J.P.S. Brown's Last Stand

The renowned 77-year-old Western writer is back with a memoir and a violent border novel

Brown reviewing a manuscript copy of Wolves at Our Door.
It's a summer morning, still cool. I'm in a living room in a nondescript rental home in Patagonia. The writer J.P.S. Brown lives here.

I sit and open my notebook. Before I can grip my pen, he's talking about his "death."

A massive coronary in 1999 left him on a Tucson hospital table, gone to the world, his heart stopped. It took doctors five minutes to get it beating again.

He remembers every detail of the afterlife--a feeling of immensity and glorious contentment, disembodied voices rehashing his life's deeds, a green room.

The last part intrigues me. "Why green?" I ask.

Brown tilts his head, thinking. His expression shows the perfect mix of mischief and joy. He says, "To a cowboy, cow shit is green gold."

So 10 minutes after meeting him, Brown is telling me heaven is wall-to-wall cow flop, and he has no fear of returning when the time comes.

And he's absolutely serious.

If you ask Brown who he is, he'll say "cowboy." He won't say reporter, Marine, boxer, movie wrangler, stuntman or whiskey smuggler, and he's been all those things.

If he says writer at all, it won't be first on the list. But he's a great writer, probably the best you've never heard of.

"People who know literature, and know the Southwest, mention his name right away," says Bruce Dinges, director of publications at the Arizona Historical Society. "Joe's the real deal. He's done what he writes about, and his family has done it for generations. It's personal to him. He doesn't write to a market. He writes what's in him."

Brown published his first novel, Jim Kane, in 1970, and followed that with The Outfit: A Cowboy's Primer, in 1971.They told of cowboys knocking around the modern West. Both won high praise, earning Brown a reputation as a significant literary voice.

Hollywood took notice, too. Jim Kane was made into the 1972 movie Pocket Money, with Paul Newman and Lee Marvin. Academy Award-winning screenwriter Frank Pierson has trundled around Hollywood for years with The Outfit under his arm, trying to convince a studio to film it.

The acclaim continued in 1974 with Brown's third novel, The Forests of the Night. It told of a rancher's hunt for a killer jaguar in the Mexican Sierra Madre, a wild land separating Chihuahua and Sonora.

The story was a masterful mix of beauty and darkness. The great director Sam Peckinpah told Brown it was the best book he'd ever read. Steve McQueen liked it, too, and tracked Brown down to tell him so. There was talk of a film with McQueen in the lead.

It goes on. Accolades, huzzahs, great anticipation.

Then it all fizzled.

Brown has published eight books since Forests, but none has fulfilled his early promise. Except for a 2005 reissue of his Arizona saga (a four-book series based on the true story of his family settling in territorial Arizona) and a forthcoming reissue of four more novels--both by the Authors Guild Backinprint Editions, a co-venture with the for-order publisher, iUniverse--his books have languished out of print for long stretches.

A lifetime of writing has delivered Brown to a precarious place. He and wife, Patsy, survive day to day, mostly on Social Security and the money he makes contributing to American Cowboy magazine. To make extra cash, he buys copies of his books on the Internet and autographs them for resale to his loyal fans. Patsy has had health setbacks that have burdened their bottom line, and Brown's heart is shaky, at best. A blood-clotting problem has caused him seven heart attacks since 1987.

But don't make the mistake of counting him out. Brown possesses a remarkable vitality, a great store of mental and physical energy he has always tapped to pull through hard times.

Now, at 77, he's done it again.

At an age when most men have retired to their easy chairs, Brown has produced two new books that New Mexico author Max Evans, an old friend, calls his best yet.

The World in Pancho's Eye, slated to be published by University of New Mexico Press in October, is a frank and heartbreaking memoir of his childhood years.

The second, Wolves at Our Door, is a novel about the border crisis roiling the nation, its setting divided between a ranch on the Arizona border and the Sierra Madre, where Brown spent 14 years working cattle. Wolves will be published in February 2008, also by UNM Press.

I read both in manuscript, and they're pure Joe Brown--unadorned and deadly honest, with none of the irony or self-regard that lards up contemporary fiction.

I love his prose, and Wolves in particular. It has the potential to become his breakout book.

