Make A Hand produces viable media products whose primary focus is to promote the cowboy values of honesty, compassion, integrity, perseverance and responsibility-and always with authenticity.
Cowboys are also called "hands" and "cowhands." In order to "make a hand" a cowboy must take hold of any task for which he has been hired and apply every bit of his skill and dedication to the task from start to finish. The best reward a cowboy can have is to be told that he made a hand. The worst that can be said of him is that he didn't make a hand. Or that he's not a good hand.
J. P. S. Brown
By Kathy McCraine
J.P.S. Brown didn’t know he was foretelling his own future when he wrote in a 1970 magazine article, “The best cowpunchers are the oldest...The old ones in the crew are always the first ones to get started in the morning and the last ones to pull off their boots at night.”
Now 82, the Arizona author has spent a lifetime on both sides of the Mexican border as a rancher, cattle trader, Marine, boxer, gold prospector, whiskey smuggler, and writer, but above all a cowboy. And, he’s still not ready to pull his boots off.
Best known for his classic works of fiction, Jim Kane and The Outfit, both published in the 1970s, Brown has written 14 books, many of them out of print until recently. His biggest fans are working cowboys who know that he’s no Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour. He writes about cowboys, horses and cattle because it is the life he knows and loves. “People should know about the real animals, men, and women who make their living alone in vast country, doing work that takes risk, instinct and courage,” he says.
Brown is a fifth generation rancher. His great-great-grandfather, William Parker, settled in the San Rafael Valley of southern Arizona in 1850, and his great-grandfather A.B. Sorrells, who married one of Parker’s daughters, homesteaded in Harshaw Canyon near Patagonia in the late 1800s. By the time Brown was born in 1930, members of his extended family were running 30,000 mother cows on 26 ranches spanning both sides of the Mexican border. All that is gone now, lost to drought, bad markets and the Depression.
Today Brown lives in Harshaw Canyon on the Rocking Chair Ranch, which he believes his Uncle Roy Sorrells homesteaded. There he continues to knock out stories at a steady clip in a modest ranch house that sits on the bank of a creek lined with cottonwoods, sycamores and mesquite.
At 6 feet 2, Brown is an imposing, broad shouldered man. His confident bearing, his boots, jeans and 7X hat, identify him a block away as a cowman and a cowboy. After years spent horseback in the sun, his green eyes narrow to slits when he squints, and his heavy black eyebrows and silver mustache give him the look of a distinguished Mexican patron.
Brown got his start as a cowboy following his father, Paul Summers, who inherited a share of the Sorrells cattle when he married Mildred Rex Sorrells. The couple bought the Rock Corral Ranch near Tubac, where Brown was born, but they would lose it in the Depression and then divorce.
Brown describes his father as “wild as a wolf,” a cowboy who lived, played and drank hard, a pattern that would continue throughout most of Brown’s life too. Raised in a bilingual family on the Mexican border, he grew up thinking he was more Mexican than American. At the age of five, he followed his dad into Mexico to gather wild cattle.
“My dad crossed a lot of Mexican cattle,” he says. “I had already been riding since I was three, and I was kind of a handful for my mother, so she sent me off to that wild cow camp with my dad. The only thing he ever told me was to keep him in sight. I knew if I didn’t keep up, I’d have to stay home with the women and the dogs, so I always kept up.” At the end of a hard day on the trail, Summers would give his young son shots of mescal “to freshen your horse,” he said.
After his parents’ divorce, Brown’s mother married Vivian Brown, who ranched on the 185-section High Lonesome Ranch in northern Arizona; hence he became Joseph Paul Summers Brown.
“Viv was more of a father to me than my real father,” he says. “He was a different kind of cowman who traded in thousands of Mexican cattle for 50 years. We broke 100 colts and ran 3,600 cattle every 200-day season on the High Lonesome for 14 years. He started me good as a cowboy and a cowman.”
Due to the remoteness of the ranch, Brown spent his school years at a Catholic boarding school in Santa Fe. On graduation, he went to Notre Dame University, where he majored in the one subject that had always come easily to him, journalism. After a tour in the Marines, he worked as a journalist, but gave it up to help his step-father cross 96,000 cattle out of Chihuahua.
“He called me and said, ‘I’ve got cattle coming out of my ears, and I want you to come help me.’ In 30 days I had made $14,000, and I thought, boy oh boy, that’s more than the $65 a week at the paper, or $300 a month in the Marines, so I went to work for my dad, and he made me a partner. The only trouble was, all the money I made just kept going back into the cattle, so at the end of winter, I just drew my money out and went to Sonora.”
He stayed on trading cattle and horses in Mexico, and in the early 1960s met his lifelong friend and partner, Rafael Russo, a Sonoran who ranched high in the Sierra Madre near Navojoa. It was a friendship that almost ended before it began. On Brown’s first night doing business in Navojoa, Russo irritated him by hitting him on a sore knee for no reason.
