Trent Kleppen up on the Hi Line asked about my ranch neighbors, and in answering I realized we are still a wild bunch here, for whatever reason. It is no accident that songwriter Tom Russell lived here, in el Paso and Santa Fe, for years. I wanted to send some photos of my ranch friends at the time, but I crashed and burned.The oncoming fatigue of PD is like nothing I know- I barely get a warning and suddenly I cannot even move my fingers to type. It is exactly as though I had a plug in my foot, and suddenly all the  energy drains out. I stand to type because I must— no delusions that it improves my writing, like Hem or (with far more conviction and far less reason) Betsy’s old friend Robin Moore. My desk is a present from Brad Watson in Laramie  (Last of the Dog Men, Miss Jane) who is in line for a National Book Award; without it it would be even more difficult…)

Anyway. Here are some stories and images of Sis, her mother Betty Gianera, John Davila, and some others, even some old magazine photos of Joe Brown. First set: Dutch Salmon, Cousin Sis, me in Owl Bar  in San Antonio, NM. It was a day of hound talk, and Sis was there with her scent hounds, us with the running kind…

The winners of the team penning events at T or C at  the Clint Benjamin Memorial Rodeo a  number of years back: Sis’s husband Tom Olney, second gen cat hunter; me;  her friend  Chuck; mother Betty. Betty generally was the sweetest person I ever knew, but she was the granddaughter  of a Swiss Italian,  Joe Gianera, who built his first house, Torrejon, “The Fortress”, on the lip of a little volcanic caldera with a natural spring, the only natural permanent water other than the Rio itself in our county, in 1859, when everything west of the Rio was still Apacheria. It still exists, thirty miles south of any pavement. So do three other domiciles including  Sis and Tom’s, perched on a rock over the seasonally – roaring Nogal Canyon and so doomed or pleasantly destined to bouts of enforced isolation; and HQ, closer to the road and grown up haphazardly around Joe G’s windowless old WINE CELLAR,  a rambling, confusing one story incipient ruin surrounded by dead cars, a coyote cage, guinea fowl, and rattlesnakes… a nostalgic’s dream, replete with Colliers from the 1890’s,  Saturday Evening Posts from the 1930’s, stuffed heads, dead cowboys’ hats and rifles dating back again to the 90’s hanging dusty in the rafters like Cardinal’s hats in the cathedral….

Sis, the first female Brand Inspector in the US, is FAMILY and more: a  winning rodeo competitor, a  self described cowboy bitch rather than a cowgirl, the owner of a strain of lion hounds, and the person who, with me, knows not only where  each others’ bodies are buried– we helped each other bury them- and woke up in the back seat on the way to Mexico…

She catered and designed my 40th birthday party..

And she was the only human I know in the world able to ask the question, in public in the bar, of Sybille Bedford; whose autobiography I had been reading there: “She wouldn’t be the one what wrote that big fat book about Aldous Huxley, would she?”

Her mother Betty Betty was superficially less flamboyant; showed her steel only once in all the years I knew her; normally she was the sweet Italian- American Catholic school girl from Loretto Academy.

But her husband, Smokey, had been born in Iowa, and drifted west after the war, ending up sweeping out the swinging doors of the Capitol Bar on the square in Socorro, for the DeBrines. It was an old bar and a bucket of blood through the Seventies and the eighties, when Earl De Brine owned it. The old Comanche chief Leonard Parker, who managed the Spur after he retired from the BIA, and I had the habit of going down there on Sunday when an unholy (?) combination of Baptists and Socorro Bar owners kept us from Sunday bar hours. We would eat bad Cantonese food at the China Best , then drink and argue with Navajos on peyote visions, bikers, mad profs, and an  ancient Commie Martyr (Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz, the knowing of whom was Oppenheimer’s crime- a red – diaper baby 80 years old, named after Brazilian- Italian anarchists- I suspect rather CAPITAL “A” Anarchists, Bakuninites with strict rules, not the non- ideological kind like me & the Prince– [Mutual Aid, Carlos!] — fighting Anarchists, with homemade weapons, consumed like dry straw in one of the endless immolations that consumed 19th century Brazil- read Don Roberto, or a more modern treatment like Mario Vargas Llosa’s…