It's a fast-moving, violent story, full of blood, pride, revenge and gunplay, all hallmarks of the traditional Western--except it takes place on a modern frontier wilder than anything a dime novelist could invent.

And to help him weather the harsh reality of what has happened to Arizona's borderlands and his beloved Sierra Madre, Brown brings back characters from The Forests of the Night, and a 75-year-old Jim Kane.

It makes sense. Any writer making his last stand would want old friends at his side.

As much as anyone can be born a cowboy, Brown was. Within hours of Joey's birth in Nogales, in 1930, his father paraded 2,000 cows past his son, eager for the infant to set eyes on what was best about the world.

If it was a sales job, it worked. The boy grew up believing that cowboys were American kings.

But Brown's was not a happy childhood. He describes his dad, Paul Summers, as part-Irish, part-Choctaw and "wild as a wolf." Summers came from an Arizona cattle family, as did Brown's Irish-Cherokee-French Basque mother, Maggie Sorrells, and they fought like tigers, eventually divorcing.

When Maggie married Viv Brown, Joey's home became Viv's High Lonesome Ranch, near the Navajo Reservation in the state's northeastern corner. Viv eventually adopted Joey, making him Joseph Paul Summers Brown.

Even before the divorce, Summers had gone to work in Mexico, rarely visiting his son, especially when the competition was a whiskey bottle. And after moving to the High Lonesome, Maggie had no idea how to fit Joey into her new life. She resolved the matter by sending him away to St. Michael's College in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 9.

In Pancho, Brown uses a fictional narrator, Mikey, to describe these true events. "I wanted to look at myself more objectively," he says. "I didn't want to spend five years writing 'I' and 'me.'"

At St. Michael's, Brown had to fend off the advances of a Franciscan brother, identified in the book by the pseudonym Damian. He slept in a dorm Joey shared with other boys and once managed to work his "long, delicate white hands" under Joey's pajamas and grip his penis.

Fearing that his nemesis might be watching him at the urinal, Joey stopped going to the bathroom at night, and began wetting the bed. Over time, except on twice-a-week shower days, the smell of urine on him got to be so foul that nobody would go near him.

To compound his evil, Damian announced in front of everyone that he'd no longer help Brown with his studies because of the stench.

School officials learned of Damian's abuse and quietly transferred him. But six weeks later, he was back, reassigned to the carpentry shop.

One day, an electric saw arrived, and Damian fired up his new toy, promptly slicing off his fingertips. Joey watched his nemesis roll on the floor, howling like an animal as blood gushed from the stumps on his hand.

Brown writes that "seeing the instruments of Damian's evil destroyed proved his faith in his Nina's (godmother's) God."

Jo Baeza, of Pinetop, an author and retired columnist for the White Mountain Independent, was married to Brown between 1966 and 1974 and now edits his manuscripts. She believes the Santa Fe experience is the key to understanding him.

"Joe felt abandoned by his family, and that was incredibly hard on him," Baeza says. "I don't think he ever got enough love as a kid."

Brown scoffs at such psychoanalysis.

When I ask if the episode left him feeling shame, he says: "Not a bit. It gave me confidence, because I was all alone in that world, and I foiled him. He kept trying, but he only got me once, and I got him sent away. That's what I was conveying in Pancho. You have to get a thick hide and go on. I didn't let it bother me and didn't use it as a crutch."

Boxing became Brown's refuge. He stayed at St. Michael's through high school, fighting through all of those years and winning a statewide championship at 15. He continued boxing through four years at Notre Dame and five years in the Marines; he even had three pro fights in Mexico in 1963 and 1964.

His final flirtation with the sport came in May 1964, when he got an offer to travel to Las Vegas to spar with then-heavyweight champ Sonny Liston. En route, Brown fell ill with hepatitis and detoured to his grandmother's Nogales home to recover. While there, he began writing short stories.

He'd always excelled at writing. As a school kid, he scribbled papers for friends on the bus returning from athletic events. After Notre Dame, he worked as a reporter in St. Johns and Holbrook, in Arizona; and at the El Paso Herald Post, he wrote and edited the Saturday farm section.

