This is a tale of a man. A man who is a cowboy. A cowboy who became a boxer. A boxer who was a Marine. A Marine who smuggled whiskey. A whiskey smuggler who became a movie stuntman. A stuntman who started writing novels. A novelist who has lived a thousand lives in the time most people have lived one.
I’m weaving up, down and around the dusty Santa Rita mountains, avoiding bristly bushes that could swipe the paint off my junky rental car and cliffs that could spell the end for me. I hold my breath for the entire hour drive from Tucson, white-knuckled as I jolt and jerk over the rocky terrain, wondering if I’m even going the right direction, if I’ve somehow crossed the border into Mexico, if my cell phone will work if I pop a tire in this rocky hell or if the vultures and drug smugglers will enjoy my carcass shriveled like a raisin in a few days’ time.
Just as the desert dries up my last bit of hope and sanity, I see a sign and follow it a few more miles to Patagonia, Arizona, where I land 100 years back in time.
The handful of buildings that form the downtown area remain from Patagonia’s old mining days — all old brick and rusty red siding. From the Stage Stop Inn, the only official lodging in the town and my residence for the week, to the old train depot, it’s all authentic Old West. Some of the buildings have converted use — the Patagonia Lumber Company, for instance, now houses Pilates Patagonia — but the feel of Gunsmoke, Bonanza, swinging saloon doors, prospectors and vigilantes is there.
I call the number I have for Joseph Paul Summers Brown ’52, the one I swear I used to arrange this Western showdown in the first place. I leave a message and grab a cup of coffee while I draft questions, review notes and look for brown recluse spiders that friends have insisted will kill me if the drug traffickers don’t. I find another number listed online and call that too. No answer.
I walk down the smoky main drag to the Wagon Wheel Saloon, where I eat lunch and watch a woman who has to be 210 years old drinking a PBR.
Instead of joining her, I drive out to where I think Brown lives, south of town, up a mountain, off a gravel trail in the San Rafael Ranch State Park. I find what I believe is the ranch (it’s not) and pull in. I’m immediately greeted by a very angry pit bull. I honk the horn, hoping Brown will, very literally, call off the dog. No such luck. I look around at this ranch-turned-hippie-junkyard and try to count how many slasher movies I’ve seen take place in venues identical to this one. When I get to four, I hit the gas and reverse all the way back to town.
Perhaps I’m anxious because it’s Dia de los Muertos and the spirits of the ghost town are hanging heavy on my mind. Or perhaps it’s the three different Border Patrol cars I passed on the way in. Or maybe it’s the fact that Patagonia lies smack dead in the middle of one of the country’s busiest drug routes. Or, most likely, it’s that my source is nowhere to be found.
I’m panicking. I’m going to have to call my editor and tell him the cowboy has disappeared and I have no story. I walk into an arts shop while wondering if I should quit my job before or after I return to South Bend empty-handed. I mindlessly try on a pair of Navajo pattern boots and pace, trying to come up with my next move.
The earthy shop owner with her graying hair tied up in scarves looks up from stringing beads to check out the stranger and asks who I am, why I’m there, who I’m meeting. I answer, a writer. To interview a person I can’t find. JPS Brown. “His sister is a hoot!” she exclaims. “We just had his third annual 80th birthday party a few weeks ago.” Contact info? I ask, nearly jumping over the counter with excitement. She steps back.
“If you could help me, I’d be so grateful I’d buy these boots,” I tell her, perhaps overeagerly. She hands me two phone numbers: There’s no answer on the first, but the second is picked up immediately and Brown’s twangy, raspy “Hello?” greets me. “We’ve been waiting to hear from you!” he says with a laugh. We arrange to meet at the Velvet Elvis, the local pizza joint and one of Patagonia’s five restaurants.
I pay for the boots.
Brown was born in the border town of Nogales, 20 miles southwest of Patagonia, once part of the 2.5 million acres of dry, cracked desert where his grandfather established his cattle empire before the homesteaders, environmentalists and U.S. government got their hands on it. Joe was born on a horse, or so the story goes, and could ride before he could suck his thumb. When Joe was a tot, his parents would sit him on a colt so they could keep up their ranch while minding him. It wasn’t long until little Joe could wrangle a bull as well as the rest of ’em.
“You can’t leave a child out there alone, but you could bring them with once they could ride,” he says with a dragging drawl.
Ranching was hard, but marriage was harder for Joe’s parents. His father, Paul Summers, was part-Native American with an Irish temper. He was mean as a wolf, wild as a colt, and he up and left the family not long after Joe’s younger sister, Sharon, was born. It wasn’t until years later that Joe found him up in the mountains herding cattle and staring into an empty tumbler.