Fun before it burned, the truest BAR in Socorro proper, though there were roadhouses back then…

Earl also became my landlord after Bets died in November of 86, in Lemitar 4 miles north, a walk I could do in a pinch even in that icy winter of 86 and 7, sometimes with a spaniel or two and  my old Browning Sweet Sixteen shotgun. The long low house had been built in the 1700’s and had (non- working) solar panels, two folding chairs with a board over them for a kitchen table or desk depending on time of day, a mini- Olivetti manual typewriter, a single set of dishes, and a big comfortable bed. In eleven rooms. with no other furniture, and all my books already taken east to Newton MA for a season by Tommy McIntyre. It was COLD.

Socorro county college kids feared to enter the Cap then. Several years later Earl died and the bar was struck by lightning one afternoon- a slightly superstitious (in a Catholic way) old girlfriend still mutters we cursed it when tried to get in it on the way to an illicit tryst; it was inexplicably closed, and clouds of Mordor were closing in; no, Con, I don’t think we burned it! But though the DeBrine kids own it and it still has swinging doors, it is now a Clean, Well- Lighted place, full of college kids…

But after the War it was probably wilder than we can imagine now (the country was so improbably wild when I came here 35 years ago that it will take more posts to even convey it). Smokey looked like Brando as the wild one; he had his Harley, his leather jacket. and his engineer boots. The heiress must have had some rebel in her soul; she married her Smokey;  he then became the consummate cowboy, and lived and thought about cows as real animals and metaphor to the exclusion of all else, like Rink Malhum, the North Dakota Cowboy with me and my dad in the rodeo photo below, who had  “been three places: North Dakota, Vee- et – Nam, and Socorro County!” . 8* Just once I saw the steel, and was reminded that the Gianera ranch after Pete was a de facto matriarchy. Smokey and Betty went head to head for a moment at dinner one night; then she looked at him and said simply, “This is the Gianera Ranch, and I am Betty Gianera..” Not even an implied exclamation point….

To her fellow Northern Italians she was family. She and my Dad both had pics in their houses titled “Two old wops”, and she even hatched a crackpot scheme with my mother to sell illegal antique Native artifacts to Goldie Hawn,  a plan I stopped in its tracks not wanting my mom and adopted aunt to become felons…

 At her funeral, I knew the young Chicago priest was going to be OK when he began his sermon: “Betty Pound made me touch a cow…”

John Davila….

Floyd and John “bill” their contestants

… at the (legal then, before Bill Richardson sold out in search of respectability), cockfights run by Floyd Mansell over 30 years ago, and now; 3 days ago actually, under the painting of Tom Russell’s “Gallo del Cielo” by him, a birthday present from him to me– we have the same birthday..

John looks a lot like the late Texas songwriter Townes van Zandt. I assume the old Texas Hill country families have some Spanish blood. John was long convinced of something I thought romantic but turned out to be scientifically proven in a  sort of horrible way— that the old families were pervaded by “conversos”, observant Jews who went to the colonies to hide and practice their faith in secret. He used to hold Leonard Cohen’s albums up beside his face saying “Tell me that ain’t my primo!” (cousin). Actually Leonard’s grin in the video of closing time reminds me a lot of John’s.

Once he was having dinner at our house with Dog-in-law Daniela Imre (Harvard MA in architecture, advanced degrees in dealing with impossible Indians — Alamo Navajo– and saluki dogs). John turned to her genially and said: “Daniela, yer a Jew, aint ya?” Daniela, as unflappable as John, said ”John, as you know I am a veteran of the Israeli Army, that is a safe bet !”

“Well, I am too – we old land grant families are all Jews, conversos – don’t know about the Davilas, just some no- ‘count Meskins that got rich and came north and married up about 1820, but the Guttierezes, Reals, C de Bacas”.  He was right, too- a gene for breast cancer has been traced from the Levant to Spain to Northern NM and SW Colorado (John’s parents moved to Cartoon County (as we affectionately call Connecticut- sized Catron county, with basically three paved roads,  fewer than 7000 people, a requirement for all households to be armed, that attempted to put a bounty on reintroduced wolves, with an average high  above sea level of almost 7000 feet– our Afghanistan) from the North. He added smugly ” That’s why were smarter’n you sonsabitches!”, gesturing to the rest of us.