Those Nogales stories never sold, but they became the basis for Jim Kane.

"Soon, I was doing nothing but writing," Brown says. "I never liked it, but I couldn't stop. It was more of an obsession than an enjoyment."

Brown and I spend a summer morning talking on his porch. Now it's lunchtime. But first, we're going to the market for groceries. "We can't have beans without bread," Brown says, pulling himself from his chair. "Where's my hat?"

At 6 foot 2 and 190 pounds, he cuts an imposing figure. He has a barrel chest, an upturned nose, black-beetle eyebrows and a silver mustache. His Notre Dame ring gleams on his left hand, and on both wrists, he has strange bumps, the result of fractures from his boxing years. He broke his hands on his opponents at least 17 times, so dislodging the bones that when he walked, he made a che-che-che sound--like a rattlesnake.

He scouts the living room for his cowboy hat.

"You're always putting it somewhere," says Patsy, his fifth wife. They've been married 33 years. She's a tall woman, welcoming and sensitive. She stands, hands on hips as she spies around for the missing hat. "Oh, Joey, for Pete's sake." Patsy throws her arms wide. The act begins in supplication and ends in relief. "Oh, good ... you found it."

Crisis averted. Brown rarely leaves the house without his 7X Stetson, and in a moment, we're rumbling through Patagonia's side streets in his pickup. I've interviewed writers before, and they tend to preen and see themselves too much.

But Brown, no matter the subject, doesn't dance around. He's straightforward and shows no interest in laundering his past. His could use a strong detergent, but he offers none.

Yes, I smuggled whiskey into Mexico to make money.

Yes, I stayed half-drunk for most of three decades.

Yes, I've had five wives, including the third, a Zapotec Indian from Jalisco, who poisoned me with strychnine.

Irene was a working girl in a Mexican whorehouse. Brown bought her from the house in 1960 for, as he recalls, "about $50."

"I didn't love her," he explains, in the flat tones of a man discussing his lawnmower. "I took her out of the whorehouse to use her. I needed somebody to raise my kids. I taught her to read and write, and she was faithful and good to me. Better than most people would be."

Until she tried to bump him off. Twice.

The first time came when he returned home from a week of tomcatting with another woman. Irene jammed a pistol into his belly and pulled the trigger.



The strychnine came three years later, in 1966, after Brown returned to the ranch they shared in Chihuahuita, Mexico, and announced that he'd married Baeza. Irene cried, then fixed him a dinner of guisado--stew made with jerked beef. Brown believes she laced it with a poison used to kill predatory lions.

It hit him like a hurricane. He drank gin all that night and the next day. The day after that, as miserable as he'd ever been, he boarded a train for the 12-hour ride to Nogales to visit his childhood doctor.

The metallic banging and the sunlight streaming through the windows almost sent him into convulsions. By the time he reached Nogales, the flesh on his thighs had split open. The doctor said he'd almost certainly been poisoned, but said, "If you haven't died in two days, you'll probably be OK."

Brown attributes his survival to the four liters of gin he drank. He believes it dulled his senses and kept him from convulsing.

Of the suspected poisoning, Brown now says, "Oh, I had it coming; there's no doubt about that. I felt about it the same way I did when my mother gave me a good whipping. I figured that's the price I had to pay to do what I wanted to do."

Brown even made Irene a character in Wolves, writing: "No woman in the world had more perseverance, more heart and more integrity."

Close calls are Brown's specialty.

In a 1971 bar fight against four other men, he was stabbed in the back with an ice pick that just missed his heart. He was also involved in a serious plane crash.

On and off from 1962 to 1973, Brown and another man smuggled Johnnie Walker scotch across the border and sold it at private Mexican clubs. "In those days, I'd do anything to support my family, as long as I didn't consider it immoral," says Brown.

One day, his partner landed their plane on a crude dirt strip Brown had cleared at the foot of the Sierra. The partner, showing off for his girlfriend, a passenger, tried to ground-loop the plane, jerking on the rudder to make the back and front ends swap directions. It flipped over instead.

Fearing a fire, Brown scrambled out and unhooked his partner and the woman from their seatbelts. Gravity sent them head-first to the ground, drenched in scotch.

