I first read the cowboy-writer J.P.S. Brown's "Dogie Long" story when it ran as serial fiction in Western Horseman magazine several years ago. I thought, "Hey, this is good reading." Then the Horseman was sold, and the new buyer ditched fiction entirely. My favorite foundling went away, and I kept wondering, "Whatever became of Dogie?"
Well, the kid is back in a full-length novel called The Spirit of Dogie Long, a sweet, intelligent story, heartfelt without being sentimental, beautifully written without an undue awareness of itself. And the first-person voice is so true that the reader will feel comfortable in Brown's self-assured hands.
"Dogie is all I've ever been called," he begins. "A cowboy is all I've ever been. I'm probably about 12 years old. I don't know much else about myself. The little bit I do know has been told to me by my partners, the cowpunchers who found me when I was a baby in the back of the wagon right after a big rainstorm."
Authenticity has been Joe Brown's ace of spades throughout his long career, beginning with the novel Jim Kane in 1970, about the misadventures of a wandering cowboy. The book became the movie Pocket Money, with Paul Newman.
All told, Brown has published 15 books. And except for $65,000 in movie money from Kane, Hollywood hasn't paid him a dime. His stories are so real, they bump up against Hollywood's idea of what a cowboy is and does, and guess who wins? Readers want six-guns and squinting heroes. Brown gives them the pop of saddle leather and the smell of morning coffee at the camp cook's chuck wagon.
For these reasons, Brown—who lives on a family homestead in the mountains outside of Patagonia—has forgone the traditional publishing route and launched Dogie Long himself, on his own website. He has also brought out Serpentine, about a band of street urchins in a Mexican border town, and a third book called Steeldust. And the French publisher L'Archipel has reissued his classic The Forests of the Night—calling it The Track of the Jaguar.
This new burst of activity represents an old writer using the Internet to reinvent himself. Brown is 81. He has formed a company with longtime Hollywood hand Rick Padilla, hoping to attract the attention of moviemakers. And, yes, Dogie has already drawn some interest.
"You just don't run across literature like this that's so easily adaptable to high-quality screenplays and films," says Padilla, a Tucson native and University of Arizona grad who spent years in L.A. as a creative associate to the late producer Hal Ashby. "It's a very emotional story that has crazy potential for film." He said some have compared it to Old Yeller, the 1957 Disney picture about a boy and the stray dog who captures his heart.
In Dogie Long, the chuck-wagon boss is named Cap, an old hand of the so-called ABC crew. He diapers the baby with four sacks and hauls him around in a box under the seat of his wagon. The ABC cowboys ask those they meet on the trail if they "knew anyone who lost a dried-up runt of a boy about a foot long." They don't feel bad when no one claims him—his parents have washed away in a flash flood—because they want to keep him.
The story is about the crew's adventures as they raise Dogie the cowboy way, with every part of the outfit pitching in. When the infant crawls too far from camp, the crew's dog, Possibles, licks his face to urge him back to safety. Events take off when Dogie is hit by lightning while riding his horse, Little Buck, on the Mogollon Rim: "Me and Possibles and Little Buck were in the barrel of a shotgun that had just gone off. In the next instant, something seared the whole world with me in the middle, and I was split away and shot off to another place I've never been able to remember."
Separated from his crew, Dogie ties in with a band of mustangers known as the Bravos. They're led by the wise and beautiful Maudie Bravo, who mothers Dogie in a way only a woman can. "I'd never imagined the face of an angel before," says Dogie, upon meeting Maudie. "But mine's eyelashes were so long they caught snowflakes."
Trouble comes when Maudie's husband, the Apache Kid, a real-life Arizona bad guy, joins the Bravos, and Dogie confronts a series of questions. Why are the Bravos driving ABC cattle to Mexico? And what about my loyalty to the ABCs? Why are they letting the Kid ride with them as he runs from the law? Are the Bravos outlaws, too?
Dogie's innocence and the solid values the cowboys teach him give the novel its moral center. But nothing in the way Brown does business is Pollyannaish. Sometimes the right thing to do is to knock the biscuits out of someone, especially when he has badly beaten a person you love, as the Kid does to Maudie.
Brown describes Bravo women attacking the Kid. The passage is violent, and in context, beautiful: "I shouldn't tell what those three gentle people did to that man with their spurs. I know decent people will be shocked, but the spurs made awful sounds as they smote the Kid's head, face, neck, knees, shins, knuckles, and other bones. Spurs have no pity when they rowel skin, meat and bones. ... The first part of the Kid that the ladies separated from his head was a big front tooth that bounced on the floor in front of me."
Maudie says, "I never knew how much I liked the music in my spurs until now."
Along the way, we meet characters so real they're surely based on people Brown rode with. Among them is Adelaido Lupe, Dogie's best Apache friend. Every night, Lupe works with rawhide, green willow branches and a hoard of buckskin that he stashes in his bedroll.
Dogie Long isn't aimed at children, although schoolteachers should take note, because it could be a partial solution to a pressing problem—New York publishers have forgotten about boys. Its editors work in an intellectually closed shop in which stories of bravery, adventure and heroism are viewed as part of a long-gone masculine world. As a result, such books rarely get published anymore. Dogie might be the novel that coaxes middle school and high school boys to drop the Xbox and actually read.
But it's pleasurable for adults, too, for its sophistication and deep Arizona roots, with scenes in the Tumacacori Mountains, Tubac, Sasabe and other familiar spots. Brown tells me that early feedback from readers has been positive, especially from ranch wives, and that's high praise. They know the life, and they're voracious readers when the sun goes down.
Be prepared to weep beside the wood stove at the ending, which probably says more about life and death than all of today's best-seller list. Now we'll just have to wait and see if Dogie rides onto the big screen alongside Old Yeller.