His mother, Mildred Sorrells, on the other hand, was as sweet as his dad was callous. She married Vivian Brown, who adopted Joe and Sharon as his own. Viv helped put them through Catholic boarding school in Tucson, a city that was, at that time, a millionaire’s winter lodge. At St. Michael’s, the boy’s academy there, Joe encountered a Christian Brother who tried, and once succeeded, to get his pedophile hands on Joe, a story he recounts from the third person in The World in Pancho’s Eye.
That’s the thing about his fiction: It’s fact-based, mostly third-person accounts of his own wild experiences — 15 novels worth — which is perhaps why he’s considered one of the most authentic and underrated contemporary Western writers.
“All of my books are nonfiction. I just call them fiction so I can change the names and write about the bad guys,” he says with a wink.
The waitress comes over and he winks again as he flirts with her in Spanish while ordering a bottle of wine. He’s a charmer, that’s for certain, and he has the marriage licenses to prove it.
In his 83 years, he’s married five different women; one, he says, was a Native American whore he bought for $50. She took care of his young children and the house while he was herding cattle back and forth over the border. One day he brought more than cattle back. Brown came home and informed the Zapotec Indian that he intended to marry a different woman and would no longer be requiring her services. So she tried to poison him. Recognizing the strychnine poisoning, he flushed his system with four quarts of gin, an act that may have saved his life. But she wanted to finish him off, so she tried to shoot him. The gun misfired.
The others left more quietly.
He chuckles as he talks about his years as a scoundrel, about the memories of his life that tickle the unbelievable — and there are many. But when he talks about Patsy, his last wife, the one he was married to for more than 35 years, he is immediately somber. Patsy was the love of his life, the life raft when he was drowning in alcohol, the calm amid his chaos. When he talks about her, he grows quiet and sad. She was a Broadway dancer, a real beauty, and she smiles a gentle grin in the framed pictures all around his house. Unfortunately, she deteriorated early. For 22 years dementia revealed itself bit by bit, until it finally claimed her in 2011.
After Patsy’s death, Brown’s sister moved in to help with the household. After a quick and rocky drive from town, we arrive at his home at the Rocking Chair Ranch — a house much less foreboding than the one I mistook for his. As he and I chat over iced tea in the cool of the cowboy-themed living room, Sharon stirs a pot of albondigas, Mexican meatball soup, stopping only to straighten the table napkins fastened with a Western belt buckle or to interject details Brown forgets.
“Tell them about the plane, Joey!” she giggles, spoon in hand.
“Little Buck,” Brown’s plane named for its buckskin color, was a Cessna 172 he piloted to reach the remote Mexican ranches where he’d purchase cattle. It also came in handy when he realized there was a market for Johnny Walker Black Label in the Mexican nightclubs and hotels. He’d smuggle the whiskey into Mexico, where he could turn a $2,000 profit per trip.
“I didn’t fly Little Buck, I wore it. I wore it like a jacket, like it was part of me. We sure did get along, me and that little plane!”
It all was going great until his partner, Jimmy Gratton, got caught by judiciales and went to jail in Guaymas.
But that’s not the story. The story is about how he and Jimmy were trying to show off for a girlfriend and tried to buzz just over the top of a local whorehouse, getting close enough to knock its satellite dish from the roof.
“Don’t tell them about a whorehouse!” Sharon breaks in. “This is for Notre Dame.”
Fine, he says. “You mean the story of when I crash-landed the rental plane?” It was like this, he says: “I had a sick herd in Mexico that needed medicine immediately. I got the medication and flew to Mexico to treat them, but on the way back the engine failed. I started diving and saw a major highway that could serve as an airstrip where I thought I could land the plane. But there was a car in the way. A Volkswagen. I was afraid I’d land on him and kill the sorry sucker, but at the last minute I edged off enough that I dodged him. He drove off and never even noticed a plane had landed right behind him!” Brown laughs and settles into his armchair.
Brown arrived at Notre Dame in his gabardine suit, cowboy boots and hat after being recruited by Dominic “Nappy” Napolitano. Nappy had heard of Joe, a state champion boxer at St. Michael’s, and hoped he could recruit Joe to come to ND to help boxing take off. Joe was sitting on offers from Stanford and Santa Clara, but, like any good Catholic boy, he couldn’t turn down Notre Dame. There he would receive a bachelor of arts degree, win the Bengal Bouts during his junior and senior years, and spar Rocky Marciano when he was visiting campus in a private match after everyone else had left the gym. The winner of the brief bout is still unknown.