John. Simultaneously a yellow dog Democrat and an utterly reactionary horseback aristocrat (“The US Government didn’t ask us to give up nuthin but hunting Indins on horseback with lances, and breedin’ ‘em!” (Apparently he meant as domestic animals – one can never tell). He was married to a beautiful intelligent one from an unlikely background- a Jack Mormon cowboy Boho and gold prospector of Scottish descent, Pete Daniel, still alive & sharp in his nineties, and a Navajo Mormon woman who soon longed to leave Idaho and be nearer her own people. They had nine kids- Mormons are as philoprogenitive as Catholics used to be (I am oldest of nine myself, as was my late best man James “Viejo” Trujillo, and HIS father Tony was one of eleven; Floyd Mansell, a converso TO Catholicism, had nine and adopted one; several other families in my VERY “U”, upper- crust Catholic grammar school back east had nine or ten, so it wasn’t just a working- class thing either, but nowadays it is just the Mormons. Many of the kids had Mormon names, like “Mosiah”, and cowboyed up in the buckaroo country. I remember Pete squatting up against a wall, hat over his eyes, huge prophet’s beard over his knees, rolling a cigarete as I asked him about Claude Dallas, who had worked with several of his sons. “Well Steve, he were a good hand, but I liked the judge that sentenced him even better.” John and Becky had a daughter, the lovely and brilliant Ungelbah Daniel- Davila, who owned a Punk style ‘zine in  Albuquerque for a while, called La Loca– think Corb Lund’s “Gothest Girl I Can” with a slight Hispanic slant .I was  going to use my contacts with Ian Tyson through Tom Russell to get an interview of Corb for Ungie, but she folded the mag.

The Davila gang leave few stones unturned. Beck went to the Culinary Institute in Oregon after t he marriage broke up, and for a while she was past y chef for one of the big Santa Fe hotels., and then became the vegan chef at St John’s College, but not the vegetarian CHEF- she would serve delicious vegan food, then stand behind it, ostentasiously eating a corn dog. (We got to eat there fairly often in the old days because the kids went there, and the Prez was an old friend from Massachusetts days, a funny guy- but I can ‘t digress further…) Ungie has had poetry published in London. I once encountered a lovely girl named Marcie Cohen at a pa ty in Manhattan and later remarked to Betsy that an unlikely person was wearing “a shirt like John Davila would wear to the Catron County Fair,” only t o have Marcie remark: ”How is John? Has he married Becky yet?” To my look of disbelief she replied “I’m a Guttierrez. He’s my PRIMO.” She lives in Milan now  I’m told…

Two of Beck at different ages, one of Ungie.

And John.. goes places being John. 

 He is a high school dropout who once stared into my bookcase and said “Got any real OBSCURE Steinbeck?” How obscure , John? “More’n Sweet Thursday?” Forget it- it doesn’t exist.

He got really into European art galleries (“Who do you like better, Impressionists or Renaissance? That’s right, Impressionists. I don’t GET halos.”) Then he discovered the Prado: “Fuck a  bunch of Impressonists: I just seen the greatest paint ing in the world. Its a self portrait of the artist, and he’s paintin these aristocrat kids, and there’s a meer, and a trick of perspective, and..” I hold up my hand and get out a big art book on t he Prådo, opened to las Meninas, and he says thats the very damn thing, the best painting in the world, and Velasquez is the best painter. And you got to see it! I offer Goya to be argumentative and he thinks about it seriously for a minute—then, “No, Velasquez.” I haven’t seen it yet, but he did send an oversized postcard a couple of years ago when he took Ungie over “To see there was more to her heritage than Indins and Jack- Mormon Dirt  Savages!”

Other encounters can breed distrust, oddly more in Europe than in Asia, where he and I have often traveled to different places at the same time. He’s not the young John in a rodeo buckle and a tractor cap, drinking cobra blood wine in Taiwansese cafes where  they kill the snake at the table; or grilling fish on a hibachi in Brazil where he has many friends among the Japanese diaspora. Now he wears Italian suits, and encounters can get ugly. He came in one day grumbling. It developed he had stopped in Berlin on the way back from trying to buy a farm in Poland’s Tatra Mountains “Where the old Pope used to ski”, and in a bar ran in to what he called “some damn Karl May Nazi hippies.”

