Grover Kane was our other cowboy. Only 16 years old, he had already cowboyed with a crew on a Wyoming wagon for two seasons. Like me, he learned his Spanish from vaqueros in Santa Cruz County and Sonora at the same time he learned English. He came to the ranch from Patagonia before Cap came to work. He received the first 1,100 big, Chihuahua steers that Viv and Mildred sent from El Paso early in the spring, and he drove them to the ranch with Navajo help. Then, by himself, he located the steers in their pastures and doctored them for ailments they had suffered in shipping.
I say that cowboys fly. Some fly more often than others, some higher than others, but they all take wing when they find themselves in the big middle of an astoundingly lucky, risky and perfect performance of cowboy skills. Grover could already do anything a cowboy needs to do. He often flew when he rode horseback to turn back the bovine, but he could also stay on the ground, put on his brogans, fix fence and windmills, dig post holes, and service pump engines. I camped with him months at a time. He baked good baking-powder biscuits every morning and taught me to keep a clean camp.
Hoska Kronemeyer, a Navajo, supervised construction of the hogans. Later, his wife, Caroline Goldtooth, worked for Mildred. Viv always consulted “Hosky” when he did business with the Navajos. All the High Lonesome hands respected him and valued his advice.
Charlie Redhouse led the Navajo fence crew. One day Sharon and I rode out with Viv to the fence line, where we saw tall, thin Charlie for the first time. The crew worked bareheaded under a dry, June sun, their black hair and russet faces and hands wet and shiny with sweat. Some cut cedar posts out of the trees. Others strung barbed wire and dug post holes.
Sharon and I watched Charlie cut a big corner post out of a cedar. He accompanied effortless, rhythmic strokes of his ax with gentle grunts. Big chips tumbled and curled out of the post’s heart. That crew worked from sunup to sundown every day with no day off. Each man cut more than 100 posts a day. In later visits, I never saw those men make a tired move, not even when they turned away from the work and walked to camp in the evening.
The crew camped on the ground where it finished the day’s work. While Sharon and I were there that first time, it broke for lunch and gave us fry bread. Later, Charlie sat on the ground and sharpened his ax with a pink slab of sandstone he found on the fence line. Sharon and I stared. One of the other Navajos said something to Charlie in a deep murmur, then looked at us with no smile. The look was that of a strong and dignified man who required that children be polite enough not to stare at a man at work.
Charlie then gave us a look that scared the peewadding out of Sharon. She was still scared when we got home. We used kerosene lamps. Ever after that I could scare my little sister by mentioning that I had just seen Charlie Redhouse’s face pass by in the shadows of the night outside our lamplight.
I knew Charlie for 14 years, and he never spoke a word to me. To speak his mind, he only ever gave me a look. He pitched for our Puerco River Athletic Baseball Club. Walter Marty was our stalwart catcher, but once in a while I substituted him. Charlie always pitched the whole nine innings. I caught two of his games, but even then he spoke not a word.
One day, Jim Porter climbed the windmill tower at headquarters to work on the gears in the fan. Charlie stood by on the ground to help. When Jim wanted a tool, Charlie tied it to a light cotton rope and Jim pulled it up. Once, while Jim had a long leg hooked over the edge of the platform so he could lay out in space to do his job, Charlie sent up the wrong tool. Jim was ordinarily a patient man, but that day, after hanging upside down too long 50 feet above the ground, he shouted a stream of cuss words, threw away the wrong tool, demanded the right tool, and waited.
Charlie always tugged on the rope as a signal for Jim to pull up the tool. Jim waited for the tug. He always cooled off quickly. He felt bad that he had cussed. He hoped Charlie wasn’t offended. “Find that tool, Charlie?” he asked. He didn’t look down, because that was too hard to do.
“Charlie, are you there?” he asked and finally looked down and saw no Charlie. He straightened on the platform to have another look. The headquarters windmill stood in the middle of the mile-wide Tucker Draw that stretched for many miles through that country. Far off to the north, Jim espied Charlie Redhouse’s form as it strode away out of earshot toward Navajoland.
When World War II started, Charlie joined the Army. I don’t know how he got by without talking to people there, but I bet he didn’t say more than five words the whole time he served. He served honorably, and after four years came home whole, but nobody ever knew what he had done, or where he had been.