One of the items on our shopping list is nonalcoholic O'Doul's, which Brown drinks these days instead of the real thing. Booze has always been his torment. His dad gave him his first swallows of bacanora, a Sonoran mescal, as a 5-year-old riding cow trails. Summers would tell the boy, "It freshens the horse for the ride back to camp."

But he didn't start the worst of his drinking until the early 1960s, when he began going to Mexico to buy cattle. Over 30 years, except for a five-year spell in the 1980s, he drank as much as three quarts a day. He quit in 1993 after showing up plastered at his mother's funeral.

"I drank so much I never let the hangovers come," says Brown. "I'd take a bottle to bed, and before my feet got cold on the floor in the morning, I'd take a drink. If I ran out, I'd drink aftershave. Old Spice or Mennen. They tasted terrible, but did the trick. Mennen has a better kick to it, though, and comes out of the bottle faster."

Brown has written that a reckless cowboy doesn't "care about anything in God's world except how he could use his life to see if it would come apart," and he lived by that code. It brought havoc to his family.

He went through four wives between 1952 and 1974, and Baeza says his first two children--Billy Paul, a movie wrangler, and Paula Sedillo, a teacher--endured great pain and insecurity growing up.

He has a third child by his second wife, Billie Lynn Tucker. But she was pregnant when Brown left her in 1960, and he didn't set eyes on his son, Billy Pat, until the boy was 10. "Joe had no idea how to handle real life and responsibilities," says Billie Lynn, a retired nurse. "All he wanted was to have fun."

Baeza says that toward the end of their marriage, Brown often vanished for weeks, abandoning her and the kids. She once got a call from police in Navajoa, Mexico, asking her to come get him. Brown was under house arrest at a hotel for harassing the local whores. He was buzzing their house in his plane, flying so low the vibration knocked tiles off the roof.

"I loved Joe and still do," says Baeza. "But he took 50 years off my life."

Whiskey, recklessness, a mastery of self-sabotage, brilliance. They all travel together in Joe Brown.

To write The Forests of the Night, he went to a ranch in the Sierra and completed the bulk of its 278 pages in 30 days. He wrote in longhand, barely eating or sleeping and fueling his literary energies with lechuguilla, a powerful mescal. When he needed a boost, he'd dip his cup into the five-gallon jug underneath his writing desk.

He stuffed the manuscript into a valise, roped it to his saddle and rode out of the Sierra on horseback.

"Every word was good," he says. "It came right out of my heart."

He promptly went on a two-week binge in Douglas and Agua Prieta, Mexico, keeping that valise under his arm as he stumbled from bar to bar.

But he lost it--his only manuscript copy--and it took Brown and the drunken cowboys with him three days of searching to find it again: in a trash bin in the poolroom of the B&P bar.

"I probably put it there for safekeeping and forgot about it," he says.

Critics say the book Brown nearly sent to the landfill is his best published work.

But it never found a significant readership, and epitomized his position as a writer--too literary to appeal to genre Western readers, too Western to excite Eastern literary types.

Brown's curse--apart from himself--is that the market has branded him a Western writer. Readers pick up his books expecting the clichés of Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour--roaring guns, blazing sunsets, long-haired gals riding paint ponies--and they're disappointed when he doesn't deliver.

But Brown writes about the real West, not the myth. His calling card is authenticity. When readers put down one of his books, they have dust between their teeth.

"So few people today understand the real West Joe writes about," says Max Evans, best known for his novel The Rounders. "The media have everybody brainwashed thinking the West is John Wayne and Louis L'Amour, for God's sake."

Evans believes that in The Forests of the Night and other books, Brown has accomplished something rare in literature that needs to be recognized--he has taken a place, the Sierra Madre, and made it universal, as William Faulkner did with Mississippi's Lafayette County.

"Few writers have done that," says Evans. "Joe has described a special place and time on Earth, and the people that have adapted to it and love it, and all the animals living in the Sierra, and how they survive together. It's tremendously important for the whole world to know what Joe has done with the Sierra. There's great knowledge in his work.

"Everyone in the whole Southwest should read his new books and realize what a treasure he is, while he can still smile about it."