“I said, ‘Don’t hit me on that knee, or I’m going to hit you.’ So he hit me again, and I hit him, and we fell out of the car fighting. The next morning I went into the foothills of the Sierras to meet him. He shook my hand and from then on we were friends. In those days I’d get in a fight if somebody just looked at me wrong, but I tried to treat everybody right, and I expected to be treated right.”
For 20 years the partners went into those mountains to buy cattle from the small ranchers, or campesinos, then drive them out of the mountains, where they were met with bobtail trucks to haul them to the border.
“Those Sonoran cattle were as wild as jaguars,” Brown says.”All those cowboys went afoot in huaraches. A cow would come down off that mountain, and I’d see them catch it afoot, jump to the top of a tree and take their dallys. They knew nothing about a horse, but they could outdo any mule on foot, and they had dogs that could almost read their minds. It was the damndest bunch I ever saw.”
In the summers when the cattle market dried up, Brown mined for gold and boxed professionally in Mexico. He and a friend also leased a plane and smuggled whiskey into the country. “One load would make us $4,000,” he says. There was a demand in Mexico for Johnny Walker Black, and we felt we were providing a service to the people of Mexico.”
Had he not contracted hepatitis there, he might never have slowed down long enough to write his first book. Recuperating at his grandmother’s house in Nogales, broke and unable to work, he began writing the stories that would eventually become Jim Kane, based on his adventures trading cattle in Mexico.
“I thought, well, I’ll just sell these stories and make a lot of money while I sit here getting well,” he says. “It was six years, though, before I saw a nickle, but I kept writing. I got hooked. I hated journalism, but I loved fiction, loved it like I used to love whiskey.”
From that day on he disciplined himself to write at least two hours a day or 1,000 words, no matter what other work he had to do. When Jim Kane finally found a publisher, it was the height of the “urban cowboy” craze, and Hollywood immediately turned the book into the movie, Pocket Money, starring Paul Newman and Lee Marvin. Brown was flying high, but his relationship with the movie people got off to a bad start when the director told him, “Joe, we’re going to put fire in your book.”
“You’re not going to put any fire in my book,” Brown replied. “It is what it is.”
The movie was to have been filmed in Mexico, but they had to show the script to the Mexican government for approval, and they turned it down. “The movie wasn’t anything like the book,” Brown says. “Every Mexican character in it was a rat, a crook, or just rude. When the censors turned it down, the Mexican consulate in Nogales took my visa away. They stopped me from crossing 300 steers I had waiting to come out, until I could show them that the book itself wasn’t offensive to Mexicans. By then I was through with the movie people. I got really mad and told them all off. That cured me of being stage struck.”
Brown’s second book, The Outfit, was based on one summer he came out of Mexico to help catch mavericks on Art Linkletter’s 1,300-section ranch at Lida, Nevada.
“We gathered 3,800 mavericks,” he says, “not calves – you’re talking yearlings or better, nothing branded. There were 1,600- to 1,700-pound steers, some as old as 16 years old, big old roan cattle that looked like a cross between a Hereford and Shorthorn. We’d take our bobtails into the flats, unload the horses, then go way up in the high country with dogs to bring those cattle down, where we loaded them from portable corrals. Those cattle could go over a rim and get away from you, but the dogs would keep them going. It was more fun than any cowboy ever had.”
Brown’s third book, Forests of the Night, is undoubtedly his greatest literary accomplishment. It is the story of a Mexican rancher in the Sierra Madres, who hunts down a jaguar that has been preying on his livestock and family. It will be his first book to be published in France, where he has a big following. Charles Bowden, one of the Southwest’s most distinguished literary writers, says it is “without a doubt, the finest novel ever written in the Southwest.
Those first three novels are head and shoulders over everything else I’ve read, and I’ve read it all,” he says. “This guy’s a regional treasure, and more people should know about him.”
Award-winning western writer Max Evans, author of The Rounders and The Hi-Lo Country, is also a longtime friend with nothing but praise for his work.
“What always impressed me about old Joe Brown’s writing is that it has a sense of place that puts him among the finest writers and artists in the world,” he says, “writers like Jack London, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck. Southern Arizona and Mexico are his domain and he’s conquered it. Joe gets down to the essence of the land, the horses, the cowboys, – no one will ever do it as well as Joe. They couldn’t because they couldn’t have survived what he did.”
Brown continued to churn out books “like a writing machine,” Bowden says, but when the cowboy craze of the 1970s died out, the New York publishers lost interest. Even two lifetime achievement awards for Southwestern literature have not made him a wealthy man. In the 1990s Bantam published his “Arizona Saga,” four books that include The Blooded Stock, The Horseman, Ladino, and Native Born, based on interviews he did with his pioneer ancestors. Steeldust, a horse story set on the High Lonesome Ranch, and The Cinnamon Colt, a collection of his best short stories, were published in limited quantities with little promotion.
More recently, the University of New Mexico Press published The World in Pancho’s Eye, Brown’s fictionalized autobiography of growing up a cowboy, and Wolves at Our Door, the hard-hitting story of the clash between ranchers on the Arizona/Mexican border and modern day drug traffickers.