“First they called me a racist because I said I was married to a half Indin half Mormon, and that I liked halfbreeds, and that I weren’t no Jew— they said we was all thrown out of Spain.

“Then they asked me if I liked Colt Single actions. I didn’t even say that nowadays they were for rich folks and people in the suburbs playin cowboy; I just said I preferred a Glock nine em em…
“Then they asked me if I liked mustangs. I told em mostly not. I said any horse wouldn’t load in my pickup in an emergency I’d dogmeat the son of a bitch! [excellent use of a verb]

“They told me I was no cowboy, I was too pale to be Spanish, and I was probably from New York City. I LIKE New York[he was with he Wild West Show there when he was in his teens], but they didn’t know shit about it neither, Fuckin nazis….

He astonished me last summer by saying the first sentimental words I have ever heard him say- on leaving, he suddenly clasped my hands in bo th of his, and said in apparent delight, “Steve, damn- were growin old together!” John is over 60- hard to believe*. But  from the first time in 1980 when he showed up on my doorstep with a Goshawk on his hand— it is in Q— through his arrival with Beck and a bottle of Black Jack on the night of Betsy Huntington’s death, saying “let’s tell dead animal stories in honor of Betsy”’ he has been my most loyal friend.

OK, two more characters. Joseph Paul Summers Brown, Joe, who is 90 and tough as old saddle leather; Joe Brown, who wrote the best book on the modern cowboy, The Outfit, and many more, including this one, about a Mexican peasant facing a cattle- killing jaguar (we know the guy who tracked and photo’d the first borderland jaguar in years, a decade back, Warner Glenn- his dogs are related to Sissy’s; I got him into a Russian hunting magazine). Here is what Joe wrote in my favorite book of his, in the copperplate hand he learned as  a Catholic school kid at Loretto in Santa Fe:

And someone who I suppose denies those stolid northerner stereotypes: our young friend James Nance, who was on the way to Sweden to see his ex- wife and 3 kids (the second two were born in Sweden after his wife returned there after being bitten by a rattler, but before the divorce.) James is a cowboy, born and raised on his parents big “FIeld Ranch” north of Alamo Navajo, which is to say remote even by Montana standards. (Their brand is 2XS- say it out loud). His parents also run the Juan Tomas “fox” hound pack., a formal pack with red (“pink”) coats and all, aristos of 2 cultures plus hardass  cowboys. They pursue COYOTES, over arroyo and up mountain, and they never see pavement. The horses are mixed blood. mostly quarter rorse- thoroughbred, and they scare me — wild and spirited and 16 – 17 hands!—I ride with the babies. But James was at one time the youngest MFH in the nation, at 17 I think.

He is also a poet— published in the Atlantic…                         
And a detective for the Socorro sheriff’s  department.

(The guy who runs the jail is also a small rancher, and they based the original TV series NCIS on him….) “The real Abbie is MEAN”).

* As his cousin Juan, Gutteriez, a mentor, who is 78 and just survived cancer, said to me a week ago,  Steve , DAMN. Just yesterday we were young and strong. How’d we ever get to be so damn OLD ?

** And who uttered the best line ever heard in the Spur- ask…


  1. Steve, the Carvajal expeditions of conversos, founded Nuevo Leon, founded Monterrey, the beautiful town of Cerralvo Nuevo Leon, where Audubon camped and his cypress grove still lives, settled the Rio Grande delta, and otherwise in another move from the south, New Mexico. The Carvajals eventually met a bitter end with the Inquisition in Mexico City. Lilia s mother traces her descent back to the Carvajals and to Cerralvo. I often wondered how the converso genes could survive all the centuries, until my good friend and lawyer Tito Torres in Mcallen, himself so descended, pointed out the old families intermarried and still intermarry.

  2. The line was, incidentally, whispered in my ear by old NoDak cowboy Rink Malhum, who was looking askance at a middle- aged Germnan New Age woman who had come for the saucers and cattle mutilations (she though a Game and Fish waterer for quail was a saucer artifact even though it was made of fiberglass)

    He said:"Steve, that lady is counterfeit. I don't know what no Vatican is, but it didn't send no hit team to kill her dog."

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