Patagonia is the perfect town for a cowboy-writer making his last stand. It's hidden away in a corner of southeast Arizona, 17 miles from the border. And it's still cattle country, as it was in the beginning. Brown's great-great-grandfather was one of its pioneers. Tennessee-born William Parker passed through here in 1849, leading a string of horses west to sell in the California gold fields. He was so impressed with its lush grasses that he eventually established a ranch in what's now Parker Canyon.

But when Brown returned to border country in 2002, it was as much exile as homecoming. His life in Tucson, where he had a fine desert home, had gone to pieces beneath a mountain of debt. For 25 years, he worked as an actor and wrangler on pictures filmed around Tucson, appearing in about 30 movies and TV shows.

When the work dried up, he kept ahead of the bills by borrowing against his mortgage. It caught up with him, and at foreclosure, he owed $330,000 on a house that in 1977 cost $70,000. Brown left Tucson amid threats to change the locks, using his last dollar for gas to get to Patagonia and find a house.

At the moment, he's standing at his kitchen stove, stirring a pot of beans. He's talking about writing, the influence that Hemingway, William Saroyan and Mickey Spillane had on him--and about the hell of writing fiction for money.

"I've seen little compensation for my writing," he says. "But I've kept alive the cowboy tradition that exists on both sides of my family, and that's very important to me. I feel responsible for preserving it."

He raises his spoon to taste his concoction, then nods to himself in satisfaction. "I'm not sorry I did it," he continues. "I'd be sorry if I hadn't lived it. Almost everything I write comes from experience. But the damn writing has taken everything I've got. All my resources go into it, my physical and mental energy, and every penny I have goes out.

"I've always wanted people to read my books to know what cowboys are like more than I've wanted to be rich. I guess I've got my wish. I'm broke."

The writing of Wolves at Our Door almost killed Brown. His last two heart attacks struck after working on the book 63 straight days and nights. By early August 2005, he'd produced a 400-page draft, but he was exhausted, and his ulcers, 30 years gone, had returned.

After stopping to cowboy on a friend's ranch, he returned to the book on Nov. 1. Nine days later, he suffered a heart attack, then a more serious one Dec. 13. It left him weak and scared.

But as soon as he was able--the stakes as high as they get--Brown returned to his desk and kept pounding away, finally completing the manuscript. By any measure, it was a triumph, and especially for the book's quality.

I see Wolves as an important piece of writing. It tells the truth about the disaster on Arizona's border. So many other writers come here to understand what's happening and look away. Brown sees it.

"This book turned me into a war correspondent," he says.

The 'Wolves' of the title aren't the illegals who pour across the Arizona-Mexico border daily. Brown, whose first language was Spanish, has deep sympathy for these crossers, describing them as harmless men, women and children seeking better lives. The real 'Wolves' are the drug-runners and gangsters who've set up shop along the line.

His hero, Jim Kane, operates a ranch on the border and does battle with Nesib Lupino, an opium-running mastermind. Brown based Lupino on a violent and soulless gangster he knew well.

"I bought cattle from this man in the Sierra," says Brown. "He was the biggest opium dealer in Mexico and totally conscienceless about everything except his family. He had no friends, and if he wanted something his neighbor had, he took it."

Brown goes on. "This man had Mexican cavalry to guard his ranch, and was totally in love with his Arabian horses. He was the first of the big drug dealers in the Sierra. Now they've taken over, killing or driving out most of the decent ranchers, and it's become the most ruthless place in the world."

He researched Wolves the same way he researched Forests--by getting out on horseback and taking notes. He says 99 percent of the illegal traffic into Arizona crosses old family ranches, but no one was describing what those ranchers were going through.

Brown talked with them, and inspected the trails on which human predators and bandits--bajadores--wait to rob and rape passing illegals. He listened as ranchers described seeing men moving north with assault rifles and suitcases. He believes they're bringing payoff cash to the American side to keep the smuggling trails open.

He looks up from his beans and says, "If you owned a ranch on this border, would you have the guts to turn down a suitcase full of $100 bills? I wouldn't. I've even found evidence that splinter gangs of four or five, these lobos, are kidnapping people. Entire families coming to seek their fortune are disappearing for sale around the world. But you don't hear about it."