For a year in the ’60s Brown broke out his gloves again to box professionally in Mexico. He needed cash and each bout paid $2,000, so he signed up. In Los Mochis, Mexico, a top city for boxing, he would fight four matches. In one, he smashed his hand in the second round. He’d fight the next eight and win. In another, Brown got knocked down in round one. He doesn’t remember getting up, fighting another three rounds and beating his opponent. Shortly thereafter, he got an offer to be Sonny Liston’s sparring partner in Vegas. On his way there, he came down with hepatitis, and so ended his boxing career. While recovering, Brown started writing novels. He had already done a two-year stint as a newspaperman out of college before joining the Marines, so the writing came naturally. But this time, instead of covering news, he could write about what he knew best — ranching.
“Ranching is a very risky business,” Brown says. “At the drop of a hat, a bull can kill you,” referencing how you can get kicked in the head or impaled by a horn, detailing how you can tangle in a rope and strangle yourself, or fall from a horse and get trampled, which all sounds pretty frightening to me but excites Brown.
The man knows no fear. We’re walking along the dusty path to the stable to see his horse, Mercy, and he casually warns me to look out for rattlesnakes because they sometimes spring from the bushes. So do the cougars. And the drug smugglers. Watch out for all those things, he mentions. I’m now tiptoeing across the gravel, but Brown plods on with his dog Mikey by his side.
For all the adventure that comes with ranching, so, too, does financial instability. Each time a rancher goes to purchase cattle, he makes a gamble that he will be able to sell them for more than he spent, but that’s not always the case. Often, he makes less, or nothing at all.
“The margin was always pretty short, so we had to keep ’em coming,” he explains, mentioning there were years they’d lead 5,000 cattle over the border.
But ranching also requires patience and time. Up in the Mexican Sierra Madres, Brown would ride from mountain ranch to mountain ranch on horseback, looking for the right crop of cattle. In a day, he might only select four or five, so it could take a while to get the desired 100 per load. Once he had them, he’d have to drive the herd for 17 days to reach the spot where the trucks would pick them up. They’d travel in the truck for 100 miles, then load into a train. Once they hit the American border, they needed to be vaccinated, cleaned and medicated, after which they’d sit in quarantine for 60 days before they could be admitted to the United States, where they’d be sold.
Other times the money was alright. Brown got a gig working on a 1,300 square mile Nevada ranch owned by Art Linkletter. Linkletter had bought the property thinking there were 1,400 cattle on that bit of land, but in eight months Brown and his pardners gathered 5,000. Four months later, the ranch was sold with the additional 3,600 cattle factored in, and Linkletter pocketed a hefty profit.
Eventually the inconsistent money from ranching couldn’t cut it. After a brief stint prospecting gold in Mexico’s Mulatos River, Brown turned to the movies. At the time he was selling horses to the studios in Old Tucson, where they were shooting Westerns. He quickly befriended movie star and producer alike, and found other ways to be useful. While selling horses to the 1963 film McLintock!, starring John Wayne, Brown befriended actor Bruce Cabot, who hired him on as a wrangler. As Brown was watching a taping, he overheard a producer yelling at another actor, Big John Hamilton, that he better learn to throw a punch before the next scene or he’d be booted from the set. Brown pulled Hamilton aside for a quick boxing lesson and was asked to stay and help train.
With a foot in the door, he began picking up other gigs as a stuntman doing anything from roping cattle to dangerous horseback rides. His first real acting job was with the television series Little House on the Prairie, which provided him a stunt part as a boxer and his Screen Actors Guild card — to this day he gets a vote in the SAG Awards but claims he never submits one. He also played the priest who hung Steven McQueen in Tom Horn (1980).
The pictures liked his writing alright, too. Back in 1972 his first novel, Jim Kane (1970), was made into a movie starring Paul Newman and Lee Marvin called Pocket Money. Another novel, The Outfit (1971), was purchased to make a movie that never quite panned out. The others haven’t made it to the big screen but have quite a literary following, including a few thousand who correspond with Brown directly. He self-publishes, which he realizes is frowned upon, but he growls about how the money is better and that those New York publishers are all trying to scam writers.
“Twelve of my books were published in New York, but I never saw a cent from the sales!”
Most recently, he’s completed his first nonfiction book, Truth Rides a Cowhorse, about the damage environmentalists are doing to the Old West. I was skeptical, I admit, of this last book. But as Brown and I are bumping down Patagonia back roads along Harshaw Creek, he starts telling me about how the cattle aren’t allowed to graze here anymore. The problem, he explains, is that without the grazing, that dry, desert grass grows too long and the minute lightning strikes, there’s a fire with enough ignition to burn for miles. Not even environmentalists can stop the lightning from striking.