Brown’s two most recent books, just out this spring, are The Spirit of Dogie Long, and Serpentine, both published as e-books and limited edition hardbacks with leatherette covers.
Dogie Long is the story of a baby found on the trail by a crew driving cattle from New Mexico to California in the 1870s. His folks have been swept away in a big flash flood. First they try to find someone to take care of him, but they soon become attached to the orphan they naturally dub Dogie, and they take him along on the trail to raise him the “cowboy way.”
“It’s all about learning to be a cowboy as he grows up and all the principles of being a cowboy,” Brown says.
Like Will James’ books, Dogie is a tale that will appeal to all ages. It’s a fast-paced adventure filled with stampedes, blizzards, cattle rustlers, and Apache kidnappers. Like Brown’s “Arizona Saga,” it owes its accuracy of time and place to his ancestors’ stories.
Above all, it is a true depiction of cowboy life. Joe Brown knows the nuances of cowboy logic and the language of the range like the back of his hand. As always, his animals come to life with realistic personalities that will make cowpunchers chuckle and say, “Yep, I knew an old horse or cow just like that.”
Serpentine is a novel he wrote in collaboration with Hank Azcona about a small gang of street urchins in a Mexican border town. Despite the bad people that bully and prey on them, the kids prevail and manage to keep their innocence and goodness.
Though he says the turquoise tie pin he wears on his shirt is for luck, fortune has not always smiled on Joe Brown. He has survived seven heart attacks, some nearly fatal. Over the years he has owned and lost five ranches due to eratic cattle markets, fickle Mexican trade rules, drought and overextending himself. His last ranch was a small outfit at Snowflake, Arizona, which he bought when he was flush with his Jim Kane money.
“I made a mistake,” he says. “That ranch was droughty and too small to make a living on. All the sudden cowboys fell out of favor in New York. After 1974, I couldn’t sell another thing, and I had overextended myself.”
Brown’s relationships with women have been rocky too. He went through four wives, some of them as wild and headstrong as him, before finally “finding one I could stick with,” he says. His fifth wife, Patsy, passed away last year after 40 years of marriage, but she wasn’t inclined to put up with any nonsense either.
One time when Brown didn’t come home, she got mad and came looking for him. She found him in a bar with his friends wearing the good 7X hat she’d given him for Christmas.
“She walked in there in a mini skirt looking like a million dollars,” Brown says. “She was a dancer, and she kicked that hat right off my head, then proceeded to stomp on it with her stiletto heels. Never said a word. Just punched 20 holes in my good hat and walked out.”
Patsy stuck by Brown through many turbulent times. “I can say that we never had a fight, or even a sad disagreement,” he says. “She gave me all the affection and love anybody could ever want.”
When she was ill in later life, Brown cared for her faithfully, just as he did his last three old cow horses that lived into their late 20s. Now he lives with his dog, Mikey, a big, bouncy Labrador mix that Patsy took in off the street as a puppy, and a new horse named Mercy. Tucson trainer Zip Peterson gave him the retired thoroughbred race horse two years ago when the horse was 13. He had never been trained to do anything but run, so for Brown it was like starting a colt. Despite his 80 years, he just stepped on him in the alley of his corrals and worked him back and forth until he was finally able to put a rein on him.
“He’s gentle now, but he was really full of it at first,” he says. “He’s always had that far away look in his eye, like he’s looking for the finish line.”
Since Patsy’s death, Brown hasn’t ridden much, instead pouring himself into his writing more than ever. One of his latest projects is a non-fiction book to be called The Truth that Cowboys Found in California Gulch. It’s the story of the lawsuit Arizona ranchers Jim and Sue Chilton won against the Center for Biological Diversity, when they tried to take their cattle permit away based on false accusations. Non-fiction is a departure for Brown, but it’s a story he feels needs to be told.
Besides working on these new projects, Brown has thrown in with film maker Rick Padilla, who hopes to turn Dogie Long into an audio book and film with original music. And, with some of his first editions selling for as much as $200, readers will be glad to know his books are now available as electronic books and special collector’s editions through Make a Hand Publishing.
Foremost on his mind, though, is his dream of turning his life’s work into another cattle ranch, and he knows right where he wants to do it. He gets Mercy’s far away look in his eye when he talks about it.
“There’s a big place in the brush country around Navojoa that’s been just one jump ahead of the banks for a while, and it will run 1,500 head of cows,” he says. “One thing about it, a cow can always raise a healthy calf in that brush country.”
You would think in these times of dangerous drug cartels and the unstable Mexican government he would be afraid to invest there, but if there’s one word Brown would use to describe himself, it’s a “gambler.”
“Scared!” he says, breaking into a hearty laugh. “I’m 82 years old. What the hell? That Sierra Madre is my home. The minute I got on my horse and started up that trail, I was home. I want another ranch, and I’m going to live to see this if God just gives me the time.”