He lumbers around the kitchen, taking short steps on his slant-heel cowboy boots. "I worry about my country because of what's happening here. But it's good for me."

He retrieves lunch plates from the cabinet. "Do you want butter with your bread?"

I'm sitting in an easy chair in the living room, a foldout tray in front of me. Brown has a tray at his chair, too. We eat our beans and bread and drink our O'Doul's as cable news plays its daily diet of explosions and worldwide chaos.

But Brown can't get his mind off the trouble in his backyard.

"You know, this situation now is like what my family experienced in the 1800s when we had to fort up against Apaches," he says. "Only now, we don't have the Cavalry to protect us."

He stares at the TV, but his mind is elsewhere. He looks over at me. "Maybe we should go riding. What do you say? We'll go out along the border and see what's there."

Patsy has been fidgeting throughout our talk, and in a moment, when Brown leaves the room, she turns to me, her eyes full of worry.

"They're shooting at each other on the border now," she says. "They're having gunfights. I don't want Joey riding into some crazy gunfight."

When her emotions settle, she rocks her head and says, "But you can't tell him not to go. Do you know what his nickname was when he lived in the Sierra? They called him el mostrenco. The unbranded one."

On a warm day, Brown and I ride horses into the Pajaritos Mountains west of Nogales. Wolves is set on these smuggler-worn hills that roll back to cliffs on the southern horizon. The Mexican border is 2 miles away. Brown rode this land as a boy when his uncle, Buster Sorrells, ranched here.

"In the '20s and early '30s, the traffic through here was mescal carried on burros," says Brown. "One smuggler always stopped at my family's house. We were customers."

In 1926, his mother's second cousin, Lon Parker, a Border Patrol agent, was gunned down by a whiskey smuggler east of here in the Huachuca Mountains.

Brown says cattleman Billy Parker, Lon's dad, discovered the killer's identity, set a trap and caught him on his next run. Uncle Billy hanged the smuggler from a tree, giving him enough slack for the man to stay up on his toes. But he eventually tired and strangled himself.

When Uncle Billy died at 86, in 1933, a Nogales newspaper hailed him as a pioneer known for his honesty and his witticisms.

"See that trail coming down the hill?" Brown pulls back on the reins. His eyes narrow beneath his cowboy hat. "High up there?" He points. "That's where they walk. Way up on the ridges. The Apaches did the same thing when they were running from the soldiers. They could see the pursuit, and no horses could get to them. It's the same thing again."

The sunlight is blinding. I can make out only a faint discoloration on the hill. But as my eyes adjust, I see where the grass bends north.

"No Border Patrol agent is getting out of his truck and walking up that mountain," Brown says. "He's only getting wages."

We ride into a rock gulley and find shade under oak and mesquite trees. Brown's spurs clink as he climbs down. This is his work now. Twice a month, as research for another border book, he rides into this smugglers' paradise to scout trails, and he meets periodically with gang sources in Sonora.

It's a risky game. Brown usually carries a pistol in his chaps, but it wouldn't help against heavily-armed traffickers. Last September, while on a ridge near here, he saw 15 men with AK-47s escorting a drug shipment. They walked a trail 50 yards below him, so close he could hear one chattering on his cell.

"Those sons of bitches went right under my nose," Brown says. "If I'd made one noise, they'd have spotted me. But I felt damn privileged to see them. It was like seeing a wolf."

I've heard the same story many times. Arizona's border ranchers no longer talk about the next hard rain. They talk about dangerous men with assault rifles.

"You should've pulled your pistol on them," I say.

Brown roars in laughter. "Wouldn't that be smart?" He makes a gun with his fingers. "Manos arriba, senores!" In real life, he sat perfectly still to let the drug train pass, and never mentioned the episode to Patsy.

We ride out of the gulley, feeling the sun again. Nothing thrills Brown more than being on horseback in this hard, dangerous county. I see it in his eyes and in the way he breathes the air. He's as much at home on this new frontier as the mountain lions and the wind.

"I love these old hot days," he says, arching his back and gazing at the hills. "There's always a breeze to cool you off."