He shows me where a Native American chapel once stood — a monument from the Spanish missionaries who once helped colonize this land and evangelize its people — and says the government environmentalists thought its presence could deter future species, so it was removed. The environmentalists also claimed water sources, ranches and land, reintroduced wolves to the habitat, and removed history and inhabitants who have owned those resources for generations, all in the name of naturalism, but in so doing destroyed the lifestyles that have kept this land alive for centuries. Brown says it’s intentional; they want to get rid of the ranchers, and, more importantly, the cattle. His explanation makes clear why the two professions are at odds with one another.
This is a land of skirmishes. First it was the Apaches and the Mexicans. Then the Apaches and the white folk. Then the white folk and the white folk. Then the Americans and the Mexicans. And now the ranchers and the environmentalists. It may be just another bout in this land’s war, or it could be the end of ranching as we know it.
“[The environmentalists] say they can herd cattle with helicopters, but they can’t. They can’t doctor with a helicopter,” he says.
Helicopters can’t remove warts, or birth calves, or castrate bulls or vaccinate cows or sort the beef cows from the rodeo cows from the dairy cows, or repair fences and roads, or cure pink eye. That, he says, is a cowboy’s job. Occasionally it also means a barroom brawl, but you can’t crack Brown’s books hoping to get gun-slinging or Western shoot outs — although he was once stabbed in the chest with an ice pick that narrowly missed his lungs, a story you can read in The Forests of the Night — instead, you’ll get the real west, real ranching, real cowboys. There’s breaking colts and cattle theft and chasing wild cows. And there’s despair.
“As Joey wrote in one of his books, ‘things went downhill so fast our eyes watered,’” Sharon says.
At one time Joe and Sharon’s family had been one of the wealthiest in the southwest. They had settled the land, rode the most-robbed stage in America, survived the Apache raids and Geronimo’s warpath, claimed cattle and the ranching industry. But that prosperity is long gone. What was left, Brown lost. America tired of the Wild West. Westerns vanished from the big screen. His books stopped selling. And he drank.
Joe and Patsy lost their Tucson home in 2001, so they retreated to the site of the family cattle empire, to Patagonia. The old house, built by the hands of Brown’s ancestors, was still there, but had been sold decades before. They couldn’t afford it anyway so they started renting the two-bedroom guest house where Brown lives now. It’s homey and worn, much like Brown himself. Sharon still holds out hope of reclaiming the old family ranch.
Despite financial woes and a life that would exhaust a hundred men, Brown remains terribly hospitable. He’s not one to turn away a guest, even if he suspects they’re an illegal immigrant or a drug smuggler just beginning a trek up to one of Arizona’s major cities. They occasionally lurk in his backyard, along with the rattlesnakes, and if they’re daring enough to approach the house, he’ll invite them in for a cup of soup before they continue on.
“In my time, everybody welcomed visitors. Now everywhere you go it’s keep out! No trespassing! Don’t come in here! Come in here at risk of your life!” he says. “The Mexicans welcomed my family in 1850 with open arms. And now we’re kicking them out.”
He can immediately spot the difference between the immigrants and smugglers, he says. It’s the shoes. The smugglers know how long and treacherous the desert is, so they’re sure to buy reliable footwear. But for both, Brown rolls out a welcome mat. He explains that it’s safer to offer them hospitality and have them move on quickly, rather than reacting with hostility and ending up on the receiving end of a bullet, or worse.
It’s unsettling, the feeling of intrusion, of surveillance, and it becomes pronounced as Brown and I bop through the deserted back roads and he points to where a smuggler lookout is likely lurking in the brush, sending the “all clear” and “lay low” signals to his comrades with the haul.
We do have a brief moment of peace. We’re standing at the top of a rocky hill, the site of the family burial ground. It’s just past Harshaw, the old silver mining town where Brown’s grandfather was born, and where he raised 33,000 cattle and a family. The old graveyard is circled in barbed wire and festooned with bright plastic flowers and large rusted crucifixes, but up on the peak are two imposing marble slabs that belong to Brown’s ancestors.
He tells me that he, too, will one day spend eternity here, his ashes scattered on top of his ancestors and his Mexican comrades, and his dust will mix with the chalky dust of the land on which he built his life.
With him will go the stories of the family’s relationship with Pancho Villa; of Uncle Billy Parker, who hanged the bootleggers who shot his son just so the tips of their toes could touch, extending their misery; of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral; of Brown’s time teaching mountain leadership school to the Marines. His stories will be whispered as legends, as tall tales, and their truths will blow away in the wind, lost somewhere in the dry, desert grass.
Tara Hunt is an associate editor of this magazine and is out $150 for boots.